Five tough as nails men. One hard-assed Sergeant. The only chance to change their lives. These are the men of Unit 416 (available July 3, 2017).
Born and raised in America’s hardest streets, five men are faced with the ultimate choice: continue their lives of crime and incarceration or serve their country and join the Army. Master Sergeant Keeble is faced with no good choice: be the leader of a new section called Unit 416 or take him and his surgically-repaired leg out of the game for good. At first, all Keeble has to work with is a ragtag group of men with no regard for the rules and a huge chip on their shoulders. But as the men go through training and more together, they form a group so tight, so formidable, that nothing can break them apart. And when a secretive CIA directive leads them straight into the heart of Uzbekistan to infiltrate an arms cartel, Unit 416’s men will need all the grit, tough—and heart—they have in order to see this mission home.
Why did they have to send a newbie just when they were ready to wind down in Afghanistan? Keeble had tuned out the new guy, Whales. He was focused on finding his target. They were close to finding Anemah Maasiq, a man they had hunted for nearly two years, and he knew it was better not to talk when they were on patrol. He wanted to be alert to the surroundings. A change in tone brought Keeble back to the conversation in the Hummer.
“You guys married?” Whales asked.
The driver tensed for a split second. “Yeah, to this shit right here.”
“Right. I married my high school sweetheart while I was on leave before I shipped over.”
“Shut the fuck up, Whales!!” Keeble erupted from the backseat.
“Shut it, Whales. This is not the place for a trip down memory fucking lane.” Keeble’s voice was low and intense.
“I was just…”
“You were just dying, son.”
“What?” Whales responded weakly, completely flustered.
“Home is home, and we ain’t there. You don’t take this shit back there and you sure as hell don’t bring that shit out here. You fucking got me?”
“There are men out here who need you to be with them. If your mind is floating back home at any time while you’re out here, you might as well get fitted for a pine box. Roger that, Whales?” Keeble waited. “Fucking roger that?”
“We take care of us and everything else takes care of itself. Now shut your hole.”
Keeble pushed his night vision goggles up on his helmet and stared holes into the back of Whales’s head. Whales could feel the stare and did not utter another word. Keeble pulled the goggles back down and checked his map.
“Everybody, I need you to lock it down in two klicks.” Keeble spoke into his headset. “Recon shows a clear path into this rough but then it gets a little dicey. Need all eyes and ears locked in.”
“Roger,” came back to him from the drivers of the other vehicles in his contingent.
Before the radio communication went silent, there was a loud explosion that struck the first Hummer. It buckled the vehicle on the right side and almost tilted it over onto its left.
“What the hell!?” Whales was rattled.
“IED got ’em. There was nothing coming from up top.” Keeble was quickly assessing the situation. “Rollins, get up and flank them on the left; we got them covered on the right.” Keeble listened for gunfire, but there was none. “Move quickly. They’re not firing yet, but they’re close. I can feel it. We gotta get the boys out of that vehicle and set a perimeter in the valley. Taylor, how bad is it?” he asked over the radio.
“I’m good. Wells is a little woozy. I can’t tell with Schmitz; he’s out. He took the brunt of it in the passenger seat, but he’s breathing.”
“I got him; you and Wells get in with Johnson, and grab your shit. Everybody else set up for suppressive fire.”
In these moments of chaos, Keeble was at his best. He knew what needed to be done and where everyone needed to be. The drivers flanked the damaged Hummer. Keeble used hand signals to direct everyone into position. Still no enemy fire and they all scanned the tree line for movement. All eyes were on Keeble as he counted down with his fingers—three, two, one. They sprang into action. Taylor and Wells moved into Johnson’s Hummer, banged up and cut, but not too much the worse for the wear. When Keeble reached Schmitz, though, that was a different story. The IED had exploded under the right tire and into the floorboard, which was peeled back like a can of sardines. Schmitz’s legs were shredded in the process. Keeble didn’t flinch at the sight; he unbuckled Schmitz and pulled what was left of him out of the wreckage.
“Wells,” Keeble called to the Hummer on the left. “Are you good?”
“Change of plans. I need you in here with us.”
“Fuck…” Whales uttered as he caught a glimpse of Schmitz.
“Keep your eye on that horizon for movement. Schmitz, I got you; you’re going to be okay,” Keeble said calmly, but Schmitz was still out. He got him to the back of the Hummer and laid him down there. “Let’s get into that valley and set the perimeter; take it slow and keep those eyes three-sixty.”
Each Hummer pulled slowly away from the damaged vehicle. It was thirty yards to the tree line of the valley on the left. The drivers made a straight line in that direction, one behind the other. Keeble worked quickly in the back of the Hummer to stop as much of Schmitz’s bleeding as possible and stuck him with an EpiPen. The shot of adrenaline revived him. Schmitz’s eyes opened; a gasp of breath as he struggled for words, but there were none. Keeble locked eyes with him.
“I got you; rest easy,” Keeble whispered.
Schmitz nodded his head, slowly drawing in his breath and never closing his eyes. Hearing the words from Sarge was good enough for him. He gathered his strength to speak and he motioned for Keeble to lean closer to him. As Keeble leaned in, the night erupted with the sounds of a rocket launcher.
“Incoming!” someone shouted.
The vehicles split right and left and the rocket narrowly missed both vehicles, striking the tree line in the valley. Johnson’s Hummer absorbed the brunt of the reverberating impact and careened into a tree. Their driver pulled closer to the trees so the passenger side faced the east ridge.
“Where was that from?” Keeble barked.
“About three hundred yards to our east, from the ridge,” Whales responded.
“Start laying fire at anything that moves. They weren’t set up for us; they would’ve had something on us when we hit that IED if they had been. Johnson, how are your boys?”
As Keeble waited for a response, semiautomatic weapons began to pepper their position from the ridge to the east. Keeble knew immediately from the sound that the enemy was armed with AK-47s. He scrambled out the back and dragged Schmitz with him. Whales, Wells, Taylor, and the driver covered him while he got Schmitz into some of the heavier brush. The gunfire coming at them was picking up in intensity, more guns gathering at the position on the ridge, but the boys were handling their own.
“Start to fall back into the tree line. Whales, grab my SCAR and ruck,” Keeble said on the headset as he low crawled to Johnson’s vehicle.
Johnson and the rest of the fellas were already gathering their equipment and preparing to get to the tree line when Keeble got to them.
“Thought you fellas were gonna skip the party?” Keeble asked.
“Hell, nah.” Johnson was keeping an eye on the ridge. “I make about eighteen of them so far; nothing from the west. How’s Schmitz?”
“Alive when I left him. He doesn’t have long out here.”
Just as the men exited the vehicle and made their way into the tree line, a rocket struck the vehicle, causing an explosion. The men ducked as shrapnel flew all around them.
“Fuck me!” Taylor yelled. “My back.”
A piece of shrapnel was wedged into his right shoulder blade.
“Everybody, keep it quiet. We need to move farther into the trees. Nobody shoots. And get Taylor patched up. Johnson counts roughly eighteen of ’em. Probably a couple more will be joining them. Take a few minutes and then we’re going after ’em,” Keeble ordered. “I got Schmitz.”
Before another word could be uttered, the whistle of a mortar shell was heard; it landed near the Hummer Keeble had ridden in. A bloodcurdling scream told Schmitz’s brothers-in-arms that his life had come to an agonizing end. Sounds of laughing and celebration over the successful strike could be heard from the ridge.
“Fuck these raghead motherfuckers. Spread out. And, Rivers, I need you and Ellis on three-sixty. If you get a lock on any of ’em, burn ’em!” Keeble ordered over the headset.
Keeble found Whales and grabbed his Special Forces Compact Automatic Rifle and ruck. The movement of the Taliban was ever so slight but a number of them had already given up their position to Keeble with their celebratory laughter. Once his men were set, Keeble fired two shots in that direction. When shots were fired back, they were from about two hundred yards away. Keeble was waiting with a shot that landed on its mark and a Taliban soldier was down. They received more gunfire from the Taliban, and Keeble and his men shifted their positions on his orders as they prepped two M203 grenade launchers for two hundred yards. The strike took down several soldiers, but forced more gunfire back at the grenade launchers’ position. Whales was one of the launchers and he was subsequently struck by the enemy. Keeble saw the shot that felled him; it caught Whales in his Kevlar helmet. Keeble stood with his weapon still locked, loaded, and firing as he moved to Whales’s position. When a Taliban soldier adjusted to shoot at him, he exposed himself to Keeble, who felled him with a shot, center mass. He picked off two more as he neared Whales. Sixty yards away, one of his men yelled, “grenade” and they all took cover. Keeble jumped on top of Whales as the grenade detonated.
“Whales?” Keeble said, while on top of him.
“I’m okay; just can’t see a thing,” Whales answered. His Kevlar helmet had been shattered by the bullet that struck it; it saved Whales’s life. His forehead and eyes were bruised, but he was alive.
Keeble’s men let another four rounds of grenades off on the Taliban soldiers while Keeble resumed picking them off, one by one. As the fire from the enemy slowed and they began their retreat, it was the right time for Keeble to move Whales. He hauled him up in a fireman’s carry to move him. He heard a crack as he stepped on something. Keeble never realized the grenade’s explosion caused a compound fracture to the lower part of his right shin. He just kept going.
“Taylor, radio air support to clear this area and get us a Black Hawk. And keep laying down fire until that bird is here,” Keeble ordered.
“What happened to your leg, Sarge?” Whales’s vision was beginning to come back. He thought he was seeing things when he saw part of Keeble’s bone sticking out near his boot.
Before Keeble could see what Whales was looking at, a shot rang out. Keeble could hear it as clear as a bell. It’s been said in military folklore that if a bullet has your name on it, no one hears it quite the way you do. It struck Keeble in the back and pierced through his Kevlar vest. The burning sensation turned into an inferno in his back. The pain caused him to lose his grip on Whales. Keeble dropped him as the pain caused him to collapse. Keeble could taste the blood filling his lungs. As unconsciousness began to lay its heavy hand on him, Keeble’s last thought was, I heard it. Is this how it comes to a close?
Copyright © 2017 J. Leon Pridgen II.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
J. Leon Pridgen II is originally from Aberdeen, Maryland, grew up at Ft. Bragg, NC, and resides in Mooresville, NC. Leon’s journey in life so far has taken him from the jungles of Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division to Hollywood film sets co-starring in movies like The Program and Careful What You Wish For.