A Caring Leader

Sergeant First Class Daniel Franks ran alongside his Headquarters Platoon, Charlie Company as he gave them the command to halt behind the Company Headquarters. He was muscular under his tight gray tee-shirt, having little body fat, and well-defined shoulders, chest and torso. It was Monday and he had taken the Platoon jogging four-miles today through the rolling hills of Joint Base Lewis McCord near Lakewood, south of Tacoma, Washington. He extended the formation, a command to put them at arm’s length and gave them a few minutes of cool-down stretches. Afterward, he commanded them to return to their normal spacing. He called them to attention.

“At ease!” he commanded. A unit must go to the position of attention before the position of at ease. The movies always foul it up. He was a stickler for formation discipline. Losing discipline here meant dicey discipline elsewhere. He surveyed his people, still breathing deep and steamy from the run.

Danny Franks was thirty. He gained rank faster than most, and was the youngest Sergeant First Class in the Battalion. The command considered him to be a rising star. He had clarity of thought, and a purpose of mission rare in a young leader. He took care of his soldiers, a stand-out trait with his superiors. He had a full head of sandy brown hair he kept trimmed tight, military style. He had brown eagle eyes and brows that furrowed and arched with thought and emotion when he spoke.

“Listen up, Headquarters Platoon, before I release you for personal time, breakfast, and the shared area clean-up. As you recall, we are still recovering from deployment and today is tent day. We will drag out our tents, take hoses and brushes and wash them. We will record rips and tears, missing ropes, and so forth. Those are our homes away from home, so we take care of them. Everyone will report to the motor pool at zero nine hundred except for PFC Barrera and Specialist Trainor. They have missions at Headquarters, as you all know. Does anyone have a question for me?” He paused and got no response. “Platoon!”

They snapped to the position of parade rest.

“A-ten-tion!” Danny barked. They snapped to attention. “Fall out!” They all walked away. The married soldiers went toward the parking lot and to their cars. His concern was the lower-ranking soldiers. His attention focused on who grouped together as they walked toward the barracks. It was important for him to know who the informal leaders were. His suspicions were right.

Specialist Tim Trainor was alone, again, and a pattern developed. Trainor worried Danny and he wasn’t sure why. He liked the young man and wanted him to succeed. Hiccups like this, this culling or parting out, in the Platoon can lead to trouble later. Trainor either kept to himself, or they shunned him. Maintaining the most cohesive unit possible was his job. It was also his job to keep the platoon’s morale high, and something was wrong. He intended to dig into it.

He went to his desk in the Company Headquarters to complete a quick task, and out the front door. He crossed the street to the barracks. The barracks building was modern with outdoor stairwells. Each side of the five-story, red-brick building had three sets of stairs. Each landing had three rooms with three soldiers each. Trainor’s room was up the first staircase, fourth floor. Franks took the stairs at a trot, and knocked. He waited a moment, Trainor’s roommate Specialist Hicks answered. He opened the door a foot.

“Oh! Sergeant Franks! Um…the room’s all messed up. We haven’t had a chance to…” Hicks said fidgeting. Hicks was a short African American soldier from Mississippi. The soldiers called him “Tupelo” because he went on about his hometown.

“Ease it back a bit, Hicks. I’m not here to inspect. I want to talk to Trainor. Is he here?”

“Yeah, sure. You want to come in?”

“Shit, why not.” Franks said and laughed.

“Sarge, you’re crazy sometimes,” Hicks said grinning.

Hicks opened the door and Danny stepped inside the room.

“At ease!” Hicks announced.

“Carry on,” Danny said.

The bathroom was to the immediate left. The room had three sections, like a clover leaf, each with a bunk and wall-locker. It looked tidier than Hicks said. Specialist Trainor stood by his bunk, his towel and soap laid out neat. It was clear he waited on his roommate, PFC Darnell, to finish.

“You wanted to see me, Sergeant?” Trainor asked.

Danny turned to Hicks, “You’re dressed. Could you give us a minute?” He asked nodding toward the door.

“Sure, um, I’ll be outside,” Hicks said, fidgeting again. Danny frowned.

“Specialist Trainor,” Danny said stepping closer to him. “Look, have a seat.” Trainor eased down. “This might sound creepy, and I don’t want it to, but I’ve been observing you.” Danny leveled his gaze into his blue eyes. Trainor was tall and thin with jet black hair and pale skin. Trainor tried to smile. “You’ve not been in the unit long and I’ve noticed you’re not blending well. My curiosity piqued. You can understand, can’t you?”

Trainor nodded. “I’m a quiet man,” he said. “My interests are different…not mainstream. I do not have much in common with other soldiers.” Specialist Tim Trainor smiled at Danny, a full warm smile.

Tim spoke as he smiled, “Are you okay, Sergeant? You seem surprised,” Tim asked.

“No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile before. You’re always in a funk. What changed?”

“It’s…erm…I smile quite a bit, when I’m not around here. Maybe it was the thought of where I’m happiest.”

It must have been the way he said it, but an inexplicable sadness washed over Danny. “You’re not happy here, in the Army.” Danny loved the Army and wanted him to be happy.

“No.”

“Are you being bullied?”

“Not exactly, no. I’m not included. And…” He stopped. He looked down at his hands, and back at Danny.

“What is it?” Danny asked.

“I’m lying. The truth is, I’m scared, Sergeant!” Tim said and clenched his fist, “I think I’m being watched and followed.”

Danny put his arm around his shoulder. A tear slid down his cheek and Danny gave his shoulder a light squeeze. Tim leaned into him. Tim smiled at Danny and he returned the smile. Tim and Danny were close, face to face.

Danny was an expressive sort of person. He was a man who liked to touch the person’s shoulder with whom he spoke. It was his nature. He knew it offended some, but it endeared him to others. His wife loved him for it.

PFC Darnell stepped out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. The room steamed and Darnell smiled. “Well,” Darnell said, “aren’t we getting all snuggly!” He laughed.

Tim gripped Danny’s leg. Danny saw fear in Tim’s crystal blue eyes and a guilty, wide-eyed look as he stared up at Darnell. Tim feared Darnell. It was in his eyes.

Darnell was Caucasian, tall, with longish, messy brown hair. He was slim with wiry arms. He was a discipline problem and due to process out of the Army in a month.

“Specialist Trainor needed counseling,” Danny said.

Darnell laughed again. “Oh, is that what you call it?” He asked and stepped to the middle of the room.

Danny stood. “Tupelo! Get in here!” he said.

Hicks entered and shut the door behind him. “Yes, Sergeant?”

“PFC Darnell, I’m going to let you speak, but I warn you not to cross the line into disrespect. I told you this was an informal counseling session and you insinuated it was not. You may comment now, on what you think you saw. What do you think you saw, PFC Darnell?”

“Nothing,” Darnell said glancing from Hicks to Danny. “Never mind, I didn’t see anything except what you said, Sergeant.” Darnell waved it off with is hand and went to his bunk.

Later, Danny turned into his drive at his on-base housing, and shut off the truck engine. He slammed the door as he always did so Vicky could hear. She met him at the storm door to the kitchen, as she always did, this early in the morning in her pajama bottoms and her sports bra. Vicky had a dark complexion with long frizzy jet-black hair, thick, sculpted eyebrows, and a broad smile. What set Vicky apart was her attitude. Vicky Franks had a mouth and she used it.

She met him in the kitchen. Danny wrapped his arms around his wife and she tip-toed up and kissed him. She gave him a puzzled look from his lukewarm response.

“Are you feeling okay? You sick or something?” Vicky said with her Bronx accent. She was born and raised there. She attended NYU, but did not graduate.

“Something at work has me stressed a bit,” he said.

“Stressed! Since when has stress ever stopped you. You come home after a year over there and all we do after your physical training is have sex! We been rutting every morning like teenagers for three months, and now you tell me you’re stressed?”

They kissed for a long moment and she backed away frowning. His routine was to find another gear at this point. “What’s going on, Danny, you’re always ready for me.”

“I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I’m concerned for one of my soldiers,” he said. But Danny was more than concerned. He feared for Tim Trainor’s safety. Tim stuck in his mind and he couldn’t shake his face.

She backed away. “Huh! You know, I didn’t want to have all this sex when you first got back from the last deployment. I wasn’t ready for it, but you pushed me into it. Now, I’m glad you did because you’re giving me screaming ‘O’s every morning waking the neighbor’s babies, and I laugh about it to their faces. It’s great! I want my ‘O,’ Danny! You got me addicted!”

Danny turned and walked into the hallway to the bedroom. She followed. “Now I get it. Something’s come down, some paperwork. They’re turning you around, aren’t they! They’re sending you guys back!”

He stopped. He realized her fears. He turned and took her in his arms. Danny lingered as he kissed her.

“Mmm,” she said. “More like it!”

“Vicky, my sweetheart, I am not going back over there, or anywhere. We are in garrison for at least four more months before we even go on a training mission. There is so much down time, we have so much to fix – everything we broke over there. We are back. I’ll snap out of this. I’ll come home tomorrow and make you scream twice as hard.” Danny went into the bedroom and began taking off his PT uniform. He needed a shower.

“You’d better!”

Danny laughed. “If I go anywhere, I’ll have to take you with me now. You are much too hot for me to leave alone.” He said. She laughed. He started the shower.

“Remember Maria, you know my PR friend?”

“The Puerto Rican?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Anyway, she complimented me on the weight I lost since you’ve been back. You know I gained twenty pounds while you were over there. Do you know what I told her? She about pissed herself!”

“There’s no telling.”

“I told her you fucked the weight off me.”

By Friday night Danny had become more worried over Tim’s safety. Tim told him Darnell grew bolder as the week went along. Darnell had shoved Tim on two separate occasions. Danny had difficulty sleeping and he laid awake listening to Vicky snore when his cell phone rang.

“Danny, just listen. I’m at Rosie’s. I need you to come quick,” Tim said and the call ended. Danny looked at Vicky and eased his legs out of bed. He stood and called up a map showing Rosie’s. He dressed, went to the kitchen and left a note for Vicky. A moment later he was in his truck and out of the drive.

He drove north on Interstate 5 and his thoughts turned to Vicky. She got more pissed off and frustrated with him since Monday. Somehow, he was not as excited for her as he was and he did not know why. It was like he shut down, somehow went flaccid. His feelings puzzled him. Nothing was the same. When he looked at her, the passion driving him a couple weeks ago was not there.

He parallel parked and went to the door of the club, Rosie’s. It appeared to be a storefront sandwiched between several places of businesses on South Tacoma Way, a divided street in historic South Tacoma. He heard music and when he opened the door he saw it was a dance club with a band and dance floor. He searched the tables and the bar for Tim or Darnell. The patrons turned and noticed him. Men were sitting with men.

He did not care, he walked among them looking for Tim. He was not there. Danny searched every face, none belonged to Tim. He went to the bartender.

He leaned forward allow the bartender to hear over the music and yelled, “Do you know Tim Trainor?”

“I think so. My height, dark hair, cute?” he asked. Danny nodded. The bartender pointed to the other side of the band. “There’s some curtains. Go in there.”

Danny crossed the dance floor and around a few couples dancing when Darnell jerked the front door open and entered with three of his friends. Danny stopped and faced them.

“Well, if it isn’t Timmy Trainor’s sweetheart here to protect him,” Darnell said in a loud voice. The band stopped playing.

“Darnell, take your buddies, and your attitude down the street. You leave Tim alone or you’ll have me to deal with.”

“Oh, I think you’re a little late, right?” They laughed.

“What have you done?”

“He’s done enough, but he’s finished,” Tim said. Danny turned and Tim hobbled beside him. Tim put a hand on Danny’s shoulder. His left eye had swollen almost shut and his lip was bleeding. But, behind him, several big gay men gathered and crossed their arms on their chests.

“Turn your scrawny straight ass around and leave here,” one man said, “before you get something rammed up it you will never forget.” The gay men all laughed.

One of Darnell’s crew turned and walked out. The other two turned and exited.

“What’s it going to be, Darnell? Is it you against me?” Danny asked. Darnell turned his head, but he knew his crew were gone. He looked down.

“I didn’t think so. I’ll see you Monday morning and we’ll take a walk into the First Sergeant’s office together. It’s up to Tim, of course, but I want to have you charged with assault.”

Darnell turned and left the club.

Tim squeezed his shoulder and Danny turned to him. “You came,” Tim said.

“We were ready, in case Darnell came back like he said he would,” one of the gay men said.

“Thank you. Thank you for watching over Tim,” Danny said.

“We wish we were here earlier,” he said and they went back to their tables.

Danny turned and faced Tim. “Of course, I came,” he said. Without thinking, he had held Tim by his elbow as was his habit and Tim held him by the shoulder. Tim knew he liked to touch. Tim pulled a little, and Danny pulled a little. They kissed and it surprised them both. There was a small round of applause from the crowd. They smiled and Danny sighed.

“I need to get you to Madigan Hospital,” Danny said.

“Too much paperwork. What happened, Trainor? A fight at Rosie’s gay club.” He said and smiled. He wiped a smear of blood from Danny’s lip with his thumb.

“I see your point. You need a place to stay tonight. Let’s get a room.”

Tim’s eyebrows shot up. “Danny!” Tim said. He put his arm around Danny’s neck. He giggled. “My ribs hurt.”

“We’ll talk. Spend some time. We’ll see how this will go.”

“I’d love to talk,” Tim said. Danny helped him to his truck and they left.

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