That We Are Still Alive
Thomas Calabrese– Don Ressler was a former Navy Seal and currently working for an international medical supply company as their shipping manager at their Oceanside, California location. He spent ten years in the military and had been with Dryor Industries for just over five years. It was a good company with excellent pay and benefits and his plan was to buy a house in the Rancho Del Oro area of the city next year if he received a substantial Christmas bonus. He was seeing a good hearted woman that he loved and was thinking about asking her to marry him. Things were working out for Don and maybe if he had been paying more attention, he might have been able to avoid the collision, but we’ll never know for sure. He was coming back from his motorcycle club meeting and driving east on Mission Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon and was only a mile away from his apartment. A truck made a left turn right in front Don’s Harley Davidson motorcycle. Unable to turn or even react Don crashed into the side of the vehicle and was thrown twenty feet. He might have survived that initial collision, but the two cars coming from the other direction didn’t have time to avoid the body in the roadway. Paramedics pronounced him Don on site.
While making arrangements for Don’s funeral with full military honors, his former Navy SEALS comrades found out that he was contributing to the support of his parents and paying his younger sister’s nursing school tuition in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
Bill Gower turned to Julian Santee, Carl Marr and Rick Benton who were members of Don’s former team, “It makes a lot more sense now.”
“Every time I’d asked him if he wanted to go somewhere, like a scuba trip, he’d say that things were a little tight right now.” Rick Benton volunteered, “I’m thinking that he has a small studio apartment, drives an old car and works overtime every chance he gets. Where the hell was he spending his money. I should have asked him.”
“He wouldn’t have told you,” Julian reminded his friend.
“That’s the guy that he was,” Carl Marr added, “Always there to help someone in trouble without expecting anything in return or telling anybody about it.”
“Give without remembering and take without forgetting, that’s the way he lived his life” Rick Benton said.
“We need to do something to honor his memory,” Bill said. “We didn’t know about his family commitments before, but we know now. It’s time to step up. Are you with me?”
Rick emotionally responded, “Hell yes!”
“Without a doubt,” Carl responded.
“All in, all the time!” Julian exclaimed.
Over the next two weeks, a crowdfunding website raised 50,000 dollars for the Ressler family, but Bill Gower had an additional plan to raise even more money. He wanted to do a bike ride from Oceanside, California to Kansas City, Missouri. The approximate distance was 1625 miles. “If we can get enough sponsors, we might be able to double what we already have.”
“How long do you think it will take?” Mark asked.
“I went to Triple A and got myself a map. The southern route is the best one to take this time of year and if I average between sixty and seventy five miles a day, I can make it between 30 and 35 days.”
“I don’t know if I can take that much time off work,” Carl interjected.
“I don’t need anybody to go with me. I’ve competed in two dozen triathlons and physically I don’t foresee the distance as a problem. You guys all have steady jobs, plus you’d probably just slow me down. I’ll send you updates along the way and you can post them with photos on the website. We’ll raise the money the whole way and when I get to Kansas City, I’ll give a cashier’s check to Don’s family and fly back.”
“You had this planned already, didn’t you?” Rick asked.
“Yeah, kind of,” Bill shrugged, “I still need to tweak a few things.”
“You’re doing all the heavy lifting on this. How many of us does it take to post photos on the internet?” Carl asked.
“There is one other thing that you can help me with?” Bill answered, “Are you up for a scouting patrol?”
The four former Navy SEALS rented a full sized vehicle from Enterprise Rent a Car for the week with unlimited mileage and took the Southern route to Kansas City, Missouri. There were some parts of the interstate where bicycle riding wasn’t allowed so several detours were required. Bill Gowers kept detailed notes in his journal and by the time they reached the Midwestern city, he knew exactly what his route would be. These men were highly trained special operatives and even though they weren’t still on active duty anymore, that didn’t mean that they had forgotten the harsh lessons that they learned from serving in hostile environments all over the world. It was ingrained into every fiber of their being that any successful mission required; training, skill and detailed planning. When they arrived in Kansas City, the four men had dinner at the famous Gates Barbecue, got a good night’s sleep at the Marriott on Highway 40 then took the Northern route back to Southern California the next morning so that they would have a change of scenery.
It took several weeks for Bill for get everything organized for his ride and when the big day finally arrived he was surrounded by a large group of well-wishers and former SEAL teammates at the entrance to Oceanside Pier. Some people were waving American flags and others were holding banners that read; Kansas City, Here I Come.
Bill wanted to be on the road by 0800, but by the time newspapers and television reporters finished interviewing him, it was 0900 before he started on the first leg of his journey on his hybrid bicycle. Bill was in excellent physical condition and completed one hundred miles on his first day before he stopped outside Palm Springs for the night. Bill ate three energy bars and washed them down with lukewarm water from his canteen. He looked up at the desert sky that was filled with a billion stars and felt a sense of tranquility. There was no place in the world that he would rather be than where he was right now.
Bill had thought about stopping for a regular meal at one of the few roadside cafes that he passed, but didn’t want to sleep on a full stomach. He’d have a late breakfast or early lunch once he got to Blythe. Bill texted his former teammates on where he had stopped for the night then closed his eyes. He was used to sleeping in harsh environments and the hard ground felt surprisingly comfortable. Only a top tier operative could get a good night’s sleep while maintaining a level of alertness. When the first rays of sunshine came over the horizon and slowly illuminated the desert landscape, Bill was already on his bike and moving down the road.
Rick called Julian two days later; the concern was evident in his voice, “Have you heard from Bill?”
“Not since the first night,” Julian answered.
“He said he was going to contact us every night so we could post his comments on the website,” Rick said.
“I don’t like this. Bill would never variate from a plan without telling us. I’ve got a friend in Homeland Security, I’ll give him a call and see if he can ping his cellphone.” ( Pinging a cellphone traditionally means locating the phone by identifying the cell tower of the last signal received.)
The Homeland Security agent narrowed the area down to the 51 miles between Desert Center and Blythe, California. The three former Navy SEALS drove to the area. While one man drove on the shoulder, the other two walked slowly in front of the vehicle, looking for any clue about their missing friend. They had been out in the desert about four hours and found nothing.
“Kind of reminds me of when we were in Mali,” Julian commented.
“Let’s hope that armed terrorists don’t start popping up around us,” Rick smiled.
A car drove pass then pulled over. A woman in her late twenties got out of the vehicle and walked back to the three men, “What are you doing?”
“Nice day for a walk,” Carl replied.
“Yeah right, you’re looking for someone,” The woman stated matter of factly.
“What makes you think that?” Julian asked.
“Because I’ve been doing the same thing as you guys for the last few weeks. My name is Maria Valdez and my sister disappeared.”
“Tell us more,” Rick suggested.
“My sister Roseann was visiting friends in Flagstaff and she called me from Kingman on her way home to San Marcos. That was the last time that I heard from her. Something is going on out here,” Maria stated matter of factly.
“Why do you think that?” Rick asked.
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” Maria replied.
“ Once again, why is that?”
“I’m a paramedic with Cal Fire and I’m used to dealing with people in high stress situations and the people around here are a little too rehearsed. They tend to use the same phrases when they speak. It’s like they’re trying to remember what they’re supposed to say instead of just speaking normally. Ever listen to a career politician? It’s kind of like that.”
“Got it,” Julian said.
For the next few hours, the group continued to search without success until Rick noticed something. He bent down and looked closely at the ground then brushed away some sand with his hand and saw the vague imprints of vehicle tire tracks, “Off road vehicles, several of them. They tried to cover them up.”
“Who are you guys?” Maria asked.
“Nobody special, we do a lot of recreational hiking,” Carl lied.
“Remember when I told you that I could sense when people were repeating things that they had practiced before?” Maria grinned.
“Yeah,” Carl answered.
“You should have believed me.”
They followed the trail for two more miles until they came upon an isolated area of rocks and steep ravines. Rick walked over and looked down a narrow canyon, “Take a look at this?”
Everybody walked over and saw what Rick was looking at; Bill’s bicycle was sitting at the bottom of the ravine.
“What do you think happened?” Carl asked.
Julian pointed to the south, “I’d say the answer is in Mexico.”
Back at Desert Center the three former Navy SEALS and the young woman were sitting in a booth in a Denny’s restaurant when a deputy sheriff walked by, “Maria Valdez, I told you we’d call you if we found anything. Don’t you know how dangerous it is to be walking around the desert alone,” From the tone of the law enforcement officer’s voice, it sounded more like a threat than a warning.
“I’ll take my chances,” Maria snapped back.
The Deputy Sheriff looked disapprovingly at Carl, Julian and Rick, “You brought friends with you this time?”
“Do you have a problem with that, Deputy?” Rick asked.
“No problem, but like I said, the desert can be a dangerous place,” The Deputy Sheriff answered.
“Actually you didn’t say that, you said that the desert is a dangerous place to be walking alone. As you can see, she’s not alone anymore,” Carl said.
The Deputy Sheriff walked outside and immediately made a call on his cellphone. This did not escape the attention of the group inside.
“I assume that we’re not going to report that we’re looking for Bill,” Julian verbalized the obvious.
“I’m going to drive back to Oceanside; we might need some additional equipment, I should be back in about eight hours,” Carl said.
“Do you want us to go with you?” Rick asked.
“Keep an eye on that Deputy, I think he might have valuable Intel,” Carl suggested.
“Valuable Intel!” Maria exclaimed, “I know that term, you guys are former military.”
“Let’s just say that we have specialized skills that might be beneficial in this situation,” Julian said in an understated tone of voice.
Julian, Rick and Maria kept their distance as they followed the Deputy in their vehicle for the next six hours. They were about ready to concede that he wasn’t going to give them anything that they could use until he led them to an outlet mall. Maria parked in an inconspicuous position between two cars that had an unobstructed view of the deputy’s cruiser. A Chevrolet SUV drove up and the driver conversed with the Deputy Sheriff for a couple minutes then handed him an envelope and drove off.
“Probably not a birthday card,” Maria commented.
“You’ve got good instincts,” Rick responded, “Good call on the deputy.”
When Bill returned in his Toyota Tundra pick-up truck, a canvas tarp was tied over the load in the bed. Bill untied it and exposed a small arsenal of assault rifles, pistols, Kevlar vests, explosives and communication equipment.”
“Nobody would have access to this kind of armament except Special Ops. I used to be an army medic and had the occasion to work with Delta Force and the Green Berets. This is their kind of stuff,” Maria picked up an assault rifle and checked it out.
Next day, The Deputy Sheriff drove home after finishing his shift. Just as he opened the front door to his house, Rick came up behind and stuck a hypodermic needle into his neck and injected a serum into his blood stream When the Deputy Sheriff awakened, he was tied to a chair and Carl, Rick, Julian and Maria were sitting across from him.
“What’s going on?” The Deputy Sheriff swallowed hard.
“You’ve been injected with a truth serum,” Rick answered.
“We’re going to ask a few questions,” Julian added, “and we’ve made it easy on you by eliminating the option of you lying to us.”
The Deputy Sheriff was a treasure trove of information as he told the group everything they wanted. “Your sister was a target of opportunity and when I saw her getting gas I followed and pulled her over on a routine traffic stop, then called someone to get her. It was different story with the guy on the bike. He noticed something that he wasn’t supposed to and killed three cartel soldiers. They were going to execute him, but they think they can get a ransom. He’s one tough guy and it took six men to beat him down.” They are both being held in a warehouse with some other hostages in Mexicali. That’s all I know.”
Maria was visibly impressed at how well the serum worked, “I’m going to have to get me some of that stuff. I can inject my potential dates, save me a lot of time and trouble.”
“It tends to work better on individuals who have weak characters and are feeble minded,” Rick answered then turned to the Deputy Sheriff, “All offense intended.”
“No problem,” The Deputy Sheriff responded, still under the effects of the drug, “This is a well-trained army that you’re going up against. You’ve got no chance and after they kill all of you in a slow and painful manner then they’ll kill me.”
“That’s a little too much information,” Julian sighed.
When they arrived at the fenced compound inside Mexico the Deputy Sheriff said, “The hostages are being held in the far left building.”
The former Navy SEALS found a hilltop three hundred yards away that overlooked the warehouse compound and began unloading the equipment for the truck. Carl set up the Barrett 50 Caliber rifle and sighted in on the drug compound and Julian set up the MK 19 40 mm automatic grenade launcher and inserted a belt of incendiary rounds.
Rick turned to Maria, “This is a high risk operation with a minimum chance of success so you need to stay here. If we fail, then forget about us and take the truck and get back across the border as fast as you can. We’ll either be dead or close to it.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I’m no stranger to combat situations and I didn’t come this far to be a spectator,” Maria said with firm conviction.
Rick looked over at his two friends and they nodded, “Okay, it’s your call, stay on my six… our rules of engagement are simple; get the hostages out and kill anybody who stands in our way.”
“That works for me,” Maria answered.
Rick and Maria took MK18 Cobra Rifles and Glock 19’s and strapped on Kevlar vests with loaded magazines. Rick then took a pack filled with explosive charges and put it on his back, “I’ll let you know when we’re in position.”
“Roger that,” Carl responded.
Rick and Maria made their way to within twenty five yards of the front gate before Rick radioed, “Unleash!”
Carl took out several armed guards and with accurate shots while Julian began firing rounds. Buildings exploded in flames and cartel soldiers began running around in a panic, not sure where the attack was coming from. Carl continued taking down cartel soldiers. Rick turned to Maria, “Ready?”
Maria took a deep breath and responded, “Ready.”
Rick took an explosive charge and set the timer for 10 seconds and threw it to the front gate. When it exploded, it blew the fortified metal gate open. Rick and Maria rushed in and headed to the building with the hostages in it. They killed several armed men along the way while Carl gave them life-saving cover fire. Once inside the structure, Bill shot several guards. They found a dozen women locked in a large cage. Maria shot the lock off with her weapon and rushed over to embrace her sister. Bill was lying on his side and was semi –conscious in a small cage by himself. Rick blew the door open with an accurate shot to the padlock and rushed over to his friend.
Bill looked up and tried to speak through parched and bloody lips, “Good to see you.”
“How are you doing?” Rick asked.
“I’ve been better,” Bill sighed, “Like we used to say; pain is our reminder that we’re still alive.”
The human traffickers that weren’t killed in the initial attack ran away. The women hostages got into the back of a large truck. Bill turned to Rick as he leaned on him for support, “When I got here, I saw them unloading bundles of cash. Since I’m not going to be able to finish my ride, I’m going to need some money to give to Don’s family.”
They backed the truck up to the dock and loaded eleven million dollars in cash into it. When they got ready to leave, their path was blocked by three vehicles filled with heavily armed cartel soldiers. Carl and Julian had moved into the warehouse compound by that time and riddled the vehicles with small arms fire killing all the occupants as two of the cars exploded into flames. Carl and Julian got in the back of the truck with the women and cash. Rick set the timers on the explosive charges and threw them around the area, then got behind the wheel of the large truck and drove off. Five minutes later the whole compound was leveled, leaving nothing but piles of smoking ruin.
The former Navy SEALS picked up their personal truck and the Deputy Sheriff on the way back to California. The corrupt law enforcement official was turned over to Homeland Security at the border and he implicated a dozen other law enforcement officials and politicians in the human trafficking and drug smuggling operation. A million dollars was sent to the Ressler family in Kansas City and each hostage received a substantial amount of cash to help them get on with their lives.
It took six weeks for Bill to make a full recovery from his injuries and the four former Navy Seals were enjoying a home cooked Mexican banquet at the San Marcos home of the Valdez sisters as a sign of their appreciation.
Rick raised his bottle of Dos Equis beer and proposed a toast, “Like they say, “Pain is our reminder that we’re still alive.”
Bill took a bite out of his delicious Chile Relleno and added, “Of course, great Mexican food is a pretty good reminder too.”