The light was on again
Thomas Calabrese — Conner Herkimer was born in Oceanside, California. He was the middle child of Dan and Kim Herkimer. He had an older sister, Lisa and a younger brother, Greg. Like many middle children, Conner often faded into the background. It didn’t help that Lisa was an overachiever in academics and athletics. Greg was a lovable little fellow with an engaging smile and the ability to say just the right thing at the right time. People would coo; ‘What a wonderful child, he’s so cute’.
Conner was an average student and a mediocre athlete. He was quiet and content to just go along with the crowd, often choosing to take the path of least resistance in most circumstances. Dan Herkimer worked for UPS as a supervisor and had been with the company for twenty-three years. Kim was employed at the Public Works Department in Carlsbad. It was a middle class life in every sense of the word for the young boy living in Southern California. Conner or Con, as he was often called had low aspirations and goals and while his parents encouraged him to be the best person that he could be, they were also aware of his limitations and didn’t push the issue or put too much pressure on him. As long as he was happy, healthy and had a decent life, that is all that mattered to them. Basically, he was a good kid and they were proud of him.
Con was just a few months shy of his 18th birthday and was working part-time at Wendy’s on Plaza Drive when a group of eight young Marines came in and sat down at two booths. They were in a jovial mood and the playful bantering could be heard in the kitchen. Con had been living in Oceanside long enough to be able to tell the difference between Marines from regular civilians. Their short hair was one clue.
Con overheard one Marine talking about his duties on Camp Pendleton and his curiosity got the best of him. “Sorry to interrupt you, but what do you do in the Marines?”
The young Marine responded without hesitation. “I’m a 0621, Transmissions System Operator. It has to do with communications, antennas, power sources and stuff like that.”
Con hesitated. “Is it a good job?”
“It’s alright, but the main thing is that I’m getting some skills that I can use when I get out. There’s a lot of opportunities for people in communications.”
The conversation stayed with Con because he did not want to be working in the fast food industry for the rest of his life. He also wasn’t interested in going to college and taking a bunch of general education courses so maybe the military wasn’t such a bad idea. His father was in the Navy for a few years, although working on the flight line on the U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier hardly qualified him to work at UPS. Dan emphasized to his son that what he learned in the military was the value of teamwork, responsibility and above all, accountability and that was transferable to every occupation and to life in general.
After a discussion with a local recruiter and taking the required aptitude tests, Staff Sergeant Ted Weller informed Con of his results. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”
“I’ll take the bad.” Con answered.
Staff Sergeant Weller responded. “Your test scores weren’t high enough for the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0621.”
“And the good news?”
“You’re borderline qualified for 2531 Field Radio Operator,” Staff Sergeant Weller said.
Conner Herkimer wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer so when he was sent to Marine Corps Communication- Electronic School (MCCES) in 29 Palms, California (Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center) he struggled to keep up with the other students. While others went on liberty, Con often stayed behind to study. He graduated at the bottom of the class and was assigned to 3rd Battalion 5th Marines on Camp Pendleton.
The battalion was deployed to Djibouti, where the U.S. has a military presence at Camp Lemonnier. This French-and Arabic-speaking nation is located on the Horn of Africa, near the Gulf of Aden and the Danakil Desert. The Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab has issued public threats against the Djibouti government. In May 2012, they claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the La Chaumiere Restaurant in Djibouti City. The Marines were on a six- month deployment to help the local military combat the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in the region at the time of the attack.
First and Second Platoons were on a morning patrol in the Tadjourah Region in north central Djibouti. As the Marines turned the corner in the trail, Con looked up and saw a brief flash on the hillside as the sun reflected off something. A moment later, a terrorist stood up and fired a rocket propelled grenade that was followed by a barrage of gunfire.
Not having time to warn his fellow Marines, Con pushed three of them off the trail and out of harm’s way. The RPG exploded right next to Con and the biggest piece of shrapnel, about the size of a human fist hit the field radio that was strapped to Con’s back, but luckily it did not penetrate his flesh. Con also suffered several minor wounds to his legs and arms and was also thrown into the air by the force of the blast and knocked unconscious.
The medical personnel removed the metal fragments without any complications, but the TBI (traumatic brain injury) was a different story. Con had severe headaches for the next two weeks and when they passed, Con felt that something was drastically different. He had a feeling similar to that of being emotionally exhausted after a long and heated argument.
Prior to his medical discharge, Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Kramer notified Lance Corporal Herkimer. “You are being awarded the Navy Cross for your heroism in Africa.”
Con replied. “Thank you, sir, but I really didn’t do anything.”
“Not according to the Marines whose lives you saved.”
Lance Corporal Herkimer received a meritorious promotion to Corporal, the Navy Cross and Purple Heart in a ceremony on Camp Pendleton. Three months later he was medically discharged after bleeding from his ears. The diagnosis was that it was the residual effects of the explosion.
His family noticed a distinct difference in Con’s behavior after he returned home. He was quiet, introspective, seemed disinterested and always preoccupied. Con knew his parents and siblings would never ask what was wrong so he decided to confide in them. “The explosion caused me to lose the ability to feel certain emotions. The doctors told me it was because I sustained trauma to my frontal lobes, which are considered my emotional control center and the home to my personality. I’m sorry if I’m not the same person that I was. I can sense that you’re disappointed, but put yourself in my position and imagine how I feel.”
Kim kissed her son on the forehead and reassured him. “Things change…that’s part of life. We’ll find a way to make this work. I firmly believe that the light inside your soul is still there, it may have dimmed temporarily, but it will come back at full radiance when the time is right.”
The Herkimer family made it work because they cared enough to make the necessary adjustments in their behavior patterns. Con focused more on using his other senses to compensate for his lack of empathy. His family learned not to take it personally when Con didn’t express himself like he used to.
Con found a job through the Veterans Readjustment Center with Finney Medical Products, located in the Temple Heights Industrial Park. He was hired as a truck driver, which gave him plenty of time to be alone. He worked three 12-hour shifts on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. His schedule was to leave Oceanside at 5AM with a truckload of finished products for the distribution center in Santa Ana. After unloading, he then drove to Torrance to pick up materials for manufacturing. When the traffic was flowing and things fell in place Con could make the round trip in 10 hours. When it was backed up, it could take a few hours longer.
As time passed, Con became desperate to feel something, anything at all, and two feelings that weren’t affected by his injury were exhaustion and fatigue. So, he worked hard and played hard, often helping out on the loading docks when his route was completed or running, biking, swimming or lifting weights at Planet Fitness.
While working on the bench press on his day off, Con saw a news story about the American Military Training Academy in San Marcos on one of the television screens hanging overhead so he decided to check it out.
The large building was located in an industrial park off Twin Oaks Valley Road. The roll-up garage door was open and Con could see a group of men climbing ropes from his location in the parking lot. He moved closer for a better look and stood near the open door.
A thickly muscled man approached. “Thinking about joining the military?”
“I’ve already served…I don’t think they’ll let me back in,” Con replied.
“I’m Bill Hazen and I’m one of the owners. What can I do for you?”
Con hesitated for a moment then said. “Never mind, sorry to have bothered you,” and started to walk away.
“Stand fast, Marine!” Bill said.
“How did you know that I was a Marine?” Con asked.
“I’ve seen enough of them.” Bill replied. “Why don’t you just tell me why you’re really here?” Con explained his situation and Bill responded. “I’ll talk to partners and get back to you. Leave me your number.”
Three days later, Bill called. “I talked to my partners, Pete Lewis and George Blair and we agreed that you’re welcome to work out here anytime you want.”
“What are the dues?” Con asked.
Bill replied curtly. “I was making you an invitation, not a business offer.”
Bill Hazen was a former Force Reconnaissance Marine and drill instructor. Pete Lewis had been a Navy Seal and George Blair was a Green Beret. They started the AMTA to help young men and women prepare for military service. There was an advanced course for those who aspired to be special operators and training for personal bodyguards and corporate security. The classes included intensive physical fitness, weapons training, hand-to-hand combat, risk assessment and profiling.
When Con met with the three American warriors, he refused to let them give him access to the facility free of charge. Pete Lewis laughed. “Another stubborn Marine…what’s new. Okay we can always use some help, you can work it off.”
Several months passed. Con remained thoroughly dedicated to developing his proficiency in all the skills being taught at the Academy. He had laser focus and an unmatched work ethic. His newly acquired skills did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Bill offered him a full time position as an instructor and Con accepted it with one stipulation. “The company I’m working for has treated me very well, I won’t leave until they find a suitable replacement.”
Bill smiled. “I would expect no less. There’s no time limit on the offer. The job will be waiting for you whenever you’re ready.”
Three weeks later, Con began working full-time at the Academy. He was put in charge of leading the physical conditioning classes.
Joey Garchar was CEO of Red Sky Security. He was a former Delta Force Operator and his current business was to provide civilian contractors to government agencies and international corporations around the world. He often went to the Academy to see if anyone qualified to work for him. The pay was excellent and there were financial bonuses for the men and women who were willing to go into extremely hazardous situations.
Con saw it as an opportunity to make a lot of cash in a short amount of time. Money wasn’t that important to him personally because he had a very simple, almost Spartan-like lifestyle. With his current mental issue, he didn’t expect to ever get married or have children. In reality, he also didn’t want to live a long life with this emptiness inside him so risks were not an issue. The one thing that was important to him was that his family had financial security. That would be his legacy.
Con would not accept any assignment unless the pay was right. He worked in Myanmar, Chechnya, Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and the Congo. These were some of the most dangerous and violent places in world and with each assignment, his reputation grew. In fact, he was nicknamed by people in the mercenary business as ‘Herk the Merc’.
Joey Garchar received a request for security personnel from Mighty Acorn, a charity organization that was going to Ukraine to help with the evacuation of refugees. Joey brought the subject up to Con. “I don’t know if you’re interested, but do you feel like going to Ukraine?”
“What’s the rate?” Con asked.
“Far below your normal price… they’re a charity and operating on a shoestring budget. I thought I’d give you right of first refusal. I’ll find somebody else.”
Con replied. “Hold on, I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. Not everything is about money.”
Joey laughed. “You kiddin’ me, right? I seem to remember that it was you that told me you’ll go anywhere if the money is enough.”
“Maybe it’s time that I take one for the team.”
“I’ll pass the word that Herk the Merc is on board, that should make it a lot easier to get five more operators.”
Con and five other contractors left San Diego for Poland three days later. They met with Chad Cameron in Przemysl, Poland, six miles from the Ukraine border. Chad introduced himself and commented. “Your reputation precedes you…thanks for doing this.”
Con responded. “Tell me what you got?”
“We’ve got a group of Ukrainians hiding in the basement of a bombed out theater in Lviv.”
“How many?” Con asked.
Con asked. “What are you going to use to transport them?”
“Six buses, fueled and ready to go. The escape route is patrolled by Russians.”
Con called his team of five men that included; Burns, Volt, Albright, Gallagher and Tatum and gave them the plan. “Albright, you stay here, the rest of us will scout the road. I’ll call when it’s clear.”
Roger that, “Albright responded.
Con and the rest of the team got into a Toyota SUV and headed into Ukraine. Three miles into the war torn country they saw four Russian vehicles blocking the road and pulled off the pavement. Con took out the Barrett M107 fifty caliber semi-automatic long- range sniper rifle. Burns and Tatum each took Javelin Rocket launchers.
Con shot six soldiers and the projectiles from the launchers took out two vehicles. As the other Russians tried to escape, four more were killed. The rest vanished into the forest.
Con called Albright, who was waiting with the buses. “Move ‘em out,” then turned to his team. “Let’s clear the road.”
When the buses arrived at their location, Con, Volt and Gallagher got into one of the Russian vehicles and took the lead. Burns, Tatum and Albright assumed rear guard of the small convoy.
They found the Ukrainians hiding among the bombed-out ruins and they were quickly loaded onto the vehicles. A young teenage girl refused to board and Con reminded her, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The young girl whose name was Vira, nervously replied,” My sister is not back yet.”
“Where did she go?” Con asked.
Vira responded. “She went back to our apartment to look for our puppy.”
Tatum who had launched a surveillance drone and was monitoring movements on his tablet quickly interjected. “We’ve got a Russian patrol headed this way.”
“How far?” Con asked.
“Three clicks” (one click equals 1000 meters). Tatum responded.
Vira pleaded. “We can’t leave her behind!”
Con calmly asked. “What’s her name and where did she go?”
“Her name is Nina,” Vira pointed down the street. “Turn left at the corner, second building on the right.”
“I’ll go back for her.” Con said.
Gallagher protested. “You can’t do that!”
When he saw the hard look in Con’s eyes, Gallagher quickly added. “You can do whatever you want, I just meant that you might want to reconsider your decision.”
Con ordered. “Move out!”
Tatum pushed the reluctant Vira onto the bus, while Con got into the Russian vehicle and drove down the street. Gallagher told the distraught girl. “If it was my sister out there, there’s nobody I’d rather have go after her than ‘Herk the Merc’.”
The buses raced out of town while Con looked for Nina. He heard a scream, stopped the vehicle and walked toward the sound with his pistol at the ready. There was another scream and when he turned down an alley, he saw that four Russian soldiers had cornered a woman with a puppy in her arms. He quietly moved behind them, shot two in the back of the head and when the other two turned around, he shot them in the chest.
Con looked at the beautiful dark-haired woman before him and time stood still. He was lost in the moment. A bright light temporarily blinded him, his knees buckled and Con felt a chill run up his spine that made him quiver. He was overcome with emotions and it took him a few seconds to compose himself. Con barely got these words out. “Your sister sent me, Nina.”
On the way out of town, Con kept the barrel of his Colt M4/M4A1 assault rifle with the 40- round magazine slightly protruding from the driver’s side window. When they passed a Russian patrol, Con opened fire and they went down.
Back in Poland, the two sisters were reunited. Tatum came up to Con and commented. “You took a big risk back there, not exactly your style.”
Without taking his eyes off the two sisters hugging each other with the puppy squeezed between them, Con replied defensively. “From my perspective, it was worth it and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. You got a problem with that?”
“Nope…no problem at all from me,” Tatum commented with a sly grin. “Oh by the way, you must have something in your eye, there’s a tear rolling down your cheek.”
The mood was festive, even jubilant as the Herkimer family and their guests celebrated with a backyard barbecue in Oceanside. Con used his extensive connections in the government and civilian sectors to get Nina and Vira emergency asylum in the United States and they couldn’t leave their puppy behind.
Con was sitting between the sisters at the picnic table enjoying a variety of barbecued meats, including chicken, fish and assorted side dishes and desserts while the dog lay in the grass next to them. Con’s eyes sparkled and it was obvious to all in attendance there was a connection between Con and Nina.
Kim walked over and whispered her son’s ear. “I told you.”
Conner ‘Herk the Merc’ Herkimer knew exactly what his mother meant. The light was on again and it was great to be home and to feel again.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org
Another good story. I remember a time when you were working on your first 100 and now look where you are. I’ve enjoyed them all.
An excellent story, as always. I’ve been to Camp Lemonnier…not exactly your garden variety of places to visit. I like the light/spark being rekindled!
Great story of military life Tom, thanks.
Great story…I love the way that things evolved…always a feel good ending. We need more of it in this world.
Another good one that kept my attention to the end.
I Liked the medical diagnose Tom provided about Con’s Brain trauma.
It provides the reader more insight on what VETS may be dealing with today that have TBI
Very nice human interest story by Mr. Thomas Calabrese in this Sunday Vista Press. Heart warming, full of action and a puppy to boot. This makes for one great and positive story and bring our focus back to the Russian/Ukrainian War. Innocent people being killed for no valid reason but greed and power. This present war threatens America as well. The Russians have armed their nukes and America is in their sights. America and its people need to keep these things in mind and hope for a peaceful resolution or “Herk the Merck” will be called into action.
Another nice story Tom.
Tom, I can’t but think that each and perhaps all of your characters continue to live on with you, maybe to resurface another day in another adventure.
Herk the Merc will go down as one of Tom’s heroes.
You kept my interest again…great job.