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Calendar >   Who Saved Who – Thomas Calabrese

 Who Saved Who – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  December 10, 2022  /  9 Comments


Good to the Bone

Thomas Calabrese – Alex Donovan served 24 years in the Marine Corps. It was a tumultuous career that was almost equally divided between adversity, hardships, triumphs and accomplishments. During the early years when he was an inexperienced nineteen-year-old rifleman with 1st Battalion 5th Marines Alex was captured by Taliban forces while on routine patrol in Afghanistan. During the nine months of his captivity he was kept in a confined space inside a cave with two other Marines. The situation took a heavy emotional toll on Private First Class Jeff Wagner and Lance Corporal Doug Drury, but for some unexplainable reason, the worse the situation became, the more it strengthened Alex’s resolve to not only survive, but to escape. It was during this time that he came to realize how high his tolerance for pain was. Lack of food, temperature fluctuating between bitter cold and unbearably hot and the continuous harassment by his captors could not break Alex’s spirit.

During a bombing raid of a nearby enemy stronghold, Taliban fighters mistakenly assumed that a ground attack was imminent and decided to move the Marines to another location. Corporal Alex Donovan saw this action as an opportunity to make an escape. He told his fellow captives to be prepared and to follow his lead, “We might not get another chance.”

As soon as one of the terrorists unlocked the metal cell door, Alex kicked it with all his might and the man was knocked backward. Alex rushed forward, disarmed and shot him and three others guards before they could react. The other Marines grabbed weapons and together they rushed to the opening of the cave complex where they waited for an opening to run across the open area. They saw a truck pull up as explosions rocked the area. Alex gave the signal, “Let’s do this!”

While running for their lives, the Marines began firing at the enemy until they reached the vehicle. Alex yanked the driver through the window and shot him. The three Americans jumped in the cab of the vehicle and made their escape. It was pure luck that none of the incoming rounds hit them because it was like driving through a shower of shrapnel. Fortunately for the Marines, the two trucks filled with Taliban fighters that were in hot pursuit were not so lucky. Their vehicles were both destroyed by high explosive rounds. After reaching friendly forces, Alex found out that the barrage had nothing to do with them. It seemed that Army artillery had received target coordinates from a Ranger unit that spotted enemy activities in the area and requested a fire mission.

Alex shrugged, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”

The other two Marines were content to recover from their ordeal in the safety of Camp Pendleton then accept a medical discharge. This was not the case with Alex who requested to stay in the Marines. As soon as he was able, he volunteered to go back into combat. Eight tours later, he was in still in the Corps.

Alex Donovan was the perennial warrior, having found his niche in life with the Marines. It might have been different if he had a family or somebody special in his life, but that wasn’t the case. He grew up in the foster care system and never knew his biological parents. During his teenage years when he became too old to be adopted, he was placed in a group home and stayed there until he was old enough to enlist.

At first, Alex was envious of his fellow Marines who were regularly writing home or talking about their families, but eventually he got used to it and it didn’t bother him anymore. Most people prefer to talk about themselves and that was fine with Alex who let them ramble on and if the focus of conversation ever got back on him, he would quickly divert it away with, “My family is not real big on staying in touch,” or asked if he had a girlfriend, his answer to that was, “Nothing steady.”  His fellow Marines could tell from his tone of voice that he was not going to elaborate so they didn’t push the issue.

Alex listed Tunnel to Towers and Wounded Warriors as co-beneficiaries to share equally from his life insurance in case of his death. It was strange how his life had turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The more prepared and skilled Alex became at being a combat Marine, the more isolated he felt from the world around him. He came to view himself as a disposable commoditylike a tool, much like a hammer or screwdriver. His purpose was simple; carry out the mission, follow orders, protect his men and be a dangerous weapon against America’s enemies.

It’s been said that once you identify the problem and accurately assess the situation, you have a much better chance of finding a solution. Alex took that approach, then modified it to fit his personal philosophy. There were orders to take and regulations to follow because that is the nature of military life, but he maintained ownership of his heart and soul. He kept his feelings to himself and when it came time to vent his frustration, he either went for a long exhausting run or engaged in an intense workout at the fitness center. If those options weren’t available, he internalized it. It wasn’t a magical cure for every problem, but it was Alex Donovan’s way.

This career Marine treated everyone fairly and with courtesy because it was part of the basic code of military conduct and his natural demeanor to do so.  ‘Yes sir or yes ma’am’ were part of his everyday dialogue even when he was speaking to civilians on or off base. As a leader of men Alex was soft spoken, literate and professional, choosing not to rant and rave to get his point across. He did his best to instill integrity in the young Marines under his command and his definition of the virtue was simple, ‘Doing the right thing when nobody is looking.’

When orders came through the chain of command that didn’t make a whole lot of sense or got everybody riled up, Alex was extremely proficient at lowering the temperature and keeping his men focused. He reminded his men of a saying that they should embrace, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ He also added, “Never let your outrage or compassion get in the way of your common sense or sense of duty. It’s hard to be a good Marine and a bad man. If you’re good at one then you’ll be usually good at the other, but if you’re bad at either, then you’ll be bad at both. What you learn here in the Corps will impact the rest of your life. You can’t always predict the events and circumstances that you encounter in life, but you can be prepared on how you react to them. That is why we train, so that you will have proper reactionary skills.”

Alex wasn’t sure if the young Marines grasped all his concepts or if he was talking over their heads. What he really wanted was that when life and death situations came up, he wanted his men to trust his judgment and not just follow orders because he was in charge. To some people that might seem like a distinction without a difference, but to a seasoned combat veteran, it was not. Alex also never subscribed to the principle; it is not to question why, but to do and die. He told his men that if they had a problem or needed to talk, his door was always open. He only criticized or reprimanded in private and was free with his praise in public. The years passed and Alex built a reputation as a tough and fair Marine. He earned the respect of his superiors and subordinates with his consistently honorable behavior. In combat, Alex led by example and his years of experience was invaluable in keeping his fellow Marines alive.

First Sergeant Alex Donovan was part of a Marine Detachment that was sent to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland to help provide security. There was a small airport in the southeast quadrant of the city that previously handled a few flights a day, but was now the main entry point for weapons destined for Ukraine. The influx of millions of dollars of military equipment was a breeding ground for blackmarketers, organized crime and unscrupulous arms dealers.

It didn’t take long before Alex witnessed the massive corruption behind this airlift to combat Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  He was no fool so when he saw members of the State Department and CIA agents negotiating deals for weapons, he knew it would be useless to report it. When his men questioned why so many airplanes were leaving with weapons, and equipment Alex replied curtly, “I know what’s going on, just do your jobs and keep your mouths shut. I’ll handle everything else.”

The fact that Alex had to stand by and let the criminal behavior run rampant around him deeply offended him. He put on an Oscar winning performance when he took on the role of being oblivious and ambivalent because it was so out of character for him. He couldn’t let his increasing rage at the betrayal of the American people by self-serving politicians and entrenched bureaucrats negatively influence the behavior of his Marines. Alex had seen these type of men before during his career, they were ruthless and would kill without hesitation to protect their business interests and unlike Marines they followed no rules of engagement.

It was a quiet morning on November 3rd and the Marines only had five more weeks on their deployment before returning to Camp Pendleton. Alex had kept his men alive which was his top priority, but the mission was an ongoing nightmare. He receive a radio transmission from Corporal Dave Steiner, “Marine down! Marine down! West perimeter gate!”

When Alex arrived, he saw Lance Corporal Gordon Olson lying on the ground with a bullet in his right thigh. Sergeant Greg Landro was applying a tourniquet to slow the bleeding.”

            “What happened?” Alex asked.

“We stopped two trucks that were leaving with crates and when we questioned them, they shot Gordy and raced out.” Sergeant Landro replied.

 Alex prepared to pursue the shooters, but a group of American officials showed up before he could leave. One of the men commented, “We heard the radio transmission and came to offer our assistance.”

            “Don’t need it, we can handle it,” Alex responded.

The man responded, “Let me re-phase my statement, we’ll handle this, First Sergeant. You’re assigned to us and we give the orders. Stand down, Marine.”

Alex relayed the order to his men who wanted some serious payback, “You heard the man, they’ll handle it…let’s go.”

Alex wasn’t going to let this go, but wanted to give the impression that he was complying without objection. When they got back to their area, Alex told his Marines, “You need to trust me on this…don’t cause any problems.”

After sending the surveillance photos of the gate to a friend of his at Military Intelligence on Pendleton, Alex ascertained that the men who shot Corporal Olson were part of an Albanian crime syndicate. Feeling emboldened, the Albanian gangsters returned for another load of weapons and high tech equipment a few days later, but this time when they got to the gate, it was Alex Donovan a seasoned veteran who stopped them. He said, “I need to see your paperwork.”

One of the men responded, “You can call Harold Strock, he’s with the CIA, he’ll vouch for us.”

            “Get out,” Alex ordered.

The Albanian growled, “You’ll be sorry.”

As soon as the three Albanians stepped out of truck, they were ready to start shooting, but Alex was prepared for such an incident. He killed the three men and five minutes later, Agent Strock arrived and started screaming in anger, “Do you know what you’ve done! Are you a lunatic! You trigger-happy jarhead!”

            “I protected myself and my Marines,” Alex responded calmly, “So basically, I did my duty.”

Agent Strock pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Alex, “I should kill you where you stand!”

In a split second Alex grabbed the pistol and slapped the agent across his right ear with it, “Still want to try?”

The next morning, First Sergeant Alex Donovan was standing before Lt. Colonel Robert Walden who said, “You stirred up a hornet’s nest, Donovan.”

            “You read my report, sir…what part did I do wrong, sir? The part where I defended myself or the part where I didn’t get myself killed?” Alex asked.

            “The part where you got yourself into this mess in the first place. I’m sending you back to Pendleton. You’ve had a good career, Donovan. I think it’s time for you to call it a day. Men like Strock are very good at holding a grudge.” Lt. Colonel Walden then added. “Watch your back.”

            “I was at Kabul Airport when 13 Americans were killed by a suicide bomber.” Alex said.

Lt. Col. Walden inquired, “I know you have a point…you always do.”

            “We trusted the Taliban to provide security and you saw how well that turned out. My point is…you watch your back, the enemy is all around you.”

By the time Alex got back to Camp Pendleton, disciplinary actions were pending against him. CIA Agent Strock wasted no time going after him. One of the Marines that was at the gate recorded the altercation on his cellphone.

The video showed Agent Strock instigating the confrontation so the government reluctantly dismissed the charges. Donovan knew that this was not the end of it and as long as he stayed in the Corps, he would remain a target. He decided to follow Lt. Colonel Walden’s cautionary words of advice and called it a day… and a career.

After returning to the civilian world, Alex decided that his best course of action was to apply for employment with Black Sky Securities. Alex met with Roy Brackett, the director of operations for the company. After running a background check on the recently retired Marine, Roy responded, “You’ve got an impressive resume and we definitely can use a man with your special set of skills. Is there anything that I should know about that isn’t in your file?”

Alex answered, “There was an incident in Poland,” and explained the details.

            “So you thought if I hired you that Black Sky would protect you?” Roy said.

Alex stood up to leave, “If that’s what you think, then I don’t want to work here.”

            “Easy does it…I didn’t say that, I just asked if that’s what you thought,” Roy smiled.

            “I can protect myself, I just didn’t want to take another job where innocent people might get caught in the line of fire because of a vendetta against me. Black Sky has a lot of enemies, I figured a few more wouldn’t matter,” Alex said.

            “You never mentioned that it was CIA Operative Strock that you had the trouble with.” 

Alex responded, “How do you know that?”

            “I always do my research before meeting a prospective employee. I’ll make a call to the CIA and I’ll let them know that you’re working with us…that should resolve the issue.”

It only took a few days before Agent Strock got the word from CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. His supervisor, Allen Briscoe was emphatically clear, “Alex Donovan is working with Black Sky. If you have an issue with him then drop it…effectively immediately.” There was no reply so Briscoe asked, “I’ll need a verbal confirmation.”

            “Confirmed,” Strock said.

            “I’ve got you on my radar on this, don’t play games with me, Strock,” Briscoe warned, “You know what I’m capable of if you go rogue.”

A few minutes after hanging up, Strock called the Albanians and informed them, “I can’t help you anymore. My boss knows about Donovan and I’ve been warned to stay out and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The Albanian protested, “You promised to help us!”

            “I’ll give you one more thing, Donovan is working for Black Sky. Now we’re through,” Strock disconnected the call.

Alex attended a Celebration of Life ceremony at the Veterans Center in Oceanside for a Navy Corpsman that he served with early in his career. In the lobby was a retired Marine and a nurse sitting behind a table. Jack Connors explained, “My granddaughter needs a bone marrow transplant and we’re testing for the ‘Be The Match Registry’.

Alex asked, “What do I have to do?”

The nurse answered, “Just a simple cheek swab. We’re looking for a minimum of 6 basic HLA markers.”

            “I don’t know what that is,” Alex said

            “Human leukocyte antigen typing is used to match patients and donors,” The nurse said.

Alex took the test then forgot about it.

Sunny Bellinger was competing in the Dakar Rally, an off-road event that started in Ha’il, Saudi Arabia and ended in Jeddah, going through canyons and cliffs in the Neom region, passing by the Red Sea coastline and into the stretches of dunes surrounding Riyadh. She caught a rare infection caused by a bite from a rare parasite that could only be found in this area of the world. By the time Sunny arrived back in the United States, she was so seriously ill that she was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support.

When the doctors found out that Sunny had been in the Middle East, they immediately tested for parasites. She was placed on a strict regimen of antibiotics including Ivermectin to kill the parasite. They were able to accomplish that goal, but the damage to her bone marrow was significant and the infection caused Aplastic anemia. Sunny’s body had stopped producing enough new blood cells, leaving her extremely vulnerable to all types of infections and uncontrolled bleeding.

Alex got the call on his cellphone informed him that he was a perfect match and asked if he could come in tomorrow for the bone marrow transfusion. The nurse explained, “I’m sorry for the short notice, but we just got the results. Every moment that we delay further increases the risk to Sunny’s health.”

Alex responded, “Text me the time and address and I’ll be there.”

At 0750 hours Alex pulled into the parking lot of Oceanside Surgery Center and entered the building. He checked in at the front desk and was immediately surrounded by a couple dozen family members and friends who were overcome with gratitude.

 Sunny slowly walked up, her skin was pale and she looked exhausted, but she still managed a warm engaging smile, “Thank you very much for doing this, Mister Donovan.”

            “It is my pleasure, Ma’am.”

Jack Connors came up and embraced Alex, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Alex felt uncomfortable with these outward gestures of gratitude for something that he had not done yet. On the other hand, he didn’t want to take the situation lightly so he simply replied, “You’re welcome, sir.”

The transplant was successful and Sunny immediately felt better after its completion. Alex did not want to go through the gauntlet of gratitude again so he asked Doctor Apton if there was another exit besides the front lobby, “I’d prefer to make an inconspicuous exit if you know what I mean. You have my number if you need Miss Bellinger needs another transfusion.”

Two week later, Alex returned to the surgery center to make another donation. He didn’t realize how beautiful Sunny Bellinger was the first time he met her. On this occasion, there was much more color in her skin, her eyes were bright blue and Alex could sense she had more energy, “You left so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to thank you.” She said

Alex responded, “You thanked me on the way in.”

            “I get it.”

            “Get what?” Alex asked.

Sunny said, “The kind of man that you are, yes ma’am, yes sir, my pleasure. I could see how uncomfortable you were being the center of attention.”

            “You were in trouble and I was in a position to help, it was that simple. Don’t make it sound like I’m some kind of hero who threw himself on a grenade. All I did was lie down on a on a table and let somebody take some stuff out of my body.”

            “My grandfather says you are a retired Marine so I thank you for your service and for helping to save my life. You are now one of my heroes, I only have two others, my grandfather and my father. If that makes you uncomfortable then deal with it,” Sunny stated without hesitation.

            “I’m honored to be included in such esteemed company, Ma’am,” Alex said simply.

The second transplant procedure went perfectly and Sunny was back to her normal vivacious self in a few days. Two weeks later Alex was surprised to receive a call from her, “I’d like to invite you to dinner.”

            “You don’t have to do that,” Alex said.

            “Don’t and want are two different things.” Sunny clarified her position

            “In that case I gratefully accept.” Alex responded.

Alex and Sunny met at The Broiler restaurant in the Oceanside Harbor for an early dinner. Sunny inquired, “I hope this place is alright?”

            “Absolutely, I like the food, the service, the location…I’ve eaten here on numerous occasions and have never been disappointed.”

While making small talk, Sunny volunteered “I work for Oracle Red Bull Racing, my specialty is off road events. What about you?”

            “Nothing as exciting as that, I just started a job in security,” Alex tried to be subtle when changing the subject, “I really like these sweet potato fries. How’s your food?”

            “Don’t worry, I know when not to get too inquisitive,” Sunny smiled.

Over the next couple months, Alex and Sunny engaged in a variety of activities that included surfing, rock climbing and skydiving. Sunny was a natural born athlete and a borderline adrenalin junkie. She was intrigued and at times overwhelmed by a man who could match up to her physically and mentally. Add to that, Alex’s strong moral character and Sunny was feeling very good about this relationship.

From Alex’s perspective, he always liked strong independent woman, but it was Alex’s self-deprecating sense of humor that truly touched him. Alex remembered something that he heard about General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s philosophy of leadership, ‘always take your job seriously, never yourself.’ It’s a paradoxical truth: The responsibilities thrust upon you are important and your duty to those you lead or serve is everything, yet where these roles take you—be it to power or wealth or fame—says nothing about you.’ Sunny was intelligent and accomplished, but she was also unpretentious and as natural and refreshing as a gentle summer breeze on a hot day. Nothing about her was fabricated or rehearsed. Alex came to realize that her stunning physical appearance was just the icing on the cake, it was what was inside that was truly special. If there was such a term as spontaneously beautiful, that would be an appropriate  description of Sunny.

The couple were running together on the beach and were about 300 yards south of the Oceanside Pier when a thought crossed Sunny’s mind. She would challenge Alex to a race to see if he would actually compete or hold back and let her win. This would tell her a lot about where their relationship was and where it was headed. “I challenge you to a race to the pier, loser buys lunch.”

            “Whenever you’re ready,” Alex replied.

Sunny took a deep breath, exhaled and called out, “Go!” and took off in a full sprint.

At seventy-five yards, Alex passed her and extended his lead until he was 20 yards ahead of Sunny by the time he ran under the pier.

When Sunny caught up, she breathlessly commented, “You didn’t cut me any slack.”

            “I didn’t know that you wanted any,” Alex smiled.

Sunny said, “I didn’t.”

 Later, Sunny bought lunch at the Cream of the Crop Deli on South Coast Highway. While eating vegetarian sandwiches and drinking blueberry smoothies, Sunny offered, “My team is going to test several of our off road desert racers along the Mojave Road. Do you want to come with me?”

            “Yeah, I’d like that,” Alex said, “I’ve heard about Mojave Road…what is it?”

Sunny explained, “It is 147 miles of mostly barren, open desert that was once the main thoroughfare used by tribes of the Mojave Desert. It is a direct route that connects several natural springs between Laughlin, Nevada, and Barstow, California.”

            “When do you want to leave?” Alex asked.

Sunny suggested, “I’d prefer to leave this evening after traffic lets up. The support team has set up trailers already, but I can wait until morning if you want.”

            “Tonight would be fine, how about 2000 hours?” Alex asked.

            “I’ll pick you up.”

When Sunny arrived at Alex’s apartment that night, the front door was locked. She knocked several times and finally Alex opened it. He winked his eye and spoke as if he had never met her before. “How can I help you, Ma’am?”

Sunny didn’t know what was going on, but she played along and said the first name that came into her mind, “I’m looking for Gilbert Bates.”

            “Sorry, I never heard of him,” Alex quickly closed the door before Sunny could say anything else.

Sunny heard voices behind the door speaking in a foreign language. She went back to her SUV and took out a pistol that was hidden under the seat and put it in her pocket. Sunny walked back to Alex’s apartment and knocked on the door again. When he opened it, Sunny said, “I’m sorry to bother you again, but I checked the address and this is the correct one. How long have you lived here?”

            “I told you once already, I don’t know Gilbert Bates,” Alex said.

            “What about his girlfriend, Judy Hensler?”

Alex pretended to be irate, “I don’t know her either!” then gave Sunny a clue, “Just like I told the other three armed people who threatened me earlier. I told them that next time they barged him, I’d showed them no mercy.”

Sunny pushed her way in, “Maybe your friends know them.” Three Albanian men were standing in the living room. At closer look, Sunny saw that they were holding pistols by their sides, but   moved closer anyway, “Do you know Gilbert Bates or Judy Hensler?”

One of the men answered, “No we do not…we are busy …go away.”

Sunny heard one of the other men whisper to his associate, “We should kill her, she can identify us.”

In a split second, Sunny pulled out her pistol and shot the three men. One was killed immediately and the other two were seriously wounded. Alex took one of the weapons from a wounded man killed him and the other man who was barely alive. “Thanks,” Alex said, “You never cease to amaze and impress me.”

Sunny grinned, “You were in trouble and I was in a position to help, it was that simple. Don’t make it sound like I’m some kind of hero who threw herself on a grenade.”

            “That sounds like something a Marine would say.”

It took a while, but eventually Alex caught up with CIA agent Strock in Casablanca and tied up that loose end once and for all.

While the couple was enjoying a quiet evening at Sunny’s house, she proposed a toast, “To the man who is good to the bone.”

Alex raised his drink and lightly touched Sunny’s glass, then asked a rhetorical question, “Who saved Who?”

The End

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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


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  1. Clyde says:

    When you put an honorable and strong man and woman together, their strength is magnified, not diminished. This story proved that point Nice twist at the end.

  2. john michels says:

    Bravo! In today’s world it is too bad the bad guys don’t get their just desserts.

  3. Robert says:

    A nice Sunday read. Enjoyed it.

  4. wolf says:

    Enjoyed it. all got what they deserved.

    Sunny turned to be the total package.

    Attractive, physically fit fearless and, proficient with Firearms.

    Too good to be true,

  5. Tom says:

    WoW!!! Not only a home run, but a Grand Slam!! My favorite characters: USMC, a good looking young lady and some nasty bad guys (gov’t gooks are my favorite)! Were it only true that we could have more of these types to ferret out the rotten apples and introduce them to their own special hell!

  6. Jeremy says:

    It would impossible not to like this story. Great characters.

  7. Tony says:

    Here I go again exclaiming “How does he do it” about Mr. Calabrese’s Sunday Stories. This one really took a different turn of events and a great ending. Two people found each other, saved each other and fell in love, a happy ending for certain. Some intrigue thrown in the mix to spice things up. These are the elements the Hollywood movies are made about and win Oscars, if cast with the right actors.
    Very nicely done and thank you for the enjoyed reading of a great story.

  8. Marty says:

    Action packed story. Thanks Tom.

  9. Vern says:

    Great to see the Serenity Prayer and other Scripture in your stories, along with ethical leadership examples. Who knows how many Marines and Readers you are reaching! I saw the word “Neom” in one of your stories. It is in FULL production now. Semper Fidelis.

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