Gage Hunter had to admit it—he was exhausted. Sitting on a bench in the Marine Corps’s Force Recon unit locker room, he put a little more oil on the cloth and finished cleaning his rifle. After completing a successful HVT—high-value target—mission, he’d been picked up last night by a Night Stalker MH-47 on the side of a mountain. Once back at the base, he’d fallen into bed at the Recon HQ barracks for his first night’s sleep in three weeks.
Usually, Gage bounced back after a mission, but for some reason he felt wiped out this time. He should have been celebrating his kill—after all, it was the twentieth HVT he’d taken out in Afghanistan during his five rotations here.
He rose and carried the rifle over to the nearby weapon’s locker, carefully stowing it away. It was now 1400 and his stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast at the chow hall, when he’d hungrily shoveled down a real meal of ham and eggs. While on assignment, he usually lost between ten and twenty pounds, depending on the length of the mission. Unfortunately, HVTs didn’t exactly come over the border whenever he wanted them to.
His spotter, Sergeant Craig Wilson, was gone for a month. He’d earned himself a thirty-day leave, and he’d headed home to his wife and family. Gage envied him. It was mid-January, and here in Afghanistan, snow was falling in the Hindu Kush mountains. Gage knew his life as a sniper was now pretty much curtailed, except for special ops missions with the SEALs or Delta Force. Those guys moved all the time, even in winter, ignoring the ass-freezing cold and deep snows that usually attacked this beleaguered country. Gage liked working with black ops groups, and reciprocally, Marine snipers were heartily welcomed on SEAL DAs—direct action missions—regardless of the weather.
Pushing his hand through his unruly black hair, he closed the door to his weapons locker and locked it. Yeah, he knew he needed to get his hair cut soon and neatly trim the scraggly three weeks’ growth of beard. He knew he’d soon have to listen to his captain growl, “Look like a Marine, damn it, not like an Afghan.”
Gage had four weeks of downtime here at Bagram, and now he had to fit into the drawdown and start wearing his Marine Corps gear again. When he was on an op, he looked more like a sun-darkened Afghan than a Marine, and he hated returning to the base to become a spit-polished Marine once more.
On the plus side, his captain, Troy Donner, tended to give him some leeway. Snipers were force multipliers. A single man could go out with his rifle and disrupt ten to twenty times the enemy, scattering them, causing confusion, and breaking down authority in the ranks. In a firefight, snipers were always desired just for that reason. They were the cream of the crop, and Gage was often given an exception to the Corps’ rules because of his status and importance as a sniper. They were the rock gods of the ground forces—looked up to, respected, and always a welcomed addition to a squad, platoon, or company operating in the badlands of this country.
Rubbing his beard, Gage decided to go over to the base barber after a late lunch of cold beer and pizza. Sure, it was the dead of winter, but cold beer tasted great anytime, and after being out on a three-week op, he looked forward to drinking a mug or two. Besides, he was sure his fellow snipers were hanging out in one of the many canteens on Bagram, making up for lost time.
He grinned as he thought of his group. They were all close to each other, like brothers who got along really well. Only Gage kept himself on the perimeter of their fraternity, and some of his friends called him a loner. Well, he was—sort of.
to this day! Forty-five books strong!