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Sergeant Henderson
By Tom Waltz

When the air raid siren began howling, we all ran for the cover of the nearest sandbag bunker. Not a panicked stampede as one might expect; Marines arenít allowed to panic. No, it was more a hurried exit - somewhat organized, but mostly instinctive - to hide away from the SCUD missile we figured was on its way to our location; the screaming reminder of the siren made it hard to assume otherwise.

I was the last to enter the bunker. I'm not real pushy, and maybe a little too curious for my own good, so I let the others jump in first while I watched for a quick glimpse of a missile streaking across the sky. By the time it was my turn to get in, though, I hadn't seen anything - and had no desire for a surprise close-up view - so I joined my fellow Marines in the tight confines of the bunker we'd created months before in the blazing Arabian sun for just such an occasion. I yanked closed the olive drab tarp that was fastened to it as a makeshift door and squeezed into the first available seat. The siren, muffled now by the stacks of sandbags surrounding us, continued to wail outside.

No doubt about it, a bunker is no place for a claustrophobic. Not that anyone there had that problem - as far as I could tell, anyway - but hopefully it gives an idea of just how tightly packed in we were. As it was, we were ass-to-ass and shoulder-to-shoulder next to one another, six to a side, sharing the dark, close quarters with the M-16 rifles we all carried. To make matters worse, we were wearing gas masks - a prudent response to the many reports about the Iraqi boss's bad habit of launching chemical missiles. Sure, it was probably only a normal exploding, limb-tearing, structure-smashing projectile headed our way, but none of us were taking chances. Oh, and to top it all off, it was hot. Middle of the desert, Saudi Arabian hot.

So, I sat there, sweating in my gas mask, wondering if a SCUD was really targeting us, and if the Patriot missiles stationed nearby would take care of it if it was, and if my girlfriend back home would miss me if the Patriot failed, and how useless the rifle on my lap was right then, and how modern warfare sucked, and...

When, suddenly, the siren stopped.

All that remained in the silence was the sound of nervous breathing inside gas masks - mine included - and I laughed to myself at the notion that I was in the middle of a bizarre Darth Vader convention ... when I noticed who was sitting across from me.

Sergeant Henderson.

In the dim haze of the bunker, and because of her gas mask, I couldn't see her face. But the squat body in front of me, one where you can't tell where the shoulders stop and the hips start, with stocky legs and plump forearms, not to mention the massive breasts that even G.I.-issue camouflage couldn't hide, was unmistakable. Sergeant Henderson was a woman Marine. She was the non-commissioned officer in charge of me. She was also a holy terror most of the time, constantly on my case, and I liked her about as much as I liked Saddam Hussein.

Normally, I would have turned away to avoid her. Except right then, above the heavy swish-swish of the collective respiration I was in the middle of, I could have sworn I heard her shudder. Sergeant Henderson, the woman Marine who could easily have destroyed a few good men all on her own ... shuddered. And, somehow, I just knew it was because she was crying. I was shocked. For a moment.

Then, I thought about it a little harder, and it started to make a kind of sense. Yeah, Sergeant Henderson was a grade-A ball breaker for sure - that I knew first hand and often. But I also knew that somewhere she had a husband who (God knows why) loved and missed her and had helped her to create a daughter and son over the previous decade or so. The three of them, in my experience, were the only things that made her smile, and I was always happy when she got on the subject while we were working together because those were the moments when she would leave me in peace - short-lived moments, but nice ones. Now, however, as we sat there waiting to either hear "All Clear!" or to be blown to bits, I realized that those three - her husband, her children - were making her cry.

Sergeant Henderson was a frightened wife. A scared mom.

My own mom never wanted me to join the Marines, and she had wept until her eyes were red and swollen as they saw me off at the airport when I left home for boot camp. She had been barely able to speak on the phone when I called to tell her I was headed for the desert, my poor mother. I could only imagine how she would react to the knowledge that her only son was now helplessly sitting in a bomb shelter, anticipating what the enemy called "God's Will" to come raining down on his head at any second.

I was thinking about these things as I watched the sergeant. It was still on my mind as I finally stepped out of the bunker after the "All Clear" signal was sounded indicating either a false alarm or another cheap desperation shot at Israel by Saddam and Co.

I stood next to Sergeant Henderson outside the bunker, gas mask off and taking in the fresh desert air - which suddenly felt much cooler than before. She wasn't crying now, but I could see the streaky lines of dusty tears just below her eyes. She nailed me with a hard stare.

"Quit standiní around, Lance Corporal Young," she said. "Warnin's over. Get back to work." I smiled. I couldn't help it. "Yes, mom," I replied to the woman who now seemed so much more real to me.

"Don't be gettin' disrespectful with me, Young!" she barked.

I continued to smile. "No disrespect intended, Sergeant," I said.

"Absolutely none at all."





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