The winds picked up outside of the barracks at Camp Shelby.
Captain Roger Greenwood, a Tennessee Army Guardsman, reclined on a worn leather sofa in the dayroom of a dilapidated Vietnam Era barrack.
His soldiers sat around; some on the phone with their girlfriends or mothers.
Most of the soldiers played games on their smartphones. They’d returned from a deployment assignment in Afghanistan and were happy to be close to home.
Roger looked up for a moment as the wind whistled through the eaves of the barracks. For a few minutes he dreamed he was back home in Tennessee; the East Tennessee mountains – at his daughter’s school…
As he dozed, he found himself glaring through the dirty truck window of his 2001 Chevy Silverado trying to recognize the flags in front of his daughter’s school. His truck radio blared something about a tornado warning. But he was in a hurry and ignored what he called “unnecessary panic warnings.”
Man, I hope the guys are all OK in this mess, he thought.
He was at school to have lunch with his 10-year-old daughter, Rochelle. The snap of the flags was louder, and he turned to stare and shook his head at the insane world he left behind in Kabul.
The school flags waved as the wind picked up more.
The crooked smile of Ms. Wrangler, the school secretary, met him as he entered the front office. He wondered how such a sour person had landed a job working with children.
“Here to see Rochelle for lunch.”
She ignored him and went back to bidding on a cherry-red Chevy Tahoe on eBay.
Roger scribbled his name on a puke-green visitor’s tag and stuck it to his shirt pocket. He started down the hall. It should have taken less than two minutes. He felt dizzy and slammed into the wall next to a half-finished painting of George Washington, steadying himself until he could walk straight.
“Good grief, Roger! Are you drunk?” he whispered to himself.
There was silence where instead a cacophony of children’s voices should have drowned out his footsteps.
Where is everyone? Roger wondered.
Moonlight Sonata played over a boom box in the lunchroom.
He walked back toward the front office. But Ms. Wrangler was gone. And where was Rochelle?
Roger headed for the exit. The sunlight steadied his confusion. He sat on a concrete bench outside the front door. As he looked over the lawn, he saw the school flag waving in the still air.
A moment later, the sound of automatic gunfire rattled him. A live round grazed his head as he retreated to the closest piece of earth he could find. Thoughts of his daughter’s elementary school faded. It was the Afghanistan he had left weeks earlier.
Yards away, the earth exploded, sending a horizontal shower of crystallized molten metal and dirt. Roger prayed the shrapnel wouldn’t find its way to his legs. His prayer wasn’t answered favorably.
He saw a cinder-block building to the north, checked for more approaching fire, mentally calculated the distance, and he sprinted to the building and dove through an open window.
The floor was carpeted with shattered glass. Blood seeped from his wounds. When the shelling stopped, he heard cries. As he searched for a radio to call for a medic he heard another whispered whimper. A moan. And a sharp cry of pain.
Atop the pole, the flag stopped moving.
And then there was silence. He combed his right hand through his hair, bent over, and rested his head in his hands. He wanted to go back to the school’s front door. But no one was there. The screams reminded him of a full-speed jet engine. Pain shot through his legs, and he inched closer to the cries.
Captain Greenwood awoke as a large tornado ripped and shredded its way through the base.
In the dayroom, all of his soldiers had been relaxed, sprayed out on the floor, and anxious to get out of Camp Shelby and back home.
The intensity of the storm picked up outside the remodeled Vietnam-era barrack. The holes in the walls whistled. And then the winds stopped; the flag clung to the side of the flag-pole, lifeless. The TV was silent and in several pieces.
A Camp Shelby fireman reached the Captain first. His body was a bloody mess.
“Over here,” he shouted.
Two more first responders crawled over splintered couches and assorted furniture. The broken bodies of most of the soldiers were scattered to the four corners of the post.
Three were never found.
“Hold tight, Captain. We’re gonna get you out of here.”
Before retreating back into the gray Mississippi sky, the twister plowed through most of the adjacent counties leaving a scene reminiscent of a distant and brutal war.
Paul Swann is a dad, husband to a Russian Princess, lawyer, legal instructor, writer, and occasional guitar player. He spends his time in Arkansas with his aforementioned Princess Bride, Two Stunning Daughters, and two ne'er-do-well dogs.