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Competition for ‘The Top’

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Amateur

*Author’s note: I recently wrote a story entitled If Things Were Different about an attractive female Marine first sergeant who fell in love with a younger, male Marine officer. I mentioned that unlike the Army, Marine first sergeants are never, ever referred to as ‘Top’. Marine master sergeants, however, are affectionately called ‘Top’.

There are too many subtle differences between the four branches of service to explain them all, and doing so isn’t necessary, as this one, like all of my other ‘mature’ stories, is a tale of love, not the finer details of military service. I hope you enjoy it.

******

“I’m really sorry we had to move again, honey,” he told his daughter.

“Dad, it’s okay. Really. Your career requires us to move, and I’m fine with that. I look at each move as an adventure.”

“Are you sure you’re only 14?” he asked as he put his arm around her shoulder.

“Well, last time I checked I was,” she told him with a smile as she put her arm around his waist and hugged him.

Before they walked into the conference room he stopped and waited for his daughter to look at him before saying, “I am so proud of you, Sarah. And if Mom is looking down on us, I know she is, too.”

“Thanks, Dad, but unlike you, I haven’t really done anything with my life yet. Today is your day, and I’m the one who’s proud. So let’s go in so I Mom and I can watch you get promoted—Top.”

“Hey, that’s master sergeant to you, private,” he said in his oh-so-serious voice.

“Not yet—Gunny,” she teased back as she flipped his gunnery sergeant chevrons on his collar.

“Oh, a real smart aleck, huh?”

“I learned from the best, Dad,” she said with a smile before hugging him again. “And I am very proud of you.”

“Thank you, sweetheart. I couldn’t have done this without your support. You know that, right?”

“Come on. Let’s go,” Sarah said knowing she didn’t need to answer his rhetorical question.

Everyone at the RS—the recruiting station in Seattle, Washington, was there to witness the promotion of Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Josh Haverty to the rank of master sergeant, pay grade E-8. This would be the first time in his storied career the word ‘meritoriously’ wouldn’t be read after his new rank.

Haverty was what Marines called a ‘fast burner’. He’d been promoted meritoriously, meaning ahead of his peers due to superior performance, from PFC through gunnery sergeant. The only reason it wasn’t happening this time was because the last rank to which one could be meritoriously promoted was gunnery sergeant, a rank he’d earned five years earlier with just 12 years on active duty.

Josh married his high school sweetheart, Ann Culbertson, a week after graduation and reported to boot camp one month later in the summer of 2000. He became the platoon ‘guide’, the recruit who carries the platoon guidon (a small flag with the platoon’s number on it) and was promoted to PFC—meritoriously. When he graduated, he was wearing ‘mosquito wings’, as the single stripe of a private first class was affectionately called, before reporting to the School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

He left there then reported to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune where, over the course of the next three and a half years, he was further promoted to lance corporal, corporal, and sergeant, all meritoriously.

Also during that tour, after just six months at his first real duty station, Josh’s company was sent to Afghanistan where he completed his first combat tour.

But the highlight of his time at Lejeune was the birth of his daughter, Sarah, which coincided almost to the day of his third year on active duty. Both he and Ann had so far enjoyed military life in spite of the separations and other hardships, and she’d fully supported his decision to re-enlist.

From Camp Lejeune, the Havertys headed south to Beaufort, South Carolina, where they lived while Josh went through Marine drill instructor school at Parris Island which was located between Beaufort and the town of Port Royal before spending three years as a DI.

In his second year of DI duty, he was selected for meritorious promotion to staff sergeant, pay grade E-6, and was wearing the rank with just six years time in service before going back to his primary MOS or military occupational specialty of 0369—infantry until leader.

He returned to the infantry at Camp Pendleton, California, where he served as a platoon sergeant for one year, with eight months of one of that year back in the shit hole known as Afghanistan, and then another as a company gunnery sergeant (while still a staff sergeant) after his return home.

Everything was going perfectly well in his life from his career to his marriage to raising Sarah when the proverbial bottom fell out.

At the end of that second year, he was moved to the battalion S-3/operations office (or ‘3-shop’ as it was known) where he served as the training chief. It was about two months after that when he first noticed Ann coughing to güvenilir bahis the point that she finally went in to get it checked.

She was prescribed antibiotics but after taking them for a full two weeks, the cough not only didn’t improve, it was growing worse. That’s when Ann, or Annie as he mostly called her, told him she’d coughed up blood twice in the last 24 hours.

Panicked, he took her straight to the base hospital where they ran tests and did a CAT scan which revealed a large mass on her left lung. A biopsy was done the next day, and when the results came back, they stunned both of them into utter silence.

Ann had Stage IV lung cancer and even worse, the tumor was inoperable.

“But that’s impossible,” Josh adamantly told the oncologist who was a Navy lieutenant commander. “She’s never smoked in her life, and we don’t hang out anywhere you could be exposed to asbestos. This has to be some kind of mistake!”

“I’m sorry, Staff Sergeant Haverty, but even though this is rare, it does happen. Dana Reeve, the wife of Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, also had lung cancer, and she’d never smoked, either. Sadly, there are many other similar examples.”

“How long do I have?” Ann quietly asked cutting to the chase with the kind of stoic bravery he loved about her so much.

“I can’t be sure, of course, but with targeted radiation and chemotherapy, possibly as much as a year.”

“Possibly. What’s the minimum?” she then asked just as directly.

“Were you to do nothing. Three months? Maybe six. Maybe,” he said as gently as he could. “Mrs. Haverty, I want you to know we’ll do everything possible. I promise you that.”

“No, I’m sure you will,” she told him almost absentmindedly.

Annie managed a smile, but all she could think of was her husband trying to raise their beautiful,

young daughter alone. They had indeed been high school sweethearts and married right after graduation, and neither of them had ever regretted the decision others told them was ‘hasty’ and ‘ill-advised’. For them it had been anything but. Josh had been the handsome football player while was the beautiful cheerleader, and like so many others, they felt like they were meant to be together forever. Unlike most couples who married so young, they only grew to love one another more with each passing year. And, against all odds, having a daughter at 21 pulled them even closer together in spite of the added financial strain.

When Josh went off to war, Ann had really struggled financially, barely getting by even in base housing, but she survived until he got home.

When Sarah was born, they struggled even more until Josh made both corporal and sergeant, again both promotions coming meritoriously, for his consistently superior performance.

Even now, it wasn’t easy living in Southern California an E-6’s pay, but money was a distant concern compared to being married to the most amazing guy she’d ever known and having a daughter she loved with all her heart.

He’d been on active duty right at nine years by then, and that meant he had to put in at least eleven more before he could retire. Yes, he could get out, but as an infantryman, it wasn’t as though he had a lot of marketable skills, and raising a child required a regular, decent income.

Were she not so shaken by the news she’d just received, Ann would have laughed when she thought about how many of her friends had asked her (or occasionally Josh himself) if he’d been a male model in a previous life, and as she looked over at him, she still understood why. That wasn’t an option, either, although she couldn’t help but think he might just be able to earn a few bucks with his chiseled body and those incredible, bright green eyes of his. When added to his very blond hair and those high cheekbones and square jaw, she understood why they said that. And then there was that amazing smile of his that still slayed her.

She did manage a wry smile when she thought about being ‘slayed’ by the man she loved even as she realized that cancer was indeed doing just that to her.

In civilian clothes, Josh was often mistaken for an officer, and those who’d spent time on active duty could usually tell the difference. No, not always, but most of the time, other Marines just knew. The ones that threw them off were those officers who’d been enlisted Marines or the Joshes of the world. He was so handsome it still took her breath away, and the thought of him not being able to make love with her was more than she could stand to think about.

As she looked at him, Ann noticed he was trying to fight off tearing up, something she’d only seen him do once before, and that was at a memorial for one of his best friends who’d been killed by an IED just days before the end of his first deployment. Even then he didn’t cry, and Ann didn’t want to be the reason he did so for the first time in his adult life.

The doctor waited for her to collect her thoughts, and when she looked back over at him, he said, “Let’s türkçe bahis discuss all the options available, then you and your husband can go home and discuss them. But please let me know by tomorrow, if possible, what you’d like to do, as we need to get started as soon as we can. This tumor is aggressive and fast-growing and we need to stop it from getting any bigger.”

Josh promised him they would, but Ann already knew the answer; an answer that did exactly what she hoped it wouldn’t.

“Annie, you can’t just give up!” Josh told her when she shared her decision with him back at their modest home in base housing. “I love you. I need you. Sarah needs you. Every day matters, honey!”

“Only the quality days matter, Josh. I don’t know how many of those I have left, but I don’t want to waste even one of them. Chemo means feeling sick and nauseous and maybe even unable to get out of bed or have dinner with you and Sarah or…make love with you.”

“But, Annie, you can’t just quit on me!” he told her, his voice filled with exasperation.

“I’m not quitting on you, honey. I’m choosing to live for you. I’m doing this for you. And for me. And…for Sarah,” she said as their daughter played happily with a friend outside, oblivious to the unthinkable thing happening to her mother.

“So what are you telling me?” he asked as tears welled up his eyes.

She moved next to him, laid her head on his shoulders then said, “Let’s not pull punches, okay? We’ve always been honest with each other. We both know I’m dying. It isn’t an ‘if’, it’s only a matter of when. Chemo might give me a few more months, but I’d sick most of that extra time, and eventually, either way, I’ll get very sick near the end. Regardless, I’m going to die, Josh. I know you don’t want to hear that, but we both know it’s true. So our new ‘mission’ is to accept reality and deal with it making the most of every day we have left.”

“I can’t lose you!” Josh said as tears streamed down his face.

“It’s not up to you, honey. Or me. We don’t get a vote on that. The only vote we get is how I live the rest of my life, and in the end, I’m the only one who gets to make that decision, and I don’t want chemo. So please try and understand,” she said earnestly.

He shook his head slowly and said, “It’s so unfair. It’s so…wrong.”

“Life is unfair, Josh. Look at all the Marines and soldiers and others killed by IEDs. There’s no enemy around for miles. They’re half asleep or talking with someone else in a Humvee when suddenly…and just like that, it’s over. That isn’t fair. Horrible things happen to little children every day. Many die from cancer and malaria and other horrible diseases in too many countries. They die slow, painful, agonizing deaths. That’s not fair.”

She lifted his arm off her shoulder, turned toward him and said, “Life comes with a death sentence, Josh. We both know that.”

“But not when you’re only twenty…”

She gently put a finger on his lips then said, “No, that’s not true. What I heard in Sunday School many years ago is true. Death is no respecter of persons, and age doesn’t matter. All we have is the day we’re living, and the hope of another. The only difference between you and me is I now have a pretty good idea of when my life will end.”

She took his hands and said, “Look, we all want to live to be a hundred and stay healthy until we pass away quietly in our sleep one night. But that’s not reality. It’s just another defense mechanism, another…distortion we use to protect ourselves from the harsh truth that death is always out there—lurking. It moves where it wants and takes whomever it wants whenever it feels like it, and no power on earth can stop it.”

She waited until he looked right at her then said, “Josh. Honey. I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to spend a long, happy life with you and watch our daughter grow up, graduate from high school, get married, have children, and spoil our grandkids rotten.”

Josh tried to smile but couldn’t.

“But that’s not in the cards for me. So let’s not waste one more minute of one day complaining about ‘fairness’ or anything else that won’t change anything. What’s done is done. And please, please respect my decision and don’t make me feel guilty for it. Please?”

Summoning all the courage he had, he wiped the corners of his eyes with his sleeves and managed to say, “Okay. I’ll support you no matter what.”

“Thank you. Now, I’m gonna go get dinner started, and you go get Sarah and have her wash up.”

They waited another week to tell Sarah then did so as calmly as they could. A heavy dose of prednisone helped Ann not cough too much which kept Sarah from knowing something serious was going on. The last thing Ann wanted was to frighten their little girl so she smiled and spoke in a pleasant, very matter-of-fact kind of way talking to her on a level she could understand.

Sarah didn’t cry, and looking back, Josh knew it was because even then she was mature beyond her years. She knew it would hurt güvenilir bahis siteleri her mom so somehow she held all it inside. She also decided then and there to be as positive and helpful as she could possibly be to try and make the rest of her mother’s life as pleasant as she knew how knowing it would also make it easier for her father. And she was still that way to this very day.

The last day Ann was fully herself was the day of Sarah’s birthday party three months later. It was as though the thought of being strong until then allowed her to will herself not to give in. She didn’t have the strength to decorate or do much of anything, so Josh, with he help of his parents, who’d flown in from Idaho and Ann’s parents who’d flown in from Pennsylvania, took care of everything.

Ann had lost a good 15 pounds, and was always in pain in spite of the Vicodin she ate like candy, but she never let it show as she laughed and played games and sang happy birthday before watching her daughter open her presents. She made sure Josh recorded everything she and other family members did with Sarah that day hoping it would one day be a pleasant memory for them. Ann also refused to cry even though she was fully aware this would be the last birthday or special occasion she would ever spend with her beautiful daughter or her amazing husband.

That evening, she went to bed around 7pm and didn’t get up until almost noon the next day. Within days, she became too ill to get out of bed. Two days after that someone the hospital arranged for from out in town came to their home to provide any and all needed care until the end, as Ann’s last wish was to die at home with her family around her.

Ann Haverty lived four months, two weeks, and three more days after the diagnosis, and Josh Haverty cried for the second time when they said goodbye to her. Somehow, Sarah did not, and her father couldn’t help but wonder if that might perhaps be unhealthy or harmful, but he never brought it up. Rather, he marveled at the internal strength their daughter showed in the face of so much adversity.

The one and only ‘blessing’ in all of it was that Josh hadn’t had to pay a dime for any of the medical care.

No, that wasn’t true. Ann’s father sold life insurance for a living, and he’d twisted Josh’s arm to get an inexpensive term policy on Ann ‘just in case’ as soon as they got married.

“Look, you’ve got SGLI if something happens to you, Josh. But in the unlikely event something happens to Annie, you’re going to need the money. Especially if you have kids which I’m assuming you will. Hiring a nanny is expensive, but term life insurance isn’t. For less than $15 a month you can get a policy of a hundred grand. Yes, it’ll go up a little every five years, but it’s dirt cheap. It’s an investment, Josh. A very practical, very smart investment.”

So, more for his father-in-law than for himself, Josh made out an allotment for $13.58 a month ‘just in case.’

Two weeks after his Annie died, his father in law flew back again to personally hand his son-in-law a check for $100,000.

“It can’t ever replace her, but it will help make life easier for you and Sarah,” her father told him as he fought back tears.

The older man lost the battle and teared up when he said, “I loved her more than anyone else on earth, and she loved you and Sarah that much, Josh. I’m sure you know that, but you and Sarah were everything to her.”

Josh thanked him and told him he did know and assured him she had meant just as much to him. They shook hands, hugged, and said goodbye.

After that, the only times they really interacted were around Christmas when Josh took Sarah to spend the holidays with her maternal grandparents every other year. He didn’t want to go to Pennsylvania, but he could only imagine how heartbroken they were having lost their daughter, and when he thought about them not being able to see their only grandchild, it was too much to bear so they made the trip no matter what.

So perhaps the money he’d never wanted or hoped to have might also be considered a ‘blessing’.

Josh muddled through the rest of that tour in the S-3 and after a lot of thought and consideration, requested recruiting duty as his next assignment.

Recruiters work a lot of hours but almost never deploy, and while Josh felt guilty about ‘not pulling his weight’ in the infantry, the one thing he was sure of was that Sarah had to come first.

After completing recruiter’s school in San Diego while a full-time nanny cared for Sarah, he was sent to Mobile, Alabama, where he then sent dozens of young men and women off to the east-coast recruit depot at Parris Island to become U.S. Marines.

As it turned out, Josh was as good at recruiting as he’d been as a drill instructor. He’d had to pretend to be angry all the time as a DI, but that wasn’t in his nature. He had a very easy-going personality, and, coupled with superb time-management skills, he was able to make or exceed his monthly quota of enlistees. It didn’t hurt that he was also sporting some form of the Marine dress-blue uniform everywhere he went, attracting no small amount of attention from a lot of young people—many of them female—who found the handsome blond recruiter irresistibly attractive.

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