A Misha approached his squad’s BTR, he saw Sgt. Alexeyev holding the squad radio in one hand. His other hand pressed one earpad of a set of headphones against his left ear. Misha slowed his pace as the sergeant glared at him. Misha could see him say something, but couldn’t hear. Sgt. Alexeyev turned a knob on the radio, then let both it and the headphones drop to the ground.

He pointed at Misha and summoned him with his index finger. Misha marched towards his squad leader briskly, his mind racing to think of what to say, but he wasn’t sure exactly what that was because he didn’t know what the lieutenant had just told his squad leader over the radio.

He stopped in front of his sergeant and started to say something. Sergeant Alexeyev cut him off with a lion’s roar for a voice. “Just stand there at attention!” Never taking his eyes off of Misha, he bellowed, “Squad, fall in!”

Misha noticed then that they were all gathered around the back of the BTR, its engine compartment panels open. They all scurried to fall in line next to Misha.

“We were going to learn how to change the sparks on the engine this afternoon, but thanks to General Misha here, we’re going to do something different.”

The driver was standing to Misha’s right and sharply jabbed Misha in the ribs with his elbow.

“Oh no,” Sergeant Alexeyev yelled. “You don’t get to do any of that. Not yet.” He stepped towards the driver. “Why are you standing here in front of me now?”

The driver opened his mouth, closed it again. “Because Private Garin -” The driver stopped for a moment, then said, “I don’t know Sergeant.”

“That’s right. You don’t know.” Sgt. Alexeyev paced along the short line of his squad. “General Garin thinks he’s so special that he is entitled to talk to the platoon commander without first coming to his squad leader.” He stopped in front of the gunner. “Does that sound right to you, soldier?”

“No sergeant.”

“I can’t hear you,” Sgt. Alexeyev yelled. He looked up and down the line. “All of you, does that sound right?”

All of them, including Misha, yelled in unison, “No, Sergeant!”

“That’s right. But since General Garin here seems to have a defective brain housing group, we’re going to go for a little run.” He jutted his hand towards a distant tree line. “Move out!”

Without hesitation, the squad fell out of formation and started trotting towards the tree line. But they ran as a gaggle, their boots randomly pounding the soft loam and grass of the rear area so far away from the war.

Running just behind and to their left, Sgt. Alexeyev yelled at them in his instructor’s voice now. Firm, loud, but not angry, with just a hint of a promise to do unspeakable harm to their bodies if they didn’t listen. “Quit running like girls. Get in line. Get in step. Try to look like soldiers.”

The formed a single line, somehow finding a cadence so they clomped along in step with each other.

Misha, stuck right in the middle of the formation with the gunner in front of him and the driver behind, could feel the daggers of their anger. Group punishment, he had learned early on, was an ancient and effective tool for training and discipline, one of the many humiliations that soldiers were allowed to pummel each other with but would never be acceptable in civilized society. Hell, the UN even had a law forbidding group punishment. But they weren’t in Sgt. Alexeyev’s squad. Nor were they going to war.

All the way to the tree line, Sgt. Alexeyev belted out quips of wisdom and ridicule. “The fastest way to kill your comrade is to betray the chain of command.” And, “No two soldiers are smart enough to agree on anything. That’s why I’m here, to save your sorry ass in battle by telling you what to do.” He kept up a steady flow of obvious and entertaining quips that nobody was allowed to laugh at – all the way to the tree line.

It was when they turned around to come back the one and a half kilometers to the BTR that things got rough. Sgt. Alexeyev fell in close next to Misha and started yelling in his ear. “What did I ever do to you? Did I fuck your sister and forget to call her the next morning?” For the first time, Misha felt a twinge of anger at his squad leader run along his spine. At the same time, he felt a chill of fear that was both intense and unfamiliar. Sgt. Alexeyev never used profanity. The sergeant’s voice grew louder and louder. “Oh, I’m sorry, sweetheart. Does it make the General angry for me to talk about his sister that way? Well now you know how I feel you dumb sonofabitch. I make sure you’re fed. I make sure you have equipment that works. I make sure you have ammunition, and boots so that when the enemy takes you under fire you can actually fight back.”

Finally, Sgt. Alexeyev grabbed Misha by the arm and threw him to the ground. Everyone else stopped, unsure what they were supposed to do. Misha, lying flat on his back, tried to scoot away. Sgt. Alexeyev drew his MP-443 Grach pistol from a leather holster laced into his belt and pointed it straight at Misha. “Listen to me carefully boys. If any of you go around me again, I will personally kill you and throw your dog tags away so your Mama won’t even be able to bury you.” Misha was still trying to scoot away from his squad leader. Sgt. Alexeyev spoke in a low voice that none of them had heard before. “Stop squirming, boy. Move another inch and I’ll put a bullet right between your eyes.” Sgt. Alexeyev then made a show of snapping off the safety. He didn’t charge the slide, so none of them knew for sure if he had a round chambered. But he could have had one in the breech already. “Now tell me, Misha, what did I ever do to you?”

Misha’s head buzzed with fear and he wondered if it was going to explode from the pressure of his throbbing heart. Then he realized there was only one right answer.

“You trained me, Sergeant. And so you saved my life.”

Sgt. Alexeyev nodded slowly. “What do you think, boys?” he asked. “Is that good enough or do I shoot this little bastard and save your lives?”

Their voices pecked the air. “No, sergeant, it’s fine,” said the driver. “We get it,” said the gunner. “We’re loyal to you, all of us.”

Lyaksandro was the last to speak. “Please don’t kill my friend.”

“He’s not your friend. But if you’re willing to risk your life for his, fine.” Sgt. Alexeyev thumbed the safety back on and holstered his pistol. “You owe these men your life, Misha. Don’t ever go around me again.”

Misha started to respond when they all heard the lieutenant’s aid clear his throat. “Excuse me, Sgt. Alexeyev. The lieutenant has ordered your squad to report to him immediately.”

©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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