A Soldier's Purpose
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"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him,
but because he loves what is behind him."
- G.K. Chesterton
His hands were wrapped around his battered mug, hardly noticing the heat from the makeshift coffee inside warming his frozen fingers. His stomach was churning, thoughts spinning. His eyes were focused on the door to the newly created, separate officer's quarters in the corner of their Barrack, but not really seeing anything as he replayed the conversation in his mind.
Just how was one supposed to make a decision like that?
RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk had been a guest of the Germans for nearly two years. Two years of close quarters, cold showers, little to no food, even less privacy, and bully guards who got their jollies by beating up on scrappy Englishmen who didn't always know when to keep their comments to themselves. His knee still felt funny when he walked on it from the last time he tried to offer the guards constructive criticism of camp routines.
Two miserable, hard years that convinced him his life was over.
Newkirk fingers tightened around his mug as he shifted in his seat at the table. With more failed escape attempts than prisoners in camp and a permanent reservation in the smallest cell in the cooler, he had been closer to ending it than any of the others had realized. That was until just a few weeks ago when a grinning American Colonel fell from the sky and into their laps. Colonel Robert Hogan, a handsome and confident Army Air Corps Officer, practically sauntered into camp with a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes that was not typical of Luftwaffe Prisoners, officer or not. Just like the cat who stole the cream. Since then he had changed the entire atmosphere of the camp. He somehow rallied the prisoners into working together, instead of isolating themselves. While the prisoners were still miserable, lice-eaten, frozen and underfed, there were extra loads of wood for the stove, extra rations of white bread at mess call, even extra blankets and clothes to wrap up in to make up for the drafts in the barracks. Things had really been looking up.
Until this evening.
After supper, Colonel Hogan singled out a handful of the longtime residents and called them into his private quarters. He confessed that his being there wasn't an accident, that the higher ups in London had a greater purpose in mind for him and the prisoners in this seemingly forgotten camp. Because of the location, the unique combination of circumstances, they would be the perfect front to sabotage the enemy from their own backyard and guide their own allies home to fight another day. The catch was that he needed a staff. A core team to voluntarily give up their freedom to make it possible for others to make it home.
"It is a lot to ask, I know." Hogan had said, his arms crossed in front of him. "We can't get caught, or we lose our protection as Prisoners of War. We can't let the Germans get even the faintest whiff of what is going on or we'll be staring down the barrel of a firing squad faster than you can say "Ach du lieber, Augustine." We have to figure out how to keep this "no-escape-record" clean so they won't suspect anything and decide to get rid of the one thing going for us. And to top it off, salt will get rubbed in the wound of being stuck here each time we get another flyer out. I know I'm asking you to give up your freedom indefinitely, and I can't force any of you to stay. If you choose this, there will be no recognition, no medals or rewards waiting for you, possibly until well after this nightmare is over if at all. All I can offer you is the personal knowledge that you are making a difference. And we WILL make a difference."
He dismissed them with a request for discretion and their answer by morning. Arrangements would be made for those who opted out, assignments would be given to those who stayed.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Newkirk could turn the Colonel down and ask him to send him home. No more leaky roofs, no more moldy bread and mushy potatoes for every meal. Fresh air without having to be surrounded by barbed wire. A bed with clean sheets, hot water for showers. Not having to wait for someone to tell him when he could take a walk, go to bed, or use the latrine. He could be back on the cobblestone streets of London before the week was out if he were lucky. He could wrap his arms around his sister and never let go. All that stood between him and freedom was a knock on that thin door.
So why was he hesitating?
"Penny for your thoughts?" Sergeant James Kinchloe stood in front of Newkirk's line of vision, the ever boiling coffee pot in one hand, a mug in the other.
Newkirk gave a short, mirthless laugh. "I don't know if they're worth even that, Mate."
Kinch grinned. "Well, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one. Can I top you off?" He raised the coffee pot slightly in the air.
"Nah, thanks though. " Newkirk shook his head as he hugged his arms around his chest. "Me hands is shaking enough as is. Another shot of that sludge is the last thing I need."
Kinch returned the pot to its customary spot on the stove before taking a seat at the common table across from Newkirk. He sat in silence for a few moments before giving the Englishman and verbal nudge. "I think this is the longest stretch of time I've ever had without a complaint from you."
Newkirk quirked an eyebrow at Kinch. "You heard what I just heard, didn't you? You don't think this plan of the Colonel's is just a little crackers? Who ever heard of an underground unit inside of a POW camp? We'll be dead long before the Germans find out and shot us all for treason. "
Kinch shrugged his shoulders. "It's a bit incredulous, I admit. But all the more reason I think it has a lot of potential. It's so unlikely and improbably that no one would suspect a thing, especially not this new idiot they've put in charge. I don't think our Monocled Master could think his way out of a paper sack."
Newkirk shook his head as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He held the pack out to Kinch, but was met with a negative hand wave. It took a few flicks of the flint of his lighter a few times before the flame caught and he was able to ignite the tobacco. He smiled as he inhaled the smoke into his lungs. The nicotine raced through his body and soothed his itchy, swirling thoughts.
"It's bloody insanity, is what it is." Newkirk said around a deep exhale of smoke. "Asking for trouble it is, going around and spying on the Germans. We have the tunnels and the contacts to get out of this stinking pit. Why shouldn't we take it? All so's London can use us for a few jollies? Cannon fodder is all we'll be to them. No, thank you. I'd rather take me chances." Newkirk took a long drag on his cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs for a long moment before letting it escape out of his nose in a rush of air. A long stretch of silence stood between the two before Newkirk raised a questioning eyebrow up at the Sergeant.
"You've already made up your mind, haven't you?"
Kinch answered with a slow, half smile, his eyes sparking with a quiet, knowing laugh. "Who do you think gave the Colonel all your names for that meeting? He came to me a few weeks ago, wanted my opinion and my help."
"And you didn't say a bloody word about it?"
"You were going to know eventually. And the Colonel wanted to test some things himself before he got all of your hopes up. He had to make sure his plans were going to work before he fully set up operations. He has an unconventional way of thinking, I'll admit. But he's brilliant. If anyone could pull this off, my money would be on him."
Newkirk took a final pull on his cigarette before stubbing it out on the table. "Alright, so he's brilliant. But he's still an officer. Why him? Why not escape back? We could be home and never see another nasty, bloody Kraut for as long as we live! Back with our families instead of here with our lives on hold. "
"Because," Kinch answered quietly. "As much as I hate what's going on here, as much as I want to bury my fist in the smug face of those guards that keep spitting on me and trying to get a rise out of me during roll call. As much as I want to run as far as my legs and lungs will carry me from this place…" Kinch's voice trailed off for a moment as his eyes drifted towards the window but seeing something thousands of miles away. "I would rather spend a few years in here giving Old Scramble Brains and his Nazi Goons hell than a lifetime under his thumb. I have to do what I can while I'm here. If we don't stop them, who knows what will happen. My family and my life mean far too much to me to risk this becoming a permanent reality."
Kinch sucked in a deep breath and shook his head clear before looking back at Newkirk. "No one will think differently of you, no matter what you decide, I promise. We have to do what's right for us. But my place is here. I'll see Detroit again, and when I do it will be as a free man in a free world. I refuse for it to be any other way." He knocked his knuckles on the table before lifting himself up from his seat. "If you need me, let me know, alright?" He picked up his mug and dropped it in the communal sink before walking out the door, his head held high.
Newkirk twisted another cigarette around in his fingers, his other arm wrapped around himself. His thoughts were flying even faster than before, if that were even possible. He sighed again before looking up at the ceiling. "There's nothing more I want in this world than to see you, my dear Mavis." He thought. "I miss you more than words can say. But I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I took the easy way out. Not when I can help to put an end to this madness. I have to do this. I hope you understand."
Newkirk tucked his cigarette back in the pack and into his pocket. Before he could change his mind, he stood and walked over to the Colonel's door. He sucked in a deep breath before he raised his shaking hand and knocked.