Scorched Earth (Tom Clancy's Op-Center #15)@George Galdorisi

CHAPTER ONE

Southeast of Al-Bukamal, Syria

March 3, 0930 Eastern European Time

Alan Burton’s head slammed into the overhead of the Humvee with eye-watering force. Nearly stunned by the impact, he dropped back into his seat, feeling his scalp for signs of blood. “Damn. That hurt!”

General Bob Underwood suppressed a smile and held out a Kevlar battle helmet to his aide. “Try this. It’s harder than your skull.”

Burton accepted the helmet and put it on, just in time to cushion his head’s next collision with the roof of the heavily armored vehicle.

The ride in the army truck was rough as it stormed across the Syrian farmland that lay hard by the Euphrates River and close to the Iraq border, en route to the Syrian city of al-Bukamal. Their convoy had crossed the unguarded Iraqi-Syrian border a half hour ago. One Humvee led the one Underwood and his aide were riding in, while one trailed them. A total of eight special operations Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment provided security for Underwood and Burton.

While Underwood and his aide were attired in much the same way as their Ranger Regiment escorts—Interceptor body armor bullet-resistant vests, MICH TC-2000 Kevlar Advanced Combat Helmets, M9 Beretta side arms and the rest—there was one distinct difference. Underwood had last hung up his Marine Corps’ uniform almost two years ago when he retired as the Commander of the United States Central Command—or CENTCOM.

Now, he was back on familiar territory as the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In his six months in this assignment, Underwood had spent time in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. He was in Syria again because the Syrian refugee crisis was worse now than at any time since it began in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings. The president had dispatched him to Syria to try to broker a cease-fire between the Syrian government and the forces opposing it—Hezbollah, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army and a number of fringe rebel groups. Underwood didn’t fancy his chances of success forging an agreement between and among the warring parties. Still, to Underwood, a presidential order was a presidential order.

“How much longer until we get to al-Bukamal, Sergeant?” Underwood asked the driver.

“About fifteen minutes, General.”

“Thanks. Ask our lead vehicle to slow down after we make the next turn. Last time we ran this route we almost took out a herd of cattle.”

“I remember, sir, and wilco.”

Underwood returned his attention to the ruggedized Panasonic CF-29 laptop as his aide scrolled through their agenda for the meeting. “General, here are the players from the Free Syrian Army we’ll—”

The sound of the rocket-propelled grenade hitting the side of their Humvee was ear-splitting and shook their three-ton truck violently. Flames shot along the side of their vehicle. Underwood and his aide hung on as their driver tried to steady the burning Humvee.

Seconds later, there was a deafening sound as an improvised explosive device detonated under the lead vehicle. Underwood and his aide both looked up in horror as the lead Humvee leapt into the air just yards ahead of them and crashed down on its side and then rolled over on its back. Fire began to consume that truck as thick black smoke billowed into the air.

Their driver immediately started to take well-rehearsed evasive action and gunned his V-8 turbo-diesel engine as he tried to drive around the destroyed truck in front of them. Suddenly, Underwood’s aide cried out, “Look out!” as an AMZ Dzik “Wild Boar” infantry military vehicle barreled straight for the right side of their Humvee. It was too late. The Polish-designed truck the Iraqi Army once owned hit them square-on as Underwood and his aide tried to grab on to any available handhold.

Gravity took over and their vehicle teetered—then landed on its left side with a sickening thud. The last thing Underwood remembered before passing out was their driver’s head hitting the bulletproof glass on the left front door, his helmet popping off, and blood gushing from his skull as it rebounded from the glass before hitting it again.

The Rangers in the trailing vehicle did precisely what they’d been trained to do—they converged on Underwood’s Humvee, dismounted, and quickly deployed in a protective ring around it, their gun muzzles pointed in different directions, searching for threats.

“Command, this is unit Mike-Hotel, taking fire from unknown hostiles approximately one-five klicks southeast of al-Bukamal!” the senior man in the trail vehicle shouted into his Motorola XTS5000R secure UHF