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The Janitor: There's No Place Like Home

"The Janitor It's The Simple Things In Life That Make a Difference" Has been an incredible blessing because it has touched so many lives, more than I could ever imagine. As I near the end of the draft for the second in the series, I felt compelled to share the prologue and the first chapter with you. It's a sneak peak! The release will be coming later this year, and I will keep you posted. If you like what you read here but haven't read The Janitor, You can click over to the books and audio page on this site or use this link. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.



The Janitor: There's No Place Like Home

Prologue: The Evacuation

Sgt. Casey Donovan was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, as part of the specialized K-9 teams supporting combat operations. These teams assist in detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), searching for hidden caches, and providing security during patrols. The 2/9 had several deployments to Afghanistan; this was Casey’s third and last. He was calling it quits. He loved the Marine Corps, and he loved his job, but he had witnessed enough death and destruction to last a lifetime.

The war had been a political football, and a new administration changed the plan. Casey was unsure of all the details. He felt like a pawn in a global chess match and the turmoil around the evacuation that August made him feel even more unsettled and on guard. After twenty years of American involvement, the Taliban surrounded the perimeter of Kabul. The order to withdraw had been publicized like a TV reality show as the world watched the events unfold.

The threat of IED’s seemed to increase with each patrol as the evacuation intensified.

"Sgt. Donovan!" Captain Sanders bellowed as he peeked his head inside the tent.

Casey was sitting on his rack, reading the last letter from his grandmother back home in Skowhegan, with Pappy, his faithful companion, lying next to him as the captain entered. Pappy was a two-year-old yellow lab, commonly used as a K-9 bomb detection dog in military, law enforcement, and security settings. Labrador Retrievers like Pappy were highly regarded for their intelligence, strong sense of smell, and friendly temperament, making them well-suited for bomb detection work.

"Yes, sir," Casey answered as he stuffed the letter inside the breast pocket of his Cami’s.

"Donovan, you and Pappy are going to accompany Staff Sergeant Sorenson and his men around the perimeter today. I know we have you scheduled out of here tomorrow, so this will be your last mission. Are you excited to get out of here?"

"Yes, yes, sir," Casey answered hesitantly, only because he was in a daze. He had been dazed since a couple of close calls over the last few weeks. Pappy had saved two marines on two consecutive days by detecting an IED and a Taliban wearing an explosive device. Miraculously, the man was disarmed before setting off his device, which was extremely lucky. Pappy knocked him to the ground, and when he bit his arm in midair, somehow, through the grace of God, released his hand from the detonator. Casey shook every time he thought about it.

"Good luck," the captain said, staring for what seemed like a minute before turning to depart, looking back one last time to offer his best wishes.

"Good luck, Casey. We will see you again sometime stateside."

"Yes, sir."

"And Casey, you are one hell of a marine, and so is Pappy!"

"Thank you, sir," Casey responded, pulling himself close to Pappy. "I couldn’t do it without him."

Casey and Pappy met Staff Sergeant Sorenson, the squad leader, at the rally point. There were people everywhere.

"Listen up," Sorenson said. "Our mission today is to secure the perimeter of this airport. The Taliban could strike anytime, and it’s our job to make sure they do not violate our ceasefire and allow everyone who needs to get out, get out of here."

"Nice of you to join us, Donovan. We can really use the help of you and that wonder dog!"

"Pappy is ready, Staff Sergeant Sorenson."

"Good. Gentlemen, let’s maintain the right distance, and I don’t need to tell you what to look for. Donovan, the Staff sergeant directed, you and Pappy have the point with Alpha team and Sergeant Thompson."

Casey felt a sense of calm when Staff Sergeant Sorenson placed him and Pappy with Alpha team. Casey and Sergeant Thompson had been on countless patrols together, and it was like everyone knew each other’s movements, choreographed like a dance.

Alpha referred to the first fire team. A marine squad is generally broken down into three fireteams and a total of thirteen marines unless they are short on personnel.

As the patrol proceeded, Pappy confidently took the point. He knew just how much Casey wanted him out there, and Casey gave him the extension on his long line that he needed until it was time to turn him loose.

During a patrol, a K-9 military dog handler typically keeps the K-9 on a leash or a long line. The leash allows the handler to maintain control over the dog's movements and actions, ensuring that the K-9 remains focused on its assigned tasks and does not stray off course. Pappy was always focused and very brave. The long line gave Casey peace of mind, and he would do everything he could to keep Pappy safe. They were a team, knowing each other like a married couple who had been together for years. They only had to make eye contact to know what the other was thinking.

As the patrol went on, it was uneventful for the first hour. About a mile, just over two clicks out, life would change in an instant. The team had noticed a strong odor for the last few hundred yards. The Taliban used this tactic at times to mask an IED to confuse K-9’s. It was sort of a putrid odor, and there was a lot of brush around them. They were proceeding with caution. Each squad was watching its perimeter keenly. IED’s could be detonated various ways depending on the situation. Sometimes pressure plates were used and detonated when a vehicle rolled over the top of a buried device or if a marine stepped on one. It was also common for someone to detonate them from a remote device or a cell phone. While many were still detonated using pressure plates, the advancement in technology allowed insurgents to take out more marines at one time if they could detonate the device remotely as they watched the movement of a squad.

Casey and Pappy pressed onward in the forward position with a quiet confidence and unshakable nerve. It was as if they were one. It was their job to uncover hidden threats. As Staff Sergeant Sorenson looked on, he motioned to his men to hold up, watching as Casey and Pappy communicated back and forth.

It was several yards ahead, just cresting the top of a knoll when it happened. The ground imploded in slow motion, and Casey was lifted into the air in a hail of smoke, dust, and shrapnel. He came to moments later and began crawling around, looking for his rifle. His long line had been severed, and Pappy was gone. He reached out to his right, putting his hand on the stalk of his rifle, pulling it up to his chest as he rolled and took up a prone position. He could hear small arms fire for a few moments, and then Staff Sergeant Sorenson joined him.

"Don’t move, Casey," he yelled. "You’ve been hit. We are going to get you out of here."

"Where’s Pappy?" Casey yelled back.

"He’s gone, Case. We’ll find him, but we need to get you out."

Casey looked down, and although he felt no pain, there was a severe compound fracture in his left lower leg, bleeding profusely. His right shoulder was also bleeding badly, but he knew it was intact because he was gripping the stalk of his M-16 like it was glued to his body.

When the area was secure, Staff Sergeant Sorenson and Sergeant Thompson tied a tourniquet around Casey’s thigh and helped him up. He put an arm around each of them, even though pain was setting in on his shoulder. In a team effort, they somehow walked all the way back to the rally point.

From his hospital room, Casey woke most mornings, having replayed the events of that day over and over in his mind. It was months, but doctors were able to save his right leg, something he was eternally grateful for because he knew that other marines were not so fortunate. His right shoulder had healed well, although the rotator cuff, the band of ligaments that attach muscle to bone enveloping the shoulder, had been torn and, while repaired well, would still give him occasional trouble when reaching overhead.

Casey received the Purple Heart for his actions on that day, but he never mentioned it to anyone. He felt deep down that Pappy deserved recognition, but dogs couldn’t receive medals. Recovery took several months stateside at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In and out of the hospital for rehab, Casey was assigned to the Military Working Dog (MWD) section, part of the Security and Emergency Services Battalion (SESB). There, he used his experience to train and care for dogs, getting the next generation of heroes ready for service.

On January 10th, 2022, just four months after his departure from Afghanistan, Casey’s enlistment was up. It was with a heavy heart that he said goodbye to the Corps.

Leaving the Admin building for the last time, Sergeant Thompson, his fire team leader that fateful day, was waiting outside by his pickup truck. "Casey," he motioned towards the truck, "We’re going to miss you."

"I’m going to miss this too," Casey replied.

"Are you sure you won’t change your mind?"

"No, Roger, I’m good. It’s just not the same without Pappy."

"I understand, Casey," Roger replied, "he was the best, the unit loved him."

"You know we never found a trace of him."

"That’s because he probably took the full blast."

"No, Casey, we saw him on top of the knoll, but the blast came from a few yards behind you."

"So, what are you saying?" Casey snapped back with a hint of irritation.

"I’m sorry, Casey, I didn’t mean to get you riled up. I just think sometimes it’s okay to have hope and even wish."

"Thank you, Roger. I appreciate that, and I’m sorry I snapped at you."

"It’s okay, man. You’re allowed."

"Hey, I’ve got something to tell you, Casey."

"What’s that?"

"I reenlisted."

"Good for you, Roger, good for you," Casey congratulated him as the two got up into the cab.

"There is something else too."

"Oh, another surprise?" Casey asked, now becoming more curious.

"I’m transferring to the K-9 unit. I’m going to learn how to work with dogs. You inpsired me. I don't know if I'll ever be as good as you and Pappy, but you impress me, Casey. You really do, and I think this is a way for me to make a difference."

"Roger, there is nothing like it, I can tell you that. You will do great, and I wish you all the best."

"Thanks, man. I really appreciate it. I hope we can stay in touch."

Casey didn’t answer right away; he knew relationships didn’t last in his world, but after a short pause, he responded, "Sounds good, Roger, we will."

They sat silently for a minute, and then Roger started the truck, and they drove off.

"Alright then, where to, sergeant?" he asked.

"The bus station."

"Where are you headed?"

"I’m not sure, I’m just going to head north. Something is telling me to head north."

 

 A Tuesday in July 2022

Ed made his way from the farm to the grain store on his usual run into town. It was a hot Tuesday in July. Skowhegan was full of history, sitting majestically on a bend by the Kennebec River. The textile mills had long since closed, along with the shoe shops and the paper industry, which had mostly gone outside the United States. The town held its own, though, and the old brick buildings were still in surprisingly good shape, a testament to the resilience of its community. Ed enjoyed his trips into town. He had become like family to the Kaneen’s, a grandfather to Patrick and Elizabeth, and a favorite in town, telling stories at the local barber shop always with an eager audience. Ed spread goodwill wherever he went.

By the time he got to the store outback by the loading docks, his order was ready: six bags of grain, fly spray for the horses, and a new shovel, all ordered ahead of time.

“This your order, sir?” Casey asked, looking down from the loading dock.

“Yep, that looks about right, son,” Ed replied as he inventoried the delivery.

“Let me help you, sir, these bags are heavy.”

“Are you implying I’m old, son?”

“Why no, sir, just trying to help,” the young man replied, not knowing Ed’s sense of humor.

“I’m just kidding, son, but it’s true, I am a relic.“ Ed laughed. “Are you new here, son? I haven’t met you before?”

“Yes, sir, I’ve been here for a few weeks now, floating around to learn all I can.”

“Marine?” Ed replied, looking at the bulldog half covered by the young man’s sleeve.

“How’d you know?”

“No one tattoos a bulldog on their arm unless they are a marine or a real animal lover,” Ed replied with a chuckle. “And, I haven’t seen any bulldogs hanging around the store lately.”

Casey, just twenty-six, had been in the Corps for eight years before deciding not to reenlist. He had seen two tours of duty in Afghanistan and witnessed more death, destruction, and turmoil than anyone should see in a lifetime. He joined the corps after high school. Everyone thought Casey was destined for college. He played football all four years as a wide receiver and set the state record for receiving yards and touchdowns in a season. He stood just over six feet and was slender yet muscular. One might have thought he would be very popular in school, especially with his wavy brown hair and piercing blue eyes, but that wasn’t Casey. He was always quiet and humble. He was uncomfortable with attention and stayed much to himself.

Casey’s parents died in an automobile accident when he was five, and he was raised by his grandmother, Alma. Alma’s husband Ed was an iron worker who passed when Casey twelve, and his most fondest memories were working with him in the garden and the smell of a cigar that his grandfather always had hanging from his mouth, lit or not. Alma passed during Casey’s deployment. It was the last time he was back home, to settle her affairs and to sell the small house on the river. He could have kept it, but he never thought he would be back. Yet, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, something was telling him he needed to come home, unfinished business.

“I had a dog,” Casey replied after what seemed like an eternity. “He was a bomb dog, and he kept me safe for the last four years of my enlistment and my last tour.”

“Where is he now?” Ed asked.

“That’s just it,” Casey said, his voice trailing off somberly. “There was just a lot of turmoil, the people, the airport, trying to hold the perimeter. We were on patrol the day before I left. There was an explosion. I was knocked down, I think it was him protecting me, but when I got up, I couldn’t find him. We looked the best we could, but he was gone.”

Casey never mentioned his injuries or his medals. He was humble, and to him, the medal belonged to those that gave their life, including Pappy.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ed replied.

“It’s ok, I’m getting over it, I guess.” Casey added, trying his best not to show any real emotion.

“Ever been around horses?” Ed asked.

“Some when I was younger,” Casey replied. “I figured you must have horses because of your order.”

“I don’t personally,” Ed continued, “but I work out at the Kaneen farm on the Backroad.”

“I have seen it,” Casey said with slight hesitancy. “Is it the one at the fork where the Palmer Road connects?”

“Yes, you’re right, that’s it. Ed confirmed. “You should come out and say hello. Jack Kaneen is the owner now, and he is also a Marine.”

“No kidding,” Casey replied with some renewed enthusiasm in his voice. “I may take you up on that, but I don’t know how long I’ll be around.”

Ed could sense there was a little more to the story, so he pressed on.

“Oh, really, that’s too bad. We can always use another Marine on deck,” Ed chuckled.

Casey added, “You’re a Marine too, aren’t you?”

“Why yes, I am, son.”

“I could tell.”

“How’s that?” Ed asked inquisitively.

“Well, for starters, I can see the tattoo peeking out from under your shirt leaf too.”

“You got me on that one, son. You do have me there. And like you, I’ve seen some terrible things, but just a different time.”

Casey sat on the edge of the loading dock while Ed stood just to his left, as if holding up the wall as he leaned against it.

“I never said I saw terrible things.”

“Son, war itself is a terrible thing, and you also have the edge of a scar on your upper right arm, and my guess is you didn’t get that around here.”

“Anyone over there saw stuff, but I just choose not to talk about it.”

“OK, son, I know what you’re saying, but just know you have people like me around, and I’ll listen anytime you want to sit down at Maggie’s diner for a coffee. Or lunch,” Ed continued, patting his belly.

“So why won’t you be here long, son?”

“I don’t know, don’t know,” Casey’s voice trailed off.

“Well, son, you can’t lay down roots or build a life if you keep drifting.”

“Well, if you’re all set here, sir, I gotta go get the next load together.”

“Yes, I’m all set. Thanks for all your help and the conversation.”

Ed reached up, and as their hands came together in a firm handshake, he sensed they would be seeing each other again.

Chapter 1

Once a Marine Always a Marine

The farm was our gift from heaven. It had been three years since our move from Philadelphia to Maine, and we were truly blessed to develop a successful business. Mary and Annie worked well together with the lesson portion of our business. Ed turned out to be an amazing horse trainer. It was evident he had kept some things from me when we first met. The most amazing thing to me was the interest in the equine-assisted learning program. Since Carol had brought the management team from US Ortho as our inaugural program, she and the other managers had spread the word throughout the medical device industry and beyond. Customers were calling from all over the country, and we were booked out over an entire year. The local news station even did a public interest piece on the program and the farm, which made Ed a local celebrity after his endearing interview. Our family was truly blessed, and I thanked the Lord every day that he brought us to this little piece of heaven on earth. It's been said that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man, and whoever said it was correct.

I was leaning on the rail, looking over the pasture on a mid-July day when Ed emerged from the barn.

"Jack Kaneen, just the man I was looking for."

"Ut oh, what did I do now, Ed?" I replied in jest, looking over my shoulder towards him.

Ed joined me, taking up a spot next to me on the rail. "You can't get over it, can you, Jack?"

"Get over what?" I exclaimed.

"Why, this place, of course. Don't worry, I can't either, Jack."

"Jack," Ed transitioned his thoughts. "I was at the feed store yesterday, and they have a young man working in the warehouse, Casey his name is. I saw that he had a bulldog tattooed on his arm, so I knew right away he was a marine."

"That's great," I replied, "another marine in town, we could start a rifle squad," I laughed.

"Very funny, son, but he has some things going on."

"Like what?"

"I'm guessing he saw some action, Jack, because he didn't want to talk a whole lot about it."

"People don't realize, Ed, do they? War is a terrible thing."

"You don't have to convince me, Jack. You and I can appreciate that, and there are more that don't than do."

"Where are you going with this, Ed?"

"I saw good in his heart, Jack, but I saw just as much turmoil."

"You saw all of that in a twenty-minute visit to the feed store?"

"You are a comedian today, Mr. Kaneen, but it was forty-five minutes because they were really busy."

"I sort of knew where Ed was going with this. He had come to know me too well, and I, him, in the short time we had known each other, although it seemed like a lifetime. He had become more than a friend. He had become a father to me and a grandfather to Patrick and Elizabeth. He was always there. My janitor friend had also become my biggest advocate, alongside Mary and Annie.

"You know, Ed, I could use some baling twine and a new pair of work gloves. What do you say we take a ride over lunch? I would like to meet this young man."

"I was going to suggest it," Ed agreed.

Ed was quiet for a minute or two as we headed into town and then broke the silence.

"Jack, I'm not sure how serious his issues are, but we could use an extra hand, and you know what they say?"

I could almost anticipate the word.

"The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man."

"I was going to add, once a marine, always a marine," we said almost in unison.

When we pulled up to the feed store, Ed and I walked in, and I picked up my work gloves while he went to the counter to order the baling wire.

Jim Haley, the owner, was at the counter, which was unusual for this time of day.

"Good afternoon, Ed. You're back soon. I didn't expect to see you until next week. You must have forgotten something," Jim asked inquisitively.

"Jack decided he needed some baling wire and a new pair of work gloves, so I thought I would join him for the ride. Besides, the ride in gives us some time to catch up."

"Jim, I also wanted to introduce Jack to Casey."

"You know what they say, Jim, once a marine, always a marine," Jim said almost like he had been a fly on the wall on the ride out from the farm.

Hearing the two of them chatting, I approached the counter and joined the conversation, "Morning, Jim."

"Morning, Jack. Good to see you," Jim replied.

"When Ed mentioned we had another marine in town, I was anxious to shake his hand and thank him for his service."

"I wish you could, guys," Jim hesitated, "except that he left about an hour ago."

"Well, maybe we could catch him next time," I compromised.

"I wish that were the case too," Jim said, beginning to ring up our order.

"What do you mean?" Ed asked.

"Let me finish this up, and I'll fill you in."

Ed and I stood there a little perplexed, not knowing what to expect as I handed Jim twenty-five dollars in cash.

"That will be $24.97, just enough. Three cents is your change, Jack."

"Just put it in the tray there on the counter for the next person to even up."

"Thanks for your business, as always, gentlemen. Let's step over by the window here where it's quiet."

Ed and I were both eager to learn what Jim had to say.

"I'm afraid Casey won't be back, gentlemen. I'm sorry to say because I really like the young man, and you guys know, I always want to give a veteran an opportunity."

"I know you do, Jim. Ed and I both appreciate the way you treat our service men and women."

"What happened?" Ed asked. "He seemed okay when I left. Something must have happened in the short time I was gone."

"Was it his work, an argument, an incident with a customer?" I prodded, looking for some reasoning, even though I had not met him.

"No, thankfully, it wasn't anything like that. As far as I could see, the boy doesn't have a violent bone in his body. He just seems lost, and I don't think he has had any guidance, especially since he separated from the service. I tried to help as much as I could, but you know how it gets around here. I invited him over to the house to have dinner with my daughter Sherri and me, but he always came up with a reason why he couldn't, although he always thanked me for the offer.

"Sounds like you did all you could, Jim," Ed replied with concern in his voice.

"Do you know where he is now?" I asked.

"He said he was going to gather up his things and head to the bus station."

"Bus station?" Ed exclaimed, adding a little volume to his baritone voice.

"Jim, thanks for the information. We really appreciate it."

"I'm glad to help in any way I can, Jack. Let me know if you find him. I need to get back to the counter."

"Thanks for sharing the information, Jim," I said, patting him on the shoulder in a caring gesture as he returned to greet the line that was forming in front of the counter.

"What are you thinking?" Ed asked after a moment of thought.

"I'm not sure, Ed, I'm really not sure…."

"What's your heart telling you to do, Jack?"

"My heart," I repeated his words. "My heart is saying we need to find him, Ed. I'm not even sure why, but when you have a lost brother, you bring him home," Ed finished my sentence.

"You know me too well."

"Better than you realize, Mr. Kaneen," he chuckled as we walked to the truck.

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