Somewhere south of Baghdad, en route to As-Suwayrah, Iraq...
It's a balmy morning in southern Iraq, and I'm weighed down by sixty pounds of gear and ammo, getting ready for my first mission as part of Recon. The farmers' fields are shrouded in fog, and a hundred feet below me the countryside whips past the viewports. We're riding in a Polish Mi-8, a type of heavy transport helicopter. It's a Russian design, dating back to the Cold War, and a notable departure from the UH-60 Black Hawks that brought us down here.
The most obvious difference to a passenger is the noise--where the Black Hawk emits a high-pitched whine while in flight, the engines of an Mi-8 shake its cabin with a jarring roar. Your teeth actually chatter if you lean back on the bulkhead, and your spine vibrates queasily. There are no bucket seats or four-point harnesses here; just a line of bench seats on either side of the cabin. This morning, I'm sharing those seats with Sergeants First Class Gravelle and Jameson, Staff Sergeant Mueller, and SPCs Elder and Beckett. We're also being joined today by a squad of Polish Special Forces soldiers. Myself and the other Specialists will be working with them this morning, providing security for the Recon NCOs.
I'm actually a little irked--I had wanted to be a part of the primary Recon crew, but this being my first mission, I can understand leaving the task to my more experienced peers. No matter--there will be plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of this job. Meanwhile, I'm content to busy myself with snapping pictures and video from the inside of our chopper, as well as psych myself up for the next hour or so of my life.
Unlike Line engineers, Recon crews work hard and fast, moving to assemble quick intelligence on locations and terrain before calling in for a hasty extraction by air. Though Recon has a lot more downtime than the average Line platoon, our missions are faster, more challenging, and honestly a little more dangerous. As-Suwayrah, in particular, has become much more hostile of late. When we told our interpreter "Rocky," of our destination, the burly local went visibly pale. He told us of a known insurgency training camp less than half a click from our mission site, and crossed himself two or three times (Rocky is that rare bird, a Christian Arab).
As the security crackdown has intensified in Baghdad, local militias and terror cells have made a mass diaspora out into the surrounding countryside, and it is now in these places, once known for little more than good farming and grazing for sheep, that the most violence is now occurring against Coalition Forces. Even our erstwhile base camp at nearby FOB Echo, a tiny post run by Poles and Mongolians, saw a dramatic spike in attacks recently. During the week we spent there, we experienced rocket attacks at least nightly. There was much grumbling over the Alert sirens interrupting our screening of the film "300."
Even so, all the risks aside, I'm actually thrilled to be on this mission. As our flight progresses, I'm able to watch the farmlands slowly give way to desert hardpan, a sight made all the more stunning by the sun rising silver through the dense morning haze. I glance around at my teammates, most of whom are passed out sleeping against the bulkhead, and wonder how they can sleep at a time like this. I, for one, am amazed.
A year ago, I was sitting at a desk in the local Army Tax Office; this blog was barely out of its infancy. Six months ago, I was staring down the barrel of deployment with mixed sorrow and fear. Two weeks ago I was on leave, walking with Anne through the cosmopolitan streets of Frankfurt. And here I am now, parked inside a helicopter flown by a foreign military, in the company of SpecOps forces, preparing to drop into a combat landing zone. It is times like this that I relish the extremes of my life. Not for the first time, I smile and give silent thanks for being chosen to join Recon.
After about an hour, our flight path grows slowly rougher. The pilot jinks hard to the left and right, and my stomach rolls as we abruptly drop altitude. Craning my head to look out the window, I see us passing over lush fields, bordered by the banks of the Tigris. There is a sudden rush of commotion as people start jerking awake, and as I turn back around, the Poles begin to lock and load. The rest of us take our cues from this act, slapping thirty-round mags into our M-16s and M-4s. One by one, we slide down off the bench seats and take knees.
A tap on my shoulder--SFC Gravelle, gesturing over the noise with two fingers: Your side exits first.
I stare at him for a second, and then nod my understanding. I turn to face forward again. Our pilot pulls up to cut our forward momentum, and up front the door gunner is busy pulling his equipment out of the hatch. I pitch forward slightly as we lose altitude, and through the hatchway I can see us dropping fast into a rice field. My heart rate picks up, while simultaneously Time itself seems to slow dramatically down.Easy, now,
I tell myself. 360 security, that's all. You're on point, so as long as your head swivels, you'll be good. Make sure Sgt. Gravelle is covered.
I take a moment to digest this, and then nod. The adrenaline has set every nerve in my body ablaze. Sweet morning air gushes in from outside, and the hairs on my neck sing to me of sweat and wind. We pitch and jounce a bit, an everlasting moment curiously without sound, and at last the door gunner clears the hatch. The Poles leap to their feet. I hear SFC Jameson yelling, "Go, go, go!" I spring into action, following the man in front of me.
The darkness of the cabin suddenly gives way to ghostly dawn, and as my left boot steps out into air, I hear the slow-motion whump
of the blades, and watch the grasses ripple in the wind as we hover some five feet above the LZ. A bit of downdraft rushes sweetly down the collar of my body armor, and in the moment before my boot thud down upon the earth, I feel like the star of every Vietnam war movie ever produced. I feel like the Master Chief in Halo.
I feel like a cultural cliche, and yet nowhere in my memory do I ever remember feeling more alive