Sunday, October 21, 2007

Halloween Iraq style

This is from our airborne infantryman in Iraq:

The stillness was suddenly interrupted by something hitting the back of my helmet. For a split second, I thought that it was someone tapping me. I almost turned around. But almost simultaneously something else hit my hand. It was large, fat raindrop crashing into my right hand, which was firmly grasping the pistol grip, index finger laid across the trigger guard.

"Great," I quietly muttered to myself.

I had been hearing thunder in the distance for some time now, even before we had set out to that field. Lying there in the tall grass being harassed by some sort of God awful bugs, I prayed for no more rain. But as my luck usually goes, my prayer was not to be answered that Halloween night.

We were strung out in a long line on the far edge of a farm using a dried irrigation ditch as a make shift trench. Hugging my M249 machine gun, I stared through my night vision goggles across the field- weapon at the ready, always at the ready. We waited.

It was then that someone unzipped the night's sky and I now lay in a monsoon. I didn't move an inch. The cold water poured off my helmet down my neck and b-lined all the way down my spine, continuing on into my pants. I could feel my pant legs now sticking to my legs and the unmistakable feeling of a cold sensation on my feet. I was completely soaked in a matter of seconds.

I let out a sigh. . . heard only by me for it was drowned out by the roar of the rain.

The rain then stopped just as quickly as it had started. It was as if the insects in that field were angered by the deluge and took their frustrations out on me. I could feel them biting and gnawing at the only exposed skin on my body. I didn't move an inch. I watched my sector and waited. The temperature dropped what felt like 10 degrees. My breath appeared and I began to shiver. I heard curse words as they whispered down the line.

The thunderstorm, or I should say lighting storm, because, despite the dazzling display of light, it made no sound, moved out in front of me. Through my night vision the lightning was truly impressive.

Then a thought occurred to me and my heart sank. There surrounded my my brothers I was totally alone in my mind, "Would they still be coming to get us?"

"Pilots don't like to fly in bad weather," I thought. And in my short time in Iraq, this was the worst weather I had seen.

I looked at my watch - 43 1/2 hours. In the past two days, I had eaten less than two meals and had less than three hours of sleep. I was ready to get back to the rear.

I continued to stare off across that field watching my sector when I heard what over the last few months had become the most beautiful sound in the world - the heavy chop of an in-bound Chinook. I lifted my head out of the three foot grass and there it was to my 10 o'clock a tiny blinking light - an infrared strobe light only visible through my night vision.

Someone down the line called quietly from their radio,"Birds in-bound." I smiled on the inside. I watched as the blinking light moved closer and a dark shape grew underneath it. The chop became louder and the ground began to shake.

"One minute out," someone said through the darkness. Using both hands, I pushed myself up, straining from the weight of my gear now twice as heavy from the rain. I posted up on a knee facing away from the in-bound "shit hook" with my head down.

The ground shaking and the wind beating on my chest, I braced for the impact of the coming hurricane force winds. The two giant sets of rotors have the ability to knock you down if you aren't ready for it. I had learned that the hard away a few months earlier when a landing Chinook flipped me over my gun into a ditch.

WHOOSH! The wind hit me pushing me forward and pelting me with wet grass, sand and rocks.

The bird throttled back and the wind died down. Just as I had done so many times without prompting, I stood up and turned left and began running in two long lines out of the palm grove on the edge of the field. Even when perfectly executed, loading is never easy.

The heavily irrigated fields were very difficult to traverse with night vision and a full combat load. Tripping and falling, helping others up and being helped up, I made my way to the bird.

Inside the Chinook, the high pitched whine of the engines deafens those foolish enough to forget "ear pro."

Running the length of the bird, I made it to the front and sat down.

"HA!" I thought, "a seat"

(With my luck, I usually end up on the floor of the bird. Sitting on top of each other in the darkness its a hellish ride. It usually takes more than a hour and you are lucky if you can walk by the time you land - your legs cut off from blood go beyond sleep to numb.)

The bird throttles hard and, within two minutes of landing, she lifts off with about 50 beleaguered paratroopers, tired and cold and now totally relieved after surviving another mission in one of the worst areas Iraq has to offer. We flip up our nods as the bird turns for home. My muscles relax and I put my head back and look at my watch again. It's 3 a.m.

Right now my Dad is on the couch relaxing after work. My Mom is in full Halloween mode and impatiently waiting for trick-or-treaters.

Not sure what my brothers would be doing. Jon is now at the age where Halloween isn't cool anymore and he is probably on the computer.

Mike is now at the age where Halloween has become cool again is probably trying to go out. I guess I was GI-JOE this year.

The bird jostles and jumps, then bucks its way through the churning air surrounding the lightning storm. What a Halloween to remember.

I blink and it's a year later and I'm staring at the bottom of the bunk on top of me. This year is way better than last I think to myself. Who could argue with that? - in the rear with the gear at a staging area waiting to finally re-deploy home... I pause my Ipod and sit up, look down the endless rows of bunks, sigh and close my eyes and try to imagine a Halloween before the war.

Nothing comes to mind.

7 comments:

Jan Wesner said...

Thanks for sharing a side of this war that we don't see very often.
http://blogs.tampabay.com/standingby/

Infantry Dad said...

Great post.
Can't wait to say welcome home soldier.
Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

I read this piece and could only shake my head, and feel grateful that young men like the author have the fortitude to handle such adversity.

jim schoettler said...

You are a wonderful writer, just like your dad. You put me in the field. I felt the raindrops. I heard the in-bound chopper. It was all terrific.

You dad is so very proud of you. Please come home safe. I very much look forward to meeting you one day. Take care.

Tiffany said...

Mark,
Although your story is very touching, Danielle & I noticed you left out one very important detail. When you finally made it back to camp, soaking wet, starving, and exhausted,... on your rack sat a care package from your Bank Girls filled with homemade cookies, Halloween candy, and food,..sent with love. We wanted to support "our soldier", and weren't sure that sending cookies and candy was enough, but when you told us how awful your day had been, and that box of crushed cookies was a very welcome sight,..we knew that the smallest gesture made a difference for our troops. We are all very proud of you and can't wait for you to hit US soil soon.

Airbornedad said...

Jan, Dad, Jim and Tiffany:

Thanks for stopping by. Been on the road last two days with very little time on the computer.

More to come

Dave said...

Great story thanks for sharing. My son Tim was a Scout and Infantryman with 3rd 69AR 1st BAT out of Ft. Stewart, GA. He was KIA on August 18, 2005 in Samarra, Iraq while returning from a mine excursion mission. Know that your service and commitment to defending America against our enemines will never go un-noticed. We will forever keep you and our hearts and prayers. God Bless you always.