This is the account of a young soldier.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Angels & Warriors - Letter from the Front: A Private's Story
They Call Us Angels
This is the account of a young soldier.
This is the account of a young soldier.
I am coming up on the half time mark of a four month deployment. I have flown 53 missions in and out of the AOR or Area of Responsibility thus far. I am a part of the 817th EAS, which stands for Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. I am limited on what I can disclose about our mission but it is primarily the supply and transfer of soldiers to and from the war. I have seen and experienced many things thus far that have made my heart beat as fast as it ever has but this is not my account.
A few days ago our mission was to bring the 3rd Battalion / 5th Marines (3/5) Unit, known as the “Dark Horse”, out of the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan and back home. The 3/5 is a battalion-level infantry unit composed of infantry Marines and support personnel. Infantry battalions are the basic tactical units that the regiment uses to accomplish its mission of locating, closing with and destroying the enemy by fire and close combat. The 3/5 is comprised of H&S Co, India Co, Kilo Co, Lima Co, and Weapons Co. The Sangin District is know as one of the most dangerous places in the warfight. The 3/5 has suffered the most casualties of any unit thus far in the 10 years of Afghan war.
We had a full load of troops planned going out and then got word that there would be an additional two Marines being sent with us on emergency status. This meant that all seats would be taken plus the two in the cockpit behind the pilots seats. Often times, as pilots we like to bring troops up for the flights. Their eyes light up and their gratitude is beyond measure. Many of them say it is the coolest thing they have ever seen- often times to be in the cockpit is like being in what I imagine Heaven to be like- amongst the clouds and the sun rays, looking down upon snow covered mountains and green grassy valleys. Sometimes it takes another’s eyes and awe for me to realize how amazing it really is to be flying. That being said, it is upon us to pick and choose who gets to experience the grand event. How do we do this? We ask the entire group a question such as “who thinks they are handy with tools.” Many hands shoot to the sky. “Who is good at fixing things?” A few hands may drop. “Who thinks they can fix a plumbing problem?” More go down. “Because we have a problem with our lavatory up here and need a brave soul to help us out or we will be unable to take off.” Inevitably, the hands that are raised start transitioning from the vertical to the horizontal pointing to the lowest man on the totem pole, usually a private or corporal. “You’re our man- you get to sit up front with us.” Everyone laughs for they now realize that dimeing out the private secured their fate to sit down below in the cargo compartment with nothing more than two windows the size of a basketball.
The Private walks up the stairs heavied by his supplies, his backpack, survival vest, armor, and his rifle. These are the only things that he has. Nothing less and nothing more, mandated by the Marine Corps. His rifle is his pride and sometimes also his joy. It’s original clean black shiny finish now long gone leaving what now looks as the soldier does; tired, worn out, beat up, and ready to rest from overuse. White tape- the exact same that I used to use to tape the handles of my hockey sticks and ankles before Friday night high school football games wrap the handle and stock for better grip while firing upon his enemy. A Marine's gun is his lifeline. They choose their modifications. This private had added a M203 grenade launcher to the bottom of the stock, his “go-to round when things got rough”. His uniform was worn and tattered, the digital camouflage had been completely worn out on the knees and elbows. Each pocket of his survival vest was stuffed with essentials and 8 magazines of ammo lay across his chest. A strap over his shoulder held about 20 grenade cartridges. He was a soldier. He had seen battle.
We got the jet ready for takeoff, strapped them in and upon firewalling the throttles to Max Power heard the joyous roar of the 3/5 over the roaring engines as our wheels left the runway. In our climb the Private leaned over and told me that “We call you Angels”. Aircraft that take them away from the Hell that they were in are called Angels. I was touched but as soon as I felt that good feeling deep inside my chest I felt it rush out as I was quick to realize that the same number of soldiers that we had on our jet and were taking from this Hell, the same number was just delivered by us an hour ago in.
After leveling off at cruise altitude I took my headset off, turned my head towards the Private and asked what was it like. I cannot tell you how long the flight is but I can say that it is longer than anyone I know can talk non-stop (well maybe except you pop). The Private needed to talk. He needed to release. He needed someone to hear about the horrors of war that was from the outside looking in and our crew was as close as it was going to get at that time. He told us that their slogan is “Get Some” and get some they did. They killed thousands of Taliban but it came at a cost—a big cost. As I said above, the 3/5 had suffered the most casualties of any unit thus far in the 10 years of Afghan war. Along with sending home 27 red ,white and blue draped caskets, the 3/5 also sent home over 180 critically injured warriors, many of them losing arms and legs. As the Private scrolled through the pictures on his digital camera, each picture was a flip of a coin whether it was going to be a friend that was coming home with us, a friend that had already been sent home maimed by war, or a friend sent home in an American flag blanketed aluminum box. The pictures were also of their living conditions. A horseshoe of sandbags was their toilet. A cleared piece of ground was their bed. A sealed bag of food that would last until the end of the world if given the chance was their meal. A bottle of water was their shower. A wall made of mud was their protection- and also the place for pictures of home, of wives and little girls, of good things to look forward to if they could just live to see them. The private said that he found a familiar place before bed to be on his knees thanking the Lord to be alive today and to pray for the same blessing tomorrow, for they lived day by day.
Each day was the same. They would go out in search of Taliban and IEDs. “The hardest thing about this war is that they look just the same as the local friendlies; but you can tell it in their eyes. You can see the evil in their eyes.” The Private went on to tell me about the IEDs. “They are smart. They can make them out of anything. They are good at it too. They are so sensitive sometimes all it takes is the weight of fear to set them off. Many times they scavenge the lost limbs of unfortunate soldiers and use them as triggers. And finding these things is nearly impossible. You can probe all day long and still miss them. We had to resort to what we call fingering. We literally sift through the sand on our bellies with our fingers to find these things.” Just the thought of sticking my fingers anywhere close to something that could blow them off made me cringe. He said that there was just no other way in certain situations. He had watched one of his buddies clearing for IEDs get blown up, another that had gone to save him get blown up and another that went to save both experience the same fate. Hearing this made me think about how it would be to be fearful of each step that I take. The Private told me that he could no longer sleep for the fear was so overwhelming. The fear for his own life. The fear for his friends. The fear of each step and the fear of never making it home.
When they get home, those that do, must go and see the doctor for PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. “We call him the wizard.” He said. “I will tell him what I have seen. I will tell him that I cannot sleep. I will tell him that I have nightmares and that I will never be the same.” I will tell him that one moment we are giving out skittles to the local children and the next we are in a fire fight for our lives calling in close air support to light up our enemies 50 yards from the local town. I will tell him how screwed up I now am.” He quickly jumped to a different subject. What he was looking forward to. “I haven’t had a shower in over 7 months and I am really going to enjoy a good hot meal. He video taped the entire approach and landing, told me it was one of the coolest things he ever saw, that if I was ever in Fort Campbell he would let me shoot his 203, and to take care of ourselves and to keep bringing 'em home.
Guest post by:
Captain Joseph G. Dombrow