Friday, January 8, 2016
I made my way back through the alleys, walking exceedingly slowly. My head was spinning from the discussion. The question I kept coming back to was what do you do when you feel the heat coming around the corner? Do you walk out on everything in 30 seconds flat? Do you hem and haw, regretting that once again you are putting your life and your family on hold for an increasingly dubious mission and end up going anyway? Or do you find a new way in life?
It made me think of my friend, Wyatt. Wyatt was an attack helicopter pilot, he flew the sleek AH-1W Cobra. A few weeks before my deployment, I stopped in to visit him at Camp Pendleton, nestled in the tan velvet hills between San Diego and Los Angeles. I was stationed on another part of the vast base as a forward air controller, or FAC. My job in Afghanistan would be to call in air support for my unit, acting as the liaison between my fellow aviators above and the grunts in the dust and mud, trying to chase the Taliban down without losing their legs or their lives.
Our preparations for combat were winding down and I was taking care of some business near the airfield and decided to stop in and see Wyatt. He was the operations officer of his squadron. Wyatt’s role was all the more critical because the squadron’s executive officer, the number two in command, did nothing, passing all his work to Wyatt. Wyatt couldn’t stand the XO, but he also couldn’t do much to change the situation, so he made the best of it and strove to excel at both jobs at once. We’d commiserated about this over beers at the officers’ club a few months earlier.
I went into the squadron’s hangar and up the stairs to his office on the second floor. When I arrived at the door, Wyatt gave me a distracted nod as concentrated on the phone. I waved awkwardly then stood in the hall outside his office, waiting for him to finish his call. It wasn’t a business call. “What do you want me to do, babe? You know I want to go, but there’s too much stuff going on here and they won’t give me more than a few days of leave.” I stepped across the hall to put some distance between me and the door and studied a bulletin board full of notices no one ever read. “I’m looking at Hotwire. We could go somewhere close over a weekend. I could probably get a Friday and a Monday off.” He paused. I had heard the other side of the conversation enough times before that I knew what she was saying. “Just forget it. I’ll take the kids and we’ll do something on our own.”
Wyatt was pleading with her now. “Come on, babe, we can make it work . . . OK, we’ll talk about it when I get home. I know you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated, too.” A pause. “I love you, too.” My conversations with Penny by that point generally concluded in one of us hanging up on the other. I hung my head and stared at the floor, pausing long enough to let the air clear for a moment before stepping back into the doorway.
Wyatt’s smile was genuine, but half-hearted. “Hey James, how are you?”
“Not bad, you?”
“Not bad.” He paused for an uncomfortable beat. “Well, things could be better, you know. The fucking XO’s killing me. How do these guys keep hanging on? They should have shitcanned him long ago, but no. He’s still around, making everyone else miserable. God damn, James. I don’t know how much more of this shit I can take. It isn’t the deployments; it’s dealing with shit like this.” He pointed at the phone. “I can’t take leave to be with my family before I deploy because I spend half my time doing that asshole’s job and the other half of my time doing shit he and the CO dream up, leaving me to do all the shit we really need to do to get ready to get out the door on my own time. Where do these people come from?”
The feeling was intimately familiar. “I hear you, Wyatt. But dude aren’t you prior enlisted? Why don’t you just retire already?”
“I don’t see you getting out.”
“Yeah, but I can’t retire yet. I’m not going to just throw away fifteen years. I’d retire right now if I could.”
“I’ve tried to retire three times. Three times. I’ve gone to the separations classes. Started applying for jobs. But each time, something came up. I just chickened out. It’s not easy to just walk away from the only way you’ve ever known. It’s scary.”
Wyatt trailed off and looked down at his hands, laying flat on the desk. He picked up in what I’m sure he meant to be a more cheerful tone. It came out hurried. Forced. “Anyway, I bought a house here at the top of the bubble. I’ve got bills. My wife doesn’t want to leave San Diego. I can’t make enough on the outside to keep this up. I’ve got no choice. Plus, maybe after this deployment…” He trailed off again.
I remember laughing, but it really wasn’t all that funny. “We keep telling ourselves, ‘After these orders, after this deployment, or after this training then I can enjoy my life, be happy or spend time with the family.’ And then before you know it you are old and broken down and your family doesn't like you.”
Wyatt shook his head. “When I was a lieutenant, I was at the O Club, waiting for a beer at the bar. Some old colonel came up beside me, asked me what I was drinking, and ordered for both of us. No idea who he was. Out of nowhere, he told me, ‘Lieutenant, never forget this. The Marine Corps will break your heart. It may be tomorrow. It may be in twenty years, but mark my words, some day the Corps will break your heart.’ Then the crazy old fuck walked off and I never saw him again. Now I understand.”
“You and me both. So what’s next for you, after the deployment?”
Wyatt acted as if he was deep in thought. “Enjoy my life. Be happy. Spend time with my family.”
“No. I’ll fight with the monitor over my next job and probably end up somewhere none of us want to go and my wife and kids will stay here. I’ll visit on long weekends. And I’ll be old and broken down and they won’t like me.”
We both burst into laughter.
“And you?” Wyatt asked.
“Oh, I’m already old and broken down and my family doesn’t like me. Penny and I are getting divorced. So who cares what I do next.”
“Fuck. Sorry, man.”
“Yeah, me too.”
As I walked, slow and alone, through the madrileño backstreets drawn close and dark around me, I thought about that day and the days that came after. I thought about the disintegration of my marriage and I thought about my kids. I would say that there was nothing more important than my kids, Stephen and Molly. And I believed it, too. But I kept putting them off. Putting them second. I’d been away from them for over half of their lives, and the time I was at home, I was mostly busy or distracted with everything else. I didn’t think that work was more important than them. I just let it become more important right now. I told myself I’d make it up to them later. Always later. And before I knew it, Penny and I were getting a divorce, I was headed to Afghanistan, and later didn’t seem as real or certain as it once did.
Sometimes, later never comes.
I thought of Wyatt again. As I strolled through the Spanish evening, my mind went back to Afghanistan. I could feel myself adjusting the heavy SAPI plate carrier that protected my vitals, shrugging my shoulders to move the straps just enough to move the ache to a different set of nerves. The heavy plates moved away from my sweat-soaked FROG shirt. Though the air hit it only for a second, the slight, cooling tease still registered.
We trudged through the “Green Zone” of the upper Helmand River Valley on patrol. The river flowed down from the dam at Kajaki, where a reservoir was nestled in the craggy hills that climbed into the mountain stronghold of central Afghanistan. The ground around the river from Kajaki down to Sangin and beyond to Nahr-e-Seraj was hotly contested. A few years of brutal fighting had made Route 611 that roughly paralleled the river somewhat passable, moving the battle for control further west, away from the population centers along the river and toward the various routes that connected, in their Afghan way, Sangin with Musa Qaleh and Now Zad.
The fight was more of an indirect one than the Marines had encountered further south in Marjeh. While the insurgents would take the occasional opportunity to ambush a patrol that got too close for comfort, the threat was overwhelmingly IEDs. It was a mindfuck is what it was.
A lot of Marines dealt with the ever-present threat of dismemberment—and worse, emasculation—by flipping it the bird. They laughed at it and made light of it. FOB Nolay, down by Sangin, became FOB “No Legs.” We passed through there when we came into country. The salty grunts who had been there for almost their full seven months sang a song about “no legs,” making sure we could hear. Some of the guys in my unit laughed, but I know it got to them. It got to me.
So now, I put one foot in front of the other as we patrolled to the north near Route Red between Shir Ghazay and Now Zad. I looked over at LCpl Aron Bonney, one of my favorite Marines, who trudged along next to me. Bonney was a weird kid. He dropped out of college after his first year to join the Marines. He didn’t have to drop out. Over the course of the deployment, I came to be amazed by Bonney. He was one of the smartest people I’d ever met. Bonney had a 4.0 going easy in his first year of college. He didn’t join the Corps because he was excited by going to war or because he believed in the crusade either. He thought the war was stupid before ever seeing it. But he joined because he felt that he needed to see it firsthand to continue on in his international relations studies and be able to say with confidence that it was stupid.
Bonney married his high school sweetheart when he went into the Corps and they decided to have children shortly thereafter. His first son was born the night before he deployed to Afghanistan. I once heard Bonney’s company first sergeant brag about him. “That boy had his bags packed, ready to go. As soon as she had the kid, he was out the door. He never thought twice.” I wasn’t so sure that was commendable. As a matter of fact, I thought that Bonney’s judgment on this point was youthfully deluded and that the first sergeant’s praise of a man willing to walk out on his newborn son without a second thought was idiotic, though unsurprising. Most career Marines’ priorities were completely out of whack. Even those of us who thought we had our priorities straight were too weak to do anything but bow down to the Corps.
Nonetheless, Bonney was a constant source of amazement, both to be and to his younger peers. The breadth of the things he read and listened to was mindboggling. We had a running trivia contest going, quizzing each other on everything from song lyrics and literature to military history and global politics.
He was on a Sixties kick with his music lately. It probably seemed like a fitting soundtrack to war. I recited a line from a little-known classic. “Although the masters make the rules for the wise men and the fools…”
“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bonney said. “Bob Dylan.”
“How do you know this shit Bonney?” another Marine asked.
Bonney laughed, continuing the lyrics, “Them that defend what they cannot see with a killer’s pride, security. It blows the minds most bitterly for them that think death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally.”
“Yeah, really George. How do you know this shit?” I said.
“Good memory, I guess. This song hits close to home. ‘Temptation’s page flies out the door. You follow, find yourself at war.’”
“Yeah. I guess so. What’s your fascination with the Sixties?”
“My grandpa still listens to all that music. That’s where I heard the Dylan song. It reminds me of being at his house, looking at all his pictures. Pictures of Vietnam. Pictures of him and his friends from the old neighborhood. It seems like life really changed for everyone after the Sixties.”
“Yeah,” I responded quietly, thinking of Larry and all the old friends and family that showed up to his wake. His life certainly changed after the Sixties. We walked along in silence. Just the sound of our boots on the dirt and the swish and jostle of our equipment and weapons, punctuated occasionally by voices reaching through the static of the platoon leader’s radio. I looked around at the Marines. Taking in the young faces. This was as close as people got in the world. They were brothers, depending on each other for their very survival. It was an amazing group of people.
The image was so vivid in my mind. I saw it in slow motion as I panned across them, taking in their purposeful movements, the perfect arrangement of every piece of coyote brown gear, the practiced way they carried their weapons, and the constant, automatic scanning motion of their heads and eyes. Then our world was pierced by the bone-dry crack of a single round passing over our heads; the deathly hollow snapping of a 7.62 millimeter-sized supersonic shockwave. A sound that, when it passes close by, floods the body with the cold copper of dread. In unison, each man hunched, necks involuntarily retracting to bring the bony helmet called the skull and the body armor of the rib cage as close together as possible. Several more rounds passed—pock-pock, pock. My eyes quickly locked on the cover of a low dirt wall surrounding the field we were crossing and stayed fixed on it as I threw my body toward the ground. For a moment, all I could see was the dirt between my nose and my helmet, both of which were touching the ground. I rolled onto my back, my view whirling from brown to sky blue. I scooted on my back until I made contact with the wall. A round impacted the mud between two Marines, showering them with pieces of dirt and sending a small plume of dust into the air. Then the firing stopped.
I had my back against the wall and was absorbed in reconfirming our location on the map so I could call in air support if needed. I looked up to reorient the map to the terrain and structures around us then scanned up and down the wall. Most of the Marines hunkered behind it with their heads below the cover it afforded, but chin up and ready to peek over. Only a few had their heads down, fumbling with gear. The platoon leader, a second lieutenant, was on the radio reporting the fire, the replies loud with the sudden quiet and their amplified senses. One Marine, a designated marksman, found a notch in the wall and was scoping the embankment on the far side of the field for evidence of the ghosts. A squad leader shouted, “Anybody see muzzle flashes?” Cries of “no” echoed out up and down the line. Lance Corporal Bonney was next to me. A fireteam leader needing to understand the situation and prepare for the next move, he peered over the wall. Emboldened by the lull in the firing and hoping to see them before they slipped away, he craned his neck to scan the surroundings.
I felt as much as heard the thwack of the bullet hitting him. Blood, bone, and a tooth splattered my face as his jaw exploded with the force of the impact. As he hit the ground, the world erupted in gunfire. The platoon opened up on the far embankment as the rest of the Taliban force followed their sniper with AK-47s and RPK machine guns. I thought I heard the deeper thudding of a larger machine gun through the firing hammering in my ears from all around.
All the Marines were firing, filling the air with the smell of burnt powder. Our Navy corpsman scurried through the hail of hot shell casings, dirt, and rocks from the wall now being eroded by Taliban fire, and more than a few bullets cracking past it. He was on his knees tending to Bonney, whose face was a bright red froth of blood, teeth, and bone as he tried to breath through his ruined airway. Bonney was on his back and the corpsman lifted the heavy armor plate away to ease the pressure on his laboring chest. The sniper aimed at the most vulnerable spot between the helmet and the SAPI plate that protected his chest. I remembered the rattling gurgle that announced that he was dying. At the time, though, it didn’t really register. I was busy on the radio, repeating the thoughts and words I’d internalized in training, arranging the help needed to squelch the Taliban fire and extract Bonney from the fight… if he lived long enough.
I called the battalion’s air officer, the senior aviator back at the combat operations center orchestrating the air support for all the units that needed it. “Chosin 81, this is Chosin 88. We are troops in contact, one Cat A at this time. Requesting any available air and working up medevac nine-line, over.”
“Roger Chosin 88. Wait one.” I knew my friend, another pilot on a ground tour like my, was on another frequency, telling a flight supporting one of the other companies to rush to help our patrol. “Chosin 88, Chosin 81.”
“Go ahead Chosin 81.”
“You’ve got Dealer 66 flight headed your way. They should be checking in with you momentarily. Pass your medevac 9-line when able.”
“Roger. I’ll check Dealer in, then get you the 9-line.”
I told my radio operator to put together the 9-line for the medevac as I got ready to work with Dealer flight. From the callsign, I knew it was a flight of AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters, perfect for this situation. All the while, rounds were cracking overhead, but I—safely behind the wall—was too busy to even notice.
“Chosin 88, Dealer 66.” The transmission that came in through the handset was curt, aggressive, and businesslike. Static punctuated the call emphatically before the squelch kicked in. Marine Cobra pilots, Type A to an arrogant fault, were what every Marine infantryman wanted perched on their shoulder. I knew immediately, from that one radio call, that it was Wyatt on the other end. I knew that he’d recognize my voice as well. I also knew that he’d hear the gunfire through my transmissions. He’d been doing this for nearly ten years now, both in the air and in the role I now held. He’d been a FAC in the bloody, house-to-house fight for Fallujah. He understood.
“Dealer 66, this is Chosin 88, go ahead with your check-in.”
Wyatt delivered his check-in with the controlled rapidity of years of practice, telling me where he was and providing the inventory of death on his aircraft. “Dealer 66, mission number 3266, flight of 2 Cobras, currently 86 Charlie Hotel keypad 7 heading northeast, cherubs 35. Lead has 4 AGM-14P, 19 2.75 inch flechette, 750 rounds 20mm. Dash 2 has 3 AGM-14P, 19 2.75 flechette, 750 rounds 20mm. 0+45 on station. We have all GRGs for your area.”
“Roger, Dealer 66. Chosin 88 is located in sector Papa 6 Yankee at the northern edge of the field adjacent to compound 76. Enemy force, probably squad size, is positioned along the levy on the south side of the blue line, how copy, over.” I was telling Wyatt where they were in relation to the markings on the map he had on his knee above.
“Chosin 88, I have compound 76 and I have eyes on friendlies at the edge of the field.” The squad leader was yelling over the sound of the firefight to coordinate his Marines’ work. I heard the hollow thump, a few octaves below cork gun, of a grenade coming out of a M203 launcher, then the crump as it exploded at the levee. The fire didn’t let up.
“Roger Dealer 66. Friendlies are oriented in a east-west line along the road on the northern edge of compound 76.”
“Solid copy Chosin,” Wyatt replied. He was estimating the time the rest of the talk-on would take and positioning himself to see the target, then turn in to attack as soon as he was cleared hot.
“Enemy is located along the levee in the treeline directly to my north.” There was a pause as the orbiting Cobras searched for their prey. It seemed like a long time as the fire continued to go in both directions. “Chosin 88, tally individuals in the trees and have observed muzzle flashes.”
“Roger, Dealer, that’s your target. Standby for nine-line.”
I had already written the details of the 9-line brief in marker on a laminated sheet, a standard time-proven format to ensure that the pilot and the forward air controller agreed to the target, its location, the weapons to be used, and the location of friendly troops. I flicked a searing hot shell casing away from my neck and rekeyed the radio.
“From the overhead. 200. Enemy in a treeline. Papa Romeo 70343 55361. No mark. 300 meters east. Egress east. Standby for remarks.” I unkeyed the radio before continuing. “Remarks: Final attack heading 030 to 090. Abort in the clear. Read back lines 4 and 6, over.”
“Chosin 88, 200, PR 70343 55361, over.”
“Dealer 66, good copy. Push when ready, over.”
Wyatt, who had been doing this for nearly ten years in combat, was in position to push in for the target immediately. “Chosin 88, Dealer 66 is in.”
I looked to the south and saw the Cobra rolling out of its turn. The moment the aircraft was steady Wyatt transmitted, “Wings level.” I could see he was making a run directly for the line of low trees on the embankment along the canal. I replied, “Dealer 66, cleared hot.”
The Taliban had been doing this for a long time, too. As the Cobra approached and its gun began to belch smoke, three more insurgent firing positions opened up. I heard the barking of at least two heavier machineguns and saw RPGs sail toward the chopper, the rockets looking like bats flapping crazy flaming wings. I watched the three legs of fire intersect at the piece of sky Wyatt and his copilot occupied as the world slowed. Almost immediately, the intricate mechanical magic that keeps a helicopter aloft began to go awry.
I stopped breathing, praying they would fly through the cloud unscathed. The first sign of trouble came when the stubby winglets carrying the Cobra’s deadly load of rockets and missiles dropped clumsily away from the aircraft, tumbling side-by-side to the ground. Wyatt and his copilot, reading the portents of mechanical doom inside the cockpit, had jettisoned their stores in the hopes of lightening the burden on the troubled bird—a reaction bred by years of emergency training. It was the last attempt of two men to control their fate. There are no ejection seats, no parachutes in a helicopter.
No sooner were the stores away from the Cobra, than the delicate balance of rotation and counter-rotation skewed. The chopper began to yaw, placing immense loads on an airframe peppered with shrapnel. The tail boom snapped, flying strangely ahead of the Cobra, which was now passing through 90 degrees of pivot. In the next instant, the main rotor blades failed, flying off into space as weightlessly as the plumes of a dandelion. All that was left was the sleek fuselage containing two human bodies, whirling out of the sky and impacting the earth so violently I felt as if I’d been punched. At that moment, all firing ceased. I remembered the empty sound of the insistently blowing wind.
The second Cobra passed overhead in trace of its lead. I saw the gun on the aircraft’s chin tracking with the pilot’s head as he stared at the wreckage. The downed chopper was at rest on a grassy embankment between a road and the river. I imagine that from the air, this rare patch of green stood out in stark relief against the shit brown of the canal water on one side, and the oily dark earth tones of the road on the other. The burning wreckage was a red and yellow medallion centered in the green carpet. From my position on the ground, all I could see was the telltale evil-dark smudge rising from the pyre into the oppressively stagnant air.
I stared at the treeline, knowing that the Taliban probably fled. I looked left and right. All of the Marines were peering over the wall, stunned but looking for targets. He looked back at Aron Bonney. The corpsman had stopped his work. Aron’s eyes were open, already drying in the hot sun, the life gone, a gaping wound where his mouth should have been.
“Chosin 88, Dealer 67.” For a moment, I didn’t know what to say.
“Chosin 88, Dealer 67,” the transmission was more urgent, I couldn’t hear it, but I knew the fear, the sickness they felt. It was the same fear I felt. The fear of meeting a fate like theirs. The fear that you were somehow to blame. The fear that you would never shake the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.
“Dealer 67, Chosin 88, uh… do you see any movement from 66?”
“Roger, 67.” There was still no firing. The Taliban scored their coup for the day and would probably slink off to preserve their heavier weapons. I heard the platoon commander preparing his troops to advance to the downed chopper and set up a perimeter around it. The transformation from defended to defenders was immediate.
“67, we are going to advance to 66’s position and set up a perimeter. Watch the treeline and the other POOs for movement and keep me informed.”
The sky above us filled with guardians. Millions of dollars of hardware, all impotent to change what they would find. We advanced slowly across the field, wary of IEDs and enemy fire, but the ghosts were gone. When we got to the wreckage, any tiny doubt, any small hope was gone. The next hours were a blur. There were countless radio calls to inform people of what had happened, to talk to the myriad of aircraft sent overhead to watch over the wreckage and to be ready to respond, to coordinate the arrival of more troops to secure the crash site, of specialists to inspect the wreckage and secure sensitive equipment, to pull the charred broken bodies out of the ashes, and to fly them and Aron—who we’d carried across the field in a poncho liner—home. And all across Helmand Province, Marines quickly knew that the Taliban had gotten one of their most feared weapons, leaving a sick feeling in the pit of tens of thousands of stomachs.
It seemed like forever before we returned to the patrol base where we collapsed exhausted and filthy on cots in mud walled buildings. Most of the Marines were already snoring as the company first sergeant and I watched two others conduct an inventory of Aron’s belongings. The crushing thought passed through my mind that this nicety was a luxury. When they offloaded troopships after the Marines assaulted islands in World War II, they burned seabags stacked in their thousands. There were too many dead Marines and too many battles left to fight to take time for something like this. Each item was extracted from Aron’s ruck and cataloged in the jarringly utilitarian terminology of military gear on a form for just this purpose. Jacket cold weather, gloves leather, glove liners green, hydration system. Photographs, iPod, journal, books x 3.
I said hoarsely, “That one… that one’s mine.” The Marine looked at me, the book suspended in his hand over the spartan wooden crate that would be nailed shut and shipped home. “You’ll see my name inside the cover,” I said apologetically.
The Marine handed it up to me. I opened the book to confirm the inscription, if only for myself: “J.A. Placidus.” I closed it and stared at the cover. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I recalled the night, early on in the deployment, when I gave it to Aron. A few Marines were sitting around his cot listening to his iPod. A song by Mumford and Sons came on as I walked through the room. “What’s this crap?” one of the Marines asked. “It’s called ‘Timshel,’” said Aron.
I stopped to listen to the lament. “Hey, sir,” one of the Marines said kindly. “Hey guys,” I replied. They looked at me in awkward silence, part deference, part wondering what ridiculousness might fly out of an officer’s mouth. “Timshel,” I said to Aron. “Do you know where that’s from?”
“No, sir,” he replied.
“It’s from a book called East of Eden by John Steinbeck,” I said.
“John Steinbeck? No shit,” one of the other Marines said in recognition. “He’s from my hometown, Salinas.”
“You’re from Salinas?” I asked. “I used to live in Monterey. I love that whole area. I used to drive from Monterey up over the hills to Salinas and up to San Francisco on weekends. During the summer, you’d go from the 60s to over 100 and back to the 60s again, all in an afternoon.”
The Marines smiled awkwardly at me as the song played in the background. I wanted them to like me. Some of them may have wanted to like me. But I knew that more than that, they just wanted me to go away and end the awkwardness.
“Anyway, the name of the song comes from an old Hebrew word that means ‘thou mayest.’ I guess another way of saying it is ‘you have a choice.’ It’s a central part of the story in the book.” It was quiet for a moment, then the singer echoed, “And you have your choices. And these are what make man great.”
“See?” I said to a few looks of recognition. “His ladder to the stars.”
I smiled thinly at the memory. The smile evaporated as I opened the book to Aron’s bookmark. It was at the beginning of the 54th chapter. I flipped a few pages and read the familiar words. I knew that death would be on someone’s doorstep before the day was out in a bleak and dignified announcement. That life and death are promised. And that we are free only in the universe of possibilities our choices make.
I hadn’t been much for making choices. Aron made a choice and he paid for it. I wasn’t sure that Wyatt had made a choice. He was stuck on the path that he was on and he did what he had to do and that was that. But maybe that was me transferring my feelings onto someone else.