18 January 2009

Thoughts on helicopters

The LZ (landing zone) here on FOB McSleepy is right behind our CHU. The birds come in, the birds go out. We get the Kiowas of the Scout Weapons Teams, small birds that land for fuel. We get the Blackhawks, running troops around, ferrying Them Who Be Important, doing all the miscellaneous aerial labor of a battlefield where ground travel is still problematic. And we get the CH-47 Chinooks (more affectionately called the Shithook). The ’47 is the biggest bird that flies in here (the Army does not stock any variant of the CH-53, my favorite Marine Corps bird, in its Big Army inventory), and we can tell when they come in – our quarters vibrate noticeably.

Although the birds come and go all day and all night, we still look when it’s light (my roomie, in fact, loves the helicopters and will occasionally throw on her night vision and go watch them in the dark. Strange woman). We glance up, throw the flight into a mental classification (the bird bringing the colonel to visit, the bird bringing the guys back from leave, the regular bird to Big Brigade Base, etc) and move on.

But one makes us stop and do the instant mental inventory of the Soldiers we own. The MEDEVAC bird.

We have, if my count is correct, medevac’d exactly ONE combat casualty since I’ve been down here. The day our Friendly Neighbors decided to shoot at us while we were out walking around, they got one young man in the leg with a ricochet.

We brought him back to FOB by ground, then passed him off to the medics. A couple of rifle squads went back out to look for the shooter, and we “leaf-eater” types were dropped off here. I was walking down toward the latrine when I heard a bird coming in. I looked up, saw the red cross on the side.

At that point, we knew our wounded comrade was most likely not in mortal danger. The medic on scene had not been overwhelmingly worried about him, nor had the medics here on the FOB. Most of these guys have been around the block and I trust them to tell us when it’s a appropriate to panic – they weren’t, so we didn’t.

But they were still lifting our soldier out (makes sense, why not take him to Big Brigade Base for a more thorough checkup?) and when I looked up and saw the red-cross marked Blackhawk coming in, I stood and ground my teeth and was struck by the urge to either spit or cry. I opted to do neither, they lifted him out, and he was back five days later with a Purple Heart and a bandage.

The way we’re set up, we have a slightly plused-up team (one extra CA NCO and a staff sacrifice – my roommate) supported two companies and a battalion headquarters that operate over a large area with several reasonably large towns. There are times –more than I’d like – when my soldiers are out without me. Sometimes I’m on the base, sometimes I’m on another mission elsewhere.

Once in a while, I’ll be on the FOB, and one of “the kids” will be on mission. I’ll hear a bird coming, and, although I know the dangerous town is just down the road, close enough so I’d hear an explosion, and although I know that if something terrible happened, it’s a small FOB and we’d know immediately – even though I know all those things – I still feel that clench in my gut. I look up and I squint into the sun, stock still until I’m sure there’s no painted-on red cross.

Because that, folks, I am learning, is the Big Fear. I’m afraid of lots of things here – cars that blow up, roads that blow up, potholes that look like they might blow up, so on and so forth. But the thing I’m finding really makes my blood run cold is the idea of something happening to one of my dudes, especially when I’m not with them.

Only one of my three has combat time, but I have two sergeants and a brand-new staff sergeant, so I cannot in good conscience treat them like dull-witted privates and hover over them every day. I’d like to, though. I’d like to hover over them and watch the alleys they pass and the rooms they enter, as though that is enough to prevent something awful from happening.

It doesn't work that way, though.