Its the day after memorial day, back to college I go. Sitting on the metro bus it got a little too crowded so I offered my seat up, not so much to be a gentlemen but because if I have to be surrounded I prefer to stand. I reach up and grab the railing above head. As we glide into the next stop the doors open before completely stopping. The memories flood in as fast as the passing blades of grass just outside the door.
Afghanistan, 2005, I watch through my legs as the bird lifted off the grass. Usually the helo’s had cloth seats, during the summer they sometimes didn’t have the doors, which was fun. But every once in a blue moon our recon team would get picked up by a bird that didn’t have doors or seats. I loved these rides because it meant I got to clip in and dangle my feet off the side and watch the world get small.
A helo doesn’t fly, it beats the air into submission. That being said, its not like riding in a plane that gets going so fast that it has no choice but to take off. A helo leaps into the air, it doesn’t need that forward speed. This ability to go from land dwelling to airborne in a second truly gives you the sense of flying. Remove yourself from the hull by hanging your legs off the side, with nothing in your view but the rotor you really get to feel it. Freedom and that sting of danger. There’s a saying with the air crew, “If it ain’t leaking its probably out of fluid.” or ” A helo is just 8000 parts flying in tight formation.”
One of the reasons that the sense of freedom was so profound, was escaping whatever had been the reason you were on the ground in the first place. Our little recon team was never in much danger, but if something had ever gone really wrong, we would have all been very dead, very quickly. This fact was not lost on us and we were on edge from the word go. You didn’t sleep, you cat napped, your weapon stayed on fire. It wasn’t because we were there for a fight, but if something did happen we would have very short time to do a lot of business and get the hell out of there before we were compromised and or very much dead. Cortisol (stress hormone) coursed through our veins the whole damn time. It would peak when we would pop smoke and the pilot would confirm color. As soon as my ass would hit that seat, it was like I could breathe. As if I had been holding my breath for the past 24 hours or 3 days or 2 weeks. The bird would struggle at first and then lift off as if it was nothing, the air rushing past, the stress being left behind like a cloud of toxic gas that we were rising above. Afghanistan can be quite beautiful from 600 feet up. There is something weird in finding your freedom in the body of helicopter built before you were born, being flown by a guy still in his twenties that is more concerned about getting back to base in time to catch the football game. It should have been terrifying but in a land of nothing but levels of terror, this was relaxing. I loved riding on the choppers and always flirted with the idea of jumping out.
It would have killed me instantly. I knew that. I was so comfortable with the thought of myself dying that that sense of freedom that I was sure I would find on the way down, almost seemed worth it. I think the only reason I never did it was because I was certain that they would think it was an accident and they would start putting the doors back on and I would ruin the good ride for everyone else. It was there none the less, the desire to jump.
We came in one time onto a “hot LZ” . We pretty much don’t do that anymore. The helos are more important that our troopers lives and so landing in a hot LZ is an antiquated concept. But there we were one nasty evening in Iraq buzzing into the green zone. The natives were restless and had been shelling the green zone almost non-stop for three weeks. I got most of my PTSD from those couple of weeks. But nonetheless we were coming in, I had the headset on and listening in to the pilots talking about the significant action that had been happening on the helo-pad we were about to smack down on. It seemed every time a bird came in the natives would lob a couple of well-aimed round onto the strip. They had taken out a string of blackwater birds out just as the crews got clear. The pilot looked back at me and signaled towards the head set. I cranked the volume up, “What’s up chief?” He replied back, “We are going into a hot LZ, You need to get MP 6 up and ready to move, we are going in fast and are going to essentially do a touch and go.” To which I calmy replied, ” What in the f#$% are you talking about, I am not going to off load a freaking general officer into a hot LZ.” He even more calmly replied, “I don’t give a damn if its the president of the United States, I am under orders to put you down here, do you want to spend the night on Liberty?” The boss would have been pissed so I finally gave in. I broke out a note book and wrote out what was going on and instructions upon wheels down and handed it down. The boss read and then looked up at me incredulously. We had a load of 12 personnel. I was the only enlisted man on the helo. We had 11 officers, only 2 had seen combat the rest were a think tank. The 2 combat officers were the aide and the boss. He silently nodded tapped the captain and showed him the note, he shot me the same look, I just nodded. Just then I got the 30 seconds to LZ over the comms. I unsnapped my seat belt and snapped on my kevlar. I stood up, one of the perks of being a short SOB like me is that you can almost stand in a blackhawk, I gave the hand motions for standby, 30 seconds. The other officers did monkey see monkey do following the boss and the ADC in unfastening the seat belts, and standing in a stack as if they were about to kick in a door and rush in. The wheels touched the dirt, the incoming alarms went off almost simultaneously. You have 0-8seconds from the time the C-RAM alarm goes off until the round impacts, its like a Doppler on steroids. I waited for the helo to slow down enough to where I wouldn’t have to roll upon jumping off, it was an eternity. Good enough just had to do, I turned and jumped, did a crow hop turned and caught the bosses drag strap because as a good paratrooper he had followed me out the door. I got him up and pointed for the bunker, there was no time for customs or courtesies. I had essentially just given a brigadier general a non-verbal ordered and he had followed because it was about staying alive. The rest of the bumbling officers got off. They didn’t move with the correct sense of purpose and the blackhawk was half taking off as the last one jumped off. The birds cleared the strip as the first rounds came in to the strip lighting the place up and making it orange with flames and anger. I was shoving the officers screaming at the top of my lungs a mixture of incoming and run and get to the gdamn bunker. There was the boss standing at the edge of the bunker, still too much combat veteran and not enough general officer in him, yelling at these cherries to get their asses in the bunker, using the hand signals to get us in to the bunker. I made it to him, he tried to pull me into the bunker I pushed him in, The round hit we were all deaf. I wished we had just slept in liberty that night and caught a convoy in the next day. From freedom to the confines of terror, from my little slice of heaven to hell at its finest, from the helo to combat.
We were silent coming back to our hooches, a mixture of the fear bleeding off, coming down from the adrenaline, and still being freaking deaf from the rounds. The adrenaline is the cruelest drug, like a high you didn’t want but you still got the withdraws from it and the hunger for it. There was such a tangible life there, something where every decision was critical and every moment mattered. A place where adrenaline, chaos, terror, and fear were such a part of your life that it forced you to see the beauty of those serene moments of riding on the helo, knowing that these could be your last moments of calm before chaos or the reinforcement that you had survived yet again, against most odds. Purpose and intent seemed to be the running themes.
Fast forward to the present. I surveyed the group in the bus as we jostled in sync to the pot holes. Their faces mostly blank and expressionless, still asleep, heading to work. I had once loved to stare into every troopers face right before a jump. Thats when you learn what courage looks like in a controlled environment. Everyone is scared out of their minds, but the still stand up hook up and jump. None of these people would jump with us, they are the sheep. I would see some of them later today on our way back home to our individual boxes. The guys that I had rode into combat with, I didn’t know minute by minute how long they would be with us or if I would make it back. No critical decisions would be made today, in fact the only decision would be what to eat for lunch. Decisions in combat had been so critical and palpable. They had real repercussions. Not here.
The days of the adrenaline long gone, the doors open as we glide to the stop, there was no desire to jump now. I am one of the sheep again, no longer the free warrior. I had gone from a helo to combat and from chaos to a helo, it seems I have truly made the somber transition from a helo to a metro bus and I am not sure how to cope with that.
This past memorial day, I found myself struggling with the names of the KIA, I had been with. I had to use the KIA list by date to remember their names. It struck me as strange that I could remember the dates of their deaths but not their names. I felt I had some how dishonored them by struggling with their names. I have not forgotten them, they simply have just become part of me.