“Unfinished” and “ARF, Aerial Reaction Force” by William Miller

Posted: January 5, 2014 in Vol. 4: Fall Essays 2013

Unfinished

My foolishness maneuvers from old to new

Taut and tender hands speak over strained faces

I find through spangled fog and star-shined dullness

Duty falls off my ears, staining my chest; I’ll attend to it in due course

My grief shared and borne by brothers

 Then stripped, by the anguish of their deaths

Killed-In-Action

Questions worthless, answers solicit vacancy

Souls cored, spoon scrapped pumpkins

Tear streaked starburst cheeks, I cannot bear to see

Nothing good can come of this

To fulfill, emptiness

To finish, starting

Ached and battered without relief

Color drained

Life ended

Unrealized

Un written and un read

A fucking misdeal

ARF, Aerial Reaction Force

I’ll eat at the flight line. The dining facility isn’t far, but it’s certainly not worth the walk. Besides, I already have a cup of instant coffee, still steaming under the morning Afghan sun. Outside on the metallic walkway of my second story containerized eight by twenty room, with my ass firmly planted in my beach-folding chair, I simply enjoy doing nothing. I put my socked feet up onto the lower bar of the railing overlooking a green and brown sandbagged bunker, flanked by Hesco baskets and jersey barriers. I flex my toes, spreading them as wide as I can, feeling the breeze wrap around the digits bound in the fresh cotton socks. It is still way too early to put on the heavy, battered boots that lie askew on opposite sides of the confining room, one next to a plastic water bottle filled with piss, the other laying at the base of a table I assembled from scrap wood and stolen nails 8 months ago.

The sun is up, but half-erased by the dusty haze, which is permanently affixed to the horizon in this barren country. To the west, I can see the helium filled PGSS balloon tethered near the ridgeline flanking Kandahar Airbase; it’s fairly clear so I estimate about 5-6 miles visibility right now.

That’s good, I say to myself, knowing the weather can change very quickly. No low clouds either.

I sip the lukewarm coffee.

An F-16 noisily rips the air as it makes a low approach over the unseen active runway, shaking everyone on nightshift, only to be followed thirty seconds later by his wingman, Goose.

Pricks!

I take another pull off the coffee, already flavored with powdered Afghan dust. I hold the cup up and examine the familiar logo; a white electric “H” dominates the green, University of Hawaii plastic mug.

“Maybe I’ll retire and go back to school,” I say to the mug, as I turn it slowly, yet again waxing philosophic on an unknown and different life.

After a few more cherished minutes, I stand. The jagged metal grating bites through my socked feet as I carefully and gingerly move back into the room. Once inside my enclosed space, I begin the semi-weekly ritual of loading the pockets of my freshly laundered flight suit. Slim Jims, blood chit, pointee-talkee card, stripped wallet with money and ID card, chap stick, Skoal and reserve Skoal, pen, pencil, markers, earplugs, flashlight, head lamp, Imodium, Leatherman, folding knife, calculator, keys to the ARF van, 9mm Beretta with 3 clips on a holster, small notebook, publications leg strap, reflective belt, sunglasses, tourniquet, bandana, performance planning cards, AA batteries and a dozen other odds and ends, twist and cinch down what was otherwise loose clothing, weighing me down with responsibility. Slapping my dusted and salt-stained hat on my thigh, I grab my rucksack and my meshed dirty laundry bag and head out the door.

I walk two desert blocks to our daily meeting spot where some of the day crews are already waiting for routine transportation to the flight line. Ollie, hands still dirty from yesterday, is playing on his iPad. Essex, eating something messy in a paper wrapper, is talking to Shaffer as he smokes a kinked Marlboro with his hat kicked back on his head. Krause, animatedly gestures with his hands. Brian, who is just coming off nightshift with bags under his bloodshot eyes, still managing to smile at Krause’s vehicular dilemma to buy a Jeep or a “Beemer” when we get back to Oahu.

“Whasup, sir?” Ollie says to me without removing his eyes from his iPad.

“Our asses again,” I respond looking at his iPad screen displaying a Boeing 737 flying over green digital grass in a far away world.

His flight suit stinks of dried, thawed and re-dried sweat.  His breath reeks of coffee and cigarettes, but I could care less, he had a bad day yesterday.

“Taking any fire?” I ask sarcastically, motioning to the iPad.

“None I’d report to the fucking TOC,” he smirks, eyes still locked on the digital 737.

Yesterday he’d spotted an Afghan male in the middle of nowhere who had fired a nonchalant small arms burst at our aircraft.  He was a bit adamant about it, and technically the TOC should be informed, so I told him I’d pass it on during the debrief; and did.  Ollie is Ollie, and I respect him and take pride in my loyalty to him, despite his quirks.  Ollie never tells a complete truth, but he never tells a lie either.  The shots really weren’t significant enough to report, but there was no way I was going to blow him off, we’re crewmembers.  During our debrief, the young S-2 Intelligence Lieutenant asked me to send Ollie to the TOC for further details, where he was subtly mocked by her and her carpel-tunneled minions.  He wasn’t oblivious to this and it pissed me off they would stifle crews out of cynical boredom.  Once he left, I let them know; fairly, tactfully I think.

I pack and set a dip in my mouth, relishing the burn and feel my blood immediately responds to the sting and pungent aroma. The ARF van key is attached to an expended flare cartridge and smartly labeled, “ARF” in black permanent marker; I pull it out of my pocket. The ARF van stands silently beat to shit; a right seat drive, piece of Toyota van, coated from head to toe in dust, dents and scrapes.  Loved for its character by all, but never directly spoken about, it waits with its sliding side door askew and off track. I jump into the driver’s seat and grab a half-empty water bottle, dumping out the remainder into the packed dust near the tire. I spit Skoal into the bottle, replace the cap and shove it into the half-destroyed cup holder, originally ergonomically designed for a Japanese soccer mom. I turn counting heads, mentally checking off scheduled crewmembers.

“Where the fuck is Wagoner?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“I’ll grab him, Sir,” says Sergeant Adams with a lengthy sigh, eyes rolling.

“Thanks,” I smile as he shakes his head for the third or fourth time that week.

“We doing anything today sir?” asks Specialist Essex.

“Yeah, we’ll get more details soon, but we’re pickin up a TST,” I reply.

Time sensitive target missions, or TST’s, were designed to capture high value insurgents at a moment’s notice. This always resulted in a lot of waiting, a lot of nothing, but when the music stopped and the right triggers were met, could easily result in bagging a real bad guy and accomplishing something more than just moving ass and trash (people and cargo) around Southeast Afghanistan.

Suddenly Wagoner, boots unlaced, piles in with Sergeant Adams close behind

“Hell’s, yeah!”  Wagoner bellows, “What’s going on, ARF bitches?”

“Your mom, about my dick,” says Ollie, still buried in his iPad.

Wagoner deflated his smile a bit, flipped a bird and said something I couldn’t hear over the laughter.

“Bout time fucktard,” joked Shaffer, “You get your shit caught in the glory hole again?”

“Like that wasn’t your fat ass on the other side smoking my cock,” replied Wagoner, followed by more laughter.

The drive to Mustang ramp on the other side of the airbase will take enough time to forget the morning and transition into work mode. I put the van in gear and cut across the dirt and rock parking area, weaving between Humvees, MRAP’s and civilian vehicles, making up the lost 5 minutes and waking all eight of us up – 4 pilots, 2 crew chiefs and 2 gunners – in the process.

“Aw fuck, whose fucking laundry bag is this!” yelled Silverman.

No one answered.

“Man put your fucking cum-crusted socks on the inside of the fucking bag,” he continued, pushing it away with an elbow. “That’s just common mother fucking courtesy!”

“That’s your bag, Mr. Silverman,” replies Adams, in a matter-of-fact tone, with a deadpan face.

The van, including Silverman, erupts in laughter and I swerve the vehicle back and forth to accentuate the joke.

“Screw you guys, I’m a going home,” mimicked Silverman working his best Eric Cartman and grinning openly.

“Merica!” shouts Wagoner.

“Fuck, yeah!” respond most of the crewmembers.

After a quick stop at the Mustang ramp laundry shack, to drop off jizz-starched socks, I pull into the gravel by our company area, slam on the brakes and yell, “Squirrel!”  Everyone jerks forward laughing and groaning.

“Fuck you, Sir,” says Ollie, now off the iPad and grinning at the morning parking ceremony.

“Anytime, Ollie,” I retort, snapping the transmission into park, twisting the key and opening the door.

I receive the daily brief and learn the specific details of the TST mission from the TOC. Two suspected intermediate-level IED trainers are expected for a meeting in a small village.  I forget the name of the village as soon as I hear it, but don’t care because I have the grid on my kneeboard.  These men are directly responsible for multiple allied casualties. They travel with heavy security and do not fuck around.  They’re real bad guys, and I’m excited at the thought of removing them as a threat. It might make my presence here worth it, making the absence from my family, worth it. Just like Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” I think sarcastically to myself.

I brief the crews in detail, field questions and ensure everything and everyone is prepared. Now satisfied, I plop my ass down on a dusty couch in our operations area and start working a Sudoku puzzle. We wait. We are all relaxed, but every time the phone rings, we sit up and wait for a reaction from the person taking the call. The last four calls were administrative bullshit, which gets the heart racing for a few seconds, before we continue doing nothing.

Then it comes.

“Blackjack Operations, Lieutenant Pankey,” says the platoon leader receiving the call.

Without a word, still holding the phone to his ear, he looks and points at me, moving his finger in a circle.

“ARF’s launching!” I yell to everyone in the building.

Everyone knows what to do and where to go, but our stomachs are still churning with excitement, fear and some type of brown meat in gravy sauce we had for lunch.

The trigger met, bearded and sun-glassed SEALs are loading into the back of the aircraft.

Climbing into the cockpit, I immediately turn on the battery, fuel boost pump and start the APU, a small turbine engine, used for power, hydraulics and pneumatics on the ground.  While it spools up to operating speed, the pilots strap in and the crew chief and gunner are standing outside their windows, behind the pilot seats; ready, more or less, with fire extinguishers.

“Clear on one!” I yell, having already engaged the starter button.

“Clear!” yells Essex.

The rotor begins to turn, slowly at first, and then increasing its speed; the starter drops out as the engine reaches self-sustaining speed and we repeat the process on the second engine.

In one breath I spit out the checklist from memory, “Drop out on two, TGT stabilized, Ng 63 within 3, out of the avoid range 20, 40, 60, 90, pressures are good, hydraulic lights are out, back-up hydraulic pump switch auto, flight controls hold, locked, set, clear the gear, advancing PCL’s to fly!”

No one listens to the words anymore, it’s just a mantra or a prayer recited before dinner, letting you know, all is well and it’s time to eat.

“Droops out!” yells Essex as he steps up on the right main wheel and crawls in through his window.

Our aircraft is the lead Blackhawk and falls under the call sign “Ozzie 72” while our trail aircraft is designated “Diamondhead 20.”

“Diamondhead 20, Ozzie 72 out of parking,” I say over number 1 FM radio. Met with a Roger, I quickly make an advisory call over the VHF radio for other traffic on the ramp, followed by a call to the TOC letting them know we are wheels up.

The data load programmed into the GPS swings our navigation needle towards the route past the Kandahar airspace towards shithole ville.  We keep the aircraft at 120 knots and 1,500 feet above the ground.

Established and enroute, I rebrief the plan.

“Essex, Chapman, remember we are landing to the north of the ville facing west,” I say over the intercom. “Chappy watch closely and remember the rules of engagement, you’re on the ville side, the bad guy side. Trail, the second aircraft in the flight, will be landing on the east side of the ville facing north,” I emphasize. “Don’t shoot them.”

“Roger that, Sir.”  Chapman responds professionally.

To the entire crew I announce, “There will be two armed, reconnaissance Kiowa helicopters, orbiting above 500 feet, watch for them and any squirters unassing the ville.”

“Dust?” offers Viray, the copilot who hails from Waipahu.

“Oh yeah, heavy dust, as per usual, winds should be from the north at 10 to 15 knots, so that’s good, just call the dust as it forms,” I half-speak, somewhat distracted by radio traffic.

“I’ll call dust Chap,” says Essex.

“Five minutes,” Viray announces over the intercom.

Without keying the mike, Chapman holds up five fingers and shouts to the SEALs, “Five minutes!”

The valley is beyond the next ridgeline and huge, easily ten kilometers between ridgelines and in wide open desert with no cover. Everything is brown and dusty, including the aged mountains standing archaic and withered like old judgmental men.

Fuck them mountains, I think to myself.

I call the lead Kiowa over the secure FM radio.  “Thunder 23, Ozzie 72.”

“Thunder 23,” comes through the radio.

“Roger, Ozzie 72, flight of two UH-60’s, inbound, 3 minutes, searching,” I say curtly. We are still visually trying to acquire their aircraft. It’s crucial to maintain brevity on the radios to reduce confusion and allow others time to talk, especially when the shit gets mean.

“Roger, in sight,” says Thunder 23.

“Fuck, anybody got em?”  I say to our crew over the intercom, still searching.

“In sight,” responds Chapman. “10 O’clock, 5 klicks.”

“Roger 23, have you in sight,” I say dispassionately, still scanning the 10 O’clock position, looking for the little aircraft.

“Ozzie 72, Thunder 23, we’ll be high over your left shoulder and maintain 500 feet and above,” says Thunder 23, sounding like a Captain.

“72, roger, we’ll remain below 500,” I reply sounding like a Warrant Officer.

Viray messages the TOC on the electronic kneeboard, and does a before landing check.  Everyone shifts in their seats as Chapman yells above the noise, “One minute!”

We are well within range of any large caliber weapons and small arms as well. Seeing as how this is a big bad guy meeting, the possibility of heavy engagement is real.  We all feel exposed, but the rote training kicks in, and we’re all business, working at hyper speed.

I quickly scan the ville as we make our approach from the east, towards the west on the north side of the town. There isn’t time for a good recon, lest we alert the insurgents, so we all take in as much as we can before landing. There are about fifteen small structures, with scattered farm animals milling about, unaware of the day’s activities. A few vehicles, beat up trucks and sedans pepper the town. A single dirt road cuts north to south through the center of the ville, extending in plain sight more than five kilometers in both directions.  Not seeing any people, save two burqa-clad women sitting by a tree, I shift my focus for an LZ, and then bounce my eyes back and forth between the ville and the LZ. The LZ on the far side of the road, abeam the northern most building looks relatively flat, but it’s impossible to tell until you’re just off the ground.  Dust will be heavy there and it’s really too close to the buildings, but it will reduce the move time for the SEALs and we have armor. I call out my spot to the crew, and we start our approach, dreading the inevitable dust cloud that is already stirring behind us from the rotor wash.

“Dust at the tail!” “Cabin door! Gunner’s window! Cockpit!” Essex shouts.

The tail wheel is down by the time the dust comes through the doorless cockpit, blinding everyone, and we have no more forward airspeed as I let the main wheels touchdown with authority, discovering a surprise 5-degree slope to the right.  I reduce the collective to take out the pitch in the rotor blades and the dust starts to ease as the SEALs are already exiting the left door, moving crouched and at the ready under the rotor disk.

Before they are all out, I say, “Before take-off check.”

Viray shouts, “One and two to fly, systems normal operating ranges, avionics as required, crew, passengers and mission equipment!”

“Clear right and up!” Essex says.

“Clear left and above!” Chapman adds.

“72 is up,” I announce over our internal radio, letting the trail aircraft know where we are. Without hesitation, I apply a generous amount of collective to get us up and out of the dust cloud, once clear, I nose the aircraft over towards the west, keeping an eye on the ville, which is wide-awake now.

Clearly, the element of surprise is gone. An Afghan male dressed in white speeds away on a motorcycle headed south on the dirt road with two adult males both heading southeast through the desert. We stay west of the ville by about 3 kilometers watching for squirters heading our way, but the fight is essentially over for us until the extraction; too many cooks in the kitchen. The Kiowa’s circle over the town, and provides over watch for the SEALs on the ground. Radio chatter is cryptic as they push from building to building. Overhead an unseen AC-130 gunship puts some rounds on the dirt road on a large bulky satchel, dropped by the southbound squirter on the motorcycle.

Suddenly the Kiowa yells, “All players, cease fire, cease fire, cease fire!”

Driving northbound towards the town is a light pickup truck packed with 6-8 kids in the bed. The high speed of the vehicle leaves little doubt it’s a tactical move designed to disrupt our operation, facilitating the escape of our targets.

“Fuck me,” I say to no one in particular.

The vehicle pulls into the ville and is halted by the SEALs, but now the dynamic has changed. I quickly realize they aren’t really trying to endanger the lives of the children; they simply trust we aren’t going to fire anywhere near them.

“Fucking clever,” I say to myself without keying the mike.

The SEALs soon call for extraction and we turn inbound, this time both aircraft will land to the predetermined east side of the ville, facing north. By now, there are plenty of civilian bystanders watching from the edge of town as the SEALs tactically move towards the aircraft with two zip-tied Afghans.  Viray lands our aircraft without incident and Chapman scans the ville with the barrel of his M240. The SEALs, now staged into two groups each with an Afghan prisoner, move towards us at a swift pace. They pile in, seating the prisoner in the jump seat behind Viray and me. I run through the before take-off check and we depart towards Kandahar. Looking back at the Afghan detainee, I look the enemy in the eye.  He’s smiling, eyes wide and ablaze like a 5 year old kid with a weathered 55 year-old face. He is so happy to be flying and won’t stop looking around at the scenery.  I’m a bit dumfounded. Viray notices too and we look at each other and back at him. He still grins from ear to ear.

I key the intercom and say, “Viray, I’m fucking retiring and going back to school, you know anything about UH West Oahu?”

 

Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 313: Creative Writing

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