Sometimes, when you least expect it, your life can completely change.
Have you ever felt responsible for something you know was not your fault? You know you’re innocent, but you can’t give yourself permission to feel absolution. I am a MEDEVAC pilot in the Army. I vowed to dedicate my life to saving people but in doing so I have seen myself fail, time and time again.
The dead haunt me. They stare through me. I try to fly as fast as I can. Sometimes I can’t fly fast enough. I am the chariot driver that takes people to the grave. In 2010, just before Christmas, I was flying the chariot over a dark expanse high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
“FOB Corners, Dustoff is inbound at this time for patient pickup. Please confirm the nine line.” the co-pilot said over the radio. A garbled voice responded, “Roger Dustoff, Updates as follows, Line 3… one Alpha, infant, one Charlie, 12 year old. Break. Line 8, Charlie, how copy?” “Copy all, we’re five minutes out. Pelkey you got it?” the pilot said. “Roger, two civilians, one of them urgent.” the medic said. Nobody said another word. Nobody had to. Two kids, and one them was a baby who was hurt severely.
“Starting a clock. Monitoring your temps.” the pilot said as he reached up and started a timer which would warn them before the engines overheated. The co-pilot was pulling the collective stick up close to his ribcage with his left hand. His other hand held the cyclic in a death grip, jamming it into the instrument panel. The whole aircraft was pitched forward like a dive-bomber, rocketing through the cold night.
The moon had long since been swallowed up by the impenetrable cloud cover, as solid as a stone ceiling. The darkened cockpit was awash in an eerie glow from his night vision goggles, like a drag racer under a green traffic light. The co-pilot’s hands were stiff like a manikin, glued to the controls, tense and sweaty, encased in rank smelling flight gloves which hadn’t been swapped out since the last time he had been on duty and nobody had been wounded. That was far too long ago to remember.
“Had to be my last night on this cycle.” the co-pilot thought to himself. His mind raced as fast as his aircraft. For 13 days he had slept in the same clothes. He was still new to this job. Everybody else had a system. He didn’t have one yet. The old guys dropped their boots by the side of their bunks. They relaxed between missions. They slept. He couldn’t decide if he was jealous that they slept, or embarrassed that he didn’t. Tomorrow he would come off of duty for a day and reset.
Tomorrow was laundry day and maybe a meal or two in the Jordanian chow hall. A phone call. Tomorrow was a phone call to his wife. He would try to reach her on the old laptop he picked up second hand. Sometimes at 3 am the bandwidth was good enough to hear her voice and ask her how her day went. Tomorrow was going to be a great day.
All he had to do was get through the evening and do it right. Next to his side in the Blackhawk cockpit, a small gingerbread man ornament hung. It was a present from his wife. This was the first Christmas they had ever spent apart. He had kept the ornament with him whenever he flew, but Christmas was next week. He’d finally hang it on his small Charlie Brown tree when he got back.
He had heard about this remote outpost from other MEDEVAC pilots. It was getting hit a lot this month. The market place next to the base was crowded during the day, making a tempting target. Ground forces were making their presence known to the local populace and winning their trust. Patrols would go out regularly. Most pick-ups were from IED explosions. He accepted the missions as normal for this part of Afghanistan. He picked up bad guys and good guys alike. Both sides were in a tenuous contest of will. He wondered who would break first.
He looked down at his compass on the dash and saw the GPS directional needle pointing towards the wounded. He still couldn’t see anything, but trusted they there in the soup. He pulled the cyclic back into his stomach, pressed on the left pedal, dropped the collective in his left hand and kicked the aircraft out of trim, drifting the big 17,000 helicopter into a skidding deceleration mid-air. The aircraft rolled left on its side like a fishing trawler in a huge wave. The nose rose up and filled the windshield with inky black nothing, as the sporadically illuminated line of green dots that was the horizon disappeared into the dashboard. “FOB Corners, Dustoff is short final, time now.”
“Right rear will call the dust.” said the crew chief in the back. “Roger, right rear, you got the call.” The pilot said. The crew chief loosened his inertia reel harness that allowed he and his seat belts to position outside of the aircraft for a better view. His entire body, from his knees upwards, was hanging in the still deafening roar of the wind and his fingers began to numb in the freezing mountain air.
As the pilot righted the helicopter, the nose leveled off and the landing zone came into sight. “I have the LZ.” the co-pilot said. “It’s a walled compound Sir, their ain’t much room.” the crew chief said. “I’m guarding the controls for you buddy.” the pilot said. “Thanks Mitch” the co-pilot said. As the tail dropped to the ground and the aircraft slowed, a Tsunami of glowing green dust instantly shot up a hundred feet in the air and sprinted towards the crew, threatening to swallow them. “You gotta get in on the ground before we brownout man!” the pilot sounded worried. “I know, I know!” the co-pilot said, his heart threatening to pound out the body armor covering his chest. “Commit, commit, commit!!” the pilot said, pretending their was a string from his face to the ground, and doing his best to ride it down like an Olympic diver.
A high stonewall, maybe 15 feet, encased the landing area, which was only as big as two aircraft. “Their ain’t enough room Sir, and some idiot is smack dab in the middle of the LZ trying to wave us in. This LZ is too small and the wall is too high to clear! WE’RE GONNA BROWN OUT!” the crew chief screamed. The pilot got on the radio and tried to get the Soldier signaling them to move out of their way. “FOB Corners, be advised we have you in sight, tell your Soldier to move out of the landing zone before we hit him.” “Dustoff, we don’t have comms with the guys on the LZ, be advised, the patient is critical.” the radio operator said.
“Roger. We don’t have a choice. Call the dust right rear!” the pilot said. It was all over in less than four seconds. The crew chief sounded like an auctioneer, “Tail is clear! Dust at the tail, transition, cabin, my window, your door, clear down right! Instantly they were all blind. The copilot shoved the collective to the floor and smashed the top of the brake pedals with his toes as hard as he could, sticking the landing like a gymnast. He held the cyclic steady in a death grip, trying to keep the blades from decapitating the foolish grunt that wouldn’t move. The whole world stopped. Through the night vision goggles, the dust scintillated in the whirlwind of the landing. Sparkling bits of green flashes mixed with the thick, choking talcum powder of Afghanistan filled the pilots neck and helmet. The dust parted like a ghostly sheet, revealing a visibly shaking figure in the black mist. The young soldier who had been trying to signal them walked away from under the rotor blades, his knees buckling, yet still unaware as to how close he had come to losing his hands, his head or both.
“Get the kids now, GO!” the pilot said. “I’m out!” the medic shouted. In a few moments he was back with both children and an elderly looking man. “We gotta go, and we gotta go fast, Sir. The kid ain’t gonna make it!” the medic said. In seconds they lifted off into the night. The co-pilot pushed the helicopter hard. The blades tore into the air.
Then it happened.
“The baby’s gone.”
That was all the two aviators heard from the medic. The whole aircraft shook like an earthquake, as he demanded maximum power the entire way back to the emergency room, but nobody seemed to notice. “He’s not dead. Not till I say he is.” the co-pilot said to himself. He prayed. No sooner had the aircraft bounced from the touchdown than the doors were flung open and the nurses and doctors had the little ones in their arms, running back to the operating room.
After they shut down the co-pilot drifted into the emergency room to find the infant’s family that had ridden with them. No words were spoken. The doctors and nurses didn’t see him. He hid in the shadows of the room. He moved in stages. He shuffled his feet towards the 12 year old girl and her elderly relative. He stopped, wondering what to say. He’d move a bit more, and then stop again. A nurse finally saw him and said, “That’s her uncle.” The co-pilot asked the interpreter to translate.
He knew this old man was younger than he looked. He stared into his eyes. There were no tears. Likely that this man had lost much of his ability to cry a lifetime ago. “Your nephew… he is with God. I am so sorry.” the co-pilot said. The old man gripped the co-pilot’s hands with both of his. The co-pilot and the old man from two different worlds embraced. One more look of understanding and the uncle went to sit down on the chair beside the high gurney that held his 12-year-old niece. She lay on her side, her arms folded prayerfully, staring straight through the building, her huge brown eyes fixated on some other place or some other time. She was in the marketplace when the Taliban launched a mortar. It hit them both. Her brother flew up out of her arms.” the interpreter said. She felt responsible. The co-pilot felt responsible. Everybody felt responsible… except those responsible.
The co-pilot reached into his pocket, pulled out the little gingerbread man from his wife, and gave it to the girl. Her eyes caught the strange shaped ornament for a brief second and then returned to the place in her mind again.
The blurry-eyed co-pilot walked away as fast as he could, into the night air. Above him the clouds were now parting, revealing the deepness of space and the twinkling of stars.
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