Thursday, June 09, 2005

In the Blink of an Eye

The final vestiges of our task force finally closed on Bagram a few days ago, more than 2 weeks after we started the move. We have had people here prepping the ground for our occupation of camp Teufel Hunden (Devil Dog), one of Bagram's many subdivisions, for about a month now and even though all our people all of our people have made the move from Salerno, we still have a long way to go before it will feel like home.

There is a sense of sterility about Bagram, not in the sense of cleanliness, but rather it's safety. We know that we are still squarely in a combat zone, but there is a sense that we are watching an "R" rated movie that has been edited for network television. The only hostile activity we tend to see is that which flickers across our computer monitors or broadcast over video teleconferences. Even while seeing and hearing these constant reports, we watch them from a position that carries a sense of invulnerability. Living in this isolation, this no-mans land between civilization and the foxhole, complacancy comes easy. Our vast resources of technology and machinery can whisk us from this fortress into harm's way in a matter of minutes and it requires a significant mental effort to dissipate every shred of complacency along the way. It's not in the cave-dwellers best interest to provide reminders that your world can change in the blink of an eye, he would rather just ruin your day..or your life. We have to remember this and practice it whenever our mission requires us to catch a ride to some remote location. The aviators have to live it on a daily basis, their survival may well depend on this binary way of life being ingrained in them, and for that, they have my total respect.

When you catch a ride on a one of Big Windy's Chinooks, there is an orderly and prescribed manner in which everything is done. Some hand and arm signals from the Crew Chief or Flight Engineer guide you to seats and ensure that you are strapped in. The overwhelming cacophony of engines, hydraulics, and rotor blades make the earplugs a necessity and you soon find yourself in a muffled aluminum cacoon whisking over the countryside faster than you could ever imagine that this ungainly beast could move. Crew members in flight helmets with visors drawn man the machine guns at either door and on the ramp while either a second Chinook or an Apache leads or trails nearby. The windows are open and the ramp is down to accomodate the gunners, and at this time of year the cooler air from the higher altitudes swirling through the cabin is a welcome respite from the overbearing heat. The swaying and vibration contribute a new but familiar aspect to the sense of security and you soon find yourself drifting into a slumber like a child in a carseat.

Perhaps it's the change in altitude, or the rotorblades cutting the air at a different pitch that stirs you, and though slightly disoriented you are fully aware of the Chinook's descent to a landing zone. You become aware of the heat again and as you shift in your seat to relieve the stiffness of your immobility you feel your T-shirt sticking to your skin. You know your t-shirt is saturated with sweat now due to the weight of your body armor. You feel persperation trickle from beneath your helmet but it dries to your cheeks and neck after being exposed to the constantly wamer air circulating through the cabin.

You try to shake the last remnants of slumber from your system as the crew prepares for landing. The door gunner and flight engineer are leaning out their respective passenger doors searching for any hazards to the sides and rear of the aircraft outside the pilot's field of vision. You know from routine that there will be personnel waiting by the landing zone to retrieve all the cargo tied down to the floor of the cabin. It will be rolled off, then you and the other passengers will disembark. There will be other people waiting to load additional cargo, and more passengers waiting for the crews hand and arm signals before boarding and buckling in.

Reading the reports as they filtered in from Shkin, I can imagaine myself leaning forward, elbows on knees, trying to ignore what seems to be the painstakingly slow progress of the cargo download, wanting nothing more than to step out into the open air, to a place whereI could rid myself of this ungainly armor. The prescribed routine is followed methodically though, and in routine we find security.

The thud, clearly audible but possibly unidentifiable over the continuing cacophny over turbines and rotorblades, accompanied by the vibration would have caused me to raise my head. A geyser of dirt, rock, dust and metal. People scrambling. Crew-members in antimated inaudible converstation through the intercom. The increased pitch of the turbine engines. Different vibrations. Unfamiliar but clearly urgent hand and arm signals would send me fumbling for the seatbelt, adrenaline surging. The whine of the engines rapidly decreasing. Stumbling for the ramp. Open air thick with dust. Bodies prone. Scrambling over uneven ground. Collapsing into a crowded bunker heart pounding beneath the armor.

I don't know the details of what happened at Shkin on Wednesday other than the Chinook carrying our people was on the ground when the rocket exploded. The pilot's immediate reaction to get the aircraft out of danger was thwarted by the fast action of the flight engineer who had seen shrapnel hit the aircraft. Staying on the ground was now the more prudent action and the aircraft was promptly evacuated.

Two who were waiting to load or unload that aircraft perished and more were wounded in that blink of an eye that takes us from routine to crises, but the passengers and the crew who were charged with their safety, emerged shaken but unscathed. For that we are thankful, but now comes the delicate, mental balancing act of guilt and gratitude for the safety of those we know and the loss of those we don't.

So here we sit in Bagram, piecing this together as we read reports and desprately try to contact our people and wondering what sort of perverse mental attitude we maintain that makes us silently wish we were back in Salerno. I know it's nothing more than loathing the separation, not from the danger, but from the ability to directly influence the actions; the futility and helplessness we feel can be overwhelming. Be that as it may, that is our cross to bear, and we remain thankful for the professionalism and dedication of all these Army Aviators; all the Siegs and Purdys and Frazees, all the crew chiefs and FEs, be they Big Windy or Saber, Blackhawk, Chinook or Apache, anyone who can make going from one place to another seem safe and routine when your life is balancing tenuously on so many different levels, has my undying respect.


Mom said...

Your Respect I am sure is appreciated. They have mine as well. As do you.
I wonder over the part you wrote about wanting to be there. I do appreciate the way you put that. So many have tried to say that but seem unable to come up with the words to express it. May you be safe. Prayers from me.

Apache Mom said...

Thank you so much for the feeling and words that you write. I would like you to know that all military moms are behind all of our children there. Especially for me, I am grateful for your written words, as my boy has crossed paths with you I'm sure. You have mentioned his name and it has given me some peace from my worry. God Bless You and Keep You and All of Our Boys

Wild Thing said...

Thank you for so many things. Thank you for having your blog so those of us can go to it and read how you and others are doing. Thank you for your service to our country, for our safety and freedom that we have because of your dedication and service.

Anonymous said...

I am hooked on what you have to say about operations in Afghanistan. My son is with Blackjack. Though I am often saddened by the news that you give, I at least know what's going on in the A.O. Prayers for the families of those that were lost and the injured.