16-17 January 2008 (ON PATROL)

MISSION: 1st Platoon executes nighttime dismounted patrol vicinity village of 14th Ramadan, in order to assess CLC posture and readiness as well as village conditions during hours of darkness.

After grabbing a bit of dinner at the Camp Taji chow hall, we all headed back to our living area to get our gear on and make final preparations for a night patrol through 14th Ramadan.

In the room, I told Leo that I had been thinking about this patrol, and I had a weird feeling about it. “I don’t think we’re gonna get blown up or anything, but I’ve got a feeling that something is going to happen,” I told him.

As we tossed the essentials into our assault packs and double checked our gear, I attached an infrared (IR) strobe light to my vest, and threw extra batteries, chem lights, and even a VS-17 signal panel into my bag. I pulled apart my M4 and my 9mm pistol and wiped the moving parts down with a light coat of oil before reassembling everything.

Leo peaked around the corner of his locker in our room with an eyebrow raised. “You really are worried about this patrol, huh?” he said.

“Yeah, man. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had this fucked up feeling all day,” I replied.

I lifted my body armor and slid my head through the hole at the top, then wrapped the side panels around my abdomen, securing the Velcro strips that hold it all together. Bouncing up and down a couple of times, I shrugged my shoulders and pulled at the collar, adjusting to the wait and making everything as comfortable as possible. I threw my assault pack over one shoulder, grabbed my helmet and rifle, and headed out the door.

As I walked toward our vehicle staging area, I knocked on my soldiers’ doors. “2nd Squad! Time to go, fuckers,” I shouted.

2 Vic was back from the mechanics, and I was happy to be rolling out in my own truck again. I walked up the ramp, ducking my head as I stepped into the passenger area. Moving to the middle of the truck, next to the gunner’s seat, I dropped my gear in front of my seat, and plugged my headset into the comm’s box. Spc. Crapenter and Sgt. Taaga were busy making last minute checks.

“Hey, T. What else do you guys need before we go?”

“Hey Sgt. Taylor, we’re all set,” he replied.

I liked having Sgt. Taaga as my vehicle commander. He was responsible, hardworking, and I always knew that I could count on him.

My squad arrived moments later, and we did our final checks and inspections. Sgt. Bridges and Sgt. Fraleigh went around to their soldiers, making sure each man had the equipment he was supposed to have; ammunition, water, dog tags, ID card, batteries, night vision, weapons, etc.

Ready To Roll #2

2nd Squad NCOs: (L to R) Me, Sgt. Bridges, and Sgt. Fraleigh getting ready to roll.

It was about 7:30 P.M. when we finished our patrol brief, and got everyone loaded up.

After doing our usual comm’s checks on the platoon and company frequencies, we got word to roll out.

On our way to the gate, Lt. Schardt got a call from battalion headquarters asking us to return to the TOC, so we found a place to turn around and headed in that direction. When we turned around, our vehicle shuddered a little, and started making some unusual noises, so I called Lt. Schardt and told him something wasn’t right with our truck still. He told me to stop by the motor pool and see if a mechanic was available to take a look at it.

The platoon headed toward our battalion TOC, while we made a quick stop to get it checked out. Luckily, there were still a couple of General Dynamics guys there working, and they came out and took a look. They told us to go ahead and roll, but they suggested that we get it back into the shop as soon as possible.

We left the motor pool and caught up with the rest of the platoon just in time for an intelligence briefing. We were told that battalion had received intel about a possible ambush aimed at a supply convoy that was currently underway on MSR Tampa. In response, a drone had been launched, and its operator had spotted a group of armed individuals in a palm grove on the east side of the highway. The drone was still on station, and the operator estimated that there were 12 to 15 of them gathered there.

The briefing continued, “Elements of Charlie company are currently operating in the area. They have one patrol southwest of Mshahdh and another to the east toward Tarymiyah.”

If intelligence was correct, our planned patrol to 14th Ramadan would have had us pass through the insurgents’ kill zone ahead of the supply convoy. An infantry platoon is a somewhat harder target than a logistics convoy full of quartermaster soldiers and truck drivers.

Lieutenant Colonel Boccardi, the battalion commander, changed our plans. He directed us to roll out and clear along the east side of MSR Tampa where the gathering had been spotted. They wanted us to find the ambush before the ambush found a convoy of coalition forces. 2nd platoon would roll with us, and clear the west side of the highway as well.

Initially, we were told that we would be dismounted, walking through the palm groves looking for the group of insurgents, but that changed before we even got outside of the wire. Someone at HQ had decided that we should remain in our vehicles when we reached the ambush site. We were supposed to drive slowly up the northbound lanes of MSR Tampa, while 2nd platoon stayed a couple hundred meters behind us driving in the southbound lanes. In addition to our plans changing, we were informed that the gathering had grown from about 15 to nearly 30 people, and that they had started walking to the south after spotting the UAV circling above them.

We are going to roll right into a complex ambush, I thought. As we rolled out, I was just imagining that there would be IEDs on Tampa, and small arms fire and RPGs immediately following the detonation. 2nd platoon is going fishing, I told myself, and we are their bait.

We headed north on Tampa, passed through Mshahdh, and approached the target area. The temperature had dropped to just below freezing, which made standing in the top hatch of a Stryker almost unbearable. My face was red and aching, and the wind was just cutting through my uniform, chilling me to the bone. and the wind was cutting right through my uniform. We all had plenty of cold weather clothing (snivel gear), but we couldn’t really wear it when we were out on patrol. If we made some sort of contact and had to be out on the ground moving, we would easily overheat if we were wearing extra layers of clothing. As a result, we just dealt with the cold.

We reached the area where the insurgents had been spotted, and Lt. Schardt had Spc. Eichler slow down to almost a crawl. The rest of our drivers followed suit, and we crept through the area, scanning the roadway for IEDs and watching for movement off to the sides. We didn’t see a thing, so Lt. Schardt reported back to the company that there was no enemy activity in the area.

We halted and waited for further instructions. Cpt. Veath finally gave us the go ahead to proceed with our originally planned patrol to 14th Ramadan. My soldiers were clearly disappointed. They had been pumped up thinking we were going out hunting for a platoon-sized group of insurgents, and it was a real let down when we didn’t find anything. All of that excitement had been for nothing.

Our patrol through Ramadan was quiet. After we walked the loop around the village and checked in with the CLCs, we loaded up to return to Taji.

We headed west toward MSR Tampa, and I checked my watch. We were running a little later than we had initially planned, but it looked like we would be back in on Taji around midnight, and that wasn’t bad at all considering all of the stuff that had come up.

The ride back to Taji was cold and quiet. For the most part, we were alone on the highway. There really wasn’t any radio traffic to speak of either, and the guys had all come down off of their adrenaline rushes from earlier. Most of them were dozing in the back of the Stryker. We had rigged some wiring to connect an iPod to our vehicle’s communication system, so those of us wearing headsets or vehicle crew helmets were listening to music on the way back. After all of the excitement, I think everyone was looking forward to getting back and calling it a night.

The main gate at Camp Taji had just come into view when Lt. Schardt announced over the radio that we had another change of mission. “Battalion wants us to proceed north to the IA checkpoint near 14th Ramadan and link up with a platoon from Charlie Company. How copy? Over.”

They say that soldiers aren’t happy if they aren’t bitching. I can assure you that we had a happy platoon that night. We were all cold and tired, and we were all pissed that we were being called all over the place for nothing.

We made a u-turn right in front of the gate and headed back to the north. We pulled off to the side of the road just south of the checkpoint and waited for the platoon from Charlie. When they arrived, Lt. Schardt went and met with their platoon leader to find otu what exactly was going on.

The latest intel’ said that the group of insurgents that our UAV had spotted earlier, had entered a house on the west side of MSR Tampa. This platoon from C Co. was going to surround the house and call the inhabitants out. It was going to be a sort of knock and search. They needed us to set up blocking positions to the south and west, to make sure that no one tried to escape from the house as the men from our sister company approached. Our job was to capture or kill anyone who fled from the home.

It was after 1 A.M. when the platoon from C Co. was in position and ready to execute their mission. We dismounted on the highway and walked west through some tall grass and open fields to the south of our target. We ran into another house and a canal, and then turned north toward Charlie’s target, and found a spot with a good view of the house and the surrounding fields. It was a shitty location, because we were back-lit, and there was absolutely no cover or concealment. Thankfully, our Stryker crews, still parked on Tampa, could see us and were able to offer of some rear security so we could focus most of our attention on the target.

16 Jan Blocking Position

A rough sketch of our blocking position. We did have some eyes to the south and west, in addition to our Strykers watching us from the highway.

We were tired, and the night was growing colder. Still, we all hoped for some action.

Soon after we set into our blocking positions we saw lights moving around the target house, and it looked like someone was searching for something. We called up what we saw, so that it could be passed on to the Charlie Company guys. It turns out that it was the Charlie Company guys. They had gotten two of their Strykers buried in the mud, and they were trying to get themselves out so they could finish setting in around the house.

I heard the call to Lt. Schardt come across the radio, “Bushmaster Red 6, Dragon 6 says to hold your position until dawn. Over.”

Fuck! I thought. We are going to sit here and freeze our asses off. Half of our platoon is sleeping in their Strykers with the heat on, and we are stuck out here without any snivel gear.

“Roger that,” Lt. Schardt replied.

He walked over to give me an update, but before he could even say anything, I started bitching, “I know, Sir. I heard the call. What the fuck are these guys supposed to do out here in the cold? None of these guys have cold weather gear out here, and the B.C. is sipping coffee and watching this shit on a big screen in a heated TOC. What the hell is Charlie doing up there, anyway?”

He called SFC AB and told him that we may need to figure out a way to rotate soldiers, or at least get our assault packs brought out from the trucks.

I briefed my team leaders on the situation and told them to be sure they are checking on their guys. Sgt. Bridges and I walked around talking to the men and making sure they were okay. We also made some minor adjustments to our security perimeter since we were now planning to stay put for longer than we had initially anticipated. PFC Colleran was already hurting from the cold. He was tall and skinny; not really ideal the ideal body type for being in the cold without extra layers.

Colleran as RTO in Abayachi

PFC Colleran in Abayachi later in the deployment.

Sgt. Bridges sat down with him, and I walked over to talk with some of the other guys in Sgt. Fraleigh’s team.

When I came back around, Sgt. Bridges and Colleran were still talking about how cold it was. Colleran kept repeating, “this sucks. It really sucks. This sucks so bad.”

I sat down with them, because I was a little concerned he was going to freak out while we were sitting out there.

Dogs had been barking around us since we first moved out into that area, and just as I sat down, one ran by really close to us. We joked about skinning it so we could have something to keep warm with. Then we decided we would be better off if we could catch it, tie its legs, and tape its mouth, so that we could take turns cuddling with it for warmth. We joked too, about how we might react in the morning if we found a cobra snuggled up to us, using our body heat to stay warm. We sat there quietly talking and telling jokes, trying to keep Colleran’s mind off of the situation.

Colleran finally said, “I wish someone would just shoot me.”

Sgt. Bridges replied, “I just wish we could get some mortars coming in. We could run around and get warmed up.”

Sgt. Bridges and I could not stop laughing at Colleran’s discomfort. He couldn’t figure out why we thought the situation was so funny, so we explained to him that he just doesn’t have as much experience in the suck as we do.

“One day, Colleran, you’ll be used to the suck. When things get really bad, you’ll just laugh at it,” I told him.

“Embrace the suck,” Bridges told him. “I’m glad I can be here to share your first sucking experience.”

I chimed in, “Hey, at least we’ll be up in time for breakfast.”

“At dawn, they’ll probably tell us we have to stay until noon,” Colleran moped.

Bridges replied sarcastically, “Holy shit! Have you done this before?”

It was around 2 A.M. when Charlie Company finally approached the target house. They hit the front of the house with lights and called on a loud speaker for the occupants to come out. The family that lived there came out, and they were willing to cooperate.

It was bad intel’. There weren’t 30 people there. It was just a family. Soldiers searched the entire home and found nothing.

Once the search was complete, we were told we could return to Camp Taji. We started walking back toward our Strykers a little after 4 A.M. We were freezing and feeling pretty drained.

We arrived at Camp Taji a little after 4:30 A.M., and we headed to the fuel point. After our vehicle crews topped off on fuel, we linked up with a heavy wrecker, and headed back out onto Tampa. We had to escort the wrecker up to the C Co. Strykers that were stuck in the mud near the target house.

When we arrived, they had already managed to pull the Strykers out of the mud, but we sat nearby until they had all of their vehicles back on the hard pavement on MSR Tampa. Once all of their vehicles were on the blacktop, we headed south again, toward Camp Taji.

It was a little after 6 A.M. when we arrived back at Camp Taji. We finished up some after patrol business and went to bed.

 

More later.

Eleven Rifles

March 2003

Fort Drum, New York

Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield

I sat on the flight line with my soldiers in a line behind me. Three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters lifted off. Rising from the tarmac and dipping their noses, they slid forward leaving us waiting for the next lift. They were transporting infantry soldiers from my unit, Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment. At the time, we were one of only a few 10th Mountain Division units that had fought in Afghanistan.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we started to hear the whop-whop-whopping sounds of approaching helicopters. The aircraft came around the end of the hangar and hovered over the tarmac before setting down again. The squad to my left started moving toward the first helicopter. The squad to my right starting moving to the helicopter that landed where the third one had taken off from. The second and middle spot on the flight-line remained empty. I watched as the first lift stumbled out of the helicopters, and the door gunners waved the approaching squads away. Once everyone was clear, they birds lifted off again, this time banking sharply to the right and quickly disappearing over the treetops on the other side of the airfield.

Before any of us had an opportunity to figure out what was happening, we were ushered back inside the hangar. We sat for what seemed like hours. There was no information about why we weren’t flying, why we were stuck in the hangar, or what had happened with the other helicopter. A side door on the building opened, and the senior leaders from our company walked in. One of the platoon sergeants cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, Chalk two, lift one has crashed.” The wreckage has been located by air, and first-responders are trying to get to the crash site as we speak,” he said. “The location is difficult to reach by ground, so it is taking longer than we would like. From what we can tell so far, we believe that there is at least one…” He paused and took a deep breath.

I remember thinking, Wow, one of our guys was killed in this crash.

His voice cracked and his chin quivered. He fought back tears as he said the word, “survivor.”

My heart sank. One survivor? I thought. We all looked around the room. We looked at one another. No one knew what to say. As people continued to look around in silence, I realized that we were all doing the same thing. None of us knew exactly who was on that helicopter. We were all trying to figure out who, of our roughly 150-man company was missing.

They were:


John Eichenlaub (24)

Josh Harapko (23)

Shawn Mayersick (22)

Brian Pavolich (25)

Andrew Stevens (20)

Stryder Stoutenburg (18)

Tommy Young (20)

Dimitri Petrov

Edwin Mejia

and the four crew members from the aviation unit;

Christopher E. Britton (27)

Kenneth L. Miller (35)

Barry M. Stephens (20)

Lucas V. Tripp (23)


There were two survivors that day. Edwin and Dimitri survived. Their bodies were badly broken, but they lived. The rest were gone.

In the days that followed there were eleven rifles with bayonets stuck in the ground behind eleven pairs of boots. There were eleven sets of dog tags draped on pistol grips, and there were eleven helmets placed on the butt stocks of rifles. There were eleven flag draped caskets for eleven fallen soldiers. There were tears, and hugs, and salutes, and goodbyes.

In all my years of fighting, I have seen many rifles stuck in the ground, too many, but eleven…eleven rifles side-by-side, for eleven men who died in service to their country. That is something that I can never forget.

Blackhawk Crash

 Eleven Rifles

Tim O’Brien says, “Boom. Down.” That’s not how I remember it…

I grew up reading about war. I was fascinated by Green Berets, Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs. I read story after story and book after book about the fighting in Vietnam. I never cared much for historical research type books. I wanted the stories, the personal experiences, the war stories. These are the kind of stories that I write now, about my own wartime experiences.

I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, where he described the death of a soldier as “boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” It’s a great book, and his writing can really help a reader get into the mind of a soldier. How are they feeling? How can they do this terrible job? What is it like? He doesn’t glorify the war. He doesn’t talk about explosions and massive firefights. It is just a simple, yet deeply expressive, explanation of his experiences in combat. While describing the physical burdens carried by infantry soldiers, O’Brien dips into the emotional burdens too.

He discusses dark humor and macho and dehumanizing language. It is all 100% true, and with a change of weapons, uniforms, and lingo, it could apply to almost any war.

“Boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” This phrase sticks out to me, because I don’t remember it happening so quickly or silently in my war. It was an explosion. BOOM! It didn’t go down. Smoke, fire, shrapnel, flesh, it all went up. We went up too, up to the intersection where the rocket came from. We unloaded, firing everything we had available. Machine guns rocked those buildings.

Glass. Glass went down, and so did bits and pieces of the walls that we were firing into. Brass shell casings went down to our feet. When the Air Force flew over, bombs went down. Smoke and flame went up. Pieces of roofs, wood splinters, and other debris went up. Then they came down, along with the walls that held them up. BOOM! CITY BLOCKS WENT DOWN.

Two weeks later, our brother-in-arms went down, to join those who went before him, and all those who have since gone.

Dagget Stone

Gone, but not forgotten.

10 Years Ago Today

I have a thin piece of steel. It is 6 inches long, 1/2 inch wide, and 1/32 inch thick.

It holds 77 little symbols that have no significant meaning when they stand alone.

65 letters—snthiavagtefstrngiotasaftrabostmbdecsbateivapamamthnIfodilramiqsa

10 digits—1512522005

2 periods—  .  .

When arranged in a particular order, these letters, numbers, and periods tell of a fallen warrior.

These letters, numbers, and periods serve as a reminder of a fallen son, brother, and husband.

He was a soldier.

He was a leader.

He was a mentor.

He was one of my closest friends in the army.


SSG IOASA F. TAVAE

1ST BN 5TH INF RGT 1ST BDE COMBAT TEAM

25TH INF DIV 2 APRIL 2005 IRAQ

AM. SAMOA


I wear this bracelet as a reminder. I don’t wear it everyday, and it is not the only one that I have. I don’t need bracelets to remember my friends, but sometimes these bracelets help me keep things in perspective.

When something is challenging…

When something is frustrating…

When something is stressful…

A bad day…

These bracelets remind me that today is not as hard, not as stressful, and not as bad as March 11th, 2003; April 2nd, 2005; August 22nd, 2007; April 1st, 2008; April 29th, 2008; May 1st, 2008; May 15th, 2008;  August 10th 2008; or probably half a dozen other dates that I could list.

KIA Bracelet Crop

I learned of his death through an email from our former platoon leader.

Tavae was leading men in combat in Iraq. I was in Afghanistan.

29, of Pago Pago, American Samoa; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Lewis, Wash.; killed April 2 when his unit was attacked by enemy forces using small-arms fire in Mosul, Iraq.

SGT Ioasa Tavae on Homeland Security at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland SGT Ioasa Tavae at K2, Uzbekistan Dec. 2001

A story from Djibouti (2003) that still makes me laugh.

“Sergeant Taylor, First Sergeant wants to see you in the company CP for the platoon sergeant meeting.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, as I sat up. Getting up from my green canvas cot, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform shirt and buttoned it. I grabbed my M4 and slipped the sling over my shoulder as I walked toward the door.

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When I stepped out of my dark tent, bright African sunlight assaulted my eyes. It was mid-afternoon in October, but the temps still hovered around the 100 degree mark nearly every day. Before my eyes had completely adjusted, sweat was beading up on my forehead, and my brown undershirt was sticking to my skin. I hate this fuckin’ place, I thought to myself as I walked down the gravel path between rows of tan tents.

I stepped into the company CP and found my 1SG and the platoon sergeants from headquarters, first, and third platoons sitting around rickety table made of plywood and scrap 2x4s. “Sergeant Taylor, just the guy we were looking for. I’ve got a mission for you,” First Sergeant said.

Aww shit. I’m supposed to be going home in less than a week. My platoon was in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, a couple hundred miles south of our camp. The platoons in my company were doing two week rotations between Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti, and Camp Ramrod, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. I had been left behind, because I was on orders to PCS from Fort Drum, NY to Schofield Barracks, HI. Basically, I was leaving one deployment to move from NY to HI, so that I could get ready for another deployment. What the fuck do I have to do now? “Sure, First Sergeant, what do you need?”

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First Sergeant explained, “Your platoon is doing a MEDCAP with a civil affairs unit, and they need some more medical supplies. I need you to get this box down to them tomorrow.”

“No problem, 1SG.” I grabbed the box, and asked, “What do I need to do about transportation?”

“Just walk down to the flight line tomorrow morning at 0600. There are usually flight crews working on their birds in the morning. Find one that is going to Dire Dawa sometime tomorrow, and see if you can catch a ride. Hopefully they’ll be able to get you back tomorrow too.”

All of our aviation assets in Camp Lemonier were either Marine or Air Force. Anytime we had to fly, we flew on CH-53 Sea Stallions. They were bulky gray helicopters, and they leaked unbelievable amounts of hydraulic fluid. When the helicopters banked, the fluid would drip from the ceiling, or run down the walls. The floors that we sat on were always slick and oily. I don’t think a single soldier in my company left Africa without greasy brown stains all over his uniforms from riding in the back of those leaky helicopters.

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The next morning rolled around, and I was at the flight line at 0600, as instructed. I had everything that I needed for the trip, since I had no idea when I might leave. I wore my body armor and Kevlar helmet. I carried my M4 rifle, and my black 12-gague shorty shotgun. I also had the box of medical supplies, and a rucksack that was packed for a couple of days. I really did not believe that I would manage to get there and back in the same day.

I approached the open ramp of the nearest helicopter and saw one of the Marine crew members inside. “Do you know if anyone is flying to Dire Dawa today? I need to deliver some medical supplies to a unit down there.”

“We aren’t flying today, Sergeant,” he said walking toward the back of the helicopter. He stepped down the ramp and pointed to another bird parked near the other end of the row of helicopters. He suggested that I ask someone down there.

I moved down the flight line, starting to sweat from all of the gear that I was carrying. I’m glad they had me clean my gear for customs already. This shit is going to be covered in dust and sand again.

I walked up to the back of another Sea Stallion, and asked the Marine inside if he knew of anyone flying to Dire Dawa. “I’m supposed to hand deliver this box to a unit down there, and they need it today,” I explained.

“We are heading down there this morning, Sergeant. We are supposed to be wheels up in about forty minutes,” he said.

“Can I catch a ride with you?”

“Sure, I just need to add your name, social, and blood type to our flight manifest.”

I chuckled to myself thinking, holy shit. This is actually going to work. I’m going to hitchhike from one country to another on a damn Marine helicopter. I put the box in the back of the bird and gave the crewman my information. I sat down on canvas seat in the back of the helicopter and pulled a cereal bar and a warm Coca-Cola Lite from my cargo pocket. Breakfast of Champions, I thought. I couldn’t wait to be home to real food in just a few days.

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 I sat there waiting, and I wondered if I was going to have the whole back of this bird to myself. After about twenty minutes, the crew members climbed in and started getting into their gear. Helmets were going on. Machine guns on the sides and on the tail ramp were being loaded. The pilot and copilot climbed in and started flipping switches and pushing buttons. The helicopter came to life. The engines started to whine, and cockpit lights turned on or flashed on and off.

Just as the rotors were starting to turn, several Marine Corps officers climbed on board. There was a colonel, a couple of majors, and then two or three captains. They did not appear to be infantry officers, as none of them were wearing any sort of tactical kit. They each had pistols in hip holsters, and their uniforms were neat and clean. Even their boots were nice and new looking.

As they climbed into their seats, they each put on safety glasses and helmets. One of the majors sat down next to me, and from the way he was scrambling to find the female end of his seat belt, I got the idea that he was a little nervous. He appeared to be relieved when he had finally fastened his seat belt and pulled the straps at each end to tighten it.

I slipped some ear plugs into my ears, and leaned my head back against the inside wall of the helicopter and closed my eyes. Over the growing noise of the whining engines, I heard someone trying to talk to me. “Hey Sergeant, are you our…” I opened my eyes and saw this very nervous major looking at me and talking.

I pulled the ear plug out of my right ear and leaned towards him. “What’s that, sir?”

“Are you our security, in case we go down?”

Is this guy fucking serious? I held back my laughter. Did this major really just ask me if I am his security…in case we fucking crash? I smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up. “Yes, Sir. If we go down, just get behind me. You’ll be alright,” I said as I slipped the ear plug back into my ear. Still chuckling to myself, I took my helmet off and leaned my head back closing my eyes again.

The crew chief signaled that we were ready to move, and the ramp raised a couple of feet off the ground. The bird started to shake, and we began rolling forward. We taxied away from the rest of the parked helicopters and moved toward the runway. Once there, the pilot turned and stopped the bird. We sat waiting, I assume, for clearance to take off. After just a moment, the helicopter got much louder, dust kicked up from the runway, and the bird started shaking and bouncing. Once up to speed, the pilot pulled back on his stick and the rotors started making the loud whop, whop, whop sound as they pushed down hard on the sticky morning air.

The wheels left the tarmac, and we hung there, wobbling side to side for just a few seconds until the pilot tipped the nose forward and the ground fell away from us.The Marine officers made it to their destination safely, and I managed to hitchhike back to Djibouti in time for dinner that night.

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