0340 aft 27 jul 2009 start message: suspected insurgent convoy west sungboor travelling east kushk-i-nakhud road 7 vehicles
They leave Camp Roberts just as the first thread of light appears on the eastern horizon. The helicopters lift, one by one untethering from the earth, turn towards the dark and fly westwards.
John’s section is aboard Two-twelve Puma, with the doors wide open and the rotor-wind beating around them. It’s cold, but knowing how hot it will be in a few hours makes that nothing but pleasure.
Two-twelve is flying at the left of the pack, with the other three Pumas spaced out on her right. As they fly, the sky turns to pale lilac and the ragged line of the mountains off to their right turns to silver. The ground below begins to lighten, every boulder and building inked-in by shadows. John squints against the wind, and his heart is weightless in his chest. Henn taps him on the shoulder, and when John turns his head to look at him, points off to the left. There’s a small pale spot floating in the air, some distance ahead, though they’re coming up on it fast. The spot resolves into a wing-tipped curve, a bird, its feathers flaring gold as the sun comes up.
“Osprey,” Henn mouths, not even trying to be heard over the rotors’ roar.
He thuds the side of his fist against his own body armor, and grins. John grins back; it’s a good omen. John twists to watch the bird as it falls behind, diminishes, and vanishes into the growing blue.
When I die, let this be my heaven … going always to battle as the sun rises.
“Khush-i-Nakhud,” the pilot yells, stabbing a finger downwards to indicate a loose scattering of buildings, intersected by the pale line of the dirt road and surrounded by empty scrubland.
The pack peels apart, circling and sweeping downwards. John pulls his goggles down from his helmet and covers his eyes as the rotors start to fling grit into the air. He grips the strap of his pack in his left hand, and cradles his rifle with his right. The instant Two-twelve Puma touches the ground John’s out and jogging for the nearest building.
He drops his pack beside the rough-plastered wall, pushes his goggles up and pulls his helmet off, dropping it between his feet as he crouches down. On either side of him other soldiers come to rest too.
“Severed femoral artery or collapsed trachea, which should you do first?” Bill asks, dropping his pack next to John’s.
“List six things you could improvise a chest patch with, first,” John says. “Then I’ll let you play triage trivia.”
By mid-morning, the sun’s high in a steel-white sky, heat hammering mercilessly on metal and canvas and skin. John’s sitting with his legs splayed out and his back to the baking wall, head tipped back and eyes closed as he contemplates the tortuously slow movement of a sweat droplet down his breastbone.
“Where are they?” Blackwood says. “Traffic can’t be that bad.”
John snorts in amusement without opening his eyes.
“Gear up,” Burrows says loudly as he passes. “They’ve gone to ground at Maiwand, we’re going to have to dig them out.”
John tips his helmet onto his head and pushes up onto his feet. He slings one strap of his pack onto his shoulder and takes his rifle up. He walks towards Two-twelve, rolling his shoulders and twisting his neck to knock the knots out. The helicopter’s rotors begin to turn slowly as he climbs aboard. He shifts farther back, making room for the soldiers coming behind him. Two-twelve rocks, lifts, tilts away in a graceful curve, and the other Pumas are up too.
They fly fast and low, the ink-blot shadows of the helicopters slipping over the rust-colored earth below. John buckles his helmet strap, shoulders the second strap of his pack and settles its weight on his back. His heartbeat is steady, but his breath surges in his nostrils as his body gluts itself on oxygen.
Maiwand is a cluster of decent sized houses and a walled square of ground that John suspects was once a garden, though now it contains only the same dry scrub as the open plain. As they get nearer, John notices a slight line of texture on the earth, horse-shoeing around the buildings with its open end framing the enclosed once-garden.
“What’s that?” he says, hand describing the shape as he points.
Hinde tilts his head, narrows his eyes.
“Old fence line? Filled ditch?”
John nods, frowning a little. Then they’re passing directly over the buildings. John takes rapid inventory: four cars and three trucks in evidence.
“Two dozen, tops,” he estimates out loud.
“What’s that? One third of a bad guy each?” Blackwood complains.
“Yeah, so no hogging more than your fair share,” John says, pulling his goggles down again.
The pack splits apart, dispersing around the northern side of the village, each helicopter stooping steeply towards the ground. Suddenly there’s a thudding bang, and an RPG explodes in the air no more a hundred feet from Two-twelve. The rotors spark, whine, and she yaws wildly.
John jams his feet against one of the cargo rails, pushes his back against the fuselage as hard as he can and clamps his teeth together. There are two more bursts of fire and noise as another two grenades explode a bit farther off. Two-twelve hits the ground with enough force to make John’s blood slam in his veins and sparkle darkly behind his eyes. She slews sideways in the dirt a bit, tilts, and then falls back onto her wheels.
“We’re good, we’re good,” the pilot yells.
“Out,” Hinde yells, but they’re already spilling out onto the ground, crouched low and running.
The ground around them whines and spurts as bullets hit the dirt. John’s fire-team breaks left, heading for a slight crest in the ground where they throw themselves down. Two-twelve, like the other Pumas, pitches herself back into the air as quickly as possible and hovers, raking the buildings with machine gun fire, spurts of dirt and debris showering from the walls.
“So, definitely bad guys,” Blackwood says, yawning hugely.
There’s a continuous rattle of pistol fire, cut through with the louder crack of assault weapons and then the high crack of a pair of twenty-millimeter rockets being fired. The entire side wall of the nearest building explodes in a rain of debris that patters some small fragments within yards of them. After several seconds’ consideration, the edge of the roof folds down into the wreckage.
“There, that’ll learn them,” Henn says brightly.
“Blowing holes in the exposed sides is the easy part,” John says, pulling his goggles down to hang around his neck. “We’re going to have to winkle-pick them out of the sheltered sides the hard way.”
“We’re going clockwise and close,” Hinde says, touching John’s shoulder. “Go.”
John’s up, firing a short burst and running full-tilt towards the corner of the half-demolished building while the men behind him snap off single rounds of covering fire. John reaches the broken wall and shoulders against it, cranes sideways to look around, assessing the muzzle-flashes and smoke drifts that mark the windows and doorways harboring insurgents. He pumps his fist in the air to signal that he’s in a decent position.
Blackwood scrambles up and starts running. John steps out from cover, firing up at the overlooking windows. Plaster explodes, showering dust and small debris downwards. When Blackwood hits the wall, John spins back under cover. Another few seconds and Henn and Hinde are up and running, with John and Blackwood pouring enough covering fire onto the house to protect them.
The four of them press back against the wall. John drops the empty magazine from his rifle and smacks a fresh one in.
Hinde touches John on the arm and curves a hand, describing the turn around the side of the building. John nods, shoulders his rifle, and ducks forwards.
He’s crouched low, running. The wall next to him spews dust and debris, but then there’s a crackle of covering fire over his head and he twists into relative safety along the side of a battered truck parked next to a windowless sidewall. After a second’s pause John steps out and opens fire to cover Blackwood as he runs.
When Henn and Hinde join them, all four men crouch at the tail of the truck and contemplate the flashes of gunfire still coming from the windows.
“This is bollocks,” Hinde says. “We need to get control of this … lob some forty-millimeters in there.”
The four of them surge forwards, Hinde and Blackwood with their rifles shoulder high and spraying bursts at windows and doors, while John and Henn hold theirs lower to brace against the wicked recoils of forty-millimeter grenades launching. The doorway and lower windows of the house explode into clouds of dust and showers of rubble. John and Henn swing their rifles up as Hinde and Blackwood fire grenades into the upper windows. The front of the house turns ragged, bits of masonry and wood tumbling down.
“Nice,” Henn says.
“Better,” Hinde says. “Let’s see what’s left.”
John and Blackwood move forwards, rifles shouldered.
“Not much,” John calls, contemplating the tumble of masonry and wood through the gaping hole that was once a doorway.
Suddenly there’s a flurry of gunfire from farther off, underlaid with men’s shouts and the unmistakable scream of someone wounded. John spins, Blackwood at his shoulder. Hinde and Henn have their rifles up, firing short bursts at something John can’t see around the angle of the other house. Another fire-team come running in under Hinde and Henn’s covering fire, dragging a soldier bleeding copiously at the thigh. John and Blackwood surge forwards, Blackwood adding his fire to the cover, John helping to grapple the wounded man into the faint safety next to the truck.
“You’re okay,” John says firmly, ripping the hole in the other man’s pants wider. “Didn’t hit anything important at all.”
He strips a dressing and claps it over the wound.
“Lean on that a second.”
He strips a ready-packed morphine syringe and sticks the needle into blood-streaked skin.
“You won’t feel a thing in thirty seconds,” he smiles at his patient. “Get him out of here. Take him to the garden -- the bit of ground with the wall around it? It’s cover but it’s out of this mess … the Pumas may not be able to get in for a minute with the RPGs.”
John hefts his rifle again, returning his attention to what’s happening at the side of the house.
A third fire team has come in while John’s been busy. Now Hinde, Henn, and Blackwood are standing, while the four men of the new fire-team kneel, all seven of them firing staccato bursts at something out on the open ground. John runs the few yards to them --
Not a fence line, not a filled ditch … camouflage nets over an orphaned riverbed, and there are men in dust-colored robes strung out along the ground, some prone and giving covering fire, some risking the run forwards. Not two dozen then, more like two hundred and forty.
“Where’s Burrows?” Hinde snaps, fingers on his earpiece. Then he nods sharply and shouts, “Fall back by teams.”
“The fuck,” Blackwood says, as the fire-team kneeling in front of them peel back to take up positions thirty feet farther back.
John snaps off single rounds as he comes close to end of his magazine. He drops his empty magazine as he turns and runs with the rest of his fire-team, past the men giving covering fire, to stop another thirty feet farther back and reload again. Other fire-teams are funneling in the same direction, and Hinde yells at them to spread out and not bunch together.
There’s a burst of gunfire from the building nearest the garden, and a soldier goes down. John turns his face aside for a second when he sees that the man’s been almost decapitated by the shot. Then he crouches, fumbles at blood-soaked cloth and skin until he finds the thin chain of the dead man’s dog-tags, yanks them off, and scoops them inside his own body-armor.
“Move,” Hinde roars, “just move.”
John swings his rifle up, firing a long arcing swathe across the front of the house as he runs. The ground’s alive around him, bullets splashing into the dirt like rain into a puddle, and then he flings himself clear and rolls on the slight slope between the last house and the wall of the garden. He scrambles onto his knees, and empties his grenade magazine into the windows overlooking him. Gunfire pours into the house as every soldier who survives the passage between the houses joins in.
When the house nearest the garden is a smoking, gutted wreckage, John gets to his feet, runs crouched to the open archway in the wall.
They’re laying the wounded along the inside of the wall. John lets his rifle drop on its strap and shrugs his pack down off his back. His gaze sweeps over blood and bone while his brain calculates time and trauma.
“I’m here,” Bill says breathlessly, skittering to a halt beside John.
“Start at that end, I’ll start here,” John says quietly. “We prioritize in groups of three -- Christ, even if the Pumas can get down, there aren’t med techs to go with them. Okay, your two worst hurt and one who’s capable of holding a saline bag or pressing on a dressing, that’s the first group, and so on.”
Twenty-two minutes flight-time from Kandahar, and six minutes to get a CSAR in the air … we just have to hold on for twenty-eight minutes.
After three minutes, Will McMath dies under John’s hands while John empties morphine syringes into him and tells him he’s going to wake up surrounded by pretty nurses. Seven minutes, John ties off the largest artery in Harry Barr’s shoulder; he’ll come back later to deal with the rest of the mess. Eleven minutes, Ernest Garret gets morphine for a broken leg; splinting it can wait since there’s nowhere for him to go right now. Fourteen minutes, James Cullen’s right hand is a complete loss anyway, so John leaves the tourniquet on and hangs a saline bag. Then Hinde’s yelling John’s name and he turns to see that they’re bringing Blackwood in, with his helmet gone and his hair soaked in blood, blood seeping out from the armholes of his body-armor. Burrows is at the archway, wiping blood off his own face with the heel of his hand.
“We have to get the Pumas down,” John says, already tearing Blackwood’s armor open.
Burrows nods, tips his head to summon Hinde again, and they go.
Eighteen minutes. John’s trying to clamp in a puddle of blood and shredded flesh, but there’s almost nothing coherent left. John’s eyes burn dryly, and every time he hears an RPG explode he clenches his teeth in sheer fury. Twenty minutes, and the blood stops welling in the angle of Blackwood’s shoulder and just lies in a still black pool. John pulls Blackwood’s tags off and drops them into the dully gleaming pile in the side pouch of his pack.
Twenty-two minutes. The thud of grenades exploding hasn’t stopped, though it’s certainly thinned out, but there’s a crackle of gunfire coming from the other side of the wall. Then there’s a knot of movement at the archway, and John strips off the gloves he’s wearing and pulls a fresh pair out, but it isn’t more wounded. It’s six or eight soldiers, backing in while they offer covering fire to others just a little farther off.
“Move them,” John shouts at Bill. “Start moving them to the other side of the garden.”
“Three Brigade, we hold this line,” Burrows yells.
John throws the unworn gloves aside and swings his rifle around to his front as he walks forwards. Hinde’s there, near the tumbled wreckage of the nearest house. John can’t see Henn, though.
“You -- Watson, you’re a med tech aren’t you?” Burrows says, looking John up and down.
“No, sir,” John says evenly. “I think you have me confused with someone else, sir.”
Burrows’ gaze drops to John’s shoulder, where his beret is tucked into the tape of his body armor. John knows full well that his RAMC cap-badge is folded outwards and fully visible, but he also knows that Burrows can’t ignore the dark pine green felt it’s attached to.
“I suppose I do,” Burrows says with the ghost of a smile.
“Look,” someone shouts over the steady crack of gunfire.
John turns his head, and for a second he thinks they’re pointing out the Puma that’s risking the landing just beyond the wall, despite the rapid stutter of machinegun fire from below. And then he sees what they really mean, the string of dark dots in the sky.
“Eleven … no, twelve,” Burrows says loudly, and everyone knows he’s got eyes like a hawk. “Four bigger, eight smaller -- that’s four Chinooks, eight Apache.”
John slams his last magazine into his rifle and moves towards Hinde. And then there’s a slight flurry in the air and the world explodes, flinging him forwards and slamming him into something massive and completely unyielding.
For a moment he’s blind and deaf, coughing dirt out of his throat. Then his body reassembles into pain, radiating out from his right hip with crushing force. He forces himself to lift his head, to drag his elbow in under his chest, and push his chest off the ground. His rifle is at least sixty feet away, but his pack is almost within reach, and thirty feet beyond it lies Hinde, convulsing.
John drags himself on his elbows to his pack, claws his fingers into the inner pocket, fumbles out a ready-packed syringe, and tears the wrapping off. He stabs the needle straight through the cloth of his pants, thumbs the plunger down, yanks the needle free again and throws the syringe away with an angry jerk of his hand. He rolls slightly, curls, trying to hold the pain in place until it begins to blur mercifully.
Good, good … now … Hinde.
John gets up onto his hands, the strap of his pack clenched in his fist, up on his left knee, and drags himself across the thirty feet of dirt and rubble to where Hinde is lying on his back, his body jerking slightly. There’s a swathe of blood across Hinde’s chest, across the ground next to him, dry dirt turned to black mud. His lower jaw is completely shattered, everything reduced to dark red pulp. John sits down on his left heel, gathers his right leg forwards with his hands.
“William, it’s John, I’m going to get you some air,” he says loudly.
He grabs a scalpel, strips it and snaps the tip open.
“Get up,” someone shouts.
John’s fingertips slide in blood on Hinde’s throat, but he finds the right spot, slices between the two ridges of cartilage and drops the scalpel.
“You are not covered.”
John hooks his left index finger into the hole, pulling it open. Hinde’s chest shudders upwards as air surges in. John fumbles a trach-tube out of his pack, strips the wrapping with his teeth.
There’s a flicker of movement at the periphery of John’s vision. He glances down at his sidearm, back at Hinde to push the trach-tube in against his finger --
the bullet slams into him, flips him, smacks him back-first against a pock-marked bit of wall.
He slides, slumps into a half-sit against the wall. The pain is bigger than he is, the world falling into its dark edges. He can feel heat flooding over his skin, his chest and arm and thigh. Everything’s quite quiet now, just distant cracks of gunfire and the rasp of John’s own breath. Then voices, close by. He can’t follow, but the word bashee tumbles like a sharp-edged shard in his brain.
No … just … every kind of no.
He wills his right hand to his holster, pulls his pistol out. The safety seems stiff, reluctant, but it does yield. John drags his hand up, turns his wrist, the muzzle of the Browning cool and hard against the underside of his chin. His blood roars in his ears, a thick low drone, and everything dims, a rust-brown haze burning his eyes. Dust-colored cloth flutters right in front of him and his hand snaps out, arm shaking, and he squeezes the trigger and the other man’s chest explodes as he’s thrown back by the force of the shoot. There’s a short flurry of shots so close by, and John lets his head fall back and the sky is like a storm, gray and brown and whirling.
Please God … let me live.
“John -- Jesus fucking Christ,” Bill gasps, dropping to his knees next to John.
He grabs John by the front of his armor and drops him flat onto the ground, and the pain thunders through John.
“Sitting up with a fucking chest wound,” Bill snarls, tearing the tapes of John’s armor open. “Pity you don’t know any medicine.”
John doesn’t know if he’s laughing or sobbing or just shaking apart. Bill drops his head to John’s chest, ear pressed to John’s ribs, and John’s never seen anything as beautiful as the ginger stubble of Bill’s hair on his sun-burnt scalp.
“Chest sounds great considering it’s half gone,” Bill says. “How much have you had? John! How much have you had?”
“Five -- ”
“Five hundred? Okay, I’m going to give you another one because we have to move, do you understand?”
John closes his eyes briefly in acknowledgment. He doesn’t even feel the sting of the syringe, but then the edges of the pain swarming through him blur some more, and everything dims a little.
“Okay, we’re out of here,” Bill says.
“Hinde,” John husks, fighting to hold his eyes in focus on Bill’s face.
“John, you’re the last VSI,” Bill says evenly.
John grimaces, trying to fight back the sobs crowding past the roaring pain in his chest, blocking his throat, burning out of his eyes. Bill takes hold of his right arm, starts pulling him up. The pain in John’s chest goes supernova. Bill lifts him, his spine rolling up off the ground and the air is burning with his pain, the sky screams in agony, and the jar as he hefts John’s weight onto his shoulders is enough to crack the world open.
Bill stumbles across rumble, over broken bits of masonry and empty rifle magazines and a confetti of empty shell casings. Every step is a stab that makes John’s breath stop. He’s cold, and there’s a black-red shadow creeping around the edges of his vision. Bill rolls him downwards, eases him onto the ground and kneels next to him.
“John, look,” Bill says, lifting John a bit in his arms and supporting John’s head with one hand.
John blinks hard, and through the haze and the howling wind he can see the helicopters: the Apaches streaking fire from above, the Chinooks on the ground disgorging soldiers, and their own Pumas coming down to land and taking off again, safe behind the curtain of covering fire.
“So don’t die,” Bill says, laying John down again.
John’s eyes flicker closed as Bill presses a dressing onto the butcher’s mess of flesh at the front of John’s shoulder. The darkness spills softly into John’s ears, into his nostrils, all over his skin, and John sinks down into the nothing.