I SET MY ALARM for twelve-thirty A.M., but trying to sleep was futile. I tossed and turned in my bunk for three hours, finally giving up and reading a month-old Sports Illustrated while listening to Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. Unable to stand the waiting any longer, I grabbed my plastic coffee mug and walked through the dark passageways toward the wardroom.
The ship was quiet. Most people were sleeping soundly, unaware of the drama unfolding in our lives. A light shone under the wardroom door, and I opened it to find Captain Whitmer and Patrick sitting at a table. They looked up at me with sympathetic smiles. Across the room, a group of pilots nursed steaming coffee and talked quietly over a map. I filled my mug and sat down at the table. A few minutes later, our three watch alarms went off simultaneously. At least I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep.
We walked down to the hangar bay with a nonchalance I doubt any of us really felt. I know I didn’t. This was it. A real mission. A combat mission. I thought back to all my training and the instructors who had combat experience. They had seemed better than us, calmer, more assured, more capable. I didn’t feel that way now. I was just a boot lieutenant caught up in something beyond my control. The weight pressed down again, the burden of responsibility and the hope, above all else, that I wouldn’t do anything stupid and get people killed.
I sat on my pack beneath the fluorescent lights and opened cardboard boxes of rifle ammunition. Live rounds. My hands were shaking as I loaded the magazines. Each bullet weighed about an ounce, a wide brass casing tapering to a lethal, copper-jacketed point. I had loaded thousands of live rounds in training but had never really examined them. They looked dangerous. I wondered whether any of mine would end up inside another human being before the night was over.
We filed past the open elevator shaft to test fire our weapons out over the dark ocean. My rifle cracked and jumped in my hands. The purpose of a test fire isn’t to make sure the gun fires that first time, but to ensure that the next bullet is seated in the chamber, ready to go. The sound of shots reverberated off the metal walls, and acrid cordite hung in the air.
The platoon lined up on the nonskid floor of the ramp leading to the flight deck. Each Marine sat in the order in which he would board the helicopter. That order, when reversed, was how we would hit the ground at Panjgur. Fire teams and machine gun squads sat together. I sat alone at the back, first man off the bird.
Captain Whitmer, bulky in his body armor, called the lieutenants and sergeants over to where he stood in a corner. I expected a last-minute change to the plan or maybe a final reminder of our rules of engagement.
“If any of you screw up and get a Marine killed tonight,” he said without preamble, “I will personally put a bullet in your head.”
I caught Patrick’s eye and we mustered a quiet “Aye-aye, sir.” Captain Whitmer walked off. The hangar bay was too crowded to talk privately with Patrick, so I returned to my place in the line of Marines waiting on the ramp. Whitmer’s comment gnawed at me. Did he not trust us? Did he think we weren’t taking the mission seriously? If it had been an attempt to motivate us, it failed. I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on getting ready to go.
I fitted a rubber life preserver around my neck and pulled on a pair of green Nomex shooting gloves. The life preserver had a carbon dioxide cartridge and a strobe light that would activate upon hitting the water. The gloves would keep my hands from being burned in a fire and allow me to grab weapons hot from shooting.
After all the training, all the classes at Quantico and patrols at Camp Pendleton, I had a picture in my mind of how it would be. Momentous, significant, high drama. But grandiose phrases such as “in harm’s way” and “Godspeed” just didn’t fit. Around me sat a few dozen Marines waiting to launch. I saw ordinary guys doing a job. I didn’t think about the sweep of history, about the Afghan people or protecting America. My mind was on call signs and radio frequencies and the satellite pictures of the Black Hawk. Any fear or reservation disappeared in the task at hand. Sitting there in the dark with my rifle suddenly seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
Staff Sergeant Marine snapped me back to the hangar bay. “You’ll regret not bringing the mortars, sir, about the time the hajis are overrunning your perimeter.” He was walking along the line of troops, talking to the Marines waiting to leave.
His tone was joking, but I knew he wished he was joining us. I did, too. Before I could answer, the intercom announced, “Call away, call away!” — our signal to board the helos.
Marine clapped my shoulder. “Stay safe tonight.”
We shuffled to the flight deck and turned our heads against the deafening roar of three Super Stallions, snorting jet exhaust and tossing us sideways with their rotor wash. The Marines around me shone dimly blue in the subdued lighting. I led a column to the lead helicopter, painted with the name “Creeping Death,” and counted thirty men aboard before taking the last seat near the tail ramp. Two other CH-53s roared farther down the flight deck. One would carry thirty more Marines, while the third would fly empty to lift the crashed Black Hawk and ferry it back to the Kitty Hawk.
I donned a helmet attached to the helo’s internal radio and got a comm check with the pilots. The Marines squeezed onto webbed nylon seats around a pallet of spare ammunition and a pallet of medical supplies. Across from me, Staff Sergeant Law flashed a slight smile. My platoon and Patrick’s were mixed up, spread-loaded between the two CH-53s in case one of them crashed. Patrick’s first squad leader, Sergeant Tony Espera, sat next to Law. Espera had joined the Corps after working as a repo man in L.A. He looked unfazed and smiled when our eyes met.
The engine noise increased, and we lurched sideways off the Peleliu’s deck. Climbing over the ocean, I listened to the pilots’ routine chatter — fuel, power, altitude, and navigation. The other two helicopters were dimly visible to our rear through my night vision goggles. The pilot called “Feet dry” over the intercom to let us know we’d crossed the Pakistani coast. I gave a hand signal that was relayed through the helicopter, and we took off our life preservers. The bird dropped to low altitude. Beyond the tail ramp, the ground flashed past almost within reach, but I saw no lights. Below us was Baluchistan, one of the least hospitable parts of the earth. With nothing to see and too much noise to talk, each man was alone with his thoughts.
All through my training, I’d heard sports analogies. OCS was a game. Taking advantage of unrealistic details on field exercises at TBS was “gaming the game.” Winning. Losing. Code words like “touchdown” and “foul ball.” But sitting in that CH-53, racing north into Pakistan, it didn’t feel like a game. It felt like the most serious thing I’d ever done.
The pilot passed the five-minute warning over the radio — five minutes to touchdown in the landing zone. I turned my backpack radio to high power and rechecked all my gear. Night vision goggles adjusted, seat belt unbuckled, last sip of water. The engine pitch changed as the pilots wrenched the big helicopter through a series of evasive turns approaching the landing zone. The landing gear thumped down, and the ramp dropped. I ran out, turning left to avoid the spinning tail rotor, and crouched at the edge of the runway to get a radio check as the helo thundered away in a cloud of dust. Staff Sergeant Law and his machine gunners disappeared to the north without a word. They would secure a perimeter around the crashed Black Hawk.
I jogged across the runway to the spot we’d picked to set up a command post, passing the hulk of the helicopter. Over my headset radio, one of Patrick’s teams reported muzzle flashes in the distance. The lights of a Navy P-3 communications relay aircraft winked high overhead — too high even to hear.
A group of Marines clustered in the darkness, and I ran toward them. Captain Whitmer stood with a Pakistani officer. They were laughing, standing lightly as if at a cocktail party. I felt rude approaching them with my rifle, crouched under a heavy pack.
“Lieutenant Fick, this is Major Magid.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” I shot a glance at Captain Whitmer, who smiled placidly.
The major was slight, bedecked with ribbons and huge braided epaulets. His orderly stood nearby with a silver tea tray.
“Do not be afraid. We have three layers of defense and you are in very good hands,” the major said, bowing slightly. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”
The orderly poured into a chipped china cup. The tea was dark and sweetened with goat’s milk. My gloved hand was clumsy, so I cupped it like a softball. I drank the tea quickly so that I could get back to work without offending the major. My first two missions couldn’t be delivering ThighMasters and drinking tea. An unearthly wail broke the silence as a muezzin called the faithful to morning prayer. Panjgur wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t quite friendly either. We were a long way from the Peleliu wardroom.
Staff Sergeant Law had his Marines in place, and Patrick’s platoon manned positions all around us. The teams on the perimeter called back and forth on the radio, pointing out Pakistani army positions. I scanned the horizon through my night vision goggles, looking for the telltale flashes of firing rifles. Nothing. I spoke to the Cobra gunship pilots who orbited farther out past the airfield fence. They, too, saw nothing amiss.
With Bravo Company’s perimeter in place, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team moved cautiously to the Black Hawk, dropping red chem lights behind them to mark a safe path of retreat. After they checked the helicopter for booby traps, a specially trained suspension team got the wreck ready to move. They wrapped long nylon straps around the fuselage, joining them at the top with a loop and a hook. If the Black Hawk couldn’t be lifted out, we planned to use incendiary grenades to burn holes in the cockpit and transmission, then blow the tail boom off with a strip of explosives. But the straps were attached without trouble, and the empty Super Stallion came in for the pickup.
The pilot slowed to a hover over the Black Hawk, and a cloud of talcum-like dust engulfed the CH-53 — the same sort of brownout that had caused the initial crash. Every few seconds, a rotor or piece of fuselage would peek from the cloud to reassure us that it was still flying. After a tense minute in a hover, the CH-53 went around while Marines untangled the sling, which had been twisted by the rotor wash. On his second pass, the pilot lifted the CH-53 out of the dust cloud with the Black Hawk hanging beneath it and lumbered off to the south. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten.
I made a radio call and Law’s Marines collapsed their perimeter. Patrick’s platoon also pulled back, and we all converged on the runway. The Cobras made a low pass down its length to remind us we weren’t alone. With lowered gray noses, they looked like sharks slashing through the dawn sky. The two Super Stallions roared in low and settled on the pavement. Patrick and I did a final sweep to ensure that we had all our men and were the last aboard the helicopters. The tail ramp was already rising as we threw our packs in and scrambled behind them. I looked at my watch. It was five A.M.; we had been on the ground exactly forty-two minutes.
In the light of the rising sun, we flew over a snow-white desert studded with piles of red stone. Jagged mountain ridges rose straight up, so that the helicopter alternately seemed to soar and then to scrape past with rocks just outside the open doors. When the pilot called “Feet wet” over the Arabian Sea, we pulled the magazines from our rifles and relaxed. Ninety minutes after takeoff, we settled onto the Peleliu’s flight deck — just in time for an omelet in the wardroom.
I slept through the afternoon, exhausted more from the adrenaline than from missing a night’s sleep. Around four o’clock, Patrick shook my shoulder. “The commandant’s flying out to the ship to have dinner with us tonight. You may want to clean up and get ready.”
I sat up, momentarily lost in the whirlwind of the past twenty-four hours. General James L. Jones was the four-star general in charge of the whole Marine Corps. I didn’t think he’d come from Washington to congratulate us for picking up the Black Hawk. Instead, he’d probably come for a pep talk. Some future mission, but what? The only uniform I had aboard was the desert camouflage I had worn all night, so I climbed from the bunk and wore it into the shower to scrub out some of the grime.
A few minutes before six, Patrick and I walked to the wardroom together. The officers around us were nattily dressed in freshly starched uniforms with polished rank insignia. By comparison, we looked ratty in dirty field cammies with dull brass. Our only consolation was that we’d been earning our combat pay while the other guys had been ironing and shining.
The wardroom lights were dimmed. A long head table lined the far wall, with a dozen round tables in front of it and name cards at each place. The tables were set with silver, china, and maroon tablecloths. The BLT platoon commanders sat together at the front center table. Since alcohol was forbidden on the ship, we sipped apple juice and talked while waiting for the commandant to arrive. Conversation centered on the absence of Alpha Company’s lieutenants, who were ashore at the airfield in Jacobabad.
“That place is a shit hole,” VJ proclaimed, having just returned from ten days there. “Hot, dusty, smoky, no chow, no showers. Fucking spies everywhere. The security situation is a joke — we’re covering with a company what a battalion could barely handle. If someone wants to hit us there, they can.” Patrick and I leaned in to listen. We were next in the rotation to take over security at the base.
“Attention on deck!” Conversation ceased, and everyone sprang to their feet.
“At ease, gentlemen. Please take your seats,” General Jones said. He and Colonel Waldhauser sat together at the head table. Throughout the dinner of steak and shrimp, we stole glances at the general. He was tall, easily the tallest man in the room, and wore the Marine Corps’s new digital-pattern camouflage uniform. We’d been away from home for a long time, emotionally as well as physically, and it was strange to see this newcomer among us. He’d been in Washington only a few days before and would be there again just a few days later. He seemed like an ambassador from another world.
And yet he fit right in with us. Instead of a long and politically correct monologue, he stood up after dinner and told a story about a combat deployment of his own, many years before.
“You’ll be spending the 226th birthday of the Corps out here. My favorite Marine Corps birthday was also spent in the field — 10 November 1967 as a lieutenant with my rifle platoon in Vietnam. We mushed a bunch of field ration pound cakes together to make a cake, drizzled chocolate on top, and sang ‘The Marines’ Hymn.’ Unfortunately, it was the monsoon, and we couldn’t get the candles lit, so we went back to our fighting holes and continued killing Vietcong.” The Marines in the room cheered.
Before sitting down, General Jones looked straight at our table of lieutenants. “Mark my words, gentlemen,” he said. “Your time is coming.”