“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. . . Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” -Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Summer in Baghdad reminds me of high school wrestling practice, when our coach decided to help us all lose weight by sealing all the doors to the gym and turning the radiators up. I didn’t need to lose weight. I was trying to wrestle up a weight class and was too small already. In the end, all the heat did for me was make a bad time worse. That’s the best metaphor I know of for Iraq.
The city in July is putrid. Breathing feels like sucking air through a damp gym sock. Thick, viscous air. Briny. Smoky. Dusty. Acrid. Shit-filled. The effect is that much worse when the air is where you earn your living, which is an unfortunate job necessity of being a helicopter pilot.
Even with a full aviation brigade, we don’t have enough aircraft to give the battlespace round-the-clock armed helicopter coverage. As a result, the late afternoon shift amounts to a single Scout Weapons Team—a grand total of two helicopters—instead of the three teams that overlap the rest of the day and night. It’s a solitary shift—a five hour vignette of rivers and canals and buildings and decay and palm trees and people and violence and everyday life in the big city, punctuated by two lonely green specks in the grubby sky.
Last week, one of our aircraft was swatted out of the sky by a heavy machine gun. The IEDs were so thick on the road that no ground unit could get to the pilots. It’s on our minds constantly—the thought of burning in and being cut off from help. We don’t control nearly as much of this place as we’d like to believe, and that fact is not peculiar to our particular corner of the war.
Only two hours to go until the next team is on station. Christ. Two more hours. We might have to make one more cycle through the rearm/refuel point for more fuel and ammunition. Hopefully not. If we’re lucky we won’t have to shoot at anyone and we’ll be able to stretch our fuel to the end of the mission. That’s largely out of our hands, though, as a lot can happen in two hours. Until then, we’re the only two helicopters in a battlespace that stretches across the ancient heart of Mesopotamia—from Baghdad south to Karbala, and east from the Euphrates all the way to Iran
The blast happens in an instant. There’s no boom. We’re too far away and the aircraft is too loud. From where we are the explosion is a rolling boil of dust and smoke, rising up from the green elephant grass. I feel like I’m watching the silent film of old hydrogen bomb tests. It’s the biggest blast I’ve ever seen.
The engine is shrieking over the sound of the radios as we make best speed toward the blast site. Justin keeps an eye on the exhaust temperature, managing the turbine’s heat to keep from burning it up. I flip-flop FM radio frequencies to bring up the battlespace owner’s radio net as we cross the Tigris and check in with our callsign, Lighthorse 32. The headquarters element, callsign ‘Battle Oscar,’ responds and clears us into the airspace with a request that we contact their B Company element, callsign ‘Barbarian.’
“Roger, Lighthorse 32 flight will contact Barbarian on his net.”
I drop the FM frequency off the battalion net down to the Barbarian net. My ear cups explode with the sound of the platoon leader, Barbarian White 6 coming unglued. He’s screaming at a squad leader to “find the fucking truck.” My mind cues on their armored HMMWVs. Did they lose a truck? He’s out of breath. It sounds like he’s running. Where is he running to?
I’m white-knuckling the doorframe, straining against my seatbelt harness to lean out for a better look at the ground. I can’t tell where White 6 is through the settling remnants of the dust cloud. I can barely see anyone, let alone pick out the one guy in charge whose voice is blowing up the radio. The whole scene looks to be a giant clusterfuck. I definitely don’t see anyone running, though. What I can see is the hollowed out carcass of a building. It looks like a barn—half a barn, more like. The eastern end of the structure is gone. There’s nothing but a crater.
White 6 is really out of breath now, barely able to form words. He finally releases the key on the hand mic and lets the net fall silent. I seize the opportunity.
“White 6, this is Lighthorse 32.”
“Light...gasp...horse....gasp...32.....White 6.” He’s not running. He’s hyperventilating.
“White 6, this is Lighthorse 32. Sister ship is Lighthorse 30. We are two Kiowa Warriors on station at your location with 14 rockets, 300 rounds of .50 cal, one HELLFIRE missile. 1+30 of playtime. Request SITREP and frontline trace, over.”
“White 6, Lighthorse 32, how do you hear me?”
“LIGHTHOR—pant—HORSE 32...THIS IS WHITE 6....pant...cough...MULTIPLE CASUALTIES. We can’t...pant...find two guys. I think they got kidnapped.”
His voice trails off. He’s yelling orders to someone. My hackles are up at the word “kidnapped.” My first thought is of Connell, a friend and an infantry platoon sergeant. A month ago he was killed in an ambush and two of his soldiers were kidnapped. They’re still missing, and probably being tortured—if not dead already. We look for traces of them every day.
Our flight holds a tight left-hand orbit over the farm. The dust is slowly creeping off of the tiny figures on the ground. Now I can see soldiers on both sides of the road. Everything looks calm. Everything looks slow. It’s quiet, but it always looks quiet from above. We can’t hear the screams and the shouts and the crying children and the growling HMMWV motors and the snap of bullets and the “Allahu akhbars!” The smell, though—that we get. Misery has a smell. It smells like blood and exhaust and shit. It churns through the rotors and into our faces. In the highlight reel of this war, that smell is the soundtrack.
“White 6, Lighthorse 32....standby.” I hop nets to Baghdad Radio, the unencrypted air traffic control frequency for the battlespace. We need a MEDEVAC bird in a hurry. Like most Army procedures the standard 9-line MEDEVAC request format is a pain in the ass, so we bypass it. There’s usually a MEDEVAC flight up someplace, and Baghdad Radio is where to find them. It’s tied up with another half-hearted advisory call from the Puerto Rican female controller in her air-conditioned office. Her voice drones on and on with a string of airspace closures and meaningless administrative noise. No fucking sense of urgency.
“BREAK BREAK BREAK....Any MEDEVAC aircraft, this is Lighthorse 32 on Baghdad Radio...Roadside MEDEVAC.” Seconds pass. Nothing. I call again. Still nothing. I start to worry. What if no MEDEVAC team is up? Or already on a call? How am I going to get these guys help? Getting a second-up MEDEVAC flight will take longer than these guys have. Maybe I should make another call for any lift aircraft available.
“Lighthorse 32, this is Medicine Man 44.” Fuckin’ A, Medicine Man. We’re in business. He’s not wasting time, either. He knows what a net call on Radio means. I pass him our location. He’s five minutes out.
White 6 isn’t talking to his higher headquarters, so I have to let Battle Oscar know that Barbarian White Platoon is in deep shit. I bounce back to the Battalion and rattle off the 8-digit grid for the MEDEVAC LZ.
White 6 busts in. “NEGATIVE, NEGATIVE. Incorrect grid!” he sputters, and then wheezes out the grid he wants for the MEDEVAC LZ. It’s 10 meters off of mine. He’s not thinking. And he’s still out of breath. Oh fuck...He’s in shock. He probably got hit by the blast.
He’s all over the battalion net now, trying to cancel the MEDEVAC and send up new grids. I have to do something.
“White 6, this is Lighthorse 32. You need to calm down, son. I’ve got your MEDEVAC. You need to establish security and police up your casualties. I’ll have birds on the ground in five mikes for your wounded. Do not send further grids. Prep for EVAC. How copy?”
I have no idea what is coming out of my mouth at this moment. I just called a platoon leader “son” on his battalion net, where God and everybody heard it. Justin looks over at me and nods. For all that Lieutenant knows, I’m a crusty old warrant officer. He doesn’t need to know that I’m just another kid like him who’s just as scared and clueless. Honesty isn’t always the best policy, it turns out.
For a moment, everything seems as calm as it looks. The calm is an illusion, of course—the result of our overhead vantage point coupled with our adrenaline-altered sense of time, which makes the seconds drag on like slow yawns. I know we’ve been working this scene for an eternity already. Where the fuck is that MEDEVAC? They should fucking be here by now. I look at the clock. We’ve been on station for....two minutes. Two minutes? I’m sweating through my body armor. Why is this place so goddamn hot? What kind of fucking people think this is a good place to live?
White 7, the platoon sergeant, is on the net with the lead aircraft. His voice is frantic. They’re still discussing a blue bongo truck. White 7 is saying a blue bongo truck left the house right after the barn exploded. He’s telling lead that the two missing guys are in the truck. Fuck. The word “kidnapped” leaps from the clatter of radio traffic again. How did we not pick up on that before? They already said it once. That’s what he meant. Shit, how much time have we wasted?!
Lead bends the flight over into a hard right turn. We head westbound, into the dying sunlight. Sunset has now become the enemy, too. The right-seaters are wringing all the speed they can out of the birds. We have to find this blue truck before it’s dark. All White 7 can tell us is that it’s a blue bongo truck with a tarp, and the missing soldiers are under the tarp. Under the tarp? White 6 chimes in and confirms the report of the blue bongo. He’s still a mess, and I don’t know if he’s totally with it. Even if they’re right, it’s almost nothing to go on. You can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting three bongos, and two of them will be blue.
My stomach feels like a lump of clay. My mouth is cotton-dry.
FUCK. We’re never going to find this truck. We wasted too much time at the TIC. These guys are fucking gone. They’re going to be tortured and killed and we’re going to find their bodies in the river like all the other bodies we find in the river with no hands and no heads and all bloated and rotten like monsters and their mothers will always wonder why we let this happen and it happened because we let the truck get away and if Connell wasn’t dead he’d be so disappointed in me because we let it all happen again which really means I let it happen because I’m the air mission commander and I should’ve looked for the truck sooner but I didn’t and now we’ll never find it and—
“Trail, this is Lead. Blue bongo, 2 o’clock low, tarp on the bed. Looks like it just turned off the road from the TIC onto Route Chevy.” Oh thank you, Jesus. I’m sorry for all the bad shit I’ve done. Thank you thank you thank you.
We have the truck in sight, too. It’s definitely a blue bongo. It was definitely on the only road from the blast site. It’s hauling ass. We found it. We fucking found these kidnapping assholes. The tarp in the bed looks lumpy, like there’s something under it. Two bodies could definitely fit in the bed, side by side.
Lead sets a left-hand orbit around the truck as it bombs down the road, launching a rooster-tail of dust behind it. I can’t see anything in the thermal sight. The tarp is doing a good job of hiding the bodies in the bed. Not far ahead, the road dumps onto a main causeway by a market that’s always teeming with vehicles. Once the truck hits that snarl of late afternoon traffic, we might lose it.
“Lighthorse 32, Medicine Man 44 is one mike to the northeast, inbound for roadside MEDEVAC.”
He’s one minute out from the landing zone. We should be providing security, but we can’t lose this truck. We should’ve reconned a landing zone for him. We’ve left him hanging. We aren’t supposed to do that. He’ll have to choose his own LZ now.
Lead rolls over hard and noses into a low pass over the truck. His blades chatter and pop as he breaks left over the bed to give his left-seater a good angle. No joy. The driver speeds up. He’s making a run for the mass of traffic ahead. We can’t shoot him with the soldiers in the bed. Even so, I bring up the HELLFIRE missile control page on the cockpit screen. I crane to look over the right seater’s lap at the missile hanging on the rack. The laser seekerhead is wobbling around inside the glass nosecone. Once the gyroscopes spool up, the seeker-head will be ready to fly the missile right into that truck. How do we stop a truck with a missile? Put it through the cab? Try to land the missile in front of the truck? Those two guys in the bed will be fucked up forever, if they survive at all. I’ll kill them. I know it.
Medicine Man 44 is on the deck. The casualties are being loaded. Four in all. He’s off the deck in a hurry, screaming toward the hospital.
Lead makes another pass on the bongo truck. Still no answer on what’s in the back. The truck is about to reach the market. If we’re going to shoot him, we need to do it now. Lead doesn’t want to take the shot. The decision falls to me as the air mission commander. I don’t want to kill two Americans. I don’t want to, I promise. But I don’t want them chained to a wall in a torture house having a power drill taken to their thighs. Or bobbing down the Euphrates without their heads and hands.
The seconds aren’t dragging anymore. They’re flying by like the truck barreling toward his escape. I have to shoot him or he’s gone.
I don’t shoot. The truck bounces off the dirt road and lurches into the swarm of Iraqi drivers. It only takes a few moments of his weaving back and forth among dozens of identical bongo trucks for us to lose him. There are too many trucks. Too many have tarps. Was the tarp brownish-tan or tannish-brown? Did the truck have mirrors? Was there a dent in the cab? Is that it? No, it’s the one that just went under the awning. No, he’s still moving. Where did he go? Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.
I lost the truck. Lead lost sight of it, too. My right-seater can’t help much from his side, and he’s trying to avoid colliding with lead as we corkscrew in tandem over the teeming mass of cars and people scraping their way through the narrow suburban market.
We blew it. We got a second chance and we blew it. The truck is gone and so are they. I have to tell Battle Oscar that we lost the truck with two of their guys— both probably wounded and scared to death—stashed in the back. I can barely get the words out. We’re their security. We’re the advantage the ground unit always has—that this enemy can never have....and we didn’t do shit. We might as well have just gone home.
I’m barely finished choking out the report of our failure when White 7 jumps in on the battalion net and asks that we drop back to his frequency. He requests us back overhead ASAP.
Lead continues our turn around to the southeast, back toward the shattered barn. We’re back on station in a matter of minutes. The situation looks a bit calmer now and, judging by the radio traffic, it is. I really need some water. My mouth tastes like dust. The remains of the platoon are still hunkered down inside the farm compound’s walls, save for one squad at Medicine Man’s LZ, where the dust from his rotors is settling lazily in the breeze.
“Lighthorse 32, this is White 6.” He’s calm now, too. I’m sort of surprised he didn’t get EVAC’d. I know he’s hurt. He’s a good PL. I feel even worse about calling him “son.”
“32...disregard that truck.” A wave of relief crashes over me. It feels as though the temperature drops 20 degrees. “I still have 2 personnel unaccounted for.” The temperature soars again. What the fuck?
White 7 is on the net with him now. He thinks the missing guys were kidnapped and stashed nearby, maybe in a canal or in one of the houses down the road. Thrown from the truck, possibly. The truck may not have been the one we followed. It doesn’t make much sense, but even so, it’s the only theory going. White 6 and White 7 are on opposite sides of the road. Two of the squads are still inside the walls. No one is moving much. White 6 is worried that there are more booby traps rigged. He’s ordered everyone to stay put.
“Trail, this is Lead. Recommend we recon the canals west-to-east.” From the sound of his voice, he doesn’t buy the stashed-in-a-canal idea either.
“Roger, we’ll cover you.”
Lead drops down to about 20 off the deck and slows to a hover. He’s creeping along the south side of the road. I can see the left-seater craning his head out of the aircraft, grasping the doorframe for leverage. There’s no way we can cover him from up here. We couldn’t get a shot off in time, and the angle would be terrible. We have to get low, too.
As we spiral down toward the ground, I get my first good look at the barn. It’s an unreal sight. The crater looks like the fiery hand of an angry god scooped out the earth and scorched what he didn’t take. The soldiers are all lying prone, rifles at the ready, pulling security. Filthy faces. Bloodstained pants. A vision of bedraggled misery to accompany the persistent smell.
“You look out your door; I’m watching the windows.” My right-seater acknowledges as I pull my M4 off the dash. I prop one leg on the doorframe and train the sights on the windows of the grimy little mud houses just beyond the canal. Faces pop up in the shadowy holes and quickly vanish as we chatter past. Kids, mostly. A few women. I can see that Lead’s left-seater has his rifle out, too. I hope he’s a better shot than I am. He probably is. I’m a crummy shot. I’m even worse from a helicopter.
Our path takes us down the north side of the road, followed by a right turn northbound up the road the truck took to flee the blast. This is fucking nuts. We’re violating every rule. Two aircraft, hovering along a road, within 50 feet of every building in the village. Any halfway lucky asshole with an AK-47 could destroy $8 million worth of helicopter and two pilots without breaking a sweat.
The canals are putrid. They’re vats of sewage, essentially, with reeds. Tall reeds. It’s like a cornfield but twice as thick. Our rotorwash sets them frantically dancing and flopping, giving us glimpses of the oily muck beneath. If our missing guys are in there, they’re in deep shit. Literally. They’ll have shit in their wounds. So far, though, I don’t buy it. But we owe it to them to search every last corner. Drowning in sewage would be the worst way to go. I make myself think of something else. Fire would be worse.
“Trail, Lead.” His voice sounds shaky. I fumble with the radio selector switch blindly, so my eyes can keep frantically checking empty windows. Lead is off the canal, now, beating down elephant grass in the field south of the farm.
“Lead, this is trail, send it.”
“We’ve got a leg here.” Leg? Did he just say a leg?
“Say again, over.”
“We have a leg here. It’s wearing a boot.” The left-seater is pointing at the ground as his aircraft slowly pirouettes around it. A leg? A leg. A human leg. The leg of a human. It’s wearing a boot. Iraqis wear sandals. The right-seaters are deconflicting movements as our aircraft hops over the road and settles into a hover where Lead had been. He’s sliding east, toward the farm.
It’s a leg. Half of a leg, actually—severed just below the knee. The ACU pants are dusty, but barely frayed where they were sheared off. The flesh and bone are tattered, but there’s no horror movie gore. It looks like meat. It’s just laying there, as though someone packed up a picnic and left it behind as a grim oversight; laying there as though it was never part of a person at all. I drop my rifle to my lap.
“White 6, Lighthorse 32. We have ID’d one leg, 50 meters to your Southwest. More to follow.”
“Roger.” His answer is punctuated with a sigh. White 6 is exhausted. The adrenaline effect is wearing off and shock is setting in.
“Which leg was it?” My right-seater’s voice surprises me. “Huh? What do you mean? It’s a fucking leg, man.”
“Left or right?”
“Right.” What a weird question.
Lead resumes the methodical search through the grass, with our ship mirroring him in an offset, searching as he searches. We circle counter-clockwise around the farm, back over the road separating the troops on the ground. Minutes pass. I spot a helmet. It’s cracked and slightly out-of-round. No blood. Maybe that guy’s ok. I let Lead know. He passes it to White 7. White 6 isn’t answering anymore.
“Trail, we have another leg.”
“Right or left?” I ask. I see what my right-seater was driving at now. “Left....no, right. Yeah, roger, it’s a right leg.”
Two right legs. That’s both guys. They weren’t kidnapped. They weren’t taken. They aren’t gone. They’re...gone.
“They must’ve been standing right on top of it,” my right-seater sighs. There’s a quiver in his voice I hadn’t heard before. It’s unnerving. He’s on his second tour and nothing is supposed to rattle him.
We repeat our earlier waltz, hovering over lead’s mark to see the leg. It’s almost complete, sliced off just below the hip. The cargo pocket is still velcroed shut. It’s not bloody either. Just a bit of sinew and some ratty flesh. I thought there’d be more blood.
The sunlight is waning. We have to find whatever else we can find. Once EOD gets here to clear the farm of booby traps, the platoon can go police up their dead, but we need to find all that we can before dark. The feral dogs will cart pieces of the bodies off if they aren’t recovered quickly.
We find the torso next. My right-seater sees it and swings the tail around to give me a look. The body armor is still in place, looking almost untouched. The nametape and rank are still velcroed in place. That’s some badass armor. Everything not covered by the armor is gone. Arms. Pelvis. Head. Pruned off by the blast.
Lead just found another leg. A left leg, obviously. He calls it up to White 6, who’s back on the net again. They know what happened now. They know exactly where their guys are—in pieces, all around them. And they’re stuck, helpless.
It’s almost time to go. Our fuel level is critical. I can hear bits of radio chatter as the next team spins up at the airfield and checks the radios. We can stretch our gas a bit longer, though. I’m so relieved. We didn’t lose a truck with two guys hogtied in the back. We didn’t blow it. I’m happy about that. There’s nothing to be done now but pick up the pieces.
There. What’s that? Grass flops in the way of my view. Is that...a tail? Fur?
“White 6, this is Lighthorse 32.....say again number of accounted personnel?” “32, two soldiers.”
“White 6....are you missing a dog?”
Silence. The mic is still keyed. I hear some background chatter. “32, White 6...roger. One of our guys was a dog handler.”
I’m looking at half of a dog. The back half. It’s like a magician’s trick gone wrong—the dog really was sawed in half. It’s a...German Shepherd? Maybe? I can’t tell. The tail is soft and curved gently upward, and flops a bit in the rotorwash. The fur is still clean and beautiful—it looks soft and warm. The dirt underneath it is black and sticky with blood.
My tongue tastes suddenly briny and metallic, like a penny. The sensation reminds me of being a kid, when that taste meant I was about to be sick. I stare, unblinking, watching the wisps of fur dance around until we’ve hovered past and I can’t see anymore. I pass the location to White 7. He thanks me. My stomach is sour. The sweat on my hands smudges my pencil.
I want to go home.
We’re almost out of fuel. I check out with White 6 and promise to push the next Kiowa team to his location. He’s weary but seems to be doing alright, all things considered. He and White 7 are working up a plan to recover the remains as we conduct our battle handover with the incoming team. They’ll pull security until EOD and the relief force can get there. I’ve lost track of how many parts we found. Not all of them, that much I know. As we head for the airfield, everyone from White 6 up to Battle 6 personally thanks us on the net “for all we did.” We didn’t do anything.
Our rotors coast to a stop on the parking ramp. Our usual post- mission jokes don’t feel funny today. No one even tries. I walk across the flight line toward the other crew. Nik is smiling, mostly because that’s what he always does. Josh throws his arm around me in a big bear hug.
“Good work, boss.”
Justin lights two Marlboro Lights and hands me one. We slump down beside the aircraft, leaning against the concrete blast walls still hot from the sun and smoke in silence.
Thirteen months to go.
Corporal Wiens and Private First Class Salazar died near Muhammad Sath in the Arab Jabour district of Iraq on July 6, 2007.
Sergeant Cooper, a military working dog, was also killed.