I Thought I Was Going to Die: Part 2

The photo is a view from the back of a Chinook helicopter during flight.  This is part 2 in a 4 part series entitled “I Thought I Was Going to Die.” If you have not read part 1 of “I Thought I Was Going to Die,” please read part 1 before you read part 2.

I tried to lighten the mood at my support by fire (SBF) position by showing the Commandos a picture of my wife and I atop the Space Needle in Seattle, WA. I low-crawled to each Commando machine gun to show them the picture. Both Commandos pointed to my wife’s auburn hair and gave me a thumbs up while mumbling something. The shit-eating grin on their faces told me all that I needed to know. The picture was creased and dirty because I kept it folded in the grenade pouch attached to my body armor.

As the temperature decreased, the Taliban onslaught increased. Rockets, mortars and RPG’s accompanied the small arms fire. About an hour and half from our designated pick up time, the remaining assault force moved from the village to our designated pick up zone. After the assault force was in place, my team sergeant came over the radio and asked if I would be able to break contact back to the designated pick up site. I replied, “we’ll see.” Even though the conditions were terrible, the Commandos were particularly lethargic. I told the interpreter, “get the fucking Commandos moving and by the way what the fuck is their problem today” (for some reason I did not think that 130 degree heat, no water and 10 hours of fighting qualified as a reason for lethargic behavior). He replied “I am trying man, but they are being assholes today” I said, “it’s a great fucking day to be an asshole.” Eventually, we came up with a plan and I asked the Commandos if they were good, they simply replied “Commando, no problem.” I ran around the mound of dirt while the two Afghan machine gunners provided covering fire for me. Once I was behind the mound, I let them know that I was set and crawled up the mound. Once in place I provided covering fire for one of the machine gunners to move to cover. When he was safe, I crawled down the mound and up the other side and repeated the process. We caught our breath and moved back to the pick up zone via a foot wide goat trail. One slip of the foot and we would have been in for a world of hurt. Bullets whizzed overhead every thirty seconds, adding even more stress to our movement.
There was no time to rest when we reached our destination because the intensity of the enemy attack continued to grow. Johnny Mac came down from the casualty collection point to help out. We set up machine gun positions on the ridgelines to protect the rest of our element. RPG’s began to explode overhead while rockets and mortars landed close by. Our machine gun positions had rounds impacting all around them. While I was in the process of moving from one machine gun position to another, Johnny started screaming my name. I thought that he or one of the Commandos was wounded, it was worse; Johnny was out of Copenhagen. Addiction does not end for a ten-hour firefight, so before moving to the head machine-gun position I ran to Johnny and gave him a can of Copenhagen. The lead Afghan Commando machine gun was firing erratically, so I took over his machine gun and started to lay down accurate fire. One of the members of the incoming team and some of the Afghan Commandos began to launch mortars. At this point, a member of the incoming team said, “our landing zone is in reach of rockets and mortars, we need to find a new one.”
We broke down our machine gun positions and moved back to the main element. We dropped off some of the guys, informed the command that we were going to survey a new landing zone and took off. We decided upon a new site and relayed the coordinates to the command. We stayed at the site and pulled security until everyone moved to the new site. By this point, people were exhausted and on the verge of collapsing. However, the enemy was not done with us for the day and I learned a valuable lesson, it aint over until its over. Taliban members moved up the mountain and re-occupied our old fighting positions. As the helicopters were only a few minutes out, enemy forces opened up on us again. Exhausted soldiers, weary from 10 hours of combat in temperatures that reached 130 degrees, once again perked up and returned fire. Our ride home landed amidst this and I kept thinking “God, please do not let one of our helicopters get shot down.” I ran to the far side of the helicopter to provide security while the flight crew and the incoming team’s team sergeant counted Afghans and Americans onto the helicopter. While the men were loading up, I fired a magazine in the direction that the gunfire was coming from. I wanted to keep the enemies heads down long enough for us to load up. As I let loose my last bullet, the team sergeant grabbed me by the back of my body armor and threw me onto the helicopter.
This was one of the most chaotic days of my life and one of the most, if not the most intense days I spent in Afghanistan. My words will not do it justice, so I wont even attempt to describe how I felt when that helicopter flew away. Luckily, the flight crew had water and Gatorade with them and dispersed it throughout the cabin. It was the best water and Gatorade I had ever tasted in my life. When we arrived back at our base, there were a hundred or so people waiting for us with a massive mobile hospital set up. People immediately rushed to us to take our equipment and help us off of the helicopters. Doctors and nurses began to check us out and provide medical care. Almost everyone received an IV and some people went to the hospital to receive further treatment. One of the Commandos fired so many RPG’s during the day that he could not speak (you are only supposed to shoot a certain number of RPG’s in a day, he exceeded this mark by a lot and had a very bad concussion from this). Miraculously nobody was wounded by enemy fire. To this day I am still amazed by this. The irony of this being one of my team’s last missions and the new teams first was incredible. It was almost like the Taliban was saying, “welcome to Afghanistan and thanks for playing, we will be here when you get back.”
When I got back to my room, I saw the letter I had written to my family. I could not believe how close they were to receiving it. I crumpled it up and threw it away. I was relieved that the letter did not have to serve its purpose. Two weeks later, our team arrived back in the states. A week after that we found out that we were going back to Afghanistan in seven months. We were also told that in those seven months “off”, we would have to go to Thailand for five weeks and perform two separate pre-mission training events for Afghanistan.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson. When you think that you are going to die most of the things that people worry about in this world do not matter. I never thought about how much money I had or the car I drove. I did not say to myself, “I wish I was meaner to that person or I wish held more grudges.” In fact I was ashamed that I had acted that way in my life. When you think you are going to die, none of that stuff matters. Money, possessions, anger and hate all go out the window. Also, if you are not living your life the way that you want to, or more importantly the way that you know you should, you will be stricken with regret, panic and sadness at your time of reckoning. Our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln put it best: “Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.” Nothing is guaranteed in life, especially tomorrow. If you have been holding a grudge, end it. If you haven’t told someone how much he or she means to you, do it, do it right now, because you don’t know the next time that you will have the opportunity.

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