7. Last Party for 430…
It was a cool 35 degrees in the shade next to the helicopter maintenance hangars. Our combat gear was kept inside a wall of sea-cans along the flight line. Often we sat bantering in this band of shade while cleaning weapons and preparing gear. Today we were preparing our ‘go-bags’.
A ‘go-bag’ is back-pack to compliment our survival vest. It carried the necessities required if we were shot down. The things necessary to fight and survive. The Air Force provided necessary survival training and equipment that we should carry in our vests and “go-bags”. Ironically, it was filled with fishing line, snare wire, matches and survival booklets with a few ounces of bagged water–which mostly just attracted mice. Otherwise, fantastic for the boreal forests in Canada but not so suitable here. This notion created some sarcastic banter ridiculing the equipment:
‘If I land in the dessert, I’ll set up a snare-wire defensive perimeter;’
‘If the Taliban shoot me down, I’ll set up a survival fire. Someone will find me!’
‘Maybe some fishing in the wadi? Right next to the IED trap.’
‘Alway stay by the wreckage, then Search and Rescue will find you….so will the Insurgents!’
As opposed to an infantry soldier that would advise you to black-out, move to survive; learn tactical bounding. I couldn’t find anything in the “Down – But – Not – Out” booklet about tactical bounding.
“I can’t believe they sent us this crap!” Grumpy stated. Grumpy was instrumental in making sure we had the appropriate ‘go-bags’ that would carry what we really needed.
“Get rid of that shit Steve! Load it up. I recommend an ammo pack here, here and here…the rest inside.” He was pointing to the various belt placements to attach gear.
“How much are you carrying?” Fender stated.
Fender was an experienced tactical pilot of calm demeanour. He had a lot of experience and his strongest asset was his ability to stay calm. Even in the most trying times, he would pause, breath, turn his head contemplatively then respond even calmer. He brought his guitar and spent a few minutes each evening strumming a few tunes before he slept. I don’t want to use his name so I’ll nickname him Fender for these dialogues.
“10 mags, all of it.” Grumpy instructed. “4 on my chest, 2 on my holster belt and the rest in the bag.” He continued loading his magazines.
Big-C nodded in agreement. Big-C is obviously another nickname to describe a large, strong and stocky Saskatchewan farm-boy. He was generally quite stoic. He always had a mischevious smile yet a hard work ethic. Practical. He had served in Iraq with the American’s on exchange tour and offered a depth of knowledge about tactics and the enemy. He also liked to enable, non-maliciously, situations to humour himself.
“What about these survival books and snare wire?” I asked holding them up.
“Put it in your locker.” Grumpy stated while everyone loaded their magazines. “…Not required.”
“Helmet, water, bullets and first aid gear…It’s all ya need…emphasis on bullets and water.” Big C stated without lifting his head from loading his magazines.
“And the spur-ride carabineer and strap.” Added Fender. If shot down and you needed out quick with no other helicopter available with seats, spur-ride was a way to strap yourself onto the outside of an apache or kiowa. It was an extraction technique when the enemy was breathing down your neck. Basically you tied yourself to the weapons pods and rode out.
“Lotsa bullets…if you go down you may only have your pistol available; so make sure you have 3 or 4 mags on your body too.” Grumpy further advised as he aimed his 9mm at the ground testing his personally bought night laser-aiming devise attached.
Fender nodded and strapped some extra mag pouches to his pistol holster.
I picked up my first-aid gear, which was nothing more than a Kwik-clot bandage, a triangular bandage, gauze and some tourniquets. I carried half in my flight suit all the time. So even in KAF I had enough bandages to initiate help to someone if they got hit by a rocket.
“How many tourniquets you guys taking?” I asked.
“You should have at least one.” Fender stated.
Big-C looked up.
“I’ll take two for sure.” Grumpy added as Fender grabbed an extra placing it in his flight suit pocket and the other in his go-bag.
“Ya know if ya get hit in the leg with a 51 caliber dishka round it’ll pretty much rip ‘er off.” Big-C stated monotonously without lifting his eyes. He kept packing mags in his go-bag. “How you gonna put one on your leg in the cockpit in all that pain when your shin is blown off?”
“Pfffft, you gotta point.” I was startled. “I can’t even reach my pedals with all that armour on in those plated seats.”
“Ya know what the tank drivers do?” C offered raising his eye brows omnipotently. His smile smirking horizontally across his face.
“What?” I asked naively.
“They wear ‘em…one on each leg. At least they are there and ready.”
“Shit. Maybe I should do that?” I stated rhetorically. I placed one on each thigh to try it out. My go-bag was now packed and weapon’s ready; it was time to try it all on anyway. I loaded all my gear on my back. Armoured vest, tactical vest with multiple magazines, leg holster with about 40 rounds ammo, and my go-bag with helmet, camouflage nets, 6 bottles of water, extra first aid gear and about 200 more rounds of ammo. I was an extra 85 pounds with my rifle. Some guys carried over 100 pounds. I strutted over to the helicopter feeling invincible; like a Mech-Warrior. However, my proud swagger was being inhibited as my tourniquets kept sliding down my thighs to around my ankles — like a failed garter belt. I had to put my rifle strap over my neck and walk with each hand holding up a garter-like tourniquet on each leg. This image of course destroying my rugged invincible self-image.
“What the fuck are you wearing?” the experienced French accented gunner asked as I approached the helicopter.
“I gotta tourniquet on each leg in case I take 51 caliber while flying…then I’m ready.” I spoke confidently.
He shook his head in disbelief but added. “Well okay, but I bet you wont be wearing those in a week from now.”
“I don’t know why I wouldn’t be.” I answered logically. “We’re not much different from the leopard drivers who wear ’em while driving.” I further parroted C’s words.
I wabbled back to the sea-cans holding my garter belt up. My 85 pounds of gear swaying like a turtle partially connected to its shell continually testing my balance.
“I think I can easily work with this.” I stated matter of factly to the guys.
Big-C just smirked; success in self-entertainment accomplished.
Fender took a glance at my condition and changed the topic. “Alright, we have the 430 Commanding Officer’s departure parade in a couple minutes; we should lock this gear up.”
In the Maintenance Hanger – (which were just leaning against)
“Tomorrow the remainder of the crews of 408 will arrive and we will have our change of command parade.” The CO addressed all the 430 staff at a bi-weekly Bar-B-Q in the helicopter hangar.
Every two weeks we paused operations for an Equipment Care Day (EC Day). EC days allowed time to repair equipment, clean weapons and conduct maintenance on the aircraft. It also allowed a little recreation time for shopping at the boardwalk and generally just centre oneself.
The best thing about EC Day was it that it also a bi-weekly Bar-B-Q. And every other EC Day, the Canadians were entitled to 2 beers per month. This happened to be a beer day. It also was the last day before the 430 Squadron members, Task Force Faucon, would head home.
“We’ve had a very challenging tour and I thank you for all the hard work and perseverance you’ve demonstrated.” (I don’t recall the exact words of the outgoing CO, but I do of his sentiment.)
“You can all be extremely proud of the move we accomplished to our current lines. (referring to a unit relocation of all equipment on the airport). Roto 8 will be very comfortable now and the operations centre is amazing. And we. You. Did this without stopping any operational performance to the Land Task Force.” He spoke proudly smiling of his team’s logistical accomplishment.
“And we brought in the Dillons. Started dual-dillon operations….and shelved that C-6 crap!”
“Yaaa! Woo hoo!” A few gun-ho cheers from the gunners.
“And we had our share of combat, spread bullets on the enemy and each have our stories to take home…and share.…”
“Yaaaa Infidel’s!” A french voice cheered out proud of the griffon capability.
“But most of all, we enabled troops and logistics to be moved quickly and safely with the Chinooks. This allowed the task force to complete more missions through aviation sustainable security….BUT!” He stated loudly and then paused continuing silently, respectfully. “But this was not without loss.” He was emotional and his eyes swelled. He paused to breath away mist in his eyes. There was silence.
“Everyday we walk down this ramp, we see the memorial we left here to remind others of their sacrifice. MCpl Pat Audet and Cpl Martin Joannette. We will always remember them.” He bowed his head as did everyone for a moment of reflection.
He looked up. “You have been the best team a CO could ever ask for. I wish you safe returns and a healthy time off.” Then he looked at everyone and started to applaud them; they returned the the applause. He opened a beer, “Salute, cheers.”
The crowd toasted back: “cin-cin” and drifted back into individual banter as the second beers were opening.
I walked over to the CO when he was finished addressing his troops and said fair-well.
“Hey Steve. These EC days are important to take every couple of weeks. Time to breath.”
“Yes, sir, nice to have a beer too.” I clicked his beer can.
“Yes. We made headways in convincing the army that the door-guns and Dillons are a very viable asset for continuous time-on-target as opposed to forward firing Apaches and Kiowas.” He professed. “You guys are getting the MX-15 next week. That stand-off optical capability combined with the dual Dillons will make you one of the most sought out Close Combat Attack platforms for Slayer. You’re going to have a great tour….Fly safe.”
I nodded. The MX-15 was brought on in very short notice. It was a training night-mare to try and figure out in a couple of weeks but we had a basic idea at this point how to get it working. It wouldn’t be easy but I was amazed by its long-range capability at both bight and day. It also had a high powered laser that could easily point to things beyond 15 kilometres whether they be a landing spot for Chinooks to go to or a target for an Apache to kill. It was capable.
“I will and thanks. Enjoy your time off sir.” I answered as he made his way through his troops to share memories.
Chip came by and gave me his last few words of advise,
“Steve, fly your guns. Fly protection — not formation.”
“Cheers.” I clicked my Molson Canadian against his.
“Cheers.” He responded.
I nodded and contemplated. I thought about those words and over the next few weeks. It became obvious that was going to change the way I flew in Afghanistan — not technically but the attitude. It was like a graduation gift from flying at home to flying in theatre — I took it to heart. My crew, some quicker that others, got on board with that philosophy.
I returned to my tent reflecting on the evening. I had my mission for the next day. It was ‘walkin’ the dog’ on MONTREAL route. It would be my last trips with 430 crew as the remaining 408 crew was arriving late this evening.
“Alonsi!” my French copilot stated to me. It was time to get back to the tent lines. “We have Table at 05:30 demain.”
There was a community table under some army canvass central to our tent line; aka: “Table.” ‘Table Time’ was when and where everyone met to depart for work.
I crashed down on top of my bunk and reflected on the day and the past week as I looked at the dusty canvass roof which waved gentle in the sulphury, poopy breeze. It would take sometime to get desensitized to the stench of the poo-pond as it burned my throat.
Fender was playing a few tunes softly on the other side of the thin fabric wall.
There’s a lady who’s sure,
all that glitters is gold.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…
I would get accustomed to his music over the next year. It was very relaxing, almost putting me to sleep recognizing familiar tunes…until he missed a chord. Then repeated it a few times before moving to the next bar.
When she gets (strum) there….(Strum) there….(strum) there….
I nodded my head with each strum hoping in silent cheer for him to nail the correct chord correctly.
…she knows, if the stores are all closed…
Yes. Ahhhhh. Silent applause in my head. Regardless of missed chords, I found the music soothing; maybe even more than him at times.
A long blast of the attack horn pierced through the camp. I couldn’t believe it. The first night I was finally getting some sleep and the horn goes off.
“Is this for real?” I called through the fabric divider to Fender.
“Yup, its a rocket attack,” he stated annoyed of the disruption to his practice.
“I’m trying to get on the floor but I don’t have enough room do you?”
“Nope, just slouch a little.” He mumbled back.
I grunted in frustration trying to maneuver to the small floor space. It was too small to lay out flat as prescribed. “I’m on my hands and knees but I can’t get flat…my ass is in the air.” I chuckled nervously. “If that rocket lands near here I’m gonna get sent home in a box with my ass blown off.”
“I don’t fit either; I’m just sitting on the floor — slouched.” He called back.
I surrendered to that idea flipping my body to a more comfortable posture then pulled on the light string to open my barrack box for my weapon and helmet.
“RWOKIT ATTACK, RWOKIT ATTACK, RWOKIT ATTACK,” stated the pre-recorded sexy female English voice of the emergency alarm system.
After the mandatory 2-minutes of floor discomfort, I took my protective gear and pistol and proceed to the rocket-bunker to wait for further information. The bunker was a huge concrete lego-like structure with walls and roof that were about 18 inches thick. Our tent group with about fifty other passers-by amalgamated at the bunker and waited. Most people wore shorts and T-shirts, with rifles slung drinking their evening Tim Hortons coffee.
“First one?” An American soldier enquired lifting his eye-brow.
“Second, how can you tell?” I anxiously responded. He smirked at me. My eyes were full open. It was easy to tell. He was cool; relaxed. He was smoking a cigarette. Not me. I was jacked and ready to run somewhere. I kept thinking first aid: heavy bleeding first, then airway, then blood, then circulation.
He raised his chin exhaling his cigarette smoke: “Number 53 for me. I’m countin’ for fun,” then calmly added. “You’ll get used to it.”
I don’t think I could ever get used to it.
“Did you hear it?” He looked in the direction of an explosion that went off a few minutes earlier. “I heard an explosion but it seemed far off.”
“Pretty sure it’s outside the wire…sometimes they miss the camp all together.” Someone else added rhetorically to the conversation.
“That’s good because if no-one gets hurt, the all clear will come really fast.” He responded.
He was right.
MEEERRRRRAAAARRRROOOOOWWWWWWW. The siren sounded again.
This time the English lady voice stated: “ALL CLAIR, ALL CLAIR, ALL CLAIR”.
People started moving on with their business as if nothing happened. I walked to the mini-bunker outside my tent and paused for a moment. I was very awake. I sauntered back to my bed. I laid my clothes on the chair, placed my pistol in the barrack box and sat on the edge of my bed. I watched the indirect light over the top of the fabric wall go dimmer as each pilot pulled their lightbulb-strings. Click, click, click. It was dark everywhere except my space.
I lay back staring at the ceiling a few more moments. How long would it take to desensitize? I sat up and dropped my feet to the floor. No way I was going to sleep. I put on my gym shorts.