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By Chuck Holton
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2005 Charles W. Holton
All right reserved.
Midnight, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico
A light rain pelted the USS Guadalcanal as it turned into the wind twenty-five miles off the coast of the Florida panhandle. Five MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters spun up for takeoff, the prop wash transforming the drizzle into a cold spray that caused miniature waterspouts to dance along the pitching, dimly lit deck. Seemingly oblivious to the ship's movement, seamen in color-coded helmets scurried about, making final preparations for mission launch.
I had just climbed aboard chopper three and was sitting on an ammo box with my back to the door gunner, who manned one of the two 7.62 mm Vulcan cannons situated behind the pilot on the special-ops-modified aircraft. These were the same Night Stalker crews we had flown with in Panama a year earlier, and the little stick figures painted in front of the guns on each chopper bore silent testimony to the action they had seen there.
Through the open door, I could see another chopper fifty feet away; I glimpsed a line of soldiers in black helmets hurrying out to it, each heavily laden with every sort of high-speed military hardware imaginable. As far as I could tell, none of it was standard issue. These guys weren't Rangers, like the rest of us, though some of them had been before they were "selected" for the ultrasecret unit they were now a part of. We affectionately called them "long hairs" because they all had long hair. (Not a very creative name, I suppose.) We weren't supposed to talk to them, but their impressive array of custom-made weapons and anonymous uniforms ensured that we talked about little else. They were the main event on this mission; we Rangers were only on board to provide support and security.
I looked over at two of the privates on my team-Lavoie and Urban-sitting with their feet dangling from the aircraft's open door. They were going to have a cold ride. Like me, they couldn't wait to get on with the show, mostly because we were all sick of being stuck on this ship. The last three days had been enough to make all of us glad we hadn't joined the Navy. We had been assigned bunks that stacked five high, with only about eighteen inches of space between each rack. And if the pitching and yawing of the ship weren't enough to make a guy sick, every couple of hours some purple-shirted Navy guys called "grapes" showed up in our quarters to check the levels on the ship's fuel tanks-filling the room with diesel fumes.
I finally ended up sleeping in the ship's fo'c'sle (forecastle), a large room all the way forward that had been set up as a workout area. Did I say sleeping? I actually spent several hours hanging my head out the anchor chain hole, gasping for some fresh air. How anybody could spend six months on a ship without becoming suicidal was beyond me.
A tap on the shoulder interrupted my thoughts. The door gunner was holding up an index finger. One minute to launch. Let's get on with it! I thought. I turned to watch the pilots running through their last-minute checks. Noting my interest, the gunner handed me an extra set of headphones so I could hear what they were saying. Not that I understood any of it.
"Auxiliary pitot heat, off."
The crew chief smiled at me from under his goggles and twirled his finger in the air. Translation: Game on.
The pitch of the Black Hawk's engines changed, its powerful turbine whining as if it couldn't wait to get off the ground. Then the five helicopters lifted off as one and the heaving deck of the carrier dropped away beneath us. G-forces pressed me into my seat as the nose of the chopper pitched forward and we picked up speed.
I clutched my M203 grenade launcher, held barrel down like we'd been trained. It was always a good idea. That way, in the unlikely event of an accidental discharge, nothing important-like the engine-would be damaged. This time, we were all carrying live rounds. This mission was the final test-the culmination of the last month of training which, if successful, would get us the green light to do this thing for real, on the ground in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
I looked out the open door of the helicopter as we hurtled over white-capped waves 250 feet below. The water looked cold, almost evil. I shivered.
Hard-rock music came blasting through my headset. My head jerked around in time to see the gunner finish connecting a wire from the onboard radio to the headphone jack on his Walkman. He grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. Background music. Special-ops pilots. These guys are fun.
A month ago I'd been enjoying one of the best deployments of my life-an entire summer assignment as an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Every year the Rangers were tasked to provide some noncommissioned officers to teach infantry tactics to the "yearlings," or first-year students. It was awesome. We got treated like superstars, because the cadets are taught to have great respect for NCOs. But it was more than that. The Rangers had just returned from the first major combat operation in nearly a decade, sporting combat jump stars on our uniforms-which were so rare we constantly got asked, "What is that little gold star on your jump wings?" Life was good.
Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The next day, a camouflage Humvee drove up to our patrol base in the woods around Camp Buckner, and a West Point major stepped out with a message for us. The note said simply, "RETURN TO BENNING IMMEDIATELY." It had been sent by our company commander.
Twenty-four hours later, after an all-night road trip, we rolled up to the Ranger barracks on Fort Benning's main post. The compound boiled with activity-Rangers hurrying to inspect and palletize everything we would need for an extended deployment. I was struck by the practiced precision of it all. And this time I understood what enabled us to react so quickly. As a private, I had hated all of the inspecting, packing, unpacking, and repacking that we did in training. But now that I'd seen combat in Panama, I understood the importance of training on the tedious things.
They separated our battalion into "assault packages," pairing groups of us up with other special-ops units to accomplish the various missions our leadership had been given. My company had been tasked with protecting the exterior of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait City-at that very moment surrounded by thousands of Iraqi troops. Once we secured the exterior, the long hairs would go inside and get our people out.
A full-scale plywood mock-up of the embassy had been constructed on a remote section of an air force base in Florida. Meanwhile, our unit scrambled to learn how to execute our part of the mission. We started by laying out engineer tape on the dewy grass of our PT field, representing the dimensions of the embassy. Then it was just a matter of walking through our mission again and again until each of us knew exactly what to do.
After being flown to the USS Guadalcanal, we began practicing the operation in earnest. In conjunction with naval elements, air assets, and long hairs, we hit the mock-up on the beach over and over again, working out the kinks in the mission. I had to keep reminding my guys not to run in front of the miniguns when they exited the chopper. When it came time to use live rounds, a misstep could get a guy cut in half by four-thousand-rounds-per-minute of ball ammunition.
After three days and six dry runs, someone decided we were ready to try it with live ammo. This was the final test, and if we passed, it was likely that the order to execute the mission would soon follow.
This would be altogether different from our deployment in Panama. In Operation Just Cause, we had parachuted in with overwhelming force and, after the first twenty-four hours, spent the majority of our time watching people surrender. If this mission went off, we'd be fighting for our lives against a numerically superior force, dependent as much on combat support from the air as we were on our own trigger fingers.
This mission was "hit and git": Rescue the hostages and disappear before the enemy could get organized enough to resist us. The goal was ten minutes, max. If something happened and we were on the ground longer than that, things would get downright unfriendly, and fast.
Something in the back of my mind was less enthusiastic about this thrust into the Middle East than I had been about going into Panama. Maybe it was because I knew this action would be more difficult. Then again, maybe those combat images of losing buddies the previous year were fresh enough in my mind to keep me from wanting to go through it again.
Really, it didn't matter either way. I had learned to compartmentalize my feelings away and concentrate on my part of the mission. My men were counting on me to guide them through the operation successfully. If I got distracted, it wouldn't affect just me but my squad as well, and perhaps the entire mission. I wasn't going to waste time worrying about the outcome; I had to focus on performing my part.
I had learned to trust our commanders. In Panama, we'd been given the task of taking over a penitentiary that held political prisoners. Before we even boarded the choppers, however, word came down that our regimental commander, Col. William F. "Buck" Kernan, had actually called the prison on the telephone and informed them we were coming. What? We couldn't believe it. I sincerely believed he had just signed our death warrant by giving up the element of surprise. None of us could understand what would possess him to take such a risk. When we arrived at the prison, however, we were met by a neat line of unarmed guards standing out front, waiting to surrender. We accomplished the mission without firing a shot. Our commander had known what he was doing.
This time around, I worried about how seventy Rangers were supposed to hold off thousands of enraged Iraqis. I had to remind myself that it wasn't my job to understand; it was my job to carry out the mission I'd been given.
Civilian friends of mine couldn't understand that mindset and might have said I was foolish or even brainwashed to put myself into a situation like this. But because I trusted my commander, I found great freedom in ceding control of my well-being to him. Could it be I wouldn't come back from this one? Sure. But I could just as easily get run off the road into a bridge abutment on my way to a nine-to-five job somewhere in suburbia. All things considered, I preferred the uncertainty and risk of this life to the stale comfort of a more predictable and safe existence. And even though this mission scared me a bit, my guys needed me. No way would I let them go off into combat alone.
The helicopter suddenly dropped like a stone toward the black sea below, jolting me back to the present. For a split second I was weightless, free-falling toward the water and clutching for something to hold onto before my safety line caught and pulled me back down into the seat. I held on as the chopper dove to within thirty feet of the waves on its final approach to the beachfront landing zone in front of the embassy mock-up.
"One minute!" The crew chief gestured into the mass of bodies packed into the Black Hawk's dark interior. Only a few saw him, but they quickly passed it along to the rest of the men. My guys looked to me for their cue to "go hot"-to load their weapons with live ammunition. Pulling a magazine from my vest, I tapped it against my Kevlar helmet, then pushed it deftly into the receiver on my M203. Lavoie and Urban did the same, and I was gratified by the fluidity with which they charged their own weapons. All those endless hours of disassembling and reassembling their M203s in training were paying dividends tonight.
We thundered over a Zodiac inflatable boat full of commandos-presumably Navy SEALs-as they headed for the beach, practically invisible but for the wake left by the boat. Then I checked my weapon's safety catch, making sure it was on, and started to finger the snaplink connected to my safety line.
The objective was clearly visible at this point. Smoke rose in columns from around the perimeter of the plywood fence surrounding the pretend embassy. The choppers began to decelerate, their tails flaring downward. Just when everything felt like it should be moving the fastest, time seemed to slow.
Time to focus. Time to go.
Just before touchdown, the door gunners opened up, hosing down the objective with a vicious belch of hot lead, chewing up the sand, as the rotor wash caused a momentary brownout. Settling on the beach just long enough for the men inside to scramble out and hit the prone, the aircraft lifted off scant seconds later. Once the dust began to settle, we could make out the dim shapes of bunkers around the outside wall of the embassy, and silhouettes of plastic "enemy" soldiers inside. I pumped a 40 mm training grenade into the nearest bunker, as Lavoie laid on the trigger of his squad automatic weapon on my left. The rattle of his gun was accompanied by the sound of rounds impacting the target.
Just then, something whooshed by over my head, and a split second later the bunker twenty feet in front of me evaporated with a flash. The shock wave from the explosion felt like a pro wrestler jumping on my flak vest. I buried my face in the sand as shrapnel and clods of dirt sailed through the air above me. Wow! That was a 2.75 inch rocket! I glanced at the sky behind me in time to see the Night Stalker Little Bird that had fired the rockets swoop down low toward the objective, spouting flame from its 5.56 mm miniguns as it passed. The knowledge that the pilots aimed their weapons systems by making a mark with a grease pencil on the windscreen wasn't especially comforting, as their rounds were impacting fairly close to my position.
No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than I heard Lavoie suddenly cry out, and I looked over to see him writhing on the ground in pain. Oh no! Rising to my hands and knees, I scrambled to his side, fearing he'd been hit by a stray round. I yelled, "Are you hit?" and was met by a stream of profanity as he continued to roll on the ground. It looked like he was trying to get out of his flak vest. "Brass!" he screamed. "Hot brass down my back!"
Then I realized what had happened. The passing chopper had been firing, ejecting hot brass cartridges, and one of them had dropped down the back of Lavoie's shirt. I quickly put my knee on his back, reached into his shirt, located the spent cartridge, and removed it.
Lavoie let out a groan. "Thanks, Sergeant."
"You scared me," I replied. "Now let's move."
Bounding up to the edge of the wall surrounding the embassy, we took our position at the southeast corner. I keyed the radio mic attached to my body armor and reported to the commander.
"Yellow three, clear."
"Roger, Yellow three. Hold what you've got. Out."
My team and I pulled security toward empty dunes of sand, trying to imagine what it would be like when we did this mission for real. Our briefing had shown that the real embassy in downtown Kuwait City was surrounded by buildings. The plan was to flatten them to disrupt the enemy, so we'd probably be looking at smoking rubble if this were the real thing. But for now, the rain had moved away and a moonlit sky showed a huge special-ops Pave Low helicopter approaching from the sea. The long hairs were inbound to extract our precious cargo.
While my men stayed prone, surveying their sectors of fire, I took a knee and thought about how tough it would be to lose any of them. These men were the brothers I'd always wanted as a boy. We'd been through a lot together. I wouldn't let anything hurt them, if I had to kill the whole city or die trying. I imagined having to hold off hundreds of Iraqi troops from this exposed position, protecting fellow Americans whom we'd probably never even see.
Excerpted from BULLET PROOF by Chuck Holton Copyright © 2005 by Charles W. Holton. Excerpted by permission.
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