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"DIVE LEFT! Dive left!" Corporal Chet Beltran screamed into his microphone.
Marine Corps Captain Tahcha Grant, pilot of the mighty CH-53E Super Stallion, instantly took evasive action. Her aircraft, the largest military helicopter operating in Afghanistan, groaned and shuddered as she gripped the collective tighter, working the rudders. Dammit!
The stress of the unexpected maneuver caused the huge engines to shrill. Out of the corner of her eye, Tahcha saw the missile, a bright yellow light emanating from the barren brown desert below. Her heart rate soared. Her mouth went dry. It felt as if she were going to burst apart from the sudden adrenaline pouring through her body.
"It's a surface-to-air missile!" the crew chief yelled, his voice cracking with terror. "It's comin' right at us!"
Tahcha wheeled the large, unwieldy helicopter to the left, knowing there wasn't much chance of outwitting the missile. Her team was in the mountainous region near the Pakistan border, flying a special ops mission. They had flown under cover of darkness from their air base out on the plains. Hedge-hopping over the peaks of the high mountains, they would sink into the valleys and fly nap-of-the-earth maneuvers to avoid being seen by any Taliban, who lived to shoot down a helo. It was a dangerous business.
With night-vision goggles, a pilot could see through the darkness and fly close to the earth. The only problem was Taliban soldiers watching for such maneuvers, who could nail them with SA-7sSoviet-made shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles. The Taliban's favorite targets were slow-moving helos coming in for a landing, hovering while they unloaded cargo or personnel, and taking offagain.
Cursing to herself, Tahcha feverishly worked the controls. Her copilot, Lieutenant Jed Reynolds, grunted. "It's locked on to us!"
With only five hundred feet of clearance from the ground, Tahcha was hemmed in. Dawn was a lurid red band accentuating the jagged mountain peaks on the horizon. Above it she could still see glittering stars. Everything slowed to single frames, as if she were watching a movie unfold. Only it wasn't a movie. It was real lifeher life, and the lives of the people on board, for whom she was responsible.
Aware of her heart thudding in her breast, Tahcha felt her breath jam in her lungs. She swung the Super Stallion in a hard left turn. The six blades thumped violently above them to compensate for the unexpected escape strategy. Through the earphones in her helmet, she heard Chet, who was manning one of the side door machine guns, gasping for air.
Sweat popped out on her upper lip. Her mouth became a tight, grim line. Tahcha felt the pull of gravity against the straps of her harness. The light was bad. She'd already pushed the night-vision goggles to the top of her helmet.
Her team had almost reached their objective: a mountaintop forward base, where ten Marines were going to be off-loaded, along with a month's worth of supplies and ammunition. And the ten Marines who had manned the base for thirty days would be brought on board and returned to their unit. Right now, the added weight of the ammunition made her aircraft a helluva lot less maneuverable than she'd like.
Tahcha glanced in horror toward the missile still streaking toward them. Her gaze leaped back to the green glowing instrument panel, then to the deep, gaping canyon below. The air was cool in the high mountains, which hadn't yet unleashed the nasty winds frequently stirred up during the heat of the day. Mind racing, Tahcha saw that there was a mountain peak less than half a mile away. And it was much higher in altitude than their current flight path.
She didn't have the power or distance needed to climb up and over it; the SA-7 would take them out. The heat-seeking missile would lock on to the engines of the Super Stallion; and if it hit them, they were dead. The information scrolled through Tahcha's brain as she continued the tight turn. There was hardly any room to maneuver!
She gripped the controls even harder with her gloved hands. Her entire being was focused on finding a way to avoid getting hit. The heavy vibration of the big chopper, usually comforting to her, raced through her like a jittery warning. She felt beaten up and bruised by the reaction of her bird to the demanding, nearly impossible turn. Teeth clenched, Tahcha watched the canyon floor race up to meet them.
She had been coaxing her stalwart helo toward the base, now less than a mile away. Tahcha knew they were always most vulnerable to the enemy when landing. Sure enough, a Taliban soldier been waiting patiently among the boulders. And now he had her.
"Evade! Evade!" Beltran shrieked. "It's locked on us! Go left! Dive! Dive!"
Impossible! Tahcha heard Chet's scream. Heard the desperation and terror in his strained Kentucky drawl. She, too, could see the bright light streaking directly toward them. The SA-7 had fixed on to the Super Stallion's heat signature. There was so little room to escape! She took the helicopter down, down, down, flying between two peaks into the canyon beyond.
Suddenly, Tahcha heard her grandmother Willow's ancient, reedy voice in her head, saying, "It is a good day to die." Shaken, Tahcha realized her Lakota heritage was leaking into her military world, her reality for the past ten years.
Born on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Tahcha was one of the few Sioux women to fly, much less serve as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot. Twenty-nine now, she loved flying and was fiercely patriotic. Everyone she knew considered her a warrior. And her grandmother's fateful words were the ones a warrior spoke as she woke up to meet the challenges of a coming day. Warriors realized that every breath could be their last, and that they should value each moment. Whether they lived or died was up to the Great Spirit.
Oddly enough, Tahcha wasn't afraid of dying herself. But she wanted the men on board to survive. She wrestled the behemoth in a tight U-turn to avoid having the blades strike and shatter against the rock cliffs of the canyon. Rage and fear raced through her as she fought to shake the missile off their tail.
Through the sound system in her helmet she heard Jed, her copilot, calling their air base, which they had left hours earlier. He was giving their location and informing them of the attack, his voice wobbly with fright. "Red Rook One to Blue Beach. Mayday! Mayday! We have been fired upon from the ground. We are one mile from Base Bravo. Over "
The Super Stallion hurtled through the canyon. Tahcha ordered her copilot to push the throttles to full power. The bird strained as she forced it to make a slight, climbing turn to the right. Sometimes an SA-7 could be fooled by a tight, quick turn. Losing track of its target, it would fly on, straight ahead, eventually fizzling out and dropping to earth. Would it this time?
Tahcha couldn't look. All her concentration, her life, her breath, were focused on the rugged walls of the canyon looming up in front of the cockpit Plexiglas. Every muscle in her body screamed with tension. Her fingers ached from gripping the controls so tightly.
"Oh, God " Reynolds gasped.
"No!" The shriek came from Chet Beltran, who was at the window and could see just how close they were to the canyon walls.
Grunting, Tahcha used every bit of her strength to wheel the Super Stallion up and out of the narrow confines. If one blade touched those rocks, they were dead.
And if she couldn't shake off the missile, it was game over. Suddenly, every color in front of Tahcha's eyes became luminous, intense. She was aware of perspiration leaking down her armpits and tickling her ribs. Her breathing sounded like bellows rasping in her ears. The thunk, thunk, thunk of the chopper blades trying desperately to avoid the oncoming cliff wall drummed through her. Beltran gave a shriek, half fear, half anger. Out of the corner of her eye, Tahcha saw Reynolds raise his hands in front of his face while she fought to pull the Sea Stallion out of danger.
By some miracle, they missed the rocks and climbed out of the canyon. She couldn't see the missile. "Where is it? Where is it?" she yelled, working to bring the helicopter to a rocky slope about half a mile from the base. They were about a hundred feet above the ground.
"It's turned! It's turned back toward us!" Beltran screamed.
"Oh, God, we're gonna be hit!"
His words echoed in her ears as she worked the controls to bring the helicopter down. If they got hit, they might have a chance of surviving, close to earth. There was nothing else Tahcha could do. A sense of futility, desperation and sorrow filled her.
Just as the ground raced up to meet them, Tahcha saw something so odd she couldn't believe her eyes. Out of the lurid dawn sky in front of her cockpit Plexiglas flew a huge white owla snowy owl. She could see the bird's big, yellow eyes as it soared directly toward her. Its wingspan was impressive, for it was one of the largest owls in North America .
Her mind shorted out as she focused on trying to land the Super Stallion. If the men could only leap out and run to safety before the missile struck
Tahcha felt the projectile hit the upper engine of the aircraft, causing a sickening, shuddering jolt throughout the helicopter. An explosion followed, an eruption of heat and fire. The screams of her crew pummeled her ears as the helo fell from the sky. As it struck the earth, she saw the white owl fly toward her and enfold her in its mighty wings.
GASPING AND CHOKING, Tahcha jerked up into a sitting position. Sweat drench her as she tried to disconnect from the nightmare. Every breath was an explosive gasp, and she automatically reached for her throat. Opening her eyes, she dazedly realized that she was sitting in a narrow bunk bed, in a small, cold room. Those strangled sounds she heard were her ownsounds of desperation. Of grief. Of rage.
Her eyes burned with tears. Her long black hair slid across her hunched, shaking shoulders. She was dressed in a gray cotton T-shirt beneath the pile of blankets that now pooled around her waist.
Fighting the cries that echoed through her mind, Tahcha gulped and climbed out of bed. Where was she? Weaving unsteadily, she pressed her hand against the pine wall. The coolness of the wooden floor beneath her feet helped her orient herself. Looking toward the small window, the faded blue curtains, she saw that it was dark outside.
Feeling dizzy, she slumped against the wall. The rough surface prickled her skin through the sweaty T-shirt she wore. As soon as she felt the sensation, she remembered where she was.
Pressing her hands to her face, she struggled to escape the terror of reliving the crash on that mountaintop in Afghanistan. Her fingers grew wet with tears, the strands of hair tangled damply around them. Tahcha automatically tried to keep her sobbing silent so as not to awaken her ninety-year-old grandmother. WapohpahGram or Willowwas a light sleeper.
Desperately trying to pull herself together, Tahcha pushed away from the wall. She concentrated on the coolness of the floor and slowly looked around in the bright glow of the night-light. On a wall hook hung an old pink chenille robe. Tahcha grabbed it and pulled on it, attempting to blot out the odors of burning aircraft fuel, the screams of the men trapped in the rear of the helicopter, the terror that still thrummed through every particle of her being.
Sobbing and hiccuping, she pressed her fist against her parted lips. Quiet! She had to be quiet! Grandmother Willow's bedroom was just across the hall. Tahcha had lost count of how many times she'd awakened her since coming to live with her on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation. She purposely kept her door closed because of her nightly dreams.
She sniffled and pulled tissues from a box on the pine dresser near the door. After blowing her nose, she raised her arm and wiped her face with the sleeve of her robe. Desperation drove her out the door. The only way to escape these nightmares was to get up and do something. Anything! Driven down the darkened hall, Tahcha saw that her grandmother's bedroom door was closed. She hoped she hadn't awakened the elder once again. The cabin was small with two bedrooms and one bathroom
As Tahcha wove unsteadily toward the kitchen, and the potbellied wood stove, she saw a glow of light ahead. She glanced at her watch. It was barely 5:00 a.m.
Tahcha halted in the doorway. Dressed in her old green Pendleton wool robe, Grandmother Willow sat at the small wooden table, her swollen arthritic hands wrapped around a white ceramic mug.
"Oh, I didn't mean to"
"You didn't," the old woman said. "Come, I've made sage tea for you. It will help. Sit with me."
Just hearing her grandmother's husky voice instantly soothed some of Tahcha's roiling emotions. She stumbled to the table.
It was warm in the kitchen. She realized belatedly that her grandmother must have gotten up earlier to stir the coals left in the cast-iron stove, and build up the fire. Usually, the log cabin was freezing on a January winter morning until one of them awoke and stoked the fire.
Grateful, Tahcha sat down. She pushed her hair behind her shoulders and, ashamed of her tears, wiped her cheeks again. Finally, she stole a look at the old woman. Gram Willow's large brown eyes were surrounded with wrinkles, but glowed with kindness.
"T-thank you for the tea." Tahcha grasped her mug with shaking fingers, relishing its warmth. She lifted the cup and inhaled the sage's fragrance, then started sipping it. Drinking the healing infusion finally started bringing her back to the present, and out of the horror of the past.
She sat for many minutes listening to the fire crackle and pop in the stove. The soothing house sounds helped further dissolve the nightmare.
"Sacred sage always helps those who are ailing," Gram Willow murmured as she sipped from her own cup. "The spirits of this plant are powerful, and they love us. They want to see us get well."
Tahcha set the cup down in front of her, but didn't let go of it. It was an anchor to the here and now, serving to keep her mind off the horrifying past. Away from her shame. "I love this tea, Gram. I remember my mom making it for me when I was sick, sad or hurt." Tahcha managed a wobbly, grateful smile. "I really missed having it after we left the res. But Dad had to go where the money was. He wanted a better life for me."
Grandmother Willow nodded, "They did what they felt was right, Tahcha. You were young when they moved away, but I know it was hard for you. You lost your friends, the home where you were born, and perhaps worst of all, the ways of our people. You went into the white man's world. I missed you so much when you went out to the West Coast. In all those years afterward, I saw your family only once. Money was hard to come by and your dad and mom both worked. They were saving for your college education, so I understood why you couldn't make it back here."
She laid her work-worn hand across Tahcha's and gazed at her. The love shining in those aged, watery eyes made Tahcha feel less torn up internally. She squeezed her grandmother's hand gently in response. "I didn't want to move. I remember crying the day day we left. I didn't understand what was happening."
"I know. I cried, too. I saw your face and felt your heart. You lost your world when you left. But you're back." She gave Tahcha a tender smile. "You've come home, as it should be. And you live with me. I'm grateful, because you are such a gift to my heart, Tagoza, Granddaughter."
Tahcha squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn't bear the love shimmering in her grandmother's gaze. "I came home ashamed, Grandmother. Defeated. I lost twelve men's lives! After the crash, the death of the men I was supposed to protect, I couldn't function anymore. II just couldn't fly. I was afraid to climb back into a helicopter. I embarrassed my people. Our nation is made up of honorable warriors. We aren't supposed to be afraid. But I was a coward. I called it quits. I left the Marine Corps and stopped flying. And I came crawling home to your doorstep like a beaten dog."
"Shh, stop being so hard on yourself, Tahcha! The Great Spirit brings many situations our way. All he asks is that we try to work through them. We don't have to be victorious. We're allowed to fail. But listen to me." Her grandmother's voice became firmer. "You may have failed, but not for lack of trying. I would call you a coward if you had run. But you did not. I would say you failed if you hadn't tried to avoid that missile that hit your helicopter. But you did everything you could. It simply was not enough. I thank the Great Spirit for saving your life. You could have died, too."
Miserably, Tahcha whispered, "On most days, Grandma, I want to die. I don't know why I survived. I don't want to live. To live is to remember those twelve men. So many children without their fathers, wives without their husbands. "
"You need help, Tahcha. You came back home to heal." Nodding, she glanced at her grandmother's kind face.
"Y-yes. I guess some part of me wants to heal, but I don't know how. Almost every night I have horrible nightmares about the crash. If I drive into town to get you groceries, a sound, a smell, will send me back to that day on the mountain."
"I know, I know," Gram Willow said soothingly, patting Tahcha's damp cheek. "But you were saved. By a spirit owl, from what you've told me. That white owl is important, don't you think?"
Tahcha hung her head. "II don't know. I can't explain it. I felt as if it was protecting me from getting killed. It's silly, but that's what it felt like the moment it curled its wings around me."
"And you were the only one to survive that crash," Grandmother Willow stated with finality. She was silent for a long moment, then added, "Take heart, my beautiful tagoza, there is help."