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Thou Shalt Kill
By Tom P. Brown
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Tom P. Brown
All rights reserved.
At daybreak on a blistering hot January morning First Lieutenant Roger DeMarco quickly finished strapping himself into his US Army Blackhawk helicopter. He squinted as the sun began to rise above the blinding white sand dunes of Iraq. His eyes, tainted by a faint red hue, burned as the bright sunlight easily penetrated the glass. Behind him he could feel the dull vibration of men and gear rapidly being loaded. As he put his helmet on, his eyes instinctively closed tightly as sweat dripped from his forehead while blood rushed to his face in an attempt to escape the heat. He plugged in his microphone and immediately heard the familiar, almost comforting, crackling static of the airwaves. Intermittently the static was cleared by bursts of voices relaying vital information to unseen aircraft, now decaying from years of war.
To his left sat Captain Len May, his gloved fingers systematically flipping and checking a myriad of switches and gauges.
"Shit," May snapped, his hand jerking back. "Can you believe they're already that hot?"
Roger smirked, looking down at the switches, then back at May. "You need new gloves."
May looked at his stained, worn gloves, concentrating on where his fingers had poked through. "Yeah, right. You know we're broke. Besides, they feel good," he said, studying the gloves as he opened and closed his fist like a fighter after being taped. May flipped his visor up and turned to Roger. "Like you have room to talk. When you goin' to quit that lifting shit? You're not a superstar anymore."
Roger knew what May was talking about and looked down at his chest, where the teeth of his survival vest strained to remain intact.
May wiped the sweat from his face. "Damn, I bet you wish you were back there now, instead of this hellhole."
Roger nodded, appearing uninterested.
"Tell me, DeMarco, how'd you lose the Heisman again?" May asked mockingly.
Roger was used to others riding him about his time at West Point, but right now his thoughts were a thousand miles away. He looked at his trembling hand as he systematically went down the checklist. Damn. All those big games and I never lost a minute of sleep, and now I sit here shaking, he thought.
May impatiently tapped the stick, waiting for a reply. "You gonna tell me or not?"
Roger smirked. "I got caught with your wife."
May toggled the mic switch. "Say again?"
Roger made a poor attempt to smile. "I said, maybe in my next life."
Roger's smile was short-lived. His face tightened; he knew where they were going and he didn't like it there. The city was dense, had multiple building heights, and most importantly, was a haven for the Taliban to rest and receive supplies.
"Fuckin' Anbar. I hate that place," Roger muttered.
"Yeah, no shit. It's like the Taliban College of IEDs. Someday we're going to get cleared to waste that place," May said angrily. "And I hope I'm still here for it." May turned his attention to the back of the helo, squinting to see in the darkness. "All right, they're ready. Let's go, DeMarco," May ordered.
Although Roger was junior in rank, he was, for this flight, the pilot in command. He turned to May, squeezing the mic switch. "I have the controls, Captain."
Most people wouldn't consider Captain May a nice person. It wasn't that he was aggressive or difficult to be around. It was more his distant, aloof demeanor. He rarely complained about anything, as people and problems, including the army, seemed trivial to him. That said, Roger preferred flying with him, and felt he was the most skilled pilot in the unit.
May leaned forward. "Yeah, right, sorry. But let's still get the hell out of here. My ass is burning up."
Roger quickly finished his checklist and ignited the twin turbines above. The 1,560-horsepower engines spewed heat and pungent exhaust as they howled to life. The blades slowly began to turn, then quickly gained speed until they appeared to be a continuous steel arc.
"Come on, baby, don't fuck up," May muttered, studying the gauges while his fingers danced across each one. Having graduated from Purdue with a degree in electrical engineering, his mind processed the six-million-dollar aircraft's circuitry, monitoring for failure in any of its systems.
The tarmac where they sat was comprised of tar-coated steel plates. As the blades spun overhead, sand and dust swirled around the helo, disrupting the transparent heat waves that rose unmercifully from the surface.
Another voice came over the intercom system: Sergeant Carlos Diaz, the crew chief.
Roger wiped away the sand that clung to his lips and teeth and moved his microphone closer to his sun-weathered lips. Instinctively, he turned and looked back into the cabin and then nodded as Diaz gave the thumbs-up sign.
Two other Blackhawks sitting on the tarmac were also ready for takeoff. Roger could smell the burning JP-5 fuel and feel the heat of the exhaust that surrounded him. He watched as the door gunners checked their mounted M-60 machine guns, swinging left then right, ensuring full movement.
That day's mission was to rescue a platoon of army infantry soldiers who had been caught in an ambush two hours earlier. Early morning was the insurgents' chosen time to fight, a time when American troops seemed to fight poorly.
The sole purpose of Roger's unit — known as TRAC, an acronym for Tactical Reconnaissance Air Cavalry — was to rescue wounded US and allied forces. The unit was comprised of fifteen specially configured MH-60K Blackhawks and 104 men, each with a specific skill and responsibility.
* * *
Roger listened as the lead aircraft piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Michael Zafonte received last-minute information from the command post.
"Come on, I hate this shit. Let's just fly," May said impatiently, thrusting his shoulders forward and checking his restraints.
Zafonte checked in with the other aircraft.
"TRAC two-four, go."
"TRAC two-six is same," Roger replied.
Zafonte's aircraft took off. A blizzard of hot sand and dust blew down and away from his rotor blades, engulfing the other helos in a sandstorm.
"Let's go, DeMarco. I don't feel like sucking that shit in," May barked.
Roger knew well the consequences of sand leading to a catastrophic engine failure while in flight. He'd witnessed it twice since arriving in Iraq. The first was while in formation with another helo at six hundred feet. All he saw was a large burst of flames and then the rotor blades shattering into pieces. He couldn't believe how quickly the aircraft had fallen out of the sky and disintegrated into a fireball with six crewmen on board. Through the radio Roger had heard the grunting and screaming of the pilots as they tried to fly a dead bird.
May pushed his visor up and wiped the sweat dripping from his forehead.
"Passing five hundred for a thousand," he radioed to Roger. "And don't get too close to Zafonte. He got really wasted last night."
The aircraft flew in a staggered configuration over the barren sand below that would lead them to Anbar, where the men lay trapped.
"Any more word?" Diaz radioed.
"Yeah. Last report, four of them are bad, including their new platoon leader," May answered, shaking his head.
While en route, the TRAC command post received updates on both the wounded and the enemy insurgents embedded in the city. The TRAC helos would be easy targets if the enemy set up an offensive around the trapped men.
"Two minutes to the LZ," Zafonte radioed.
Roger could tell by Zafonte's voice that he also had reservations about this mission. Roger looked down; the city below was just a blur of concrete roofs.
"What a fuckin' shit hole. I hate this place," May grunted, as he sat up straight and tightened down his shoulder harness.
Roger could feel pressure on the stick and glanced over to see May's hands clenched firmly on the controls. Roger bumped the stick left and right. "I got it."
May loosened his grip and attempted to smile. "Just habit."
Since its inception two years earlier, the unit had developed many evasive techniques to avoid ground fire and to expedite extractions. Some were written in blood, including the deaths of two pilots and three crewmen.
Roger toggled the intercom. "You hear that? Two minutes."
He looked back. The medic and the Special Forces soldiers were already preparing their gear. The door gunner was in place, ready to deliver cover fire.
"All right, push it," Zafonte ordered. This meant to fly straight into the landing zone as quickly as possible, similar to a controlled crash.
Still waiting to see smoke from the ground troops, Roger could feel his heart rate quicken. This was where helo pilots usually got killed, low and slow — a time when someone on the ground could put a bullet through the windscreen and snuff you instantly.
"Come on, what the fuck are they waiting for?" May muttered impatiently.
The helos continued to descend to the coordinates; still, no smoke could be seen.
"Let me have it," May ordered abruptly.
Roger immediately released the controls, and the helo banked hard to the right.
"Smoke to the right, to the right," May radioed to the other aircraft.
The other helos immediately banked right and followed.
"I can't believe this shit!" May yelled. "Why didn't they fuckin' wait until we landed two miles away?"
"Looks tight," Roger said, his voice coarse from straining against the shoulder harness.
"Ask Zafonte what the fuck the plan is," May said, growing more impatient.
"I don't see much to land on," Roger radioed Zafonte.
"Just get in there," Zafonte snapped.
"That's a perfect plan," May said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "How about I just crash through that roof?"
Not far ahead, Roger saw an intersection of two streets. "Out there," he said, pointing.
May banked the aircraft left and dove for the deck. Roger could feel his stomach in his throat as the helo accelerated. Instinctively his grip tightened on the controls to slow the descent. May didn't have to say a word, but briefly turned toward Roger, who released the pressure and followed on the controls. Ten feet off the deck, May pulled the collective up, and the helo hit the street with a significant amount of force. The signs on the storefronts that lined the street strained on their weathered hinges against the force of the whirling blades. Tables and chairs crashed against the buildings. The medic, Diaz, and a Special Forces soldier jumped out and disappeared into the dust, running toward the yellow smoke. The door gunner squinted, his eyes stinging from the sunlight and the piercing sand that somehow infiltrated his goggles. His head methodically turned as he searched the rooftops for the flash of gunfire.
Roger watched as the second aircraft descended quickly — too quickly — to the landing zone. "Damn, that's gonna hurt," he said to himself.
It set down on one wheel, which immediately tore loose from the aircraft, and the helo began to roll to the left toward the buildings. The pilot tried to correct, but the blades struck a piling holding up a second-floor balcony. The rotor began to disintegrate, and pieces of razor-sharp metal spewed in every direction.
Instinctively, Roger ducked his head. "Goddamn, look out!" he screamed into the mic.
Even with the turbine howling above, he could still hear pieces of the blades striking the chopper. May leaned forward and looked out Roger's side window. Two-four sat leaning on its belly, smoke billowing from it.
"Two-four is history," May said in disgust. "I told the boss that dude sucked and to get rid of him."
Roger could see two of the crewmen were out of the aircraft and on their knees, looking underneath the smoking helo. "What the hell they looking for?" Roger said, squinting to see.
"Probably pieces of their asses after that landing," May said, smirking.
"May, get them on board, and get info from your ground troops. I want out of here now. This is fucked," Zafonte radioed, his voice frustrated.
Roger made the call. "Diaz, what's your status?" No response. "Come on, Diaz, you up?" Roger could feel his stomach tighten and sensed impending doom.
Finally Diaz radioed back. "Still no contact."
May cut in as he unstrapped his harness. "Hurry the fuck up, Diaz. Let's go." He started to climb out. "I'm going to get them on board. Just keep pushing Diaz to get back here."
Roger watched as May ran toward the destroyed helo, which continued leaking fuel and oil from the rotor head.
A small group of Iraqis gathered outside, but stood back against the buildings, motionless against the rotor wash.
Roger turned back; the two pilots of two-four were now out and trying to remove the trapped soldier who fell from the open cabin door after the crash.
"Lieutenant, we have contact," Diaz radioed, his voice garbled.
Roger reached down and turned the volume up. "Hurry it up, Diaz."
He did a quick sweep of the gauges, then turned his attention back outside. Every muscle in his body tensed; his mind raced for an explanation and searched for an answer. In a horrific scene, he watched as the five men were ripped apart by machine gun fire. May was lying on the ground facedown about fifty feet away. His blood slowly ran from his body in a thick stream, coagulating as it mixed with the hot sand and dirt in the street.
Roger could see the muzzle flash of what appeared to be three separate machine guns. He rapidly pulled up on the collective for maximum lift and the Blackhawk leaped off the ground. He turned the helo parallel to the building on the left.
"Jones, first floor! You got it? You got it?" Roger screamed.
Concrete, brick, and glass sliced through the air as the building ripped apart. Hundreds of sixty-caliber rounds tore through the storefront as fire spewed from the barrel at the hands of the door gunner. People scattered blindly, crashing into each other, some falling and disappearing into the dust storm that engulfed them.
Overhead, Zafonte dove for the street, also spraying the area with gunfire. Roger was just about to pull up when he saw the shadow of Zafonte's helo pass right over him, followed by the tail rotor. Roger dumped the power, narrowly missing a collision.
"DeMarco, get those troops back now!" Zafonte yelled.
Roger set the Blackhawk down on the deck; the dust was blinding.
"Diaz, come in."
"Diaz, get the fuck out of there, now."
"We almost made contact, but they keep moving."
"Bullshit, Diaz, it's a setup. They're drawing you in. Just get out of there, now."
Roger knew he was an easy target. His eyes frantically searched from window to window. Suddenly the windscreen shattered, and he felt the searing pain as slivers of glass tore through his face. The pain in his left eye was unbearable; he tried to open it, but the pain only intensified. He could taste blood and feel its warmth running down his face.
Diaz radioed, "We're coming out. We have one contact."
"Diaz, I'm hit, don't come out," Roger radioed, his voice almost inaudible.
Jones readied the M-60, methodically scanning each window.
Roger attempted to radio Zafonte. A bloody mist sprayed from his lips onto the mic with each word. "I'm hit and can't see out of my left eye."
"Can you fly?"
Roger attempted to close his eye to clear his blurred vision. "I think so."
"Where the hell is Diaz?" Zafonte shouted.
"They're coming out now with one contact."
Roger radioed Diaz, "Be ready to move now,"
"Jones, you ready to recover them?"
"Fuckin' A!" he yelled, sliding closer to the gun.
"All right, cover, we're moving," Diaz responded, his voice a guttural grunt.
Roger could barely see, but to his left a door began to slowly open. "Be ready to lay down fire, they're coming out," he radioed Zafonte.
Roger put his hand up to his face to wipe away the blood dripping into his good eye. His gloved hand snagged on pieces of glass that protruded from his forehead. The pain was so severe that he thought he was going to pass out. He strained to turn; everything appeared to be in slow motion. Looking back, he could see Jones firing, then the men approaching, with Diaz carrying the wounded soldier over his shoulder.
Excerpted from Thou Shalt Kill by Tom P. Brown. Copyright © 2015 Tom P. Brown. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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