Sometimes, the locations we traveled to were far enough away that the hum and rocking of the helicopter, combined with my limited three or four hours of sleep each night, was enough to lull me off to sleep. My vest made a sufficient pillow if I let it creep up a little over my shoulders, and I tucked my chin down into the newly formed pocket, folded my arms over my chest and dozed. I had been “resting my eyes” for about fifteen or twenty minutes when I was yanked awake by the “rat tat tat tat tat, rat tat tat tat tat” of the gunner and his M-60 machine gun firing into the mountain tops a few hundred feet below the bird.
For a second upon waking, I thought of what impending death would entail: disorientation as the helicopter started its unplanned dizzying descent into the valleys of whatever mountain range we were flying over, pain and fear as we most likely bounced from one peak to the next, and possibly the hot metal of a rocket slicing through the floor where my feet rested. In the initial moment when my eyes flew open, before I could shake the webs from my brain, I thought of how to conduct myself if these were my final moments. Be calm. Don’t scream. Brace for impact. Don’t scream. A few seconds after my eyes were opened, my mind caught up and I took note that none of my fellow passengers seemed concerned about the gunner and his persistent “rat tat tat tat tat.”
I mouthed the words to the Soldier strapped in next to me, “what’s he doing,” and jerked my head towards the gunner. Yelling loud enough to be heard over the whirling wings, he replied, “He’s sighting the gun.” I nodded back with a flippant lift of my chin as if to say, “Ah, yes. Of course he is.” My heart, angrily pumping blood through my body at a rate and speed that Lance Armstrong would envy, began to settle slightly. He was only sighting the weapon to be certain it shot straight. He wasn’t firing at Al Qaeda hidden in the sides of the landscape. He wasn’t defending the bird from someone lifting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher up to his shoulder, and taking aim at a slow-moving, low flying target. He was simply making sure the cross hairs were plumb and could deliver a bullet to its intended target. Good. After another minute or two of watching the gunner finish his work, I tucked my chin back into its nest and continued my nap.
We finally landed in a remote location in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the location was so remote that the he-lo couldn’t drop us there, so we had to hitch a ride with our Australian allies for the last leg of our trip. G’day, mate. The Australians had their own brand of up-armored military vehicles called “Bushmasters,” and they loved to show what they could do. We piled into the back of the ride and the metal door sealed us in. It felt like being a single kernel of corn in a large, sand-colored tin can. There were no windows, no air holes, and apparently, no shocks in the Bushmaster. Every bump (and there were nothing but bumps) sent the occupants sailing into the air before banging them back down again with a painful and padding-free thump. It was the longest ten minute ride I’d ever experienced. When we finally arrived at their base camp, we exited just in time to watch the CH-47 Chinook approach the drop point and deliver her cargo: a new weapons system dangling underneath the belly of the beast. I hurried from the Bushmaster to get a ringside seat for this once in a lifetime experience.