Just Another War Story

by Domenika Marzione

"So this blonde chick comes up to me and asks how to say 'toilet paper' in Pashto."

John grinned, but didn't look up from the magazine he was reading. With internet intermittent and insufficient to allow for much in the way of entertainment, Sports Illustrateds were worth their weight in gold here and this one wasn't even a month old. He wasn't letting it out of his sight until he'd at least finished reading the 'Inside College Football' pages. "What'd you tell her?"

Dutch, never a man to pretend that he didn't think his own jokes were the best shit in town, cackled. "Kinnláasey," he replied, dropping down on to the bench on the other side of the table as if he literally couldn't stand how funny he was.

John looked up, one hand on the magazine. "We're not supposed to tease the embeds," he said primly, chastising tone completely undone by his own inability to keep a straight face. It was funny. While he was sure that there were some Afghans somewhere who used toilet paper, none of them were anywhere near their FOB and John was pretty damned sure that there was no such word in either Pashto or Dari. They'd had to spend serious time initiating the Afghan men on the base into the finer points of indoor latrines (for values of 'indoor' that meant 'giant drum protected from the elements by plywood').

"She wasn't an embed," Dutch scoffed, sipping at his water bottle. "Some television bimbo here for a fly-by. Nice tits, though."

"When are they not?" John asked with a wistful sigh, since they'd been here three months and the paucity was starting to grate. This was a small FOB mostly populated by Marines and Australians and if there were a handful of female airmen in the headquarters tents, they were all pretty much off-limits, spoken for, lesbian, or all of the above. "Why didn't you offer her some of yours? Get some good press for once."

If not something else in the bargain.

"Because I'd already heard that this week's supply drop has been canceled and fuck if I'm going to start using rocks," Dutch replied, making a face. The TCNs on shit-burning detail had bitched about rocks in the collection barrels until that, too, had become a practice actively discouraged. "Not wasting TP on some bitch who's only going to tell America that I'm shooting at women and children."

John nodded understandingly; the bloom was definitely off the rose when it came to war reporting. As far as the media went, Afghanistan may have been justified, but now with Iraq on the menu, too, the folks in uniform could usually forget about sympathy and occasionally forget about accuracy when it came to telling people at home what was going on. (Although from the limited contact John had with the press who loitered around BAF, that might have been wishful thinking anyway -- most of them wouldn't know Ernie Pyle from Gomer Pyle.)

Dutch took another sip of his water and John did the same; they were at a high altitude and drinking water was more than just something to do. "BCS still smoking the good crack?" he asked, gesturing with his water bottle at the SI under John's hand.

"Aren't they always?" he asked by way of reply, flipping to the appropriate page. "Taking out the margin of victory is going to bite them in the ass before this is all over."

"Can't be as bad as fucking Nebraska in the fucking championship game," Dutch muttered, standing up again. "What time's the briefing?"

"Twenty-one hundred," John answered, not looking up. "Don't be late again. Winningham'll have your ass."

And John would end up hearing about it from both sides, since Winningham expected John to make sure the trains ran on time while Dutch expected him to find a way to keep their CO off of his back.

"Yes, sir."

John flipped him the bird. Dutch, a friend since flight school, only remembered John was a senior officer when he was (a) drunk or (b) being a wiseass. Considering booze was harder to find here in their tiny corner of hell than were broads, it was safe to guess which applied here. Neither of them ever forgot why there was a difference in rank -- John saw the scars every time he showered and Dutch had seen them before they were even scars -- but it never really mattered, at least not between them.

"Get lost, Captain Holland," he ordered with a grin. "I'm trying to read here."

"What the fuck? Was there a buy-one-get-one-sale at Costco or something?"

"Buy one crate of RPGs, get a second crate free! First hundred customers get an extra launcher."

"Maybe they found a stash from the Soviet days."

"Fucking CIA. Screwing us over now and twenty-five years ago all at once."

"Just wait until they find the rest of the Stingers."

"Hopefully Army aviation will be on station then."


John smiled at the aggrieved reaction from the team leader wearing a headset in the back of his ship. They were ferrying an SF team into the mountains to go hunting in the darkness. "No back seat griping," he said.

They were flying low and fast, chattering to each other about nothing while still keeping up with all of the business at hand.

"RPG flare at two-o'-clock."

"That's not an RPG!"

"It's a projectile aimed at our asses. Who cares what it is?"

"Don't they have something on the ground to aim at?"

"Hey, you think we can get something up here, knock some of this shit away so we don't end up playing whack-a-mole with the bad guys on the way home?"

John had already been radioing back and forth with Command to ask for something more than the Cobras currently serving as escorts. They had supposedly run some UAVs around here yesterday to look for activity and found nothing, but even if they had, it was old intel and obviously not good. Helicopters had become more and more frequent targets over the last dozen years, once the bad guys realized that you could aim an RPG into the air so long as you weren't too concerned about your own person. The mountains of Afghanistan were already chock-a-block with recoilless rifles and other toys left over from the near-constant fighting the land had seen in thirty years, so it usually seemed like there were more weapons than men to use them. Nonetheless, there wasn't anything man or man-made that could stand up to a pissed-off AC-130. Unfortunately, there wasn't one immediately available on station -- this wasn't the only activity going on tonight.

"We can get a Spectre in twenty," he told the other pilots. Nobody felt the need to mention that that wouldn't do them any good.

The drop was easy -- a dozen guys in fancy dress emptying out of the Pave Hawks with business on their minds -- and the return flight back home was more of the same. The Cobras emptied their 20 mike-mikes into the hills, plus a couple of Hellfires for good measure, and everyone landed in one piece. The ground mission was a long one; John's section would be doing the retrieval at this time tomorrow.

Next verse, same as the first, twenty-four hours later. Mission start time got pushed back ten minutes because there was a warning light on in Porter's cockpit (solved by a careful application of percussive maintenance by the crew chief), but apart from that, it was the same exact routine -- bitching about the RPGs (seriously, where were they getting all of these?) and the Diggers who seemed to enjoy trying to out-marine the Marines and why there was a Burger King at the FOB next door but not at theirs. ('Because they had marines and Australians engaged in a testosterone battle to the death and that included pretending to prefer MREs' seemed to work as a reason.)

Finding the PZ was as simple as looking for the buzz-saw, although John was sure they would have been able to find it anyway because it was the only territory in the immediate vicinity that could have served the purpose. (John had done his share of mountaintop drop-offs and pick-ups over the years and Afghanistan, as a rule, seemed to have been built by God to never have suitable ground or weather where you needed it.) The last few hundred meters in the air had been quiet, but the thunk of AK fire hitting the metal skin of the helicopter was picking up by the time everyone was loaded up, so maybe it was only quiet when you had your flight helmet on. At least it was nothing heavier.

Lift-off and waiting for the fucking Cobras to stop being distracted by whatever was going on the hills and then back home. (John had flown Cobras; they were fun to the point that you could get yourself distracted and these had marines in the cockpits, who by their nature were easily distracted.) It all went fine right up until it wasn't.

When it came time for the depositions and the official testimony, John would say that it was a pretty well-planned ambush -- at least well-surveilled -- and agree that the target had been the helicopters and not the men on the ground. But at the time, with recoilless rifles and RPGs and whatever else coming at them from both directions (since they already knew that the bad guys had a pretty fucked-up concept of "interlocking fields of fire"), John didn't care, didn't think about anything beyond getting his pilots and his passengers home safe. He gave orders to both his pilots and the Cobras, left his co-pilot to ignore all but the most relevant queries from Command, and flew his own ship.

John could hear Derrick, his gunner, shouting at the SF guys to buckle themselves down and was anyone hurt and then John stopped paying attention to anything but the controls in front of him.

He saw the projectile before it hit, a blinding light in a cockpit darkened for night vision goggles, instinct making him turn the nose so that it wouldn't hit so close to the critical systems -- avoiding it completely was impossible. The impact pushed the ship sideways and the sound and light made John deaf and blind for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, if that. His hands stayed where they were supposed to be, muscle memory and instinct and experience letting him keep the ship from careening off-course or into a mountain until he could see what the fuck he was doing again. There were warning lights and the whining of alarms and shouts over the intercom and the radio net and John ignored them all because he could tell by feel that he still had power, still had control of his hydraulics, and he needed to get them out of this kill box.

Grafton, his co-pilot, killed the alarms one by one. "We're venting fuel," he said conversationally. "Haul ass and we're still going to be coming in on fumes."

Porter 's ship was reporting casualties -- something had landed in the rear compartment and exploded -- but that seemed to be the worst of it once Reece reported that all was well in the rear of John's bird. It was twenty-five minutes back to base and John sped up once it was clear that they were through the meat of the gauntlet. The Cobras had emptied their arsenals and there wasn't much else to be done apart from getting home and reaming out the J-2 shop for providing intel that clearly wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. Between the casualties (Murphy's Law assuring that the A-teams' medics were among the worst injured in Porter's ship) and the hole in John's fuel tank and the general feeling of vulnerability that was entirely out of place in a USAF vehicle, it was a fast, quiet ride and they were almost back home when it happened.

"Incoming!" and then a muted explosion and then Zaffler, the Marine commander of the Cobras, was telling him that Roundhouse 4 was on fire and going down hard.

John took a half-second to feel relieved that Holland wasn't carrying any passengers -- they had taken an extra helicopter because Porter's ship had been having trouble all week -- and it was only Dutch and his crew and all of the SF team's equipment. And then he felt guilty for that and told Zaffler to stay the fuck there and scare anyone off the crash site until help could be sent.

"I'll shoot 'em with my sidearm if I have to, sir," Zaffler replied.

As Grafton had predicted, they ran out of fuel before they ran out of distance back to the base. So Grafton overrode the screaming warning alarm and John, who ran the smoothest autorotation drills in the squadron, finessed their way back to the base, if not necessarily to the part of the base where they'd taken off from.

What happened next was the kind of thing that happened in movies. Except in movies, the good guys survived, the bad guys died, and nobody got court-martialed.

In reality, the first two were up in the air and the Air Force tended to be unimpressed with mavericks and thus rarely found that the ends justified the means. And so John knew full well that Colonel Winningham had probably ended his own career by sending John on this rescue mission, just as he knew that he'd be lucky to escape without having to check his wings at the door, too. Dutch thought Winningham hated him, that John was starting to be too careful about his own career trajectory, and it's all John could do to hope that he would be able to show him differently.

"Muzzle flashes at three o'clock," Grafton warned. "Probably not just AKs up there."

Evasive maneuvers were easier to do with one helicopter than an aerial convoy and nothing else came at them. They moved on, eating ground and listening to the various radio nets. Command was still having a shitfit; Winningham had bypassed higher command and humiliated the commander of their sister unit. Sheppard was flying a Pave Hawk that didn't belong to his squadron and had a trunk full of Army Special Forces soldiers instead of Pararescue or whoever the hell higher wanted to send in -- none of whom were actually around and the realization that they wanted to import a rescue squad instead of just getting the fuck over to where Holland's bird had gone down...

Holland was still alive, at least. His gunner had been killed either before they hit or in the crash; Pigot, his co-pilot, and Breen, the flight engineer, were holding on to various degrees. Holland had secured his helicopter -- taken what he needed to and destroyed beyond retrieval all sensitive instruments and systems -- and was trying to find a safe place for his crew to hide and wait. He sounded breathy and wheezy over the radio and John couldn't tell how serious the injuries were; all Dutch would say was that he was alive, not leaving a trail of blood, and, for the time being, mobile even while dragging Pigot around.

John had taken over radio duties from Grafton before they'd even cleared the walls of the base; he didn't want Ryan being put in a position where he had to actually accept responsibility for what they were doing (or for failing to stop what they were doing). This was John's choice and while Grafton (and Reece and Derrick) were as pissed off as he was and as eager to help out, he didn't want them paying for what John would have happily done on his own.

Grafton didn't even comment when John pretended that the order to return to base hadn't come through clearly and switched off the channel. That General Olbrey would have John's ass had come through quite clearly before that point, however.

The rescue itself was near-flawless. Captain Bolliat and his men found Holland, Pigot, and Breen and brought them back on litters; John had them airborne seconds later. (There had been no way to retrieve Ackler's body, Bolliat had quietly told him; it had been under the wreck of the still-burning helicopter.) There was the usual array of pot-shots and better-aimed-shots on the way home, but nothing actually made an impact until they landed and there were MPs waiting along with the medical teams.

"Antarctica? Whose fucking brilliant idea was that?" Dutch tilted his head like John had just told him that he'd been transfered to Mars.

They hadn't kicked him out, although they'd made it very clear that were he anyone else, they would have done so without hesitation. Winningham was gone, punted out so fast his ass still had boot marks on it, but John had managed to survive his Article 15 courtesy of a lawyer who had pulled out his service record and reminded the panel that John had once needed rescuing himself and it was perhaps understandable for his judgment to be less than objective under the circumstances. John had been pissed at the move -- it hadn't been PTSD that had had him disobeying a direct order to save three men. It had been common fucking sense and a commitment to duty and honor that had sadly been in short supply that night.

"I'm supposed to be grateful, so I'm grateful." John didn't quite know what to make of it, either. He was off of the fast-track that had gotten him promoted below the zone to O-4, would probably not see O-5, and yet couldn't help but feel relieved that they hadn't kicked him out.

"Please sir, may I have another?" Dutch laughed, but it came out a croak that melted uneasily into a cough. Too many cigarettes and too much alcohol in too little time and the easy laugh John had known for the better part of two decades was gone. So was the man, but out of either shame or pity, Dutch had done his best to hide the worst of the visible damage. John was a little insulted that his old friend thought it would work.

There but for the grace of God go I, John had thought to himself, not for the first time, when Dutch had answered the door earlier that afternoon. John had known by the emails (or lack thereof) and the phone calls (same) that Dutch had not been handling his recovery well and he'd been... not mystified, but at least surprised. Years ago, Dutch had been there for him, had helped him put himself back together so that he could get back in a cockpit and resume his career. Dutch had seen John at his worst, guilt-racked and miserable and not sure he ever should be trusted with another life ever again, and he hadn't let the despair settle in, had known what to say and what not to say and how far away to keep the alcohol (and the soon-to-be ex-wife). That man, the one who'd told him over and over again that his only choice was to keep going, that there was no rewind or reverse, was nowhere to be seen in the pale, unshaven, shell who sat across the table from him now.

Dutch had helped put him back together once and John was trying his best to return the favor here and now, despite being distracted by the hearings and despite being hindered by the fact that now the Air Force had a process for handling these sorts of problems, one that didn't seem to be any kind of improvement for all of the insistence that the numbers of mobilized personnel made getting it right a requirement and not an option. But whatever he was doing -- or not doing -- it wasn't working. Dutch was sinking and John was scared that nobody could reach him anymore. And that he himself would soon be too far away to even try.

"When are they throwing you to the penguins?" Dutch asked, right on cue.

The medical retirement had come last month; Dutch had griped about how if he'd realized back when he made captain that he wouldn't make it to O-4 for his pension, he would have quit years ago and gone private so he could earn some real money. That he would never get a job now flying anyone anywhere was not mentioned.

"They're sending me to Eielson first," John replied, rolling his eyes because that was in the opposite fucking direction. "Arctic Survival School."

"Bring vodka and sunglasses," Dutch told him and John remembered that he'd gone a few years ago, some ridiculous requirement for a posting that had ended up being six months in Colombia.

"I'll send you a post-card," John said.

"Fuck the postcard. Bring me back caribou steak."

He never got the chance. It was before dawn on his next-to-last day at Eielson when he got the phone call. Captain James "Dutch" Holland, USAF (ret.) had taken half a bottle of Vicodin and washed it down with a fifth of whiskey.

The funeral was a sea of blue and John kept his distance from it. It felt like everyone there was watching him, either because he was the guy who'd made it back after getting rescued or because he was the one who'd pulled Dutch back into a life he hadn't thought he deserved.

"Some people don't know how to be saved," someone said.

"Some people don't want to be," was the reply.

And some people should just shut the fuck up, John didn't say, since that was probably just the guilt talking.

The flight to McMurdo two weeks later felt exactly like entry into exile it was supposed to be, except for the part where he wasn't leaving anything behind that he'd miss.


feed me on LJ?

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2 August, 2007