Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Yesterday was a bad day

Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Yesterday was a bad day.
For some, it will be a morning they wished they never had awakened from. For others, I’m sure it will be a moment that will linger and stretch on unmercilessly until the day they too pass on into eternity.

I was in the motor pool with some soldiers discussing the best way to equip our new vehicles for the differing missions we had been given. Over the radio I heard the TOC call for the QRF for a possible aircraft crash in our area. I ran out and contacted my team leader and told him to assemble the guys for a quick hop outside the wire. While he was assembling the team I went to the command center for the latest Intel and see if there was updated maps and commo. They told us there was a helicopter down about twelve klicks south of our FOB in a mountainous region near a small village called Chashmeh Khani.

We gathered the leaders of the reaction force and decided on a route to the crash site while prepping all the vehicles and men for possible enemy contact, at this time it was unknown how or why this aircraft went down. Before leaving the compound we picked up a contingent of ANA and interpreters for they know the surrounding area much better than we who have been here just weeks. TOC radioed us and said the bird was possibly a Spanish ISAF {International Stability Assistance Force} training flight was out of Herat Air Base and they were asking us if we could assist them in setting up a perimeter around the crash site. With maps, GPS, and a little luck we would be able to find the site without too much trouble. We headed out the gate leaving a small dust storm in our wake, down route 1A of the ring road towards Shindand and Farah.

The road held out for about two miles before the first detour and then potholes and asphalt gave way to gravel and dirt. We turned off the road into the countryside staying on the paths, keeping mindful of the ever present uncharted minefield left by the Soviets. Away from all visages of man the Afghan landscape looked barren and lifeless as a Van Gogh or Renoir siphoned of all color and forced to broad strokes of a charcoal pen. After crossing several dry river beds and more than a few low mountain passes we ran into the village and one of the Afghani’s found a man who would guide us through. Once on the other side we ran up a small embankment and stopped to reassess our location only to see a few armored vehicles parked sporadically around the ridgelines and mountain peaks.

Only after we had unassed our vehicles did I look around and find we had stopped in the middle of an Afghan cemetery. I don’t claim to be precognitive or clairvoyant but that little voice inside said “I got a bad feeling about this.” An ISAF humvee with a fifty caliber machine gun aimed our direction came barreling up the wadi toward us and stopped, asking us who the hell we were. We told him who sent us and asked where the crash was and how we could set up our troops to best facilitate a 360 degree perimeter. The Spanish officer, looking very tired and solemn, said he hadn’t been advised from higher of our impending arrival and all he saw was a couple truckloads of soldiers carrying AK-47’s {the ANA} heading his way. Considering the situation and all the adrenalin flowing I guess it’s lucky we didn’t get our butts shot off.

The officer told us he had not one, but two helicopters down in a ravine about 800 meters to our front. We told him we had been sent by his HQ in Herat and he simply said they had evacuated the wounded and the rest were dead. We still could only see a few vehicles and we asked if our medics could go down and help in any way. He said it was alright if we took the medics and a small security element to survey the site. Being a Paramedic, I was asked by our medical staff if I would ride along with them. While I stepped up into the back of their vehicle for the short ride down I told them to prepare themselves for what they may encounter and to be “respectful” of the dead. Being such a small contingent of troops, most of these Spanish soldiers here probably know them. As we came over a small rise in the ground we could see into the river bed where fifteen to twenty vehicles stood running. What stood out however, was a field of debris covering an area of about three the four hundred meters starting at a shear cliff wall to my left and ending in an ugly black smear working its way up the next ridgeline to my right.
The Helo to my left was stuck in a small crevice about eighty feet up the side of a rock shelf and looked much like a dragonfly you find on the radiator of your car after a long road trip. The main rotor was shredded and missing, leaving only about 20 feet out from the Jesus nut.{the one nut that holds the main rotor on.} The tail boom was fractured and the rotor there was splintered leaving small honeycombed pieces of composite material strewn everywhere.
It seemed to defy gravity, perched in what was an almost continuous solid rock face. How the pilot managed to place his aircraft there was nothing short of a miracle. There simply was no other place he could have landed and survived. A few feet to his left or right and the bird would have smashed into solid rock and then rolled downhill spilling his crew and passengers down the rock face and into the river bed. I can only hope to one day look him in the eye, shake his hand and tell him his training paid off in spades for he saved everyone on his aircraft that day.
The other was less recognizable and far more painful to see. It started as a small divot in the ground and almost immediately became a greasy black patch spreading out wider from its base into a funnel shaped mass that looked like a hellish tornado that had simply gotten tired of spinning and lain down to die. Midway down the path started the pieces of wreckage. A tire with landing strut, an empty seat, a machine gun, all blacken from the fire and heat and all seemed to be slowly melting into one another. Then, as if my brain lifted some filter and allowed me to register what my eyes were seeing, they appeared.

One by one, the bodies lie scattered among the wreckage.
They looked so small. Burned and blackened and utterly alien juxtaposed against the cloudless Afghan sky. I looked and tried not to stare. Tried to be respectful and yet could not stop myself from glancing back at them. They lie all along the path of the devastation yet I had not seen them before. Seventeen lives gone in an instant. Fire does bad things to bodies and causes the muscles to flex and contort into grotesque parodies of life. My last look will be the one that will haunt me forever. A single arm that once held a child or a first love, pointed skyward in a final act of mocking defiance to a mute God.

As both a soldier and a firefighter I have seen my fair share of misery and misfortune. Both careers fueled mostly by testosterone and beer you feel sometimes armor plated and invincible in our protective gear. But, if you let it get to you, and you embrace the pain too deeply and make it your own, you’re in trouble. That doesn’t mean you don’t comfort the living or understand the pain but you must stay strong and centered and slightly separate from the chaos that sometimes surrounds you. I have seen those who could not sidestep or deflect the emotion and have an especially bad call and just walk off never to return to the job.
I have what I call my encyclopedia of horrors.
That small dark corner in my soul I send all the accidents and misadventure, the images of torn flesh and things eyes shouldn’t see. There they usually stay until some cosmic meter reads full and they come back to visit. I remember some years ago I was on a medical call of a possible suicide. I was the first one in the house and a man dispassionately told me “she was in the back.” I looked into the room and didn’t see anything till I reached the walk-in closet. There lie a young woman who looked to be sleeping peacefully until I saw the gun near her left hand and a small hole in her chest. She had arranged a little bed complete with a pillow and covers drawn up to her legs. I remember wondering what she was thinking as she arranged this little crypt. Her children, parents, missed chances? It really didn’t hit me till the cop asked me for her license and I couldn’t seem to put the picture in life with the form lying before me. That night she came to visit looking for answers and I had none.

I had been speaking with my platoon sergeant about the mission and trying unsuccessfully to relate the helpless feeling I had during the operation and he said “It must have been hard for you with your friends going down in the bay like that.” Then I remembered Air Heart One. I had blocked them out and those feelings came rushing back with a vengeance. I tried to remember their names and I couldn’t and that made me feel worse.

After our after action report/debrief on the mission I had time to find my way to tower two. It is on the South side of the compound and not in use during the day so it’s there I go to read and get a little privacy among the people here at Camp Victory. There I gazed out over the wire and cross the Dasht-E-Yelan plains where the Hindu Kush mountain range lay undulating away from me like brown waves in a petrified cesspool. There I sat and thought about Robert, Tom, and Jack and what began as some of the ubiquitous Afghan dust in the eyes became a stream of silent sorrow. I wept for those friends I’ve lost and for complete strangers. For the Spanish soldiers and their loved ones. For their friends who witnessed the crash. And for those who had to police up their bodies for I knew they would never be the same.
I’m unashamed and unapologetic for my tears but, I think I now understand a trace of what Colonel Kurtz in the movie “Apocalypse now” called the horror…..the horror.


  1. Very very well written. I commend you on your site, your service, and what you do for others.

  2. Chashmeh Khani was torturing people in Afghanistan