The interior of the Blackhawk helicopter was dark except for the pilot and co-pilot’s glowing control panel. The door-gunners scanned the shadows below. Night observation devices (NODS) were attached to their helmets and lowered over their eyes emitting a fluorescent glow against the black night.
Thawap thawap thawap. The droning sound of the rotor blades seemed deafening as we cruised above the city lights and streets of Baghdad. Tiny green and blue lights glared eerily back from the instrument panel like watchful eyes. The two door-gunners, one on each side of the chopper, sat behind their .249 caliber machine guns with their hands holding on, protected by leather suede gloves. They searched for anything out-of-place, such as the silhouetted shape of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) tube aiming skyward.
I sat toward the tail, facing the front, in a row of four passengers packed in tightly, knee-to-knee, with duffel bags piled to the top on our laps. Across from us sat two other soldiers and a pair of civilian contractors. I was wedged between two men wearing Army Combat Uniforms, or ACUs, beneath their flak vests, and it struck me that I was the odd one, wearing civilian attire in a combat zone for the first time.
The high-pitched whining of the rotors cutting through the thick, night air was still loud, even with our yellow-foamed earplugs jammed in our ears. For me, the noise alternated from being a nerve-racking distraction to a hypnotic entrancement that was causing drowsiness. Whenever the aircraft took a sudden bounce I continued to breathe steadily; the tremors were common and no cause for panic. I looked at the sleeping men around me with their heads bobbing limply back and forth with each bump.
We were on a northeastern course from Camp Victory, on the southwest side of Baghdad, to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Warhorse, which was just outside of Baqouba. The plan was to make a pit stop there before turning northwest across the desert to our final destination at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit. Camp Speicher would be my new home base where I was to conduct operations there for at least a year for my new employer– my first full-time civilian job since 1980.
I glanced at my watch. 1 a.m. We were over the Shi’a section of the city, considered hostile territory. What wasn’t in Iraq? I wondered. My eyelids drooped heavily, and I thought back to my other two deployments to Iraq as an Army officer. Why had I allowed myself to return to this God-forsaken place; the money? Made good sense to me at the time. The pay would certainly be more than I ever made!
Serving at Camp Anaconda from 2003 to 2004 was one of the longest years of my life. I swore to myself and anyone who would listen that I’d never go back to Iraq. And yet, just a year later, I headed to the Green Zone in Baghdad. That time, I had vowed, would be the final time. I fully intended to come home to my family and retire. Here I was, for the third time.
My eyes opened to the flickering lights out the window. Baghdad’s sprawling city faded and brightened with varying degrees of intensity below us. Baghdad. Sighing, I let my eyes close again. Lord, did I hear you right on this one?
Leaving my wife, Trena, was never easy no matter how many times I left. The first time was in 1991, and the pain was crushing. I kept a journal where I could unload my feelings and fears about leaving her and my two children – ages six and eight. I was unaware of what was in store for me when heading to Saudi Arabia to face the 4th largest Army in the world at the time. I never realized, until later, what it was like for Trena to kiss a husband goodbye and not know if I would ever return.
Years later, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the kids were fully grown and moving forward with their own lives. I thought that leaving would have been easier but the emptiness remained. I still thought about all missed opportunities of being there for my family.
Going back to Iraq after retirement had not been in the original plan. I was thinking more in line with lying in a hammock strung up between two palm trees, watching the waves of the sea and setting sun, with a cool drink and protruding curved straw. But, it was impossible to ignore the salary I was offered. Trena and I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of accepting the job offer and in the end, it was a simple matter of economics and following what we believed to be God’s will for us.
BANG! My eyes snapped open. Heads jerked up around me. A loud crash erupted on the pilot’s side of the helicopter! In seconds, the door-gunners swung into firing posture.
A bright orange and white light burst with a blinding flashed around us on the left side contrasting brilliantly against the black sky. For a brief second, the interior of the chopper lit up like a strobe light. The soldiers’ faces around were clear as day.
Intense heat licked my face and arms and I gripped my seat firmly as the Blackhawk dove sharply to the right. The streetlights grew closer to the window and the mud-walled dwellings loomed larger and larger.
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