posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann
Iraq – two years ago:
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Calling any Coalition aircraft.”
The SOS crackled through Captain Joe “Face” Greco’s helmet, all other chatter dissipating faster than the clouds outside his windscreen. Adrenaline snapped through him, narrowing his focus. The two-hour flight in his Pave Low helicopter to ferry around a photojournalist should have offered a break from months of knife-edge missions.
Keeping the peace was a deadly endeavor.
Hands steady on the stick, Joe scanned the cracked desert rolling below and listened for the rest of the call, ready to launch if the threat fell into his range.
“This is Alpha one-six-three, seven miles west of Fallujah.” Gunfire popped in the background with the panting voice. “Requesting air support and evac.”
Alpha one-six-three? Dread kicked into high gear. Distinguishing voices over the radio might be tough, but Joe also remembered the number designation. The staticky shout for help blended with the chop, chop, chop of his helicopter blades, stirring hellish recognition. He’d dropped off that Special Forces team yesterday to track insurgents. He knew these Green Berets.
He knew their leader – Cooper Scott.
Muscles tensed for action, Joe barked to the copilot beside him. “Postal, get me a heading to Fallujah.” “Jesus Christ, Face, shouldn’t we radio command post for authentication?” First Lieutenant Bobby “Postal” Ruznick clicked keys on the navigational computer even as he argued. “I’m up for a gun battle as much as the next guy, more so probably. But if I’m going to get my ass shot off, I’d rather not go down in some set up ambush.”
“I’ve got voice confirmation on this one.”
“Roger that, then. Spinning up directions for Fallujah as we speak, boss.”
Joe resisted the urge to twist the cyclic, dip the rotors forward and plow ahead, follow his nose and to hell with directions. Those dudes should have been safe. He’d landed his Air Force Special Ops helicopter randomly twenty times yesterday to disguise placement of the twelve Green Berets tasked to track Al Qaeda foreign fighters, terrorist insurgents on suicide missions with no respect for rules of war. How the hell had the team been uncovered?
He’d figure that out later. After he pulled their bacon out of the fire. First he needed to call the air operations center while Postal plotted a flight path.
Joe thumbed the radio button. “Bear Cave, this is Yogi two-three. I’m in receipt of a mayday transmission.”
Flight name themes changed by the day. Yesterday they’d all flown with Superman IDs. Today some guy with a sense of humor had opted for a cartoon. Humor in hell, sometimes all that kept them sane. Too bad a literal guy like him sucked at humor. “Proceeding seven miles west of Fallujah to aid Alpha one-six-three. How copy?”
“Bear Cave copies all,” the control center responded.
“Heads up in the rear,” Joe radioed his gunners, two in the side windows and one at the helicopter’s back deck.
“We’ve got a mayday call. Make sure your guns are charged, and buckle down our guest.”
Damn, damn, damn it, why did they have to be carting a civilian today? An innocent female civilian who expected to change the world with her camera. A female who meant too much to Cooper.
Joe refused to think about what she could have meant to him.
His headset cranked up again. “Yogi two-three, this is Bear Cave, confirming that your mayday is valid. We’re scrambling two A-10s for support in ten mikes.”
Ten minutes. An eternity for Cooper and his men.
Postal straightened in his seat. “Pick up a heading of three-three-zero while I get something in the nav system. I’ll give you a heading marker in a second.”
Joe twisted the cyclic, tilting the rotor blades on top of the helicopter forward, dropping the nose to bite into the air and propel. The chop, chop sped to a roar. His other hand steered the stick, while his feet worked the rudder pedals to maneuver the tail. Hands and feet synched to dance the craft through the sky.
Too many valuable seconds were ticking by. He keyed up the radio. “Alpha one-six-three, responding to your mayday. We’re on our way, a single Mike Hotel five three–” MH-53, Pave Low “–what’s your situation?” Would Cooper recognize his voice as well?
“Our hide site got blown. We’re on the run.” Gunshots sputtered between his words, fire, return fire, explosions. A scream. “We’ve got about fifty guys on our ass. Several vehicles, too, with mounted weapons.”
Now the scratchy voice over the airwaves spurred images from the past in a macabre parallel – of his elementary school pal on the other end of walkie-talkies, playing war games in Joe’s backyard, practicing for the day they would grow up and live them out for real.
This was too damn real with no chance for do-overs.
The headset blasted with another explosion. Closer to Cooper’s radio. Louder again. “Crap. We’re getting nailed. How fast can you get here, Face?”
No question. They both knew who they were talking to, and he and his crew weren’t the only ones listening. Their passenger heard as well. Photojournalist Brigid Wheeler would document much more than she’d bargained for when they’d left their Kuwaiti base this morning.
At least Cooper didn’t know she was on board, and her headset wasn’t wired for responding. Only listening. Joe could almost hear his pal chewing him out for not flying her back ASAP. Not an option. She’d signed her liability waiver when she’d taken the press tour in a war zone. But then Cooper wasn’t much for rules.
Would she recognize Cooper’s voice garbled through static since she had far less time on military headsets?
“We’re ten miles out. Five mikes. Just hold on. We’ve also got two A-10s taking off from Baghdad International in eight mikes.”
Flat desert rolled past below him. Empty. Sun broiled through the windscreen, reflecting off the sand for a double dose of hellish heat. Light revealed too much. After-sunset flights offered the advantage of state-of-the-art night vision goggles and an infrared camera.
Forget bitching about the hand fate dealt. Work with it and win.
“Hey, bud…” Joe stopped himself short from using Coop’s name, which would alert Brigid if she didn’t already know. “Give me a better fix on your position. You got any coordinates to share?”
“Negative on coordinates. Little too busy running and shooting to check my GPS,” he said between gasping breaths.
“Once we snag a defensive position, I’ll get a read. Best I can tell now we’re seven miles west of the edge of town. We’re running west in a wadi–” a gulley trench in the sand that wouldn’t offer much protection “–and we’re trying for an abandoned village a mile west of here for cover.”
“Roger that. Will continue inbound.” Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his flight gloves, the stench of body odor and hydraulic fluid swelling.
Hopefully Cooper’s Special Forces team’s return fire would be enough to hold off the insurgents. Rugged terrain would slow the vehicles. There was a chance.
God, what he wouldn’t give for a joke to connect with his bud right now. Too bad his hands and brain were too busy to reach for his palm pilot and look one up.
Instead, he settled for one of their childhood sayings. “You’re still the baddest dude in the jungle.”
A choked off laugh huffed through. “Hell, if I was in a jungle I could take a GPS reading from behind a banana tree.”
Not even a palm in sight.
The copilot tossed aside a map and started logging fresh data into the navigational system. “I think I’ve got a lock on their location from the wadi. Follow the heading marker.”
“Copy.” Centering up on the heading marker, Joe shoved aside relief which would only waste seconds.
He tipped the rudders and squeezed another couple of miles per hour out of the Pave Low, one-forty-five, one-fifty, until she strained and rattled, giving all she had and more. She was a good old war hound. But just that – old, penetrating deep into enemy territory with only so much speed to haul in and haul out.
Scrap negative thoughts. Concentrate on flying and the beer at the end of this rotation when they got back to the States. Cooper stationed in Georgia, with Joe a short jog down at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle.
Finally, dots appeared on the horizon, a city stretching ahead of the racing men. Fallujah.
Twelve Army soldiers – one officer and his team of eleven – were losing ground. In hand to hand combat, the Green Berets could take the insurgents gaining on them. But they were outgunned and on foot, chased down by crappy trucks and jeeps. Urgency pounded harder than his blades overhead. Sand churned below from the chopping rotor.
“Come on, come on, baby,” he coaxed. “Almost there. All right in back. Target area approaching. Gunners engage trucks coming up on the right hand side.”
He swept over trailing trucks in the convoy as the ground neared, gunfire sputtering down. One, two, three vehicles exploded. Five more ahead were almost on top of the team. Almost there. Almost…
Out of time.
Sweat seared his eyes, friend and enemy mixing as the insurgents overtook the Special Forces team. Whispers of defeat buzzed in tune with the howl of the engines. He couldn’t keep spraying their attackers with fire and risk killing whatever remained of their own. Not to mention further pissing off the bad guys who were now seconds away from having American POWs in their hands.
If he landed, his crew would be taken. He couldn’t even let himself think what those bastards would do to a woman. There had to be a way to keep things together until the A-10s arrived. His mind clicked through options. He counted vehicles again, five… One lagging behind so close he could almost see the face of the man in back as he…
Hefted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder.
“Fucking A!” Joe jerked left. “Hold onto your ass in back.”
The RPG – rocket propelled grenade – hurtled toward them. The Pave Low tipped to the side, strained to avoid.
His windscreen imploded…