Rattling around like so many nuts and bolts inside of 'the' machine. We cruise over empty fields and dead crops. The moon is gone, ducking behind distant mountains or pulling clouds over its head like a child hiding under the sheets. It's scared of us. The boogie men.
It knows we're on the move.
It knows we're on the prowl.
The cyclopian eye of my night vision goggles paints the world in a lime green hue. Everyone looks sea sick when they're this color.
It is February 13th, 2010.
It is 0300 hours.
It is our D-Day.
We're headed to the city of Marjah, which is regarded by the mass media, who “heard it first” from Uncle Sam's trusted advisors, as the last known Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, which is the heartland of the insurgency.
A few hours ago we stood out in the open, being battered by the frigid wind of Afghanistan's ebbing, yet still potent winter. We all feel it. Each of us, no matter if you're standing, sitting, pretending to sleep or talking nonchalantly about how much of a badass you are. That pressure, that feeling of emptiness that has a weight all its own as it forces itself down on your chest. Making it hard to breath. Making your heart struggle with each successive beat. It's like we were already in our last throes of life. We were, each and every one of us in our own way, preparing to die.
I stood to the side, on my own for a moment, when I overheard a group of grunts talking. One kept pointing to the horizon, where seven bright dots hung unmoving in the air. In all likelihood it was just a series of illumination rounds falling over Marjah, prior to our arrival, but there were other theories, the one most enthusiastically pursued was that they were alien space ships.
I shit you not.
In a sense though, I understood. It was more of a comfort to imagine that some random space invader might take an interest in the fickle comings and goings of men. It offered some small reassurance that the mission we were about to embark on, this act that could claim our lives, might be something of note for someone or something beyond us.
It was an empty and false hope, but it was something. Just the illusion of being watched, not watched over, but observed. So long as someone or something else could bear witness to what we were about to do, that was enough.
There's nothing more devastating than the thought of being completely forgotten once you die. Even if we could be just a footnote in the great fuck-up of our time, that would be better than having no place in it at all.
After hours of waiting on the cold tarmac, we finally got our orders.
As the great metal beasts took off from the flight strip, I finally felt as if I'd reached the point of no return. Things beyond my control and power were now in motion and the nerves that had threatened to unsettle me were calmed. There was nothing I could do, but be moved, like some pale white pawn on a massive chessboard.
Now, with the flight-line and personal safety far behind us, we ditty bop through the air in CH-53 helicopters, the draft horses of the sky. Muscled, monstrous and clumsy.
A flock of Super Cobra attack helicopters glide alongside of us. Seeing them I remember a key fact. The Taliban have several, possibly as many as four anti aircraft guns. Allegedly they were left over from the cold war, just tossed aside like an empty pack of cigarettes.
Fucking Soviets. The hammer and sickle have rusted and fallen to ruin, but the blade's still sharp enough to cut and give you tetanus.
We all heard the stories, and in every retelling a more credible source is noted. First it's an intel Marine who shares with me that they have the guns posted on four separate compounds, pointed towards the only stretches of farmland not littered with improvised explosive devices and anti-tank mines. The places we're most likely to land.
I spoke to another Marine who claimed that the officer for Charlie Company said the Taliban had a crack team of foreign fighters, anti-tank specialists and snipers there, waiting just for us.
And by the time we left, several guys were certain that the 'General' himself was quoted saying the Taliban had just launched their first jet-fighter squadron and that they were on standby near the city.
That being said, these soviet made weapons, that can drop a bird out of the sky in seconds, were positioned and waiting for just such an opportunity. And we were on our way to provide one.
As I remember this, I get the feeling that this was a very bad idea.
It's not the first time, and it certainly won't be the last.