Sunday, May 27, 2012

In the foxhole...

I’ve sat down and tried to write a hundred times or more what and how the relationship is between men who have experienced war side by side. How it’s different than any other bond I’ve ever felt. You can talk about love relationships between a man and a woman, with your parents, with your lifelong friends, your “BFF” or whomever and most people get that. They’ve been there, they understand. There are words to explain it – words that make sense to almost everybody. I have yet to find the adjectives, the verbs, the context that conveys the feeling there is between guys that “share a foxhole”. 

It’s not like a first date and getting to know someone over time, it’s almost instantaneous. You hear people say they’d give up everything for so and so, they’d protect them with their own lives… push comes to shove, prove it, do it, every day… nowhere does that happen on a regular basis EXCEPT on a battlefield.

You look at the guy next to you “in the foxhole”, you know where he is, what he’s feeling, what he’s fearing, what he needs, what he wants. It doesn’t matter if he’s black or white, redneck or hippie, Christian or atheist, tall or short, married or single, or anything else. He has your back and you have his, with the ultimate sacrifice on the line. Sure you want to survive, you want to see home again, but there’s something beyond “me” that creeps in. A realization that you’re not the only one, there are others just as deserving of survival. You have to truly be willing to make that sacrifice, you have to be able to communicate that somehow and receive the same in return. Not very often are words spoken, its things as simple as a hug, a handshake, a look into their eyes, a slap on the back, a hand up. There is an intense connection that takes place, one that brings both trepidation and equanimity – calmness. Once a sincere commitment has been made and understood it will remain forever.

Down deep inside there are no nagging little questions about can I or should I or would I. You have the techniques that the military taught you, the tools of war and survival surround you; you have the obligation you made to yourself, your buddies and your country and you’re prepared to make good on them. Then one day it comes and you’re in that place, that position you prayed and hoped you or anyone would never be in. Chaos exists all around you and something clicks inside, somehow you just react. There’s no internal debate, no thought process, no scientific method to follow, no if-then. You move; you do what comes instinctively, using what resources, training and experience you have to get things done. Inside there’s no realization of what’s going on, your mind and body are set on achieving that one goal, that promise you made to yourself and those around you.

Imagine standing in the middle of a football field next to a downed helicopter surrounded by dikes and trees. Your three buddies have established a three point perimeter around you. Your air cover has been called away and you’d already sent your chopper to base to pick up the parts you need to fix and fly the cobra out. The four of you are there alone with no more than a basic load of ammunition for each of 3 M60’s, a couple of M16’s and your 45 caliber sidearm. The first “thump” was barely discernible but the next two or three were as clear as the day. All the mortar rounds impacted well behind the helicopter. Don’t stop to think that you’re standing next to hundreds of gallons of JP4, two rocket pods loaded with explosives and hundreds of rounds of 30 caliber and 7.62 ammunition. You move, finding the lowest depression you can 30 yards away from the helicopter. Your 45 is in your hand, locked and loaded as you scan the area. You’re the senior NCO, what’s your plan? You immediately start taking small arms fire from the tree line to the front of the ship, 60 yards away. No one is visible, no flashes, no markers of any kind. Your point perimeter opens up with his M60, just cutting leaves, as the incoming small arms fire continues. Unmistakably the sound and bullets of two or three AKs pierce the air eventually kicking up dust clouds around the point M60’s position and the front of the ship. From the two positions in the rear covering fire emerges. Glancing back they’re both exposed but continue to fire giving away their positions.

Without thinking, you know that the M-70, turret and 30 cal are electrically operated, you know that the aircraft electrical system is operational, you’ve been in the front seat before, you’ve fired the M-70 on test flights, you know where the 30 cal controls are, you know one well placed mortar, or a couple of AK rounds could set off the whole aircraft like a display on the fourth of July. You hear yourself yelling “cover” as you sprint to the chopper and vault into the front seat. Circuit breakers are reset, switches put in position and the aircraft begins to shake as a plume of dust and smoke rise from around the left wing. The chopper rocks back while in the distance the rounds pepper the dike area. The incoming fire stops briefly before starting again targeting the helicopter alone. A different set of switches, the M-70 thumps a few rounds into the same area. Suddenly two figures appear sprinting behind the dike headed for a tree line. All three M60s open up and the M70 drops a couple of rounds between them. As the dust settles, the firing stops - waiting for the next opportunity to make the kill. But all remains silent and then the aircraft radio crackles with traffic and the sound of incoming choppers increases in volume. The parts arrive, the cover aircraft have returned. Fixed and flyable in minutes the cobra is gone.

No one knows this story except for four young men left to fend for themselves for a couple of hours in a friendly zone, in a country at war and in a time far away. No one bothered to report it, there was no confirmation of kills, no damage to the aircraft, no physical wounds to anyone. What happened there has happened thousands of times before and since. There isn’t a hero here, just young men committed to doing what needed to be done and trusting enough in each other to believe that it would be. For some that commitment will never be tested and yet never be doubted either. For others it may come just once, but for a few every day or night or mission. Many will survive their test and so will their buddies. Some will not. The true reward for them is not a colorful ribbon and a place of honor as part of a list somewhere. The true reward is that others will take their place, will offer all that they have in the name of friendship, freedom, honor, country and pride.

Hundreds of thousands of American service men and women have offered all that they could give and it was taken from them in the name of freedom and brotherhood. Many thousands more offered but have not been asked to relinquish their tender. Behind them, alongside them and in front of them stand thousands more willing to make the same sacrifice. Thank God that they are there!

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