Friday, June 12, 2009

Some final words

From SGT Mark (now civilian):

It's pitch black in the back of those things. Pitch black and the noise from the engines is deafening. Packed in one on top of another, it was a very long ride. Though it was my first mission, first trip “outside the wire,” I wasn't scared. The first half an hour after we left Camp Spiecher my nerves settled. A coolness and a calm came over me. My breathing became shallow and my heart rate slowed. My mind completely focused, not a stray thought crossed. I felt what I imagine a cat feels as it crouches in tall grass just before it pounces.

Someone next to me yelled in my ear, “Six minutes!” A quick, tense sigh escaped my nostrils and my heart rate tripled the moment those words entered my inner ear. Instinctively I reached down, laid a belt of ammo across the feed tray of my M249 machine gun between my legs. The bird shook and banked hard and forced my stomach into my feet. Then came the three-minute warning and, a lifetime later, came the thirty seconds. The Chinook helicopter hit the ground with a thud. “Go, go, go!” In the noise and confusion, I grabbed myself up off the cargo net, turned and started running towards the ramp.

* * *

It was only fitting that today was overcast. The day I was to sign out of the Army and end my short career, only an overcast morning would do, as depressing as that sounds. Turned my truck into the 2nd BCT brigade area. After making several passes, I finally found a parking space within a reasonable walking distance of my battalion headquarters building. Pulled past and backed into the tiny parking space. (Don't get me starting on the parking situation around here.) After straightening out and resting the back tires on the curb, I shut the engine off and pulled the keys into my lap. I sighed and looked toward the building.

The commanders flag was posted on the flag pole out front of the Red Falcon headquarters. The dark blue flag with a large embroidered falcon flapping gently in the morning wind. With every flicker the metal clips which secured it to the pole tapped the steel pole. the steady clanking noise flowed with the breeze through my open windows. I sat there motionless, staring intensely. I slowly blinked and looked down at my cell phone. 0900. “It's time.,” I thought aloud.

My left hand reached across and grabbed the lever popping the door open. The sound of the door brought back that old familiar feeling. My heart rate jumped and I let loose a measured sigh. With the pause over as soon as it began, I pushed open the truck door and stepped down to the asphalt. After closing the door and pulling my beret across my head, I turned and started walking towards the building.

* * *

Most would think that both of those moments in my life could in no way be related. And yes, there is considerably less chance I will be shot or blown up leaving the Army to attend college. As crazy as it sounds, I was never really afraid of that when it was likely. Then, just as now, it's the unknown. Signing that piece of paper and taking off the uniform, I am shedding the persona of the sergeant stripes. No longer a double life. Using one life to hide myself from the other and vice versa. I can no longer disappear into the uniform. I can no longer share that weight with my brothers. It is only up to me whether I fail or succeed.

But, as usual, I am not afraid and will do what a paratrooper does. Always demonstrate nothing but confidence though I maybe nervous - and put one foot in front of the other in the direction I have to go. Though now it's the direction I want to go.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Observance in Jax

To those of you who have dropped by to see SPC Mark's speech at the Memorial Day Ceremony yesterday, please stop by The One Percenters. The link is on the sidebar to your right.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

bad exits

This goes with the post below.

Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane

By SPC Mark M.

Chance of showers before 2pm. Partly cloudy winds
south southeast between 2 to 8 mph.

“Bummer. Looks like there won't be any help from the rain gods
tonight. For once. Let's see if the Air Force will
give us a little help,” I told myself followed by a
short sigh.

But I had the feeling. . . The feeling that I wasn't going to get out of this one. I was going to actually earn that extra hundred and fifty dollars I
get paid each month. I closed my laptop, grabbed my
keys and headed for work. They had given us a late
call of noon, seeing as I most likely would
not get off work until tomorrow morning.

When I got to the company, I walked up the ramp removing my maroon beret and was greeted by Sgt. Anderson at the door. He stopped and looked at me and without a word we both
looked at each other and began shaking our heads.

A staff sergeant was standing at his locker changing into
the duty uniform.

“Grab the cherries (privates) and get ready for
weapons draw.”

“Roger sa’arnt. Already on it.”

"Shira, Bulger, let's go fuckers, weapons draw five minutes."

Both jumped to their feet and headed for the arms room.

“Uh, specialist?” Shira said in his small voice and going to parade rest.

“What's up guy?”

“Uh, will I be jumping the SAW (machine gun) tonight?”

“Yeah,” I replied laughing. “Oh, and make sure you
draw a modified weapons case.”

He cracked half a smile that clearly said “dammit!” the only way a
private can.


At once we were first in line at the arms room so the draw went
quickly which is rare. With our weapons and night vision drawn, we went to our task
double checking the rigging on our parachute drop bags
as well as checking our night vision and changing
batteries as needed.

sergeant from his office.

“You heard the man get your gear and move over to
chicken field,” someone echoed.

Generally that's where things start to get interesting. Several
hundred men all gaggled around. . .the phrase too many
chiefs and not enough Indians comes to mind.

As NCOs try to make sense of it all and get everyone divided
into the right birds and the right order. For a
combat equipped jump, they do what they call combat
cross loading. Basically mix you in with a bunch of
guys you don't know from other units. That way you
have no idea whether or not they are going to freak out
in the air. At least that's what I think they say, so if
in the “real thing” a bird gets shot down a whole
unit wont be lost.

Jump masters begin combing the lines inspecting helmets and checking dog tags. For
some reason you cannot jump without you dog tags. I
think they help with aerodynamics during the free fall
portion. . . not really I made that up.

At that point, there were still rain clouds moving in
and out and the overall thinking was that we weren't
going to jump 'cause of the weather. I knew better.
For some reason I think I'm the only one who checks the
weather. But I didn't try to tell them otherwise. They
seem happier when they have hope.

I guess I should explain that the majority of America's paratroopers
hate to jump out of airplanes. It's not at
all like sky diving. Oh no, it's much more dangerous.
Between 60 and 80 some odd paratroopers exit two doors
in an average of thirty seconds. There is certainly a
long list of things that can go wrong, from becoming
a towed jumper (I'll let your imagination figure that
one out), to mid-air entanglements (which happens quite
often), to partial or total malfunctions of your main
parachute (nice way of saying your chute doesn't
open), and to the fact that you have no way of really
controlling where you go, so you are at the mercy of
the wind.

I will say, most don't care about
the jumping out part, it's the landing really. Hitting
the ground at 18 to 22 feet per second, and a lateral
speed of whatever wind gust has you, never feels very
good. Broken legs, ankles, heads are common place. But
I digress.

Eventually we made our way over to Pope Air Force Base
to a place called Green Ramp. It's basically a line of
warehouses and bays along the flight line with row
after row of strange looking wooden benches that are
'specially made so that they are only comfortable to
sit on when you are wearing a parachute.

We waited for hours before actually dawning our parachutes. My
shoulder hurt just thinking about it. The T-10-Delta
parachute weighs around 60 pounds alone. Then strap
on combat equipment and you're looking at about a hundred
pounds all together rested on two torturous shoulder
straps. The longer you're in the harness, the more you
want to jump out the door just so when you hit the
ground you can take the damn thing off.

Now in the chutes and hating life, the jump masters
having done their final inspections, the
starting of jet engines introduces adrenalin into the
blood stream. The only two guys from my platoon in my
chalk was Shira and another young private named
Myamoto, both doing the airborne infantry man thing. . .
they were both asleep. It's funny to me that all these
guys getting ready to exit an aircraft at over a
hundred miles an hour and eight hundred feet above the
ground can sleep. Heads slumped down in front resting
on their reserve parachutes.

Everyone wakes up when they open the giant metal doors to the flight
line. . .front row seating over looking a row of four
C-17 massive cargo jets, sleek and very impressive with
rear ramps down, bright white lights shining out from

I turned to the two guys, “Hey, when you hit the ground come to me and we will
move out to the assembly area together.”

“Roger, specialist.”

“You know what to do if you can't find me? Find
the center line dirt road and follow the direction of
the planes. The company assembly point should be on
corner of the field.”

“Roger, specialist.”

Then it comes.


With a sigh, I struggle to my feet. With the parachute drop bag strapped around
your legs in the front, it's nearly impossible to walk. So,
of course, the Air Force parks their birds like a mile
away, which makes for a very awkward and painful

C-17s look, well, like a space ship inside. Very
high tech and powerful birds with much more room inside
than C130s. Those Vietnam era birds are louder on the
inside than the outside and smell of oil and exhaust
and often break down. It's so tight in there that when
the jump masters have to get to the front of the
aircraft, they literally walk on you.

Less than five minutes in our cargo net seats and
guys are again passing out left and right. Many times
the pilots need flight hours so we load up and “race
track” for several hours. Was not to be the case
tonight. We had been pushed back already for whatever
reason so it was to be a about an hour flight to a
drop zone five minutes away. When the ramp goes up
the white lights turn off and the red lights come on.
Really sets the mood, I'll tell ya. A short taxi and a
hard throttle up and we are airborne.
The adrenalin really starts going when the two
jump masters near the tail begin yelling and giving
hand and arm signals.

“TWENTY MINUTES!” and the jumpers snap awake look to
the front and repeat. “TWENTY MINUTES!” f

Five minutes later comes, “TEN MINUTES!. . .GET READY!”
Each time the jumpers turn to the front and repeat.

“OUTBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” All the jumpers on the
outboard side of the aircraft stand up folding up their
cargo net seats.

“INBOARD JUMPERS STAND UP!” The jumpers along
the center of the bird move over the anchor line
cable, two steel cables strung from front to back
along the side of the aircraft about a foot apart from
each other.


I grab the long yellow chord thats draped
over my shoulder and hook it to the cable above my


I trace the line from the cable down over my shoulder making sure it hasn't gone under
the riser or under my arm. Then reach forward and
trace the line on the guy in front of me from his
shoulder down ensuring the same for him. Then slap
him on the shoulder letting him know he is good as
someone does the same for me.


Trace my helmet strap, tightening
it once more and go down ensuring each snap hook on
the harness is secure. Then from the back its passed
to the front. Someone slaps me on the ass and yells
“OKAY!” I do the same to the man in front. When it
gets to the number one jumper he yells, “ALL OKAY

It's about that time that they open the doors and the
wind rips around the cabin as the four screaming jet
engines reach your ears. Guys start screaming and
yelling muffled “WHOO!” and “YEAHS!”

I turned to the guy standing next to me and yelled in his ear, “YOU
LED ME TO THIS POINT!” He laughs and shakes his head.

All the noise and commotion seem confusing but its kind
of a strange ballet. The jump master known as the
safety literally sticks his head out the door and
looks for the approaching drop zone. When he sees
that he's two thousand meters away, he gives the signal and the
jump masters yell, “ONE MINUTE. . .STAND BY!”

The number one jumper turns and stands in front of the door. That to me
would be the worst job and I refuse to do it. I can jump
because I don't think about it, I just do it. The
number one jumper stands there for an eternity looking
out into the world from a high performance aircraft.
Then the amber light comes on and the jump masters
give the second to last command.


Blink hard, breathe deep and focus. Body and mind ready.

And then it happens. The little amber light by the door turns green.

GO!. . .”

One by one, each jumper hands off the static
line to the safety turns and runs into the darkness
and disappears.


How we knew about the surge

By SPC Mark M.

The caller i.d. said LIPE. I opened my cell phone and
put it to my ear. “Merry Christmas bro.”

“Same to you man. whats up?”

“Ah, nothing man. Lying on the couch. I’m a little hung
over to say the least.”

“Right on man. Listen the reason I'm calling is I’m
on CQ.”

“Wait. What? You're at work? You didn't take leave?”

“Nah man, I stayed cause they're actually going to let
me stay for the (my) wedding.”

“Oh. How nice of them.”

“Yeah, surprised the hell out of me. But listen I'm on
CQ and I've got some bad news. The call out roster has
been initiated and they're calling everyone back from
leave early.”

“You're fucking kidding me.”

“No man, I wish I was.”

“At least they waited until the day after Christmas.”

“Yeah right. Well, I gotta let you go man. I'll see you
when you get in.”

“Alright bro, I'll see you soon. Peace.”

I closed the phone and my arm slumped down off the couch. I let the
phone drop from my hand on to the floor. Sat there
motionless, thoughtless. Mom was in the other room
and wanted the news that she probably already knew.
With a sigh, I broke the news. Picked myself up off the
couch and headed for the shower. It was the day after
Christmas, nine days since I left Fort Bragg on leave,
and about 20 days since I landed at Pope Air Force
Base from Iraq.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I had survived my first tour in Iraq despite having
kicked doors in every hot spot in country. . . every bad
neighborhood that you hear about on the news . . .from the
Sunni Triangle of Death to Tikrit to Ramadi.

We landed at Pope to welcome home banners, joyful and
cheering family members, and the 82nd band playing the
82nd song. Some officers spoke and told us “welcome home”
and “good job” and “enjoy yourself you earned it.”

But it was to be short lived.

For some time now the President and some generals were putting together a
plan to escalate the war. . . a plan they called a “surge” that would flood the streets of Baghdad in
a desperate attempt to secure the Iraqi capital. Being
choice to spearhead the surge. We specialize in
rapid deployments and can get out much faster than
most of the Army.

The day before the President went before the nation to
announce the plan, we were called into work. My first
sergeant came out and from the look on his face and
the commander's face, we knew it was bad news. There
had been whispers that we were going back but no one
believed them.

“Bring it in men and sit down.” He preceded to read
the warning order that basically spelled out that we
were to begin preparations to deploy some time around
the 1st of January. Not believing my ears, I scanned
the room and every face was blank. No emotion. it
really felt surreal.

The hardest part was passing off the news and listening to my mother cry on the other
side of the phone. They decided to send us home for
14 days of leave before we actually started
preparations. Really didn't have much to do. All our
equipment and gear never left Iraq. I went home with
weight on my shoulders that was nearly unbearable. Christmas
that year was a somber affair.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I had 48 hours to report back to Bragg. I turned the
shower on and climbed in. Sat in the tub and stared at
the drain. I got in the shower because I didn't want
my family to hear me cry. It was a strange feeling.
shedding a tear. Two tears and a sniffle, I soldiered
up and started packing my bags. Hugged my parents and
drove away.

At least they waited to 'til the day after Christmas.

Combat vets, part 3

By SPC Mark M.

Parts 1 and 2 are below.

We had been sitting in the corner of the field
waiting to get back on the birds. Finally the birds
began cranking up and we were back on our feet getting
ready to re-board the aircraft. As we walked back
slowly to the helicopters word came down the line:
the Air Force would be dropping a couple JDAMs (joint
direct attack munition) on the container yard at 0350
right after our guys flew out. I thought to myself
"Hell yeah." But I soon forgot about it in the noise and
confusion of the in-fill phase of a mission.

Since we were there to bolster Alpha Company’s
numbers, I think we got the short end of the stick as
far as jobs goes. We were to hit a house on the edge
of the village and set up a blocking position there watching
over the main road into the small town. Part
of that blocking position called for us to set up a
road block using concertina wire. So we were given a
couple spools of wire that are really big sharp
circles about four feet across. There was no way to
carry it but by hand. So in classic paratrooper style
we found an old bed frame along the way, broke off a
metal pole, put the wire on it and two at a time took
turns carrying it.

When we finally hit the ground we
found that this system had a couple flaws. One: the
wire is fairly heavy and added to our more than a
hundred pounds of gear, ammo, food and water. . . not
fun. The second problem we found is that not everyone
is the same height. So those of us less than 6 feet
tall really got screwed. Following the laws of
physics and gravity, the wire slid towards the smaller Joe
so that hands, arms and faces were cut. The two or so
miles to the objective ended up being very awkward and
painful for some.

It was time for the next two to take the wire so
my partner and I passed that stupid contraption off,
which literally had to be ripped off of me because the
sharp ends were stuck in the fabric of my uniform. I
passed it off and moved back in to my position in the
formation as we walked through the muddy little
village. Breathing heavy and completely worn out, I
wiped the sweat from my face. Feeling very sorry for
myself, I followed along with heavy footsteps,
SGT Medina yelling at me the whole way, "Pull
security, face out!"

We stopped for a moment on a
short security halt and I went down to a knee. Right
then my ears caught a distant noise: the unmistakable
sound of a friendly fighter jet somewhere above in the
star lit heavens. In spite of everything hearing that
cracked a smile on my face. Knowing that there was
someone up there watching over me was very comforting.

Listening closely, I looked down at my watch and hit
the light button.


"Guess we've got air cover," I
muttered to myself. No sooner had I said that then

I lifted my NODs off my face and saw what I can only
describe as a volcano erupting about two miles away.
A huge ball of yellow and orange leaped into the sky.
It was so bright that we were no longer cloaked in
darkness and I was now casting a shadow. Half a
second later, the shock wave made it to us and shook
the very ground, slapping us on the chests and
rattling all the metal roofs around us. The initial
blast was quickly followed by another and then
another. Each equally powerful as the first. With
hell breaking loose upon the earth in front of us, my
squad leader turned to me and said something I'll never

"You're goddam combat veterans now."

We soon picked up and moved out to our objective.

Combat vets, part 2

By SPC Mark M.

Part 1 is below.

I'm not sure when but eventually I had passed out and I
was blinking awake now. Waking up in the Army is the
hardest part of my day. Usually I have a full poopy
face going as I sit collecting my thoughts. Took a
drink of water, strapped on my boots and headed for the
tent door. It's so dark in those tents that you have to
close your eyes before you open the door so as not to
go blind from the piercing sun light of the late
desert morning.

Stepped out, took a look around, stretched a bit, turned
and headed down the row of tents to the latrines. It
was nice with everyone gone. No one in the latrines. . .
hot water in the shower. . . I could get used to this. Yes,
it was going to be a good couple of days.

I finished my morning routine feeling quite good and cleanly shaven.
I stuck my head into my squad leader’s tent to see
what was what. Surprisingly they were up and already
playing video games. We exchanged a couple insults
and I sat down and picked up a controller.

“Hey, uh, where's Sgt. Medina?”

They all sort of moaned at my question. I had developed a bad
reputation for asking too many questions. I couldn't help it but I needed to know what was going on at all times. I blame my father, a former reporter, for that one.

“Uh, someone for the battalion TOC came by and was asking for him. probably some detail or something.”


I sank into my chair at that news. I had hoped to avoid details while everyone was gone but I
guess I wasn't surprised. Moments later Staff Sergeant Medina flew through the tent door. We all spun around in our chairs. I didn't like his facial expression.

“Start getting your shit together we’re going out
with alpha company in a couple hours.” His voice hada hint of anger or desperation i couldn't tell.We didn't move. We just looked at each other all puzzled.

“What do I have to do ask you please get fucking moving!”

His voice now definitely angry we all jumped to our feet and tripped over each other as we did. I
headed for the door and as I was half out, Sgt. Medina said something that changed everything.

“Someone got killed last night.”

It wasn't until the door closed behind me did it sink
in. My mind flooded with questions. Who? What
company? What the hell happened? Where are we going?

Despite the urging of every bone in my body to turn
around and find the answers, I walked quickly back to
my own tent. There were no answers back through that
door and my questions would only make him angrier.

Within only about an hour, I was ready to go. Two
days food and water. Machine gun clean and oiled.
Ammo belts neatly rolled into pouches. Extra chem
lights, AA batteries, zip ties and a couple
extra pairs of socks and t-shirts.

I couldn't take it anymore. I headed back to my squad tent in search of
some answers and to find when the mission brief would
be. There wasn't much to hear they really didn't know
that much.

The guys had gone into an old container yard near an abandoned power plant and had made
contact with the enemy. As the last hours of daylight
passed, more details came in. They had been out there
and had been in and out of contact with the enemy all
day. News that they had come under “complex” attack
was especially disconcerting. Complex meaning they
used coordinated mortar and small arm attacks. A good
sign that these were not your usual insurgents.

We were the supplement Alpha Company and occupy a
blocking position for them as they cleared a small
village about a mile from the rest of the force.

Nervous and antsy, we moved out to the LZ several hours
early. We propped up against the blast walls and
chain-smoked cigarettes as the sun melted into a sea
of gold and red.

We said nothing really. No real small talk we just sat deep in thought. Sgt. Medina
was the first to break the silence.

“You guys scared?”

No one said anything.

“I'm scared and if your not, I don't want you in my squad.”

We all eventually admitted the same. One of our
Sergeant Majors came out and spoke a few words of
encouragement. It did little but add suspense to the moment.

Hours ticked by as the sky opened and the stars lit
up brightly. The time for the birds to arrive came
and went. But we waited on. Finally two hours late, the
bird showed up in dramatic fashion as always. Thunder
and dust. We boarded, packed into the uncomfortable
cargo net seats.

I had started a little tradition for
that time. When the bird started to lift off and we
headed off to go who knows where. I had developed a little
way to keep my mind level. And to an extent it worked.

Every-time when the helicopter throttled up and the
bird shook its way up, I pushed the light button on my
watch to see what time it was. Did the math and
figured what time it was at home. Right then, at that
moment, I pictured what was happening at my house.

"It's 0100 here. . . that means its. . . it's 1700 back
home. Five o'clock. It's five o’clock. That means that
Mom's sitting on the couch watching the news. Dad
should be home and is probably finishing up the last
of his emails. Jon. . . Jon hopefully is doing his
home work. But no, he's probably surfing. Mike. . .
Mike is at his house, home from work and he's definitely
drinking a beer and thinking about doing his homework.
its five o’clock.”

That usually did the trick. Put me at ease for a
bit. Bridged that gap between opening jitters and
total focus.

Before I knew it we got the six minute
warning. Weapons could be heard clicking as they were
loaded. I followed suit and loaded my SAW. The bird
banked and jostled and without any further warning the
bird slammed into the ground and the ramp opened.

Everyone jumped to their feet and hustled off the
bird. The only problem was that somehow the fact that
we had a two hour layover at another airfield hadn't
made it to most of us. So when we ran off the bird,
we were not greeted by the enemy but a rather portly
and confused staff sergeant holding a glow stick.