by Eric Hannel
The back of the plane opened and I was hit with a blanket of heavy, hot air – pungent yet sweet – and I immediately recognized the sick odor of rotting corpses.
I exhaled forcefully to purge the air from my lungs, only to take it in again in the next breath. I exited the aircraft with a weighty sigh, glanced at the desert in front of me, looked at the heavens, and yelled, “I said I got the message last time. I didn’t need a reminder!”
My teammate, nicknamed “D,” strolled up next to me and with a quizzical look asked, “Are you feeling all right?”
I responded that my comment was part of an ongoing conversation between me and God since the last war. “D” and I had served together in the last shit sandwich and he chuckled, acknowledging that he, too, had often conversed with the heavens.
After some time our cargo was loaded and our convoy prepared for departure. “D” and I checked our weapons and communications gear, confirmed our route security plan, and reviewed our reaction plan in the event of enemy contact. I then took my position in the lead vehicle and briefed my driver.
“We stop for no one, for no reason. If we stop, we die,” I said sternly. He acknowledged my instructions as I withdrew my 9 mm weapon and re-checked it to ensure it was loaded. I chambered a round. I also ensured my 870 Remington shotgun was loaded and ready. As the driver started the engine, I grabbed his attention for one final confirmation. I explained that if he stopped I would shoot him myself. I knew that everything here was a potential graveyard and nothing could be taken for granted. I could tell the driver was concerned about my sanity, but he acknowledged the order just the same.
Outside the airbase the city looked peaceful, but I knew too well that looks could be deceiving. There was no pedestrian movement; in fact, the streets were empty. Not a good sign. Often, the local population knew when an ambush was going to happen and they would avoid the area. This place smelled like death. Soon enough we found rotting corpses littering the roadside, probably locals who had starved to death or been caught in crossfire, victims of the power struggles between warlords and chieftains.
I scanned the street for threats, and then the windows of buildings, followed by the rooftops. I began to notice armed men trying to look inconspicuous on the rooftops. Up ahead I saw a dark mass in the middle of the street. As we drew closer, the driver took his foot off of the gas pedal. “GO! GO! GO!” I shouted. “Step on the gas! TO THE FLOOR!” I underscored my demand with a quick nod toward my shotgun. The engine was loud in the five-ton truck and the driver paused as if he couldn’t make out what I said, but my body language toward my weapon was unmistakable and he mashed the pedal. As the engine roared, he yelled, “What about that?” indicating the still unrecognizable mass in the middle of the road. I yelled back, “Honk your horn if you want, but keep your foot on the gas!”
As we drove closer I could see that the mass was a truck, with a mound of people piled in the bed. Given the armed men on the roof, this looked like an ambush.
The driver, dripping sweat, pounded on the horn. “You stop, we die!” I shouted again. The vehicle in the middle of the road, appearing closer by the second, did not move, nor did the people in the back of it. They were piled in unevenly and massed in the center. As we closed to within fifty yards, the men in the back of the vehicle began to jump around. Realizing that we were not slowing, they panicked. Bodies poured over the sides of the makeshift roadblock, running wildly away from their vehicle. Then I saw him. The people in the back of the truck had been concealing a man behind a mounted, .50-caliber machine gun. But as we raced towards him with our horn blaring, he too panicked and jumped out of the truck.
My driver, seeing this, realized our danger and became committed to getting around the obstruction. With a deep roar of our engine we flew past the truck, barely avoiding a collision. An explosion rumbled behind us, but our small convoy’s high speed had put us past its reach. I could see our vehicles, all accounted for. Seconds later there was another explosion, definitely closer. We careened down the streets, never slowing, ever vigilant for another ambush.
We arrived at our destination and quickly accounted for personnel, cargo, and ammo. The driver noticed new damage to the vehicles, pointing out odd marks, gouges and holes here and there, which he swore were new bullet holes and shrapnel marks.
Day One, hour two.
I met up with another Marine buddy, Steve, who had arrived at the new site days earlier. We joked about our latest “vacation” spot as we reviewed the security of our position, inside and out. We climbed to the highest point of our camp and made our way out into the open, scanning for security weaknesses and potential problems that required immediate attention. We were still for only a moment when in the distance I heard “Pop…pop…pop, pop, pop,” the distinctive sound of an AK-47, followed by “pfft…pfft…pfft, pfft, pfft” as the bullets zipped past my left ear. The first five rounds had already hit the wall behind me, showering me with debris, by the time I realized an enemy gunman had sighted on us. A stronger wind or a slight movement on my part and one or all of the bullets would have nested inside my skull. Steve quickly dove for cover, but I was hot, pissed off, and this was the second time someone had tried to kill me since my arrival in country.
I looked for the shooter, but he was well concealed. I began shouting expletives about the sniper’s mother and his physical love of animals. Steve grabbed for me.
“Get your dumbass down,” he yelled. I didn’t hear him clearly as I was still yelling “YOU COCKBLISTER SONOFABITCH!” But I quickly followed Steve down, out of the line of sight.
Day one, hour three.
Walking back to the lower level of camp I glanced up at the heavens. “I said I got it. I didn’t need more convincing,” I muttered. The last conflict I participated in was lesson enough to appreciate life, but here I was back in the shit and already trying not to get killed. It was all downhill from there.