When Steve and I first met and he told me that he had served in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot, he immediately gained my respect. Getting to know this kind, compassionate and caring man over the past year has certainly cemented that respect. He told me that he had written a book about his experiences in war, but it was not published. I encouraged him to share his stories online and have his book published. I am happy to say he followed my advice, and now is the published author of Go for Shakedown. His book contains many powerful stories, such as seeing innocent children being used by the Taliban as body shields and witnessing the stoning of a teenaged girl. The short story which I would like to share with you today, is from his book, Go for Shakedown.
….I looked over my left shoulder and saw Zorg approaching the men through the dust, revealing his regimental patch. It seemed to be sign that he was a brother, not a stranger. And that their fallen would be escorted with dignity under his watch. He grabbed one end of the body bag and lifted it onto the floor of the griffon helicopter. Snapshot had moved across and pulled the soldier through, placing a seatbelt from a floor ring over his body to secure him. The casualty’s impromptu pall bearers reached out to our passenger. I couldn’t see what they did, a pat of compassion? Blessing? I don’t know. It was surreal. Their heads were low. Faces flaccid with exhaustion, tears, fear, anger, horror, stained with dust and sunburn – stoic.
Another soldier, a senior Warrant Officer, grabbed them and with some hand gestures reminded them it was time to get into a defensive position. The war was still on, they were more vulnerable with a helicopter in their position. Shots were expected.
The NCO looked at me and spun his hand in the air signalling for me to get out, now!
“Let’s go guys.” I called. “Cabin area.”
“Right gun ready, left gun ready.” Snapshot and Zorg called.
“Lifting, with a right turn out.” I started to pull in collective creating another explosion of dust as I inched across the ground, falling over the edge of Three-hills towards the wadi. The aircraft shuddered at maximum weight to gain flying speed. We burst through the dust bubble and skimmed across the trees toward Steel-door. On the right was FOB MADRAS; the few soldiers on watch saluted as we passed.
“Prof, you have the lead and the radios.” I sighed somberly.
“Roger that.” He responded.
It was the quietest flight I had at war. We flew high to avoid enemy fire. We weren’t hunting Taliban anymore today. I heard Prof’s voice now and again on the radio breaking the sound of wind and engines. It was peaceful for the moment flying towards the east morning sun. A beautiful sky, but such an ugly, deadly earth.
“KAF tower, This Shakedown 25 Flight” Prof’s voice broke the meditative silence.
“25 Flight, this is KAF tower, Altimeter two-nine-eight-six, FARP or X-ray sir?” Tower called.
“Prof answered, voice was humble: “Shakedown 25 is now Angel 25 Flight. Request direct Role 3 hospital.”
Tower’s voice changed. He knew Angel meant they had a fallen soldier aboard: “Angel 25, you are cleared south ramp arrival direct.” He continued. “Paciderm 11, please orbit and come in behind Angel 25, Gunsmoke 26, Hold present position for Angel 25. Longknife 11, please orbit north come in number three behind Angel 25.” KAF tower kept clearing the way.
My heart throbbed. Everyone was quiet and humbled. The event tears a person in half. It is such a massive honour to carry your brother out of the field of battle. But he’s dead. Why should I feel honour when his family is going to feel nothing but pain and suffering? A mother’s worst fears. A spouse’s heart shattered. A child’s dreams turn to nightmares of confusion. The other aircraft circled for the two minutes it would take to allow our unencumbered approach showing respect the fallen but beloved Sgt McNeil, ending his first trip towards the Highway of Heroes.
If you enjoyed reading this story, you will LOVE the book: