Monday, June 28, 2010
Aboard Charlie Six
The soup had another fan in Bob Anderson, who excused himself after a second bowl, taking a bottle off homemade Hefeweizen with him. John and I had a chance to talk in private, catching up on his newlywed status for starters.
“No honeymoon, Colonel. Well, except that night,” Private John Martin, married on Christmas Eve, said.
“You take what you can get, John. And when we’re in private and off-duty, you can call me Rick. Just don’t let it slip.”
“Yes, sir. Should not be a problem sir.”
“Which Battalion are you in? And how is it that paperwork on the replacements didn’t find its’ way across my computer?”
“Fifth Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Atwood, sir. I’m not sure about the paperwork.”
“Colonel Atwood is a hard-ass. High standards from coming straight out of Helmand Province in the ‘stan. I have no idea why he’s with us and not on a line unit…all of our Battalion CO’s are sharp.”
“I’ve heard you’ve seen some action,” John said. He seemed much older than he’d been a couple months before.
“A little, yeah. Lost some good men,” I said. “You’re a trained infantryman. Nothing more dangerous on the planet than a young infantryman. To others and sometimes to himself. How confident do you feel, Private?”
“I can handle myself, sir.”
“Seen any live fire training? Sounds of incoming rounds smacking the ice and the mud and flesh?”
“A billion years ago, when I was a little older than you, I went through some training probably a little more aggressive than yours. Crawling under live booby traps, live fire over that, mounds of pig carcasses that would be shedding meat and blood and bone, showering us with body parts. Not something you ever forget, especially in summer heat.”
“Yeah, we didn’t have anything like that.”
“That’s only because pork is hard to come by and expensive,” I said. “John, you know I’m not going to intervene in any assignment that your commanders have for you. There’s not a job that I wouldn’t do in this entire brigade myself, or one that I’d hesitate to assign to anyone else. Other than tonight, we all pretty much eat the same food; I take an irregular rotation on with the observation posts on our perimeter, and was working my way through a few other jobs as time allowed, until this pneumonia set me back. I take at least half of my meals with the Brigade, not with Command, or with my officers. It sounds all noble. It’s not really. These men are my brothers, cousins, sons, uncles. I need every man to be able to depend on every other, no questions. I need them to trust me, as well. That includes me, and includes you. We all depend on each other for our lives. That’s the way it is.”
“Not a problem, Colonel. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want this assignment.”
“Understood. Your Mom’s hand is in this, along with my lovely wife. There is not much though, that gets in the way of Liberty Martin, alone. With assistance, an unstoppable force.”
January First, Year Two
Aboard Charlie Six
I’d managed around four hours of uninterrupted sleep, after sending Private John Martin back to his quarters, on the tail end of Charlie Six. At oh two hundred, I awoke with a start, for no apparent reason. Something felt wrong. I called the communications car on the computer network.
“This is Colonel Drummond. Sitrep,” I said to the communications officer on duty, a second lieutenant by the name of Breitmann.
“Good morning, Colonel. Our sector is quiet, sir. Sporadic contact twenty miles east, heavy ground contact a hundred miles north. Civilians remain at the shelter, no news there. General Anderson’s aircraft departed at twenty three-thirty hours. Supply Eighty-Four is due in around oh nine hundred. That’s about it, Colonel. Something wrong, sir?”
“Don’t know, Lieutenant. Check contact with all perimeter units, Priority status. Notify me immediately if there is anything amiss. And keep me posted if anything out of the ordinary comes up in our sector or any adjoining sector. Clear?”
“Affirmative, Colonel,” the young man said, obviously puzzled.
I was blessed, or cursed with the inability to remember my dreams the vast majority of the time…but over the past year, I did relive more of the distant past than I ever wanted to. I didn’t know if my sudden break from a seemingly sound sleep was because of a dream, nightmare, or ‘what’. I elected to calm my nerves by re-reading our schedule for the next deployment.
We were now scheduled to depart Omaha on January seventh, the next-to-last support unit to move east or north. Leapfrogging along the path of war, Third Washington would trail out of town this time. With five days until we’d pack up for shipment, we were down to fifteen percent of our supply levels for normal operations. Supply Eighty-One through Eighty-Three were supposed to include replacement provisions for Third Washington. They were reassigned and shipped directly to line units, instead, putting our unit on the back burner. Without Eighty-Four, we’d be out of food and basic provisions in less than a week. Command was cutting things close. My repeated requests for fuel and supplies according to Bob Anderson were heard. They just weren’t as high a priority as the mechanized and infantry units. Understandable.
By quarter of three, I decided to try to get some more sleep, rocked by the wind against the converting shipping container that served as my quarters.
“Colonel, you’re going to want to see this,” Lieutenant Breitmann said over the intercom. I’d just dressed, after a quick shower in marginally warm water. “Secure channel nine, sir.”
Rather than look at it in my quarters, I made the quick trip to the Command Car, figuring that I’d be there soon enough in any regard. I was surprised as I pulled my jacket on as I opened the exterior door, by the eighteen inches of drifted snow against the door, drifts almost completely covering the stairs to the ground. The lee side of the train had four and a half feet of drifted snow. I hadn’t seen the windward side. Thankfully, the drifts were solid enough to walk on…and I thought, solid enough to lock us in position if we weren’t careful.
“Colonel, we have flash traffic from the Air Command. Downed Navy crew, our sector,” Breitmann said. “Plastic Bug went down about three miles southwest, ten minutes ago. Ejection notice, and we’re tasked with ground search and rescue. Air Force can’t get a bird in the air for the next two hours—they’re committed to other missions.”
“Plastic Bug?” I asked.
“Sorry, sir. F/A-18. It was coming here after a mission over Des Moines. Pilot reported engine trouble about two minutes before punching out.”
“Do we have data on where he ejected?”
“Locating beacon from the pilot?”
“Nothing, sir,” another tech said. “And no radar of course,” he said as Sergeant Major Travis came in to the Command Car.
“Chet, we need SAR operations for a downed Navy pilot, right now. What can you get moving?”
“Second Battalion is on Alert as of twenty-hundred last. Snow’s going to be an issue, sir. It’s bad out there.”
“Worse for the pilot,” I said.
“No argument there, Colonel. I’ll get Second moving.”
“What’s Fourth’s status?” I asked, thinking that another Battalion would not be a bad idea.
“Fourth is scheduled for dispersal for daily operations starting at oh six-hundred.”
“Retask for SAR operations immediately. Third can run dailies again, and Fifth will go to civilian operations, I said to Sergeant Travis.
“Breitmann, get me Air Command,” I said, getting to my desk. “And somebody round me up some coffee.”
Charlie’s primary and secondary communications cars were quickly creating the anticipated search teams, despite an undefined search area; determining transport capabilities; and coordinating normal operations with the search effort. For the better part of a week, one Battalion had stood Alert status, rather than working normal rotations across the spectrum of Third Washington responsibilities. The Alert status had come from Command. I assumed that they had good reason for it.
“Air Command on Secure Twenty-Two, Colonel,” Breitmann said.
“Very good, Lieutenant,” I said as I put on my headset.
“This is Colonel Richard Drummond, Third Washington.”
“Colonel, this is Captain Anderson, Air Command.”
“Captain, can you give us more information on this downed aircraft? I understand that it’s estimated three miles southwest of our location. Can you confirm that?”
“Colonel, it went off radar at latitude forty-one, ten, one point two nine; longitude minus ninety six, eight, fifty-nine point seven eight four. It may be possible that the actual crash site is further west than that location, but doubtful, the aircraft was losing altitude very quickly. We did not have an IFF transponder or any other on-board telemetry for three minutes prior to that time for reasons unknown. We did get a signal of the ejection sequence for the crew right before radar contact was lost.”
“Single seat?” I said as Breitmann punched up the coordinates on our mapping software.
“No, sir. F/A-18F, two seater, from Atlantic Fleet VFA-103, the Jolly Rogers.”
“Understand we have no beacons for the crew, is that correct?”
“Yes, Colonel. Neither beacon has activated. Should be automatic upon separation from the aircraft.”
“OK, Captain. Last question—do you have an altitude for ejection?”
“No sir, other than, less than five thousand AGL.”
“Given the winds we have out here Captain, that’s one Hell of a search area.”
“Sorry, Colonel. That’s all we have from here.”
“Where is ‘here’, Captain?”
“I’m at Nellis, Colonel.”
“Understood, Captain. We’ll keep you plugged into command level communications assigned to the search.”
“Much appreciated, Colonel. The aircrew is of some importance. Can’t elaborate.”
“Got it. Drummond out,” I said as Breitmann waved me over to his console.
“Breitmann, what have you got?” I asked.
“Wehrspann Lake, sir. Looks man-made. The coordinates match.”
“All right,” I said as the rest of my senior command staff flooded into the car, along with Second Brigade commander Trayvon Chappel.
“Gents, we have a downed Navy aircraft, two seat model F/A 18. Last radar contact was over this lake, about three miles from here, and Air Command says that the crewmen ejected right before it went off radar. We have no beacons from the crewmen, no radio calls, nothing. Air Command says the crew is of ‘some importance.’ Take that as you will,” I said, that comment generating some glances among the staff. “Two tasks—retrieve the crewmen, second locate and secure the crash site.”
“Altitude of ejection, sir?” Major Ryder asked.
“Unsure, less than five thousand AGL.”
“Wind drift will have pushed them a fair piece, Colonel.” Ryder stated.
“Estimates?” I asked. “I’ve jumped out of one perfectly good aircraft, and that was not quite thirty years ago on a calm day.”
“Ten miles per hour will drift a canopy a half mile from three thousand feet. Figure they ejected at five thousand plus, add in the thirty mile-per-hour gusts we have, and they could be a couple miles downwind, easy. Assuming their chutes opened, of course,” the Major said.
“I’d buy that. So, an oval-shaped search area, centered laterally due south of us,” I said, pointing at the map. “Nice even grid of quarter sections of farmland, all the way over to Papillion. Colonel Chappel, questions?”
“No sir. We’ll be ready in ten minutes. Have to dig out some wheels. This snow will slow us up.”
“We’ve got maybe an hour and a half before it starts getting light out, and three until sunrise,” I said. “Let’s try to leave no snowball unturned.”
“Snowmobiles sure would be handy right about now, sir,” Chet Travis said.
“Anyone run across any?” I said.
“None in operable condition, Colonel. A few parts rigs, the rest were shot up,” Lieutenant Breitmann said as he looked at an asset inventory of the Omaha area.
“Thanks anyway, Lieutenant,” Chappell said, grinning a little bit at the instantaneous response of the young officer.
Ten minutes later, the Alert staff was ready for departure, assignments for the grid search provided followed five minutes after that by the Fourth Battalion. I’d have liked to have gone along.
“Easy Four to Raptor,” I heard on the headset. The frequency flashed on my computer monitor, designated solely for communications regarding retrieval of Firefly Two-Nine, the call sign of the downed Navy plane.
“Raptor. Go Easy Four,” Kittrick said to the patrol.
“Got the full package, fair condition. Banged up a little in shipment. Two seven east by one one four south.”
“Affirmative, Easy Four,” Kittrick responded, as I punched in the search grid coordinates. Lavista South High School, just south of Highway Three Seventy.
“ETA thirty-five, Raptor.”
“Affirm, Easy. Proceed to Delta Three Three.”
“Will do, Raptor. Easy out.”
“Mister Kittrick, get me Air Command, and recall those teams not within the search area for the aircraft.”
“Air Command will be on Nine, sir. Kellison is already placing the recall, Colonel.”
“Kittrick, that’s why you get the big money,” I said, pleased that his crew was on top of things.
“I’ll take that in rare metals, anytime, Colonel. Or, maybe a steak.”
“I’ll make a note of that.”
“Air Command is ready, sir,” he said as I switched the frequency.
“This is Colonel Drummond. Your crew has been found. A little worse for wear I understand. Should be back at our location within the hour.”
“Damned good news, Colonel. Compliments to your unit. This is Admiral Hendricks, joint unit commander. Have you located the aircraft, Colonel?”
“We have it narrowed down to a couple hundred acre area, sir. There’s a very good chance that it went down in a reservoir. I’m not willing to put my men on the ice to find a hole the hard way, Admiral. I’d prefer to have a helo take a look at the surface.”
“How deep is that reservoir, Colonel?”
“Around thirty feet or so, Admiral, from what we can ascertain. Something aboard that plane that makes it worth diving on?”
“We’ll let you know if that’s the case, Colonel. Depends on what the crew says in debrief. Please contact me immediately when the crew reaches your location.”
“Will do, sir.”
“Air Command out.”
“Sir, we’ve got three more civilian transports scheduled, then we’re bingo on evacs,” Major Ryder said. “By eleven hundred, our civilian relief efforts are pretty much done. Civilian organizations will be in charge.” Which meant, we wouldn’t be feeding them anymore, either.
“What’s the status on our resup?” I asked, noting his suddenly uncomfortable expression.
“Just heard. Eighty Four has been expressed east.”
“Major, we cannot expect to go much longer without a resupply. That includes fuel. We have maybe three days left to keep our water flowing and heat on, if we’re really, really damned lucky. We have five days food. Maybe.”
“I understand, Colonel, believe me. This decision…”
“Kittrick, find me a commanding General,” I said, cutting Gary off. “Dismissed, Major.”
“Sir,” the Major said, saluted, and left.
Ten minutes passed before I was informed that General Anderson was unable to take my call.
“Kittrick, get me Air Command.”
“Did you not hear me the first time, Lieutenant?”
“Sorry sir. Yes, I heard you Colonel.”
Less than a minute later, I was speaking again to Admiral Hendricks.
“Admiral, I’d like to ask a favor of you, if you don’t mind….”