FIRE AND SAND
Post-Conflict Report, 26 January 2007
So I guess I should start from the beginning, if I can remember that far back. Seems like ages since I was sitting in a comfy chair, clean shaven and crisply dressed, sipping cold water from an actual glass. They're checking me out for post traumatic stress disorder, whoever ‘they’ are, but in the meantime I was told to write my own accounts of what happened out there. So here goes.
We were coming back from a search mission; some patrol came across an abandoned walled village, and we were ordered to check it out for any insurgent activity, recent or old, and to make sure it wasn’t booby trapped. Effectively, we were told to be the bait, to spring the trap. We didn’t find anything but rat holes, where the enemy stashed their weapons and intelligence: a typical find. My unit and I were on our way back to base camp to report our findings in Jackals and Coyotes, so we should have been pretty safe. Only the abandoned village was a trap, but one that was sprung after we had searched it, not during.
We were all sat rather cramped in the back of the swelteringly hot vehicle, when we were suddenly launched upwards. I fell off the bench onto my side to see that most of my unit had done the same, except a couple who had managed to cling on. I heard someone screaming, but my own ears were ringing, and I was dazed, as though I had been hit in the head. We landed after what seemed like hours with a hard crash, and the unit was shaken once again. Once I knew we were no longer going anywhere, I pushed myself onto my feet, battling the heavy and awkward equipment I was wearing. I called to everyone in the vehicle to flag up any injuries before asking each person individually, taking their heads in my hands to check for concussion or any obvious sign of injury. On the last of my checks I found Private Horne on the floor, laying on his side. I rolled him to find an oozing wound on his torso, and his body unconscious. I checked for a pulse and found a weak one, and his breathing was shallow. I called for Private Harlow who was the most medically trained in the vehicle to do what he needed to do to enable Horne’s survival, at least until we could get him proper medical attention.
It was at this point, after my checks, that I heard a secondary explosion, dulled by the thick protective layers of the Jackal, from behind us. Military procedure for an IED attack is to wait a cautionary period to ensure that there was to be no follow up attack. However, I knew that Horne needed proper medical attention, and the convoy needed my leadership in order to set up correct and effective procedure. I called for Sergeant Bailiff and Private Smart to accompany me to the vehicle behind and work out what was going on. However, as soon as I touched the handle of the door, I heard the familiar clunk of bullets hitting bullet-proof metal on the right hand side of the vehicle. I called for everyone to stay low, and opened the right door, creating a shield from the attackers, and to enable my escort to move behind the vehicle as cover.
The next vehicle in the convoy was 50 yards behind us, and seemed untouched. Smoke rose from the third vehicle behind us, and already there were units out with metal detectors sweeping the area around the side of the road for secondary devices. There was the loud rattle of gunfire: familiar sounds closer, and unfamiliar, lower and slower rattles in the distance. Sand and dust spurted from the ground in front and around us, too close for comfort. I tapped Bailiff on the shoulder and indicated for him to get ready to run to the next vehicle. We stacked up as close to the back of the Jackal as we could, one behind the other, and prepared to dash to the next vehicle under the hailstorm of attacking fire.
I tapped Bailiff once more on the shoulder and he set off, sprinting as fast as he could with his head down and shoulders hunched. There was a heart stopping moment when his right foot slipped slightly, but he recovered and reached the next vehicle safely. Without turning or stopping, he immediately began to speak with the most senior officer at that vehicle, as I turned to allow Smart to make his run. However, he looked at me and shook his head, shouting above the firefight for me to go first. I reluctantly agreed with time pressing down on me, and turned to make my run. I closed my eyes so that I could prepare myself, and tried not to think of the possibilities that could happen between me and the next vehicle. I took a deep breath and pushed off from behind the cover, willing my legs to push me as quickly as they could. I could hear the rounds smacking the ground near my feet and I could sense their closeness, but I carried on, keeping low but moving fast. Before I knew it the blinding light of the blaring sun disappeared as I reached the shelter of the next vehicle. Bailiff turned and caught me as I tried to slow down.
“Sir!” He yelled, “This is Colonel Ashton.”
I looked to where he was indicating and nodded to Ashton, whilst trying to catch my breath. She told me that air support was on its way, but all the units from the convoy had formed a safety barrier some distance behind the line of vehicles, as a fall back point. Some infantry remained on the front line, using the vehicles as cover to put suppressing fire on the insurgents. I took this information in, and called across to Smart, who was waiting on my orders across no man’s land. He nodded and quickly climbed back in the Jackal to relay orders. I stayed to check that three quarters of my unit travelled back to the safety zone, with Horne being supported by two others, appearing to have regained some consciousness. The other quarter of the unit, some 4 men, remained behind the Jackal laying down fire upon the insurgents. I continued to speak with Ashton on tactics, as calls of flanking emerged from the left hand side of the line. I looked over the front of the Coyote we were crouched behind to see a group of four or five Taliban soldiers running left, one holding an RPG. I called to the other units to lay down fire, and I thought I saw one of them get hit.
All of a sudden I felt a wave of heat crash over me, and my vision was clouded with smoke. Almost instinctively, I managed to track the trail of the the RPG as it sailed past my head and exploded behind me, shooting streams of sand and flame into the air. We all crouched and ducked our heads as sand and shrapnel clattered onto our helmets.
“We need to fall back!” I called to Ashton as another explosion erupted from in front of one of the last vehicles in the convoy. Ashton nodded and ordered her men to fall back to the LZ, where helicopters were supposed to pick us up. Her men began to sprint back, as she ran from vehicle to vehicle ordering each unit to do the same. She looked over at me before making the run to safety. Glancing over to my unit, they had seen the other men falling back and already knew what they had to do. Smart was amongst them, and I thought him brave for remaining with his unit, perhaps he did it to make up for not running across the gap. I made eye contact with Smart, and he smiled and nodded, before his face went white and eyes widened. I suddenly went cold despite the crippling heat, and realised that he was not looking at me but past me. I turned to look over my shoulder to see a man clutching at his throat, with blood trickling through his fingers. He crumpled to the floor and lay on his back writhing, as I dashed between cover, grabbed him by the back of his jacket and dragged him behind the next vehicle. A medic was luckily on hand to place medication and bandages around his wound, which was in the side of his neck, to stem the bleeding. Once he gave the all clear, two other infantry from his unit lifted him, placed an arm around their necks and began to drag him back to safety, as he lifted a limp, red hand to put any pressure he could on the wound. Once I knew he was on his way back, I looked at getting my own team back to safety. I saw that two of them were already running, whilst the remaining two, Smart and Blithe remained to lay down covering fire. I shouted and they turned to me, as I indicated to fall back immediately. Just as I had signalled with my hand, I heard the faint, steady beat of helicopters over the cacophony of warfare, and spotted the two relieving black dots in the distant sky.
I ran diagonally and caught up with Smart and Blithe, who were panting and struggling to keep their weapons above their waste. It was then that I realised just how tired I was. Just when I was in the most danger, trapped between the safety of cover and the safety of comrades, I felt the most calm. A silence washed over me and I could not concentrate on what anybody else was doing. I turned in on myself, and could feel my heart pumping away, struggling to get blood to my aching muscles. Every step on the soft sand hurt my entire body, every muscle in me was screaming, begging me to stop. My brain was struggling to will my body on, and the desire to lay down and sleep was overwhelming. I noticed how hot I was, the sun beating down on my overheating body. I could almost feel the waves of light hitting me, hurting me. I even noticed how my boots were rubbing against my feet, and worried more about having a blister than being shot.
I began to slow. The glaring light began to tunnel and I couldn’t even see the finish line. But then I did. It rose from the horizon, as though I was running up a hill. I slowed even more and a dark shape rushed past me. It took me a second to realise that it was just the one, and I struggled to turn. As I glanced behind me, I saw a body laying deadly still in the sand, which I noticed was turning red. Without thinking, barely even slowing, I switched direction and began sprinting back. I reached the body and flung myself down, my legs aching as they bent and received a split second of rest. I rolled the body over and saw that it was Smart who had been hit in his right shoulder; a small penny sized wound in the back and a large, almost apple sized hole in the front. I placed a gloved hand over the larger of the two wounds and used whatever strength I had left to apply pressure. I looked up and saw silhouettes of the enemy coming into view, as they moved up for the kill.
I grabbed Smart by his collar with my left hand, and between his legs with my right, and hoisted him onto my shoulders, laying across my neck. I somehow stood up and turned to run, but my right knee collapsed. A bullet smacked into the ground to the left of me and ejected sand into the air. This jolted me and spurred me on, and I stood with a roar. I began to stagger forward, each step bringing me closer to safety, as rounds caused a water-dance like performance in sand around me. I saw the helicopters on the ground, creating a localised sand storm that prevented me from clearly seeing the infantry circling it, letting off bursts of protective fire. I reached them and they tightened around the helicopter. I saw one of them get hit in the thigh, a red mist sprayed through the air. He was instantly grabbed and dragged into the chopper by a sea of hands. I was close to blacking out, and I noticed sparks fly from the side of the helicopter, as holes appeared, getting closer and closer to me. My leg buckled and I fell to one knee, I tried to rise again, but I was punched in the back and all the breath was sucked out of me. I threw the body on my back forward with every ounce of strength I had left and he landed inside the helicopter. Hands reached out to grab me but I fell backwards, clutching at my chest. All I could see was white. I lifted my hand to my face and it slowly appeared, shadowy at first but it clarified as it grew closer to my face. I saw that it was red, and I realised that I had been shot; once in my knee, and once in my back. It all went white, then black, and the sounds of war ceased to be, replaced by the sweet silence of nothingness.
All I ever wanted to be was a good man, a good friend, a good leader and a good soldier. I felt that saving Smart that day was simply me trying to be those things, and I looked after him like he would have looked after me.
Some call me a good man, some call me a good friend. Others call me a good leader or a good soldier. Some even call me a hero. I call myself a brother. We may not have the same mother or father, we may not even come from the same place, but we share a bond closer than friendship.
We are forged by fire and by sand.