On the road! Again.
Of all the insane things I did in Iraq, going on an air assault was in the top ten most nerve-racking missions I had. It was a few weeks before Christmas, December 2006 when my partner told me that were heading north to FOB Caldwell, a small FOB just outside of Balad Ruz in Diyala province.
Caldwell was even more austere than the other FOBs I’d travelled to for missions. There were no flushing toilets and only one other female (combat medic) on the base. Up to that point, the army females I’d interacted with were rude bordering on hostile, but she was friendly, easy to talk to and kind enough to let me stay in her room in the hospital. Her room was decorated for Christmas and it almost made things feel normal. It was a relief to have another female to relate to, who had a crazy job and worked exclusively with males too.
The morning before the Air Assault we were ordered to line up for a gear inspection by the 1SG (1st Sergeant). Naturally, I was nervous because my gear sucked and I didn’t have a fraction of what I actually should’ve had. As he went down the line, he stopped in front of me and asked, “What caliber is that weapon?” I just stood there like a deer in the headlights with no idea how to answer his question. Then I realized he was talking about my camera with its obnoxiously huge night vision lens.
When I was standing fully geared up with my camera attached to a carabiner on my shoulder, the camera and lens hung down to my shins, and I’m 5’6”! The lens was so long I had to hold it with both hands just to keep it upright. The camera was about the only thing I had that was adequate for the mission.
My helmet and NVGs were a different story. I was issued an old desert storm era helmet without a mount for the NVGs. To make matters worse the 1SG had to dig through a conex of old outdated gear to find an ancient mount that would fit my helmet. The mount was necessary because without it, the NVGs were useless and I couldn’t hold them up to my face the whole time. Being on the front lines with outdated and faulty equipment definitely made me into a problem solver/MacGyver.
Practice Makes Perfect
That night before we loaded up to head out on our mission we went through mock drills practicing how to jump off the ramp of the chinook without busting our asses. I didn’t have a great deal of faith that I could jump off the ramp wearing NVGs (which affects depth perception) and not eat sh*t when I landed.
The majority of the stress I felt before this mission was centered on the fact that I had almost no training before I deployed. At that time, they weren’t sending Air Force personnel through combat training. Thankfully, it became a requirement for the next group that replaced us. I always felt like an imposter, and it was only through observing others and imitating what they did that helped me survive and not embarrass myself. Appearing capable was the most important component to being successful in my job, which means, if I fell on my face my credibility would go out the window.
While we waited our turn, I was paired up with a nice older soldier that would be “babysitting” me. I wasn’t happy about it, because frankly, it was a waste of manpower. I was perfectly capable of running in a group in the dark to the target. When it was finally our turn, we practiced the signal to stand up, hopping off the ramp and then running and hitting the ground while the Chinook took off.
Then it was time to do it for real. The one thing that always weighed on my mind was the amount and weight of my gear! I had a long camera that hung down to my shins, an M-16 (much longer barrel than an M4), body armor with side plates, a side pocket filled with lithium batteries and tapes, and ammunition, which totaled 65lbs on my 100lb frame. It was hard for me to move quickly and if I fell down it would be almost impossible for me to get back up without help. I could feel the stomach acid in my throat when I boarded the Chinook to head out.
During the flight, I tried to relax and not focus on my fear of falling on my face. I spent the whole time staring at the light that would signal when it was time to get ready. The light went from red to yellow, and I knew it was getting close to go time, then it turned green and the 1SG was yelling at us to, “GO, GO, GO!” The adrenaline rush hit me, the line started moving forward as the guys in front me of hopped off the ramp. I started getting more nervous as I got closer to the ramp because the NVGs left me with almost no depth perception. At the last second, I flipped them up, jumped off the ramp and landed (on my feet!) I ran as fast and as far as I could and hit the ground. The Chinooks took off and everything went silent. It all happened in a matter of minutes.
Not Making Any Friends Here
What impressed me the most about this unit what how quickly they raided the compound and how quiet they were. Not a sound was made outside of breaking glass. As I walked into an open courtyard there were men detained and laying off to the side and a large amount of women and children. About this time, I realized that the night vision on my camera died and I was essentially useless. It was too dark to shoot video of anything, so I was tasked to stand guard at the door where the women and children were being detained. I will never forget the look of hatred on their faces. I saw it many times before that but never from an entire room of women and children.
Up Close and Personal
When the sun finally came up, I tagged out and started shooting again. Finally, the moment came that being a female was an asset to the mission! I was directed to an area behind a house where the women were waiting. A few soldiers were using a metal detector wand to check the women for weapons, but they weren’t able to do a physical search, so I searched the women. It was the most awkward task I’ve ever had to do during both deployments combined. The last thing I wanted was for one of these women to freak out on me. However, it was the opposite, they thought it was hilarious that I had to do it. I can only attribute their reaction to the fact that I was uncomfortable having to basically “feel them up” to make sure the wand didn’t miss anything.
The Sound of Freedom
The next couple of hours every inch of the compound was searched and any information that could be collected was collected. After that, there was nothing to do but line up and wait for the Blackhawks to pick us up. It was a couple of hours before I heard the telltale chopping sounds of an incoming fleet of Blackhawks and it was a welcomed sight. I got in line and walked head down, one hand on the shoulder of the guy in front of me until I climbed into the Blackhawk to head back to base. To this day, whenever I hear the distinct sound of a helicopter coming toward me, I freeze, and I’m back in Iraq again. Only the sound of helicopter isn’t associated with bad feelings or fear, it brings a feeling of relief.