Letters from the front
by Brad "Mexican Bob" Pilgrim ©2004 25Oct04/1621Z
My crew had a day off after eight back to back missions to places where people shoot at airplanes and kill folks on a pretty regular basis. The stress has been higher in the last couple of months and itís starting to take a toll. Anything you can do to have fun is a welcome relief. With that in mind, we took the train out of Frankfurt and headed to Heidelberg, hunting for a good time.
On the bank of the river is a castle that has been there for about 800 years. You canít swing a dead cat in Germany without hitting a castle, so itís nothing special. But, this castle does have something that the others donít have; a 220,000 liter wine barrel in the basement. According to what the wine Nazi told us, itís actually the largest barrel in the world. Now Iíve said before that Iím not a fan of wine. But, how often do you get to drink out of the worldís biggest barrel? Itís even more fun when you lie on your back and get your copilot to open the spout and let the wine pour in your mouth. Talk about being tall hog at the trough! It also ruins your best pair of overalls, but that tragedy pales in comparison to the once in a lifetime chance of drinking out of a barrel that is constructed from 130 oak trees. Actually, itís a twice in a lifetime chance. I seem to recall doing the same thing while wearing a Santa Clause suit around 1994.
After all attempts to drain the barrel failed, we weaved up the stairs and out to the courtyard. I donít know if it was German Thanksgiving or what, but they were celebrating something. We walked into some sort of festival with folks dressed up as knights and all that sort of nonsense. People were selling suits of armor, shields and swords. If I could have found a catapult, I would have bought it for sure. Iíve always had the overwhelming desire to fling a deceased cow into my neighborís yard. I had no luck with the catapult and my pilot wouldnít let me buy a crossbow. But, I did find a knightís helmet. It fit perfect and I knew Iíd be the only person on my block that owned one. I also had an idea that it might protect my head on my next mission to Iraq. Then I remembered the story about my Aunt Mary Jo. Her husband, J.D., worked overseas in oilfields for British Petroleum most of his life. At some point, he bought my Aunt a suit of armor for their anniversary. I know it sounds strange. Most women get mad if you buy them appliances and craftsmen tools, but nothing says love like a suit of armor. Sometime, Iíll have to write about my Uncle Marshall. He gave my Aunt Sue a wooden coffin for Motherís Day back in the 1960ís. Iím not kidding!! Itís still sitting in their dining room.
Anyhow, back to my Aunt Mary Jo. This suit of armor was standing at the end of the hallway at their place down by Dallas. One night when J.D. was overseas, Mary Jo thought she heard somebody in the house. She pulled her .44 pistol out from under the bed and walked down the hall. She looked all over the place, but couldnít find anybody. She walked back towards her room and stopped in front of a mirror at the end of the hall. When she turned on the light, she saw somebody standing behind her. She put six holes in her anniversary present. With that little memory in my mind, I decided to buy the helmet anyhow, but not count on it for its ballistic protective qualities. I wore it all over Heidelberg and had a good time from what I was told. After dinner, more of the bar scene, a little time in a karaoke joint (they donít seem to enjoy Hank Williams quite as much in Europe) we headed back to Frankfurt.
The next day, we flew out to Baghdad to deliver some helicopters and then on to Al Udeid AB in Qatar. We spent the night and headed back to Baghdad with more cargo. Shortly after landing, I heard my pilot ask over the interphone ďHey Load, how fast can yall rig the plane for a medevac missionĒ? ďAbout twenty minutes or soĒ I told him. He then said that there was a crew coming in with some wounded that needed to get back to Germany and we were being tasked with the job. I had just finished unloading about 93,000 pounds of humvee armor kits so I had to flip all the rollers and configure the floor for litters and personnel. I hate carrying wounded nearly as much as I hate carrying the dead.
About 30 minutes later, an Air Force medical crew arrived to load their equipment and set up for the wounded. They finished up about ten minutes before the ambulances showed up. We would be carrying five soldiers and Marines to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Three of the wounded were able to walk on board the plane themselves, but the last two were strapped to litters and carried up the ramp. One of the Soldiers had been wounded by a roadside bomb, one had broken his leg when he fell out of a truck and the third one taken shrapnel in his back, but he was able to walk on the plane himself. I might add that he was awful mad that he was being forced to go to a hospital. Then, there were the two Marines.
Both of them had been badly wounded in the very recent fighting in Faluja, Iraq. One of them had been shot in the neck, but was expected to pull through. The resilience of the human body just amazes me. He was medicated for obvious reasons and was unconscious. The second Marine was in worse shape. I wonít get too graphic with the description of his wounds, but he was really, really bad off. Missing the majority of one leg seemed to be minor compared to some of the other damage. He was not expected to live and was unconscious when he was carried on board. Once everything was tied down, we took off for the nearly five hour flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
About an hour or so into the flight, the badly wounded Marine woke up. I let the flight nurse know he was awake and went back to my seat. He went over to him and did the things that flight nurses do, adjusted a few IVís and went back over to tend his other patients. I guess it was because I was in his line of sight, or maybe because I was the only enlisted guy that he could see. Whatever the reason, about twenty minutes later, the Marine motioned me over to his litter. ďMaybe thatís not what he was intending to doĒ I thought to myself. After all, his wounds are pretty bad; heís got to be in pain. He must want the flight nurse to come back over. I walked past him on my way to get the nurse and he made eye contact.
I sent the flight nurse over to see what he needed and started back up to my loadmaster panel. Just as I sat down, the flight nurse told me that the Marine wanted to talk to me. I walked over to him and leaned down so that I could hear him speak over the drone of the engines. He said ďhey buddy, do you have a minuteĒ? My initial thought was to say no, as shameful as that is. I hate the smell of death and always have. I didnít want to be anywhere around him. Reluctantly, I said ďsure, whatís upĒ? He asked how long I had been in the Air Force and if I liked it, things like that. I figured he had to be scared of dying and just wanted to talk to somebody. So, I leaned on his litter and answered his questions. I asked why he joined the Marines; he told me he didnít really know. It was just something he had always wanted to do. I told him how I wanted to join because my Dad is a Marine. He asked why I didnít; I told him during the physical I wasnít able to get my head into the jar. He laughedÖ.Marines always laugh at that joke. In case you are wondering, Marines are known far and wide as Jarheads, in addition to many other colorful names. I asked him who the meanest Marine that ever lived was. He said ďmeĒ! I asked who the second meanest Marine was and he said ďChesty PullerĒ. All Marines will give those answers to those questions.
I guess we talked for about half an hour or so. Itís amazing how calm the dying can sometimes be. He had only been in Iraq for a few months. Graduated High School last year, tried college and didnít like it, joined the Marines and came over to the desert. The flight nurse came over during the conversation and check on him, seemed happy enough and walked away. I asked the Marine what his plans for the future were and he said he planned to stay in until retirement if the Marines would give him a wooden leg. After skirting around it for the better part of the conversation, I asked how he had gotten hit. He told me that had gotten shot in the arm during a fire fight. As he was waiting for a medic to show up, a mortar shell landed about ten or twelve feet from him. Thatís when lost the lower part of his leg. A second shell hit immediately after the first one, thatís when the rest of his wounds occurred. He didnít remember the humvee ride to the aid station or the helicopter and ambulance ride to the airfield where we picked him up.
The flight nurse came over and told me that the Marine needed to rest, checked his wounds and went back to his chair. I told the Marine that I had some stuff that I had to do and needed to cut our visit short. He thanked me for the visit, tried to shake my hand but couldnít. Just before I walked off, I asked him if he planned to go drinking and chasing women when he got all stitched up in Germany. He said ďWell, Iíll need to call my mama first and let her know Iím doing ok. She gets worried if I donít call from time to timeĒ. I understand that completely.
We landed in Ramstein, Germany and the ambulance backed up to the ramp of the airplane. All the wounded, the medevac crew and their equipment left and we took off for the twenty minute flight to Frankfurt. A visit to the current operations office let us know that we would be legal for alert in twelve more hours. Shortly after that, we were all sleeping the sleep of the pure.
Way too dang early in the morning, my pilot called my room with those dreaded words ďweíre alertedĒ. I hate to hear that. The crew met at the bus, ran by the chow hall, picked up the weapons and rode over to the operations building for our briefing. The mission was to be a pretty easy trip over to Pakistan and then over to Al Udeid AB in Qatar. During the flight over, we completed the cross word puzzle from the Stars and Stripes news paper. That was quite an accomplishment for my crew. On landing in Pakistan, I was sitting behind the copilot. We were taxiing at maybe four knots. Suddenly a bird flew in front of us. I mean he was right off the nose, moving along at the same speed we were. Just as we stopped in our parking spot, the bird disappeared from sight. When I got out of the plane, I found out what had happened to him. He was hung up in the nose wheels. We hit him from behind. One wing was torn off but he was still alive. We made the copilot clean the mess up and I butchered what was left of the bird while the other loadmaster loaded the plane. Those Pakistani birds just get greasier the longer you cook them. Those airplane stoves donít have very good heat control anyhow. I took one bite, made my student eat some and threw the rest of it off in a ditch.
Pakistan to Al Udeid went without incident, but not too long into the flight I was wishing I hadnít tried the bird. The day ended with us back in Frankfurt, with twelve hours to wait for an airplane to fly home. The pilot woke us up with the news that we would be driven back over to the other base at Ramstein to pick up our jet for the homebound leg. When we got to the base I went over to operations to get the cargo manifest. I carried it out to the airplane and made sure everything was tied down good. My cargo this time would be transfer cases. For those that donít know, a transfer case is a metal casket, covered with an American flag. Inside it is a body bag with the earthly remains of a proud, fighting American.
Ten hours later, after our arrival at Dover AFB in Delaware, there was a ceremony in the back of my plane. The honor guard from each branch of the military service carried the bodies of their comrades that had gone on to their great rewards. As I watched the U.S. Marine Corps honor guards carry off the remains of the young Marine, something Iíve seen way more than I ever imagined possible, I thought only one thing. I hope he got to call his mama.
Damn wars, damn them all.