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Everyday, I watch men and women get off my plane. They all blur together in their tan uniforms, their packs slung over their shoulders. Some look exhausted, others look frightened. A numbing number of them don’t look fazed and this number continues to grow.
I nod, lifting a side of my lips, already chapping in the desert sunlight beating down. The rest of the flight crew stands next to me, waiting until everyone is off. The sunlight beats down and soon the line of soldiers blurs into the haze as they make their way off the tarmac.
A young woman steps off, a newly made private, fresh out of boot camp. She has a grimace on her round face as she walks past us, pulling her cover lower over her dark eyes.
Boots come down the ramp in exhausting numbers. Some are small while some are massive. I wonder what jobs the boots march to everyday. Every long, hot, frightening, humbling day.
“Let’s get out of here,” Commander Kellogg says in his quiet, wispy manner as the last soldier is unloaded.
I peak behind me before stepping back onto the plane to fly the big girl back. Then I say my silent goodbyes to those who will not come home in their boots.
My name in Gwen Morris and I’m a lieutenant in the United States Navy. I pilot C-130s out of Germany for the time being, transporting those in the Army and Marine Corps mostly.
After we set the plane down in Germany, we run through checklist after checklist – to shut the electronics off, to shut the engines down, to secure the craft.
The hangar is empty save several Air Force mechanics, repairing a C-5.
“Good evening. How’s it going on this monster?” I ask, running a hand along the outer edge of a wing.
“Got a bad valve in the engine. Probably gonna have to replace the whole thing,” a black haired airmen answers, his eyes coursing over the wing, resting first on one engine, then the second.
“How long you guys been working on it?”
“I’d say most of the afternoon ‘til now. Had to fix up the medical helo so we could get it back to Afghanistan. Didn’t have the part there.” He’s sitting on a low stool, engine parts scattered around him. The other mechanic, a stout blond man, is digging through a tool box.
“Alright well good luck with this girl,” I pat the air foil again and walk into the prep room where the rest of my flight crew has been.
I drop my flight bag and pull out my log book, checking the hobbs numbers, recording the flight time.
In the morning, the commander says we’re heading back to Iraq to drop off supplies, mail, soldiers. Our load will most likely put us overweight so hopefully we won’t hit any really bad turbulence.
I eat breakfast with Commander Kellogg that morning.
“How you been, Morris?” he asks, sipping black coffee, spreading cream cheese on a seeded bagel.
“Can’t complain, sir. Yourself?” I push oatmeal around, stirring the cinnamon and maple syrup I dropped in it before sitting.
“Eh, a little on the edgy side today, I think.”
That never meant anything good in aviation.
We were cleared at the air field for the localizer that worked for s*** half the time. Sand storms could knock out the radio signals, clog up the equipment, make it impossible to land on instruments.
Today, we got a weak signal and an erratic localizer needle. The air tossed us around and the engines were starting to run rough in the heat and sand.
Getting clearance to land, we made the final preparations, put down a final notch of flaps, kept our eyes on the runway that was only a slightly different shade of the tan expanse around it.
A crosswind blew us to the left. The localizer needle jumped around. Motion sick soldiers moaned. A GPS satellite went out. The localizer came back in. The runway remained in sight. There were only four hundred feet to drop.
And it happened so unexpectedly. A burst came from the right side. I looked out, craning my neck to see the wing. Black smoke was wafting from the outer engine. Noise erupts from the cabin.
“No need to declare an emergency. We’re almost down,” Kellogg says, but I see his grip tighten on the yoke.
“Tower, just be advised, we’ve had an engine failure. Two five zero feet to go.”
“Roger that, heavy. We’ll be watching out for you.”
“We’ve reached minimum descent altitude,” I said into my head set, finally taking my eyes off the altimeter, running through the last landing checklists.
Landing gear down, fuel cut to engine one, cabin secure, crew prepared.
The dead engine stopped sputtering black smoke, its propellers still next to us, glistening in the sunlight.
We landed, holding the nose up on the soft runway.
“Looks like a cylinder eroded,” an army mechanic said, scratching the back of his head. He was a helicopter mechanic.
“How long ‘til we can get it back in the air?” Commander Kellogg asks.
The mechanic looks like he’s wincing. “Well, sir, we really don’t have the parts for this bird. Not to mention, no one here’s qualified to work on it,” his eyes scan the dusty hangar while he gives us this information.
I watch the commander turn to us, a deep frown etched into his face.
“Looks like we’re going to be here a while. I need to go make a call,” he sulks off to an office through a door on the left wall of the hangar.
Our navigator, Tim Donaldson, crosses his arms over his chest, exhaling loudly. The other member of our crew, Jake Crenshaw follows the commander inside, to find the coffee machine no doubt.
The helicopter mechanic disappeared through an office after the commander left.
“So we’re actually struck in the sand box for once,” Donaldson echoes through the hangar, walking over to the engine to inspect it. He says it like it’s a funny joke that we’re both in on. But my lips remain in a thin line. I stand where I am, on the other side of the plane. I can only hear him.
“Guess so.” I already feel the heat, like it’s melting my skin. I roll the sleeves of my flight suit, patting stray pieces of hair back that had come loose under my head set.
“Wonder how long we’re going to be here?”
We were spoiled soldiers in Germany. Nowhere near anything terrible – except whatever the war spat back out for us to take home. Even though that was frightening, I can’t imagine the force that made them that way, erupting from who knows what kind of hellish utopia.
I’m cut off by a siren. Donaldson hurries back around the nose of the plane to me.
“That’s a warning siren,” I shout. He nods and we hustle into the office where Kellogg and Crenshaw had dispersed to.
Inside, h*ll was breaking loose. Everywhere, people were pulling on Kevlar and helmets, running through the rooms with rifles, slipping under the straps.
Crenshaw pushes through to us. “There’s been an attack,” he shouts over the siren. “Not ten miles from here. Everyone’s mobilizing.”
He turns quickly and we follow without a thought.
We’re in a truck racing down dusty roads. We had to leave the base without our plane. We were being removed along with other pilots and crews and those who were there to fly back for medical reasons.
They were taking us to another air field. We had to catch a flight back to our own base.
I wrapped my arms around the Kevlar, tight against my ribs, making me sweat through my flight suit, my t-shirt underneath, my bra.
The helmet on my head was tight and I pulled the twisted braid lower on my head to lessen the pressure.
I sat across from Donaldson who had become stolid the minute we were rushed into the covered truck. I was glad I couldn’t see outside. I was sure there were things we were passing that I didn’t want to commit to memory, sure they would haunt me forever. I’d heard all about it in Germany but never had to see it. I was lucky.
But my luck ran out and everything melted in front of me.
“Gwen!” a rifle chanted somewhere, over and over again. “Gwen! Gwen! Gwen! We’re coming to get you Gwen!”
I only have a nine millimeter that I ripped from my belt awhile ago. It’s gripped in my hands in front of me.
“Gwen! Gwen!” the bullets call.
Then I’m shaken. “Gwen!” It’s Donaldson. His hand pulls me through an alleyway and we run. We run for so long and so hard, ducking, dodging. I hear the bullets looking for me. They’re relentless.
“You can’t hide, Gwen! We’re coming, Gwen!”
Our convoy was blown to bits. I’m slick with sweat and my blood burns through me, on me. Donaldson has a rifle slung over his shoulder, probably picked off of someone – a dead someone.
There’s shouting and chaos. I only see what’s ahead of me, wherever I turn my eyes. Everything else around my edges is blurred.
Everyone moves so fast. They are like ghosts, entering slowly then ripping through my view only to disappear slowly, leaving me to wonder if they were actually there.
The bullets are slow though. They curve around me, taunting me, seducing me to my death.
People scream, they cry out, they howl, they groan. Their sounds ring in my ears.
“Help! Please help me!”
“Gwen, Gwen, Gwen! Where are you, Gwen!”
“This way,” Donaldson pulls me along.
It’s like a chase in a dream. He’s all I focus on in front of me. Out of my reach, running quickly. And I keep up just as quickly. But everything around me cannot keep our pace. The agony, the taunting is drawn out in my ears. Sand grinds itself into my eyes.
“Gwen, Gwen, Gwen!”
How did this happen? We need to go back to Germany. I have to get to the airport. Why aren’t we going to the airport? We’re going the wrong way, Tim. Where’s Jake? Where’s the commander?
Tim pulls me against a wall. We find a door, walk through, clear the room, finding it empty anyway.
Everything seems back up to time now in this small room. I’m so hot, I’m so confused.
“Gwen? Are you alright?”
I nod, feeling sticky. “Where are we?” I ask breathlessly.
Tim’s sweating and panting. He’s gripping the rifle with both hands to the side, watching the opening in the wall behind me.
“I don’t know. I just ran when they attacked us. I just ran . . .”
His light eyes are moving about the room furiously but my own remain on his face. His dark hair, the thick brow, the sculpted nose, the tight mouth. And it’s all so wet, so slick. But it’s the only thing keeping time in time. I have to keep time.
“We need to get to the airport. We need to go,” he ducks down until his eyes are level with mine.
“I don’t know who’s who. I don’t know . . .”
My pistol is so heavy in my hands. The Kevlar digs into my back.
The chants are coming back. They’re rushing towards me. They’ve found me . . .
I try to focus on Tim’s face but they’re still coming, so fast, so mercilessly.
“Come on,” I push through the little room to the other side, push through a door, run along a corridor. Tim echoes behind me.
We run through the house, looking for a way out because suddenly, the walls are blurring and the doors don’t stay in their places.
“This way, Gwen!”
I can’t tell who’s calling me, who’s leading me to my death.
I break out into the h*llish sunlight.
Why am I here? I’m supposed to be flying soldiers that can’t walk back. I’m supposed to be flying soldiers that want to go home back. I was never supposed to be here, in this crude combat, never supposed to see the other side of the military. I made things run on the inside, moving the scowling women from Germany to Iraq, moving the frightened or comfortable men to Afghanistan.
Why am I here?
My boots hit the soft sand behind the house and I run. Tim catches up to me. I hear the report of the rifle inches behind me – and I hear the return fire, like a heated argument in the other room.
Why are they trying to kill me? I just fly the planes. I just fly the massive cargo planes.
“Gwen, Gwen, Gwen! We’re coming, Gwen! We’re coming!”
I run faster, the edges blurring so that I only have small pinpricks in front of me. But they’ll filled with the sight of sand anyway.
Tim stopped. I pivot around and see him lying in the sand. But he doesn’t blend in with the sand because he’s red.
I run and fall next to him, low to his body.
“Give me something to put in it!”
I rip the bottom of my blouse off and shove it into an oozing hole in his side. Why is he shot, bleeding into the sand, making such a mess? Why are we here? We were only going to another field. Just to another field! We weren’t even flying . . .
He pushes himself up. The ghost people are moving faster every second, the rifles are calling, spitting out bullets to do their jobs.
“Gwen, wait, stop! Stop – watch out!”
“Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen . . . Gotcha.”
Jake Crenshaw can only hug his girlfriend with one arm now. He caught a bullet in the shoulder. They amputated his arm that evening.
Commander Kellogg – newly Captain Kellogg, flies a desk at the Pentagon now.
Tim Donaldson flies supply missions stateside now. He agonizes every day because he couldn’t save me.
And I missed the grenade, blurring on the edge of my vision. I make sand castles in the desert now, basking in the comforting warmth on my face.