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I. Chinook

There is something decidedly special about having a helicopter come in for you. The raw power of it is, in itself, a spectacle. You see that power in the way the grass and the leaves and branches on the trees are pressed down, and in the dust flying up all around. The dust storm forces you to narrow your eyes and breathe more carefully, but what you can’t block out is the sound from the blades whipping through the air. Even through your earplugs, you feel the force of the sound.

It was dusk. The blue of the evening was darkening, and there I was, crouched low in the tall grass, watching the sky as the helicopters came in. Their unhurried approach was in stark contrast to the swirling chaos on the ground, but the measured descent of the two great birds was nothing short of majestic.

Then, the ramp opens, and it is time for me to sprint as best as I can with a gun, a field pack and an anti-tank tube in my grip. As I get nearer to my objective, I start to feel like I’m swimming against the current. Am I still breathing in or out, or is it the downwash? My legs are barely bringing me forward, and I am losing my grip on my gear. And then, for a moment, just a step or two before my boot touches the ramp, I feel the heat from the burner. But now, I am in the hold, the last man strapping in. The man on my right helps me with my gear. As I catch my breath, everything is checked and secured. Then, the ramp goes up, and we are flying.

*

The ramp doesn’t actually seal up the hold. There is a gap between the edge of the ramp and the top of the rear opening, so the hold is actually open to the air outside. I am right next to the ramp, and I can see right through the opening. It was evening while the birds were landing, but now it is night, and the city lights below are like what I’ve seen before during take-offs and landings on passenger jets, except that the lights are a lot closer, and we stay at this altitude for most of the twenty minutes. Then again, boarding an Airbus can hardly be compared to the race that is a helicopter load-up, but with a jet the gratification of take-off is nowhere as immediate, plus I’m not even feeling my sweat because of all the air constantly rushing into the hold like when the windows are down when you’re in a car on the highway.

Watching the lights pass by seemingly just below me, I wonder how long the ride will last, and I try not to think of when I’ll be running all out again in the grass and mud. For some reason, I suddenly feel close to the city below me. Maybe it’s because the past ten minutes have been like something from a movie. (A blockbuster, or a Grandslam.) Then, the helicopter banks, we see the ground through the windows on one side, and we cheer and whoop like the young men we are, everything before and after forgotten. We are flying, and this bird is our ride. I sit back in my seat and enjoy myself, trying not to wish that this didn’t have to end, because I knew that the ride would end.

*

The ramp was lowering. I unstrapped myself, tried to get a good grip on my equipment, and then I was running, first man off the bird. Fifty meters away, I go prone in the grass, weapon at the ready, on the alert, but feeling the weight of my helmet. There were knolls to climb and rivers to cross before dawn. It was as though the mission hadn’t even started.

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