Chief was certain now that he was caught up in a bad Vietnam movie in which they throw a battalion of infantry in a wood chipper in order to capture a hill, only to give it back the next day and march on to the next hill: Hamid Karzai was to be taken BACK to the mountain and dropped off… It seemed like a can of concentrated condensed madness, but in fact, Karzai was being dropped back into the mountains to link up with the Northern Alliance dedicated to countering the Taliban.
Coker was slammed with a litany of tasks — Fire Support Plan (FSP), total mission-involved asset coordination, synchronization brief, fire support rock-drill, air movement annex, J-Staff fire support submission — Mensch! any one of those tasks alone could have frenzied most Big Army Officers.
Coker was a guy you couldn’t overwhelm. You could throw ten balls up in the air next to him and none of them would hit the ground. Maybe he was too stupid to be overwhelmed? Maybe… But I would take the stupid guy who can powerhouse multi-tasking over a sniveling dolt trying to play his safe place card any day.
The seaside boat called Coker’s chopper to cancel the deck landing practice, but the aspect of training was not lost that day. A distraught sailor intentionally leaped overboard the ship plunging into the ocean. The ship scrambled a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) bird immediately to recover the sailor.
Onboard the CSAR the Pararescuemen (PJ) was switched on absolutely wide-open. This was it; this was a no-kidding rescue at sea. It didn’t matter that it was or was not a downed pilot. For all the PJ knew, this was a victim who had taken an inadvertent tumble from the ship’s deck. All he knew was that there was a victim in the water who would die unless he could save him.
The PJ always struggles to the end of his ability, and at severe risk his to own physical safety. A PJ is a highly trained medic, you see; he has that burning desire to save a life despite the personal cost. The medics, those madly-possessed medics who run out into the blazing terror of combat if but for a single percent possibility of saving another man’s life.
They all have that smoldering yearn in the core of their souls: medics, corpsmen, PJs, paramedics, and even most first responders. What makes them tick? What compels them? Where do they get that drive? The PJ had it. His chest heaved sucking in air and trying to contain his thumping heart. He mentally inventoried his kit as the helo closed in on the sailor’s position where he bobbed below in the drink.
The PJ pushed off the deck of the helo and plunged into the sea just meters away from where the sailor drifted. He flail-stroked over to the sailor and grabbed him tight with his hands. SUPER!! Just getting to physically grasp the victim meant everything to the PJ. Touching him meant that he just knew he could save him. The biggest mystery and the largest gap in the rescue is that last critical distance between the PJ and the victim.
The PJ felt calmer knowing that he now had the upper hand in the rescue. He signaled up to the flight crew to lower the winch-operated rescue cable. He configured a harness around the two of them as the cable descended, all the while reassuring the sailor that everything would be fine. With the slam shut of the rescue hook safety gate, the PJ motioned for the crew to raise them to the bird.
Through the churn of the sea spray that violently whipped around them, the PJ held firm to the sailor through the harness they wore that prevented either from slipping. The PJ was locked solid in the conduct of his performance through the depth of the training he had received. If this were the only person the PJ would ever save in all of his career it would be worth it, yes… just this one life.
The PJ pushed the sailor into the helo before him as the crew pulled; the PJ just wanted the sailor in safe before him. They two were safe on the deck of the helo and were unhooked. The PJ was immensely elated as he grinned and slapped the sailor warmly over the shoulders.
But elation — the sailor worn no such face. His was one of bewilderment and frustration, of dislocation and longing. The PJ at once reckoned he might have derailed a speeding locomotive; to have interrupted an epic journey; to have affected a grand intrusion.
“Is this what saving lives is really like?” thought the PJ.
The PJ, after all, had not rescued the sailor; he had not rescued him at all.
There was a thing quite amiss in the air over there, you could say that something was afoul in the air.
The PJ was concerned for that sad face of despair, unaware as to the intent of the man.
He had cluttered and bungled a magnificent plan, and fettered a feat of the seafaring man.
The sailor then stood, though he must surely have known that the PJ didn’t at all expect a handshake of thanks from him. The PJ too raised up in decorum and they two stood face-to-face. While the PJ thought he might understand, his smile switched to a frown as it turned upside down. The PJ was then sure he understood as the sailor stepped resolutely from the deck of the helo and endured his intentional plunge from the Jacob’s Ladder height above the sea.
The PJ locked his gaze to the horizon, staring out from the deck of the helo, wiping the dirt from his Father McKenzie hands.
War is sad; that’s just war being war.
Back at Greg’s FOB the boys were spinning back up for combat operations in Afghanistan — “the Stan.” During the final brief, the commander of the AC-130H Spectre gunship announced that there would be no more Fire Support Liaison Officer (FSLNO) in his aircraft due directly to the fiasco with the TF Blue FSLNO “Monkey” incident aboard Greg’s AC-130H during the assault on Objective Gecko.
While an understandable motive, the Spectre commander’s decision to omit the FSLNO from his bird was serving to complicate matters severely. Greg saw that, and his very good friend MSG Leon Hansen understood it that way too. There were more non-believers in the mix and Greg and Leon stayed on point for as long as it took to “fix” those non-believers. They sold the plan the way Greg developed it, not budging millimeters to bellyaches.
Greg and Leon Hansen both understood that the simplicity of the plan they had devised was the driving power behind it and that complex plans… well, the human mind under considerable duress does not want to solve math problems and struggle through mental matrices.
“We’re not embracing simple plans because we’re a bunch of hayseeds,” Coke implored, “We can gather after the mission and fight over who’s got the biggest brain in the room — now is not the time for that bullshit contest!”
Greg Coker took solace in the axiomatic truth that when all negotiations deteriorated he could still bash a hard-head hard and knock some simple sense into a brother.
“Violence is still the failsafe to every conflict under the sun,” Greg mused. “When all the fancy talk goes the way of the plumbing, then violence treads where timid men fear to fool. Hell, look what we are doing right now — we tried to reason with these Muslim extremist fellers, and it got us nowhere, so now we are all the way over here givin ‘em Hydra rocket enemas and shredding their goat-smellin’ carcasses with green and red-tip.
And so the planning was done and accepted by all the players. Leon Hansen had been a formidable hand at helping to achieve the desired end: He just had a knack for putting things into a logical perspective that most folks could get behind. All the dancing was over now and it was time to pay the band. The pipe-hitter pool pumped up, boarded birds, and commenced to gettin’ it on!
Coke was in his unusual spot in the lead AC-130 running forward route reconnaissance for the helo assault force. They cleared safe the flight route and proposed landing zone indicating it void of enemy threat and safe for a touchdown. It was a real tactical treat for the assault elements to have eyes in the sky watching their route in advance of them. Few things sucked worse than flying into an infiltration blind.
Right in and right out, the helo force inserted the mighty Hamid Karzai back into the mountains with his Northern Alliance Afghan fighters. With that phase safely put to bed, the Task Force Commander side-bared Chief Coke indicating he wanted him to set out the following night in another fix-wing asset to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of some areas that were suspected hideouts of Osama bin Laden’s Finance Minister Mullah Muhammad Omar.
“Hellz Yeahz!!” thought Chief Gravy. “Wouldn’t it be divine to schwack Omar the tent maker and his merry band of misfit boys into piles of goo on blackened scorched Earth? What a splendid affair that would truly be!”
The commander of the bird that was to fly the reconnaissance was chomping at getting his crew up in the airspace over the Stan to possibly explain the Big Bang Theory to some unwilling members of the Taliban. The bird was filled with state-of-the-art sensors and two bodacious missiles that the too-live crew was anxious to aim right at the rumps of some unsuspecting lads of the Middle East. Chief, being fully in favor of all aircraft intents and purposes, climbed aboard Spectre.
Now the bird commander, fancying himself a storied and learned man of letters, had a beef with the belief that the Chief was a mere Army Warrant Officer rotor head:
“Yep… yep… CIA like a mo-fo!” the commander kept telling him.
“Yes Sir, that’s me — Christians in Action!” Gravy retorded.
He pulled out his DoD Identification and offered it to the Colonel.
“Yeah, right… you guys can fabricate pretty much anything to support your covers,” the Colonel dismissed with a backhand swipe toward Chief’s ID card.
“Sir, do you believe in flying saucers and voodoo?”
“How’s that, Mr. CIA?”
“Nothing… nothing, Sir,” Greg shied as he strapped into his seat.
The three-hour flight to the battlespace gave all involved a chance to talk the plan, study maps, photos, and get their Named Areas of Interest (NAI) entered into the ship’s navigation systems so they could overfly each one by order of priority.
At the first NAI, they set up orbits a few miles offset from the objective and let the sensor operator lock in his powerful sensor for a look-see. It was a single-dwelling building in the ostensible middle of a nowhere southern desert of the Stan. It was calm down there — no lights, no vehicles, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care… ok, ok, and they motored on to their next NAI.
Kajaki, just NW of Kandahar and along a riverbank, was the location of their next suspect NAI. Immediately, Chief had visual with a hateful ZSU-23/4 anti-aircraft cannon on the north side of the river and a few dismounted Taliban, “Tali-Cong” as Greg liked to term them after the Viet Cong of the Viet Nam war.
The ZSU-23/4 Shilke is a self-propelled four-barreled 23mm cannon that can spit out 4,000 Rounds Per Minute (RPM) cyclically and fire controlled by radar — a formidable helicopter killer. The sensor operator quickly locked his technology onto the ears and at once identified three T-62 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) on the south side of the river.
“Awww yeeeaaaa!” Chief Gravy chortled with glee. He fumbled with his Call for Fire network to try and scramble any bombers in the vicinity of his NAI number two. The atmosphere went electric in the belly of the Spectre as the crew hopped and popped. Chief had to remind them to pace themselves as it was a long night and a target-rich environment. A flight of F-15s answered Greg that they were Bingo Fuel and the Spectre pilot also indicate Bingo Fuel.
“Boys, I need you to spin those missiles up and spank that armor on down there right now!”
You’d a-thunk the gun crew had won the Texas State Lottery the way they bounced and pinged with excitement as they ran up, tuned in, and locked gun sights onto targets. Chief Greg called to check safe the area of friendly forces. There were none confirmed and the state was set hot for engagement. Chief instructed the Weapons Officer to engage the ZSU first then the center of the three closely clustered tanks.
The Weapons Operator was shaking like a blind fairy at a weenie roast when he finally announced: “Missile away!!” They all watched the half-million-dollar missile plow into the ZSU rendering a massive fireball followed by a secondary explosion.
“Good shootin’ Tex!”
The gunner was already locked onto the tanks and ready to un-ass the second missile. It struck the center tank unleashing several large explosions followed by whoops and whistles from the jazzed crew. Greg called in the Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and they were off to their third NAI, the crew with their baptism of fire behind them.
The routed over several more NAIs with no enemy movement detected. The sun was scant a whole hour away from rising so the Spectre headed out to sea.
“Hey, CIA man,” the suspicious aircraft commander called back, “you’re a rated aviator… how about coming up here and taking the helm for a spell.”
“Oh Hell’s-Bells yeah, Skipper!” Greg echoed.
With that, the Coke climbed into the pilot’s seat and grabbed hold of the steering yoke.
“Autopilot on, Chief?” queried the Co-Pilot.
“Reach for that autopilot and you’ll yank back a gushing stump!” Coker warned.
CWO4 Gregory “Gravy” Coker kicked back and flew the Spectre like Check Yeager flew the X-15. He relaxed and even did some star gazing, a thing that would have given the crew an avalanche of comfort had they known. Coke noted an annoying peculiarity regarding his altitude maintenance. The bird was exhibiting a penchant for climbing, so he pushed the yoke forward to bring it back to level flight. Then the bird showed a propensity to descend causing him to pull back yoke to level flight.
It really was not hard at all to fly a trimmed up fixed-wing platform, so what the hell was going on?? The plane kept up the porpoising motion through the sky as it repeated cycles of climbing and then diving. The Co-Pilot proposed again to turn on the autopilot but Greg turned him down. He clenched his jaw stubbornly, insisting to himself that he had control of the bird and could show the crew he could fly.
Through some intermediate bouts of laughter from behind, Chief started oozing beads of sweat as he struggled for safe flight conduct and save face before the Spectre crew. With that, the flight commander threw back the curtain that separated the flight deck from the rest of the plane. There stood the full 10-man crew laughing the high heavens at him.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… what the devil is going on back there?” Chief bellowed.
Alas, Gravy had been the butt of the visitor prank that the crew always pulled when a guest driver was behind the yoke. They alternately ran as a tight group from one end of the aircraft to the other, back and forth over and over. That caused the Center of Gravity (CG) of the aircraft to change from-nose heavy (dive) to tail-heavy (climb), leaving Chief to struggle to maintain the trim for level flight.
The whole Spectre gunship certainly — most assuredly — must have gotten up at a mighty raw hour to be able to pull a fast one on CWO3 Gregory “Gravy” Coker, pilot and camouflage in color!
By Almighty God and with honor,