Suddenly I was awake. The only visible light in my plywood stall was the glowing red numbers on the clock across the room—4:03 A.M. Having just lain down, I wondered how that was possible. I had flown a reconnaissance mission in a helicopter the previous night and as we began to work our way back toward Jalalabad Airfield, just south of the city of Mehtar Lam, the enemy opened fi re on us with machine guns. It was a DShK— a big 12.7-mm Soviet antiaircraft gun that the enemy often used against us. We knew when it was a DShk because of the deep thud it made when it fi red, versus the crack or pop of smaller- caliber weapons. The sound of that thud sent a surge of adrenaline flooding through our veins and chills down our spines. Our helicopters could absorb a few small- arms rounds, but a DShK could bring us down in seconds.

The bullets cracked in the air as they passed by the aircraft just under the rotors, barely missing us. The event was dismally common; nevertheless, my heart rate increased and my mouth went dry. I was still jittery when I landed back at the airfield, realizing that my life had been spared by mere feet. It had been a night mission, so I didn’t get to bed until 1:30 A.M. I lay in bed for what seemed like hours, exhausted yet struggling to fall asleep. Three hours later I lay awake with thoughts of the mission, the deployment, still running through my mind.

I sat up in bed, swung my body around, and placed my feet on the dusty Afghan rug. Head in my hands and elbows on my knees, I thought, might as well go for a run. I stepped into a moonlit night on the four- mile perimeter road that circled our base.

As I ran I wondered what my family, over seven thousand miles away, might be doing at this hour. I had spent three of the previous five years deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. It was baseball season at home; I tried to think about something else because it hurt too badly to visualize a double play and an empty seat in the bleachers. In wars past, communication traveled at the speed of the U.S. mail system. With Internet access I was able to see pictures and communicate with emails daily— a constant reminder of what and whom I was missing. We called it a blessing, but it was a painful blessing. I found it strange that something as unnatural as repetitive combat tours could somehow become a way of life that I considered normal. It was absurd, yet true.

Our forward operating base, FOB Fenty, sat just on the eastern side of Jalalabad, which was quiet at that time of the morning. I didn’t see a single person during my run, which suited me. The days, and most of the nights, were filled with activity. I was always planning missions, rehearsing missions, or flying missions. As I ran, all alone in the dark-
ness, I felt free of everything else in the world. I was completely alone with my thoughts.

It felt good to escape. I finished my run on the flight line, drenched in sweat. In the east, just above the small, run-down airport terminal, the sky was beginning to grow pink with light. But it would be a while before the sun climbed above the mountains just north of the Khyber Pass.

Suddenly, the morning quiet was pierced by a high- pitched tone: “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” The adhan, or morning call to prayer, emanated from a minaret to the east of the airfield. Within seconds another voice rang out at a mosque to the west. The pitch and tempo of the muezzins’ voices varied, giving an otherwise identical call to prayer a refreshing uniqueness. As local Muslims unrolled rugs and prepared themselves for prayer, I headed to my office to read the daily intelligence summary and check emails, trying to remember what day it was.

Days like this were not uncommon. The war had a way of forcing introspection, reminding us of how fragile life is. Close misses were exciting—to find out your number was not yet called was invigorating. But those moments, while usually tucked away in a distant compartment of the mind, almost always returned. Later, when we were alone with our thoughts, each would begin to recall how fortunate we were to have made it through the battle alive, and then the gravity of what we would have left behind, what we would have lost, became a reality.

Pale Horse details a army aviation task force in Afghanistan, written by its commanding officer.  Find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble today!