I felt the helicopter start to descend. My gut floated as we lost altitude. It usually settled down. Not this time. It got stronger. My butt clenched tight, followed by everything else until my whole body was rigid.
I forced myself to reach up and rack a shell in the chamber of my machine gun then did it again, just to be sure. The first round caught the wind and as it disappeared I felt the loss. Even with almost fifteen hundred rounds between my legs it never felt like I had enough.
This was our second attempt. No one expected what happened the first time, especially me, and I was still not fully recovered from the sheer panic I felt then. If there was anything to be thankful for, aside from surviving, it was the fact that I had been able to function in spite of my fear. I hoped to be able to say that again.
My actions were more re-actions. There was no way to plan ahead, no order, no natural progression in how things happened in battle. It was total madness. How can one prepare for that?
I couldn’t shoot until someone told me to, or we were shot at. Even then, it would only be shooting at places not people. They hid well. I couldn’t.
The wait was unbearable. Adrenalin coursed through my body, screaming at me to do something. I felt like jumping up and down, not unlike a boxer before the bell. The L.Z. got closer. It was about to happen. The when and what, no matter how ready I might be, was always a total surprise. I hated the waiting part the most. It sucked at my strength and wore me down.
Not so much for me, but the rest of my crew, I was determined to protect my ship. They depended on me, and my weapon to keep them safe. I hoped that willpower alone was enough. It’s all I had.
One hand gripped tight on the trigger. The other one held the belt of ammo to help feed it straight in to the breech. A crooked round could cause it to jam and leave my side of the ship defenseless. All I could do was sit there motionless and pray for the strength to act when the time came.
The pilot swung hard left, lining up for the final approach and I was on my back looking straight out at the sky. I couldn’t imagine what kind of inner strength it took for them to continue on. I only knew I didn’t have it. I was just along for the ride. If I were the one flying, this would be where we turned around.
Then time stopped, and I was somewhere far away. It was so peaceful I never wanted to leave and if something hadn’t happened, I’m not sure if I would have.
“Full suppression! Both sides!”
The final instructions from the command ship blared through the headphones inside my helmet, shocking me back to reality. I shook myself, needing to focus, trying to remember everything they taught me. I couldn’t escape the feeling I was forgetting something very important.
“I know all this stuff!”
I screamed at myself, hoping to somehow provoke my mind into thinking straight.
We turned back straight and the tree line came into view. I could still see those green tracers that burst out of the tree line just an hour before. I scanned the L Z, watching for any sign of movement, anything that might give me a clue what to expect. Nothing down there was friendly. They were there waiting, and wanting to kill me.
Nothing moved. They were far too smart for that. Our gun-ships, and artillery already worked the area over with extreme prejudice and smoke rose from the hundreds of rockets and shells they used. Of course they had done that the first time too, and it had only made Charlie mad.
I hunched down behind my chicken plate, a thin piece of fiberglass armor strapped to my chest. It was the only thing between me and the enemy. I wished it were thicker. The back piece was under my butt. It was better used protecting my personal belongings. Many bullets that hit helicopters came through the bottom of the ship.
I reached up and racked another shell in the chamber, the third. I didn’t care at this point. I just needed to be doing something. The shaking now consumed my whole body. Anticipation kept building until it was pounding inside my chest. I needed all hell to break loose. That first explosion, followed by overwhelming madness, was the last thing I actually wanted, what I dreaded most, but there was no release until it happened. Only then, when I was far too busy to worry, would there be any kind of relief.
On our first attempt the ground fire had just been too intense and they called the landing off. We took the troops back to the staging area and stood down while artillery and air power worked again to soften up the landing zone. We were back to try for a second time.
It was what I needed to hear. Bullets exploded from the end of the barrel. Feeling that steady sure rhythm and watching the leaves and branches disintegrate as they hit brought me back to whatever normal had now become for me. I aimed along the same tree line those green tracers came from, held the trigger tight, fed the rounds in straight and prayed to God no one would shoot back.
They didn’t. There was no return fire. They didn’t want to receive another beating. We were there in strength. Anytime they lost the advantage they simply left and waited for a time when the element of surprise was theirs once again. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved that no one fired back or mad that they wouldn’t stay and fight. It only added to my frustration.
The soldiers jumped out, we took off and cleared the L.Z., and I started breathing again. I’d been able to fire my weapon, whether it was at anything or not. If I hadn’t at least been able to do that, the left over adrenalin would have kept me wound up, sometimes for days.
I flopped back in the seat and watched the smoke roll off the barrel. It had gotten awful hot. I never let up on the trigger until we landed. I could have warped it. I remembered the exploded barrel they kept on the wall in the arms room and it reminded me to switch to my spare before the next time.
Next time! There would be a next time, and a time after that. I would have to do this again, several times each day, almost every day. It was still such a long time, if I survived, before it was all over for me and I got to go home. I wouldn’t allow myself to even think about it, not for several more months.
That intense feeling left, and in its absence I felt like throwing up. It wasn’t unusual. Every time fear seized my being, my stomach always reacted when it went away. I never ate breakfast anymore. There was less to come up. The shaking in my arms and legs worried me though. It was taking longer to go away each time. If things kept up like this, someday it may not. I was changing inside, turning into something I never could have imagined being.
I hated this country. I hated this war. And, most of all, I hated myself!
Why did I get into this situation? It was nothing at all like I thought it would be and certainly not how I imagined things would happen. How could I have been so completely wrong? I glanced at my watch. It was ten A.M. I would have been in Latin class!