A TRIP I'LL NEVER FORGET |
July 11, 2007
A TRIP I'LL NEVER FORGET
Posting date: 7/11/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Milblog url: airborneparainf82.blogspot.com
A couple of days ago I was doing some of the last studying for my NCO of the Quarter board when I discovered that the exam was not going to take place at the base I was at. Wow, what a surprise. Thank God the board got pushed back another day.
I had a good bit of the information down, but there still were a few things that I had just received and needed to study up on, so I planned to study all day the last day before the exam. Well, it didn't go quite as I planned. First off, we ended up having a layout for our platoon -- where basically we lay all of our gear out and they go through and check everything, and sign off and all that fun officer stuff they do. By the time that was done, the day was half over. Then came the next surprise: I would be convoying out that night to go to the base where the board was, so I needed to pack and get ready for that. Well, at least I'd have all night to study.
They couldn't come up with room for my squad leader to go with me and sit in on the board with me, which had me a little nervous. I thought I was going to have to do it alone. But the guy they got to replace him was a guy I went through Jumpmaster school with. We'd become friends while we were there, so it definitely was cool to have him fill in. He was a little worried, thinking they were going to ask him questions about how well he knew me, but I reassured him that they were there to judge me, not him.
That evening we got ready to head out. I wasn't rolling with my unit; we were with another one from our base. Their route was to go down a road that we don't travel on because of all the IEDs that go off on it. Oh great... I can't wait. Thankfully the trip was uneventful -- until the very end. As we turned off the road, towards the base we were heading to, we heard an explosion several hundred meters further up the road we'd just been on. I remember thinking "Thank God we got off when we did."
Once on the base we found out that the explosion we heard had hit an American convoy. We would later learn that one US soldier was killed.
That night was dedicated to just studying and cleaning my weapon (I'd learned from my Batt. Sergeant Major that they might inspect it). It was going to be a long night. I headed to the coffee place they had on this base and picked up a Caffe Mocha on ice, with two shots of espresso. An hour or so later I was back getting the same thing, this time with four shots of espresso. Needless to say I got all the studying done that I wanted to, and was able to make my weapon look brand new. At least I thought it looked brand new until I saw the weapons of some of the non-infantry guys attending the board the next day.
I ended up crashing out around 0230 or 0300. We had to be up at 0615 to eat, get ready, and head out for the board around 0830. I decided I didn't want breakfast so that I wouldn't get all tired, and I could use the time to recap on studying. I brought two Red Bulls with me, and opened one and drank it while I smoked and studied. I was starting to feel pretty good about the board at this point.
We headed up to the conference room. As usual, they brought everyone in, talked a little about the members, what it was going to be like and whatnot. Every other board I've done they always do the NCOs first and then the Soldiers. This time it was to be reversed, and being a 'W'atson, I was to be the last of the last. Fantastic. I love sitting around, bored, with nothing to do. Just how I wanted to spend my day. Hahaha.
There were seven of us NCOs competing. Everyone except for me was an E-5 (Sergeant) Promotable, which means they were coming up on getting their E-6 (Staff Sergeant). I was a lonely E-4 Corporal. An E-4 can also be a non-NCO as a specialist, which many of the Soldiers competing were. Anyways, I was the only Infantry guy for the NCOs. The rest were support or super-support soldiers, which meant they would have had ample time to study, unlike me. And they all had won previous boards to get here. I had thrown my name out, been picked, and here I was.
By the time they were done with the Soldiers it was lunch time. They gave us about 50 minutes to break for lunch, and I quickly walked all the way to the chow hall and had half a sub sandwich. I didn't want to eat too much, but I was starving since I didn't have breakfast. Once I got back I cracked open my other Red Bull and smoked some cigarettes while I was waiting for my "sponsor" to show back up. When he did, he had some terrible information. The unit that had lost the guy the night before had just lost two more guys. There was to be a Hero Flight a little later. I'll explain this in a bit.
They started doing the NCOs, but they were in a hurry, obviously. They ended up only asking one question per subject. Each board member (there were seven of them) had four subjects, so that really wasn't a lot of questions. By the time it was my turn I wasn't really that nervous, and was ready to get in there and do the thing. I went in, and I thought I did pretty damn well. I only missed a few questions, but I was able to get ones that were even outside of what I had studied. I found out that the CSM in charge of the board was from Phoenix and went to HS out there, and had been 82nd at one point and was with the 505th PIR, which was the first unit that I was assigned to at Ft. Bragg. Such a small world.
Once they were all done asking me questions I left the room, happy with how I had performed. Apparently they had one more "stape on" guy to go after me, but when he was done they were going to add the points real quick, then bring us in to announce the winner.
I didn't end up winning but I got second place, and the points difference wasn't much. I got a Brigade Coin, which was cool. I really like collecting those things, and have quite the collection building. I was proud of how I had done, and it really didn't matter that I hadn't won, although it would have been nice.
Once the winner was announced, everyone was in a hurry. The Hero Flight was in five minutes and we were rushing to get there in time. I raced to my room, dropped off all my gear and began running to the flight line. I barely made it. I knew it was important to be there, but I truly didn't know...
I had never heard of a Hero Flight until that day. These are the flights that carry the soldiers who have been killed in combat home. Everyone, including the unit that had lost their soldiers, stood at attention, in formation, guidons present, on both sides of the road, forming a line down the flight line. There were two Blackhawk helicopters sitting there, engines running, blades turning. In the middle of the street was an FLA (an Army ambulance). Orders were yelled for everyone to salute, then "PRESENT ARMS!" At this point, a group of soldiers walked up to the FLA and lifted out a combat stretcher. It carried the body of a soldier, draped in an American flag. You could see the outline of the soldier's body, and it hit me then: There is a true American hero underneath that flag. Right there, not far from me, lies the body of someone who has made the ultimate sacrifice. I felt extremely sad, yet proud to be a part of this young man's voyage home.
They marched him down the flight line, then onto one of the awaiting Blackhawks. They then began the process again with another soldier, another American hero. Shivvers ran through my body, and I'm not going to lie; it took everything I had not to begin tearing up. I did not know these soldiers in any way, but the realness of it all, seeing the bodies under the flags, seeing how everyone came together to pay the honors these men deserved, it was overwhelming.
Once both men were on the helicopters we all dropped our salutes but stood at attention. Orders were given and everyone was now facing the helicopters, and then the order was given to salute once more. I heard the sound of the Blackhawk engines pick up and they began to lift off, but stopped five feet off the ground and just hovered there. Slowly, in unison, they began to move to the left, to the right, forward and back, still just five feet off the ground. Then they both began to turn left, slowly lifted up, and sped off. Just like that, they were gone and it was over. Even typing this right now, I can feel shivvers running down my spine...