Our Sergeant Major, Big Cat, had been pumping me up all week about going on my first combat patrol, asking if I was excited to “get my first taste of action.” “Yes, Sergeant Major.” It had been all I could think about. But the evening before we were to set off in our helicopter to a team site, I had all-night radio watch. The next morning my eyes burned and my body ached from fatigue as we hopped on the Huey, and I was too tired to feel like it was anything but business as usual. As we flew across the open desert, the drone of the helo’s engines and the cool breeze flowing through the open doors lulled me into a stupor. Big Cat sat across from me and watched as I had tried to fight off sleep.
After what felt like an hour, Big Cat and the door gunner perked up and looked down toward the ground. Other members of the group followed suit, and suddenly, the helo rapidly gained altitude, making a wide circle over a mud-hut village that was split in half by a silty river. The helo climbed until we couldn’t make out the people we had seen wandering the streets, and the small white bongo trucks that weaved their way through the village were barely visible. We began circling the village from high above, and I tried to ask Big Cat over the noise of the helo’s engines what was going on. He threw up some unrecognizable hand gestures, so I nodded like I understood and went back to dozing.
For no reason that I can remember, I opened my eyes a few minutes later, and a second after that, the helo started to drop. As we dove, the floor fell out from beneath us, and my rifle that had been sitting between my legs rose in front of my face. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I reached out with both hands and squeezed the buttstock. Only my harness kept me from slamming into Big Cat, or flying out of the helo as we dive bombed the ground.
Big Cat smirked as we plummeted and remained eerily calm. Huggy Bear, as stoic as can be, peered out the helo door like a passenger on a long road trip. I gathered my wits as the helo forcefully leveled off, smashing my body into my seat. We banked hard to the left, missing by only a few feet the mud huts that had been only the size of Lego blocks seconds before. We raced over the huts and fields like a trackless roller coaster, flying by a local who had stopped and watched with amazement as we whizzed by. The adrenaline rush got me high, and I found myself smiling and laughing. I was caught up in the thrill of it and, embarrassed, wondered later why I’d reacted as I had.
I was a year and a half into my service, and not wanting to look like a boot, I rarely took pictures, showed outward signs of emotion that might make me seem out of my depth, or talked during my outings with Huggy Bear or Big Cat. Being a lowly corporal at the time, I was always on edge around them. One mistake and I would be pulling weeds and painting signs for the rest of my time with the unit. After what seemed like dozens of banks and turns, the helo threw its nose up in the air to brake. Before the chopper touched down, Big Cat threw off his harness and rose out of his seat. He was smiling and looked to be in a good mood. The team site, he said, had been taking fire upon our initial approach.
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We’d come close to combat, but still had no contact. I’d always been comfortable with my rifle, and now that I was deployed, I craved the chance to see what I could do with my weapon when it really counted.
My mind quickly snapped from our dramatic landing and my feeling of embarrassment to the combat patrol ahead that day. Finally I’d get my chance to go on patrol and gain some real combat experience. But at the mission briefing, my name wasn’t on the list; the team didn’t know who I was and didn’t feel comfortable with me coming along. I asked Big Cat if there had been a mistake. No mistake, he said, and there was nothing he could do either.
I wasn’t the only one left behind. Big Cat introduced me to the team’s Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) who brought me with him to the mortar pit. The Army mortarmen there were as fluid and efficient with their mortars as I was with my rifle.
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As the mortars thundered and the mortarmen scurried about, I sat and wondered why I was even there. The majority of my Marine Corps career I had trained for combat, and now I wanted the chance to do what I’d been trained to do. The opportunity was right there in front of me, but still out of reach.