You are one of two soldiers left on a hot PZ on some Caribbean island. There’s been another foul-up–not yours this time, but you’re going to pay for it.
It’s you and your RTO, a nineteen-year-old surfer from Florida who can quote Shakespeare because his Mom was a high school literature teacher and who joined the army because his Dad was a WWII Ranger.
Stuck in a Sticky Situation
The last UH-60 has taken off on an air assault and someone is supposed to come back and get you guys. But the fire is getting heavy, and you’re not sure anything can get down there without getting shot up. You’re taking fire from some heavily forested hills. At least two machineguns, maybe three, maybe more, and quite a few AKs, but you can’t make out anything else. You and your RTO are in a hole, hunkered down as the bad guys are peppering your hole with small arms fire. Your RTO is trying to get some help–another bird to come and get you, some artillery, some attack helicopters–anything.
But there are other firefights happening elsewhere on this island involving much larger numbers. So as the cosmos unfold at that particular moment, in that particular place, you and that RTO are well down the order of merit list. You feel a tug at your pants leg. Ketch—that’s what you call him—Ketch tells you he got a ‘wait, out’ when he asked for help. The radio is jammed with calls for fire and requests for support from other parts of the island. ‘What we gonna do, sir?’ he asks.
And all of a sudden, you’re learning another lesson. You’re learning about the weightiness of command, because it’s not just you in that foxhole, it’s this kid you’ve spent every day with for the last five months. This kid you’ve come to love like a kid brother. There is only one way out and that’s through the bad guys.
Not Just You
You see, you are on a peninsula that rises about 100 feet from the sea. The inland side is where the bad guys are. You figure you are safe in this hole, so long as they don’t bring in any indirect fire stuff, but if they come down off those hills, onto the peninsula, then you’re going to have to fight it out. And that’s what you tell your RTO. We either get help or, if the bad guys come for us, we fight. He looks at you. You don’t know how long. And he says only four words. Two sentences. ‘Roger, sir. Let’s rock.’ Appropriate coming from a surfer. Then he slithers back down to the bottom of the hole.
Staying on the radio, your lifeline, trying to get some help. You are peering over the edge of the hole, careful not to make too big a target. You’re thinking about your wife and that little month-old baby you left a few days ago. It was two o’clock in the morning when you got the call. ‘Pack your gear and get in here.’ You kissed them both and told them to watch the news. Hell, you didn’t know where you were going or why, but you were told to go, and you went.
Then all of a sudden it gets real loud, and things are flying all around, and then there’s a shadow that passes over you. You look up and find yourself staring at the bottom of a Blackhawk, about 15 feet over the deck, flying fast and low, and as it passes over your hole you see the door gunner dealing death and destruction on the bad guys in those hills. It sets down about 25 meters from your hole, as close as it can get.
You look up and see the crew chief kneeling inside, waving frantically to you, the door gunner still dealing with it, trying to keep the bad guys’ heads down, who have now switched their fire to the bird, a much bigger, and better, target. You look at Ketch and then you’re off–and you run 25 meters faster than 25 meters have ever been run since humans began to walk upright. And you dive through the open doors onto the floor of the Blackhawk.
There are no seats in the bird since this is combat and we don’t use them in the real deal. And you are hugging your RTO, face-to-face, like a lover, and shouting at him ‘You OKAY? You OKAY? You OKAY?’ but he doesn’t tell you he’s OKAY since he’s yelling the same thing at you: ‘You OKAY? You OKAY? You OKAY?’ And then the pilot pulls pitch and executes a violent and steep ascent out of there and had you not been holding on to the d-rings in the floor and the crew chief not been holding your legs you might have fallen out.
Then you’re over the water, you’re safe, and the bird levels out, and you roll over to your back and close your eyes–and you think you fall asleep. But then you feel a hand on your blouse, and you open your eyes and see the crew chief kneeling over you with a headset in his hand. He wants you to put it on so you do. And the first thing you hear is ‘I-Beamer, buddy boy. I-Beamer.’ You were in I-4 while a cadet, and that was your rallying cry.
You look up to where the pilots sit and you see a head sticking out from behind one of the seats. He’s looking at you and it’s his voice you hear, but you can’t make out who it is because his visor is down. Then he lifts it, and you see the face of a man who was two years ahead of you in your company. He tells you that he knew you were there and he wasn’t going to leave an I-Beamer like that. And you learn about courage, camaraderie, and a friendship that never dies.
Photos in order of appearance:
ZAMBATT V [Image 5 of 17] by DVIDS. Public Domain.
Staff Sgt. Francis Macale secures the landing zone by the U.S. Army.
Excerpted from a speech that LTC Guy Lofaro (former USMA Military History professor) gave at a company dining-in during 2001. LTC Lofaro also taught at West Point during the mid-1990s.