A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 13: No Easy Hope
09 July 2004 – Bagram Air Base, Bagram, Afghanistan
Jeff sat in the hospital’s library bright and early the next morning, trying to learn everything he could about altitude sickness; he kicked himself for forgetting to do so during the pre-deployment preparations. He noted the signs and symptoms of two similar syndromes: high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema – fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain, respectively – both caused by the decreased air pressure at higher altitude.
3d Battalion discovered a third, related side effect soon after they landed in Afghanistan called high-altitude flatus expulsion; they nicknamed it ‘explosive decompression.’ When the battalion landed in the reduced air pressure at five thousand feet above sea level, their bodies wanted to equalize the pressure inside the colon with that of the outside air, continuing the process which started on their flight; bodies equalized that pressure by expelling excess gas. If they flew straight through without the break in Germany, the phenomenon would have occurred in the confined space of the plane due to the cabin pressure in flight; instead it occurred in the platoon tents.
“For the love of God what did you eat, Nauert?” Stan Mauer, a fire team leader in 2d Squad, asked that night.
“Eat?” Ruben Montes protested. “I think whatever it is crawled up his ass last month and died!”
“Shit, where’s my gas mask?”
“Does anyone have a book of matches they can light on fire?”
“Doc, how long will this torture last?”
“Until the pressure inside us drops to match the air pressure here,” Jeff answered. “If they serve beans in anything tonight someone keep Nauert away from the chow line.”
Jeff looked over at Rick Mendoza. “We’re stuck in the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles!”
Jeff shook himself out of the memory with a chuckle and returned to the book in front of him. His ubiquitous iPod played familiar music through the small speaker connected to it. His hand played air keyboard of its own accord while he read.
“Is that J. Geils?” someone behind him asked. “By God, someone around here listens to music I recognize?”
Jeff turned to find a large man filling the doorway. His long sandy hair matched his beard; his altered BDU shirt sported Special Forces unit patches on both shoulders. Everything about the man screamed ‘non-standard’ while also screaming ‘you don’t want to mess with me.’
“Sure is,” Jeff answered. “It’s part of a playlist I named ‘Growing Up Boston.’ I’ve got ones labelled ‘Hair Bands’ and ‘Growing Up 80s’ also.”
“What’s on the ‘Boston’ playlist?
“Aerosmith, Boston, J. Geils Band, Del Fuegos, The Cars, John Butcher Axis...”
“Sweet! Is that where you’re from?”
“Well, Western Massachusetts originally; my family and I live in Central Mass now.” Jeff rose and extended his hand. “I’m Jeff Knox.”
“Simon Michael Kasperson. Yeah, I get that look all the time,” Kasperson laughed in response to the question on Jeff’s face. “Dad sports the curly black hair, brown-eyed Jewish look, but Mom was the hippie with the blue eyes and long blonde hair; obviously I take after her. Dad’s parents used to give Mom and me the Hairy Eyeball when we’d visit. We reminded them too much of the Nazi bastards who wiped out their families.”
“Must make family reunions interesting.”
“Very. The same was especially true when I had my blond buzz cut during the summers as a kid. We only visited with Dad’s parents once or twice a year while I grew up. Dad didn’t talk to his parents for the better part of three or four years after Bubbe called Mom a shiksa – not a good thing. Mom and Dad moved to Mom’s hometown of Dover, New Hampshire not long after that. I grew up there, so I remember most of those bands’ names.”
“Where are my manners? You wanna sit?” Kasperson nodded and took the offered seat. “Do you go by Sy? What do you like to be called?”
“Mickey, actually. Simon is my paternal grandfather’s name – a peace offering which was ignored for a long time – and Michael is Mom’s dad’s name. I give my full name when I introduce myself but I prefer Mickey.”
“I’m guessing you’re in here because you’re an SF team medic?”
“Yep; I’m the 18-Delta on team Charlie-97, 12th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson, Colorado.”
“I guess it’s because ‘C’ is twelve in hexadecimal, or so I’ve heard. 1st Group’s team numbers start with 1, 10th Group’s numbers start with A, and 19th Group’s numbers start with 9; helps avoid confusion.”
“Is 12th Group the group they brought back after 9/11?”
“Yeah. I used to be in the 7th but got caught in the expansion draft when they spun the 12th back up. Can’t have the newbies running the show after all. Anyhoo, I’m guessing you’re in here for a similar reason? You’re a platoon medic, right? Studying up on some stuff?”
“Right. I’m a platoon medic in the 3d Ranger Battalion. I’m reading up on altitude-related injuries; you know, the reading I should have done before we deployed? We got here a few days ago and learned about one unpleasant side effect of reduced air pressure after we landed.” Jeff described the events of their first night in-country.
“We’re lucky in that Fort Carson’s already at about five thousand feet of elevation; we didn’t have any of those problems when we deployed.”
Jeff shuddered again at the memories of that night. “It was like what I’ve heard about being seasick: first you’re afraid you’re gonna die, then you’re afraid you won’t.”
Impacting fragments rattled against the steel door. The door crashed open after a loud slamming sound. A battering ram landed in the dirt with a thud; the shuffle of feet rushing in. Loud, shouted commands were heard from inside. Then:
A short burst of automatic weapons fire.
Tense seconds ticked by before Jeff heard “Hey, Doc?” over the radio; he dashed inside the compound before the next syllable. Once inside the target building now-Specialist Steve Cunha waved him to Emilio Reyes, who bled from a few spots on his face; Emilio had raised his NVGs at some point.
“What’s the matter, Emilio? Cut yourself shaving?” Reyes looked at him half-dazed. “Okay, forget I said anything. Steve, what gives?”
“After the flash-bang went off we made entry per plan. One of the enemy tried to throw a grenade from inside that room there while we cleared the front room; he definitely wasn’t destined for a career in Major League Baseball, because his throw missed the door and the grenade bounced back at him. I pulled Reyes out of the doorway just as the grenade exploded; I think he caught a few pieces of adobe and ricocheting shrapnel off the door frame. The target all but took himself out with his own grenade.”
“Does he need to be checked after I treat Emilio?”
“No, he still tried to raise a weapon after the grenade went off. He suffered a fatal case of acute lead poisoning.”
Jeff nodded. “Emilio, take off your safety glasses, would you?” Though still in a daze, Reyes did as Jeff asked. The younger man’s left cheek showed abrasions below where the face-hugging lenses once rested, along with a scattering of small cuts; the safety glasses were scratched. If the Army hadn’t started mandating eye protection in the field, at a minimum Reyes would be dealing with corneal damage.
Jeff cleaned the cuts with an alcohol wipe for the moment; he’d take a better look at Reyes’ face after they returned to the base and the younger man washed up, but all the cuts looked minor. “Anyone else hurt?” Jeff asked over the net. He heard repeated answers of “Negative, Doc” from the other section leaders.
“Doc, all set to move?” Sal Pellegrino asked on his way through the room. Their ride would be there soon and they needed to clear the area.
“What, this isn’t our new summer house? It’s kinda cozy and has a great view of the mountains there.” He waved at the peaks visible through his own NVGs.
“Get your ass outside, Doc,” Sal laughed, “and take the kid with you.” He knew Jeff wouldn’t be joking if he wasn’t ready to go.
“I hear and I obey, oh Great One!” He gave Reyes a small push and they left the building.
“Reyes alright?” Rick asked him outside.
“A little sandblasted, that’s it. He’s got a few minor cuts on his face but won’t even need a Band-Aid,” Jeff replied. “Unless he’s hiding something else from me, he doesn’t even qualify for a Purple Heart, Kemosabe.”
“Let’s try to keep it that way, okay? It sounds like plenty of Purple Heart paperwork got filled out last time the battalion was over here.”
The Black Hawks landed outside the compound walls to bring the platoon and their two prisoners back to Bagram, some thirty miles to the south. The sun was just beginning its climb above the horizon.
“I don’t know why, but I’m still surprised by the swaths of green around here,” Rick commented once they were at cruising altitude. Dawn revealed fields of deep green scattered across the dusty brown landscape.
“Did you think these people only ate sand or something? Just because the base is a uniform desert tan doesn’t mean the rest of the country is, Rick.”
“From up here the place almost looks peaceful.”
“Unfortunately we know the reality is quite different. You manage to catch your breath yet?”
“Almost, but not yet. You?”
“No. I know we’ll acclimate to conditions up here soon, but it’s a bit jarring to go from playing games at Fenway Park’s altitude to playing at Mile High Stadium.”
“You’re mixing your metaphors.”
2d Platoon walked into their tent following another successful raid early one morning the following week. It was 0415, but the weary soldiers still faced an hour or so of weapons cleaning before they could shower and crawl into bed. The op tempo for them seemed to be one every two to three days.
“Hey, do you guys mind if we try to turn on Sports Night?” Jeff asked while the others began field-stripping their weapons. “The Sox were playing the Yankees today and I’d like to try and see the highlights.”
Receiving the okay from everyone, Jeff tuned the satellite receiver to the appropriate channel. The receiver made the connection with the satellite, which wasn’t always the case. He shook his head at the thought of watching sports highlights from home in an active war zone; not only was war hell but the contradictions in this one were crazy, too. The highlights show came on and Jeff took a seat while waiting for the Red Sox game’s segment. One of the guys told him the segment was on while Jeff scrubbed the powder residue from the inside of his rifle.
“The Yankees played Boston at Fenway this afternoon in the second game of their series and it got a little ... contentious...”
Jeff snorted. ‘Contentious?’ he thought. A Sox-Yankees game is ‘contentious’ on a good day...
The sportscaster went on to describe a three-hour rain delay, and how the Red Sox players lobbied to play the game despite a soggy field, before getting to the events of the game.
“In the top of the third, things went from contentious to fractious.”
Jeff watched Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo plunk Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez; the pitch hit him square on the large pad he wore on his left elbow. A-Rod began jawing at Arroyo while walking to first; Jeff could read A-Rod’s lips and he wasn’t using nice language. A-Rod soon turned his ire on Jason Varitek, the Red Sox catcher and captain who stepped between A-Rod and his pitcher protect him. The not-nice language turned into a string of f-bombs. ‘Tek took exception, then took his catcher’s mitt and tried to flatten A-Rod’s face with it.
“Holy shit!” Jeff cried out while watching the benches clear. He was sure the image of A-Rod getting pie-faced by Varitek would become as iconic as Carlton Fisk urging his home run fair in 1975.
“No love lost between these two teams,” Steve Cunha commented.
“Eighty-six years of frustration will do that for you,” Jeff replied. “Well, at least they won. Maybe this will wake them up now; they’ve only been so-so for the last couple of months.”
“Kahuna! Launch another one!” Rick yelled while pointing at a second-floor window with a bladed hand. Steve Cunha raised his M-203.
<bloop> <CRUMP!> Forty millimeters of attitude adjustment delivered. The enemy gunfire stopped.
1st and 3d Squads charged into the low mud-brick structure with Jeff in tow. Jeff dropped one insurgent with two rounds to the chest.
Half the force swept the first floor while the other swarmed up the stairs to the second.
“Bravo Two Six from Bravo Two Three Six, building is secure,” Josh Brogan reported while looking at three former insurgents upstairs.
“Roger, Two Three Six. Report status.”
“Two Six, zero KIA, zero – wait one – one wounded,” Brogan reported when he saw Jeff point to Private Ofume’s foot; the private hobbled out of the room with a grimace. “One package and four enemy KIA.”
“Roger, Two Three Six.”
“You three finish up searching the room, then search the dead. I want to be out of here in no more than twenty minutes.”
Brogan turned his back to the chorus of “Roger, Sergeant,” and focused on the platoon medic’s report. “What happened to Kwame?”
“He went partially through the floor in the other room, mainly the heel of his foot,” Jeff said. “He punched through a rotten board and he sprained his Achilles pretty good.”
“We might need a little more time than twenty minutes, Sarge,” SPC Noam Alexander added while hefting his M-249 SAW. “Kwame punched through to a hidden room. He’s lucky no one was down there or they probably would have lit him up.”
Josh’s eyebrows rose. “Why didn’t the bad guys head down there when we showed up?”
“I think the first high-explosive round from Kahuna’s -203 damaged the frame of a hidden door; the round impacted the frame and jammed it so the tangos couldn’t open it. Artie was going at it with a pry-bar when I came upstairs.” SPC Arthur ‘Artie’ Conklin was 3d Squad’s other automatic rifleman and a very big boy.
“Let me know if we need to call in the S-2 so I can tell Sergeant Mendoza.”
“Roger, Sergeant.” Noam left the room.
“Kwame still came up here after he got hurt, huh?”
“Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, Josh.”
“Back for more?” Mickey Kasperson asked when Jeff entered the hospital library.
“Oh hey, Mick,” Jeff replied.
“Thank you for not saying ‘Oh, Mickey’ or ‘hey, Mickey.’”
Jeff grinned. “I figure you’ve heard those lines enough.”
“Yeah, high school was a hoot after that song came out,” Mickey grumbled. “Gee, thanks, Toni Basil. How’s life?”
“So far, so good, dare I say? All minor stuff so far – minor cuts, bruises, and one sprained Achilles tendon.”
Mickey winced. “Ouch. Those hurt.”
“Kwame’s gonna be restricted to Bagram for a week or so until he can bear weight without wincing.” Jeff shrugged. “It’s not enough time for him to fully rest up, but it’s gonna have to do.”
“You guys going out a lot?”
“About three or four times a week right now. It’s picking up. How about you?”
“Our missions are longer, range further afield, and take a little more planning – not that yours don’t take planning – so we only go out once or twice a month. I haven’t seen you in a few weeks; you catch the Yankees game?”
“The one where ‘Tek tried to cave in A-Rod’s face?” Jeff laughed. “Not live, unfortunately. I caught the highlights, but we were out on an op while they were playing. I wish they showed the start of the fight in slow motion!”
“I know! I’ve heard a photo of the moment of impact is already behind every bar in New England!” The two shared a good laugh.
“So what are these things?” Jeff asked.
“AN/PVS-44s,” answered Rick, “the latest in NVGs. In fact, they’re calling these ‘VADs’ now: visual augmentation devices. Instead of binocular objective lenses, these use hundreds of tiny CCD cameras on the outside of the visor to give a one hundred fifty degree image on the flexible LCD screen inside; the cameras will give a full image with up to thirty-five percent of them damaged. They’ll do night vision, thermal imaging, magnification – the works; I hear they’ll help you see in a dust storm or through smoke too, even during the day. The signal processing takes place in this box at the back of the harness, which will be on the back of our MICH helmets. The rechargeable battery is back there, too; you can also use regular batteries if recharging them isn’t an option. The word out of Soldier Systems in Natick is the troops testing these absolutely love ‘em. Since we’re deployed, we’re one of the first operational units to receive them.”
“It seems like we should have some non-operational training with these before we use them on missions,” Sal Pellegrino commented.
“Guess what we’re doing tonight, Sal?” Rick asked.
That night 2d Platoon prowled through the empty desert inside the perimeter east of the airfield. The clarity of the VAD’s images was stunning. Rangers used to the grainy, narrow view through their usual NVGs ran through battle drills without worrying about missing something they could trip over; the normal side-to-side scanning to maintain awareness of their surroundings could be abandoned since they could still use peripheral vision.
“These things are awesome!” 1st Squad’s Benny ‘Rabbit’ Ware crowed. “Shading, depth of field, full field of view, and they flip up out of your way easily! Sergeant Dinkins popped smoke out there and I could still see! Natick hit one out of the park with these!”
“We’ll have to see how durable they are in the long run,” Sal muttered while checking his visor for any possible signs of wear. The high-impact plastic covering the CCD cameras didn’t have a scratch. “The balance of the device is good, though. The NVGs always made my MICH front-heavy.”
“The flexible LED screen inside the visor is really sharp,” Kwame Ofume added. “I watched you guys creeping around out there, and I didn’t notice the individual pixels unless I made a real effort to look for them.”
“When are you back in the game, Kwame?”
“Doc says it’ll still be another week or two. I guess I sprained the Achilles worse than they first thought.”
“Doc, mail call!” Steve Cunha yelled through the tent’s entry door.
“Thanks, Steve. I’ll be right out.” Jeff finished writing the email to his family and walked outside. August weather in this part of Afghanistan wasn’t much different than at home in Massachusetts: daytime highs in the nineties with nighttime lows in the fifties; winter temps would be about the same as home also. It was pleasant under the awning erected by previous tenants of their platoon’s tent, especially with the breeze that day.
“Your pile is over there, Doc,” Emilio pointed out.
A small mountain of packages waited for him on one table. A quick scan of return addresses told him most of his friends sent something; Keiko’s letter – marked ‘read me first’ – confirmed that. His friends hadn’t sent him packages, they sent enough items for everyone in the platoon: wet wipes, various kinds of jerky, shaving items, magazines and books, even gift cards for a music downloading service.
The package from Jane, Alice, and Tom contained a minor surprise for him: a letter from TC. The letter itself wasn’t a great surprise since they’d been talking all along, but the revelation that Heather threw out a few of Jeff’s first letters to TC was. The news started Jeff on a slow burn. If she wanted to ignore him that was one thing, but a federal crime was another. To Jeff it signaled the definitive end of their friendship.
The laughter from his platoon shook him from his bad mood. Emilio Reyes and Kwame Ofume laughed at the retelling of Jeff’s introduction to the platoon; Nauert and Schultheis shook their heads at the embarrassing first-hand memories. The laughter helped reinforce the lessons of the past month: that these forty men were – as with his platoon in ‘91 – the people Jeff would rely on the most for almost everything over the next year.
“Doc, you’re gonna wear a hole in the floor.”
Jeff stopped pacing. He stood still for a solid minute before the pacing started again.
“He’s like a caged lion!”
“More like a nervous father, Sal,” Rick replied. He turned to his platoon medic. “Would I be out of line if I suggested you take some of the Valium you carry?”
“A little,” Jeff answered while still pacing, “and that’s only because I don’t carry enough to keep me calm.” The statement was true in that he carried enough to keep half the platoon calm, not just himself.
His friends continued to laugh at him until they heard, “X-ray Two Two returning, mission complete. Negative KIA, negative wounded, one package.”
“Roger. X-ray Two Two is RTB with zero, zero, and one,” they heard over the radio speaker.
Thirty minutes later 1st Squad swaggered up to the tent laughing and joking. Trace Dinkins bumped fists triumphantly with Rick, Sal, and Josh while wearing a wide smile. “What’s with this guy?” he asked, gesturing at Jeff.
“Mom was getting worried,” Stan Mauer commented, jerking a thumb toward the medic. “He about walked home to the States he paced so much.”
“Aw, I didn’t know you cared, Jeff,” Trace commented with a chuckle.
“You comedians keep laughing,” Jeff grumbled back. “Yes, I know it’s your squad, Trace, and your platoon, Rick, but I’m the one you’ll turn to when something goes south on a mission. You’ll take a look at someone who’s been unlucky, turn to me, and say: ‘Fix him up, Doc.’ Sure, I’m ready for that and that’s my job, but if something bad happened out there just now you’d have come running back here – screaming hot – headed for the hospital. DJ, Norm, and the other guys are trained and equipped as well as I’m allowed to get them, but that’s still a hell of a spot for them to be in alone. So, yes, it’s like being a parent: we send our charges out into the unkind world, hoping to hell they’ll be alright, and we can’t do a damn thing to physically stop something from happening to them when we’re not with them.” Jeff shook his head and walked back into the tent; he was already asleep in his bunk when the rest of the guys walked in.
The following morning Rick Mendoza exited the tent to find Jeff gazing off at the mountains to their north; he walked over, sat next to his friend, looked at the mountains too, and waited.
“What’s wrong with me, Rick?” Jeff asked a few minutes later.
“Nothing I haven’t been struggling with myself, Jeff. Maybe I’m hiding it better but the pressure’s there. In different ways you and I are responsible for the whole platoon.” Rick turned away from the distant peaks and toward his medic. “You’ve been a little quiet since you got those packages at the beginning of the month.”
Jeff shrugged. “Mourning the loss of a friend, I guess.”
“The one who stopped talking to you?”
“She’s still there, though? Married to another good friend? I can’t say I know what it’s like, especially since I’ve never been through it and you’re living it, but it’s gotta be tough.”
“I’m sorry I implied you guys don’t care last night.”
“I know you are, Jeff; the rest of the guys know it, too. All of us use swagger and bravado to keep the reality of what we’re doing here at a distance. What sane person enjoys killing people? None of us are sociopaths. We care about our families, and each other, and can’t reasonably expect not to care about people in general.”
“What the hell are we doing here, Rick?”
“Keeping the wolves at bay. Trying to make sure they don’t hurt us again, and in doing that we’re trying to stop them from hurting their own.”
“Who are we to say what’s right for another country? What makes what’s right for us right for others if they don’t put it in place themselves?”