“Combat flying, particularly launching off alert, can be addictive. When you’re in the TOC and you hear, “troops in contact,” over SATCOM with gunfire in the background, your senses become heightened. When the radio or loudspeaker starts crackling with, “attention on the net,” there is an immediate adrenaline rush. For me, it was tremendously exciting not knowing exactly what I was headed into, and having to put it all together on the way to the LZ. Naturally, all of the excitement was tempered by the fact that someone was having a very bad day, the worst day of their life, or sometimes…the last day, or hours, or minutes. It’s such a paradox. You want to be busy, but you don’t.
I’ll always remember my first couple of missions in Helmand. In training, we were always taught to try and avoid compounds or built-up areas. For a traditional Combat Search and Rescue mission, this makes sense and can be feasible. You plan to fly over non-populated areas and avoid lines of communication or built-up areas, to avoid being spotted. When you’re doing CASEVAC in an area like the Helmand River valley…far less so. On my first mission, I remember glancing down through the plexiglass chin bubble as we raced to the LZ at low altitude over dozens of compounds, and seeing people scattering about. The thought entered my mind that it could just take one round at the right time in the right spot to badly wound or completely end me. I had a moment of panic, and thought, “Wow, this is for real. Why are you doing this?!” It wasn’t long prior to that deployment that another pilot had just that happen and had been very seriously wounded. The feeling left just as quickly; almost like part of my brain told me to shut that other part out.
There were other times I felt that way. One time when we were scrambled at night to a Brit FOB in the valley, the missile warning system screamed, self-protection flares launched, which bloomed out the goggles, and I saw something bright arcing up from the ground. We had seen footage from Marine Cobras showing a confirmed MANPADs launch earlier in the day, from that area. Well, turns out this was an infrared illumination round launched by the Brits, to help us out. Still scared the crap out of me for a second. Then there was the time when I arrived to put my gear on the aircraft, relieving the previous shift, and the maintainers and PJs were still scrubbing the blood off the cabin floor from a mortally wounded Marine who had laid there not more than 10 minutes earlier.
But to be honest, for me, those moments were few and far in between. I found combat flying to be exhilarating, and the adjustment to coming back home after that was quite difficult, following my first deployment. I still feel guilty to finding some excitement over events which were obviously quite traumatic for those we picked up, and I fully recognize that they were – but I guess that’s part of the absurdity of war.”
– Anonymous USAF HH-60G Pilot, Afghanistan, 2012
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