LSA ANACONDA/BALAD AIR FORCE BASE, IRAQ — The two Blackhawks, designated Dust Devil 35 and Dust Devil 36, dropped out of the hazy sky over Baghdad and maneuvered around a turquoise-tipped minaret, headed for a tight landing in an obscure courtyard in Sadr City, a place Blackhawks don’t often go. They’d been sent to get an unspecified but “important” package.
The Blackhawks came in over a concrete barrier and the “package” thing was carried over to Dust Devil 36 by two Americans in helmets and body armor and knee pads, with slung M4 carbines. These were not routine GIs; these guys needed their guns. Not too far away, four Iraqis, maybe cops, watched the transaction from a polite distance: they were all square, stocky, with leather jackets, trench coats, mustaches, and could have hired out to play the heavies in a “Sopranos” episode.
Along the barrier wall were three armored eight-wheeled Stryker infantry assault vehicles, mounting .50-caliber machine guns, and an “MRAP,” a mine-killer.
The soldiers on the ground were met by two guys who’d been flown in from the Green Zone on Dust Devil 36. The contents of the package is not known outside the correct military circles…but the two guys who came to get it were wearing blue rubber gloves and had gas masks strapped to their legs, something not seen in Baghdad for a while.
Whatever it was, it was smaller than a breadbox.
As soon as it was loaded, the Blackhawks jumped straight up, like a couple of 65-foot-long dragonflies, and were gone over the rooftops, carrying the package and the two guy with gas masks back to the Green Zone.
Below them, but close below, the life of Sadr City played out on the rooftops.
From just-over-rooftop level, Baghdad in a place of amazing variety. Every residential building has a flat roof, used as Minnesotans use their back yards, and they are crowded. Everywhere, there are shirts and dresses and pants and underwear drying on rope clothes-lines or hung over walls. The clothes are of every imaginable color, brilliant blues and greens and red, but peppered with the ubiquitous flat-black of women’s dress. There are green and scarlet banners; bright red water tanks; satellite dishes of all sizes (all pointed in the same direction, like metal sunflowers); used tires and air conditioners; what appear to be pigeon or chicken cages; and the occasional man, woman or child.
The houses themselves are tan — the color of the country itself — and the residential areas are punctuated by huge structures, government buildings, some of which appear unused, like the relics of Babylon not far away.
A thin haze of smoke hangs over much of the place, and sometimes, flying over, you get barbecue, and sometimes you get burning garbage, and sometimes, wood or trash or drywall or oil.
Working for a better life
There was a lot more to the mission than the dash into Sadr City; but it all started when somebody like Spc. Annie Kollar wheeled her fuel tanker out to the Blackhawks. Kollar grew up in Forest Lake, Minn., and went to Forest Lake High School. As a civilian, she was working as a dog groomer, and plans to go back to college to become an English teacher. Right now, she focuses on keeping the choppers going — Blackhawks, Apaches, Chinooks. But that’s not all she’s doing, she says.
“I feel like I’m helping the people here, to help them get to a better life. We’re lucky to live in America; they didn’t have that kind of luck.” She feels strongly enough about it that she just re-enlisted for six years, and if she’s deployed again, she’s willing to take it.
A step further back, but just as critical to the overall mission, people like Greg Hanson of St. Paul and Steve Bushman of Duluth, keep the 2-147th Assault Helicopter battalion’s vehicles working. Hanson was pulling the transmission on a tanker like Kollar’s: “We do anything and everything to keep it all running.”
All three are part of Capt. Ryan Curl’s Echo Company, one-third of which is female. (Curl’s two platoon leaders are both women.) Curl works for the ROTC program at the University of Minnesota, while his wife, Kari Rusch-Curl, works at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
“Everybody here will tell you that it’s hard to be away. My wife and I don’t like to be away from each other, but she knows how much I enjoy what I’m doing.”
He says that in his work with the ROTC program, and here in Iraq, working with his enlisted soldiers, he finds that “young people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. For this generation, it’s been important to be a part of sports and teams of all kinds, and the military fits into that mind-set pretty well.”
When all was said and done, the members of the 2-147th appeared confident that their machines would work, and work well. From top to bottom, they seemed to know what they were doing.
A secret briefing
Blackhawks look like war machines. They’re bigger, rougher than civilian helicopters, a dark gray-green, and in the air, they look like they’re about to pounce. In Iraq, they’re used to move high-value things — troops going to and from battle, to and from isolated outposts, lucky guys who get seats when the chopper is going their way, and has space, and smaller equipment that needs to get from here to there in a hurry — like the mystery package from Sadr City.
They work daily — almost like an airline that gets shot at.
The mission on Saturday involved two Blackhawks from the 2-147; in fact, the choppers almost always go in pairs, so that if one gets knocked down, or has mechanical trouble, the other can fly cover until recovery teams can get there.
The mission itself began with a secret briefing on the military situation in the flight areas, and then a general crew briefing on the day’s work. About three hours before take-off, the crew gathers in a briefing room, around a plywood table with a transparent plastic top. A variety of maps and notices, from the important to the inane, are under the plastic sheet. More maps are hung on the walls, and some are classified; a photographer has to maneuver around the table to get a shot that doesn’t include the classified material.
The briefing is led by Maj. Shawn Manke of Andover, who will be pilot in command/air mission commander. That means that he will be the primary pilot in one of the aircraft, as well as the overall mission commander.
Some of the material is specific to the day’s flight — visibility is 4,000 meters with a forecast high of 46 degrees. Sunset is at 17:13, with a return scheduled for 16:30. “We’re going to have to pick up some important stuff in a non-standard LZ in a high threat area…we’ll get some gunship support while we go in and get it,” Manke says.
Some of the briefing covers everyday safety items, for a war situation — a bit like the things that a flight attendant says about your safety belt and the drop-down oxygen on a commercial flight. Still, the crew listens intently, even through the routine stuff. One of the pilots, Capt. Andrea Ourada, of Lucan, Minn., said later that the crews listen closely because it’s necessary to keep it all at the front of your mind, in case you need it.
Like, “If you are hit by hostile fire and have to put down, try to get a drainage ditch or a canal between you and the source of the fire…” Manke’s voice is quiet and serious as he goes over all of this. It’s common sense, but if you’re hit and the chopper is going down, there may not be time to work the logic: better just to react.
“Sometimes,” Manke said later, “if you’re in a damaged aircraft, the instinct is to get it on the ground as fast as you can. But sometimes, it’ll keep flying, at least for a while.” And if it’ll keep flying for a while, it’s best to get away from the threat.
There are two crews of four members each listening to the briefing. One crew, led by Manke and Ourada, will include Spc. Joseph Grabrick of Isanti and Sgt. Bloung Vue of Columbia Heights as door gunners, each sitting over a 7.62mm machine gun. That aircraft is designated Dust Devil 35.
The other, Dust Devil 36, will be flown by Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Frazer of Duluth as pilot in command, and pilot Chief Warrant Officer Gary Ng of St. Cloud. Door gunners are Sgt. 1st Class Todd Sudheimer of Hutchinson, and Sgt. Jeffrey Miles of Fort Ripley.
The pilots and crew know that families at home worry about them — but maybe, not too much. Many of them are accustomed to having a soldier in the family, and this is just part of the job.
Manke and his wife, Mary, met while he was in the Army; they decided together that he should get out because, as he says, “For the soldier, the military is a career; for the family, it’s a way of life — you move all the times, the kids don’t have a place. We had three great years in Germany, but in the end, we decided that we wanted the kids [Kalie, 11, Lucas, 9] to grow up around grandparents, around the family.”
So he got out of the Army — but then enlisted in the National Guard. “I missed the camaraderie, I missed the military relationships; the decision to come back in was a conscious thing for me and my wife together.”
And here he is, the flight commander, leading the mission into Baghdad.
After the briefing, the two flight crews are taken out to the flightline in the back of a truck with a mountain of equipment and weapons stashed in a trailer. Once out to the choppers, the crews begin loading up, while the pilots talk about the flight itself — and then go on to such mundane tasks as washing the windows with paper towels and Windex.
Lots of guns. Each of the crew carries an M16 variant (usually, a shorter and handier version that the military calls a carbine), and some pack pistols. The noise is incessant: helicopters warming up in the chilly morning air, jets coming and going. After a final flight-line briefing, to make sure that everybody knows exactly what everybody else is supposed to do — even a momentary misunderstanding can be dangerous to choppers flying in a close formation — the crews load themselves in.
The pilots wear helmets and microphones, but the most impressive gear is on the door-gunners. Because they will be exposed to the cold air, leaning out over the side of the ship behind their guns, they wear heavy flight suits and jackets, and full head-and-face protection that leaves them looking disconcertingly like Darth Vader.
After a short taxi, the two aircraft get up in the air a bit after 11:30 on Saturday, heading south.
A sea of mud
The area between Balad and Baghdad had experienced a rare snowstorm the day before, and the moisture had turned the landscape into a sea of mud. Much of the land in central and southern Iraq is tan, or brown, and extremely flat — as flat as the Red River valley. It looks like the Red River area in other ways: it is intensively cultivated, with strips of green alternating with fallow or plowed tan and brown. Here and there are date palm plantations, some quite large, usually surrounding a substantial villa. There are canals everywhere, and the thick green line of the Tigris snakes across it, heading south to the Persian Gulf.
(Later in the day, both of the Blackhawks, at different times, will fire flares through their automatic threat-detection systems, which are designed to detect the launch of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. There was a question about why this happened — no missiles were seen — and one theory was that the setting sun reflecting off the Tigris had triggered the flares, since the river was close-by in both instances. Nevertheless, when the flares pop and flash alongside the aircraft, it’s attention-getting.)
Right from the beginning of the flight, the radio chatter is incessant, mostly unintelligible to the outsider. But, in fact, it sounds somewhat like the radio chatter heard in the more modern war movies, just before the excitement starts.
Heading into Baghdad, the choppers sweep past blue and red farm tractors working the fields, isolated farm villages, people walking along pathways who stop to look up at the aircraft, shading their eyes against the sun.
Manke comes up on the intercom, and says, “There’s the ziggurat, coming up on the left.”
This, you do not see in Minnesota.
On the left side of the aircraft are the remains of the enormous ziggurat at Aqar Quf, west of Baghdad. The ziggurat, built some 3,500 years ago during the Kassite period, has been carved by the wind and the depredations of the years into a tower — once thought to be the remains of the Tower of Babel. The scope of the thing is hard to believe; and it’s easy to imagine an enormous face on it, long obscured, but that’s just the effect of the winds and erosion; still, it has the ancient dignity of the Sphinx.
During the course of the flight, the Blackhawks stop three times for fuel, and several more times to pick up troops, ferrying them around Baghdad and out into the countryside.
The run into Sadr City is a little more tense, the landing zone tight, the rooftops close and colorful. It’s impossible to chat about these things: the noise is intense, especially since the aircraft is partially open, so the door-gunners have a shot, if necessary. Later, Ourada said: “We knew it would be tight going in there — we had a photograph of the place. We had to work out way around that tower…what really makes it complicated is the barriers on the ground, wires, that kind of thing.”
That’s why the door gunners were hanging out their windows, talking all the time: telling the pilots, who can’t see backwards, where everything is — that the tail is clear, that the rotor is clear, that the wheels have a good spot to touch down.
Once up, and the package is delivered, the day becomes more routine, except for the cold. The wind coming through the open windows doors is like fluid ice. Vue is wrapped in several layers of clothes, and the Darth Vader helmet, and he said after the flight that he’d been freezing: “Not supposed to be like this in Iraq,” he said with a grin.
Dark cloud over Baghdad
Iraq is, indeed, a foreign place. Looking down on it, it seems that the vast range of flat farm fields should be able to feed the entire Middle East; right now, most of them seem to be fallow. And down there among all the fields and trees and ditches, there are scattered insurgents, and most of the chopper personnel believe that they get shot at a lot — just not hit very often.
“We feel the enemy personnel may not be all that well-trained with their weapons,” said one female non-com, who has experience in the area.
For the rest of the day, the two Blackhawks are constantly on the move, up and down, getting soldiers here, taking them there, often with huge packs and complicated weapons.
And at the end of the day, as the Blackhawks head north toward Balad, a strange dark cloud closes over Baghdad, coming in from the east. Everybody was talking about it, nobody knew what it was. It looked somewhat like the front edge of a dust storm, but there wasn’t much wind; it resembled, at least a little bit, a late afternoon Minnesota wall cloud, but it was more diffuse. One theory said it was smoke; Manke, talking about it later, speculated that “the air temperature was close to freezing, and the dew point was close to the air temperature, so I think we were seeing a kind of icy fog.”
Whatever it was, it came up in a hurry, shutting down the sky light from that direction, and gave the city a weird, flickering yellow glow as the sun went down in the opposite direction.
After a quick stop at Balad to pick up a final passenger, and another shot hop outside the wire, and then back, the Blackhawks put down and the heavy rotors finally went quiet for the first time in the day. Immediately, the ground crew was all over it, inspecting the rotors, looking at the gearing, while the flight crew loaded all their gear back into the flight-line truck.
“Long day,” Manke said, as he pulled off his helmet. “But … routine.”
John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist who writes under the pen name John Sandford. He can be reached at jcamp [at] minnpost [dot] com.