Dead. All of Them.
Often oblivious to where we were in the world, we came to know that our presence in the Persian Gulf was coming to an end due to an urgent need to withdraw our troops from some place called Somalia.
Trigger warning. Some of my writing is for my own therapy. This story is not for those who are easily upset or disturbed. I’m serious here. If you think this might be you, then keep scrolling. It contains visceral subject matter, a first-person description of a mass casualty event and language not suitable for all audiences.
Although serving our country didn’t sound like a bad idea, most of us joined to escape some sort of problem. Johnson and Brown wanted out of the inner-city projects, Smith and Peterson were escaping the mundanity of suburbia and cushioned white American privilege. Almost all of us wanted relief from financial poverty, but I mainly just wanted to see the world. Being broke, the only way I could make that happen was to do it on Uncle Sam’s dime.
The Navy recruiter made it sound as if, after a slightly inconvenient two months of Basic Training, I’d be stationed on a luxury cruise ship travelling to exotic ports all over the world. It wasn’t until I was suffering on the flight deck of the USS Essex (LHD-2) on the extremely hot equator, having to wear a turtle-neck jersey under an MK-1 vest, with gloves, helmet, big goggles and calf-high boots to protect every possible bit of exposed skin from the flecks of ‘non-skid’ surfacing that would heat up, dislodge and fly at high velocity into my skin when the A4 Harriers would hover then land; it wasn’t until then that I realised I’d been duped. This sucked!
The thing that makes being young and stupid tolerable, is that you’re often surrounded by other young and stupid people. And our stupidity was so obvious that there was no point in trying to hide it. We would lay there in a mountain of cargo nets in the shade, waiting for the aircraft to return, talking about what idiots we were and what lies the recruiters told us. Far out! So here we were, a slice of gullible lower socio-economic America, floating on a tin can called an ‘Amphibious Assault Ship’ in the middle of the ocean accompanied by at least a thousand or so tensed-up battle-hungry U.S. Marines. We were what they called ‘smurfs’ due to the blue attire worn to distinguish us on the flight deck. We were the unskilled labourers: deck-swabbers, space-cleaners and, if we behaved ourselves, valet parkers for multi-million dollar Marine Corps helicopters and jump jets.
One evening, the captain announced over the loudspeaker that our mission had changed. Often oblivious to where we were in the world, we came to know that our presence in the Persian Gulf was coming to an end due to an urgent need to withdraw our troops from some place called Somalia. Now, I had heard of Somalia, but wasn’t quite sure where it was. This was before access to the internet, so the only info we could get was from amongst ourselves which, if you’re following this story closely, didn’t exactly amount to a trove of erudition. So we’d ask, “Chief! What’s this place, Somalia?” Rather than admit he didn’t know either, we’d get, “Your new fucking home!”
And that was that. We changed to a Southern course and flight ops started running around the clock, with our crew dividing into shifts. We were allocated a reasonable amount of time to sleep, but were told in no uncertain terms that under combat conditions this could be reduced to just two hours, and even zero if we were under direct threat.
Then one day we came within sight of the African shore and the loudspeakers started going off. With no prior warning, we were told to man our stations. Having trained for months, we knew the drill, but, looking at the coastline, we saw that today was for real. The ship’s rear tilted slightly downward and the LCAC hovercrafts full of troops started pouring like hornets out the back. After that, we were called on spot to send off the Cobras, immediately followed by the A4 Harriers.
After an exhausting few hours, my smurf family returned to relaxing on our huge pile of cargo nets where we’d take off our helmets, send someone on a mission to secure these weird Asian Dr. Peppers and unwind, mostly by cracking jokes and insulting each other in an atmosphere of what people might today call “toxic masculinity”.
[Side note: this is a way that young males keep each other in line and from becoming arrogant monsters. It may not make sense from an emasculated modern perspective, but it does serve a purpose that isn’t completely bad. It has stopped many a young man from making poor decisions that would hurt others.]
Of all the “ball-busters”, Cadogan from New Jersey was the best. He had a way of cracking insults that, ironically, made you feel appreciated. I was sarcastically nicknamed “The Pope” because I sometimes attended the on-board church service and had once expressed my being fed up with some of the more crude talk they got up to when fantasizing what they were going to do when they got home. Yeah, I admit in retrospect, some of that stuff was just totally toxic. No doubt about it.
“Pattillo, you’re on spot”, Petty Officer Jones yelled out in his Jamaican accent from the corridor. I grabbed my helmet, goggles and ran out into the intense sunlight. On spot three was an Iroquois utility chopper (aka Huey), blades idle, being boarded by what seemed like more Marines than it could reasonably hold. A couple Navy guys in green gear wheeled out a cart that held a massive machine gun that they quickly mounted in the open door space. I held my position to the side, waiting for Petty Officer Barber, the yellow-vested director, to signal me in to remove the chains holding the craft to the flight deck. Sometimes we jokingly called the yellow-shirts ‘thin streaks of paralysed piss’, but very cautiously, as most of them were former smurfs that re-enlisted. They knew our game better than we did.
The blades whirred up, and after a minute or so, I was given the signal to shoot in. Ducking, despite that the blades were far above my headspace, I ran to the side of the craft, and, like I’d done hundreds of times, released the mechanism on the rear chain, removed it from the eyelets, threw it over my shoulder, ran to the front chain and threw that one in an ‘X’ pattern over the other shoulder. Then I scurried to the front nose of the helicopter and squatted, as per procedure, waiting on the signal from the yellow-shirt to run out of the radius of the blades back to my place on the side of the launch/landing spot.
Barber pointed at me with both hands, then made a sweeping motion to the side. I sprinted off-spot, knowing that every choreographed move was being watched with scrutiny, and even the slightest lapse in timing would get me cautioned by someone higher up in the pecking order. So I stood there attentively, eyes trained on Barber, ready to come back in and chain the helicopter back to the deck in a second’s notice. The command came down from the Air Boss to launch. Barber motioned the pilot into a hover position and then signalled for him to take off. The aircraft leaned slightly to the side gaining altitude, the blades sped up and everything seemed normal.
Then we all heard it. It sounded like a soda can being loudly crunched, followed by a metallic screech. The heads of all the crew pivoted towards the Huey as it veered off-balance, rotors whipping as it went completely sideways. Within seconds, it hit the surface of the ocean. We all dropped protocol and ran to the edge of the deck, only to see it rapidly submerge. I’m confident that every one of us wanted to dive in to help then ask questions later; but from that height, the impact would likely have been deadly, and we were drilled about that. There wasn’t enough time anyway, as the helicopter sank like a brick. What were we going to do? Tread water while holding up a heavy aircraft? A second later, a giant bubble surfaced and the sirens went off. Amazingly fast, a rescue boat was dropped and on site. But none of this was of any use. It sank so quickly that there was nothing anyone could have done. The personnel onboard didn’t even have time to unbuckle themselves before the Huey plummeted to the depths of the ocean in full view right in front of us.
Now, if you, the reader, are in any way thinking to yourself right now that these men do not deserve your respect, then please stop reading now, unsubscribe, and go fuck yourself. Twelve men died that day. Twelve comrades. Twelve sons. Twelve daddies. Twelve human beings who, for whatever their motivation, gave their lives in service to the betterment of the world. You may not understand it, you may not agree with the politics surrounding the situation, and that’s ok. But these men gave their lives to protect you and your freedom to express that opinion, whether you realise it or not. It shouldn’t be too hard to find something in your heart to honour them.
So we all stood in silence, looking at the foamy spot on the ocean surface that marked the point of submersion. Eventually, Chief called us off the deck, so we returned to our cargo net haven in a state of quiet despair. Instead of the laughter and dark humour, we all just sat there stunned in silence. Nobody said a word about it, even though we were all gutted emotionally.
After some hours, and subdued minimal conversation, the air support force returned and operations were back in full swing. We didn’t have time to grieve. Instead, we busted our asses landing, moving and securing aircraft like it was any other day.
That night we returned to our racks exhausted. The captain came on the intercom and said some words to honour the men, then asked us to pray for their families. As I stared up at the ceiling, I could hear the faint sounds of some of my shipmates trying to control their weeping. It was hard on our young minds to see death that close, but nobody felt comfortable revealing how affected they were.
Following the noble captain’s orders, I cried desperately in my mind, “Oh, God! Please help these families and bless the souls of these men.” My stomach shook as the intensity of grief smashed against the will to hold back my tears. I wasn’t alone in my struggle to reconcile the day’s events.
A few days later, Cadogen approached me to talk when we were alone in the berthing area during the day. He was visibly upset, so I stopped what I was doing and listened patiently. This thick-skinned Jersey boy had more heart than I ever realised, which made me want to be completely honest with him, “Man, I’m barely holding it together over here. I don’t have any real advice for you other than to pray to God for some light. That’s what I do.” He thanked me for my honesty.
Besides that, nobody ever talked of it. If the topic even remotely came up, there’d be a long, awkward pause until someone changed the subject. I never heard of any news reports back home either. It was just another day of thankless service.
I started to attend shipboard church services more regularly. They were led by a highly decorated and respected Warrant Officer; Elder Wallace Sr., a black American with an evangelistic bend. I’d been to his services on and off in the past but, after this incident, it seemed like he was empowered to speak to our hearts. He gave us solace and taught me that faith and love are there even in the darkest of times. He asked for an “Amen!” and I pushed myself out of my morose white religious comfort-zone and gave him one. Actually, I gave him many “Amens!” just because it felt good. Still does.
I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, but this story needed to come out. I’ve never really looked at it until recently, and I wrote it in tears.
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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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