Go with It

Posted: January 10, 2019 in military, nonfiction, psychology, real life, survival

As our plane began to land in Baghdad, it went dark. The crew extinguished the cabin lights, floor lighting, exit lights, indicators. The resulting black consumed us, startling and unnerving. It felt so unnatural to be floating in a darkened aircraft. If it weren’t for the engines still vibrating under the wings, the plane could have been mistaken for coasting dead. A few passengers tugged their window shades down to solidify the darkness.

The more experienced contractor beside me leaned over.

“They go dark so hostiles can’t target the plane from the ground as we land. They’ll use any small bit of light,” he whispered. “Oh, and be prepared for the evasive landing.”

He eased back into his own seat, gathered up his phone, and brought the bright screen to his face, a tiny beacon of light broadcasting to the open window. Confusion contorted my brow as I stared at him, dumbfounded. If a seatbelt light could get a rocket launched at us, why did he have his phone blazing in his face? It near-blinded me against the dark. I just kept looking from him to the open window beside us.

The plane descended toward the small lights below as my heart ascended into my throat. The shapes on the ground dilated in size. Pinpoints of light grew into buildings and roads; the dots articulated into the darkened city. My body automatically braced itself out of practice, habit from so many plane landings. I knew what the final descent should feel like, the way a gentle suspense gripped the air until the ground hopped up into the tires. Instead, the plane glided down then banked sharply. I groped startled at my armrest.

Anxiously, I glanced around me. No other passengers reacted. No one spoke. They sat as if nothing happened. The man beside me remained glued to his glowing phone, inviting the enemy to shoot us down.

The evasive landing.

No one else reacted, so I took a deep breath and went with it.

As I stepped out of the plane and onto the gravel in the surprisingly cold Iraqi night, I smelled only shit and burnt fireworks. I stood alone, unsure where I needed to go next—a 25-year-old female civilian contractor in an active warzone.

A week later, after I had been placed in my freezing trailer, been orientated to camps Victory, Liberty, and Slayer, and began riding the first unfathomable wave of homesickness, I headed to lunch with two fellow software trainers. Bored with the low level of service requests in the training trailer, Charlie and Ed decided we should venture away from the main dining facility (DFAC) and burn time traveling in the dented, dusty Mitsubishi Pajero to one farther from our trailer.

In the DFAC, we sat on metal folding chairs at plastic tables. Charlie hunched across from me, a tapestry of tattoos crawling from his jaw to his hands. Ed rest beside me in a bright blue polo shirt and fauxhawk. I nibbled on my grilled cheese and cantaloupe as they attempted to dazzle or unnerve me with their military stories, as always.

A siren shrieked through the air. The sound snatched my breath, tangled it in my throat. The piercing tone was followed by a flat voice repeating, “Incoming imminent. Incoming imminent.”

I threw wide eyes at Ed then Charlie. They continued to eat uninterrupted as if they had heard nothing at all. The third country national (TCN) workers came flooding out from the kitchen and huddled under the flimsy tables. Soldiers sat on the floor and crouched beside the buffet lines. I looked around at all the people on the floor, waiting.

“They do that because the kitchen doesn’t have any T-walls,” Charlie said, still chewing. “A while ago, a rocket landed on a kitchen. Killed all the TCNs.”

Ed sat casually, gathering a bite on his fork as he watched the TCNs unaffected. My heart battered my ribs. I tried to force out calm breaths and keep my face slack as my eyes roamed. My back tightened, and my posture stiffened.

Charlie looked at me.

“Look, there’s not a damn thing sitting under this table is going to do if a rocket hits this DFAC. If it’s our time, it’s our time,” he said, shrugging and looking down to his food.

They both resumed eating. I sliced my melon with shaking hands and shoved a bite into my mouth, unable to taste it. I took a breath and went with it.

The all clear sounded, followed by an annoying series of tones. Whining smoke detectors replaced the noise to complain about the unattended food left burning. Gradually, everyone got up and returned to their stations. Back to normal, like nothing ever happened.

Later that shift, I sat at my desk in the trailer, letting my fingers dance on the dusty keys of my laptop. I typed away, jamming software procedures into a user guide when a whooshing sound rippled past the trailer, nearly indistinguishable from the sound of an incoming helicopter as it crossed the wire and passed over us.

A boom echoed off in the distance; then a small vibration rumbled against the soles of my boots. Another deeper sound erupted in response, closer and louder. A ripping burst then a pause followed by crackling explosions in the air. I tensed and looked toward the ceiling as if I could see something of what was happening.

“C-RAM,” one of the guys mumbled.

A second rocket hit, far away. A second C-RAM answered.

The trailer fell silent, thick with anticipation, waiting for more. Another rocket, another C-RAM to rebut it. That burnt smell swelled in the air, so thick it spread onto my tongue, that same smell that assaulted me at my first step off the plane.

A voice in the distance declared the all clear, transient as if broadcast from a helicopter. Soldiers arrived in the trailer for accountability, to ensure we were all present and still alive. As we stood in the dark beside our T-wall lined with a single strand of Christmas lights, our jingle T-wall, we heard the sirens traveling in the distance. The rockets had hit something.

In the dark, I took a breath and went with it.

 

Christina Bergling

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Comments
  1. A vivid and important slice of real life….Thank you for sharing it, for informing those of us nestled safely in our beds what it costs to have that privilege…

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