Saturday, July 17, 2010

Out Into the Field

May 30, 2010: Helo Pad, Camp Bastion

At precisely 2135 my public affairs escort to the Helo Pad shows up and we load my gear into the back of a dusty beat up mini-van. My backpack is pretty heavy and there are black and blue welts on both my forearms from all the times I’ve slung it on and off the past couple days. It’s good to have a little help. I ask him what day it is and he tells me Saturday. I think it’s Friday.

The drive out to the “air head” is winding and long. With all the construction going on here the route changes daily. I really don’t know how these guys remember how to get out here in the dark. And it’s dark. There are no street lights and all the buildings and tents have strict black-out discipline. The only things visible are the runway lights and a dense mantle of stars.

The duty driver drops me off and I sign up for my flight-Angry Cat 05. The embarkation Marine behind the counter inside a small plywood building asks me for my “kill number” and I give him the number the folks at the Media Center at Kandahar gave me-KAF148. Our transaction ends with the code SWA DWR written on my left hand with a black Sharpie pen. I’m heading to a place called Camp Delhi and it falls on the flight route to Camp Dwyer, hence the DWR. The SWA is for Space A.

The flight’s scheduled to leave at 2335. I’m “Space A”, which means I could be pumped from the flight. There’s another plywood building with a refrigerator case full of cold water bottles covered in dust and seating. I’ve got two hours to poke around.

Inside the waiting room is a Navy corpsman escorting a wounded Afghan National Army soldier. The corpsman isn’t quite sure the story behind the man’s head wound. He was just asked to make sure he got on the right helo hop back to his base. The wounded soldier looks tired and frail. He’s very small in stature. He speaks no English and no interpreter is around. The corpsman goes over to the cooler and in a drinking motion with his hands asks the Afghan if he would like water-he does. The doc brushes dust off of it and hands it to him. The Afghan soldier has red finger nails. I find out later this is a common form of folk medicine and not adornment. He’s got a great face and leans his bandaged head on his right hand. Like most Afghanis, he returns your look with a direct piercing gaze. I draw him. He doesn’t move or look away. Like the help with my pack, this is also appreciated. I thank him and he nods back.

I go outside and with the deepening night the Milky Way becomes more pronounced. Mars sparkles a reddish-orange and the Big Dipper seems an arm’s reach away. A classic three quarter Moon, visible since before sunset, has distinct human features. There is the constant rumble of helicopters out on the flight line and the chairs in the waiting room vibrate under your hand.

Outside, waiting for a flight, I notice a figure sitting half in and out of the light suspended over the passenger assembly area just shy of the runway’s edge. His gear is carefully arranged around him and flooded in chiaroscuro light. This is a scene Caravaggio would have loved. I ask his permission to take some pics and he gives his OK.

The guys name is Tim Coderro and he’s a former Marine sergeant. At the moment Tim is working his way back to 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment where he’s a civilian contractor providing aid and advice on sensitive sites issues and detainees. Back in the world he was a cop in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Around midnight the embarkation Marine comes out of the first hut and announces that the birds are inbound and has us don our gear and line up for a final head count and hand check. Bats are swooping through the orb of light over our heads devouring moths. At midnight the two CH-53 helicopters of Angry Cat 05 arrive and we lean away from their blast of heat and dust covering our eyes. We wait hunched over from the weight of our packs as the helos are unloaded and reloaded. Finally word comes, tonight they’re taking no passengers-except Tim Coderro.

The public affairs duty driver comes out and retrieves me. The Navy corpsman and his charge return to a very long night in the waiting room.

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