Sniper’s Day Chapter 26

26

The Dream

Thursday, March 8, 2007

He’d had the dream only infrequently at Walter Reed and afterward at Camp Robinson, the lingering images then being vague and fleeting, nothing to hang on to. He knew it had something to do with being a sniper, but couldn’t recall the specific details, the only aftereffect an elusive feeling of dread.

However, since leaving Camp Robinson and moving into the apartment in Grand Island, the dream had begun to haunt his sleep more frequently and he was recalling more detail. Like all dreams, it had many bizarre elements.

In the dream he was leading a pack-laden donkey, part of a long train of hundreds of donkeys, so many stretching before and behind he couldn’t count them all.

He “knew” they were all smugglers, but of what he wasn’t sure.

And he “knew” the man in front of him, as well as the man behind him, in fact, every one of the endless line of donkey handlers was him.

At times they were on a trail in what was obviously the barren and rugged mountains he knew from the Kush. But other times they were surrounded by thick stands of pines, more like the White Mountains of Vermont where he’d been for his cold weather combat school. And sometimes he was in what was clearly desert, with cactus plants beside the trail and wind-swept buttes visible across wide valleys, like in central Texas where he’d done his basic training. And there was even a version where the “mountains,” which he had no doubt were mountains, looked more like abandoned and decaying high-rise buildings and the “trail” was a crumpled and potholed city street.

Yet, in every case, despite what his eyes told him, there was no doubt it was Afghanistan.

As a smuggler, he also “knew” there was a hidden sniper out there on a mountainside, ready to open fire on him and his doppelganger fellow handlers from long-range with a deadly Barrett .50 caliber. He “knew” whichever of the many hims the shooter chose to take out, all of the hims would die – one shot, a thousand kills.

The Barrett’s deadly reputation was notorious; its slug would arrive long before you heard the deep thud of its report, in truth, you’d never hear the report, as you’d already be dead before the sound ever reached your ears. So, he plodded forward, knowing death awaited, but not knowing when it might arrive.

But, strangely, he also “knew” he was the shooter, the one lurking unseen among the rocks, coldly surveying the line of handlers through his telescopic sight, carefully picking his target.

Eventually he, the shooter, squeezed the trigger…

But instead of the fleeting pain of a deadly bullet smashing into his body, he, the smuggler, heard the thud of the distant rifle’s report followed by a ping and whine as the bullet ricocheted from a rock nearby.

But that was impossible.

First, he should not have heard the gun fire before the shot arrived, as bullets from a Barrett .50 travel faster than the speed of sound.

Second, heavy, thumb-thick .50 caliber slugs don’t make ping-whine ricochet sounds, they make big, fist-size gouges in rocks.

And third, he, the shooter, had missed… But he, the shooter, didn’t miss… He, the shooter, had already taken out dozens and dozens of targets just like him, the smuggler, with never a miss…

Unless… He, the shooter, had missed him, the smuggler, on purpose…

Which is when he would wake up.

The dream always left him with hazy feelings of confusion and relief; relief he had not died, confusion over what the dream might be saying.

All dreams have a message, even if we don’t always understand it, or for that matter, want to understand it. Was it a death wish? Or the opposite, a life wish? Was he supposed to kill himself? But then why did he spare his own life with a miss? Was it some sort of release valve, simply letting off repressed anxiety so he could continue to function day-to-day? Or was it a message that the thrill of the hunt was missing for him, the exhilaration of a life almost continuous on the edge he had known in the Kush was now sapped?

Next: No dishonorable death

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 25

25

Many Names

Thursday, March 8, 2007

He had arrived at Camp Robinson for his new job on time, in late October of 2006. Depending on how you looked at it, his “government issue” apartment was either cramped or cozy. For Meese it was neither; it was just the place to go after work. It had all the conventional furnishings, reflective of a “second-hand chic” style. The rooms all performed the traditional functions they’d been assigned – the gun room wouldn’t come along until the move to Grand Island.

But eventually it evolved into a place where he brooded – a lot! And what he tended to struggle with were his multiple – and often conflicting – identities. Although he never actually asked the question in so many words, it all revolved around: Who was Wade Meese, really?

Among the recruits and instructors at Camp Robinson he was Mr. Meese, always said with respect and a tinge of admiration. They all knew he’d been a special ops sniper in Afghanistan. Anyone who had done several tours in that hell hole, let alone been involved in special ops – even if they didn’t know, weren’t allowed to know the particulars of those ops – deserved respect and admiration.

For the eight or ten hours a day, five days a week – which often included weekends, depending on the recruits’ schedules – he spent on base, life had a semblance of normalcy. He could hang out with his kind of people, other military types; he helped prepare raw recruits for combat; he could be around guns all the time; he had a mission.

But it was the push-pull of trying to balance his other three identities that kept him awake at night, literally.

Most snipers acquire a nickname, usually a variation of being a sharpshooter, like “deadeye” or “one shot;” a handle full of bravado meant for public acknowledgment. Especially if they are part of a sniper team they write books or make movies about, or who compete in the respected International Sniper’s Competition at Fort Benning, Georgia, each fall, so their names get mentioned with awe.

Meese’s sniper’s handle was Natty. It was the name other soldiers, other snipers, knew him by; it was a name the recruits and training officers at the counter-sniper school were aware of, but seldom used.

But it was the third and fourth names that were the cause of his agonizing.

When he was on a mission, his special ops code name known only to and used by a limited few was “Never There,” which he’d acquired thanks to Irwin.

Whenever Irwin delivered a clandestine mission briefing and had outlined where Natty was supposed to be going in the Wakhan Corridor region to interdict a smuggler’s convoy, especially if it meant crossing the border into a neighboring country, he would inevitably end the briefing with the comment directed at his sniper, “And remember, you were never there.”

Along the way “never there” somehow evolved into a proper noun: Never There
.
It was Never There who had more than eighty unconfirmed long-distance kills. It was Never There who could have been – should have been – recognized as one of Afghanistan’s deadliest snipers. Yet Never There didn’t exist, except in some highly classified reports secreted away in an intelligence agency’s files no one would ever see.

Which is what then gave an ironic twist to his fourth name, a nickname he’d acquired among the smugglers that had been his targets and shared by one of the CIA’s informants: Skassa, which in Pashto roughly translated as “ghost” or “specter.”

It was Skassa who was such a pain in the ass to the Taliban they’d mounted an expensive operation to try to take him out, and nearly succeeded.

It was Skassa who had beaten grim odds, certainly scathed, but had nonetheless survived.

It was as Skassa he was more and more tending to think of himself, identify with; a ghost walking through life, only existing in a limbo state, neither dead nor alive.

Skassa was the name he was most proud of, maybe even more proud of than his given name.

He found holding the Python and being in the company of the other guns did help keep the demons away… As did a regular shot of bourbon in his hot chocolate.

But it was because of the recurring dream he was now afraid to sleep; a dream that would ultimately determine the final trajectory of his life…

Next: The dream

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 24

(NOTE: Starting today, I will try to be publish two chapters a week from “Sniper’s Day.”)

24

The Colt Python

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Perhaps it started when a poster for a local gun show on a bulletin board in the Camp Robinson base canteen caught his attention and he’d gone out of curiosity. Or at least it’s what he told himself at the time, the true reason being he didn’t have anything else to do.

There were literally hundreds of guns; every imaginable kind of gun. Of course, he already knew guns came in a great variety of shapes and sizes; he’d personally fired many kinds of weapons as part of his military training, but actually seeing such a vast array for the first time awakened something in him, he was beguiled.

He spent the entire afternoon wandering among the gun-laden tables, looking, touching, hefting, relishing the pervasive, over-ripe banana-like “perfume” of gun oil.

There were the weapons he was familiar with, the numerous variations of the standard military issue AR-style carbine and nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun.

There were civilian versions of the Barrett sniper rifle he knew so well, hyped by a gun dealer as “perfect for long-range hunting,” which he found funny, as there wasn’t much left of anything hit with one of its slugs.

There were tiny semi-automatics, what another dealer told him were “great girl guns, excellent protection for your wife or girlfriend,” although he had neither.

There were all sorts of shotguns, from conventional double barrels and pumps to one with a drum feed holding a hundred rounds, what yet another dealer touted as the “ultimate doomsday weapon.”

It was halfway through the afternoon when he saw it: A Colt Python with its iconic four-inch barrel in the traditional shiny silver nickel finish. If there can be such a thing as love at first sight for an inanimate object, it was true for Meese. Of course, the dealer hadn’t intended to be at all ironic, but next to the Python on one side was a big 1911 frame .45, that to Meese looked almost brutish, while on the other was a Walther PPK, James Bond’s preferred weapon, it was “pretty.”

But for him the Colt’s lines and proportions, especially in juxtaposition to its neighbors, spoke of power, but at the same time elegance. He bought it without haggling over the two-thousand-dollar-plus price tag, the dealer rationalizing the model was being discontinued and its value as a collector’s piece would only increase.

Except, Meese could’ve cared less about it as an investment; for him it wasn’t simply a deadly tool meant for self-defense, it felt more like a personal totem, an object with which he had connected on a gut level; it was the beginning of the gunroom.

Since then he’d bought five more Pythons, including a six-inch barrel; a long, competition-length barrel; a “snub nose” two-inch barrel; and two in a dark, royal blue finish. The Pythons alone had put a noticeable dent in his savings, to say nothing of the more than a dozen other weapons now in his collection.

Some people entertain themselves by watching sports on TV, reading Louis L’Amour westerns, partying with friends, building and flying model airplanes, browsing pornography on the Internet. Wade Meese’s idea of “fun” was to go into the gunroom and disassemble and clean, in fact, reclean his weapons. While each one was loaded, he had never actually fired any of them.

He saw nothing the least bit peculiar about his hobby.

Next: Meese’s many names

© 2019 Dave Lager

There’s no such thing as too much agonizing

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

James A. Michener (1907-1997)

I know all the professional advice is to get it on paper – well, today it’s as a saved document on my computer – as quickly as possible and then to do the editing later. But I can’t get there, I have to do at least some correcting and rewriting as I go. I think it’s my journalism background, which was so deadline driven – you have to get the story out now, you can’t save a news story for a revision the next day. That said, I am certainly not claiming my manuscripts are anything like complete and correct when the first draft is done, believe me, there is plenty – plenty! – of editing and rewriting of my Ro novels later.

Nancy often observes, “You’re doing too much agonizing over that chapter.”

To which I respond, “For a writer there is no such thing as ‘too much agonizing’.”

Sniper’s Day Chapter 23

Part Two: Grand Island, Illinois

23

Gunroom

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Wade Meese had never been a particularly contemplative man; pretty much taking life as it came, doing what needed to be done, then moving on. But now, sitting here in…

What? In his head he simply thought of it as “the gunroom,” but for him it was more than that, it was a sanctuary. Just as some people find comfort sitting in a room full of books or surrounded by art works, he felt reassured around the guns.

Officially, it was the bedroom of a small apartment in Grand Island, Illinois, where he finally landed after leaving Camp Robinson, when, as part of a budget-driven BRAC – base realignment and closure – move, the sniper school was relocated to Texas and all of the Arkansas civilian employees were laid off.

Except, there was no bed in the bedroom.

There was the high-backed, over-stuffed easy chair in which he was sitting – and in which he did most of his sleeping – the slightly over two-pound heft of a favorite Colt Python resting on his lap. On a small table next to the chair was a half-empty, restaurant-size jar of peanut butter from which he frequently took a spoonful – no crackers or bread, only the smooth peanut butter – and a freshly brewed mug of hot chocolate mixed with two-fingers of bourbon.

There was a tatty metal desk strewn with gun cleaning equipment and a roll-around office chair to sit on while he worked – he’d also learned he could rest his right knee on the chair’s seat and use his left foot to propel himself around the apartment sans the prosthetic foot. The only light in the room came from a swing-arm draftsman’s lamp over the desk, the one small window covered over with poster board taped in place. Yes, so no one could see in, but also because he wasn’t at all interested in looking out.

There were three, five-shelf bookcases. He’d moved several shelves from one case to another, so it now had seven shelves with a dozen handguns resting on folded towels, all with a strong military or law enforcement heritage – several more variations of the Python, a Kimber Desert Warrior 1911 .45, a Smith & Wesson snub nose .38, a Ruger Super Redhawk .480 and a Colt Single Action Army (Peacemaker).

Then he’d used a handheld reciprocating saw to cut notches in the first bookcase’s remaining shelves, which now held five long guns in upright positions – a Sig Sauer M400, a Henry Golden Boy .22, a Remington 870 12-gauge, a Barrett M107a1 .50 and a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.

The third bookcase’s shelves hosted nearly a hundred books found in bookshops and online, all devoted to guns – historical guns, sports guns, handguns, military guns – and…

On the top shelf rested a sixteen by fourteen frame. In a row across the top were his Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Airman’s Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, and Combat Readiness medal; below each were the medal’s four associated ribbons. In another row were five more ribbons – Air Force Long Tour Ribbon, Air Force Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon, Air Force Meritorious Unit Award, and Air Force Longevity Service Ribbon. Side-by-side at the bottom were his Senior Airman’s stripes and the globe and lightning bolt motif of his Afghanistan unit patch, the 455th Air Expeditionary Group. It was the only example of what could be considered “art” anywhere in the apartment.

There was a single bed out in the living room, rarely used; lying flat only deepened his feelings of anxiety, to him it felt too much like being in a coffin.

As Meese had always preferred asking “how” questions rather than “why” questions, he was wondering how he ended up here, what the turning point might have been somewhere along the way leading to feeling so utterly purposeless. It would be easy if he could point to a single “big event” and say, “Ah, yes, that was the pivotal moment.”

But he couldn’t think of only one; rather, it was more like there were these cumulative effects – what’s the word they use when chemical elements amplify one another; synergistic? – of many small “ones” over the last not quite year-and-a-half.

Next: It started with a Colt Python

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 22

22

Separation

Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005

The name plate on the separation specialist’s desk said Ms. Slocum, ABM. On the wall behind her slightly battered, classic government utilitarian metal desk were more than a dozen framed certificates of completion for advanced training and meritorious service awards, plus eight-by-ten photographs of her with top Air Force brass. A middle-aged African American woman, she turned out to be anything but the officious and condescending bureaucrat he’d heard stories about.

“Senior Airman,” she said as she rose, gesturing for him to sit, “Congratulations on the promotion and the Airman’s Medal, they don’t give those out easily.”

Last week he’d been ordered, along with more than a dozen other patients at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s amputee rehabilitation unit in Washington, D.C., to report for a ceremony; BDUs – battle dress uniform, otherwise known as “fatigues” – were permitted.

What Meese had expected was more or less routine decorations, like a Good Conduct Medal or the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, but was surprised when, instead, he’d been promoted to Senior Airman, the Air Force’s equivalent of a corporal, and been awarded the Airman’s Medal for “meritorious service,” details understandably unspecified. It was the Air Force’s next decoration above a Bronze Star.

Swinging her chair around to a metal table mostly covered with neat stacks of forms, she poured a mug of coffee – it bore the Air Force logo – from a carafe, and glanced over her shoulder, “Cream or sugar?”

“Black’s fine.”

Turning back, she handed him the coffee and with a smile said, “I’m afraid you’re going to find getting out of the Air Force is a little harder than getting in – for that you just signed one enlistment form.” Gesturing over her shoulder at the piles of papers, she added, “We have a few more than that to go over.”

Following the rescue, he’d stayed at the Bagram base hospital a few days for evaluation and to stabilize his condition, then spent a week at the big hospital in Kabul before being flown to the military’s top overseas hospital at Ramstein, Germany. Over several weeks, medics had tried a variety of techniques to save his right foot and the toes on his left, but in mid-August had amputated the foot below the ankle and the four lesser toes. He’d then been flown to Walter Reed to be fitted for a prosthetic right foot, to have toe implant surgery on his left and to learn to walk again. He was now ready to be sent “home.”

For nearly two hours she went through one form after another, explaining in detail what each involved, which he then had to sign. There was a non-disclosure agreement to not discuss the specific nature of his assignments. There was a hold-harmless form that said the Air Force had given him adequate medical care and he would not sue them. There was a form accepting his monthly disability payment. There was a form acknowledging he had been given information on the many veteran’s benefits available.

But there were a couple of surprises as well. For one, she handed him half-a-dozen more small boxes with a variety of additional medals and ribbons. The biggest, though, was a check for a hundred-thousand-dollars, his “separation assistance” payment. While he’d known there were such payments to soldiers disabled in the line to duty, the surprise was, as Ms. Slocum explained in quite casual terms, like it happened all the time, the Air Force’s usual payment amount had been “augmented” by another, unnamed government agency.

As Meese had no family to send money home to, and, as he’d mostly been in remote stations with relatively few places to spend money, at least places attractive to him, over his three-and-a-half years in the Air Force he’d saved much of his salary. Which meant he was now about to be separated from the service with a comfortable nest egg of almost two-hundred-thousand dollars.

At not quite eleven o’clock, Ms. Slocum said, “Well, we’re down to the last two forms, Airman, thank you for your patience. They’re your final separation papers, which say you are being honorably discharged, and your travel papers…where you want us to send you from here.”

That was the question he’d been dreading: Where do you want to go from here?

For just about every one of his fellow rehabilitees “going home” – returning to where there were spouses or significant others, mothers and dads, siblings, other relatives, friends – was the number one topic of conversation. But there were none of those in his life. He’d never known his father; he’d been raised by a single mom, who, as far as he knew, was currently living with someone somewhere in the east. Yes, he’d probably make an effort to go see her at some point, but for all intents and purposes Wade Meese had no “home” to go home to. The closest thing he could think of was Grand Island, Illinois, where he’d grown up; at best, a “home” by default.

But then Ms. Slocum hit him with the third surprise. “Before we get to those, there’s a lieutenant colonel in the conference room next door waiting to see you. I suspect what he wants to talk to you about might influence your travel plans.”

Meese scrunched his face into a what-the-hell look.

Seeing his incredulous expression, Ms. Slocum said, “I think he wants to offer you a job.”

Glancing down at his prosthetic right foot with a rueful smile, he said, “Well, my curiosity is raised about what kind of job a light colonel, no less, thinks I’m qualified for?”

Pushing himself up from the arms of the chair, he leaned his cane against her desk, “If you don’t mind, I’ll leave this with you.”

“Certainly.”

He had found that on smooth, level ground he could walk for short distances without the cane, although with a noticeable limp; however, for the uneven surfaces of parking lots and sidewalks the steadiness his “third leg” was necessary.

***

“Colonel,” Meese said as he stepped into the room, executing a salute.

The officer returned the salute and gestured for him to join him at a metal conference table that had seen better days.

“Thanks for coming to see me, Airman.”

“No problem, Sir,’ Meese said, as if there’d really been a choice.

“First, I want you to know how much we appreciate and respect your service to your country,” he said, offering his hand, “your Airman’s Metal was well-deserved.”

“Thank you.” Meese took the hand, wondering how much the colonel really knew about his missions in Afghanistan, but also getting the feeling he was being buttered-up.

“Now, I’m sure you’re curious as to why I wanted to see you.”

“Yes…”

“I trust you remember your time at Robinson… Do you recall the civilian advisors that helped conduct classes and met with sniper candidates, like mentors?”

Meese did indeed recall them, although hadn’t thought of them in years. He nodded.

“I’m the commandant of Camp Robinson. I’m here to ask you to join my staff as one of those civilian advisors. With your field experience, you would be an incredibly rich resource for my recruits. You would carry a civilian pay grade roughly equivalent to a sergeant. And we even have an off-base apartment we can offer at no cost as an added inducement, although it’s not very fancy.”

Of course, the colonel had no clue he’d handed Wade Meese an expedient way to put off the where-do-I-want-to-go-from-here dilemma.

“When do I start?”

“If you think Ms. Slocum can find you a way to Arkansas in under ten days, would a week from Monday do? I believe it would be the thirty-first…”

Next: Moving “home”

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 21

21

Rescue

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The three other PJs set the stretcher down below his feet, as the hide between the boulders was too narrow to place it beside him. He could glimpse the fifth man beyond the rocks turning this way and that, checking the perimeter.

The lead PJ, a tech sergeant, still with his hand on Meese’s shoulder, leaned over, “Natty, you understand we need to lift you onto the stretcher. Your joints are all locked up from laying here so long, and…” He glanced down at Meese’s feet, not having to articulate the obvious. “Anyway, I’m gonna give you a shot for the pain. Okay?”

Meese nodded.

He helped Meese pull an arm out of the sleeping bag, then pushed up the sleeve and using a spring injector that looked for all the world like a ballpoint pen, administered the shot. The effect was amazingly fast; he felt warm and weightless.

They peeled down Meese’s camo tarp, rolled it up and stuffed it among some nearby rocks.

Then the four PJs each grasped a corner of Meese’s sleeping bag and at the tech sergeant’s nod lifted him onto the stretcher and strapped him in; there was no pain.

“We’ve got a little over a mile to the ‘copter,” the tech sergeant said. “Shouldn’t take us more than a few minutes.”

Even though he was now feeling a little hazy, Meese knew the “few” minutes was probably closer to thirty.

The four PJs each took a corner of the stretcher and started out. They passed the carcass of the ibex Meese had killed, now nothing but scattered bones, though its horns were still intact, and continued along the path for another several hundred yards to pass the rocks and start down the slope below where the Pave Low was parked, it’s blades still turning slowly.

As they started down, the tech sergeant said, “Let’s hold it guys.” He leaned over Meese. “The spy bird has spotted a helicopter taking off from the Russian base. We’re gonna double-time it to see if we can get the hell out of here as soon as we can, so hold on.”

Meese heard the whine of the Pave Lowe’s rotors revving up to prepare for a quick take-off. While he did feel himself being jostled around on the stretcher as they jogged down, it was more like riding on a gently rocking trampoline.

After they slid the stretcher in and climbed aboard the helicopter, the tech sergeant put a hand to the ear of his helmet, like he was listening, then smiled.

“The spy bird says the helo is too small to be a Hind and is moving north, not west,” he explained, “looks like we’re in the clear.”

Then turning to two of his colleagues, he said. “Hey guys, help me sit Natty up, I’ll bet he’s hungry and there’s a present for him from Irwin.”

Lifting under his armpits, they braced him against a rear bulkhead. Having not been upright in a week, it made him dizzy.

The tech sergeant first produced a thermos bottle, unscrewed the stopper, poured several ounces of the liquid into a cup and handed it to Meese. “Irwin thought you might enjoy this.” It was hot chocolate…with bourbon. The warmth of the cup in his hands was exquisite, the chocolatey smell was delicious, and the silky, rich cocoa taste of the first sip was wonderful.

“Take it slow, please,” the tech sergeant said, but with a mischievous grin. “I don’t need you upchucking on my deck.”

Meese did indeed take small sips, partly because he wanted to savor the experience, and partly because it was hard to swallow.

After a few minutes the tech sergeant retrieved a sandwich from a small cooler, unwrapped it and handed it to Meese.

“Here’s something else Irwin said you might like.” It was peanut butter and jelly. “Personally, I’d prefer a ham on rye with mustard and Swiss cheese, along with a cold beer…but if peanut butter’s your delicacy, have at it.”

But his smile said he was teasing Meese, trying to keep things light.

***

For twenty minutes Meese took small bites from the sandwich and small sips from the hot chocolate, and while his brain was telling him to gobble it down because he was ravenously hungry, his stomach was telling him the opposite, slow down or I will toss it back up.

He handed the partially eaten sandwich and the nearly emptied cup back to the tech sergeant, “Thanks…I think I’ll save the rest for later.”

“No problem,” he said. “We’ll be linking up with the second bird in a few minutes, then a couple of hours flying time back to base.” Glancing around, he added, “Look, while this place ain’t no sauna, it is gonna warm you up and you’ll start feeling some pain in your joints and feet… So, I’m giving you another shot. If it makes you sleepy, let it. Then you’ll wake up in the hospital at Bagram, with a whole bunch of cute nurses hovering over you.”

***

It wasn’t cute nurses Meese saw when he woke up, but Irwin, wearing of all things a smile.

Next: Getting out of the Air Force is a little harder than getting in

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 20

20

PJs

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

It was kind of fun to watch the crew breakdown the camp, because, of course, as they progressed it meant he was closer and closer to a rescue.

The cook made everyone a big, sit-down breakfast at sunrise; then, after preparing sandwiches for later, began packing up his kitchen gear.

Meese was right, the two Sherps and a few final crates were loaded onto the Chinook at a little after one o’clock. It soon took-off and in its familiar nose down position moved up the valley; he watched it with the monocular until it finally disappeared in the distant haze.

He called in to Irwin they could now move to phase two but knew there were still several more hours to wait, because one part of the plan included a built-in cushion, to make sure the transport didn’t circle back, having forgotten something.

The other part, the more crucial part, was that if the Russians followed their regular patrol pattern, one of the Hinds would overfly the valley later in the afternoon, heading west. To cover this contingency, an Air Force high altitude spy bird was circling above the Wakhan Corridor in Afghani air space, but still able to spot the Russian helicopter taking off from the base at the east end of the lake. They also wanted to wait because with the westbound patrol on their schedule, Russian radar operators would be more focused in that direction, and even though the Pave Low planned to fly nap of the earth to reach Meese’s position, hopefully well below any radar, they didn’t want to take any chances.

Irwin and Meese were birds of a feather in their thoroughness and attention to detail.

***

The Hind did overfly Meese’s position at a little after three, as expected. He didn’t call it in, though, because he knew “they” already knew from the aerial surveillance. But he did celebrate by squeezing the last couple of ounces of his peanut butter into his mouth, letting it slowly dissolve, for the moment quieting the growling from his stomach.

***

Twilight was an hour away. The Russian Hind had to be at least a couple hundred miles to the west by now and the radar spotters at the Lake Zorkul base should be getting bored and less attentive. Meese’s sat phone vibrated. He activated it and heard a single word, “Go.”

He didn’t have to say anything, but probably couldn’t have even if he’d wanted to, as his throat was choked with emotion; his rescue was underway for real.

***

He heard the unique thrumming of the Pave Low’s six-blade main rotor coming up the Pamir River gorge for twenty minutes before its grey and tan bulk swung into view out over the valley from the right. In contrast to the sleek lines of the Eurocopter, or the menacing quality of a Hind, the Pave Low had a strictly no-frills, utilitarian aspect. Meese had never seen anything so beautiful.

It flew a short way up the valley, then did a one-eighty, its windowed cockpit now facing the ridge he had been hiding on top of for nearly a week. Using his elbows, he scooted forward to the edge and waved; it was all the effort he could manage. He didn’t need his monocular to see the pilot wave back.

The pilot then jerked his thumb to the right, telling Meese they intended to land on the valley floor at the base of a manageable upslope a mile to his north. It was as close as the big bird could safely get to his position.

After setting down, its nose now facing south, toward their escape route, he watched the helicopter’s side doors slide back and six men jump out, all wearing tan jumpsuits with the squiggly brown camo pattern, like worms were crawling all over them. Two had their M4s in the across-the-chest position; they moved away from the helicopter and did a three-sixty visual survey to secure the landing zone.

The other four, their carbines slung over shoulders, pulled a basket stretcher from the helicopter and started up the side of the valley at double-time.

One of the rifle-at-the-ready PJs stayed with the helicopter, the other followed the rescuers, guarding their six.

Meese watched until they disappeared from his line of sight behind the rocks three-quarters of the way up, confused because he was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.

He knew it wasn’t from the cold, as the “summer” temperatures up here were usually in the upper-teens and low twenties and his cold-weather jump suit, sleeping bag and tarp had been more than enough to keep him warm.

So, maybe it was just a low blood sugar reaction from lack of food.

Or maybe he was simply overcome with excitement over his impending reprieve from what could have been – should have been? – a death sentence.

***

He waited until he heard the crunching of multiple boots approaching in quick time on the path behind him. While he was successful in rolling over onto his back, he failed in trying to sit up to greet his rescuers; his joints were stiff and uncooperative, his muscles weak and unable to support his weight, and there was no feeling below the knees.

A moment later one of the PJs appeared between the rocks a few feet from the bottom of his tarp, looking down at him.

He had a big smile, “You the guy who called for a taxi?”

It was so typically PJ-low key… It was so unbelievably absurd under the circumstances… And it was so amazing to hear… Meese lost it. He cried and laughed and shuck, all at the same time, choking on sheer joy, wanting to, but unable to say anything.

The PJ knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.

“We gotcha, man. You’re gonna be okay.”

All Natty Bumpo could manage was to grin and nod…

Next: Personally, I’d prefer a ham on rye with mustard and Swiss cheese, and a cold beer

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 19

19

Trophy Buck

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

If the mountain had indeed had it in for Wade Meese yesterday, he must have won the test of wills, because on Tuesday, the fourteenth day since the ambush, his luck changed.

As usual, the first Sherp left camp at sunrise to systematically work its way eastward, starting from his end of the valley. He watched until it stopped at the base of the slope close to four miles away, even with the monocular nothing but a squarish red dot resting in a sea of grass. But the spotters must have sighted an attractive target because the second Sherp left camp twenty minutes later with its driver and cargo of hunters.

He watched it crawl across the valley floor until it joined the first. At his extreme distance he couldn’t make out any distinct figures of ibex or humans moving about, so didn’t know what was actually happening; what’s more, the wind was at his back, so he wasn’t even likely to hear any rifle reports.

After nearly two hours the two Sherps started back to camp.

When the first arrived, its side doors flew open, the three hunters quickly jumped out, handed off their rifles to nearby red-suited attendants, and ran to meet the second vehicle.

He raised an eyebrow: Maybe…

When it turned into the camp, even from two miles away Meese could tell the ibex strapped to a rack on the back was an unusually large buck with a twin set of horns completely out of proportion to its body size – they were so long they even curled back on themselves, which he knew was a rarity.

Maybe… He wouldn’t, couldn’t, allow his thoughts to go further along that line; not yet.

As soon as the second Sherp stopped, the three hunters and several of the worker bees gathered around; one of the worker bees produced a tape measure and made a show of checking the ibex’s horn. He held the tape up for everyone to see, like a fisherman boasting about a big catch.

Maybe… Meese’s spirits rose when he saw lots of high fives and hand shaking. It looked like the young principal was getting most of the attention, as if he was the one to bring down what they obviously considered a prize trophy.

The cook produced a bottle – which he assumed was vodka; what else? – and what looked like white plastic foam cups for everyone and there were many toasts. After a few moments they all moved under the open sided pavilion and the cook produced what appeared to be a treat – caviar with crackers? – and then began preparations for a meal.

The group ate and drank for nearly two hours, with many more toasts accompanying the food. He grinned at the sight of all that food, but it was a rueful smile as he had had only two energy bars to eat over the last four days. While he couldn’t hear what was being said under the tent, their body language certainly suggested it was a celebratory party.

When the principals finally rose from their table and headed for their tents, everyone else followed suit. The camp was quiet for several hours, long enough for Meese to doze off.

What woke him was the whine of the Eurocopter’s engine starting up.

Maybe this is what they’ve been waiting for, he couldn’t hold off a surge of hopefulness any longer, they’ll pack up and leave.

It was past four-thirty when the principals emerged from their tent with three attendants carrying bags and made their way to the helicopter. It took off and headed east, toward the other end of the valley.

His hopes soared: Maybe I’m not gonna die out here alone…

He felt like he could have high-fived the bear if the critter had still been around. He thought of calling Irwin to share the news, but then second guessed himself, wanting to make sure they were, in fact, leaving; he didn’t need another disappointment.

He watched the man tentatively identified as the foreman-type begin issuing orders to the worker bees and while they took their time about it – still hungover? – they started emptying the center tent of crates, folding tables and chairs and sleeping cots and hauling them to the Chinook.

It was all the “proof” Meese needed: He made the call.

He told Irwin he thought it would take the crew at least until the next afternoon to have everything packed and loaded on the big transport helicopter.

Irwin agreed they would execute phase one of the ex-fil plan after midnight tonight, which meant sending a pair of MH-53 M Pave Low IIIs – the Air Force’s venerable workhorse search and rescue helicopter – in his direction from Bagram Airfield.

One would be carrying extra fuel for the two birds, as the roundtrip from Bagram deep into Afghanistan’s Panhandle and back was at the upper end of their range.

The second would be carrying a half-dozen Air Force Pararescuers, respectfully and affectionately known as “PJs” to the many downed pilots and special ops types like Meese they had snatched from harm’s way behind enemy lines.

Using their night flight capability, the two helicopters would fly as far as a pass through the Nicholas Mountains on the Afghani side of the Pamir River fifty miles to Meese’s west and wait there for his update the camp had been cleared and the Chinook had taken off.

Then the PJs would come fetch him.

Next: You the guy who called for a taxi?

© 2019 Dave Lager

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