Sometimes the enemy is not the biggest threat to life out here in the slums south of the airport. War is a dangerous environment to be in; even when you take away the insurgency and everything that goes along with it. We all drive, ride, or fly around in over-sized death machines designed to inflict the most damage on the enemy, but those same vehicles can also put the operator and everyone else in danger. We all heard the stories of HMMWV roll overs and how dangerous they can be. We also heard all about how dangerous it can be in the back of a Bradley if it ends up rolling off the edge of a road. The one we haven’t heard about as much though is all the helicopters that have crashed so far in the first year plus of this war.
We probably wouldn't have even really bothered to think about it, because the only time we ever really interact with the Apaches and Kiowa birds in our sector is if we are searching for someone or if we have come under heavy fire and need air support. The latter of those has yet to happen, thankfully, but the former is a weekly occurrence. Often times, the Kiowa’s are the ones doing the air surveillance for us and usually do not stick around long enough to worry about taking any kind of enemy fire. As far as I know, they are not equipped with any kind of weapon system. They generally will just fly around, buzz the area, and fly back to base or wherever it is they deploy out of. Before tonight, I hadn't really even given much of a second thought to the Kiowa flights, since the Apaches are the ones who do the job of protecting us from the air. Sadly, because of what happened earlier tonight, the Kiowas are all that is on my mind now.
I mentioned how inadvertently dangerous our war machines are, but nothing had prepared me for what I saw after we got a distress signal on the radio that a Kiowa was going down in our sector. It was a pitch black night tonight and seemed like just another uneventful patrol. Our platoon had set up in an OP for about five hours, with everyone but the gunners taking half-awake naps, in an area deep in the date tree groves. We had no major foot patrols or extended driving planned and were pretty much just playing the waiting game before we could head back to Liberty. It was one of those times in which you just enjoy the fact that not even the insurgents want to be awake at that hour.
Back when Saddam was still in charge, he had a giant canal built around the airport area and also had a bunch of AA hills built for his rocket trucks to set up and shoot at any invading airplanes. We often use these manmade hills as observation points and will have someone on watch up at the top with a CLU from a Javelin scanning the area. My squad happened to be the ones that got stuck with that duty tonight, so I was still wide awake and watching the few roads in the area I could see from the top. Nobody is ever out at this hour and especially not anywhere near where we had set up for the night.
But it was not the enemy that would cause the chaos this time. I heard a call come over all the trucks radios, but could not make out what it was saying because of how high up on the hill we were sitting. It was apparent that whatever was being said over the radio was being said with urgency and whoever was saying it was shouting. I turned to SGT Martinez and asked what that was about and he told me to stay put while he went down to find out. Before he could even make it halfway down the hill, SFC Reimold was yelling up at us and telling us that we needed to get down and get ready to go, pronto.
As I loaded up our concertina wire and spike strips back on the vehicle, SGT Martinez went over to find out what was going on from the Platoon Sergeant and the other leadership. I had finished loading up the truck just about the same time SGT Martinez got back and we all loaded in. He told me that what we heard on the radio was the sound of Sabre Seven calling in a distress signal that their bird was malfunctioning and was going down. We were in the lead truck tonight and had to find the quickest route the area in which they said they were crashing. From where we were at, it was about a twenty minute drive to the likely point that they would be. I drove like a mad man with lights out and only IR with NODS to see my path. I just knew that we had to get there before any locals did or else things could end up even worse for Sabre Seven.
As we approached the general area in which Sabre Seven had gone down, we got more information on the radio about where they crashed and news that other units were going to have trouble making it to the area. That basically meant that we were going to be the ones who had to secure the crash site and render aid to the pilots if possible until the MED-EVAC could make the scene. Often times, the Kiowas would fly in pairs, like the Apaches, but Sabre Seven was flying a routine solo patrol at the time that it experienced electrical errors in the cockpit. That was all the information that the TOC was able to get before the bird went down. Sabre Seven had failed to respond back to distress call, which we all took for a bad sign.
As often as it has been proven itself to be correct during this deployment, my gut feeling was right again about the severity of the situation. As we came down the only access road to the area, a very narrow dirt road at that, we could tell that it was going to be a bad scene. I mentioned before that it was a pitch black night out with a lot of unusual cloud cover, but even before we were 500 meters from the crash site we could see the bright orange glow of fire dancing on the trees in the area. It took another ten minutes or so before we could find a way to get the trucks close enough to the wreckage to provide security for it; though the crash was so far in the middle of nowhere that I doubt anyone would have even seen it go down in the first place.
We set up a position around the crashed bird the best we could considering the landscape and got out to get an idea of if the pilots had survived or not. The wreck itself was completely ignited in flames and it was hard to even make out what part of twisted metal was what. There was no sign of the pilots outside of the helicopter, and the likelihood that they would have survived the impact was slim to none from the looks of the twisted, burning heap that lay in the field. All of the dismounted troops and the drivers of the trucks approached the crash with caution in case any locals had made it first, but it was pretty clear that we were the first ones in the area.
The flames of the wreckage were hot enough to scorch all the tall grass within ten feet of the fire and kept us from being able to get a good enough look inside of the cockpit; or what was left of the cockpit that is. The hull still had the general shape of a Kiowa and it looked as though the pilots had tried to land on the belly of the aircraft, but the impact was strong enough to bury the nose in the soil of the field and twist the front end of the helicopter upright. SSG Jones told me and the other drivers to run back to the trucks and get the extinguishers and the water tanks. The vehicles had small extinguishers and I had doubts that we would even be able to use them on a fire of that size, but I followed orders and retrieved the two from my truck.
As I suspected, nothing we had was able to do anything but spark the flames, which spewed out more smoke. SFC Reimold updated the TOC about the current condition of Sabre Seven and the likelihood that both pilots were killed in the crash. At that moment, he could not for sure say that the pilots were dead, but there was little doubt that they failed to make it out of the cockpit. And as we waited on other units to show up, the fire began to die down, and the fate of the pilots of Sabre Seven became clear.
The flames receded enough to the rear of the engine that we were able to get up closer to the cockpit and right away we could see two bodies inside. The first of the two was slumped over the control panel with his flight straps keeping him from falling out of the side door, while the other one looked as though he had braced for the crash by grabbing on to the frame. The second guy even had his arm extended out as though he was still trying to flip switches on the panel as the fire took over him. Both of their flight suits seemed to still be mostly intact, but their helmets and most of everything else to include their boots, gloves, and even the seats they sat on were almost completely burnt up and blackened.
Someone, I’m not sure who exactly, commented that it was likely that they had been too injured in the initial crash to escape from the fire that would have likely been pretty aggressive. That seemed to make the most sense, considering the position of the first guy and the fact that the second guy looked like he was still trying to work the controls. It would have been a horrible death no matter which way they died. I just stood there, wide eyed, starring at those two as they sat in the smoldering wreckage. I felt a disconnect with every Iraqi dead body I had seen up to that point, no matter if insurgent or just civilian, but I could not shake the horrible feelings I had as I focused on those two pilots. I never saw SSG Watts body directly after he was shot, because he was already under the body bag when we arrived. But these two were the first two American bodies I had seen directly; and it shook me. It was yet another huge reminder that we weren't indestructible like I sometimes felt.
We got word from the Brigade Commander himself that we were going to have to extract the bodies from the wreckage and destroy the remaining components in place. There was no way for a wreckage removal truck to make it that deep in the fields from the main roads and they wanted nothing important left for the Iraqis to find when they eventually stumble upon the crash site. We had to figure out a way to get the pilots bodies out first, and then figure out how we were going to destroy the rest of the cockpit after that. It had been about two hours from the time the Kiowa had actually crashed before the fire had completely burnt itself out.
Since I’m just a PFC and partially because I’m not an idiot like some of the other lower enlisted guys in our platoon, I got volunteered to help pull out the bodies.
I went back to my truck and dug through my assault pack to find the pair of Nomex gloves they issued us at RFI and that I never really wear. I had never touched a dead body before tonight, let alone one that had been sitting in an intense fire for over an hour. I had no idea what to expect in regards to how it felt to grab on to someone in that situation and didn't want to risk doing it without gloves. Once I got back to the helicopter I saw Sanders waiting on me; he made a comment about who wanted to get what end first.
We both went around the side that was easier to get in to, the side that had the pilot who was still sitting in an upright position, and reached in to try and unhook his flight straps. Sanders grabbed one side and I grabbed the other and pulled, but the metal of the buckles had melted in to the body itself and was stuck. SSG Jones passed me his knife, since I don’t bother to carry one other than my multi-tool, and I used it to cut the straps just above and below the buckles to free them. As soon as the pilot was cut free of the restraints, Sanders and I each grabbed on to him with both hands. Sanders had his legs at the knees, and I had one hand on the arm that was reaching out and the other one on his chest. We counted to three and each pulled at the same time.
This next part is incredibly hard to have to write and it is ingrained in my mind since the moment it happened. But I am compelled to keep a written account of it so that the memory of it will never be forgotten; though I doubt I will ever forget it. When we both pulled at the pilot’s body, pieces of his charred flight suit, skin, and muscle were all that came out of the cockpit. Because his body had sat in flames for that period of time, and because of how intense the heat was, it had become cooked and brittle. Sanders pulled so hard on the knees and legs that when the flesh came off, he stumbled backwards and fell on his ass with the pieces of the pilot’s body still in his hands.
After that, we took extra care in removing the bodies and avoided pulling too hard. The second pilot, the one near the ground who was slumped over, looked as though he shattered both of his legs in the crash and either died right away or couldn't get out because of it and burned to death like the other one. He was harder to remove from the wreck because of how the canopy had collapsed like it did, but we ended up lifting him up and out. We also took their charred MP5s that were strapped in next to each seat and placed them in the body bags as well.
Others in the platoon loaded the body bags in to the back seats of two different trucks, since Sanders and I did most of the work in removing them from the wreck.
2nd Platoon finally made it out to the crash site not long after we had loaded up the bodies. They were the platoon that was set to replace us in sector later in the morning, but they had geared up and came out earlier than planned in order to help us out. They also had Willy Pete, or white phosphorus, grenades on them that they were going to use to destroy the rest of the helicopter and its sensitive electronics. We left before we got a chance to see them toss in the grenades, but I imagine that we will eventually be back out that way to check out the site in the daylight; to at least make sure everything was completely destroyed.
We ended up taking the bodies of the pilots to the Camp Liberty TMC before heading back to the gas pumps to fill up the vehicles. The sun was coming out by the time we got the trucks unloaded and got released to do whatever we wanted in the little time we had before heading back out on another patrol. Sanders and I took our gear and weapons back to our room, dropped them off; we changed in to our PTs, and headed for the showers. The smell of fire is still on me even after the bathing for longer than usual, I think. I hope it goes away soon