Scorched by the searing sun, the arid, parched land stretched for miles in all directions. Stunted, prickly thorn bushes grew randomly, eking out a poor existence, roots buried deep beneath the seared landscape, always searching for moisture to sustain life.
Twisted, spindly trees struggled pathetically to survive on the desolate, barren land, their branches stripped of all but the hardiest of leaves, even those curled into withering parodies of life in an attempt to hide away from the unsympathetic sunlight.
Approximately two kilometers away, a range of tall mountains—cleaved asunder here and there with deep crevices and fissures—thrust serrated summits toward a sky of washed-out blue, a vast canopy of emptiness without even the smallest wisp of moisture-bearing cloud in evidence. Jagged profiles wreathed in thin vaporous mists, the craggy, rocky slopes were dotted with threadlike waterfalls, the tumbling flows sparkling in the rays from the glaring, bloated sun.
Clouds of dust—disturbed by the patrol—hung motionless in the still, hot air, minute particles finding their way through the fine seals of ballistic combat helmets into eyes and mouths and inside combats, chafing skin raw. The air was hot and dry, so much so that if inhaled, it leached all moisture from lips and dried up saliva in mouths.
The tall British army officer paced slowly along what passed for a road—a poorly maintained track full of deep ruts and potholes—his stride relaxed and methodical, primarily to remain focused on his immediate surroundings but also to conserve energy.
He rolled his shoulders in an attempt to ease the weight of his bergen. Alert for signs of snipers or IEDs, his keen eyes ceaselessly roamed about him, his modified SA80A2 with its underslung grenade launcher, SUSAT sight and common weapon sight tracking every movement.
Lieutenant Nick Ryan—aka LT or ‘the Old Man’, thirty-two years of age—was starting to feel tired and thirsty and his feet hurt. His body armor with its hard and soft plates—configured for additional freedom of movement for this specific mission—felt as though it had doubled in weight, his pack as if it were filled with blocks of cement. His combat shirt and T-shirt beneath were soaked with sweat.
He was eager—as he assumed the rest of his men were also—to get back to the FOB, the forward operating base—for a mission debrief, shower and scran. At this stage of the mission, however, his sole aim was to get Bravo Recon Section through the next few clicks alive and in one piece.
He had learned the hard way—through the lack of focus and mistakes of others—that one moment’s loss of concentration could result in someone being hurt or even killed. He therefore pushed all thoughts of future comforts to the back of his mind—a feat that had served him well on past deployments—and stepped away from his position as point man at the head of the patrol.
Turning to face the line of men behind him, he noticed that while they still maintained a ragged formation, their movements were lethargic, with shoulders slumped and feet stumbling through the fine dust and sand. He realized that concentration within the section was beginning to flag, a dangerous situation while in an area teeming with insurgents.
Nick spoke a password into the confines of his helmet then waited for the voice-activated heads up display, commonly called HUD, to stream onto the inside of his tinted full-face shield. After a few moments, flickering green lines resolved themselves into schematics of route maps and combat situation reports—sitreps. He uttered a different password and the displays faded, leaving behind their PSMs data that kept him updated on their physiological status.
He studied the readouts sent directly to his personal central information system from the medical sensors embedded in the thin lining of his men’s desert, multi-terrain pattern combats. They showed the body temperatures, heart rates, hydration and stress levels of each man and he found himself smiling with amusement.
Individual biomedical data showed the slightly decreased heart rates and respiration of almost every member of Bravo Recon. It appeared that his men were dozing on their feet, as if they were out for an afternoon stroll through a park at home instead of the inhospitable climes of Afghanistan.
Deactivating the PSMs, he said, “Comms,” which triggered his communications system and abruptly said, “Come on, lads. We’re nearly home.”
His voice entered the communications network of his section and from there into each individual helmet. His mouth twitched again with amusement as at least half of his men’s heads jerked up, their bodies reacting with surprise at the sound of his voice.
“Two more clicks and you can have your downtime. I know this heat is a bastard. You’re all knackered and probably thirsty, and you want to get back to the FOB. This is the time when your concentration will start to lapse and you could lose focus. If that happens, make no mistake, you will get your backsides kicked.
“The mujis will have us bagged and tagged by now and they will have intel on us. More than that, they’ll know how long we’ve been out and that we’re tired and, therefore, easy pickings. You all need to stay alert and concentrate. You are at your most vulnerable right now because being nearly back at base. You’re only focusing on that. Right now, you need to keep eyes on at all times, no matter how crap you’re all feeling.”
Nick’s intention had been to shake Bravo Recon from their heat-induced torpors, and he hoped that his words had made the appropriate impact. He was satisfied when they straightened their shoulders, their pace quickened and they lifted their SA80A2s a little higher, the action offered as a warning to any hostiles who might be observing them.
He returned to his position as point man and checked the immediate area. He quickly noticed two Afghan men approximately twenty meters away, puttering slowly along on dilapidated motorcycles. They were keeping pace with the section, watching them through binoculars, their worn-out engines sounding muted in the still air.
Nick felt a rush of adrenaline and quickly lifted his right arm out to the side in the direction of the intruders, raising two fingers. Activating his comms, he ordered, “Eyes right, Bravo Recon. Two dickers at twenty meters.”
Lifting his weapon, he aimed it at the Afghan men. Keeping his keen gaze on them, he heard the faint noise of rifles lifted in unison behind him and he raised a hand in an attempt to stop someone’s twitchy finger from increasing its pressure on a trigger, thereby causing an international incident.
“Wait out,” he ordered calmly.
The Afghanistan men, seeming to realize that they were now objects of interest, immediately turned their motorcycles about and sped off in the opposite direction.
Nick waited until the bikes were some distance away before lowering his hand, then his weapon. He kept his gaze on the fleeing men, quickly disappearing into a shimmering heat-haze. His irritation quickly turned to anger as he supposed that intel regarding the number of men in his patrol, amount of firepower and weapon type was probably speeding on its way to enemy commanders.
Christ! Bloody bastards!
“Move out.” Raising his right hand, he gestured for the patrol to move on, aware that Bravo Recon Section might be on the receiving end of an ambush before reaching the safety of the FOB.
* * * *
Corporal Jessie McAllister—twenty-four years of age—stared out of the open side door of the army Wildcat Mk2 helicopter. Squinting in the harsh sunlight, she watched the shadow of the helo flashing across the parched landscape beneath her, and her spirits sank even further.
“Holy shit!” she exclaimed and heaved a sigh of resignation. She glanced quickly over her shoulder at the other passenger to see if he had heard her unladylike expletive, but as he had done the whole trip, the soldier continued to ignore her. Feeling as though she wanted to poke her tongue out at him for his ignorance, Jessie turned back to her study of the countryside spread out below her.
Oh, perfect. My home for the next six months is going to be Hell.
Prior to her deployment, her parents—military veterans in their own right—had given her the benefit of their vast knowledge, regaling her with stories of their experiences in country—both good and bad. The reality, however, was beyond her wildest nightmares. Her impression of her new country—Kunar Province in the Korengal Valley—had deteriorated from resigned acceptance to dislike, the further she had traveled from Base Kandahar.
From what she had seen so far, most of Afghanistan consisted of flat beige and ochre-crackled earth, dotted with sparse, stunted vegetation, broken up by irrigation ditches and dry, shallow wabis. No sign of human habitation broke the empty monotony of the landscape, not even the mud and brick ruins of a compound or a single animal racing to find shelter from the inhospitable conditions. The tableland looked unforgiving, lonely and abandoned.
Since her arrival in country, Jessie’s spirits had plummeted lower at every turn, until at last she’d begun to question the choices she had made over the last year, decisions that she now considered she’d made rather hastily.
Since she’d been a child, she had wanted to emulate her parents and join the military. She’d opted for the Marine Corps and had passed the tough basic and advanced medical training with ease. Now that she was here on her first overseas deployment, she found herself wondering why she had done it, constantly asking herself what she was doing on the front line instead of being safe at home with a nice boring nine-to-five job.
If the men and women with whom she had spoken had told the truth, it was a man’s world in Afghanistan, and women should have no part in it. That particular label hadn’t changed much over the years. With major advances in technology and a reorganization of the US armed forces, there still appeared to be a lingering ingrained sexist attitude toward females.
The US military seemed to want to keep women in desk jobs, forgotten about and therefore out of trouble. Much to Jessie’s annoyance, it appeared that according to general opinion, women—even though they had proven themselves on par with men—appeared to remain the weaker and lesser-skilled sex.
In relation to herself, a tiny cog in the US military machinery—for some unknown and completely illogical reason—had decided to attach her to a British unit. Why the British army needed a US Marine medic she had no idea, but she had accepted the new orders with resignation and equanimity.
Her one failing grace was that she had inherited her father’s stubbornness, a fact that her mother had brought up to her on a number of occasions. So with this ammunition, she was determined to prove to herself, to the men of her new world and to the authorities, that they were wrong and that she—as a woman and an individual—was perfectly capable of fulfilling a combat role.
As much as she tried to convince herself that acceptance meant nothing to her, Jessie was conscious of a feeling of apprehension about her imminent arrival at her new home. The thought of what her new section’s reaction to her presence might be had created a nauseating coil of dread in the pit of her stomach. Her nerves swooped and jived like a plague of agitated butterflies, and she felt a little sick.
She swiped at a droplet of sweat that had trickled from beneath her helmet. Even with the side door of the Wildcat pushed all the way open and a wind howling around the interior, the heat was almost unbearable. Dressed in full battle gear, including the new lightweight PPE, her personal protective equipment, it felt as though the blood in her veins was quickly heating to the boiling point.
Her helmet with its nine-millimeter thick mandible guard and HUD face shield—configured and contoured to fit the shape of her skull and the sides of her face—constricted her head like a metal band. Perspiration coated her face and long strands of wayward hair, having managed to creep from beneath the confines of the helmet, flew about her face, clinging to her cheeks and finding their way into her eyes and mouth.
Clamping her weapon between her knees to prevent it from slipping from her grasp and flying out into the slipstream, Jessie straightened in her seat and ran gloved hands across her face, attempting to free the latticework of hair entwined across her nose and mouth.
God, I’m so tired.
With twenty hours of flying time behind her, combined with the energy-sapping heat, she felt as though she could sleep for a week. Top of her list, however, when she finally arrived at the FOB, was a shower. She had her doubts, though, that she would find anything remotely like one in existence. She had a sinking feeling that she would inevitably end up having to share ablutions with the men, causing embarrassment for all concerned.
Jessie sighed and gave up trying to tuck her wayward hair out of the way. She turned to stare out of the door once more, this time raising her head to look up at the blue sky. She wondered if some form of epiphany would suddenly strike her from the heavens, enlightening her as to how she could extricate herself from the mess in which she now found herself.
Instead, the harsh brightness almost blinded her. Her eyes watered and burned, and she cursed herself for not having the foresight to lower her face shield, just another mistake to add to her steadily lengthening list.
Lowering her gaze, she waited for her vision to clear, then stared in the direction they were flying. Through a rippling heat-haze, she made out the first signs of civilization in the shape of a compound located at the base of the mountains. The helicopter had started to make a smooth descent in that direction and, as they neared it, Jessie supposed this was to be her final destination.
She could make out a large, rectangular base surrounded by what she estimated to be four-meter high walls of cream-colored Hesco. Anyone trying to scale the heights would find it impossible to negotiate the smooth angle and achieve a breach. High steel gates broke up the straight lines of one wall, while security towers covered in khaki-colored camouflage netting loomed strategically at the base’s four corners.
It had to be FOB Elabat in all its glory.
She heard the rotor blades slow as the Wildcat continued its rapid descent. With the sound of the moaning wind diminishing inside the fuselage, she slung the strap of her SA80A2 over her shoulder, reached for her pack and kit bag to prepare for the landing and braced her booted feet against the ridged metal floor.
They appeared to be approaching an area of flat land some meters distant from the FOB, and Jessie edged closer to the open door, dragging her bulky kit with her. Poking her head out, she kept an eye on their approach for any sign of insurgents popping their heads up to observe the actions of the helicopter.
She was also able to gauge the security of her new home. Bordering the FOB on three sides were piles of spindly, half-dead thorn bushes, felled trees and large piles of boulders with a ten-meter deep no-man’s land between the vegetative barrier and the base walls. It meant that an insurgent attempting to get close to the base would have to cross it in full view of two of the security towers, and she felt a modicum of reassurance in that.
The helicopter landed smoothly and delicately with barely a bump. After getting to her feet, Jessie crouched slightly then jumped down to the hard, dusty ground. Clouds of dust—stirred up by the rotor blades—immediately engulfed her head and body, and she coughed and spluttered.
Waving a hand in front of her face, she tried to protect her eyes from the stinging particles. Belatedly, she lowered her face shield, grabbed her pack and bag and took a few stumbling steps backward, ducking beneath the slowly spinning blades. The soldier passenger—still acting as though she did not exist—leaped down to take up a security position alongside the helicopter, keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings.
Undecided as to what to do next, Jessie looked around. The co-pilot joined her and, as she glanced at him, she saw that he was staring at her with a wide grin on his face. Reaching around her into the Wildcat’s interior, he grabbed for a large khaki sack just inside the door and, as he did so, his body—intentionally or otherwise—brushed against hers. He winked and jerked his head sideways.
“Well, come on then, darlin’. You hang around out here and you’ll get your pretty backside shot,” he shouted.
Jessie heard the note of contempt in his voice—as if she had broken some important cardinal rule. Hot and tired, she glared at him, biting back words of retort. As if dismissing her as being of no consequence, the co-pilot turned his back and jogged away, holding the heavy sack as though it weighed nothing, his weapon held casually at his side.
Feeling slightly defeated, Jessie started to follow him. As she came out from beneath the shadow thrown by the helicopter, the searing heat instantly beat down onto her head and body, enveloping her in what felt like a stifling blanket. Her heavy pack swung violently from one shoulder, the kit bag seemed maliciously intent on tripping her up and the SA80A2 pounded her back like a wild thing. Her breath hissed harshly through gritted teeth, sweat trickled down her face and her lungs felt tight and burned from the hot air.
She guessed the distance to the base to be no more than one hundred meters or so from the landing zone, however, after only accomplishing half the distance, it felt as though she had completed a ten-kilometer exercise run, carrying full equipment. A sudden anxious thought that she might well pass out from heat exhaustion before reaching the heavy gates crossed her mind. She quickly quashed the notion, noticing that one of the gates was already open in anticipation of their arrival. Two soldiers stood on either side of it with weapons raised.
Reaching the base, the co-pilot entered and, with relief, Jessie prepared to follow. It was at this point that her legs—weak with fatigue and the excess weight she carried—suddenly buckled and she tripped, stumbled and almost fell flat on her face.
Struggling to regain her footing and what little composure she had left, she heard a derisory chuckle from one of the soldiers on security duty, felt a hard hand on her back and a shove almost aided her in completing her tumble to the ground.