The experience had made 3rd Platoon a close-knit group. Between two plywood barracks they built a wooden patio deck. Festooned with blue blinking lights they, of course, called it the Blue Light Club — a place where they could smoke cigars and guzzle energy drinks at the end of a long day.
That morning, Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, had honored several members of the platoon for their bravery. As I listened to them recount details of the battle, I noticed that two of the soldiers who wore Oklahoma National Guard patches on their left shoulders, also had Pennsylvania National Guard patches sewn on their right shoulders.
The right shoulder patch signifies the soldier's previous wartime unit. I asked, “How did you get Pennsylvania patches?”
“We're from Pennsylvania,” they responded. They explained that in any National Guard unit deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, there will be a significant number of soldiers who are not native to the state. They are essentially national guardsmen for hire. When they finish a deployment with one state's guard, they join the next guard unit being deployed.
In all my years in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war, I had never come across this soldier subculture. One high-ranking officer told me that they comprise about eight percent of deployed guard units. Driven somewhat by their addiction to action and partly by a scarcity of civilian jobs when they return home, they move from unit to unit a year at a time.
War is truly their profession and this year the boys from Pennsylvania are temporary Okies.
Back in the saddle
Time to get back in the saddle. On a pitch-black night we waited at Combat Outpost Xio Haq's helipad for the transport helicopters that would airlift us to the next mission's objective — a Taliban safe haven.
I say “back in the saddle” because as the adage goes, if you fall off a horse, to overcome your fear, you have to get right back on. The last air assault I covered turned ugly, quickly.
At that time, last April, I was embedded with No Slack Battalion, 101st Airborne. No Slack soldiers were airlifted to a mountaintop near the Pakistan border, but they landed in the middle of a Taliban stronghold. By morning, six U.S. soldiers lay dead, but many more Taliban were killed in the battle. The 101st had prevailed, but at great cost. I swore on that day that I would never cover another air assault.
Now, on a chilly evening, with body armor strapped on and camera in hand, I waited with soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard for the arrival of helicopters that would take us on another air assault.
A soldier, whose face was obscured by the darkness, asked me if I'd ever been on an air assault. I said, “Yes.”
He asked, “How did it go?”
“We'll talk about it after this mission is over,” I responded. I was trying to put last April out of my mind, but couldn't.
All around me were other voices, fellow Okies, making small talk to pass the time while we waited. I listened to a lieutenant who was Barry Switzer's nephew. A college dean. A Norman schoolteacher and a young man from a small town who'd only been out of high school a year.
Rank didn't matter, nor did social status. We were all headed to a fight and everyone was going to need each other.
An hour had passed and I convinced myself to just go and get it over with, but the wait was excruciating. Then the call came in. Mission scrubbed for 24 hours. The helicopters could not penetrate low cloud cover that obscured the mountain passes in their path.
The next night I didn't even inquire if the weather had improved enough to allow the mission to proceed. I quietly suited up in my room and walked to the flight line. There were no voices in the dark. I was alone. The mission had been canceled and would not be rescheduled.
For now, I could stay out of the saddle, but the memories of last April still follow me.