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Sunday, May 8, 2005. | Chief Warrant Officer PETER ZORBA Squadron HMM-764 "The Moonlighters"
Dear Friends and Family,
Weather is beginning to climb up into the 100s now. With the heat comes the dust and sandstorm season here, so many of our days are spent working and living in an orange haze of diffused sunshine, wind, heat and dust that gets everywhere and covers everything (aircraft, equipment, skin, teeth, weapons, even the food in the chow hall).
We're all glad to be at the two-month mark, though it feels more like our ninth. Hard to believe we were home at all sometimes … that we haven't been here, doing what we do, day after day - night after night - all along. Still, morale is high and both the Marines and the helicopters we're flying are doing well, in spite of long hours and high operational tempo.
It must go hand in hand. The busier you are, the faster time goes. The faster time goes, the happier you are. Needless to say, most everyone tries to stay as busy as possible. The days are long, but the weeks are flying (no pun intended).
I want to tell you all a quick story, and if any of you know me at all … then you know I love a good story! But I think this story says something about the organization that I am a small part of here.
Last time I wrote, I described the Marines, in particular the young men and women here with me that I am so proud to serve with. Many of you responded that you were touched by the knowledge, or at least depiction of those kids … those heroes, for that is what they are. But, I digress.
A couple weeks ago I flew a night mission into Baghdad. Baghdad is a big city, and where we actually flew into, whether it would be a name you'd recognize from the news or not, doesn't really matter. Suffice to say that I fly into Baghdad almost every night, but this night's mission was a special ASR (assault support request).
A Marine K-9 had been killed and another dog wounded earlier in the day and we were going there to pick up the dead K-9, the wounded K-9 and their Marine handlers. How these Marines were attacked, whether in contact with insurgents, a sniper or an improvised explosive device (IED), we never knew.
We took off from our base and flew through the dark, star-clustered Arabian night in an open combat spread. Radios crackled and disembodied voices rolled through my helmet. The lights of small towns scattered across the desert floor, illuminated with a green glow through my NVG's (night vision goggles) passed below us and in and out of my gun sights.
At about midnight we were on short final into a small LZ with battle-scarred concrete walls, and a hardened outpost with a bullet-riddled watchtower. As we touched down, I hopped out the back of our helicopter and watched as our "dash 2" landed about 40 feet to our 7 o'clock.
The LZ was dark and no one was around. Through my NVG's I could see the Marines in the tower, and the bunker at its base, watching us, not really thrilled to see us there, two phrogs spinning on the deck inside their perimeter. And why would they be, as we presented a wonderfully enhanced target for indirect fire (IDF) in their position. Not that they don't take IDF often enough, just that we were now an added bonus to any one already predisposed to 'throwing' a few mortars or RPG's our way … and theirs!
We waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. After 15 minutes, with still no sign of anyone, or any dogs, the crew began to grow a little uneasy:
"We're here, where the hell are they?"
"Goddamnit. Who the … is running this place."
"Do you see anybody, gunner?"
"… If we don't see anybody soon, let's get dash 2 out of here, so at least there's only one of us on the deck here in case we take incoming. You copy that (call sign)."
"Roger that. Copy all."
Just then a door of a small industrial looking building about a hundred meters away, opened and I could see Marines moving awkwardly towards us. They were carrying their rifles with their outside hands and with the inside hand, each held the edge of a body bag. Behind them followed another Marine with a shouldered rifle, MOLLIE pack, and his hands were on the back of the bag.
But this Marine's hands held the trailing edge of the body bag more like a priest would grasp a holy cloth or a child his mother's hem, not really supporting any weight, just holding on. As they loaded the body bag into our bird, I took the young Marine's pack and stowed it and then got him buckled in. The wounded K-9 and his handler were loaded into dash 2, and I sat back down behind my .50 cal and called us clear of wires and trees as we lifted into the night sky.
Once airborne, and on the go, out of the cultural lighting from over the town, I looked back to see a big Marine, head in his hands, sitting in darkness, bent over the body of his dog.
That was a long flight. My pilot, a battle-hardened colonel, kept asking me "How's our boy doing?" as if he were a worried parent checking on his child. He handed me back a small package of chocolate chip cookies he'd been saving for the return to base. "Give 'em to our boy. He's had a rough day of it." I unhooked my gunner's belt and walked back to the young man. I put my hand on his shoulder, handed him the cookies and patted him on the back, smiling some compassionate, but dumb, smile there in the dark, 300' somewhere over Iraq. What else can you do?
When we touched back down at our base, the passenger/cargo terminal sent a vehicle out for the dogs. I helped the Marine with his gear, out away from our rotor arc, and then ran back up the ramp and into our bird just in time to grab one of the terminal guys as he was reaching for the body of our Marine, thinking it was just another piece of gear.
"Hey man - what the … are you doing?!" I yelled over the engine noise. "Leave him alone. We'll get him." The crew chief and I reverently bent over and gently lifted the body bag and carried it out of our plane. I have carried body bags before here, and I was surprised by how light this one was.
I placed my arms under the dog's body and gently set him down in the vehicle. And then, out of sheer habit, I petted the poor pup on the shoulder … or maybe it was his hip. His body was still soft, even inside the thick black polyethylene bag. As I turned to head back to my plane, I was face to face with the fallen Marine's master.
The young corporal looked at me, he had seen me pet his dog, and I like to think he saw how reverently we carried his fallen comrade's body out of the plane, but maybe not. Red eyes and a sad, exhausted face were eclipsed by a smile of gratitude as he shook my hand and mouthed the words "thank you." Then he was gone and we were back on the plane and set to lift.
Once back on our line after we had shut down, we all sat down in the back. It was quiet and no one really spoke until the colonel asked, "Did you take care of our boy? Was he hurting too bad? Did you do right by the pup? Did we treat them both with the respect and honor they deserved?"
"Yes sir." I replied last year while we were here, the brevity code for friendly KIA was "Angels." I don't know what it is this time for OIF III, but it is a very fitting term. So I told the colonel "Yes, sir, the 'Angel' was carried with respect, and treated with dignity and compassion, as was his handler." The colonel liked this and we all agreed that the dog was a Marine … as much as any of us.
But on another level, that kid had not only lost his partner, but he'd lost his dog, a dog that I am sure he loved and that loved him back. That had touched us all deep down somewhere, where you're still a kid yourself. We were proud to have been able to do what we did for this fellow Marine, this 'Angel', and each of us would willingly do it again any time. That's what Marines do.
I guess what I am saying is that we continually hear the question asked, "Why we are here?" I heard a Marine say yesterday, "Don't ask me why I am here. I don't make our country's policy, I execute policy." I guess to me "why" is not really that important.
What is important is 'how' I am here. To me, this story illuminates that "how," by showing the nature of the Corps that makes Marines what they are, and in turn, is made what it is by the Marines devoted to it and to each other.
I am part of an organization that believed it was important enough to send two helicopters and their crews, into harms way in order to retrieve the body of one of its fallen. It made no difference that the Marine killed in action was a dog and not a man, what does matter is that each one of us involved felt the same.
To us, not only was it a warranted and reasonable utilization of Marines, Marine Corps assets and resources, but the risk to eight Marines and two aircraft was far outweighed by a pervading sense of honor, commitment and espirit de corps. Why else am I here, if not to go get a boy and his dog - both of whom are fellow Marines. Few things here have been as important as that mission to me, and to my crew as well. That's "how" we are.