Jason Kasper served in the United States Army for fifteen years, beginning as a Ranger private in 2001 and ending as a Special Forces captain and team commander in 2016. He is a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and was an avid marathon and ultramarathon runner, skydiver, and BASE jumper, all of which inspired Jais, his debut novel, from which this article is excerpted.
March 23, 2003
Al-Jawf Air Base, Saudi Arabia
The raging sun slipped under the horizon, the endless sky blushing to a blazing orange hue in the final minutes before darkness.
The sight could not have been more welcomed by the men who watched it.
From the first moment it became visible until it descended into the other side of the earth, the sun over Saudi Arabia turned the world around us into an oven. Its merciless rays were amplified by the featureless, hard-packed sand that extended flat as a pool table in all directions and out to the horizon.
By the time nightfall arrived, my company of Army Rangers had already been sitting in rows on the ground beside the dirt airstrip for hours, sweating in desert camouflage chemical suits. Our gas mask carriers were slung between our thighs, and on top of those folded kit bags contained vests loaded with ammunition, grenades, and canteens that were pinned across our waists by harness straps from our static line parachutes. Massive rucksacks were attached to our hips below shoebox-sized reserves, adding an additional hundred-pound anchor to our load.
The majority of us were nineteen-year-old privates, and our purpose at any given time was dictated by slightly older team and squad leaders. Although we were young, if the government wanted to parachute 154 Americans behind enemy lines to capture an airfield and begin ransacking their way across enemy territory until the commanding general said to stop, then Rangers were the force of choice.
Until I had proven myself in Afghanistan the previous summer, my daily routine consisted of being punched in the stomach, thrown into wall lockers in the squad area, kicked in the ribs as I did push-ups on command, and conducting the aptly named “electric chair,” which involved squatting against the wall while holding a twenty-pound machine gun tripod with arms extended—within minutes the body began to shake uncontrollably, giving the appearance of being electrocuted.
That type of personal and professional development was completely independent of structured training that included road marches, shooting, practicing raids, and patrolling through the woods late into the night and oftentimes into the following day.
The collective result of those efforts culminated in the scene before me: a group of men completely desensitized to violence, charged with testosterone, and bored by weeks of living in tents on the remote Saudi airfield. We had spent the days of March 2003 waiting for the Iraq invasion, and now required only the arrival of our airplanes to enter our second war in as many years.
Remington was seated on the ground beside me, his lanky features and darting eyes beginning to vanish in the fading light.
Speaking in a barely intelligible strain of Alabaman, he said, “You better give them hell up at West Point, David. Represent Gun Six. Who’s supposed to be on my gun team once you’re gone?”
“We’ve got to make it through the invasion first, Remy. And I’m not reporting to West Point until June.”
“How many times you applied to that place, anyway?”
“Who ever thought of you a-going to college,” he drawled. He paused to spit a stream of wintergreen tobacco juice onto the dirt. “What did Sarah say when she found out you got in?”
“It’ll delay the wedding a bit. She wasn’t thrilled.”
“Four years ain’t a bit, Slick.”
“Five. I have a year of prep school first.”
“You think she’s gonna wait around for that? Lemme see that picture again.”
He often made the same request, though he had met her in person numerous times. I reached into a shoulder pocket and pulled out the dog-eared photograph I had been carrying with me since Afghanistan.
I handed it to him. “We’ve been together since we were fifteen, and I look like a fucking male model. She’ll wait.”
He turned on the red lens headlamp that hung around his neck, and its glow illuminated the glossy image of a slim, brunette teenager who was holding a teddy bear and smiling coyly at the camera from her college dorm room.
Remington examined it closely. “I hope I find me a girl like that someday.”
“You’re the best motherfucker I’ve ever met.” I switched my tone to imitate a deep Southern accent. “You’ll find her, Remy.”
Handing the picture back, he said, “I don’t talk like that.”
He talked exactly like that. Even when objecting, he pronounced “that” with two syllables: thay-att.
The First Sergeant shouted, “PLANES!”
Remington killed his headlamp, and I stuffed the picture back in my shoulder pocket as the churning hum of turboprops grew in volume. An MC-130 Combat Talon appeared out of the darkness and touched down on the airstrip several hundred meters away, roaring past us as three identical transport planes landed in rapid succession. They slowed to a halt and began turning around, whipping stinging sand across our faces. Remington and I struggled to rise as airfield staff moved from man to man, helping us to our feet.
The walk toward the aircraft quickly became a feat of extreme endurance. The two hundred meters that stretched between us and the planes felt like as many miles. Burdened by the weight of that much gear strapped to that many inconvenient places, our every movement was accomplished only through very small, duck-waddle steps that left us in excruciating pain. Airfield staff came to our rescue, lifting up the weight of our rucks while we staggered forward and helping to shuttle exhausted Rangers to the birds for boarding.
My line of jumpers reached the third aircraft and shuffled onto a ramp beneath the tail, turning around and sitting as close to one another as possible while facing the dim sky beyond the plane. Once the last man was situated, the interior went dark for a moment before illuminating us in a surreal red glow brought on by the flight lamps. The metal ramp in front of us closed, inching away our view of the night desert. It was accompanied by a long, high-pitched squeal that ended when it locked into place, encapsulating us in the aircraft. The low vibration inside the cabin heightened as the plane began taxiing to the runway, and then quieted once again as we slowed to a halt while waiting for takeoff.
Suddenly, the engines’ hum increased to a fever pitch as they revved to full power, and our plane jolted and lurched forward down the runway. Our stomachs sank as the aircraft lifted off the ground and lined up with the other MC-130s banking north toward Iraq. The formation descended to avoid radar detection, and we began our flight two hundred feet above the desert.
Almost as soon as we crossed the border into Iraq, we began receiving enemy fire. The small windows over our heads glowed with the lightning flash of anti-aircraft tracers as our pilots dropped flares.
Two jumpmasters, posted at the jump door on either side of the aircraft, stood and yelled over the drone of the engines, “TWENTY… MINUTES.”
“Twenty minutes,” the jumpers echoed.
One of the jumpmasters then yelled, “The Ranger Creed!”
Everyone in the cabin recited the familiar words in as much unison as the propeller noise would allow.
“Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession…”
I basked in the anticipation of the mission to come, my thoughts drifting back to the crushing monotony of my life before the Army.
“I accept the fact that as a Ranger, my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier…”
During a history class on ancient Greece at the start of my freshman year of high school, the teacher asked who among us would want to grow up in Athens, and who in Sparta. I was the only one who raised a hand for Sparta. When my teacher asked why, I said, “Because they win.” The rest of the class stared at me with a mixture of disinterest and disgust, except for a girl named Sarah.
“Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might…”
I spent the rest of high school sitting in the back of the class and reading paperbacks about special operations from Vietnam to Somalia. My best friend and I often skipped school for a week at a time to go hiking in the Smoky Mountains, and I counted down the days until I could join the Army. Within a week of graduation, I kissed Sarah goodbye and left for basic training.
“Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy…”
(Continued on Next Page)