by Greg Longey
Popular culture, old wives’ tales, movies, and books told me that my life would flash before my eyes during a near-death experience. I didn’t expect it to happen when we had just rolled out of the gate to our small FOB. Things were still quiet, but everyone was on edge. It wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes though. It was a crystal clear and visceral scene of a future that didn’t include me, and it scared me more than any situation I had experienced up until that point, or any thereafter.
Afghanistan, circa 2007. We were coming out of the coldest parts of winter, but it was still a little early for the Spring fighting season. The Battalion was ready to get out and do “Infantry shit.” Our small Counter-IED Field Team enjoyed relative comfort inside our own Hesco high-walled compound on the FOB. Unlike the infantrymen we supported, who were packed like sardines into B-huts, I shared an entire GP Medium tent with one other guy, a friendly and hardworking contractor whose biggest shortcoming was a propensity to shit in his trash can, inside the tent, instead of venturing out in the cold.
Our team was tasked with investigating and gathering information about IED-related incidents, in addition to providing counter-IED and electronic warfare training to the local Battalion. It was mid-morning and I was covered in sweat from a quick workout and gathering up my shaving kit when the knock came on the wood-framed tent door. “Biscuit! We have a mission. Rolling in 15.” We had been getting more callouts lately. It was easy to tell that things were ramping up.
The message was delivered by my battle buddy, Gravy. Gravy was our de facto team sergeant (formal structure was lacking) by virtue of his status as a tabbed and scrolled Ranger SNCO. He was a boisterous man, raised in the inner city of Baltimore, complete with a gold tooth and the physique of a bear. He had taken me under his wing as a fellow SNCO as soon as I joined the team, set aside inter-service rivalries, and helped me integrate in a useful capacity. I quickly donned my uniform over my PT clothes and was securing my armor and kit as I hustled across the compound to our up-armored HMMWV parked next to the EOD team’s gigantic MRAP, aka “The Bang Bus”, under the tin-roofed carports along one wall of the yard.
In addition to my assigned role as an enlisted Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), I had assumed duties as the turret gunner for our truck after the team’s other assigned Ranger had been relieved and sent home due to “mental health issues.” Seems he never managed to adjust to the conditions and had been getting worse every day. The last straw was when he shot the EOD team’s robot instead of shooting out the back window of a car as he had been requested to do.
Gravy and the team’s Asymmetric Warfare Group advisor “Bucket”– a recently retired 5th SFG SNCO, had entrusted that job to me after quite a few training sessions and drills on an auxiliary range set up on the edge of the FOB by the resident Special Forces ODA. Arguably, a retirement-eligible USAF SNCO manning an M2 Browning in the turret of an up-armored truck was a non-standard configuration, but it made the most sense given that the other two men needed to be able to quickly dismount the vehicle and conduct post-blast analysis, per our task force’s mission. Our team interpreter, a college-age Pashtun from Kandahar, was even less ideal for the position than a “Zoomie” was, so the job fell to me.
Before I left for this volunteer deployment, I had assured my father that I “wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks,” I would do my job, come home, and submit my retirement paperwork. I knew it wasn’t likely to play out that way, but I wanted to put him at ease. I remember the genuine concern in his voice, during one phone call when I mentioned filling the gunner role. “What happened to you not taking unnecessary risks, boy?” he asked. He always called me boy, even when I was well into my 40s. I assured him it was an operational necessity and that I would stay on point and get it done.
I threw my go-bag into the back of the truck and scaled the front bumper and hood, lowered myself into the turret, and began to get the gun ready while Gravy got situated in the driver’s seat and Bucket settled into the TC position and spun up the radios, Blue Force Tracker, and the electronic countermeasure system. Our terp settled into the passenger rear seat and was inventorying the ammo cans for the .50. He was good. When others would’ve been content to sit back and wait to be called up, he always tried to be helpful. He passed an ammo can up to me and I positioned it in the basket, found my field expedient “safety” for the M2 (spent .50 casing), and snapped my M4 into the turret’s rifle mount.
Not long after that we rolled out of our compound gate and blended into formation with the security platoon that would be escorting us to the blast site. We paused briefly at the test fire pit. The Ma Deuce was timed and head-spaced correctly and she ran like a top, firing WWII-dated armor-piercing incendiary rounds that would often fizzle and burn in the berm of the test pit. I fired a couple of rounds through my rifle to make sure she was good to go as well. I shook my head in disgust when I realized I’d just shot the black dust cap off the end of the barrel. I put the safety on and clipped the rifle back into place. I listened to the radio chatter and learned the mission brief would take place when we marshaled up near the FOB gate. That was unusual, and there seemed to be a heightened sense of urgency.
As we approached the gate, a group of ANA soldiers was passing through with casualties. There were a few walking wounded with bandages on extremities and a litter case who, judging by skin tone and the amount of blood soaking through the bandages that covered half of his head, was not much longer for this world. Gravy and Bucket dismounted to get the mission brief while the terp and I stayed with the truck. I checked magazines and re-inventoried everything in my head while I watched them huddle up with the platoon leadership. Three guns, one smoke grenade, one frag, pocket chow, and a couple of frozen bottles of Gatorade. Check.
When the huddle broke, both men returned to our truck with a bit more tension and concentration on their faces than usual. After getting settled back into the driver’s seat, Gravy said “Biscuit, this is going to be a bad one. Stay sharp up there.” Bucket was rechecking magazines in his chest rig. We would be heading into a small village that was a known stronghold for the Taliban and, up until recently, it hadn’t really been pressured by U.S. or ANA forces. The ANA had decided to run a dismounted patrol through the village and had triggered an IED. The Taliban in the area were known to create large antipersonnel IEDs by burying antitank mines with Russian PMN antipersonnel mines on top. This one worked as designed, killing two soldiers instantly and creating the flow of casualties that had just passed us by.
Our convoy passed through the FOB gates and entered the roughly quarter-mile-long dirt access road that fed out onto the hardball of Highway 1. We would normally get up a full head of steam and merge onto the highway quickly, but for some reason, a halt was called. I heard Gravy and Bucket discussing their game plan when we arrived on scene, while I watched the line of jingle trucks and beat-up cars on the highway over the barrel of the machine gun. Then it hit me.
Today was my youngest son’s first birthday.
In the surge of the week’s activity and the scramble that followed today’s call to roll out and finding out that we were about to drive into a Taliban-controlled area, it had completely slipped my mind. It came on with a quickness and a chill. In a flash, I saw all of my boy’s future birthdays. I saw him smiling and happy, surrounded by friends, blissfully unencumbered by a sense of loss because he was so young when I was taken away from him. I saw my wife doing what I knew she would do, making his birthday special, despite the loss of his father. I saw her carrying his birthday cake and I saw the light of the candles reflecting in her eyes, eyes that barely concealed the sadness and recognition of the other significance of this day. All while she tried to stay strong and smile for the birthday party guests.
A wave of embarrassing panic washed over me. “Not today. I’m ready to go if it is required of me. Just not today. Please.” I looked over the rear of the truck, past the Bang Bus that had fallen in behind us, to the FOB gate, and to safety. All I had to do was climb out and run. It passed as quickly as it came, and I turned back to the highway and gripped the paddles of the Ma Deuce as Gravy slapped me on the thigh and said “We’re rolling. Everyone have two guns?”
“I’ve got three!” I answered, as had become our usual banter, and the line of vehicles started pulling out onto the road…
We will be celebrating that boy’s 17th birthday next month. It will be glorious. My wife will spend too much money on it. I will briefly reflect on what could have been. I will be thankful and recognize that the alternate reality that hit me on that day did become a reality for many families. Maybe nobody will notice the glint of shame revealed in my eyes by the light of the birthday candles. Shame for a moment of panic and having to fight the urge to run, even if ever so briefly. I’ll take it over the pain I saw in my wife’s eyes in that vision though. It’s mine to carry.
Greg Longey is a retired USAF SNCO. His career, mostly in joint service billets, was varied and adventurous. He served all over the world, including Central/South America, the halls of the White House, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.