If you missed Part one of this story please Click here to read it.
We got the typical call from the Army that they were under heavy attack in a village and were likely going to lose it by the end of the day. The Air Force was doing what it could with limited air support but they were not turning the tide.
We were requested to fly in some fresh supplies, usually, ammunition, food, medicine and fresh troops when they were available. And then we would take the dead and wounded out and back to the capitol where we based our aircraft, as that city was the only secure place in country, well, mostly secure…
We still had rebel attacks on small scale in town ever few days.
We flew into this village and I always went on the first missions into any new location so I could get ground truth and assess the situation myself, to better plan and lead my men and mission. This village was a new location and under attack, so I flew on board the Russian Transport Helicopter with my 3 Russian Crew and my 1 Special Ops Aviation Operator, this one was a former French Foreign Legionnaire and 101st US Army Kosovo Vet.
When we landed, many of the grass huts were on fire, black smoke was every where as was gun fire, mortars and grenades and even RPG rockets and some heavy machine gun fire. But in typical African fashion, you could not make out any real lines of defense, or focus of attack. It was there in a general direction, so one could get a sense of it, but to an untrained eye, it just looked like madness and chaos.
We found a place to land the chopper, we couldn’t shut down, way too hot and risky. A small band of soldiers had been piling up the bodies high waiting on us. There were about 30 wounded, about 3 times that dead. (*Note- We had so many dead bodies in board our helos every day, we had to hire 2 boys back at base to use 5 gallons of bleach to get the blood and guts off our floor boards after each mission, so this was not entirely unusual, but the body count was high.)
Now, by this time in the war, there had been a few of the other regional countries joining in the fight against the rebels and this group was a new group for me to encounter. Likewise, they had a new way of doing things as I was about to encounter. Often all sides wore a mix of uniforms and tribal garb.
We landed as close as we could and we immediately put out security as I liaised with the African Sergeant about getting all the wounded on and then we’d take as many dead as we could this trip and if we could return, we’d get the rest, but no one expected the village to hold out much longer.
I loaded all the wounded on and while they were loading the dead, I went to check on my Operator as some mortar rounds were starting to be walked into our location. (A term meaning they didn’t know our exact position, so they would lob a round, see where it hits, and then keep adjusting. A good mortar man could nail you on the second round, these guys usually took 5-6 rounds, so we had some time.)
When I turned back to the aircraft, the wounded were all off the helo?! They were being slapped by the sergeant and being forced to help load the dead on instead?
I asked the Sergeant what he was doing. And here in all the chaos, he explained to me his tribe’s belief about heaven. “Mr. Hawke, we must get the dead out first. The wounded are still alive. But the dead can not leave. If we do not bury them in their home land, their souls can never go to heaven. So, we must get the dead out first.” Well, I wish I could have been more understanding and accommodating, but at that point in time, I admit, I was more than a little angry.
I told him to get the dead out, wounded first, we must keep them alive to fight another day. We’ll do our best for the dead, but we must focus on the living. He refused. So, I started pushing all the living onto the bird. He started beating them, by butt striking them with the rifle butt of his weapon, forcefully and aggressively countermanding me on the battle field when we’re all about to get “blowed up” by mortar rounds. Crazy!
So, I start throwing the dead bodies off the air craft and screaming for the living to get on and telling the crew we have to leave in one minute or we’d be hit by mortars as they are getting closer and closer each minute. That young African Sergeant must have truly believed I was some sort of white devil to leave his men never to get to heaven over some silly living wounded soldiers. So, he started to draw his weapon on me to make me understand.
Well, as much as I would have liked to debate things with him, I simply didn’t have the luxury of time. Neither did I have the time to draw my own side arm as we were configured for air ops and safety not quick draw ground combat. So, the only thing I could do in that split second was strike him with my hand. I knew I had to knock him out, as he would surely shoot me as we tried to leave if I didn’t.
So, I gave him the best upper cut I could. Theses soldiers were not well fed and not heavily muscled. We often nick named them “skinnies”, because they were bone thin. So when my well-studied and well-placed strike combined with my adrenaline and well fed muscles hit the poor kid, it literally lifted his entire body off the ground and he almost did a flip as a tooth went flying and he went flat. He did not rise. We loaded the wounded, got all but 10 of the dead and flew out. They lost the village. Those 10 would have to find their way to heaven and we survived to live and fight another day.
So, the moral of that story is that sometimes, there are no rules, no guidelines, no track record for historical reference that you can use to make the best decision on how to survive. Sometimes, in fact, I’d dare say more times than not, you have to use a combination of common sense and gut instinct to help you survive. The key is to stay calm, keep thinking, and keep trying. Often, doing something is better than doing nothing as panicking, freezing, and hoping it will go away will almost always ensure that something bad will happen, where as, taking some kind of action, will keep you from freezing and panicking and often works to keep you calm and focused enough to use that common sense and see you through.
So, remember, vanquish fear, never panic, stay busy, take action and never quit.
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