The Dirty Dozen
by Eric Chandler
“This isn’t about your hands, you moron.”
It was pilot training. Callahan, his instructor pilot, was especially sarcastic. Callahan didn’t get the memo that the modern Air Force doesn’t have screamers anymore. Somehow this flight debriefing just turned into a philosophy class. Callahan shook his head and leaned back into his chair.
Callahan looked at Doug’s blank, brown-eyed stare. “What do you want to do here, Mackenzie?”
“I…Um…I want to do my best and—“
“You want to be a fighter pilot.”
“Okay, I just—“
“You want to be a fighter pilot, idiot. Jesus.”
Doug dutifully wrote down “Be a fighter pilot” in his little green spiral notebook. He wrote down everything the IPs said.
“Okay, listen. Let’s say you’re out there and you can either turn left or right in the airspace. One direction is the better choice. I didn’t say perfect. But better. You have a fifty/fifty chance of picking it. Now, let’s say your name is Mackenzie. Because Mackenzies are indecisive morons, you introduce a third option: You waffle. You bite your fingernails and try to figure out which way is better. Meanwhile, you’re screaming along at hundreds of miles an hour. Now you’ve only got a one in three chance. Mackenzies have to choose between left, right, or nothing.”
“Yes, sir.” Blink. Blink.
“Do you get what I’m saying, dude?”
Mackenzie lied and said, “Yes, sir.”
- Pay attention.
“Hostile, six o’clock, five miles.”
His voice was an octave higher. He rarely picked up anything at six o’clock. He could even tell it was an Eagle. That meant it was on the other team.
“Roger. Bug out north.” Calm flight lead voice. Knew what to do and what to say. No high-pitched voice in return.
Mackenzie camped out on the towel rack. He knew they were probably out of range of the missiles the Eagle pretended to have. But still, there he was. The Enemy.
He strained his neck and looked over his left shoulder while holding the canopy rail with both hands. He forgot the most basic rule of low-level flying: Check 12. The enemy lurked across the river, not behind him.
Far too late, he looked forward. It took a second to process that he was about to plow into the rising terrain on the north side of the river. He pulled on the stick. He was low enough to tell it was a stand of black spruce, not pine.
“Controlled flight into terrain” is what they would’ve called it.
He shook his head and got back into the fight. A pretend fight.
- Remain calm.
Major Doug “Hoser” Mackenzie, USAF, escorted the inspector through the squadron. A year of preparation for this moment.
“Here’s our ops desk,” he said. The inspector asked a few questions. There was a vulnerability that Hoser hoped to hide. The inspector didn’t find the Easter egg. The operations desk process was pristine. Hoser and the inspector were turning to their right to continue on when they were interrupted.
Ryan, a young enlisted guy at the desk, said, “Do you want to hear something interesting about how the pilots sign out the jets?”
Surprised, the inspector said, “Yes.”
Hoser listened. Terrified. Ryan, the new guy in Operations, talked on and on just around what Hoser was trying to hide. Thankfully, nothing new was uncovered. Once again, Hoser and the inspector turned to leave.
Hoser said, “Sir, please head over to the command post door, just down the hall. I’ll be there in just a second.” The inspector walked out of earshot.
Hoser walked back to the desk and motioned Ryan to come closer. This was Ryan’s first week in operations. Ryan leaned in smiling.
Hoser smiled back and said in hushed tones, with the tendons in his neck standing out, “If you ever do something like that again, I’m going to cut your fucking balls off.”
Ryan stopped smiling.
- Be honest.
His wingman just yo-yoed to the tanker. The controller passed him the frequency and the grid. He was on his own, but that wasn’t unusual. He typed in the grid.
He got on frequency with the JTAC. You never knew what you were going to get. Maybe you’d hear yelling on the radio and gunfire. Maybe you’d hear a guy who sounded half asleep.
No firing this time, but definite excitement.
“We’ve got a three-man mortar team. Headed up the ridgeline at those grids. They just hit us a few times.”
Clouds in the way. Hard to settle into an orbit. The targeting pod is great, but in giant saw tooth mountains, it takes a while to tell what you’re seeing through the soda straw.
“No luck. Can you talk me on?” Sweeping right hand turn under a shelf of clouds. Major ridgeline.
“Skip it. They’re already gone. They shoot a few rounds and bail over the ridge into Pakistan. They just made it over the ridge.”
Over the ridge into Pakistan. Into Pakistan. Pakistan?
He was looking west at a major ridgeline instead of east.
He hit the Mark button. Looked at the display. Looked at his map. Gettng your fangs out cuts down on your SA.
He remembered a mentor telling him what to do when you screw up solo.
“Don’t. Tell. Anybody.”
- Be yourself.
His flight commander pulled him into his office.
There was some vague chitchat. Doug respected this guy. Jay wrote his performance reports. He kind of had to respect him. Mackenzie wondered what was going on.
Finally Jay said, “Why do you drink so much, Doug?”
Mackenzie thought for a minute and said, “I don’t know.” It was the truth.
Jay handed him a clipping from the newspaper. It was about how a local soccer club was looking for coaches for their youth teams. A suggestion about doing something more productive with his time.
He didn’t coach. But for years and years, he looked in the mirror while shaving, silently thought about Jay’s question, and said, “I don’t know.”
- Say what you mean and keep your word.
Big night on the town in Sevilla. His first trip downrange. Big tearful goodbye and, not two days later, he’s drunk in Spain running around with some other girls. Hoser confessed all to his fiancée.
Dogboy asked him, “Why’d you tell her?”
Hoser stammered something about fidelity.
Dogboy said, “You realize you were selfish, right? You talked to make yourself feel better. Not her. Next time, man up and eat that shit.”
The kids didn’t know it was coming, but Doug did. His wife Sandy stood in the door of the kitchen with her hand covering her mouth. He intercepted his son and then his daughter as they walked past the stairs. This was the fourth time he’d leave the kids to go on a vacation to the Middle East. They were old enough for something a little different. Hoser had two pieces of paper in his hand.
He drove his pickup across desert country once to get to his next base. He was alone as he drove through Kanab, Utah. He came up with a list of things. A daily To-Do list.
He put his hand on his 12-year-old boy’s neck. He could feel the muscles. Not a boy. Not a man. His daughter, three years younger walked up. He handed them each a piece of paper.
The kids said thanks after he explained how this piece of paper held everything he ever learned.
“If you do what’s on that list, you might turn into a good person.” They nodded. He hugged them and they continued on their rounds.
He looked at Sandy. He thought he’d cry, but he didn’t. Amazing how saying goodbye forever, over and over, can be something you get used to.
The first trip to Iraq in 2005, he brought Ulysses by Joyce. It took the whole trip to get through it. An article said it was the best novel of the 20th century. He thought it sucked.
In Iraq, in 2007, he read The Millionaires’ Unit. About rich Ivy League kids inventing military aviation in World War I. It closed with a strong paragraph about how rich people don’t lower themselves to fight anymore.
In Iraq, in 2009, he read about the town called Fallujah that he kept flying over. We Were One by Patrick K. O’Donnell on the Battle in 2004. Marines dropped a house on a dude who still came out swinging because he was hopped up on a hypodermic of adrenaline.
At the beginning of his Kandahar trip, he read What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. He should’ve known by then what it’s like. The book was brutal and true. He had to stop reading. It was making him twitchy instead of allowing him to drift off to sleep. Doug never finished it.
- Never complain.
It was his first trip to Operation Southern Watch in 1996. His flight commander, Lefty, took him on his first trip to the Desert Rose, the alleged chow hall. The place smelled like someone killed a few dogs and hid them under the floorboards. It was in the center of the Khobar Towers complex. A few streets over from what would become a crater.
Lefty said, “Listen up, Hoser. When you eat here, there are three rules: Don’t look at it. Don’t ask ‘What?’ Don’t ask ‘How?’ “
Mackenzie immediately forgot the rules as he asked questions while looking at the stuff on the end of his fork.
“Here’s another handy tip. This is technique, not procedure.” Lefty picked up a bottle of Tabasco and shook it eight times on his food in time with this mantra: Take taste, take taste, make taste, make taste.
Six deployments later, the food was so good, Doug looked forward to going so he could get the white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
He called them war cookies.
- Work hard.
Doug and Coot were playing video games in the recreation tent. There were a bunch of desktops just for games without the Internet. They sat in the giant clamshell structure and clicked away at building cities and siege machines to attack those cities.
There was a tremendous ka-RANG as a mortar round hit about twenty feet away on the other side of a T-barrier.
They, and everybody else in the place, hit the deck. No more table tennis. No more movie over by the couch.
A couple more incoming rounds, followed helpfully by the wavering siren that warned of the attack. More correctly, it announced the end of the attack. This meant they would need to sit on the stupid floor for another twenty minutes waiting for the All Clear, when everybody damn well knew it was over.
Doug got back up onto his knees and started running the mouse to shepherd his society to victory. He figured kneeling was lip service to the correct prone position with hands over the head. His tiny soldiers had kept fighting and building without his guidance, but now their field marhal was back.
Coot looked agitated. “Dude, I gotta piss.”
“Well, nobody’s supposed to move.”
“You know it’s over. I’m not pissing my pants for this.” He got up and ran to the Cadillac.
He got back and looked a little shaken.
There was a guy outside on a bench bleeding from his gut. Shrapnel from the mortar. People were already helping him. Coot saw this as he ran to the restrooms.
The All Clear sounded.
Doug and Coot slurped their cokes and kept harvesting vegetables and building catapults.
- Keep your sense of humor and sense of adventure. Live life with passion.
Groundhog Day. Every day the same. After flying, go to the gym. Shower. Make sure you wear your reflective belt on the way to and from. Go to chow at DFAC-2. Grab the free Stars and Stripes and walk back toward the hooches.
The smoking hooches were set up in the open outside the protective walls of the concrete T-barriers. They really do hate smoking, he thought.
He lit up his single Swisher wood tip cigar. Another day gone. He treats it like a cigarette and pulls the smoke all the way in. Holds it for a while. Breathes out and there’s almost no smoke left. Feeling the instant nicotine rush from his chest out to his fingers. His hearing even sharpens. He looks up at the stars. Sometimes the same moon his kids were looking at. And like clockwork, he has to go visit the crapper. Good job, Nicotine.
He went into the Cadillac trailer and there was a rare sight. The place was deserted. A dozen stalls, all empty. Perfect.
He chose a stall and took off the floppy hat, unstrapped his 9mm, properly unwound the flight suit without dunking a sleeve, and sat down to read the comics. Paradise.
And then, somehow, there he is. The Third Country National. The TCN with a mop. There was nobody here. There was no door sound. Impossible. He’s a mopping ninja. There’s the mop, hitting Hoser in the feet. In the stall to the left. Under the stall door. In the stall to the right. Some people argue over the existence of Hell. Hoser votes yes. He’s been there. And the Devil’s wingman has a mop.
Mop, mop, mop.
You bastard, he thought. Why do you have to interrupt Dilbert every single night?
- Be kind and helpful to the ones you love.
“Ground commander’s initials are Golf Oscar. Call in with direction.”
A “danger close” strafing pass. He once joked that if he got to do that, all of Uncle Sam’s sins would be forgiven. Well, he was doing it now and he better use the 20mm like a scalpel. The friendlies were on the goal line. The hostiles were in a line of trees next to a rock wall by a stream on the 30-yard line.
He called in. Cleared hot. Watched the gun sight spool down. In range. Freeze. Squeeze the trigger. The glorious braaaaaap of the gun over his left shoulder. Pull up.
“Too far east. Correct to the stone wall. The guy with the RPG keeps peeking around the corner of that wall.” You could hear gunfire in the background, but the JTAC was calm. The guys in the background were shouting and shooting.
Come on now, Hoser, he thought.
He swept in a long, climbing right arc back to the same spot in the sky and called in.
“Cleared hot. He just looked around the wall.”
Hoser’s eyes strolled down the hill from the friendlies into the green zone. Tree line.
Over four hundred bills. Stand the throttle up.
Stream. Wall. The range spooled down counter-clockwise around the gun sight.
In range. Wait a second. A little closer. Now, freeze.
The green circle was around the beige end of the wall.
Altitude, Altitude. Bitching Betty.
He saw the guy with something on his shoulder. Squeeze. Braaaaaap.
A flashing X in the HUD.
The stick is on the right side of the cockpit. It was odd for a side stick, but they were able to figure out that he was pulling back with both hands.
Eric “Shmo” Chandler flew 145 F-16 combat sorties during seven trips downrange. He’s an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild and a member of Lake Superior Writers. He’s a husband and father who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota. Visit ericchandler.wordpress.com to read his published fiction, non-fiction, books, and poetry.