Headcount (3693) Warning: Language I fiddle with my GPS, laughing at how many miles I've slogged along today. Only six and a half, although it had been mostly hills and crappy roads. Good workout at least. "We're getting picked up in five minutes." Rick's tone was happy and sarcastic at the same time. "Four hour helicopter ride in the dark, eight hour walk in the summer, and they can't even bother to meet us halfway." "Yeah!" I laugh, leaning my head against the radio phone strapped to my face. "Fucking Taliban's a bunch of limp-dicks." "Headcount and posrep... " Rick laughs back, his voice warbling a little in the phone. "... Then settle on the north side of the LZ." "Break break! Hey gents!" The fucking Lieutenant is giving his fifty-cents. "Make sure you're using proper radio etiquette." "Roger." I yut into the phone fictitiously. "Out" I look straight up at the orange afternoon and stretch my neck, making sure to not slow my pace. Why are Kevlar's so heavy? My flak jacket straps creak a little as I struggle against their painful embrace. The weight on my back, a little food, water, and a radio in a backpack is oppressive, but only a reminder of my Marine's and their struggle. I lower my head and scan my team dutifully, counting them off. Sanders is in front of the team, the point-man. His head is upright, his rifle lowered. He scans carefully, low at his feet, then up towards the horizon. One. I look to the right at Ford, the Marine a proper fifteen meters on the flank and slightly behind Sanders. He scans as well, his M249 lowered but ready. Two. I Look to the left of Sanders at Merino, spaced well and rifle ready, scanning. Three. I smirk, counting myself out loud like a dork. "Four." I turn around, slow my stride, and look at our attachment. He is a member of weapon's platoon assigned to our rifle squad, and to my team specifically. A machine gunner. Mitchel. Five. His weapon is four times heavier than anyone else's. A M240B, 7.62 caliber, twenty-seven pounds of metal and plastic. The ammo is no better, two hundred rounds on his stomach pouches, with five hundred in a backpack, plus whatever food, water, batteries, tobacco, and other bullshit we carry. To top it all off, our command gave all the M9s to officer's and staff NCOs. That way they only have to carry a pistol with them when they do laundry, go to meetings, jerk off in the bathroom, or just so they can all look like fucking Patton or some shit. Mitchel has a goddamn M16 strapped to the side of his backpack as a 'backup' weapon. I hate looking at the rifle; A constant reminder of how the real world works. Mitchel doesn't show any weakness as he carries all the weight. He's walking upright, the crew-served weapon perched under his arms casually. His backpack is sagging with ammo but his head is upright, scanning like everyone else. I don't know Mitchel. He's not one of my Marines. He still calls me by rank, which is strange given how long we've been in Afghanistan. He's not new, just new to our squad. I asked him earlier if he needed me to carry anything for him. He made an odd joke about the 'first rule of ammunition'. I laughed, but kept an eye on him throughout the day. Six miles later I feel silly for doubting him. I would ask for him again if we get another patrol. I look past Mitchel and scan the rest of the squad. Rick's team is visible behind mine, his three Marines and one attachment, a dog handler with his bomb dog, patrolling behind my team in a proper tactical wedge. Behind us, the platoon is spread out for a kilometer. The sun sets to the left, dipping behind a mountain as we leave the town behind us. There was nothing there. Just mud huts and mud walls. The day is ending. Back to camp Leatherneck, for showers and shaves. "I don't like this spot." Rick whines over the radio. I laugh, pointing to a pile of rocks for Merino to hunker behind. "Lazy pilot's should be farther from the mountains." I gesture for Ford to fill in on the north side of he LZ. "Dumbass, the LT picks the LZ, or the Captain, not the-" I have heard what a round sounds like when it passes far overhead, and what it sounds like when it lands on the ground next to you. But, I have never heard what it sounds like when it passes at chest level. I hear that sound now, the 'snap' like a little bell going off, high pitched, crisp at first, the follow-through slow and spread out. I look at Sanders. He is standing next to me, body tight, frozen mid-stride like a wierd, tactical, store mannequin. "Did you hear that?" He asks me. "Yeah." I am unable to hide an embarrassed smile. "Go ahead and get down." Sanders waddles off to get in the prone. 'Combat' is always a lot more awkward than people think. "Reese." Rick's jovial tone is gone. "LT is moving to our squad to guide the bird in directly. Over." My heart is beating faster as I take a knee. This is really about to happen. "I'll form my team on the east side of the LZ. Rest of the platoon is holding to board once the birds touch down. Out" "What are we doing?" As I talk to Rick I see Mitchel jogging up to me. Why isn't he in position? "Did you just hear that shot? Over." "Cobra's coming too." Rick responds. "We need to get out of here." I watch Mitchel jog up and take a knee. He is looking right at me. "They're still landing?" I stare at Mitchel. What the hell is he doing? "Standby." Rick politely tells me to shut up. I point at Mitchel. "What?!" I realize what Mitchel is doing now. Machine gunners have a stupid little oddity where they won't set up their gun unless their team leader directs them. Something about ensuring the weapon is employed in accordance with the eight principles of machine gun employment bla bla bla. Since we inserted by helicopter every Marine was picked carefully, with many leaders pulling double duty. Rick is a team leader and squad leader. I am team leader and machine gun team leader. "Over there!" I point to Ford. "Replace the SAW. Tell Ford to come to me." "Aye aye!" Mitchel jumps up and runs off. Did he just say 'Aye aye' to me? What a motivated goof ball. I scan my team and count them again. Sanders, Ford, Merino, me, Mitchel. Five. Ford jogs up to me, kneeling down. "Yeah, Reese?" As he speaks I shush him, scanning the horizon quickly, trying to determine where the pot-shot came from. I stare at the town, then work to the right all the way around us. The mountain range curves in a giant horseshoe shape around our LZ, but it's at least a Kilometer away on all sides. There's no way they could be around us. It had to have come from the town. "Reese!" "Shutup!" I snap angrily, but reach out and touch Ford on the chest, trying to reassure him "Just stay here, and be ready to move to whatever direction we need to shoot at. My team sits on the edge of the LZ, the rest of the platoon laying behind us, with the threat and fear of attack hot in our minds. It was one shot, but it totally changed our posture. Sanders, Ford, Merino, me, Mitchel. Five. Rick moves his team to the south side of the LZ, and joins me in the middle. "Bud, I swear I heard it." I tell him as he kneels next to me." "No no, I got you." Rick nods, his rifle held tight against his flak. "4th squad's getting potshots taken at them, too." I keep my rifle pressed against my armor, flexing my hands nervously. My gloves are so tight. "We're just gonna sit here?" I ask. "We're not gonna go get the bastards?" "We're leaving." Rick says. "Birds are coming. No time to do anything else." We see the helicopters flying low from the north, two Sea Stallions flying low over the mountains, with two Cobra on either side. With the four birds in sight, with us poised to displace and gathered in the open, the 'limp-dick' Taliban weigh into us fearlessly. We might have satellites, Secnavs, GPS, and JDAMs. But they are warriors. We are turtles. We can't move. We can't maneuver. We have to get on these birds, and our enemy knows it. They use our predictability us. I fall into the prone as rounds rain on us. Large caliber, 7.62 from RPKs and .50 from Dushkas. None of our squad returns fire. They know better. We don't see the enemy. No positive identification, no shooting. Sanders, Ford, Merino, me, Mitchel. Five. "LT is splitting the LZs!" Rick yells at me over the ricochets. His face is pressed into his own radio phone. I see a Sea Stallion split off from it's wing man, heading to the backup LZ set up to the east. The Cobra's accelerate past the transports, heading straight to the town that used to have no one in it. They roar overhead, their flight path so low I can feel the wind from their rotors as the pass over us. "He's heading to the backup LZ to guide in that bird!" Rick yells. "What the fuck are we doing up here, then!?" I yell above snapping and clipping. Dust and rocks are crackling around us, as the bullets search for bodies. "1st and 2nd squads are entering here, rest go to the east LZ!" Despite the fire, I sit up and crane my neck towards the south. I am shocked as 3rd and 4th squad stand up, barely remaining in a proper formation, and begin sprinting towards the east as little puffs of earth snap around them. There are no tracers in the enemy bursts of fire. No way to see where the shooting is coming from. They are too smart for that. "Are they even under fire?!" Ford yells above the noise. Before I answer I feel a strong wind whipping across my neck and arms, and I am almost blown over. I recognize it as rotor wash, and cringe as the Sea Stallion punishes me for being an infantryman. The powerful blades whip up sand and rocks as the helicopter passes overhead. Over the beat of the blades I hear a machine gun, the rhythmic, crisp beat unlike anything in this world. I look at Mitchell. He is in the prone, perched carefully behind his weapon, but not firing. I look at Ford. He is staring up at the war machine above us, not firing. The rate of fire of the weapon is unique, something I have not heard before. It sounds sort of like a .50 cal, but faster. I look up at the open back of the Sea Stallion. The crew chief is fucking getting it, laying waste to our attackers with his ramp mounted gun. Another crew chief is hanging out of the side like some kind of goddamn flight suit gangster, firing an M16 at something. Hell yes. Our ride settles above us, the massive helicopters lurching and shifting as it hovers. After a moment, it begins descending slowly, still whipping us with dirt and wind. Despite the display of military might, we are still getting shot at. "Where are they!?" Ford screams. I try to use the direction of fire from the helicopter above us to judge where the enemy is, but the dust and sand makes in nearly impossible to see anything farther than my guy's positions. I scan them quickly, ensuring everyone is still okay. God, I hope they remember the drill for boarding an aircraft. Sanders, Ford, Merino, me, Mitchel. Five. "We're coming in, Rick!" It's the LT on the radio, not using proper radio etiquette. He yells above the noise and pain, the cracks of ricochets coming from his end of the line as well. I thought he was with 3rd and 4th squad. "I'll open the 'gate', you close it." "Roger!" Rick responds nearby. The Sea Stallion lowers itself closer to us, the ramp touching delicately on the rough ground. The crew chiefs have not stopped firing since they settled, the heavy rotor spin just white noise to us. Hell, even the ricochet's are white noise by now. I look south again. The LT is leading 2nd squad to our position. "They're yours!" Rick slaps my shoulder, then stands up and runs towards the LT. With that, Rick has just passed the responsibility of his team to me. Four more lives. I am the squad leader for now. I scan my squad, checking to ensure they are safe and in a circle around the LZ. Peralez, Smith, Martin, Prado, Sanders, Ford, Merino, me, Mitchel. Nine. Rick and the LT kneel together and begin screaming at each other politely, as the rotor wash grows even stronger. 2nd squad runs in a line past the two leaders. I feel my Kevlar helmet literally getting lifted off my head by the wind and dust, held in place only by my chinstrap. If before we were turtles, now we are gnats caught in a fan. This is so much more irritating than training in the concrete airstrip. How can aircraft even function in this shit? I look at the rear of the Sea Stallion, the two crew chiefs have stopped firing, and the one with the rifle is on the ramp now. They are both gesturing at 2nd squad as they approach the helicopter. As 2nd squad loads up the helicopter's tail blade slows slightly, the mechanical whine louder than the wind from the blade. The crosswind of the rotor wash lessens, but the noise grows louder. I can feel my heart against my flak, as the last member of 2nd squad enters the helicopter. Eleven in easy, no problem. I look at the LT and Rick. They are moving towards the bird. Rick waves at me, not bothering to call me on the radio. I know what needs to happen. I grab Ford by the shoulder. "Get Rick's team!" I yell above the noise. He nods and yells. I do not hear his voice, but he runs towards Rick's team. I stand up and run towards Merino. I am almost knocked off my feet by the rotor wash. Fucking pilot needs to power down already. I dig my boots, fighting the drag of the machine and the weight of my gear. I reach Merino, kneeling next to his ear and screaming. "Get on the bird!" He forces himself up quickly, struggling against the rotor wash as he runs towards the helicopter. I see a ricochet. A bullet lands close to my leg, skipping off behind me towards the bird. I Jerk my head after it stupidly, shocked at actually seeing a round land so close. I pause for a moment, gazing at a unique portrait of war. 2nd squad is on the bird, one crew chief poised on the edge with an M16, another crew chief poised Indian style behind the ramp gun. Ford is slapping Rick's team in the back one by one, each Marine getting up and sprinting towards the bird at his prompt. The Sea Stallion, the monolithic, grey monster, is churning up the earth and air as it idles on the ground, tormenting us endlessly as we try to escape from this dangerous spot. Far away, with a massive mountain as the backdrop, the other Sea Stallion is a speck in the distance, little ant trails of Marines charging up the back. One of the squads is boarding the helicopter, the other squad in the prone on line, firing into the mountains. A small poof of rubble and dust rises up in the midst of the engaged squad, the plume rising higher than the rotors of the aircraft. Enemy artillery is zeroing in on their position. If we don't get on this fucking aircraft, that will be us. I shake off my idiotic, boot-ass shell shock, and run to Mitchel. He and Sanders are right next to each other, Sanders acting as an impromptu spotter, pointing something out to Mitchel as I approach. "I think I see-" Sander's begins. "Get on the bird!" Yell at them both. Sander's nods, and I look back at the helicopter. Rick's team has almost loaded up, and Merino is heading towards the ramp. I dig my feet in and sprint towards the helicopter. The rotor wash is finally weakening, the pilot thinking to power down his engine so we aren't blown away by his aircraft. I have to get on the bird and count my squad. Not seeing them is almost painful to me. The rotor wash is less painful now, and visibility is getting better. Despite the danger, it seems like we are going to make it unscathed. I climb the ramp fast, the solid, not-sand, metal ramp feeling so good under my boots. I run past yelling crew chiefs, laying eyes on all the members of 2nd squad and my squad. The marines are all lined up on the two benches against the inside of the helicopter, heads down, weapons between their legs. The LT and Rick are still talking, only now inside the aircraft. It is dark, the whirl of the engine turbines probably louder than the rotor wash was outside. For some reason, in here that I can actually hear all the enemy fire landing around us, dozens of little snaps ripping into the ground outside. Somehow, none are clanking against the side of the Sea Stallion. We have to move. Someone bumps into me from behind. I am relieved to see Sander's run up, taking his place on the bench. I count off my squad, making sure to include Rick in the count this time. Rick, Peralez, Smith, Martin, Prado, Sanders, Ford, Merino, me. Nine. Wait. Rick's talking to the LT, Peralez on the bench, Smith on the bench with a M249, Martin on the Bench, Prado with his dog, Sander's bumped me, Ford's got an M249, Merino's screaming at someone, me... Nine. I jerk around and look out the back of the helicopter. Mitchel is laying in the LZ. He's moved from his original position. He's ten five meters from the ramp facing away from the bird. I can see the enemy fire so clearly now, rounds landing everywhere, kicking up dust clouds that are whipped away by the rotor wash all around Mitchel. The crew chief's are screaming at him, the LT has just noticed him, and Rick is sprinting out of the Helicopter. Thankfully, he's not shot. I can tell he's not shot because he's is laying in the prone on his elbows, perched behind his machine gun carefully, aiming through the optic at the mountains. I'm glad the enemy hasn't killed him, because I want that honor. He's exposed and delaying our extraction, and he obviously can't hear us. He's laying in a hot LZ, bullets snapping all around him, while the enemy zeroes in on our giant, exposed, grey bullet soak. And for some reason, he is still not shooting. It was only later that day that I learned the truth about what happened with Mitchel. After I had told them to displace, Sanders and Mitchel had gotten up and begun to follow me, with Sanders in the front, Mitchel a few meters behind him. While running, the rotor wash had launched a particularly large rock into Sander's temple, just below the rim of his Kevlar. It had stunned him, thrown off his balance, and he had lost his footing on the rough terrain. Sanders fell down quite dramatically, landing on his chest hard. When Mitchel saw this, he thought Sanders had been shot. Knowing that his team mate's body would have to be recovered, and afraid that he would not be able to carry Sanders on his own with a heavy weapon, so much ammo, and a goddamn M16, Mitchel went into the prone and prepared to fire. He was ready to protect his 'fallen' comrade and the Marines who would have to rescue him. He did not see Sander's stand up almost immediately to run onto the bird. Mitchel had laid behind his gun and begun searching for targets through his machine gun optic, but refrained from firing since he could not see any. Not willing to shoot blindly at nothing, he resolved to remain between his fellow Marine's 'body' and the enemy, willing to endure enemy fire until ordered to move. As I looked at Mitchel, I had no idea of any of this. Even if I did know what happened, I would not have cared. I did not care about anything I should have, honestly. The crew chief with the rifle began firing at the non-hostile town, and the LT and Rick sprinted out shooting their M4's at hills they believed were concealing snipers. The LT fell onto his back into the helicopter as the rotor wash struck him in an odd way, still firing his M4 between his legs, like Tom Cruise from Collateral. I don't care. All I know is one of my squad is laying in the middle of the hot LZ. I sprint down the ramp towards Mitchel, totally ignoring any tactical considerations, oblivious to enemy suppressing fire, almost leaning sideways as I press against the helicopter-made maelstrom. I lean at the waist over Mitchek's prone form. He looks up at me. "Get on the Fucking bird!" I scream. "Aye Corporal!" Mitchel replies and moves instantly, not blinking or stuttering at my anger. He surges upward and runs towards the bird. As he boards I followed him, making sure he sits down on the bench. Ten.