Sunday’s are usually a pretty slow day around here, there are no morning meetings, troops get a little extra rest, and both the message traffic and the workload are usually pretty light. Understand, this is for the FOB where you can usually find us loggies and most of the support personnel, the combat units are still out and about. We are acutely aware that the cave-dweller doesn’t take Sunday off.
This past Sunday wasn’t shaping up to be any different than most of the others we have experienced here. I had slept a little later than normal, then stopped in the TOC after breakfast to catch up on a few things and check the message traffic. It was a hot clear morning then the thunderstorms rolled in and by early afternoon it was raining pretty solid. The comforting patter of light rain gave way to an increasingly heavier downpour, and when the wind began to shake the heavy canvas and make the metal poles creak, it became down right ominous.
When the hail started, I stopped what I was doing at my desk long enough to peek outside and make sure it wasn’t big enough to cause any damage. I had just gotten back to trying to concentrate on my work when LT Mahoney, my operations officer, came by and said “Sir, we’re tracking a TIC with Trinity. They’re sending a 9-line.”
TIC is an acronym for “Troops in Contact” and Trinity is the call sign for the 3/3 Marines who had just moved off the FOB last week (see “Farewell to Trinity” post) after being relieved by 82nd Airborne units. They had established operations in another area and were continuing to do what they do best, take the fight to the cave-dweller. TICs are more common than we would like them to be but that isn’t what caused the sense of urgency. A 9-line is a standard radio format to request medical evacuation.
The big flat screen television in the operations center resembles a teenager’s compute monitor with multiple text chat message windows open at any given time and even though they are all encrypted and secure, most of the time the messages that flicker across are just as benign. Not this time. I read the last message
“TRINITY: Stand by for 9 line.”
We in the LTF aren’t in the medevac business, and no longer supporting Trinity, we had no part, but the people gathered at the screen because we had worked with these guys for the past 3 months and we had made a lot of friends. Absolutely powerless, we stood and waited for the next message to pop up.
“TRINITY: Line 1 – ##A, AA, ########” The series of numbers and letters that popped up reflected the grid coordinates of where the marines wanted the medevac to land.
SPC Stogner copied the coordinates and began to plot them on one of our wall maps.
As we waited the following lines, I scrolled back through the messages to see what had brought them to this point.
Having taken some fire from a hillside, the marines had pursued and seen the attackers disappear into a cave. Close air support was called, but the A-10s aren’t built to flush thugs out of a hole in the mountain, nothing is, except Marines.
“TRINITY: Line 2 - ####, Trinity.” It was the radio frequency and call sign of the Marines at the landing site.
The smoke cleared, and of course the Marines had to go in. The firefight ensued, the TIC was reported and soon after word came that there were 2 US WIA. 9 Line to follow.
“TRINITY: Line 3 – 2 critical.” Now I was worried. This line was supposed to be the number of patients by precedence.
It wasn’t only the word “Critical” that concerned me, but the fact that they had used it. There are only five different words that should be used here, each with a specific meaning to the medics as to the severity of the injuries. "Critical" isn't one of them. It was a break from protocol and uncharacteristic of the consistently professional, by-the-numbers behavior I had always witnessed from these guys. I could only imagine what was happening on the ground, and I prayed that it wasn’t a sign of panic.
I looked to the map where SPC Stogner was plotting the coordinates. My heart sank. The dense contour lines around the point he had plotted indicated a viciously rugged terrain.
I returned to the monitor and waited. The minutes stretched. In another break from precedence, higher headquarters had already approved the medevac. Normally all 9 lines of the request are received and the mission is evaluated before the approval is given. Two critical marines was analysis enough in this case, but I also knew that the helicopter couldn’t take off until at least 5 lines had been received. The crew needed at least that much information to know if any special equipment would be required and how to configure the cargo area. The minutes continued to stretch and I tried not to think about what was happening on that mountainside.
“TRINITY: Line 5 – 2 non-ambulatory”
“Where is line 4?” I asked to no one in particular. I scrolled up and checked again. It hadn’t been sent. I looked at the time stamps on the messages. 20 minutes and some change. The pilots would be in the aircraft and the blades would be turning. They would be looking at maps trying to find the best approach and calling for the weather. The crew was configuring the patient area to accommodate 2 patients on litters, but they couldn’t go until they had line 4.
Higher headquarters broke in with the weather “Broken000, wind 35G55, thunderstorms and hail.”
I looked from the big screen to the computer terminal and back hoping I had misread this. I hadn’t, and a wave of resignation swept over me. A broken ceiling with 000 meant that the clouds were coming down to the ground in places. The wind had a sustained speed of 35 knots and was gusting to 55, near the limitations of the aircraft. Throw in the thunderstorms, hail, and mountains, and it was a recipe for disaster. There was no way they were going to fly.
“MEDEVAC: Send line 4.” I stared at the screen with a bizarre mixture of awe, pride and disbelief. They might die trying, but they were going to go after these marines and they needed to know what special equipment was needed.
The minutes ticked by.
“TRINITY: Line 4 – Ventilator. 1 Marine isn’t breathing.” My mood turned to despair again in the time it took me to read the message.
I watched the other 4 lines gradually pop up on the screen as I tried in vain not to think about these Marines lying in the mud with their life slipping away.
No sooner had the Marines sent the 9th line than they followed up with “Please advise when medevac is wheels up.”
Even from my disassociated vantage point, the minutes seemed to stretch interminably. It was impossible for me to fathom what it was like on that muddy hillside with marines trying everything they possibly could to save the lives of their comrades waiting for help that would take a veritable eternity to arrive, if it came at all.
“MEDEVAC: Send patient status..update vitals.”
We waited, staring at the immobile screen as if at a telephone that refused to ring. I remembered talking to Trinity’s executive officer a few weeks prior. They were entering the home stretch of their deployment and the fact that they hadn’t lost any Marines up to this point made him proud, nervous, and hopeful.
TRINITY: “2 US KIA”
And just that quickly, all of our hopes vanished.
Overcome with frustration and helplessness, I stepped out the back door to collect myself. The rain had stopped and the wind had died down where we are, but the mountains in the distance were still obscured by storm clouds.
I wondered who those Marines were, if they were someone who I had passed any number of times on the FOB, or seen laughing with their buddies in the chow hall. Were they part of that ever present group of Marines on the volleyball court or in the gym? I wondered what their plans had been upon their redeployment which was at hand, and I wondered about their families whose perception of Mother’s Day would be changed forever.
I felt my eyes well up. I said a prayer, then went back to work.
It didn’t seem to make much difference later, when we saw the reports that the Air Force AC-130s and A-10s had caught remnants of this group of attackers in a nearby valley and gave the Marines 19 less to worry about the next day.
The whole incident didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the world in general as the Reuters report was barely longer than the 9 lines it took the Marines to call for a miracle that wouldn't come.