Read an Excerpt
Korengal Valley, Kunar province, Afghanistan
His breakfast consisted of shoestring potatoes that actually did look and taste like shoestrings, along with reconstituted eggs, staring up at him from a compartmentalized tray in the noisy chow hall. His cup was full of a coffeelike substance, lightened by a whitish powder.
At the end of a two-year tour of duty, Ross Bellamy had a hard time looking at morning chow. He'd reached his limit. Fortunately for him, this was his last day of deployment. It seemed like any other day—tedious, yet tense with the constant and ominous hum of imminent threat. Radio static crackled along with the sound of clacking utensils, so familiar to him by now that he barely heard it. At a comm station, an ops guy for the Dustoff unit was on alert, awaiting the next call for a medical evacuation.
There was always a next call. An air medic crew like Ross's faced them daily, even hourly.
When the walkie-talkie clipped to his pocket went off, he put aside the mess without a second glance. The call was a signal for the on-duty crew to drop everything—a fork poised to carry a morsel of mystery meat to a mouth. A game of Spades, even if you were winning. A letter to a sweetheart, chopped off in the middle of a sentence that might never be finished. A dream of home in the head of someone dead asleep. A guy in the middle of saying a prayer, or one with only half his face shaved.
The medevac units prided themselves on their reaction time—five or six minutes from call to launch. Men and women burst into action, still chewing food or drying off from the shower as they fell into roles as hard and familiar as their steel-toed boots.
Ross gritted his teeth, wondering what the day had in store for him, and hoping he'd make it through without getting himself killed. He needed this discharge, and he needed it now. Back home, his grandfather was sick—had been sick for a while, and Ross suspected it was a lot more serious than the family let on. It was hard to imagine his grandfather sick. Granddad had always been larger-than-life, from his passion for travel to his trademark belly laugh, the one that could make a whole roomful of people smile. He was more than a grandparent to Ross. Circumstances in his youth had drawn the two of them close in a bond that defined their relationship even now.
On impulse, he grabbed his grandfather's most recent letter and stuck it into the breast pocket of his flight jacket, next to his heart. The fact that he'd even felt the urge to do so made him feel a gut-twist of worry.
"Let's go, Leroy," said Nemo, the unit's crew chief. Then, as he always did, he sang the first few lines of "Get Up Offa That Thang."
In the convoluted way of the army, Ross had been given the nickname Leroy. It had started when some of the platoon had learned a little—way too little—about his silver-spoon-in-mouth background. The fancy schools, the Ivy League education, the socially prominent family, had all made him fodder for teasing. Nemo had dubbed him Little Lord Fauntleroy. That had been shortened to Leroy, and the name had stuck.
"I'm on it," Ross said, striding toward the helipad. He and Ranger would be piloting the bird today.
"Good luck with the FNG."
FNG stood for Fucking New Guy, meaning Ross would have a mission virgin on board. He vowed to be nice. After all, if it weren't for new guys, Ross would be here forever. According to the order packet he'd received, his forever was about to end. In a matter of days, he'd be stateside again, assuming he didn't get himself greased today.
The FNG turned out to be a girl, a flight medic named Florence Kennedy, from Newark, New Jersey. She had that baby-faced determination common to newbies, worn as a thin mask over abject, bowel-melting fear.
"What the fuck are you waiting for?" demanded Nemo, striding past her. "Get your ass over to the LZ."
She seemed frozen, her face pale with resentment. She made no move to follow Nemo.
Ross nailed her with a glare. "Well? What the hell is it?"
"Sir, I…Not fond of the f-word, sir."
Ross let out a short blast of laughter. "You're about to fly into a battle zone and you're worried about that? Soldiers swear. Get used to it. Nobody on earth swears as much as a soldier—and nobody prays as hard. And I don't know about you, but I see no conflict there. Pretty soon, you won't, either."
She looked as though she might cry. He tried to think of something to say to reassure her, but could come up with nothing. When had he stopped knowing how to speak kindly?
When he'd grown too numb to feel anything.
"Let's go," he said simply, and strode away without looking back.
The ground crew chief barked out a checklist. Everyone climbed aboard. Armor and helmets would be donned on the chopper to shave off run time.
Ross received the details through his earpiece while he consulted his lap charts. The call was the type they feared most—victims both military and civilian, enemy still in the area. Apache gunships would escort the medical birds because the red crosses on the nose, underbelly and each cargo door of the ship meant nothing to the enemy. The crew couldn't let that matter; they had to roll fast. When a soldier on the ground was wounded, he needed to hear one key phrase: Dustoff is inbound. For some guy bleeding out in the field, the flying ambulance was his only hope of survival.
Within minutes, they were beating it northward over the evergreen-covered mountains of Kunar province. Flying at full speed across the landscape of craggy peaks, majestic forests and silvery rivers, Ross felt tense and jittery, on edge. The constant din of flight ops, along with strict regulations, kept conversation confined to essential matters only over the headsets. The rush into unknown danger was an everyday ordeal, yet he never got used to it. Last mission, he told himself. This is your last mission. Don't blow it.
The Korengal Valley was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Also one of the most treacherous. Sometimes the helos encountered surface-to-air missiles, cannonade or tripwires strung between mountain peaks to snag the aircraft. At the moment, the gorgeous landscape erupted with lightning bolts of gunfire and ominous plumes of smoke. Each represented a deadly weapon aimed at the birds.
Ross's heart had memorized the interval of delay between spotting the flash and taking the hit—one, two, three beats of the heart and something could be taken out.
The gunships broke off to fire on the areas blooming with muzzle flashes. The diversion created a lull so the medical choppers could circle down.
Ross and Ranger, the other pilot, focused on closing the distance between the bird and the other end of the radio call. Despite the information given, they never knew what might be waiting for them. Half of their flights were for evacuating Afghan civilians and security personnel. The country had lousy medical infrastructure, so sometimes a pickup was for patient transport, combat injuries, accidents, even dog bites. Ross's unit had seen everyone's horrors and ill luck. But judging by the destination, this was not going to be a simple patient transport to Bagram Air Base. This region was the deadliest of Taliban havens, patrolled on foot and referred to as the Valley of Death.
The chopper neared the pickup point and descended. The tops of the majestic pine trees swayed back and forth, beaten by the wind under the main rotors, offering fleeting glimpses of the terrain. Wedged between the walls of the valley lay a cluster of huts with rooftops of baked earth. He saw scurrying civilians and troops, some fanning out in search of the enemy, others guarding their wounded as they waited for help to arrive.
Muzzle flashes lit the hillsides on both ends of the valley. Ross knew immediately that there was too much small-arms fire below. The gunships were spread too thin.
The risk of drawing enemy fire was huge, and as pilot, he had to make the call. Bail now and protect the crew, or go in for the rescue and save the lives below. As always, it was an agonizing choice, but one made swiftly and followed by steel resolve. No time for a debate.
He took the bird in, hovering as close to the mark as he dared, but couldn't land. The other pilot shook his head vigorously. The terrain was too rough. They'd have to lower a litter.
The crew chief hung out the cargo bay door, letting the penetrator cable slide through his gloved hand. A Stokes litter was lowered and the first soldier—the one most seriously wounded, was placed in the basket. Ross lifted off, hearing "Breaking ground, sir," over his headset as the winch began its fast rewind.
The basket was nearly in the bird when Ross spotted a fresh plume of smoke—a rocket launcher. At an altitude of only fifty feet, he had no time to take evasive action. The miniature SAM slammed into the aircraft.
A flash of white lightning whipped through the ship. Everything showered down—shrapnel, gear, chips of paint, and an eerie flurry of dried blood from past sorties, flaking off the cargo area and blowing around. Then a burst of fire raked the chopper, slugs stitching holes in the bird. It bucked and vibrated, throwing off webbing, random bits of aluminum, broken equipment, including a couple of radios, right in the middle of Ross's first Mayday call to the ops guys at base who were managing the mission. A ruptured fuel line hosed the flight deck.
He felt slugs smacking into his armored chair, the plates in front of his face, the overhead bubble window. Something thumped him in the back, knocking the wind out of him. Don't die, he told himself. Don't you fucking die. He stayed alive because if he got himself killed, he'd take down everybody with him. It was as good a reason as he knew to keep going.
He had landed a pranged chopper before, but not in these conditions. There was no water to hit. He hoped like hell he could set it down with everybody intact. He couldn't tell if the crew had reeled the basket in. Couldn't let himself think about that—a wounded soldier twisting and dangling from the bird.
Ranger tried another radio. The red trail of a smoke grenade bloomed, and then the wind swept it away. Ross spotted a patch of ground just as another hail of fire hit. Decking flew up, pieces glancing off his shoulder, his helmet. The ship whirled as though thrown into a giant blender, completely out of his control. There was no lift, nothing at all. The whistles and whines of the dying ship filled his head.
As the earth raced up to meet them, he found himself focusing on random sights on the ground—a tattered billboard for baby milk, a mangled soccer goal. The chopper roared as it hit, throwing up more steel decking. The jolt slammed through every bone of his body. His back teeth crunched together. A stray rotor slung free, mowing down everything in sight. Ross was in motion even before the thing settled. The reek of JP4 fuel choked him. He flung out a hand, grabbing Ranger's shoulder, thanking God the other pilot was looking lively.
Nemo was struggling with his monkey strap, the rig used to hold him in the chopper during ops. The straps had tangled, and he was still tethered to a tie-down clamp attached to the ripped-up deck. Ranger went to help him, and the two of them dragged away the wounded guy in the litter, which, thankfully, had been hoisted into the cargo bay before the crash.
"Kennedy!" Ross dropped to his knees beside her. She lay eerily still, on her side. "Hey, Kennedy," he said, "Move your ass. Move your fucking ass! We need to get out."
Don't be dead, he thought. Please don't be dead. Damn, he hated this. Too many times, he'd turned a soldier over to find him—or her—too far gone, floating in root reflexes.
"Fuck." The FNG threw off his hand, hauling herself to her feet while uttering a stream of profanities. Then, just for a second, she focused on Ross. The soft-cheeked newness was already gone from her face, replaced by flinty-eyed determination. "Quit wasting time, Chief," she said. "Let's get the fuck out of here."
The four of them crouched low against the curve of the chopper's battered hull. Bullet holes riddled the starkly painted red cross and pockmarked the tail boom. The floor was covered with loose AK-47 rounds.
The Apache gunships had broken off and gone into hunter-killer mode, searching out the enemy on the
ground, firing at the muzzle flashes on the mountainsides and producing a much-prayed-for lull. The other chopper had escaped and was no doubt sending out distress calls on the unit's behalf. Pillars of black smoke from mortar rounds rose up everywhere.
With no means of evacuation, the crew had to take cover wherever they could. Heads down, in a hail of debris, they carried the litter toward the nearest house. Through a cloud of dust and smoke, Ross spotted an enemy soldier, hunched and watchful, armed with an AK-47, approaching the same house from the opposite direction.
"I got this," he signaled to Nemo, nudging him.
Unarmed against a hot weapon, Ross knew he had only seconds to act or he'd lose the element of surprise. That was where the army's training kicked in. Approaching from behind, he stooped low, grabbed the guy by both ankles and yanked back, causing the gunman to fall flat on his face. Even as the air rushed from the surprised victim's chest, Ross dispatched him quickly—eyes, neck, groin—in that order. The guy never knew what hit him. Within seconds, Ross had bound his wrists with zip ties, confiscated the weapon and dragged the enemy soldier into the house.
There, they found a host of beleaguered U.S. and Afghan soldiers. "Dustoff 91," Ranger said by way of introduction. "And unfortunately, you're going to have to wait for another ride."
The captured soldier groaned and shuddered on the floor.
"Jesus, where'd you learn that move?" one of the U.S. soldiers demanded.
"Unarmed combat—a medevac's specialty," said Nemo, giving Ross a hand.
A babble of Pashto and English erupted. "We're toast," said a dazed and exhausted soldier. Like his comrades, he looked as if he hadn't bathed in weeks, and he wore a dog's flea collar around his middle; life at the outposts was crude as hell. The guy—still round-cheeked with youth, but with haunted eyes—related the action in dull shell-shocked tones. A part of this kid wasn't even there anymore. When Ross met a soldier in such a state, he often found himself wondering if the missing part would ever be restored.