Evac Excerpt

May 26, 2015

Since I’m here today to talk about my book, Evac, that releases tomorrow, I thought I’d share the first chapter so you can get a sense of the intensity of the story.
Chapter One
Only the Good Die Young

“EVAC! EVAC! We need emergency evac now!” Benji shouted at the top of his lungs into his radio for the umpteenth time. “We’re getting slaughtered out here.”

If anyone on the other end of the radio couldn’t pick up on the emotion in Benji’s voice, all they had to do was listen to the barrage of gunfire that served as background noise.

“Bravo Six. This is Bravo Two Three. Request immediate medevac. Repeat. Request immediate medevac. Situation FUBAR. Do you copy?”

Over crackling noise from the radio, Benji thought he heard someone, but whatever they said wasn’t clear. Too much static made it unintelligible. And with gunfire all around them, it was nearly impossible for Benji to hear the person beside him, let alone someone’s voice coming faintly over a weak radio transmission.

So many damned valleys all over Afghanistan made radio communication difficult at best, so Benji kept repeating the call for evacuation over and over and over again. He wasn’t convinced his messages were getting out of the valley, much less to someone who could make anything happen.

He kept repeating his call for help, pausing briefly after each attempt, hoping against hope a response would come through crystal clear.

“Evac! We need emergency medevac. We’re getting mowed down out here. Chopper down. Wounded on board. We’re taking heavy fire. We’ve got wounded and casualties. We need emergency evac. We’re surrounded by hostiles. Over.”

WHEN THEY’D climbed aboard the chopper less than an hour ago, they’d been a happy-go-lucky band of brothers out to do a day’s work. The only difference between them and anyone else was that their workplace was a war zone with inhospitable terrains and really pissed-off hostiles. Benji and his buddies were good at their jobs, and they had an excellent record.

They’d been gossiping and joking and teasing for the first part of the flight before growing quiet as they neared their drop-off point. They might have acted like adolescents, but they were trained soldiers, and when they went into a potential combat situation, that situation had their laser-like focus. It all came down to context. When they had to be hard-ass killing machines, that’s what they were. When they could relax, they joked and played and gossiped like school kids.

On their flight in that morning, the chief focus of their gossip had been one of their own. Mark had taken one of the nurses out on a date the previous day—as much as one could go on a date while eating, sleeping, living, and breathing in hell. Despite nearly nonstop teasing and taunting, Mark wouldn’t tell them what the two had talked about during their time together. When he’d returned to their shelter with a smile on his face, they were all happy for him. They wanted details, but he was a gentleman who wouldn’t kiss and tell. Hence the nonstop jabs.

Benji didn’t think he’d ever forget Mark’s smile. It had been so adorably cute it was burned into Benji’s memory, probably forever. As Benji watched his buddy die early on, when their mission started to go to hell via the express lane, all he could think of was that smile from the previous night. Benji was overwhelmed with anger that such a good guy had been mowed down. He wanted to make someone pay. He redoubled his resolve to pull something worthwhile out of the hellish mess in which they found themselves.

They’d been ready. Benji and his guys knew the drill. They’d been focused and ready to move into action the second their chopper touched down. But they didn’t get the chance to put their training to work.

Benji had been looking out the open doorway, preparing himself like all the others. He’d been unconsciously flexing his muscles, getting ready to push up and out of the chopper and onto the ground so he could run while staying low. It wasn’t an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances, but doing it wearing eighty pounds of gear, including body armor and helmet and weapons, made it ten times harder.

But it was what they did. Every day the same thing. They took their mission seriously, even when it didn’t make sense. But they weren’t paid to make policy; they were paid to carry out the mission, and they did that whether or not they agreed with why they were there. They’d all heard the shots striking their helicopter as they came in. At about twenty feet off the ground, a bullet hit some vital part of the helicopter’s propulsion system. Like an angry wild beast, their chopper whipped around violently. The machine took on a life of its own, independent of the pilot and copilot’s control—no pilot in his right mind would make a chopper do what theirs had done.

The first casualty was Benji’s buddy with the smile. Benji watched, horrified, as Mark lost his balance and his grip on the handrail when the chopper whirled around so fast. He was flung through the open doorway twenty feet above the ground. Mark screamed, but so many things were happening simultaneously, Benji and his team could barely process them fast enough to keep up.

But there could be no mistake about what happened next. Gunfire hit Mark almost immediately as he seemed to hang in midair just beyond Benji’s reach. Since Benji was next in the jump sequence, he was closest. He didn’t hear gunfire, but he felt the splash of warm wetness on his face and saw the look of surprise on his buddy’s face before an utterly blank expression replaced it. And then he was gone.

Mark plummeted to the ground, which was actually a good thing. The way their chopper was spiraling crazily in the air, if he hadn’t fallen, he would have impacted the outside of their ride.

The only good thing that particular day was they didn’t have far to fall. The chopper tried to rise as it spun wildly, so the twenty feet rapidly turned into thirty, maybe more. Benji couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter really, because the chopper suddenly went silent. It seemed to hang in the air for a second, and then it fell from the sky.

Funny thing about helicopters: if their engines stop, they don’t glide down gently like an airplane—they drop like a rock.

Thankful the spinning had stopped, Benji was dizzy from the rapid whipping motion. Then he felt the crash. No way anyone could miss the fact their ride had just hit the ground.

The chopper came down on its right side, which unfortunately had the open door. Benji saw the chopper skin crumple beside him—or more accurately beneath him, given their new orientation to the ground. All Benji knew for sure was the side of a helicopter—up or down or sideways—wasn’t supposed to do what the part he was lying against had done.

In the moments after the crash, Benji heard moaning amid the various creaking noises the dead machine was making. He knew their first priority was to get out before the thing potentially exploded. It would take only one lucky shot for someone to send them all to hell in one group.

Benji wasn’t the commander of their unit. He couldn’t figure out why their leader wasn’t, well, leading. The leader was supposed to lead in all situations, even the unexpected ones, especially the unexpected ones, and this certainly fit the bill as unexpected. So why wasn’t he leading?

It took a moment for Benji to push himself up a little and then shove something aside enough so he could move. One look at their unit leader’s broken body told Benji the man wasn’t going to lead anyone anywhere. Benji wasn’t sure how Major Evans had become impaled on someone’s automatic rifle, but it must have been fast to drive it all the way through his torso.

Someone had to take charge immediately. No one else was together enough to do it, so pecking order be damned. They needed to live.

Benji automatically shouted out, “Who can move?”

Jumbled answers came from the wreckage. Some guys just moaned, which told him they would need to be carried out because they weren’t going anywhere under their own power.

Although it was difficult, Benji pushed himself free and started to crawl toward an opening in the chopper. It had probably been part of the cockpit; he didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. He needed to find a way to get his buddies out of the death trap before it blew up or some local showed up and started shooting them like fish in a barrel.

He remembered his grandfather using that phrase a lot when Benji was little. He had asked the old man why anyone would have their fish in a barrel anyway. He couldn’t remember whether or not his grandfather had ever answered his question, but the phrase had stuck and somehow seemed appropriate at that moment.

The rest of the helicopter was a twisted mass of metal. The former windshield seemed to be the most logical way out, if Benji could get the shattered glass to give way. It wasn’t easy, but he braced against something and started kicking at it. He’d expected, given its condition, it would rapidly pop out, but despite two or three kicks, the windshield remained stubbornly in place.

A couple more attempts and some of it loosened. Anxious to get his guys out of the dead bird as fast as possible, Benji kept kicking, pulling on inner reserves of strength and determination. This was for his guys, his brothers, his buddies. He’d do anything for his guys, just like they’d do the same for him.

When it finally released its hold, the windshield simply fell away from the chopper in a less than dramatic fashion. After all that effort, he’d almost hoped for something big and impressive, but he’d settle for plain and boring as long as it meant out.

The way clear, he shouted, “Come on, guys, haul it out. We need to get clear. Move it. Follow me.” One of his buddies crawled toward him. Benji flung his rifle over his shoulder and reached back to pull the guy out of the wreckage.

Something wet dripped down onto his neck. What is that smell? He recognized it, but his brain wasn’t at peak efficiency. What the hell is it? Jet fuel! That’s it. It smells like jet fuel. That isn’t good. No. That’s very, very bad.

He had to move them faster. “Fuel leak. Haul your asses out of here now!” he told them. A couple of them scrambled toward him, each helping an injured guy who couldn’t make it on his own.

Benji did a quick scan of the area, looking not only for bandits but also for cover. He needed to find shelter for them, some place from which they could fight and protect their wounded. He began putting the injured against a large boulder about twenty feet from where they’d impacted the ground.

He tried to radio for help after getting the first of the injured on the ground behind the boulder. The damned landscape of northern Afghanistan made radio communication so difficult. He tried and tried to get word out. He moved another injured comrade to safety, then tried once again to radio for help.
OUT OF their group of eighteen guys, only Benji and two others were able to move about without any problem—mostly. Ten had injuries of some sort, most serious enough to make their condition critical. The rest were dead. Benji made a mental note of who was where so he could direct their rescue party to recover the bodies of the dead.

Dead. Benji used the term in his mind, but it was just a word, a descriptor that didn’t carry any special meaning. It didn’t mean anything to him in terms of individuals. It was a logistical term. He was still pushing on adrenaline so he could make plans and carry out actions, but he couldn’t process emotions. Those were luxuries that would come later, if they survived. Surviving was first and foremost.

Huddled behind the boulder, Benji felt something hit the ground near his leg. “Son of a bitch!” he cursed aloud. The bandits had found them and were getting close enough to their position to start firing on them. Benji started to move, but his left leg seized up. “Fuck. I don’t have time for a fucking muscle cramp,” he muttered to himself.

“Pull in, guys,” he ordered, not that his buddies could do much more pulling—they were packed in fairly compact already.

Benji looked to his right to repeat his order in time to watch Blade, the other uninjured guy, get hit. One shot and he was dead, his death nearly instantaneous. It hadn’t been dramatic. One minute he was living, looking at the guy next to him, starting to look at Benji to say something—he’d lifted his head and opened his mouth—and then he was dead. Welcome to god-fucking-damn Afghanistan. Benji’s heart clenched at what he had just witnessed. He wanted to weep, to wail, to curse the universe, but he did not have the luxury to feel anything. Feelings would have to come later. Grief would have to come later. First he needed to survive. Soldiers compartmentalized things, which was exactly what Benji did. Put it away and deal with it later.

For what felt like an eternity, Benji and his fellow soldiers tried to fight back. Anyone who wasn’t unconscious was fighting. Even those who couldn’t sit up still aimed their rifles or handguns and fired at hostiles, or they helped by reloading when someone’s weapon ran out of ammo.

Only Benji and one other guy were upright at that point, and the other guy was wounded. They were doing the bulk of the fighting, trying desperately to locate where the hostiles were hidden so they could try to take them out. The only problem was there seemed to be a whole lot more of them than of Benji’s unit, and the hostiles had the upper hand.

He smelled it before he saw it. The air was thick with the stench of fuel of some sort. The closest he could come to identifying it was jet fuel, probably from their wounded bird. He quickly looked at the broken body of their helicopter and saw that what had been drops of fuel was now a constant trickle. The breeze shifted, so the smell of the fuel reached him now where it hadn’t before. While not good, it wasn’t the worst of his problems at the moment.

Something impacted the boulder inches from where they huddled. It caused pieces of the rock to break off, dust and grit falling on them as they tried to make themselves the smallest targets possible. The worst wasn’t the grit. Hell, they could handle that. The problem was that the impact of the bullet had caused an explosive sound at what seemed like mere inches from Benji’s head. The loud noise deafened him for a few moments and left him with a horrible sense of disorientation. He put his head down for a second and then shook it, trying to clear the blockage in his ears, not that there was much hope of that happening.

The silence was replaced by a ringing in his ears that got louder. That ringing was replaced eventually by a low-level sound of gunfire from the surrounding area. Everything sounded muffled, as if someone had thrown a really thick blanket over his head, only he knew they hadn’t, because he could still see everything and everyone—he just couldn’t hear shit.

He swiveled his head left and then right. Without his hearing, he had only his sight to check on his guys. Again his look was timed so he had to watch another of his brethren mowed down by hostile fire. Things were not good if the unfriendlies were so close they could get a shot off like that one. This was bad. This was really, really bad.

The only good Benji could find at that split second in time was that the smell of fuel was gone. The problem was, the gas smell had been replaced by the odor of blood. Before coming to Afghanistan, Benji had never realized that blood had a smell. But he knew now from experience that blood most definitely did have a distinctive odor, almost a metallic smell, as odd as that seemed. And that day, in that place, the ground was soaked with blood, American blood, the blood of his brothers.

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