The Future, The Past
Just Another Country
The F18 took off well before the sun lifted itself into the sky. The pilot hit the afterburners, and the combination of speed and technology hurled the aircraft into the air. The flight would be two hours out and two hours back over some restricted airspace, but that didn’t matter if they didn’t know the aircraft was there. He banked up to the supertanker and located the long hoses extending into a small cone. Connecting his plane to the hose, he watched the gauges patiently as the fuel forced its way into his tanks. Disconnecting from the tanker, he dropped back down onto his intended flight path. Fifteen minutes out from the rendezvous, he broke radio silence.
"Spartan 2, this is Lightning 5. Radio check, over."
"Lightning 5, this is Spartan 2. We've got you loud and clear. What’s your ETA, over?"
"Lightning 5. ETA is fifteen minutes out from your location, over."
"Spartan 2, roger that. I’ll have splash on the target in two mikes, over."
"Lightning 5, I’ll confirm once splash is identified and code is good, over."
The heat was searing on the desert floor, with temperatures well over 110 degrees. Even under the packed earth they had dug out the night before the day was warm. Ten heavily armed men had started walking from the border three nights before and were now holed up well into the new country. It was a free zone, ten kilometres wide along the border, where they had let terrorist groups do whatever they wanted. Until now.
The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had picked the Canadian Special Operations Team to carry out a rare daylight hit. It was time to send a message to these groups and the neighbouring country that they would take no more. The Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR, had tracked the insurgents back to their training compound after they had watched them place IEDs along the road. When the country refused to do anything about the enemy camp, the coalition forces decided it was time to look after it themselves. The Canadians happened to be the next in rotation, and now four men were in a hole with eyes on the compound. By training standards, they only needed two people to run the equipment. Still, if they needed to fight their way back, the other two would provide additional insurance. The soldier turned on the machine, and it went through its self-check mode. After a minute, a green light came on, indicating all was operational. He aimed the laser intensifier at the target and said softly to the Section Commander, "Target acquired. Codes are identified."
The Section Commander pushed the talk button on his vest and relayed the information. "Rear Security, this is Spartan 2. We have eyes on and contact with Lightning 5. Get ready for some noise."
"Rear Security. Roger that. All's quiet back here. Let’s get this thing done." The six men that comprised the group tapped each other, letting the other know it was showtime.
Back just over the border, the rest of the team was distributed into six CH-147 helicopters in a loiter position, flying racetrack circles in the sky. The Commander of the Operation heard the call from Spartan 2, and he broke his radio silence. "All call signs Spartan, this Spartan 1. We are five minutes to target." As the men in the birds stirred about, doing one last equipment check, the CH-147s turned east, starting their final run into the target.
The pilot of the F18 held at 20,000 feet and looked at his head-ups display, telling him his bomb codes were identified and locked in. The aircraft then released the deadly cargo, gaining altitude as the bombs fell away from the jet. The two one-thousand- pound bombs were guided by an invisible beam to their target. Sliding out of the sky, they steered left and then right, adjusting to the air pressure and wind. They hit their mark with a deafening roar, and it disappeared into a ball of fire and smoke.
"Lightning Five, this is Spartan 2. Target destroyed. We need your overwatch while we wait for extraction, over." The Team Leader turned to his men. "Pack this shit up, and let's get out of here."
"Spartan 2, roger. Will loiter till extraction complete. Be advised, assault force is twenty seconds out, coming in over your six. Out."
The target was destroyed, and the men cleared the bunker, leaving behind four pounds of C4 plastic explosives on a timer. This would give them thirty minutes to get well away from the location before the charge blew up and destroyed all evidence of their presence. The Team Leader turned his head as he entered the Rear Security position just in time to see the assault force land and hit what was left of the compound. Once complete, the ten men made their way to the extraction point.
The war had been raging for the past five years, with the terror groups gaining ground in strategic areas in the country. They’d pushed the government forces out to the fringes, leaving them barely hanging on. The nightly news continued to show abuse of civilians at the hands of the terrorists, and they were finally getting the attention of world leaders. But the leaders and their countries were tired with what they'd been through in recent conflicts. Pumping hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as having their soldiers killed in another country far from home, wasn't conducive to reelection. They needed these countries to solve their own problems, with only a little help from them. Unfortunately, it always came down to the same two choices: Turn their backs, let the country fall and put up with the terrorists or take control of the country and sort out the whole mess for them. It was the latter the West had decided to do. That's when everything changed, with all the major countries deciding to step in. Instead of sending in large, expensive ground forces to engage, they sent in their Special Operation Forces or SOF. They could work in conjunction with the country's government forces, conducting pinpoint strategic hits that would cripple the terrorists more effectively.
The SOF teams had been making good headway in the last six months, taking back control of facilities, airports, main highway routes and media centres. Once an area was back under their control, they would turn it over to the government forces, who were good at looking after the day-to-day running and security. It was only the offence they were crap at.
Steve Johnson was the Sergeant Major of the Canadian SOF team. At forty years old, he stood just under six feet tall and sported a receding hairline. He weighed slightly over two hundred pounds, all of it toned muscle and bone. His hardened, weathered face reflected his no-bullshit attitude toward his work. As some Commanders would say, "He ain't pretty, but he can get the job done." That's why they liked him. That's why he had countless deployments under his belt. Some were longer than others, but all were in shitholes around the world. It was in these places he had fine-tuned his job and set his standards. If the Officers and Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) working with him were competent and understood their duties, no problem. If they didn't, good luck. Despite Johnson’s hard-working and hard-charging good points, many disliked him. It was what he said, how he said it, and what he believed. For Johnson, it was about getting the job done, period. No whining, no bitching, get it done and do your best to bring everyone home. So, to say he had more enemies than friends was an understatement, and he knew that. His motto to himself was, "Don't trust anyone" — DTA. The team had been in the country for about three months, with at least another four to go. The rumours were they were pulling out early and were needed somewhere else. Johnson didn’t like what he was hearing. They were still required here to hunt and hit the enemy hard.
Besides these rumours, HQ had changed plans again. They’d flown in over ten hummers, a four-wheeled hybrid between a beefed-up jeep and a light half-ton truck. It could usually carry six people, depending on the weapons platform, mission and configuration. HQ was again deciding how the Squadron would conduct business when they were thousands of kilometres away. Getting these new vehicles left the Officer Commanding (OC) and Johnson wondering how they were going to utilize them.
Johnson stood in the compound, mulling over possible uses for the hummers when he noticed the OC walking toward him. A bit shorter and stockier than Johnson, Major Tom Layton, was a much younger, thirty-year-old man with clear, ebony skin. His intelligence and ability to get things done allowed the two men to work exceptionally well together. As the OC got closer, the look on his face said it all and his words confirmed it.
"Sergeant Major, what the fuck are we going to do with these?"
Johnson just laughed and said, "Nice weapons' platform if you could get it into action."
"HQ wants us trained up on them ASAP, so the unit can justify the money spent to send them over."
"No problem, OC. My take on it is we take them out, do a few overnighters to say we tried them out. Then everyone's happy, everyone saves face, and the money's justified."
"Sounds good, but if shit goes sideways, you and I will answer for it, not them."
"I know. We've always answered for it, good or bad — that's what we get paid for."
"Yeah...pay. That's another story. I don't want to be a Major all my life."
"I got it. It'll all be fine. Once we have the vehicles outfitted and prepped, I’ll come and get you for the final look."
"Do that," the OC said and walked back to the HQ building.
The teams worked on the vehicles throughout the day, packing and unpacking, seeing what would fit and what wouldn't.
"Sergeant Major," was the call that brought Johnson’s head up. A Communications NCO was walking over to him with a piece of paper in his hand. "Sergeant Major, the OC needs you. We got a ping on target 357."
Johnson read the paper and said, "I'll be right there. Tell the OC I’m passing on the Warning Order to the Warrants. They can get their guys moving." He looked again at the note and thought, Looks like we’re working tonight.
Target 357 was one of many compounds the coalition forces had under listening surveillance. It was a small village, surrounded by a twenty-foot high mud and straw wall. Inside the wall were various buildings of different sizes and purposes, from housing livestock to family units. The enemy had set themselves up within this compound and had begun conducting offensive operations.
Walking into the Ops Centre, Johnson saw the OC. "Warning Order is being passed now. What do we have?"
The OC looked at him from a large screen displaying a satellite image of the compound marked 357 and replied, "They picked up communication and want us to engage the target tonight. We'll lift off at last light. Flying time is about an hour. Hit the target, do a search, see what we can find. Then depart before first light. Hopefully, we'll be back here at sunup in time for breakfast. Time is now 1200 hours. I’ll give orders at 1400. Rehearsals just after that, eat, rest, then fly out."
"Good. I'll pass that on. You need a hand with anything?"
"No, not at this time. Everything is Standard Operating Procedure. Let's keep things simple."
"See you at 1400," Johnson said. He exited the building and gathered the second in commands of the platoons. They had been alerted with the warning order and had passed the information on to their men. Johnson made things quick, confirming the timings and what was needed for special equipment.
Once the briefings were completed, Johnson headed back to his quarters and passed by the telephone line. He stopped and looked at the long row of empty phones and decided to give a quick call home. He punched the sequence of numbers slowly into the pad. His experience was that if you did it too fast, the line wouldn’t work — something to do with connecting to the satellite, the techs had said. The line on the other end hesitated momentarily and then rang. After a few moments, a sleepy female voice picked up the line.
"Hello," she said.
Hearing his wife Elly, visibly released the tension mirrored in his face. He raked his hand over his thinning hairline, pulling the sweat-filled strands of hair away from his face. "Baby, it's me. Sorry to wake you."
"Oh, hon, it’s okay. I always love hearing your voice. What time is it?"
"Over here? Just after 1230 hours. Must be about 0200 your time."
She paused for a second. "Yup. Two o’clock in the morning. Just checked the clock. Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. I just miss you. This op has been a long haul."
"The news said an SF team went over the border and took out a training facility. Their news is saying it was a hospital."
"No, it wasn’t us," he lied with a twinge of remorse. He had never enjoyed keeping the truth from his wife. "But I doubt that it was a hospital. There are no hospitals here." Wanting to change the subject, he added, "So what’s new? How's the new job and the boss?" Elly was a grade five teacher at a local elementary school in Ontario.
"Oh, the job's great. We're busy with the school year winding down. Report cards and assessments are due. It makes the days go by quickly. It’s only the nights that are lonely." Elly's passion for her job and the children she taught spilled through her words as she began talking to him. They had never had children of their own. Johnson only half-listened to her words as she continued to talk about her day. Instead, he recreated in his mind the picture of his beautiful wife. Despite her being nearly forty years of age, she had maintained a slim, athletic build. He closed his eyes and painted a picture of her face and long blonde hair.
She suddenly yawned deep into the telephone and said, "Oh, sorry."
Her comment brought him back. "No, I’m sorry for waking you." Although he didn't want the conversation to end, he said, "I’ll let you get back to sleep."
She paused for a second. "Steve, are you sure you're okay?"
"Baby, all's fine, just another boring day in the sandbox," Johnson said.
"Okay." She hesitated and then continued. "I love you, and I miss you. Look after yourself and come home to me."
"I will," he said. "I love you, too. Get some sleep and kick ass at the job."
"Always," she said. "Thanks for calling, babe. Love you."
"Bye for now. Talk to you soon."
The line went dead. Johnson stared at the phone, already missing their connection. Sighing, he softly hung the phone back up and walked away.
By 1700, all the battle preparations had been completed. By 1900, after one last question and answer, the Squadron moved to the hummers. Once all fifty-five personnel were loaded, they moved to the flight line. As they drove out to the helicopters, Johnson looked at the OC with a grin and said, "I told you we’d use them."
The man rolled his eyes and replied, "I think HQ wanted more than just a two-kilometre drive to the flight line."
"They never specified," he snorted. They both barked a short laugh.
As they got closer to the helicopters, Johnson could see the crew from the aviation unit prepping the birds. The pilots and their crew were rushing around, opening panels, checking tires and blades. As they off-loaded the hummers, the airmen signalled for the team to move in behind their assigned birds. The men strained under their heavy loads, forming into files twenty metres behind the ramps.
Johnson moved to his position, then stood looking west across the desert landscape. The air had started to cool, and the sun was slowly going down. The dust in the still air reflected the sunset's brilliant colours, turning the otherwise brown, bleak desert into a vibrant kaleidoscope of reds, blues and yellows. He turned his head back and gave his equipment one last check. His attention was drawn to the ticking of the igniters along with the smell of jet fuel burning. The whine of the engines started, quietly at first, then picking up to an ear-shattering roar as they came up to a slow idle. The word finally passing on to load up, the men made their way onto the ramps and into the black openings.
They sat down on the floor of the helicopter, with their backs up against the wall. The pitch of the rotors changed as the machine sped up. Finally, the aircraft started to move forward, picking up speed, then lifting smoothly into the air. Johnson hit the button on his watch, illuminating its face. One hour to go, he thought, closing his eyes as they rose into the dark night.
A kick to his leg and someone screaming into his earpiece brought him around. "Fifteen minutes to insertion," a dark form in front of him hollered. Johnson grabbed the man next to him, repeating the same words in his ear. He made sure the man was moving and had passed on the order. He did another equipment check by feel and then ran the Operation sequence through his mind one more time.
A tap and another scream came into his ear. "Five minutes." It signalled they'd be on the ground soon, so he turned on his night vision goggle (NVG). Flipping their NVGs down, he and the rest of the team stood and braced themselves. The descent came quickly, with the pitch of the rotors deepening. The jolt of the landing signalled their arrival, and they spilled out into a black rush of movement, pushing into the hurricane blast from the rotors and the darkness of the night. Moving straight beyond the rotor wash, Johnson could see the infrared laser pointer from the Gunship. It had picked out the teams' entry point, helping the men get oriented and moving toward the target. The first element sprinted to the mud wall, placed explosives on it, and blew an entry hole directly into the compound. The OC and Johnson listened to the team's progress over the radios as they picked up and started moving forward.