The Pink Mist
There wasn’t much left of the pick-up. The missile had impacted just behind the cab, which had broken the vehicle in half. Blackened steel reinforcing hoops from the tyres hung from the wheel hubs. The small crater from the first strike on the edge of the road had obliterated anything that may have been left of the explosively formed projectile. There was what looked like a fragment of burned coconut shell at the edge of the crater. It was what was left of the bomb-layer’s skull. Second Lieutenant Morse rummaged in his day sack for the digital camera.
The boom of the explosion hit them just before the almost spent blast wave. Instinctively they dropped to the ground and stared back towards the walled complex. A dirty cloud of smoke and dust was billowing up from the base of the wall nearest the road.
“IED,” Morse yelled, somewhat stating the bleeding obvious.
“Zero from One-Zero, contact! Wait-out!” Signaller Smith said into his throat mike, then he was on his feet and running after the Sergeant and “Godfrey.” Morse was trying to stuff the camera back into the day sack.
“Fucksake leave it sir!” Welland yelled over his shoulder.
“The hell I will!” Morse said grimly, swung up the daysack and headed for the cover.
The ambush came down on them a few seconds after the IED strike, as at least three AKs opened fire from the far side of the poppy field the other side of the canal. Rounds spattered through the undergrowth with flat cracks, passing the multiple that was taking cover in the waterway. A second, single AK opened up from a row of trees at the far, eastern side of the complex. At first the return fire was confused and disjointed. Sergeant Welland put his head next to Morse’s and spoke slowly but very firmly into his ear.
“Forget the IED. Let Godfrey do his job. Fight and win the firefight. Lead your patrol, sir! We’ve done it before so get a grip!”
Lieutenant Morse’s eyes focused, the panic gone, “I’ll take one and two multiples across the ditch and the field. You take three and sort that bastard out in the trees. We’ll need the area to bring in the MERT.”
“Good lad, big balls!”
As soon as Corporal Steer reached the source of the IED at the base of the wall, he was faced with a scene from hell. A pink mist was drifting down with the collapsing blast plume that smeared his glasses and clogged his mouth with a coppery taste of… Of… Oh Fuck me!
Rifleman Green was beyond any help he could give, well most of the Rifleman that lay ten yards away from the crater of the IED. Green’s eyes were still open, string upwards in surprise, his mouth half open as though he was trying to say…
One of the multiple was on his feet, shocked and dazed, bleeding from the ears but reacting to the incoming fire. Steer grabbed him, dragged him down and pointed up the road.
“Cover me!” he yelled, suspecting perforated eardrums and concussion.
The Lance jack with the LSW was screaming in a high, hysterical way clutching his bloody hand to his chest, minus the thumb and two fingers. Screamers were invariably P2.
“Use your fucking field dressing and stop screaming like a girl!”
The slumped body by the wall worried him the most. A young Rifleman was staring into the distance, he was West-Indian and facial pallor was a useless indication, so Steer tried a capillary refill test on the young Tom’s middle finger. It was slow and a spreading crimson puddle was forming underneath him. Steer waved the signaller over and unslung his bergen. The aluminium ladder could go and fuck itself.
“Send a METHANE report. Two P1s a P2 and a P3,” Steer was giving what was left of Green the benefit of the doubt.
“Zero from Zero-One. METHANE Follows: This is Zero-One. My position is five clicks north of Edgehill on Route Orange. We have IED strike and effective enemy fire from four plus AKs, either side of our current position. Further IED strikes possible, incoming fire from both flanks. Road patrolled and clear on way in. Possible LZ to our right flank beyond walled compound contested. Casualties currently numbers four. Two times Papa One, one times Papa Two, one times Papa Three. Our call-sign required immediate casualty evacuation. Over…
Captain Thorpe was in the CP when the first contact report came in, followed a minute or so later by the METHANE report. He felt a cold chill when he heard that there were two P1 casualties and ordered the FOB to stand-to immediately. The duty signaller in the CP didn’t need the Captain to tell him what to do and immediately forwarded the contact and METHANE reports up the chain of command.
Thorpe was very concerned for his patrol and his first instinct was to fire up the Land Rover WIMIK and head out with a posse of the meanest bastards on the base he could round up. The WIMIK’s armament of HMG, GPMG and automatic grenade launchers would provide essential fire support to his beleaguered patrol. But he knew that his responsibility was to the other thirty personnel on the base and good leadership was sometimes knowing when not to lead. The WIMIK would head north, but without him. He stuck his head out of the CP and yelled: “Corporal Doyle, to me now!”
At 0915 Local the phone rang in the readiness room of Role 3 medical treatment facility at Bastion. Flight Lieutenant Owens picked it up, already knowing it would be their first shout of the day. She listened carefully and tried to ignore her stomach cramps. Lieutenant-Colonel Trent was this MERT’s team’s trauma specialist. He was playing with his tablet and glanced up at her to show willing. The duty ops bod was on the ball and unloaded a raft of information, but only four fragments interested her: Casualties currently numbers four. Two times Papa One, one times Papa Two, one times Papa Three.
She looked at Trent and said: “There are four. Two P ones, a P two and a P three.”
The Army doctor threw down his tablet and eased himself into his Osprey body armour, sticking his head through the hole at the top and wrapping the Kevlar sides round and securing them at the front. He picked up his L85 and jet packs. Flight Lieutenant Owens was already in hers and was pulling on her bone dome. She patted the left, front pocket of the Osprey to make sure the Glock was in place. The Lieutenant-Colonel smiled confidently, like the seasoned pro he was. Trent was terrified of flying and every MERT mission was his own, personal purgatory.
Trent drove the Land Rover to the flight line. The paramedics had already loaded the medical kit and were waiting on board, their eyes shining with excitement and tinged with fear. Owens and Trent went up the rear ramp into the fuselage, sitting next to the paramedics, facing inwards. Above them, the rotor blades were already burning and turning. The four boys from the RAF Regiment force protection were last on, an LSW and three gunners. They would be first out. Owens plugged her bone dome into the aircraft’s intercom. The earphones clicked, whined then settled down. She was the only one of the MERT team who could talk to the aircrew. The electronic buzz was harsh in her ear.
“Comms check. One-two-three.”
The rear loadmaster gave her the thumbs up.
The Chinook’s engine increased power, the carbon-fibre blades clawing for lift in the hot, thin air. The rear loadmaster went forward and grabbed Owens’ shoulder. He pointed at the little fabric Union Flag on his shoulder and held up four fingers. He then pointed to the Glock holstered on his right thigh. Four casualties, British, possibly contested landing zone.
Fucking great, Trent thought.
The Chinook dragged herself into the air, arse first, her nose down to gain forward momentum and lift. Behind her, the faster, more agile Apache gunship came up, shadowing the fat, ugly transport helicopter. The two aircraft banked hard while the rear loadmaster settled himself down on the rear ramp behind the minigun, his feet dangling in the slipstream. He waved at the Apache, behind and slightly higher. The Apache’s WSO gave him a good-natured finger. The two helicopters dropped down until their rotor blades were kicking up dust. They banked hard right and headed north.
Squadron Leader Margin was becoming frustrated as he was waiting for the medical sitreps from the ISAF Regions. RC West had reported first, but the spreadsheet was empty. The duty ops officer had sent in a blank return. He tried to phone but got a torrent of Spanish.
“Do you speak English?” he tried in his best Basil Fawltyesque.
“No tengo ni idea de lo que estás.”
“How’s you Spanish, Allan?” he asked.
“About as good as your Serbo-Croat.”
The Americans in RC East were as ever honest about the huge medical resources they had available. There were even timings as to when the ICU beds would be freed up as their aeromed flight left for Ramstein. Unsurprisingly there was no return from the Germans in RC North. To Margin, no great lover of the Germans, this encapsulated the tensions within ISAF. The Germans occupied a huge swathe of the country to the north, but their assets, particularly their air assets were unavailable to their ISAF partners. Their national caveats prohibited the German helicopters nfrom flying any further that 80km from a German base, and they professed to have no night flying capability.
He looked around the CJOC. There was an overrepresentation of Germans. Fucking REMFS, Margin thought to himself, somewhat ironically. The Germans packed NATO and ISAF headquarters with senior officers so they had more clout in NATO, but they seemed somewhat reticent to pack Afghanistan with fighting troops.
“Allan, could you please do me a favour and work out a time schedule when ICU beds will become available. This is the tricky bit. Distances and flying times for a CH47 and a C130 between medical treatment facilities. Can you do that for me, in a diagram that a thick shite like me can understand?”
The American Naval Reservist who was a senior executive in a US travel firm smiled good naturedly at this bumbling old fool of a Brit and thought, you shouldn’t be smoking at your age.
“No problem, you go for your fag. But it’s obscene to call such an unsophisticated way of killing yourself after a well….”
“A ball of chopped liver, well-seasoned with herbs and spices, lightly fried and served with gravy, not a sauce, but a gravy. Two nations divided by a common language, remember that.”
At the top of the pews near the back door out of the CJOC, the grown-ups were having a tete-a-tete. A British Army Colonel looked up and caught Margin’s eye before he managed to scurry out of the CJOC.
“Hello, Chris. Don’t run away. We’ve got something developing, although we haven’t put it on the screens yet.”
Margin was almost flattered to be directly addressed by the grown-ups.
“There’s a bit of a situation developing in RC South. A contact with multiple casualties. You might want to warn off your people.”
Margin smiled to himself, “your people,” as though the medical services were a separate entity from the canoe-in-the-trousers, killing brigade of the Ops world.
“Thanks, Colonel. We’re on to it. I’m just off to brief Colonel VT. I’ll keep your SO1 filled in,” By fuck, I wish I could.
Margin was accosted by an American Air Force Lieutenant as soon as he left the CJOC. She was young, very cute with an unfeasibly close-fitting pair of combat trousers, tight across an impressive arse and a lightweight jacket stretched over an even more impressive chest. She worked in the stores. He recognised her but doubted that she recognised him.
“’Scuse me, Squadron Lieutenant,”
Margin smiled, “Actually it’s squadron leader.”
“Sure, yes, can I have a word?”
“I’m going to have a cigarette. Would you care to join me?” he asked expecting the usual: How dare you! My body is a temple, bullshit.
She declined one of Mr Benson and Hedges finest, but elected to slowly kill herself with one of her own Marlboro Lights.
“It’s Garfield. Someone’s hurt Garfield really badly.”
Margin looked up at the snow topped mountains over her shoulder, trying to avoid looking at her body’s centre of mass, “Garfield?”
“I know we’re not supposed to, but we’ve been looking after him, Garfield. He sleeps in our office with his friend and they’re really good at keeping the mice down. They eat the uniforms see? The mice and rats.”
Margin inhaled deeply and the smoke hurt his lungs. It was because of the high altitude and his only just having started smoking again, “Would Garfield happen to be a cat?”
“I know you think I’m dumb, but you’re in CJ Med and you might be able to help. Some sonofabitch had stamped on his front legs. They’re broken and he can’t walk properly.”
He looked at her face and eyes. They were deep brown and translucent with brimming tears. She wasn’t much older than his daughter, and something lurched in his soul. Aware of the frighteningly strict rules of no uninvited bodily contact among headquarters personnel, he moved as close to her as he dared.
“I’ll see what I can do. Where is the… Where’s Garfield?”
He’s in our office. He’s in pain and keeps mewing. He won’t drink the milk. But do you promise?” she demanded. This was no longer a conversation between junior and senior officer.
“Give him water with an eye dropper, not milk. Just water, keep him hydrated. I’ll see what we can do.”
She smiled and hurried off and he watched her go with a strange emptiness. He now had another ball to juggle and he didn’t even know what her name was.
He went upstairs in the Corimec prefab building and sought out the Colonel. He briefed him slowly on the developing situation, avoiding acronyms, abbreviations and slang. The Frenchman took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Do we have a problem, Christophe?”
“We may have if we run out of beds.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Lean on… Sorry, persuade the Germans to release some air and medical assets from RC North.”
On his way out he stuck his head in the office. He was relieved to see that the German SO1 Med Ops wasn’t in. The Greek Army Lieutenant Colonel was. He was filling the role of Environmental Health SO1, but he was a veterinary surgeon in real life.
“Morning, Colonel Stavros,”
“Crees, where have you been?”
“Down in the CJOC. Colonel, sir. The American Lieutenant in Logistics has a favour to ask. Their chief rodent suppressor has been injured, Could you please help. It may be two fractured front legs.”
The Greek officer sighed and started to get slightly dramatic: “They know they should not encourage the cats. They are feral. What is it with women and damned cats?”
“Stavros, I’m not a vet. I know they shouldn’t encourage the bloody cats, but the Americans do a year out here. They are not allowed to fuck anyone because it’s a Federal offence while they’re on operations. They tend to get attached to cute things without a noticeable cock. Some simple splint and bandages perhaps?”
“You bloody Brits and animals.”
“She’s really nice, Stavros. Fantastic tits and arse. The Lieutenant, not the cat that is.”
By the time Margin got back to the CJOC, Alan had produced a spreadsheet showing current bed status throughout ISAF, a map overlay showing range radii, flight times and current fixed-wing availability.
“This is bloody fantastic, Allan. Thank you,”
The current situation in CJ South started to appear on the screens and they knew that the planning hadn’t been nugatory.
Chinook call sign Delta-Tango-One-Eight tracked the vegetated centre of the valley, following the winding watercourse. This was to avoid blowing up a dust cloud to blind the Apache little friend following behind. The neat, well- tended, walled fields were luxuriant with reds, purples and yellows. The poppy harvest would be good this year. As the twin-rotor helicopter juddered hard right past a rocky outcrop. Flight Lieutenant Owens stared back over her left shoulder out of the bubble window and looked down at a very young Afghan kid who waved as the helicopter’s shadow passed over him and his small herd of goats. She watched him reach into his goatskin coat and pull out a mobile phone. She didn’t even have to guess what he was saying, the little bastard…
“They’re on their way.”