Northern Iraq, December 2017
It was Sunday. Ripley had been kept awake by the wailing of the female fighters, mourning the death of the Peshmerga during the fighting of the previous day. They had buried the body at dawn that morning, the corpse ritually washed by the male fighters and buried out in the desert, under a simple, stone cairn at the site. She was still supple and tough enough to sleep directly on the ground, but someone had fallen over her during the night. That morning her eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep and for some reason her chest was aching.
It was much colder as the wind had moved to the north and angry looking clouds were bubbling up over the mountains in Turkey. The Peshmerga seemed disinclined to do much fighting after yesterday’s intense firefight. They had made a temporary camp within the few intact buildings of the pumping station, after cleaning out the ISIL filth and debris. Their lack of hygiene and cleanliness disgusted the Kurds.
Ripley had tried to interrogate the Chechen again, but he seemed paralysed with terror. Later that morning a US Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low had landed to take the prisoners for processing. It hadn’t hung around, probably wanting to beat the weather back to the covert US base over the border. Halward watched it leave, skimming low across the ground, kicking up dust and thought about what was going to happen to the Chechen. He shuddered.
If the Peshmerga had decided to have a down day, the Brits would as well. The Major gathered them together for a heads-up, reiterating their commanders’ intent, ground and mission. And then they held a short and impromptu religious service. It began with the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Nicene Creed for the two Catholics in the patrol, or as they were invariably referred to: “Mary’s Mob.” There was also a Jewish Corporal by the name of “Manny” Cohen, but he just joined in with the rest. Ripley lurked awkwardly at the back as the simple affirmation of faith was recited.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial
of one Being with the Father.
Ripley who didn’t believe any kind of God at all, found this all rather moving. The brief act of worship ended with the Regimental Hymn, To be a Pilgrim, also known as He who would valiant be. As their tuneless and baritone voices rang out over the barren plain she thought of her home country that had produced these tough, resolute and courageous men. The cream of a society, whose so-called elite despised them and everything they stood for. She irritably brushed away a tear and went to clean her weapons.
They amalgamated some of the compo rations and two of them who were passable cooks, made a form of Sunday lunch of stew, dumplings and carrots. Ripley had her own Halal ration packs, but she had some of the wonderfully sweet jam pudding. They were glad of the hot food because the temperature was plummeting and the solid sky had taken on a greenish tinge so that it was an oppressive slate grey. At around 17:30 the sleet came down, a horrible, soaking cascade that robbed them of all warmth, driven by the biting northerly wind. They rigged shelters in the lee of the vehicles and Halward decided that only one would be on stag and only for an hour. The Warrant Officer divvied out the duties and Ripley asked:
“When do I go on stag?”
He knew better than to argue with her, “You can do 23:00 to midnight.”
“But I’ll only do one. Most of you will do two.”
“Don’t moan about it. You can cook breakfast,” and then he remembered that it was tins of bacon grill, “Or at least put on a brew.”
“I’ll do breakfast. All of it.”
By the time Ripley went on stag, the wind was gusting and ripping at the waterproof ponchos slung from the vehicles. She was glad of the hijab because the sleet driven by the raw wind was painful on the face. She had on five layers on the top including a Gore-Tex shell, but she was still chilled to the core. She would move, scanning the surrounds, then find some cover out of the wind, then move again. She never noticed Halward in the shadows by the trucks, covertly watching over her like a guardian angel.
A trooper relieved her after one of the longest hours of her life. Her hijab and what little hair was visible had frozen and she could no longer feel her hands or feet.
“We’ve given up on the bashas,” he told her, speaking loudly above the wind, “Mr Hogan reckons we’d have frozen to death, so we’ve moved into one of the ruined buildings. He pointed, “It stinks, but there’s some roof left and it’s out of the wind. We’ve moved your kit in with us.”
He was right, the building did stink of smoke and the animal smell of their enemy, but two of the walls and part of the roof was intact. They had thoughtfully laid out her sleeping bag inside a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. Her bergen was propped against the wall with her puffer trousers rolled up for a pillow. Someone had even marked it with a cylume stick. She pulled off the three soaking outer layers, moved the cylume to the empty bag and kit and wriggled into the sleeping bag with her wicking base layer and Norwegian shirt. Ripley wondered if she should take off her boots and trousers, but that would have caused complications in the morning, her being commando. Although she didn’t feel thirsty, Ripley took about a third of her water bottle to prevent dehydration. She thought it was too cold to sleep before exhaustion enveloped her.
When she woke up it was light outside and she felt terrible. Everybody else was up and about and she could smell the fatty aroma of frying bacon grill. One of the troopers was bending over her with a mug of tea and a mess tin.
“Stop your grinnin and drop your linen,” he drawled.
“What time is it, James?”
“Gone seven, you lazy girl. But to be fair, we did put Rohypnol in your water bottle and have been doing unspeakable things with you all night. You never told us about that tattoo, Ripley. Here’s your breakfast.”
“Not funny, James.”
In the mess tin were two flatbreads, honey and yoghurt.
“Oh that’s really nice. Where did you get this from?”
“You’re Kurdish lady friends. They really missed you, Ripley,” he said with a lascivious wink.
“Did somebody ask them?”
“Well, I didn’t think you wanted any bacon grill or bacon and beans.”
She smiled at him, “That was kind of you, James.”
She clambered out of the sleeping bag, not wanting to be seen to be having breakfast in bed. James glanced at her.
“That reminds me, better check the wheel nuts.”
As he sauntered off, she pulled on her puffer jacket, which was still damp, took her carbine and went outside, away from the smell of cooking bacon grill. She put the mess tin and tea on the back of one of the wagons, grabbed one of the shovels found some cover well away from the habitation and relieved herself, then swabbed her hands with a little bottle of alcohol jell she always carried. The wind had dropped, but it was still cold with the wind sweeping down from the mountains. The sky was a deep blue with high-altitude streaks of Cirrus Fibratus clouds. There would be another front on its way. The simple flatbreads and yoghurt with the honey was absolutely delicious and she finished it with relish. She lit a cigarette and coughed because the smoke felt raw on the membranes of her throat. Although she had slept solidly for seven hours, Ripley felt tired, not through lack of sleep but a general fatigue and she pondered if perhaps she was getting too old for this.
She cleaned the mess tin with a little of the water, “James, is this my mess tin?”
He looked up from packing the kit into the wagon, “Yep. Got it from your side pouch. My God, the stuff you cart round with you.”
She went up on tip-toe and gave him a sisterly peck on the cheek, “Thanks, James. See, you don’t have to be an arsehole all the time.”
After she stowed her kit on the Supacat she had a look around. The Kurds were up and about and Halward was some two hundred metres away, squatting on the ground and fiddling with the satellite comms link. For some reason the cold seemed to be soaking into her bones this morning.
Halward came back after thirty minutes, lugging the sat link and the folded dish. He carefully stowed them on the second vehicle and then he and Warrant Officer Hogan took themselves off for an impromptu O-group. The six of them and Ripley waited in expectation, suspecting that this day they would be advancing on Rabia and then across the border into Syria. The skies were clear apart from the high altitude cirrus. When the major and the warrant officer came back, the troopers gathered round in expectation.
“Morning gentlemen and lady. I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans and we have a new mission. The commanders’ intent is that we move our area of operations much further to the south west, specifically the towns strung out along the Euphrates and its major tributary,” He unfolded a map and lay it across the bonnet of the Supacat. They all craned in to see.
“This is where we’re going, Ash Shaddadi,” Ripley looked at him quizzically, “It’s at least 130 kilometres from our current position, which is here. It will mean we’re supporting a different Kurdish group and we’ll be operating with the Canadians and Americans. We are to rendezvous with a team of their special forces on the river just by the border crossing. We’ll need extra fuel, water, food and ammunition and we’ll be going right into bandit country. A resupply drop by C130 will take place at around noon at this location, so we’ll need a drop zone cleared and marked.
“I’ll need to talk with our Kurdish friends and ask them to stay put until another team comes in. I’d like you to come with me, Ripley, as I suspect they won’t be too happy. There will be a full briefing at 11:00 and vehicle commanders should have their routes planned. I have call signs and frequencies for our new operation.”
As Halward and Ripley walked towards the Kurdish camp, she glanced at him, “Isn’t life full of marvellous coincidences. I just happened to mention a place to you the night before last, a place that you and I have never heard of. And all of a sudden, that’s where we’re going.”
He grunted non-committally.
As he had predicted, the leader of the Peshmerga was not very happy at all. Their conversation was conducted with Ripley interpreting.
“This is not good for our fighters. It takes time and effort to build up mutual trust and to understand the way we operate.”
“Another team will be joining you from Turkey within the next forty-eight hours. I have requested an air drop for our new mission that will include ammunition for your fighters. I am very sorry that we have to leave you. The weather is not good over the next few days, which would curtail air support. This will allow time for the new team to settle in.”
“And meanwhile, Daesh has a chance to consolidate.”
Halward didn’t know what to say, so he wisely kept quiet.
“Where are you going?”
“South and then into Syria. We will be leaving after the air drop and the new team will be with you in forty-eight hours.”
“That is two days,” said the Peshmerga commander, “I will not pretend that I’m happy with this, but thank you for your support and may your God be with you for whatever you will be doing.”
Halward inclined his head respectfully and the two of them walked back to the vehicles.
“He was really pissed off you know,” Ripley told him.
“I know, but I can’t help it that our orders have been changed.”
Later that morning the female fighter called Medya sought Ripley out, “Is it true?”
“Yes Medya, I’m afraid it is.”
“I will miss you my Persian friend.”
The two women embraced and parted company as there was little to be said. Ripley stared sadly at Medya as she walked back to their camp. They would never see each other again. Medya would be killed by a sniper’s bullet, on the outskirts of Rabia a week later.
They had marked the drop zone with pegged-down florescent panels. Halward was sitting on the Supacat roll bar, talking with the C130 pilot on the radio. They could hear the drone of the aircraft, but it was still out of sight. One of the troopers was standing by with a smoke flare to indicate the wind direction, still northerly and bitter. Ripley was huddled in her sleeping bag in the back of the vehicle, coughing occasionally and quite violently.
“I told you that smoking was bad for you,” Halward told her, rather annoyingly in her opinion.
The trooper on the edge of the drop zone pointed into the sky to the north east and they saw the grey shape of a Hercules transport heading towards them. It circled round to the south and the smoke flare went off. The C130 turned north slowly, maintaining medium altitude. When it seemed as though it would overshoot the DZ, its nose went down and it came in at a seemingly impossibly steep angle. It pulled out of the dive and skimmed low across the desert floor. A drogue parachute deployed from the rear ramp and a stressed, steel platform loaded with cargo was dragged out of the aircraft by the parachute. It thudded onto the ground and skidded along for a couple of hundred metres. The parachute detached and one of the Supacats went after it. Parachutes had many uses.
The aircraft climbed steeply after the drop off, obviously preferring not to hang around in range of ground fire. The troopers worked quickly, putting the black, water jerry cans on the vehicles, along with the green cans of fuel, the khaki metal containers of ammunition and the cardboard ten-man ration packs. The Kurds came for their fuel and ammunition with a pick-up. All that was left was the stressed, steel platform, while the cargo nets and strops were taken, because they had many uses as well. Perhaps one day someone would come and retrieve it, but more likely it would rust and become the detritus of a covert war that very few knew about and even less were interested in.
By 14:00 the two Supacats were heading south towards the range of hills called the Jebel Juraybah, which reared up from the desert like a green fortress. There was grass on the slopes for the Jebel, and where there was grass, there would be water. It was getting dark and Halward looked for a place to Laager the vehicles. Dry wadis were out of the question. If and when the sleet came again, they wouldn’t be dry for long. The border with Syria was few kilometres to their right and by the time they pulled into the lee of an outcrop of rocks, night had fallen.
Halward went to the other vehicle and he and the warrant officer had a state of the union conversation. They had set off later and hadn’t made as much ground as the major had hoped for, but it was pointless and dangerous driving at night, even with NVGs.
“At least the parachute should cover both vehicles as long as the wind doesn’t get up too much. I’m afraid we’ll have to double the stag tonight,”
Halward became aware that the two medics were hovering in the background. Each Supacat’s crew had a trained patrol medic in case the patrol needed to separate, or if one vehicle was compromised. They were highly trained up to emergency medical technician standards. It looked as though they were both there to give each other moral support.
“What is it, Jamie?”
“We’re sorry to disturb you, Boss. But it’s about Ripley.”
“What about her?”
“She’s sick, Boss.”
“Very badly sick, I’m afraid. You’d better come and see for yourself.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file