Chapter 20 – The Loadmaster’s Story
Gilmore woke up around 12:00 because he was too hot and the continual aircraft movements made sleep impossible. He went to the ablutions corimec and pampered himself with an enormous piss followed by a Basra shower. Water was a premium in this part of the world, expensive and time consuming to desalinate, then ship into the base by tanker. So the British military had a standard operating procedure for taking a shower:
1. Enter shower cubicle and turn on the water. The water will run for no more than 20 seconds. During this time you must ensure all bodily parts are thoroughly wet. Do not ingest water.
2. Turn off the water. Select shower gel, soap or myrrh scented oils of choice and thoroughly lather the entire body. Avoid contact with the eyes.
3. Turn on the water and rinse off cleansing agents for a maximum of 40 seconds ensuring all residues are removed, to prevent chemical irritation.
4. At this point Male personnel are to shave. This stage is optional for female personnel.
5. Ensure all sensitive body areas are well moisturised because the highly chlorinated water is likely to irritate sensitive skin to buggery.
The combined messing facility was getting busy when he piled his body armour and helmet by the door. If the rocket and mortar alarm were to go off, a stampede of around 200 people would rush to find their kit among the piles of identically camouflaged personal protective equipment. Some tube had made a decree that body armour was not to be worn in the combined messing facility, so that was it. Gilmore elected to have a freshly cooked ham and tomato omelette with French beans and found a quiet corner of the mess hall to sit. There was no sign of Flight Lieutenant Mount or Flying Officer Skelton.
Surrounded by people, Gilmore had never felt so lonely. Aircrew did three months in theatre rather than the usual four months for other RAF personnel. The Army did six months, but helicopter aircrew were rotated every six months, so it was three on six off. Included in the six months off were specific to role training and pre-deployment training. This was Gilmores third tour in Iraq. It was quite bad for the medics as well, particularly those with acute care or trauma specialisations. He was beginning to feel maudlin when he felt someone brush past his back, go round the end of the table and sit opposite him.
“Hi, Gary. I didn’t see you at the gym this morning.”
She was one of the MT drivers on the Squadron. Very fit, very vivacious and very pretty. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, (well actually he could, because she was only human), she had something of a “thing” for Sergeant Air Loadmaster Gilmore. But dalliances with junior airwomen by senior NCOs was likely to have the Squadron Commander beating him over the head with a copy of Air Publication No 1: Ethos, Core Values and Standards. This all seemed rather unfair to Gilmore, given that his co-pilot was carpet-munching her way through her operational tour.
“We didn’t land ‘till just before three this morning. Been in bed.”
“You poor thing,” she said, her limpid, brown eyes melting his soul, “When are you flying again?”
“14:00, twelve hours IRT Stag.”
“Do you want a lift to the flight line? I’ve got a wagon.”
“Thanks, but I need to collect my kit.”
“No worries, I’ll wait,” she said brightly, “Tell me where your corimec is and I’ll bring the Land Rover round.”
They were watching Team America on a DVD in the crew room. Well the men were. Most of the women thought it was silly, with puppets and stupid accents. Gilmore would have enjoyed it even more, if Louise hadn’t been sleeping with her head on Andy Mount’s shoulder. She was wearing her cut-off jacket, but at least her arms were decorously folded on her lap. She had once again forgone undergarments and as one of the gunners had pointed out earlier; she looked like a dead heat in a Zeppelin race.
Louise presented to the world the façade of a worldly-wise tough cookie. A young woman who was confident in her own abilities. She was easily beautiful, a true pin-up for the Armed Forces careers Office and she appeared in several recruiting pictures, complete with grow bag, flying helmet tucked under her arm so that you could see her auburn hair, not done up in a bun, but cascading over her shoulders, because she was so photogenic.
Parts of Louise’s life were a façade. She was nearly thirty, but still didn’t command her own aircraft. She had struggled through officer training at Cranwell and the Joint Helicopter Flying Training School. Their squadron commander was desperate to help her, which is why she had been partnered with Andy Mount, one of the most experienced pilots on the squadron. Louise also struggled with her own sexuality, as if anyone else could give a toss. Everybody loved Louise, the pity of it was she could barely love herself.
The medical team consisted of a Flight Nursing Officer (FNO), a Flight Nurse (FN) and a male Flight Nursing Attendant medic (FNA). He was chortling away to the film. The two nurses were reading. The two RAF Regiment Gunners of the force protection detail, were enjoying the film so much, they kept repeating lines:
“Hanz Brix, you brake my balls. Durka, durka. I promise, etc.”
Time passes very slowly during an extremely boring shift. Coffee, even good coffee becomes dry and tasteless. It was stiflingly hot in the crew room and the air conditioning seemed to be working as well as most systems seemed to work at BAS. The next highlight would be the delivery of the packed dinners. Probably a cheese pasty, still frozen in the middle, packet of crisps, tasteless apple and a melted chocolate bar, Gilmore thought gloomily. He looked at the clock and sighed.
It started as do all these things, a series of random, sometimes innocuous, seemingly unrelated events that stoked the volcano. It was the theory of synchronicity in action to cause the perfect storm.
During Op TELIC One in 2003, during the initial invasion of Iraq, the British forces couldn’t move for television and newspaper journalists. But once the warfighting was over and the coalition forces moved on to the more difficult phase of peace-making and nation building. They got bored and packed up their cameras and satellite dishes, leaving the only people who would give a shit about the 12,500 British personnel in theatre, their families. A warmongering Prime Minister with a Messiah complex and a twisted, alcoholic propaganda minister had assured the military planners, that the relief agencies and NGOs would flood into the country. The problem was that the NGOs were reluctant to put their name to an enterprise that many regarded as an illegal act of war on a sovereign state. And a hostile, unstable chancellor wouldn’t finance it anyway.
The long-suffering Shia Muslims of Iraq’s second largest city were prepared to give the British a chance, but it soon became apparent that the occupying British forces could barely sustain themselves, let alone provide reconstruction and development for a population of over 375,000. The willingness to see what would happen didn’t take long to slide into anger and insurrection.
On 1st May 2004, the repugnant editor and wannabee celeb of a national, red-top rag of a newspaper, published a set of photographs purporting to show British troops abusing Iraqi internees. Despite boasting that he had a brother in the Army and how he admired the British military, the editor ran these pictures, which were so obviously faked a Boys Brigade cadet could have pointed out they were a hoax. Given the global nature of news, the Iraqi population was less than impressed and rioting around the isolated British bases ensued. It’s a shame he didn’t show his brother the photographs before he published them. And if he did, it’s a shame his brother was so ignorant of the type of vehicles used on Op TELIC.
Around this time a Shia, paramilitary force, likely backed by Iran and headed by a cleric, the Jaysh Al-Mahdi (JAM), became a focus for the anti-British insurgency in Southern Iraq. The JAM were well armed, well organised and well trained, probably by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. RPG attacks on British bases, sniper fire and roadside IEDs continued throughout 2004/2005 and the British casualty numbers began to climb towards 100 deaths. As a rule of thumb used by medical planners, for every death there will be one very seriously injured, one seriously injured and four minor to significant casualties. All of a sudden, the media became interested in Iraq again and they wanted to be there to get a scoop when the 100th British serviceman or woman was killed.
A BBC team that had recently flown into theatre and demanded priority over other news networks, had so far done a few pieces to camera outside the old airport fire station, pretending they were down-town Basra. They were fully kitted up with body armour and helmets and the lead presenter, a darling of the television morning news programme, didn’t like it when passing Toms on the way to work laughed at them. Probably stung that their professional integrity was being questioned by what they perceived as uneducated cannon fodder, the BBC team went to their corporate comms civil servant minder, (yes you even get the parasites on operations) and demanded free passage and military escort into Basra City. They spun it as showing what a good job the military was doing under difficult circumstances, but back in the UK it would be edited to show what a clusterfuck they were making of Iraq.
It’s impossible to fathom the degree of obsequiousness and general fawning that senior military officers show the media and the lengths they would go to, to enable the media to portray the military as a bunch of incompetent arseholes, but ho hum. The BBC team got their way and a two-vehicle convoy left BAS and headed into the city. All went well until they took a wrong turn, missing the turnoff to uptown Basra with the stores, hotels and coffee houses and carried on towards the slums and narrow streets of the Al Mishraq district. The BBC vehicle didn’t have a radio, so the escort Snatch Land Rover couldn’t communicate with them and thought this was all part of the plan. The driver of the BBC vehicle realised they had made a mistake and turned up a narrower road with a watercourse running along the right. Two children dashed out an alley on the left. The elder, a boy made it. The Toyota Land Cruiser hit the little girl who didn’t and her body was thrown into the air like a ragdoll.
It was Sean of the Dead on the DVD player and Louise, Andy Mount and the FNA were playing Risk. The gunners were chuckling like Bevis and Butthead as Simon Pegg threw records at a girl zombie. Gilmore was trying to read Angels and Demons and look down Louise’s top, as she bent forward to throw the die. The nurses were knitting. The Ops phone rang and the duty bod answered it.
“Methane!” he said loudly and started to write in the log, relaying the information to everyone in the room. Andy Mount and Louise pulled on their body armour and went out to the helicopter. On the pan the groundcrew were pulling off the dayglow red protective and warning tabs. The starter generator was plugged into the aircraft. The medics were putting on their kit and shouldering the medical bergens. Gilmore opened his notebook and went over to the ops table with its map.
“Callsign: Babysitter Three-Zero. Grid reference: three, zero, zero, niner, four, five delta. Incident is a road traffic collision involving a vehicle and civilian personnel. Hazards at scene include large and unfriendly crowd, with as yet no enemy fire. Landing point is problematic as insufficient space on road in a built up area. Nearest possible landing site is the opposite side of the waterway, accessible by a footbridge, approximately 200 plus metres from the incident. We will mark with florescent square. Casualties are numbers one, a female child of approximately eight to ten years of age. Suspect skeletal trauma and internal injuries. GCS of eleven. The casualty is in a great deal of pain and very frightened. Conscious and responding to pain and speech. Require medical team and additional force protection as situation is deteriorating.”
Gilmore had marked the position on the map and was the last one on the Puma, which by now was burning and turning. He checked the Pax and that the medical equipment was netted down. The RAF gunners were grinning, eyes shining with excitement. He put on his harness then pushed his head in the cockpit with the map.
”That’s where it is. The landing site is the wrong side of the canal or whatever it is. The medics will have to go in on foot. I suggest we take off as soon as they’re out and loiter. The helicopter could exacerbate the situation.”
“Agreed,” the pilot said. Louise took the map and went on the radio. She was calm as though ordering a pizza over the phone.
“Bravo, Alpha, Sierra, this is Damp Duster One Zero requesting clearance and transit to three, zero, zero, niner, four, five delta. Eight souls on board, for immediate, priority clearance. Thank you.”
“Roger, Damp Duster, One Zero, you are cleared for transit. You have priority, over.”
“Thank you, Bravo, Alpha, Sierra, Damp Duster One Zero listening, out.”
The Puma’s engines ramped up and she rose then tipped forward so that the rotor blades could gain purchase and thrust in the hot, thin afternoon air.
In the Divisional Headquarters in the partially finished and abandoned Basra Airport Hotel, the SO3 Med Ops was running through the options with his head on fire. The first constraint was that all he had to go on was the initial Methane report, but the fact that the casualty was a child was a complicating factor. The British field hospital at Shaibah had no paediatric capability, and while the casualty could be stabilised at Shaibah, they would have to be moved elsewhere for further care. The coalition was now morally bound to make sure the casualty received the best treatment and they indirectly, had caused the accident. Politically it would have been disastrous to dump the little girl off at a civilian hospital.
The second was the range of the helicopter. He looked at a map on the wall showing the maximum combat radii for each helicopter type. The American hospitals in the Baghdad area were excellent and had all disciplines. The Americans also had a can-do attitude, but Baghdad was beyond the Puma’s range. There was a modern, well-equipped teaching hospital in Kuwait City, but there were cultural difficulties in moving what was probably a Shiite little girl to a Sunni country.
Thirdly, although technically all medical assets in the Divisional area were Divisional assets, this was often far from the case. There were different countries who had very different national caveats on who they could and wouldn’t treat. He also knew from the Methane report that the medical team was going into a potentially explosive situation. He updated his log and wrote: IRT wheels up 1725 L and estimated wheels down at incident around 1740, he then started to make phone calls. He had fifteen minutes.
The Puma swept over the Al Kadhim Grand Mosque, Gilmore in his favourite position behind the GPMG, legs dangling in the slipstream. The helicopter began its flare with a watercourse to port. Louise spotted the footbridge and pointed out the florescent fabric square of material pinned out in the dust. She didn’t need to point out the crowd and the lines of people joining it from all directions.
“Bugger,” she said somewhat unnecessarily.
The two RAF Regiment gunners were ready in the port door. They would be first out.
“Remember lads, discreet, low profile,” Gilmore yelled.
They nodded and the Puma slowed, then they were out into the dust. A few moments later the three medics followed, the FNA carrying a folding stretcher and well as a medical bergen. The helicopter lifted away and side slipped to starboard, the nose swinging round so that Gary could cover a hot withdrawal with the GPMG.
The FNO had her own radio and now she could talk directly to the SO3 Med Ops in the Joint Operations Cell (JOC) at Div HQ. She kept it brief, “This is Medic Zero-One. Wheels down 1737 and we’re going on to the casualty.”
Gilmore and Louise took stock of the situation as the incident was on their side. Mount concentrated at keeping the Puma in a stable hover. The two vehicles were surrounded by a crowd. One was instantly recognisable as a Snatch Land Rover, the other was a white SUV. It seemed to be a camera team, with military minders.
“The cheeky bastards are filming the medics,” Louise said, craning past the pilot to get a good view.
“She’s right, skipper.”
“Go down and sort it out, Gary. That’s just fucking outrageous.”
Mount dropped the Puma while Gilmore undid his harness and unplugged the intercom. He jumped down and ran across the footbridge, seeking out the senior member of the military minders. It was a second lieutenant. He ignored the medics doing their job, working on an immobile, fragile, little body and looked at the crowd, a sea of hostile faces.
“Sir, you have to get these civilians out of here.”
“We’ve tried but they want a story.”
“Who’s in charge of them?”
“The sound recordist, the prick with a furry dildo on a stick. The fragrant presenter is in the car getting ready to do a piece to camera.”
Gilmore stalked towards the two who were filming, “Sir, would you please stop filming and get in your vehicle. The Iraqis don’t like being filmed and this is medical in confidence.”
The camera moved up from the medical team for a new angle on the story, “Listen matey, we’re just doing our job. Piss off and do yours. We can edit that out can’t we?” he said to the sound man.
Gilmore put his hand on the lens of the camera and rammed it back into the cameraman’s face. The last piece on the film was the well-worn palm of his Glove, Flying, Desert, NATO Stock Number: 8415-01-040-1453.
“You bastard!” the cameraman yelled, holding his eye.
Gilmore went face to face with the sound recordist, “If you don’t get in your fucking car, and fuck off out of here while you still can, I’m going to ram that fucking furry microphone right up your fucking arse. Do I make myself fucking clear?”
He went back to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I think they’ve decided they’ve got enough for Panorama. Get them out of here.”
Gilmore went to go back to the helicopter, but noticed an Iraqi woman wearing a Hijab. She was looking down at the little girl and was inconsolable with grief. He was struck with a thought, “Do you have an interpreter?”
The Lieutenant pointed to a worried looking Iraqi in civilian clothes with a blue covered flak jacket, “We have Mr Sharifa.”
“Can we borrow him? We’ll make sure that he gets back in one piece.”
“Wellll, OK, seeing as how you were so nice to the media. And of course, if he’ll go.”
Gilmore went up to the interpreter and made the traditional Arab greeting, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Mr Sharifa, would you please ask that woman if she is the little girl’s mother.
He did and she was. Gilmore bent down next to the FNO who was on the radio, speaking with the JOC, “They want us to take her to the Japanese Field Hospital at Di Qar Province in Nasiriya.”
“I’ll let the skipper know. This is Mr Sharifa and he is an interpreter. That lady is the little girl’s mother. I’m not telling you your job, Ma’am, but I suggest she goes with us on the helicopter.”
“It’s your call, Gary.”
The FNO stood up and held the mother’s hand and looked at the interpreter, “Please tell the lady that her daughter has a broken hip and probably she is also hurt inside her body. We will need to take her to a hospital for them to x-ray her and fix whatever is wrong inside her body. She can go with her little girl, but she must come in the helicopter with us. Also tell her that although her little girl’s eyes are closed, she can still hear so ask her mother to talk to her daughter and not be frightened.”
Gilmore made his way back to the helicopter and was relieved to see one of the Gunners was keeping the bridge and their exfiltration route open. The Puma came down and he jumped on board and poked his head in the cockpit.
“The casualty is a little girl and we have two extra pax, the mother and an interpreter. But the best bit is we have to fly her to the Japanese Field Hospital at Nasiriya.”
“Do we have enough fuel, Louise?”
She made a few calculations that accounted for the extra payload, “Yes.”
Gilmore saw that the medical team had got the little body onto the stretcher with a spinal board. The Land Rover and Land Cruiser were retracing their route, hopefully back to BAS. The medics were just lifting the stretcher when the first rock was thrown. Even from the helicopter he could sense the change in the mood of the crowd as the casualty was moved towards the aircraft. One rock became a fusillade, which became a shower, which became a storm. The medics were running with the stretcher across the footbridge, trying to shield the casualty, while the interpreter protected the mother.
“It’s kicking off.”
“I Know, Gary. Just get them in, away from the doors. I’ll get away and then we’ll worry about strapping them in. You may have to help the civvies.”
The stretcher was first in, followed by the mother and the interpreter. Gilmore helped them with the seatbelts while the medics hurried on board and just hung on. The gunners were last and rocks were thudding into the ground and clanging off the rotor blades. The crowd surged forward.
“They’re all aboard,” He yelled.
The Puma surged upwards like an express lift and pivoted to head west out of the city, before heading north. Gilmore slammed the port door shut and finally remembered to put on his harness and plug in the intercom. The medics were working on and around the child on the stretcher, kneeling on the floor. She was wailing in pain and terror while the FNO began to put in a central line. Her mother was rocking with grief. Gilmore looked away, his eyes burning and sat on the other side of the aircraft with the Gunners.
“This is the bit that kills me.”
The two Gunners looked at each other and one raised his eyes.
Half the medical compliment of the Field Hospital at Nasiriya seemed to be waiting for the Puma when it landed. The FNO handed the patient over and the last they saw was the stretcher on a trolley and the mother disappearing into the trauma unit.
The flight back was quiet and uneventful. The Medics and Gunners slept, the interpreter read the Koran and appeared to be praying. Gary stared out at the passing desert, an unfamiliar emptiness in his soul. When they landed, he bagged the medical waste and rubbish with the FNA, then wandered off to stare at the crimson sky and the setting sun. He squatted down and put his head in his hands.
Louise went out to smoke a cigarette, she was smoking too many because her fingers were becoming stained with nicotine. Not good. She saw Gilmore crouched down, just beyond the pool of the lights from the Ops building and her heart seemed to lurch. Of one thing she was certain. Despite his Jack-the-lad bullshit, Louise loved Giles Gilmore more than he would ever know.
But Giles was married. She had seen his wife and little boy on the camp. Louise envied her and part of her even hated her. And she was an officer and Gilmore was a sergeant. Those little details still mattered to some people, people who had never felt the loving comradeship of those who had shared the grinding monotony and danger of operations. She threw the cigarette away and walked towards him.
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you all right, Gary?”
He stood up guiltily and pretended his eyes were tired.
“I know it’s a bastard when it’s kids,” Louise said gently, “Especially for you in the cheap seats. Come on, I’ll get you a coffee.”
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file