Rivera was scrutinising slides from imagery taken by the U2 the previous night. They showed the defensive positions around the buildings more clearly than the day’s batches. She had been absolutely right regarding the third building, there were more heat signatures so it must be the FARC’s sleeping quarters.
The scaffolding contractors pitched up mid-morning, naturally late and proceeded to have a coffee break. The Colombian soldiers shouted at them to get moving but it looked like they would work a go-slow. The Colombian commander dragged the gaffer to one side and told him they would shoot him if the work on the scaffolding tower wasn’t started immediately. Within two hours a scaffolding tower with a ladder leading up to the top platform was completed.
The climbing gear and ropes were delivered from a climbing and mountaineering outlet in Pesto. A USAF C130 was moved from Bogotá down to Pesto for the para jump that night. To their surprise, a second C130 arrived from the States. It contained an air transportable surgical support team, complete with operating theatre and holding beds and an aeromedical evacuation team. It also had an ammunition box with fifteen Baretta M9 pistols, silencers fitted. The box also contained 200 rounds of 9mm ammunition and the twelve chosen men were like kids in a sweet shop.
It was decided that Lieutenant Collins would lead the assault team, while Lieutenant Turner would be with the Colombians and the helicopters. They would use four Huey’s for the night’s operation, three for the screening force and one for the assault team and the hostages. Some members of the assault team would go into the other airframes to prevent overloading.
The assault team would consist of Collins, Edge, Wilson, Nguyen and eight other members of the force who were proficient parachutists. Just before lunch they fired fifteen rounds from the Barettas. One kept misfiring so they swapped it for another. It was remarkable how the silencer cut back the noise. All that could be heard was the movement of the working parts and the ejected rounds tinkling on the tarmac. This wouldn’t be a problem in the jungle.
They grabbed a half-tasted light lunch and decamped to the tower. A parachute harness was already hanging from the top of the tower and Edge put on a climbing harness and went up to the platform. The other troopers gathered below.
“OK, firstly I’m going to attach the rope to the parachute harness,” they watched him tie it off, “Now my rifle is attached at the side of the chute harness, upside down and in this case with a sling. Next, I’m going to attach the belay plate to the front carabiner. I wouldn’t bother with a prussic loop at the side, we want to get out of the trees as quickly as possible. Now I’ll put on the parachute harness and this next bit we’ll all do on the ground, rather than on a narrow platform. The rope is gathered up in loops and secured to the harness with elasticated bungees. Can a couple of you help me please?”
Two Green Berets climbed up the ladder to the platform and helped Edge gather the climbing rope and secure it under the reserve parachute.
“Thanks, gents. Off the platform while they haul me up.”
Soon Edge was dangling from the top of the tower in the parachute harness. A larger crowd had gathered around the scaffolding to watch the afternoon’s entertainment.
“Here I am, dangling in my chute harness from the Jungle canopy. I have made sure my arms were tucked in and my legs were together when I went through the canopy. What’s the first thing I do?”
“Make sure there are no bad guys about,” someone suggested.
“That’s good. Note that I have my trusty Baretta to hand in its holster on my thigh. Now when I’m sure the coast is clear, I’m going to let the climbing rope out.”
The blue rope snaked to the ground.
“Next, I’m going to recover my rifle and sling it around my neck and shoulder, ready to do damage to any bad guys, although I hope there won’t be any because that would give the game away. Now the leap of faith as I undo the parachute harness. I am now supported by the rope tied to the harness and down I go.”
He seemed to be descending very quickly to the onlookers, his rate slowed by his gloves, that were smoking hot by the time he reached the ground. On the ground he stepped out of the climbing harness and crouched down.
“See. A piece of piss. Next, the rest of you have a go.”
Somebody started to clap and it was taken up by all those watching. Rivera was the most enthusiastic of all of them. When it was over, Edge bowed.
“Thank you, thank you all. I’d like to thank the script writer, producer, my agent and all of you for having faith in me over the years. I only took this part because the sex scenes were so tastefully written…”
Rivera stepped up to him, “You are always an asshole, Edge.”
He smiled at her and she felt her heart melt for this tough, wiry and relatively small compared to the Americans, Englishman who took his job so seriously and his life not at all.
“Langley has cleared it for immediate action. I guess you go tonight.”
“Damn. I had visions of a nice night in with a good Bordeaux and some fillet steak.”
“Afterwards. My treat.”
Edge passed the rest of the afternoon watching the members of the team practising abseiling from the “canopy” down to the ground. When he was satisfied, they could all do it, he collected his medical bergen and went to speak with the Doc. Unlike the rest of them, he would be going in with a medical bergen strapped to the front of his legs and attached to the bottom of his body armour. The Doc was chatting with the surgeon and the scrub nurse from the USAF medical team. It was obvious that the increase in the medical footprint was most welcome.
When they had gone, he asked the Doc a few questions, “What treatment are they likely to need, Doc?”
“Apart from possible gunshot wounds to the assault team, the DEA people will probably need assurance. They will be bewildered and disorientated, so patience and a calming presence will be the best thing you can give them. I’m not going to tell you how to deal with gunshot wounds or breaks and sprains. What will you do if someone has fractures to the lower limbs?
“Drag them along with us in a poncho. Nobody left behind, Doc.”
“You’re a good man, Edge. Please forgive me for implying that you and Rivera were having an affair.
Edge smiled shyly, “She is very cute, Doc.”
“Edge I’ll tell you this. Nobody else knows. I had an affair with a younger doctor a few years back. It wrecked my marriage and caused a lot of people misery. I can’t bear it happening to other people.”
Edge was thoughtful as he zipped up the medical bergen, “Thanks for telling me, Doc. My wife would kill me and her father would probably put out a contract on me. I fully understand what you’re saying.”
“And no angst if you have to kill female FARC.” Edge had told the Doc about his incident in the jungle, “Things will move fast. While I applaud your humanity, you won’t have time. Steel yourself.”
He hefted the bergen, “Thanks, Doc. Those about to die, salute you, and all that.”
“Get out you damned idiot.”
There was little to do, just wait until it got dark and then midnight passed. The Colombians were lined up by the helicopters, when Collins led his team out. Only he and Turner had role radios, the rest would have to communicate by touch. Collins also had two rocket flares, green to denote they were on the way, red meaning it had gone wrong and they were fighting their way out. They were all wearing GPS on their wrists, their parachutes and reserves, climbing harness and the rope tied to the top riser of the harness, threaded through the belay plate and gathered under the reserve. Ballistic glasses to protect their eyes. Their rifles slung at their sides, Barettas in thigh holsters. Each man also carried a morphine ampule and first field dressing, plus combat gloves to prevent rope burns to the hands. Tucked in the body armour were a further sixty rounds of ammunition. Edge also had his medical kit. On Edge’s recommendation, each man had wound cloth round their legs from their boots to just below the knee. This was to protect their lower legs as they went through the canopy.
There was a small crowd to see them off. Rivera was in the command tent in a conference call to Langley and Bogotá. The surgical team had set up an inflatable tent with the operating table inside and a recovery ward. Just short of their C130, Collins stopped them in a line.
“Make sure your safety catches are applied. Ready!”
They cocked their rifles and with the help of the man next to them, tucked the weapons back into the parachute harness. They didn’t need the noise of cocking weapons once they were in the jungle.
“OK, mount up.”
They filed onto the aircraft via the rear ramp, Edge being the last aboard. Martinez approached him, “Good luck, Edge. How many tree jumps is this for you?”
Edge made a great show of counting numbers on his fingers, “Err, this is number one. My first one.”
“This will be my first tree jump.”
“You’re kidding, right.”
“No, sir. I’ve never done this before.”
“So how do you know…? Know about…?”
“I read it in a book, Major.”
Edge climbed onto the ramp.
“Jesus H Christ!” Martinez exclaimed.
The ramp went up with the whine and the loadmaster was out on the pan by the C130s nose. She was connected to the cockpit by an audio umbilical and supervised the engine start-up. When all four engines were running, she unplugged the umbilicus, rolled it up and got on the aircraft through the port crew door. The aircraft began its taxi to the runway as Martinez angrily flung the tent flap aside. Rivera was just finishing her conference call as the C130 droned overhead and turned to starboard to gain height.
“What’s up, Thiago?” she asked.
“It’s that son of a bitch, Edge. He just told me he had never done a tree jump in his life. He read about it in a Goddamned book!”
She looked shocked, then smiled. She started laughing. They both did. It was a wonderful release. Presently, after he had calmed down, Martinez looked at his watch. The choppers will be off in thirty minutes. I must see them off. At least Turner has done this before, the Limey bastard!”
The cargo deck of the aircraft was dimmed to preserve their night vision. Edge was a knot of tension and he looked around the other eleven men. Chewing gum was popular as was pretending to be asleep. They felt the aircraft dip sharply to port as it went onto a reciprocal course to take it over the jungle. Edge closed his eyes and recited to himself the soldier’s prayer. He could feel Mr Skippy in an inside pocket.
Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my arms for battle, who prepares my hands for war. He is my love, my fortress; he is my stronghold, my saviour, my shield, my place of refuge.
After fifteen minutes the head loadmaster ordered them up on their feet while the other loadmaster lurked near the rear ramp. They pulled their goggles down from their helmets.
“OK fellers, there is no cloud but zero-degree isotherm is five thousand,” she yelled above the engine noise, “Wind at ground level is around eight knots with occasional gusts up to fifteen knots.”
Edge turned his medical bergen upside down and with the help of his buddy, put his legs through the shoulder straps and hoisted it up to attach to the bottom of his body armour with a quick release carabiner. He made sure it wouldn’t interfere with the rope and the belay plate.
As the rear ramp went down, the Loadmaster clipped on a safety strop.
“On the ramp!”
The aircrew were following a pre-plotted course to the GPS jump point. Edge who would be in the first stick of four went and stood near the edge of the ramp. The Loadmaster moved next to him and the other three including Collins formed up next to Edge. The baggy trousers of her flying suit flapping in the freezing blast of the slipstream. The next four were formed up just off the ramp, the last four behind or rather in front of them. The red light went on.
They tensed. The ground below was a patchwork of black and dark grey as the jungle slid below them. Edge looked down at the altimeter on his reserve chute. 14,000 feet, which meant they would be freefalling for about sixty seconds.
“GREEN ON, GO!”
They were all off the aircraft in under five seconds, bundling past the Loadmaster. She checked they were all gone with no hang-ups and stared into the darkness thoughtfully. She was always humbled and profoundly moved by the men and sometimes women and even war dogs that trusted the skill of the parachute packers to commit themselves into the void. The other Loadmaster gave her the thumbs up and she stepped back off the ramp. The C130 turned north over the Andean foothills and headed back to Bogotá and their warm and comfy hotel. She shook her head and raised the ramp.
Edge felt the usual, gut-wrenching lightness of falling away from the aircraft. He moved into the freefall, starfish position and his left glove was torn off by the upblast of air.
Shit! I loved those gloves. They were my favourite. I suppose I’d better belay with my right hand.
He caught sight of another jumper close by, then lost him again in the darkness. He checked his GPS and altimeter were working and after forty-five seconds he checked his height. Five thousand feet, getting close.
At 4,500 feet he grasped the D-ring, the other hand on his helmet to keep stability. At 4,000 he pulled the D-ring and felt the main chute go up behind him. The chute opened with a crack that at this altitude, wouldn’t be heard on the ground. He checked the canopy was fully formed and below him he could actually see the jungle. It was getting close. Edge locked his legs together and tucked in his arms as the canopy accelerated up to embrace him.
He went through the canopy with a crash. His hip ricocheted off a stout bough and the sudden pain hit him, but at least his hip wasn’t fractured. That would be certain death. A branch broke and the reserve chute and the hard corner of the altimeter hit him in the face. As he kept going down, he tasted blood.
Come on you bastard canopy, catch it!
He jolted to a halt in the blackness of the jungle. Then Edge went through the drills. Absolute quiet while he listened. Nobody ready to do him mortal harm. The rope was released and he heard it hit the jungle floor, then his rifle retrieved and slung. Now the tricky bit. He released the parachute harness and rappelled down all of four feet until he was crouched on the jungle floor. He dropped the bergen and rear slung it. Lose the climbing harness, check GPS and away we go to the RVP. Thank you, God.
He activated his NVGs and looked around in the green world. It was like being in a dirty aquarium. He set off, walking through the pain in his hip, gritting his teeth. Pain was God’s way of telling him he was still alive. It took him about twenty minutes before he was wading up the jungle stream. Out of the darkness an arm grabbed him and pulled him down.
“Yes boss.” He whispered.
“You’re the ninth one in.”
They waited in the darkness, in defence on both sides of the stream, tight knots of fear and trepidation. They had no idea what they would find at the buildings, but their thoughts were interrupted by two more troopers joining them. Collins did a head count and found Corporal Cano had dislocated his left shoulder.
“The main chute didn’t develop properly. I had to use my reserve. But I can still fire my Baretta,” he told Collins.
“Any sign of Ortiz?” Collins whispered. Heads were shaken in the darkness.
“Five more minutes and then we go.”
It was a long five minutes and then Collins moved cautiously out of the stream and they headed towards the buildings, some three hundred metres away. Edge and Nguyen were on the point and they came across their first FARC sentries on either side of the track. One had his head on his chest as though sleeping, the other was surreptitiously smoking a cigarette. Edge shot the smoking man through the head and Nguyen did the same with the other, who would never wake up.
They moved on, painfully slowly and the point men crouched down. Up ahead there was a light spilling out of the window, probably just a candle lamp, but very bright in the NVGs. Edge and Nguyen went to ground and Collins led three troops inside the building. From outside they could hear the pop, pops of the silenced Barettas inside the building, the FARC bunkhouse. They slaughtered the guerrillas in their beds. Edge heard groaning, another pop and it was silent. Collins changed his Baretta’s magazine and felt deep distaste at what he had just done.
Back outside they moved on. Ahead was another light and a guerrilla with an AK47 outside the door. Edge double tapped him and then changed magazine. He had no wish to be doing a magazine change inside the building, which may have been swarming with ill-natured FARC. Nguyen looked through the window and turned to Edge, indicating three inside with his fingers. Then two and pointed right and one and pointed to the middle. Edge knew that when he went through the door, there would be a bad guy ahead of him and two off to the side. Nguyen was behind him with two more crouched down by the wall. Nguyen tapped him on the helmet and Edge went in.
Two FARC were playing cards and one was guarding the far door, sitting on a wooden chair. Edge killed the guard first and shot one of the card players. Nguyen shot the other one who was reaching for his rifle. The room the guard had been stationed on had a bolted door. Edge pulled back the bolts and went inside, his pistol ready for use. There was no light in this room and he could see figures, some asleep and some sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall.
“Who the hell…?” one of them said as Edge came in.
“Be quiet! We’ve come to get you out,” he whispered, “I see four of you. DEA?”
“Where’s the CIA officer?”
“They have her in the far end of this building. We could hear her screaming… It was terrible.”
“Right. I want you to steel yourselves. The next hour will be tough, but with your help, we can do it. Do everything we tell you to, no questions. Get dressed and good footwear is vital. If necessary, take the boots from these dead sons of bitches. Now is the time to show resolution. Get ready to move out.”
There were four troopers in the building now and as yet, there was no opposition from the FARC. Edge went to the other end of the building and searched for a small room. He went in and found the CIA officer tied naked to the bed. One of her eyes was closed, the other filled with blood. Her lip split open, like his and there was blood on her thighs and the stinking mattress. Edge cut the ropes.
“Ma’am, can you hear me?”
“I can hear you, but I can’t see you.”
“We’ve come to get you out. Can you walk?”
“No, I’m sorry. I think they broke one of my legs. Could you get something to…”
Edge poked his head out of the door and whispered to the three troopers, “Strip one of those bastards. I need jacket and trousers.” In his strange moral code, Edge felt disgust at deliberate cruelty to humans and animals. His deep anger simmered like a volcano.
He helped her get dressed and judging by her displaced left leg, he suspected a fractured tibia.
“Lean on me while I pull up the trousers,” he sang softly, “Lean on me. When you’re not strong…”
She cried softly in pain as he put her left leg in the trousers and he put on a jacket, buttoning it up gently to hide her nakedness. It was an intimate thing, dressing a naked woman he had never met and she was crying with a mixture of pain, relief and shame.
“I’m so sorry to hurt you,” Edge said gently.
“I can’t use my arms,” She was sobbing.
“It’s because they’ve been tied above your head for so long. Don’t worry, I’ll carry you.”
Edge hoisted her on his back in a fireman’s carry, “Now you must hold on and keep whispering in my ear so I know you’re OK. We’ve got about half a mile to go, so no wriggling. Promise?”
“I promise. Thank you.”
“And stop crying. I don’t want a wet top.”
He exited the building, careful not to bang her head or legs, and saw Collins had made a rear-guard screen with the other troopers. Nguyen led the other hostages out and they set off at a fast march to the rendezvous with the helicopters. There was no sign of them yet and he guessed Turner was keeping them away in a loitering hover, until the last minute.
“You’re the English Guy,” she whispered in his ear.
“Yup, that’s me.”
“Where are the others?”
“Just behind us. All of them. What do you know about English castles?”
“Castles? Like Errol Flynn?”
Edge was distracting her, “No, real ones. Harlech, Kenilworth.”
Out of the darkness behind them there was a rattle of AK fire followed by counter fire from the Green Berets. The FARC knew they were there and they moved fast through the jungle to cut them off. A guerrilla stepped onto the path in front of them and Edge cut him down with a burst from his H&K. The woman he was carrying screamed.
“Keep moving!” he yelled to the others who were shepherding the DEA hostages. Some were being dragged along by the others to keep up, “Dig in! Move or die!”
By now there was a regular fire fight coming from behind and Nguyen ran past Edge to take the point. A burst of fire came from the jungle to their right and Nguyen cursed as he was shot through the hand. Both he and Edge returned the fire and the AK fell silent.
They waded across a stream and the trees began to thin, opening up to cultivated country ahead. Edge found a sheltered spot and gently put the CIA officer down, “You’ll be safe there while I do my warry stuff. Don’t talk to any strange men.”
“See you in a bit.”
There was a new threat from the left arc with two AKs firing at Collins’ team as they came in. One of the troopers fell and two others dragged him in by his webbing shoulder straps. Edge and Nguyen were firing longer bursts, their rifles steaming in the cool, moist air.
“Get the hostages into cover!” Collins shouted and fired a green flare followed by a red one, which denoted the landing point was contested. A Huey appeared overhead as if from nowhere, the door gunners hosing down the Jungle behind them. Then three more arrived and put down, Turner’s Colombian troops spilling out and bypassing the assault team. They were taking the fight to the FARC, who were outgunned, but defiantly holding their ground. The empty Huey, which had been engaging the jungle landed, the door gunner frantically waving them in. They pulled the hostages towards the helicopter and Edge went and retrieved the CIA officer, carrying her to the aircraft.
“See, told you. A piece of piss.”
The door gunner helped slide her in and Edge yelled to Collins: “Any wounded in this one! You’ll be OK Nguyen till we get you to the Docs. He already had the medical bergen open as two wounded were put on board. Edge was working on the most seriously wounded man as the Huey went up and headed towards Pasto. The defensive screen moved back having silenced the FARC and boarded the helicopters. Soon all that could be heard was the beating of their rotor blades as they headed north.
There is no glory in war. Corporal Ortiz knew this as he hung in the parachute harness, unable to move to release the rope. Alone in the darkness, his terror gave way to resigned sadness and loneliness. He heard the helicopters land and take off again, no place for him. He just waited in the darkness, alone with his pain.
It got lighter and in the deep green gloom he looked down at his feet. The left foot was pointing behind him. That wasn’t good, but it was his left arm he dreaded looking at. The sleeve was deep red, from the blood of the complex fractures of his humerus, ulna and radius. He could feel the blood trickling down, soaking his glove and dripping on the jungle floor, thirty feet below him.
As it got lighter a FARC woman moved cautiously along the path below him and stopped to look at the blood dripping down on the vegetation. She looked up, her eyes widened in surprise and she raised her AK47. Ortiz killed her with the Baretta, but he knew he would die up here as they used him for target practice. He thought about his home. His dark-haired young wife carrying their first child. He closed his eyes to stop the tears, raised the Baretta and put the long barrel of the silencer against his head. Nobody heard the pistol shot or the Baretta drop on the ground. There is no glory in war.
© Blown Periphery 2021