At 21, many Americans are busy loading their liver with the intoxicating nectar of alcohol. For myself, a month after I turned 21 was quite different. To paint the picture, it was early spring in Afghanistan 2002. This was dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom 1 (OEF I); it was America’s initial push into the treacherous lands of the Taliban. An experience I will never forget happened that deployment. My first real-world combat mission… and we were shot down!
Our unit had a great reputation for war, and this was our turn to prove it. During this deployment, my platoon had been deemed the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the theatre. As a QRF element, our focus was like a modern ambulance, but for the U.S. soldier. Training had proved that this role placed you into unforgiving situations. But training was over and here we were, thousands of miles from all friends and families.
In all honesty, the trip started off slow and tedious. Being the QRF typically means you are constantly waiting, waiting for something bad to happen. At the time, I couldn’t handle the empty feeling of unproductiveness during my first chance at war. Hindsight, I would have been accepting of a missionless trip. QRF missions mean someone was needing an emergency, where the enemy had made a “mess”. The situation on the ground could be anything, from active enemy combatants to a broken down vehicle in definitive harm’s way. If you called QRF, you were sure to get America’s best fit for the job, willing to annihilate anything that proposed harm towards America or her people.
The night of our first call was one I’ll never forget. The sweltering sun had just peeked behind the riddled minefield, leaving enough illumination behind to still visibly see during the night. I had been pulling watch duty on a rooftop, to maintain security of our little area we called home. It wasn’t much but a few one story buildings surrounded by an 8 foot mud wall. In the distance, tracers from a .50 caliber machine gun could be seen. Tracers are streaks of ‘light’ left in the path of a bullet, to help identify their direction. Seeing this meant someone was busy, and the enemy was close.
After the entertainment from the distant firefight was over, back to the boring basics of staring into the Kandahar dessert. I remember enjoying the night watch specifically because of the temperature difference. The day would be scorching hot, the heat that not only makes you sweat, but evaporates every drop as quickly as it comes. This kind of heat, coupled with our military desert uniforms, made you beg for the night. And here it was, my night on watch as the sun went down and firefights ensued.
As my simple young mind was staring off into our area of responsibility, the sounds of sirens pierced through the cool, calm night. The sound brought on a vigilance in me with no clarifications or directions as to what was next. I continued staring into the distance, heart pounding, now behind my .50 caliber machine gun, waiting to counteract my enemy’s movement unto our position. And it was then, I heard from the ladder leading to my position “Shepp, let’s go! WE’RE ON!” Specialist Eric Bohannon, an intimidating looking man with a contagious positive attitude, yelled to me.
Like a kid running down the stairs on Christmas morning, I missed almost every step down the ladder. Rushing in a calm, but ferocious manner towards my pre-prepped battle attire, I was hungry and my food was vengeance towards the 9/11 attacks…I was starving. Amongst the giants I dawned on my 80 pounds of death dealing attire. Radio checks and the sound of rifle bolts driving forward became our theme music. We were ready! Like a pack of wolves moving towards a common goal, we shifted to a formation area to be accounted for.
The formation included all personal currently located in our compound, but not everyone was going. I waited patiently, as my heart pounded with excitement, for my name to be called.
“Shepherd!?!” The platoon sergeants voice yelled out. I replied with my proudest voice. We were ready! Migrating to our ride was fast, loading onto big boat sized helicopters that would take us the enemy. We loaded personnel in two lines, filling two separate death dealing taxis.
Not long after we loaded, the sounds of the propellers cut through the night air, leaving a circular, visible static electricity halo around both birds. We were in the air, off to our destination. Being my first real mission, I was soaking up the moment, looking around and absorbing all the technical equipment throughout the helicopter.
“Flight time, 1 hour 30 minutes!” came from the Air Force loadmaster. Or mission had begun. We were off towards the mountains, by way of the clouds.
One would depict such situation overwhelming or nerve wrecking, but for us men, it was nap time. Something comes over a man in this moment, when he knows work is needing to be done. The “nap” is a normal coping mechanism that is witnessed in such times. However, the nap didn’t last long for any of us. We were awoken to the Air Force returning fire towards enemy combatants. Distinctive green tracers could be seen flying towards the heavens, meaning only one thing, enemy ammunitions were aimed in our direction. Fortunately, this experience was shortly lived as we were moving towards our objective and the enemy were on the ground.
As a young soldier, I was on edge. It probably didn’t help that the Air Force crew started moving frantically throughout the helicopter, handing cylinder style tubes to pass to the back of the bird.
“Do you know what these are Shepherd?” SPC Bohannon asked me in a comical way.
“Negative specialist!” I sounded off loudly over the sound of the motors turning the propellers.
“Hydraulic fuel oil, we’re going down!”