The Renegades Excerpt
Even from a thousand feet in the air, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Parson could see the earthquake had shaken Afghanistan to a new level of misery. The slums of Mazar-e-Sharif stretched below the Mi-17 helicopter like a vast, disturbed hive. People milled in the streets. Black columns of smoke seethed into the sky above a city of collapsed ceilings and crumpled walls. An untold number lay dead or dying beneath the rubble.
The quake had happened only about an hour ago, and the U.S. Geological Survey rated it a preliminary seven-point-two. A smaller magnitude than the quake that had devastated northern Japan in 2011, but worse in its own way. Afghanistan’s construction standards were prehistoric.
Parson stood in the back of an Afghan chopper with an Afghan interpreter and an Afghan army colonel. Up front, Captain Rashid commanded the aircraft, accompanied by his copilot and a flight engineer. Wind from the helicopter’s open door rippled the sleeves of Parson’s tan desert flight suit. Reeking whiffs stung his nostrils. Not aircraft exhaust, but something closer to the smell of coal and charred wood. Black flecks whipped through the air: soot from the fires on the ground.
Rashid, the colonel, and the interpreter conversed in Pashto. Subdued tones on the interphone like whispers at a funeral. Parson didn’t understand a word, but he could guess what they were saying. What a fucking mess. And Parson imagined the colonel was taking the thought a few steps further: These people will need everything–food, shelter, medicine. How will we ever airlift enough to make a difference? Oh yeah, and still fight the war.
Parson wished his old Army friend, Sergeant Major Sophia Gold, had already arrived. She spoke Pashto so well she seemed to read minds. Parson had requested that she come work with him as an individual augmentee, and she’d agreed immediately; she just had to finish up some training back in the States. There was no better translator/interpreter in the business. And as a paratrooper, she’d been around aircraft enough to speak a little of that language, too.
Parson had been back in-country only a month, in a new role as an adviser to the Afghan Air Force. His third tour, but his first in a nonflying position. In his other tours, he’d flown as a C-130 Hercules navigator and then as a pilot on the C-5 Galaxy. He’d never piloted helicopters, but as a rated officer he could help teach the Afghans the basics of running a squadron: maintain currency records; give regular testing; retrain the guys who bust their check rides; and always, always, always treat maintenance with respect.
The Afghans were making progress toward a professional air force. However, Parson doubted they were ready for anything like the job ahead of them now. For that matter, he didn’t think he was, either. To fly his own plane, manage his own crew–that was one thing. To build an air force from scratch was another.
The chopper began to descend for a flyover of the Mazar airport. The field lay to the east of town, surrounded by a dusty, brown expanse highlighted with a meandering strip of green–the weeds and trees that grew along a river. Rashid banked the helicopter toward the airfield and attempted the radio call himself. “Mazar Tower,” he transmitted, “Golay Two-One.”
An answer came back weak but readable: “Golay Two-One, Mazar Tower. Go ahead.” Louisiana drawl. The weak transmission probably meant the controller was using a hand-held radio. So power was out, and backup generators were not yet running. The quake must have hit the airport hard.
“Mazar Tower,” Rashid called, “Golay Two-One requests– ” The pilot paused. The interpreter said nothing.
“Low approach,” Parson said on interphone.
“Low approach,” Rashid repeated on the radio.
Great, Parson thought. The pilot doesn’t speak good English, the interpreter doesn’t speak pilot, and the controller talks with an accent they’ve probably never heard before. A triple language barrier. Even the call signs were strange. Like most fliers, Afghan aviators liked macho words for call signs–in their own language. Rashid had told him “golay” meant “bullet.”
“That’s approved,” the tower said. “Golay Two-One is cleared for low approach. Be advised the field is closed to fixed-wing traffic.”
Parson gave Rashid a thumbs-up. To most people in south Asia, that would have been an obscene gesture. But Afghan pilots quickly accepted its American meaning. To give them that signal meant not only “I agree,” “it’s working,” or “okay.” The sign meant you considered them part of the international fraternity of aviators.
Out the window, Mazar’s Runway Two-Four began to materialize through the haze. Parson knew the field well. In previous deployments he’d landed there in pitch black on night-vision goggles, in winter with snow blowing sideways, and on instruments–right down to minimums–in driving rain. But today something really didn’t look right.
Dark smudges appeared in two locations along the runway. As the Mi-17 flew nearer, Parson realized the smudges were fissures, wide gaps in the pavement. Other sections of asphalt also looked cracked up.
No wonder the field was closed. The runway had stretched more than ten thousand feet, but now no more than four thousand feet seemed undamaged. The biggest transports couldn’t get in here anymore. At best, the civil engineers could mark off a short assault strip. C-130s and C-27s bringing relief supplies could slam dunk into the touchdown zone and deliver a few pallets at a time. But the C-5s and C-17s would need to offload their large payloads at Bagram and Kandahar and let the smaller aircraft shuttle the cargo from there. Like digging a quarry with a spoon. And digging it under fire. Relief missions in a disaster area challenged pilots enough. What would crews face when natural disaster combined with war?
Broken pavement passed underneath the helicopter as Rashid overflew the runway. The colonel muttered something Parson could not understand. Epithets, Parson supposed. He noticed a hangar leaning as if a giant hand had tried to push it over. The control tower had suffered damage, too: a crack in the shape of a lightning bolt extended the length of the front wall. It probably wasn’t safe for anyone to remain in the building.
More Pashto on the interphone, and the helicopter climbed away from the airfield. “What are we doing?” Parson asked the interpreter.
“The colonel wishes to go into the city.”
Parson hoped he meant over the city. The chopper leveled at what he guessed to be a thousand feet, though he could not scan the altimeter from his seat. Not seeing the instruments rankled him. He looked across Mazar. Near its center he saw the Blue Mosque, also known as the Shrine of. . .somebody. Gold would know. He couldn’t see any obvious damage to the mosque.
The helicopter slowed, turned, accelerated, slowed again. Rashid seemed to be hunting for a place to land. Why were they landing? This is stupid, Parson thought. If Gold were here, he could explain why it was stupid. Parson started to order Rashid not to touch down, but then he remembered he wasn’t in charge. Under his breath he muttered curses, but profanity did little to ease his frustration.
People on the ground watched the aircraft, and some ran in whatever direction the helo headed. Parson could see at least a hundred Afghans milling around, and he hoped they’d have sense enough to stay out of the helicopter’s downwash and away from the tail rotor. That tail rotor could take off somebody’s head.
Rashid selected a street with no traffic. The street looked barely wide enough for the Mi-17 to clear the power lines sagging along either side. Parson knew helo pilots always worried about the radius of that rotor disc spinning overhead. But sometimes they gave themselves very little room for error.
The whop-whop of the main rotor thudded harder as the blade angle changed. The helicopter began descending, and the Afghans below started sprinting toward the landing zone. Two men carried children who must have been hurt in the quake.
The power lines came so close now they swayed from the wind blast. Below them, some of the locals used scarves or bare hands to shield their faces from flying grit.
“What are we doing?” Parson asked the interpreter.
“The colonel wants to pick up some patients.”
Was the colonel nuts? With no support, no plan, just drop into a city full of desperate people?
Up and down the street, buildings lay in ruins. More locals gathered as dust billowed underneath the helicopter. Some limped alone; others leaned on assistants. Still others seemed uninjured, but they waved their arms and shouted. Parson supposed they wanted help for relatives trapped in rubble. And every one of them, he thought, wants to get on this helicopter. His heart pounded faster.
Dust enveloped the aircraft. Parson could see nothing in the brownout as Rashid touched down. How those rotorhead chopper drivers kept from getting vertigo, Parson would never understand. Dust poured in through the open door, and the interpreter coughed and squinted. He turned his face as if looking for clear air, but there was no escape from the blowing grit.
Parson felt a bump, and the dust cleared as Rashid throttled back to idle. The crew chief kicked the door ladder into place. Locals began running toward the aircraft. Under his breath Parson muttered, “Oh, shit. Stay away from the tail. Stay away from the tail.” Landing was a bad idea.
A man holding a little girl with a crushed leg reached the helicopter first. He came so close to the tail rotor that wind from its spinning blades tousled the girl’s hair. The man seemed not to notice. We’re committed now, Parson thought. Might as well help who we can. He and the crew chief pulled the man and daughter aboard. The child’s blood dripped from a yellow blanket and spattered onto the floor. She held on tightly to her father’s shirt, tiny handfuls of fabric clutched in her fists.
The crowd surged around the aircraft, and people began to try to climb inside. The crew chief and interpreter shouted to them and to each other. An apparently unhurt man pulled himself through the doorway, and the crew chief shoved him back out. A woman with burns across her face stumbled against the side and started up the crew steps. The interpreter grabbed her by the arms and yanked her aboard.
The colonel forced his way down the three steps. Then he lifted two more kids into the chopper. He let two men come with them, presumably the fathers. Then he pulled aboard several more patients until the cabin filled.
“No more,” the interpreter yelled. “Captain Rashid says we have room for no more.”
The colonel tried to climb back inside. Some of the locals also tried to get aboard, and they got in his way. The colonel pushed back at them, then began waving his Walther P1. Parson thought he looked like a martinet, brandishing that German pistol. You shouldn’t pull a weapon if you weren’t prepared to fire it.
When the colonel made it back inside, Parson pressed his talk switch and said, “Go.” He knew Rashid understood that much.
The noise of the engines and rotors rose, and the Mi-17 began lifting off. A man started climbing through the doorway, and the crew chief punched him. The man dropped outside and fell three feet to the ground.
A boy hung onto the lip of the doorway. His feet dangled in midair, and the crew chief tried to push him off by the shoulders, but the kid wouldn’t let go.
The helicopter was about nine feet off the ground and climbing. Parson feared the child would fall to his death if he didn’t let go before the aircraft got higher.
“No more,” the interpreter shouted. “Rashid says we are too full.” The aircraft yawed to the right, settled, then yawed left.
Seeing no other options, Parson kneeled and pried loose the kid’s fingers. Despised himself for doing it. The boy yowled in protest, kicked his sneaker-clad feet, dropped into the dust cloud. When he hit the ground, he got back up and gestured with his thumbs. Parson met his eyes for a moment before losing sight of him in the dust. The boy seemed unhurt, but with a look on his face that said the Americans had just made a new enemy.
Parson hated to think why that kid wanted to get on board so badly. Was he trying to get help for a trapped mother? An injured sister? Parson had used force before; he had killed when necessary. He’d never lost a night of sleep over it, either. Those terrorists deserved what they got.
But this boy hadn’t done anything wrong. Parson was glad Sophia wasn’t here to see what he’d done. But then he wished he could talk to her about it.
Half a world away from Afghanistan, Sergeant Major Sophia Gold stood on the open ramp of a C-130 Hercules as it flew at twenty-five thousand feet. The slipstream whipped at the sleeves of her uniform. Beneath her stretched an expanse of evergreen forests and tobacco fields, and the brown S-turns of a river called the Cape Fear. She took a breath from her oxygen bottle, then launched herself into the void. The growl of turboprops surrendered to the pure white rush of wind. Gold arched her back, spread her arms and legs, and flew.
That’s what free-fall felt like: not a sickening plunge, but flight. In fact, at Fort Bragg’s Military Free Fall Simulator–essentially a vertical wind tunnel–her instructors had spoken of “flying your body.” In her arched position, she controlled her center of gravity so she wouldn’t tumble and cause her chute to tangle when she opened it.
But she didn’t have to open it yet. She glanced at the altimeter on her left wrist the way a civilian might check a watch. The needle unwound through twenty thousand feet, as she dropped toward the world at about one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour. Gold wished she could freeze this moment, live in it for longer. The wind and the speed swept away all worries about the future and despair over the past.
Slightly above and to her right she saw one of her five partners on this High Altitude/Low Opening jump. All five were men: four Special Forces troops and an Air Force pararescueman. Gold was one of very few HALO-qualified women.
The sun glinted in her visor and reflected against the cumulus beneath her. Cool mist enveloped her as she fell through a cloud. For an instant she felt stationary as the grayness took away all visual references, and then FLASH: the trees and ponds and roads of eastern North Carolina reappeared, larger now. Green loblolly pines stood among the orange and yellow of sweetgums and maples. Brilliant scarlet encircled a few of the trunks: the odd beauty of poison ivy at the height of autumn color. Lush hues and flat land that varied in all respects from the stark mountains of Southwest Asia.
Her altimeter rolled through ten thousand feet. The terrain beneath her expanded by the second, and she knew this nirvana must end soon. The altimeter needle crept toward the red. She hated to do it, but knew she must. As she passed through four thousand feet, she brought in both arms, put her gloved fingers on the D-ring–and yanked the ripcord.
There came that luffing sound. Then a giant hand yanked her from her reverie. The harness dug at her armpits and legs. The earth stopped rushing at her. Her feet swung in her paratrooper boots. The opening shock made her think of an animal running free until it reached the end of a long leash. She noticed a slight pain in her mouth: she’d bitten the inside of her lip. This sudden and violent deceleration always hurt just a little, but this time something else felt wrong.
Gold looked up and checked the rectangular canopy and its risers and suspension lines–so that was the problem. The lines were twisted. She had a good chute, but she couldn’t steer it.
She could see green smoke on the ground marking her aim point on Fort Bragg’s Sicily Drop Zone. The smoke billowed across the drop zone and into the woods. She guessed maybe six or eight knots of wind at the surface, but it was stronger at her altitude. And it was taking her, just like the smoke, over the trees.
She reached above her head, grabbed the risers, and pulled them apart. As they began to untwist, her body rotated under the canopy, and she found herself looking away from the drop zone. Into the forest.
The lines wouldn’t unwind completely. And her steering toggles were still fouled. Green beneath her now. If she couldn’t fix this twist, she would come down through the pines. She wasn’t equipped for a rough terrain landing. Without the right gear, a tree landing could kill you.
She considered cutting away the main canopy and landing on her reserve, but she was getting a little low for that option. With this malfunction, a cutaway became a judgment call. There was an old saying about your reserve parachute: How long do you have to deploy it? The rest of your life. But using the reserve required some altitude, and she was running out of that.
She unclipped her oxygen mask, checked her altimeter. Less than two thousand feet. Not much time left.
Gold pulled harder on the risers. Her body rotated a quarter turn. Why had the chute wound itself up like that? Had she not held a good arch as she fell?
The lines still had one twist in them. Toggles still fouled. By now the reserve was out of the question. Gold pulled at the risers again with the last strength in her biceps and triceps. The tangle released, and her body rotated all the way around.
Now she had some control. She pulled a steering toggle to turn toward the drop zone. But she had too much distance ahead of her and not enough beneath her. She gave up on the DZ and prepared for a rough landing in the trees.
She placed one foot on top of the other to keep branches from striking between her legs. Bent her knees slightly. Folded her arms and cupped her gloved hands inside her armpits to shield the arteries there. Shut her eyes tight.
In the next moment, terrorists beat her with truncheons. A blow to the feet. A punch to the thigh. To the chest. To the back of her head. A slap to the face. All amid the weirdly pleasant scent of evergreen.
For a moment, the assault sent her back in time. She’d been hit like that only once before, and then the terrorists had been real. When she’d been taken hostage in Afghanistan, her ordeal had begun with a beating, and the beating had been nothing compared with what came later. The blows from tree limbs laid open emotional wounds. Fear and panic, the certainty that an awful death awaited her. She saw the faces of her tormentors. Her skin flushed instantly with sweat. She fought the urge to cry out.
Then the beating stopped. Gold opened her eyes. Dappled shade, pine needle floor. She hung from her risers about a foot off the ground. The chute remained tangled in the tree, ripped in several places. She felt her arms and legs. No broken bones, but lots of scrapes and scratches from bark.
She fumbled for the cutaway pillow, a soft red handle that would release the main canopy. When she pulled it, she dropped to the ground and collapsed to her hands and knees. Struggled to control her breathing. Willed her heart to stop racing.
How did I let that happen? she asked herself. The sound of running boots interrupted her dark thoughts. She saw the DZ control officer and two of the Special Forces guys, who had, no doubt, landed right on target.
“Sergeant Major, are you okay?” one of them asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
She walked out of the woods with them, and a Humvee picked her up at the DZ. She supposed some private would have to come back and recover her chute, or what was left of it. On the ride back to the base, no one criticized, but she imagined what they were all thinking: HALO is not women’s work.
And it usually wasn’t. “I’ve never seen a woman on a HALO drop before,” the DZCO asked. “What’s your career field?”
“I’m a Pashto interpreter/translator,” Gold said.
“So how does a translator get a slot at HALO school?”
Gold had come to expect that question on every jump. The Army didn’t consider the interpreter/translator specialty a combat job; that’s why it was open to women. But if the Army needed noncombat jobs done in combat zones, then women went into combat. Simple as that.
The military even wanted a few women who could accompany special ops forces–purely as interpreters in a noncombat role. As a Pashto expert with the 82nd Airborne, Gold qualified as an obvious choice for HALO training. Now, if the boys needed a woman who spoke the language, she could go with them no matter how they got there.
“So far it’s just been training,” Gold added. “I’ve never done this in combat.”
“Let’s hope you don’t have to.”
There were a couple different ways to take that comment, but Gold assumed he meant well. She wasn’t sure why her risers had twisted; a twist could happen even with a well-packed parachute used with perfect technique. The malfunction reminded her she could never let her guard down, never get distracted, never take anything for granted. Especially with another deployment to Afghanistan coming up. Counselors had told her to expect symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from time to time: difficulty concentrating, depression–and in worse episodes, nausea and sweats.
The night sweats had started after Parson had rescued her from her Taliban captors, and still happened at least once a week. Five years. The sweats always came with dreams of the sneering men and their knives in that bombed-out village in the mountains. The blades inserted under her fingernails, the pain and blood, the nails ripped off. One by one.
With each fingernail, the insurgents reminded her: “You suffer alone. You are a harlot. You will die, and you will go to hell.”
But she hadn’t suffered alone. Somewhere in the ridges above, Parson had waited, watched through the finely ground glass of a precision rifle scope. A downed aviator out of his element, he could have given up on her. At that moment, her chain of command certainly had. But Parson refused to let her die.
He’d brought her back alive. Alive but damaged, trace elements of toxin in her psyche. And now she prepared to return to the source of it all, where the bleak terrain matched the bleakness of spirit Afghanistan had brought her.
She told herself she could hack it. She was a professional. Her career had included interpreting for interrogations, serving with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and running a literacy program for Afghan police officers. She and Parson had received Silver Stars for keeping an important Taliban prisoner alive and in custody after they’d been shot down.
The thought of working with Parson during her new deployment brought mixed feelings. Gold wanted very much to see him again, yet she could not look at him without recalling the worst moments of her life. He had arranged for the Joint Relief Task Force to assign her as his interpreter, however, and she could hardly tell him no. And Afghanistan needed her again.
She still ached all over from the tree landing. She knew she’d be sore in the morning. One of her fingers hurt, and she pulled off her glove to inspect it. Despite the glove, the nail on her left middle finger had somehow torn off. The blood and exposed flesh sickened her.
Gold closed her eyes, breathed deeply. The injury reminded her of things best not remembered.