We found out our site was going to be on a French COP (Combat Operation Post) in the Kapisa provence, but there were no direct flights to the small outpost on US helicopters so we had to make our way there in two legs. Our first ride was a CH-47 Chinook that would drop us off at a French outpost where we could get one of their helos to take us the rest of the way.
I never thought I would get to ride in a military transport. In college, I tried to join the Army Reserve. Scored a 96 on my ASVAB test but since I had ulcers when I was in high school, the doc at the Jacksonville, Florida Naval Station rejected my physical even though I was in great shape. A couple of years later, someone figured out that ulcers were caused by a bacteria in your stomach and not a nervous condition or whatever they were blaming it on before then- all the prescription stuff I took for it back in the 80’s are now over the counter remedies for stomach upset. I believe there is a reason for why things happen because, if I would have been accepted, I would now be a first Gulf War veteran and my life would have been drastically different. I guess bigger and better things were in the cards for me.
Our chopper took off late in the evening fully loaded- then landed on the other side of the base. Turns out we were light on fuel so they had to make a pit stop. We all had to get off and watch as the fueling process was completed. Not what I expected for my first helicopter ride, but we made about 1000 feet of progress.
Finally airborne and enroute this time, we flew low through unlit valleys whose sides masked the sound of the loud rotors and the sillouette of our choppers. The hydraulic motors whined in the cargo compartment where we were all sitting (earplugs are a good idea on helicopters) and I could see the gunner on the back ramp scanning the ground as it passed below and around us. Pretty cool experience for my first time. I didn’t know where we were or where we were going, but it was fun even though the thought of someone shooting us up would pop up in the back of my mind every once in a while and made me try to figure out a plan if something were to happen. Turns out there isn’t much you can do so you just have to put it out of your mind- no sense in worrying about things out of your control.
The chopper landed in what looked like the middle of nowhere. The gunner lowered the ramp and motioned us to exit towards the right side of the aircraft. We grabbed our dufflebags which weighed about 150 pounds and quickly walked outside of the downwash coming off of the rear rotor. It was a moonless night and a darkness I had never seen. There wasn’t a light anywhere for miles and we had no idea where we were or where we had to go. Before we could get our bearings, the Chinook passed over us by about 50 feet blasting us with a powerfull downdraft. One of the two other guys with me was knocked over while I dropped to a knee and lowered my head barely able to stay upright as the chopper passed directly over us. Once the hurricane subsided, I was thinking “I bet they thought that was funny” as I tried to get my bearings along with my two co-workers. After a minute or so, we started to see what looked like a path and followed it but since we couldn’t see more than about 20 feet ahead of us and were getting tired carrying our gear, we leapfrogged ahead so we could stay in sight of each other as we made our way up the path towards what was now looking like an outpost instead of a black hill. My co-workers, I’ll call them M and J, and I walked about 200 feet with J. in the lead and M., who thought he twisted his knee in the fall, was at the back struggling to hump his gear and keep up with us. J., a retired Army first sargent, started to see a gate ahead of him when he heard the familiar sound of an assault rifle bolt racking back and a loud accented “Halt!” He immediately stopped and identified us as Americans before he was told to approach to the gate. Once we explained to the French soldiers on guard who we were and why we were there, they contacted the officer on watch and he brought us into the COP. After introductions and a brief on what we needed to do to find out about getting a flight out, we were given a place to stay- the visitor’s tent. It had plywood and insulated walls with 8 cots which was more than enough room for the three of us. M. was still pretty upset about having weapons drawn on us at the gate, but eventually calmed down. We settled in and crashed about 0300.
The next morning, we checked the flight schedule to see if we could get out but weather had moved into the area (we were stuck for three days there waiting for weather to clear and flights that were heading the right way) so we went to their DFAC and had breakfast. Something we found out while eating there is that they serve bread and cheese at every meal. This COP was lucky enough to have a real chef and the food was pretty good considering we were in the middle of nowhere. Salad and desserts were provided at lunch and dinner, several types of cheeses, and I thought the entrees where pretty good. After this stop, my friends stopped asking my opinion of how the food tasted because my pallet was more open to new tastes than theirs where. It became a running joke the rest of my tour here. This place even had a pizza parlor (kinda) that served decent pizzas and sandwiches which we didn’t expect. The problem was they only took Euros and not that worthless US currency that we were carrying so we only ate there once after getting some money changed out. After three days of watching movies on my laptop, working out in their “gym” which had broken equipment in a damp and moldy doublewide type building and getting used to life on this COP, we were able to get a flight on a French helo to our site. Let the culture shock begin!