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Coming face to face with risks of war

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

It's amazing how long a day can last. I've had days when I looked at my watch and thought "Where did the day go?" Yesterday seemed like at least a week. We spent the morning in and out of bunkers in chemical gear and gas masks, hearing about incoming Scuds and waiting to see if the Patriots did their job. They did, and anyone who works with Patriots may stay in my home any day, drive my car, eat my food, tease my dog, play my CDs and put them back in the wrong case, get glops of jelly in my peanut butter jar, wear my clothes and basically help themselves to anything that's mine.

I filed pictures, and as I was sending we were told to hit the bunkers again. I left the satphone transmitting. We got out and I packed up my gear to go on a mission. Then we hit the bunker again, and after a few minutes someone called my unit and said we were going. So we all dragged our gear, in full chemical suits and masks, to the flight line, where I was directed to one of a dozen or so CH-46 helicopters. The one I got on was to transport British commandos.

A flight crew member walked up to me and said I was changing helicopters. In all honesty I was nervous because I didn't know the details of the mission, just a ballpark risk level. Any idea I had of what we might be doing had probably changed in the chaos of the morning. On the second helicopter I almost left. Then I talked to the crew chief and he gave me a general idea of where we were going. It seemed reasonable and I decided to stay on.

I was with a TRAP team. They go in if a helicopter goes down, rescue survivors and fix the helicopter if they're able. We would be waiting, and with luck the night would pass without incident. We had some MRE's and started joking around. Around us the British commandos were staging to load up in the helicopters. Then we settled in for a cold night. In all the haste I hadn't brought a jacket, but the flight suit, fragmentation vest and chemical gear actually was pretty comfortable to sleep in and kept me warm.

There were two calls overnight to put on all our chem gear, but since I already had it all on all I had to do was put on my gas mask. For a while I kept it on for extra time because it was warm. But after 30 minutes or so it gets too humid.

Early in the morning we learned something had happened and we were all in the helicopter ready to go. A CH-46 loaded with British and American commandos had gone down. After a few minutes of sitting and waiting to take off, our helicopter spun down. Word had come there were no survivors and the decision was made to not risk flying in the bad weather. Everyone basically found a place and settled down to sleep with very little conversation.

In the morning the mood was somber. The crew stood and watched the helicopters leave in silence. On the way back nobody spoke much. I still don't have details and I couldn't release them if I did. I know the British unit, and they were well-known in our camp. Whoever the downed pilots and crew were, they have friends here.

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