A lucky game of poker

by | Apr 10, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

Major Jim Blackburn leant back in the canvas chair. His elbow rested on a wooden bench made of local Afghan plywood so dry it was almost desiccated. He looked at the cards in his hand. The three and four of clubs, the eight of spades, nine of diamonds and the jack of hearts, it was not a good deal. He stretched his legs forward, crossing one heavy army boot over the other. He took a breath of the gritty air and tasted dust. The insufferable heat of the Afghan day was abating only slightly to suffocating night as the sun went down.
“Are you playing or not?” said Flight Lieutenant Samantha Sharpe. A young officer in the Royal Air Force, Sam had invited Jim to a game of cards under the veranda on the side of one of the wooden office buildings that had been hastily erected on Kandahar Air Force Base. An illegal supply of alcohol from her parents made the invitation even more appreciated.
“Yeah, yeah, hang on,” said Jim. He reached for the innocent looking coke bottle on the table and took a swig of illicit Bacardi and coke.
Phht, BANG! There was a deafening crash. The ground shook. Dust leapt from every surface.
“Holly crap,” said Sam jumping up.
“Not, very ladylike,” said Jim, putting down his cards and standing straight. “Did the earth just move for you?”
“What was it?” she said.
“Chinese 107 I’d say,” Jim replied. The Chinese 107mm rocket was a favourite with the Taleban, quick and easy to emplace. Kandahar Air Force Base had been under attack by them since before Jim arrived. He suspected the Taleban had probably been hitting the Russians with them in the 1980’s.
Heavy smoke was quickly joining the dust to make an acrid cocktail.
“Time for me to go and stifle in the shelter with everyone else,” said Sam.
“Time for me to go back to work,” said Jim.
She gave him a parting shot over her shoulder, “Yeah, well, that’s what you get for being a bomb doctor, to stay out and have all the fun!”
Jim set off at a run for his office to collect his helmet and Flack jacket. Inside he met warrant officer OZ, his unimaginatively nick-named Australian bomb disposal colleague.
“Bit flaming late for that Sir,” said OZ, referring to the protective clothing.
“You never know,” said Jim, “could be another. Anyway, can’t set a bad example.”
He left the office to head for the main Operations Room where they would be expecting him. Outside he hesitated. People were running for the mess tent. That’s what had been hit. The mess tent was exactly where he should have been right then, having his evening meal. He had only broken his normal routine because of Sam’s invitation to a game of cards.
Jim knew that once he entered the Ops Room he would be caught up in management. Ground work on the incident would be lost to him. He had to see if he could help, he was torn. “Damn,” he muttered turning and heading fast for the debris of the mess tent. Just as he reached the area, the camp alarm went off to warn of incoming missiles.
“We’re under attack,” yelled a passing American GI.
“Brilliant Sherlock,” responded Jim, automatically. He instantly regretted it. The lad had done nothing to deserve the sarcasm. It was a pretty rotten war for young men to be in. Jim turned to try and say something encouraging, but the boy had gone. He turned back and headed into the fray of the attack.
The dust was starting to clear. Jim could see that the impact point of the rocket was between two of the tents. He should have been sitting in the right hand one. He walked through the hole that, until a few minutes ago, had been the side of it. He looked at where he had been sitting half an hour previously. The table was blown over. The chair he had used was lying on its side with a six inch patch of blood on the canvas back.
He felt his scalp prickle. “Damn me that was close,” he muttered, “bless Sam and her game of cards.” The relief was followed almost instantly by guilt. Some poor sod had been hit. He’d already been stretched away. There was more guilt because, in truth, he had been mildly flirting with Sam. That’s why he’d left early, eaten early and not been in the tent when the rocket hit. Jim was a happily married man, probably the most happily married man he knew, but he had always had an eye for the ladies, it never went any further than occasional mild flirting, but he couldn’t resist that. Sam was also happily married, so they both knew it was just harmless fun. That harmless fun had just possibly saved his life.
“Any wounded in here,” he shouted.
No response. There were people moving about, getting on with managing the scene. ‘All under control,’ he thought and left through the wall of the tent. He stopped to look at the impact point.
“Hey buddy, get out of here! You’re all over the scene! EOD only now,” shouted a young American Sergeant. EOD stood for Explosives Ordnance Disposal for which Jim was Chief Staff Officer. Although, in this multi-national force, each EOD operative was under the command of their own army officers, Jim was the technical focus for coordinating all bomb disposal across Southern Afghanistan. Effectively, the guy worked for him. But Jim was new to the theatre. He’d only been there a week and hadn’t met everyone yet.
“OK young man,” he said, “I’m EOD too, Major Ashman’s replacement.” Everybody had known Dave Ashman and hopefully they’d all know Jim by the end of the tour. Using his predecessor’s name was a quick and easy way to get his point across. It had the desired effect.
“Oh, sorry Sir,” said the young man, his tone completely changing, the instant respect apparent. The American EOD always had a deep respect for their British counter-parts. It sprang from the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland. The American’s understood that most of the British EOD soldiers had worked there, as Jim had. Although the terrorist problems they’d had then now seemed a world away. The respect was mutual. Jim’s had worked with American operators in Iraq.
“We’re just trying to take a back bearing Sir,” explained the young American. This was a method of trying to use the impact point of the missile to work out its launch point. It was not usually very effective in Jim’s experience, but worth trying.
“No problems mate,” he said. “I’d better get to the Ops room. I’ll catch you later.” He set off at a steady jog to the Ops room. It had been about two minutes since the rocket hit and ambulances were starting to arrive. On his way, he passed two shelters. These were large slabs of reinforced concrete thrown together into hollow cubes and covered with sand bags. All non-EOD personnel were sheltering from another possible attack. A couple stood just outside the shelters having a smoke.
“I can’t wait to get one of those later” thought Jim.
There was complete calm in the Ops room. Everyone was sitting down doing their jobs. The helmets and body armour they had donned the only sign that the base was under attack.
The Ops room was the nerve centre of the base. Approximately 30 feet by sixty fee long, it was set out in a similar fashion to a NASA control centre. At the back of the room were three offices with large, plate glass windows, the central one for the Chief of Ops, the left one for Special Forces and the right one a coffee and meeting room. Four tiered rows of desks, with aisles down the side and in the centre, stood with their backs to these rooms. This meant that everyone was facing the front wall on which the electronic operations boards were mounted. There were three of these. One massive one measuring 30’ x 20’ in the middle and two smaller ones, 10’ x 10’ on either side of it. The right screen displayed real time surveillance pictures of Kandahar Air base. The left one showed real time aerial image feedback. The central one was a map of the whole of Southern Afghanistan showing all on going incidents.
Jim headed for his EOD desk on the far left of the room. “Hello mate, how’s it going?” he asked a young, bright eyed Canadian Lieutenant called Jeff.
“Oh it’s all good, sir” said Jeff. It was always a pleasure to see Jeff, a more optimistic, happy young man Jim had yet to meet.
“Jeff, I’ve told you a dozen times don’t call me, Sir,” he said.
“Oh’ OK, sorry Sir,” came the reply. Majors and below in the British Army used first names, but Americans and Canadians were always much more formal.
“Have, you heard from Glen and the others?” asked Jim, referring to the other members of the EOD office.
“Yes, they’re all OK,” said Jeff. “Tiffin said he might come over.” Andy Tiffin was the Canadian Petty Officer who was Jim’s right hand man in the EOD section.
“Tell him not to bother,” said Jim, “it’s covered. Find out how Tom’s getting on, will you?” Jeff headed over to the phone. Tom was the American EOD Lieutenant responsible for Kandahar Air Force Base. He and his team were outside, trying to figure out what happened in the attack, checking for unexploded ordnance and checking the integrity of the runway to ensure it was safe.
Jim sat down behind the EOD desk and looked at the central board, the map of Southern Afghanistan. Red lights and a paragraph of typed words over a given location told Jim what was happening in his patch at any one time. Ops personnel in the room were currently dealing with 3 other on-going incidents across the south. There was a fire fight with insurgents in Zabul province and the American’s were looking for air support. Kajaki Dam in North Helmand province was being mortared. And the Dutch had an injury in Tarin Kowt up in Uruzgan province. They were on the phone now with the Chief Ops officer negotiating for cas-evac (Casualty Evacuation). “Sorry we can’t fly anyone just yet,” Jim heard him say, “we’ve just been rocket and we’re waiting for the runway to be cleared, we’ll have someone up as soon as possible.”
Jeff came back and stood beside Jim.
“Fairly quiet night” commented Jim, referring to the board.
“Yes Sir, not too bad.”
“How’s Tom getting on?”
“Nearly done,” said Jeff, “he’s got two teams sweeping the runway from opposite sides, should be finished soon.”
Jim had quickly got used to the tempo of this particular theatre of war. He smiled to himself as he thought about how, when he’d been in Northern Ireland and there’d been a bomb incident, he’d been able to strut into the Ops room and be received like a conquering hero. Jim was an Ammunitions Technical Officer, ATO. The number of time’s he’d heard, “ATO!! Thank God you’re here!” Not now though, not out here. This little bomb was one of many, the fact that it had hit headquarters made no difference, just business as usual.
“Tom’s finished Sir, all’s clear,” Jeff interrupted Jim’s thoughts.
“OK. Thanks. Has he told Base Ops?” The wail of the all-clear siren answered Jim’s question before Jeff had time to open his mouth.
“Waistcoat and hat off now I think,” said Jim, removing his flack jacket and helmet. “I was rather regretting my dress choice this evening in any case, bit too warm.”
He turned to the British Army Air Corps Staff Sergeant a row behind him. He was a fellow smoker. “Smoke staff?” said Jim.
“Good idea Sir.”
The two went out of a fire door on the left, directly across the room from the door that Jim had entered a few minutes earlier. They stood just outside so people would know where they were if they were needed. They lit a couple of Benson and Hedges.
“Got to give this up,” said Jim taking a drag, “bad for my health.”
“Yea, after this tour,” agreed the Staff Sergeant.
“This one or the next one?” laughed Jim. There was a long, thoughtful pause. “Casualties from the mess tent?” said Jim.
“No fatalities,” said the Staff Sergeant. “But one guy has a piece of shrapnel through his chest, lodged in the back of his heart. They’re doing emergency open heart surgery on him now. The surgeon’s on a SAT phone to a heart specialist in Canada.”
Jim took another drag of his cigarette. “Know where he was sitting?” he said, remembering the blood on the back of the canvas chair that he should have been in.
“In the right mess tent, at the side,” said the Staff Sergeant.
Jim took another drag of his cigarette. So, he had missed a piece of shrapnel in the heart this evening. He looked up to the stars of the now peaceful Afghan night. He could still taste the dust, but that was a permanent feature here.
The staff sergeant started an irrelevant conversation, military men got good at doing that when thoughts were heavy. “Sir,” he said, “you know that Afghanistan is a hot and very dry country. Did you also know that they shallow bury their dead under rocks? The bodies desiccate and the dust blows around. It’s reckoned that 70% of the airborne particles that you breathe in here are human remains.”
“Thanks for that Staff,” said Jim, “glad I popped out for a breath of someone’s granny.” Humour and distraction, they were the best of defences. He tossed his cigarette butt onto the ground and stamped on it with his dessert issue boot. “Anyway got to go, I’ve got a few dollars to loose with a very poor hand of poker.” He turned and headed back to the game and another night in the furnace of the Afghan dessert.
Jim woke up the following day to the news that the man who’d been in his seat and taken the shrapnel in his back was alive. The surgeon had operated for six hours, constantly on the phone to the heart specialist in Canada; and they’d saved him.
Good outcomes were uplifting. This war, like any other, had too few. Afghanistan didn’t just taste of dust, it tasted of the bitter regret of loosing kids who’d died before they’d lived. Jim had saluted too many flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of soldiers from the front line, by definition young, as they were carried onto a homeward bound plane. Too often had he listened, motionless, to the last post, thinking as the covered wooden box went by, “I’ve been in the army longer than you’ve been alive.”
He came home months later with unspoken apologies for surviving hovering on his lips. He faced families at inquests and wondered how to give some kind of reassurance that their children had died in a just cause, for something worth it. They were young people who represented the best of their generation; ever respectful, ever pleasant and ever cheerful in their work. They died literally defending democracy and justice against a true evil that twists a religion based in peace, love and justice to preach war, hatred and suppression. Their sacrifice assures them of eternal peace. To see the youth back in the UK partying, drinking and carrying on like normal was an almost surreal experience which seemed then and still seems totally incongruous.
He saluted them then and he salutes them still.


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