Katherine Cooper

Burning Circles

“I think I used to have a purpose
But then again, that might have been a dream I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound I just do what I've been told”  

-  Every Day Is Exactly The Same – Nine Inch Nails
 
The night starts as usual PowerPoints, briefings, and turnover.  Paul gets the rundown of current airborne callsigns and I recieve the current radio callsigns.  There are few unmanned Predators in the air running regular missions and some in reserve burning circles in the sky. The static from the radios serves as white noise in the background. Paul and I are eight months into our vacation of unknown length at Camp Slayer in Baghdad.  The song “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” plays loudly on someone’s computer speaker. It seems appropriate for the beginning of the night and the roughly 234 nights before.  

Paul and I settle into our seats, log into our computers and figure out a way to pass the time. “Let’s get out radio controlled helicopters and race” Paul says with a laugh, just as the phones start to ring and the radio comes alive.  
 
My heart starts racing. Reports of a Troops in Contact with heavy casualties start coming in. Quickly we realize that we have some Predators overhead and see that a ground unit is in the middle of a complex attack. They are surrounded by enemy forces who are attacking them with a combination of improvised explosive devices destroying multiple vehicles in their convoy, small arms fire from multiple positions, and rocket propelled grenades (RPG) from the rooftops. My heart sinks knowing that the men on the ground are going to need more help then we can currently provide. We need to scramble additional manned Close Air Support (CAS), Quick Reaction Forces (QRF), and prep the hospital. 

We display the video feeds on the main screens of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC).  I man the radio and start talking with the unit on the ground. I relay the enemy positions down to the men on the ground and their requests for CAS are overshadowed by the sharp snaps of small arms fire and the explosions of RPGs.  Paul calls for approval for the Predators to go kinetic and launch their Hellfire missiles. 
 
Approval comes quickly and the Predators launch their Hellfire’s. I radio down to the men that the Predators are going to fire but that it will be danger close. We see them take cover, continuing to return fire. Everyone in the TOC holds their breath as the missiles fly to their targets.  Silently we all hope for maximum damage and relief for the men on the ground. 
 
The first missile hits a rooftop having minimal impact, the second doesn’t even explode, and the remaining missiles follow in the same fashion.  Multiple cries of “What the fuck” echo through the TOC. Paul and I look at each other, knowing that we need approval to redirect more Predators to aid the men.    

Paul calls for support and I hear the frustration in his voice. “What do you mean, he isn’t there. Fucking page him then, we don’t have time to wait!” He hangs up and looks at me. “The fucking guy isn’t there, they are going to page him but we have to wait for him to get back before we can move anything.”  
 
“What the fuck do you mean he isn’t there?” I say, knowing he can’t answer. “Shit, let’s at least call to find out how far away the manned CAS and QRF are”. 
 
Paul calls to check the status. He hangs up and turns to me and says “The closest manned asset is 30 minutes away but we are waiting on approval and it will take QRF about 45 minutes to drive there”  
 
45 agonizing minutes.  
 
“How do I tell them that help is almost an hour away?” I say out loud to no-one in particular  Paul responds by shaking his head and turns back to the screens.  We look up and see the enemy combatants continue to surround the unit.  Explosions fill the screens.  The men return fire and attempt to take cover behind the smoking shells of their vehicles. I can see both enemies and friendlies succumbing to the fierceness of the battle.  
 
Seeing men die and not being able to do anything is more than my mind can even comprehend. I have never felt so helpless, the scene before me is like a horror movie I’m being forced to watch. I feel  like I’m being ripped from my body as though time itself had stopped. Paul calls again, the anger in his voice rising with every call. I keep hearing him yell into the phone “Where the fuck is the guy?, Why is he not there, are you not in the same fucking war that we are?”  
 
 The next 45 minutes seemed like an eternity. The guys on the ground kept radioing “Where the fuck is our CAS, how much longer to QRF gets here?” All I could say is “We are waiting on approval to move assets, and QRF is on the way”. Everytime those words came out of my mouth, I feel more and more useless. I keep relaying the enemy position as best I can, until finally I see QRF and casualty evacuation vehicles arrive on station. The initial casualty reports start flooding in. The numbers of personnel wounded or killed in action confirm that this living nightmare is now a reality. 
 
 Almost thirty minutes after the vehicles depart the phone rings. Paul picks it up. “Fuck me” is all I hear him say as he quickly hangs up. His face is the palest I’ve ever seen.  He tells me that we have approval to move whatever assets we need. Nothing like being way too little way too late.  

A few hours later as we are walking back to our rooms, Paul and I try to make sense of what just happened.  Neither of us come up with anything that makes sense, nothing that will help either of us sleep.    

Thirty days later I make a trip to discuss how to improve our current standard operating procedures and I ask about that night. Everyone lowers their heads. They seem ashamed. Finally, I get the answer, the man on duty that night was on the golf course.  
 
 A darkness fills me that words cannot explain, I feel empty, only a shell of my former self. As I load up on the C-130 to fly back to Baghdad the song “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” blares through my headphones.