6 x 9 inches, $13.99
Published by Aventine Press
As Chief Warrant Officer Johanna Halverson hurried to her Black Hawk helicopter, she spoke to her copilot Ingrid who strode next to her. "This should be your last mission. A lot of wounded but the enemy has withdrawn."
Once strapped into their seats in the chopper, Ingrid said, "My parents are giving me a big welcome home party. I can't wait."
"I'll miss you and your stories about the farm." Sweat trickled down Johanna's temples.
Ingrid frowned. "I don't know why you re-upped."
Johanna studied her freckled-faced Nebraskan friend. "I love to fly. Best job in the world."
"Yeah, but this war is more than I expected."
"Same for all of us, but you've done great. Besides, you have all the boys atwitter with your happy disposition."
"Don't tease," Ingrid said.
It was near dusk in the Afghanistan desert when Johanna switched on the engine and the chopper's blades turned. A rush of adrenaline seized her. Johanna and her crew went into action when Medevac calls came in. She looked out the side window as gunners, Roger and Paul, and two medics she didn't know boarded.
Ingrid frowned. "The Apache helicopters are still refueling."
The Apaches provided gunfire support for Medevac operations, but the call for medical assistance had been urgent. Johanna decided not to wait. "We're cleared to go."
With the Black Hawk's rotors whirling, they lifted off. The arid land below the chopper was an endless strip of brown shades pocketed with steep crevasses. It was a hard land to love. Following the coordinates, Johanna flew close to the ground, checking for signs of the enemy. After a twenty minute run, they came over a rise, and Ingrid pointed out the Americans holed up along a ditch with a steep ravine to their right. Johanna circled the terrain, searching for any signs of the enemy. All seemed secure.
Johanna landed in a nearby flat area, sending up clouds of sand. Through the intercom, Roger spoke, "Clear. Exiting, setting up perimeter." There were no rearview mirrors on the Black Hawk, so Johanna had to rely on the gunners to report what was happening. She and Ingrid waited in the cockpit and kept the rotors whirling while the wounded were brought aboard.
The cockpit was like a boiler room. The weight of the kevlar vests and their helmets added to the discomfort. Sweat dripped down Johanna's back. Ingrid's face glistened, her fair complexion glowed a deep scarlet.
The earth erupted in a cacophony of gunfire, screams, yells.
Ingrid called out, "Enemy coming over the ravine. We've got to get out of here. Now."
Despite the fear tearing at her, Johanna steadied her voice. "Our guys will protect us. We'll wait for the wounded."
An explosion shattered the bullet proof window on Ingrid's side. Blood oozed from her throat. She slumped forward—dead.
Through the intercom Johanna called to her gunners. Nothing. The radio was dead, the engine sputtered, the rotor blades whined to a halt. She unclasped her seat belt and released the door latch by her seat to evacuate. Another explosion ripped through the helicopter, throwing her out the open armor-plated door onto baked dry earth. Her Kevlar vest shredded to rags. Pain shot through every fiber of her body. Stunned, she lay on her back watching the mayhem. The copter exploded in a rush of raw flames. Her gunners fired their AK 47s, but the enemy kept coming. One medic flopped forward, bullets riddling his torso. A sword decapitated the other medic.
An Arab in a dun-colored burnous ran at Johanna, his rifle raised. She groped for her sidearm, feeling its cold steel in her trembling right hand. Her shot went wide. She steeled herself for his shot. The Arab's head caved in, he fell across her legs, blood gushing from his skull. Caught under his body, her left side paralyzed, she could only turn her head to see Roger give her a thumbs up just before bullets tore into his body. Johanna's eyes blurred. She fired at shadows. More firing, screaming, then silence. Gnawing pain pierced her. The last rays of the day's sun beat down. Then the soft thump of choppers swirled dust, clogging nostrils.
The rest of the battle had to be told by others. She remembered nothing until she awoke in the hospital. Although deep down Johanna knew the truth, she remained in denial. Every day she expected Roger to walk in and give her his thumbs up, and Ingrid to visit and regale her with stories about her family's farm. When Johanna finally accepted the fact that only she and four from the ground unit had survived, she lost interest in living.
While she lay in the hospital recovering from bodily and emotional injuries, she mind-crawled into an abyss where two words orbited through her thoughts—what if. What if she'd assessed the area better? What if she'd taken Ingrid's advice and waited for the Apache gunships?
For months the outside world didn't exist. Only the scene of landing in a swirl of sand and the aftermath of death streamed in front of her like a movie reel on steroids. She'd expected success, but found failure. Failure clouded her dreams and sent her into a tailspin of mind-numbing blame.
The military claimed Johanna Halverson was a hero, and the doctors weren't going to allow her to believe otherwise. But what did they know? Of course, they had the report. When you're the only survivor of an attack, found with the enemy's body draped over your unconscious one, and your gun had no remaining ammo, the assumption was you fought until the end. You were brave and lucky to be alive.
They were wrong. She hadn't been brave and she wasn't pleased to be alive.
It wasn't until a shaggy Newfoundland dog named Beau put his large black head on her lap and nudged her hands with his cold wet nose that she began to come to terms with the past and deal with the present. The first time Beau shoved his face into her lap, she'd stared at him in dull acceptance. He refused to move and his head was heavy on her legs. It reminded her of the dead Arab who had fallen on top of her. She swallowed a scream. But the dog's eyes calmed her with his look of love and trust. Even when his handler called to him, he stayed with Johanna. Each time Beau visited he would place his head on her lap and nudge her hands with his nose. She couldn't resist such loving devotion.
The Newfoundland had been rescued by a family and trained to be a comfort dog for hospital patients. Seeing how his presence helped Johanna, the doctors insisted the dog be brought to her every day and each day he stayed longer and longer. And she healed. Her paralyzed left side improved, although her left arm remained weak and, at times, useless. The doctors determined that removing the shrapnel lodged near her spine would be too risky. A wrong outcome would make her a quadriplegic. She would have to live with the metal near her spine until there was a time when a surgeon might operate with a better chance for success.
With the doctors' intervention Beau's adopted family relinquished him to K-9 For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that trained service dog. After the Newfie completed many hours of training, he became Johanna's service dog, giving her emotional support and helping her with practical issues like retrieve out-of-reach objects. After she and Beau finished a three week course together, it was time for her to seek a new career, a new life. What that life would be was an open question.