As the Black Hawk touched down the marines sounded off down the line and hopped into a field of tall crab grass rippling from the sweeping force of the rotor blades. They bolted from the LZ and within seconds disappeared into the thick Bosnian wood. I gave the signal that we were clear and chopper lifted off to return to base. We were about 20 feet and rising when I spotted an armed teenager laying low in the brush. He couldn’t have been older than 16. There was a worn AK-47 in his hands and a bright red bandanna over his mouth. I called it in.
“Base, this is Blackjack. We have an armed fighting-age male in hiding near the LZ. Requesting permission to waste this sucker.”
I kept the red bandanna in my sights. There was nowhere to run for this bastard.
“Blackjack this is Base, are you taking fire?”
“Request denied. This is a blacklisted operation. No unnecessary fire.”
The kid scrambled out of the thicket and made for the wood. No doubt to relay our movements to his friends. By the time our boys made it to their destination they’d find nothing but an empty house and a pile of mutilated Bosnian women. I had heard the stories, seen the pictures, time and time again they beat us to the punch.
I turned to the rest of the crew. “Well, this op’s a bust”
“Cool it Russ.” Mike turned away from the controls for a second to shoot me a meaningful stare. “We’re just here to serve our time and go home. Don’t look for trouble.”
“I feel like it’s a waste of a flying metal death machine if we don’t waste some Serbs!”
Rico chimed in from the other door-gun. “You were born too late man. This ain’t Vietnam.”
“Trigger happy bastard.” Mike chuckled to himself. “I swear sometimes you forget who the damn pilot is.”
It was sundown when we landed back at base. A shanty town of tents and sandbags overlooking the Lašva Valley. I collapsed into my bunk without dinner. In the distance the morbid lullaby of small arms fire ushered me to sleep.
After briefing the following morning, I assumed my station on the right door. Mike fired up the engines. The blades began to whir, whisking away the faint morning mist. In the valley below the haze had settled into a sea of dense fog. The tips of buildings just barely poking through.
The peace was broken by the clamor of boots on metal. French soldiers brandishing baby blue UN helmets scrambled into their seats then promptly burst into song. A cacophony of guttural French noises. They acted like they owned the place. Cocky bastards.
We took off into the damp Bosnian air and proceeded along the route to Sarajevo. It was a three-hour trip there and back so I got comfortable. I leaned back in my seat and captivated myself in the crashing waves of white below. The small islands breaking the fog changed from carefully spaced geometric rooftops to intertwining rugged treetops. I was so mesmerized that it took me while to notice that familiar Bosnian song coming from below.
Small arms fire.
The reverberating pops were impossible to place in the sprawling thicket. One thing was for sure. People were dying. I looked deep into the fog for several minutes, searching for any signs of life. A dull red flash flared up at the base of a nearby hill. My heart raced.
“Mike, we got activity down there. Red flare at 3 o’clock. Could be civilians asking for help.”
“Dammit Russ. What makes you so sure they’re trying to signal us?”
“Because they’re lighting more.” The lights multiplied and danced around.
“I think we’d better check it out.” Rico interjected.
The singing died down and the French soldiers chatted amongst themselves. Their tone was low, secretive almost. As we brought the chopper down, the fog rolled back layer by layer. The scene unfolding before us was harrowing. I fought to keep down an acrid metallic taste down in my throat.
The dancing lights weren’t flares. They were people.
The lower we got, the more bloodcurdling their screams and pleads for mercy became. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the French soldiers. He tossed off his baby blue UN helmet before speaking.
“We have seen this before. It is the Serbs. Whatever you decide to do, know we are behind you.”
I let that sit for a while. What could I do? I hesitated to contemplate the potential backlash before continuing.
“Base, this is Blackjack. Calling in an illegal war crime in progress by the Serbs at the Southwest end of the Lašva Valley. Requesting orders.”
“What kind of war crimes? Please specify.”
“They.. They’re burning them alive.”
“Are you taking fire?”
“I repeat. Are you taking fire?”
“You may defend yourselves utilizing lethal force. I will not authorize an attack. I ask again. Are you taking fire?”
“Neg-Affirmative. Yes we are taking fire.”
The man on the other end let out a static-filled chuckled.
“You are clear to engage. Waste those suckers.”
I shouldered my gun. Ahead of us the Serbs leisurely walked back into the thick wood. I let off a burst to their side, catching one in the leg. The rest broke into a sprint for the cover of the tall pines.
“Bring her around for a strafing run Mike.”
The Black Hawk maneuvered into position. The French soldiers cheered and took up firing positions along the side doors. Their guttural chanting spurred my heart to a quick, lively beat.
As we charged, I got a steady bead on the Serb bastards fleeing for their lives. I savored the kick of the gun as I let loose on their asses. The smell, the justice, the sheer spectacle of it all. It was all so right.
“Trigger happy bastard.” Mike looked back at the crazed grin on my face and chuckled to himself.