Sleeping Giants Page 4

—So you were concerned for my safety? How chivalrous. Why am I here?

—You are here to talk about what happened in Turkey.

—Nothing happened in Turkey. Nothing interesting, anyway.

—I will be the judge of that. You know that my clearance is several levels above yours, so start at the beginning.

—I’m not even sure what that means.

—How did you end up in Turkey?

—I was called on NATO duty. I arrived early in the morning and got some sleep. Mission briefing was at 16:00. They introduced me to my second, CW Mitchell, and we went over the mission. We would fly out at 02:00 on a modified stealth UH-60 out of Adana. We were to enter Syrian airspace at very low altitude and collect air samples about twelve miles south of the border, near Ar Raqqah.

—You said you had never met your second-in-command. It is my understanding that the Army likes to keep its crews together. It seems odd for them to break up a team just before a dangerous mission and have you fly with someone you barely know. Why not have your usual co-pilot come with you?

—He was reassigned.

—Why is that?

—You’d have to ask him.

—I did. Would it surprise you to know he asked for any post as long as it was with another pilot? I believe the words he used to describe you were: obdurate, volatile, and irascible. He has quite the vocabulary.

—He plays a lot of Scrabble.

—Is that why you did not get along?

—I never had a problem with him.

—That seems somewhat beside the point. You do not often see people willing to jeopardize their military career simply to avoid having to spend time with another person.

—We disagreed over a lot of things, but I never let it get in the way of our flying. I can’t help it if he wasn’t able to do the same.

—So it is not your fault if people have a problem with you. That is just who you are.

—Something like that. Look, you want me to say I’m not the easiest person to get along with? I’ll give you that. But somehow, I don’t think we’re here to discuss my charming personality. You want to know how I crashed a twenty-million-dollar helicopter into the middle of a pistachio farm. Is that it?

—We can start with that. You said you were supposed to collect air samples. Do you know why?

—NATO believes that Syria has been pursuing a nuclear weapons program for years and they want to put a stop to it. Israel bombed a suspected nuclear reactor back in 2007, but NATO doesn’t want to do anything that drastic on a whim.

—They would prefer to have some hard evidence before they take military action.

—They wanna catch them with their pants down. A source in the Syrian Military Intelligence told the US that underground testing was going on near Ar Raqqah, and since Syria is refusing to allow inspectors to visit suspected nuclear sites, we were to use a more covert approach.

—Did this surreptitious inspection involve anything other than collecting air samples?

—No. We were to fly in and out. They brought in some pretty big equipment with us to detect signs of nuclear activity from the air samples we’d bring back. We left Incirlik Air Base at 02:00 as planned. We went east along the border for about an hour and turned south into Syria. We flew nap-of-the-earth for about twelve minutes with an AGL of eighty feet. We reached the designated coordinates around 03:15, collected air samples, and headed back the way we came.

—Were you nervous?

—You’re funny. I get nervous if I forget to pay my phone bill. This is a little different. You’re ground-hugging at 160 miles an hour over possibly hostile territory, at night, with night-vision goggles. If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, I don’t know what will. So yeah, we were both on edge. You can’t see anywhere but straight ahead with the NVGs on. It feels like flying through a narrow green-lit tunnel at an incredible speed.

—Did everything go as planned?

—Like clockwork. We were back in Turkish airspace in less than twenty-five minutes. I climbed up to eight hundred feet while we put some distance between us and the border. We were approaching Harran when we noticed some light directly below us. It wasn’t city lights. We were over farmland, and the color wasn’t right. Then out of nowhere, the engine stopped, and the entire cockpit went dark.

We could hear the rotors slowing down, then nothing. There was this turquoise glow emanating from the fields below. Countless small bush-like trees planted thirty feet apart with nothing but dirt in between. We just sat there, staring. It was surreal, very…peaceful. Then we dropped like a rock.

The air bag slammed into my visor and knocked me out when we hit the ground. I woke up a few minutes later. I was alone in the helicopter. An old man in a white cotton tunic was trying to undo my restraints. He must have been at least sixty. He had dark, leathery skin. He looked at me and mumbled something he must have known I couldn’t understand. Then he just smiled. Some of his lower teeth were missing, but he had very kind eyes. I regained my composure and helped him unstrap me from the seat.

He helped me out slowly, putting my arm over his shoulder. Someone grabbed my other arm, a young girl, maybe sixteen years old. She was very pretty. She kept looking down, spoke only a little bit when the man addressed her. He could have been her father, maybe her grandfather. They sat me down about a hundred feet from the helicopter and the man gave me some water out of a canteen. The young girl showed me a piece of cloth and gestured toward my forehead. As I didn’t object, she put the wet cloth over my right eye. She removed it and quickly put it away, probably hoping I wouldn’t notice the blood.

—Where was your co-pilot?

—I didn’t know at first. It took a minute or two before I noticed several people gathered a few steps behind the helicopter. I couldn’t make out any of their faces, only their shadows against the turquoise light. I got up. The young woman kept repeating the same few words—“don’t get up,” I suppose. I started walking toward the light. I made it to the edge of this huge crater that defaced the pistachio field. The light was so bright.

Mitchell was there with some locals. He grabbed my arm and put it around his shoulder, then held me to his side. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. I’m not quite sure what we were staring at, but it was the most awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.

It looked like a whale made of dark metal—maybe a ship, or a submarine, though it seemed a little small. It was sleek and curvy, like the body of a 747, but with no apparent opening, no propeller. It looked more like an Italian work of art than it did anything practical. Turquoise veins were running through the surface at regular intervals forming a weblike pattern.

—How long were you there?

—I don’t know. Maybe ten minutes. We were distracted by the sound of other helos and the wind blowing sand in our faces. Four Blackhawks landed around the crater, letting out more Marines than I could count. They brought Mitchell and me to one of the helicopters and we took off immediately. The Marines on the ground were moving people away from the crater. I saw two of them attempting to stop the local police from approaching the site.

—Yes, it was…unfortunate…that the local authorities got involved. It would have been a lot easier had they arrived a few minutes later. Please go on.

—That’s it. There’s nothing more to tell. I was taken to the infirmary at the base in Turkey. Then they flew me here for eye surgery an hour ago. How did you even know I was here?

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