by Cameron Cassavaugh
WHOA! I gazed up at the night sky. I was in the midst of counting the fourth shooting star that blazed across the sky when I heard the low rumble of three CH-153 super stallions rolling in from the east.
“Cassavaugh, get your ass down here and geared up, we’re on the next wave out of this shit hole.”
I smiled. After five days in what was considered the wild west of our AO, I was finally headed back to the FOB to get a hot meal and a much needed shower.
I began my descent from the tree I was in. I had been holding security for the first wave of Marines that were leaving on the 153s. I took a step with my right foot and planted it on the branch below me. I gave it a quick push to test the sturdiness and it seemed strong enough to me. So I swung my left leg off the branch I had been sitting on. CRACK! The branch snapped and all 300 pounds of me swiftly tumbled to the ground. I crashed with a loud thud and let out a moan. What a great way to end the mission.
“Cass, hurry your ass up man.” My squad leader barked from the other side of the large isolated compound in Afghanistan.
I popped to my feet, brushed myself off, slung my weapon and began to navigate my way back to the crowd of marines now gathering in the center of the compound. Our company 1ST SGT was calling out the names of the marines on each stick on the next wave back to the FOB. I heard my name called and fell into line. I was standing with my squad mates, my squad leader at the helm, giving a brief about what was going to happen at the LZ and how we were going to move to the LZ. It was a brief I had heard 1000 times, so I tuned out my squad leader and got lost in the sea of noise.
In the distance I heard the laughter of men who were celebrating our trip back to Camp Leatherneck. Brothers told brothers stories of war, comparing their hardships and trying to one up each other. All I could do was lay back and smile. My time in Afghanistan was almost up and I was about to make it out unscathed. All my fears I felt as a child had come to fruition. I had gone to one of the worst places in the world and I had survived. I had lived through IED explosions and gunshots impacting mere inches from me. But the best part was that I would be going home with all of my brothers in arms. We had gone to war together and we were about to go back; just one last helicopter ride over the barren Afghanistan desert then I’d be back within the safety of the FOB.
“Hey Cass you ready to go man?” Doc Johnson struggled to get up. I looked up and noticed that everyone on my stick was getting up and getting ready to go.
I smirked, “You know it brobeans.” Doc gave me a smile back and then stretched out his hand and helped pull me up. Our squad leader got us all in order, and we could hardly contain our excitement.
“Move out.” Sgt. Pate gave the hand and arm signal, telling the point man to follow the predetermined path to the LZ. We moved swiftly and silently through the night, gliding over the waffle fields just outside the compound. I was thankful the LZ was only 500 meters from where we were staged; because walking with 180 to 200 pounds of gear is not fun or easy, nor is it good for the knees or back.
We arrived at our LZ and got set in, keeping 360-degree security. As usual some higher up had caught wind of an intel report that said the Taliban were maneuvering on our position with a large force that was heavily armed. We all knew it was bullshit, but we followed orders to put on a show for the higher ups. It was easier than pissing them off and getting an earful when we got back to the FOB.
I assumed the comfortable sitting position, propping myself up against a mound of dirt. I rested my elbows on my knees and oriented my rifle to the south towards a tree line. I flipped my NVGs down in front of my face, clicked them on, and began to scan my sector.
I don’t know how much time had passed when again I heard the distinct rumble of the super stallion’s engines rolling in from the east. I turned and gazed up at the sky. I could barely make out their silhouettes, but there they were rolling through the night.
“Those are the helos, right Cass?” Doc Johnson turned to look at the sky.
“Yeah man, they’re coming in fast and low.” I started to move from sitting to kneeling. I got up on my knee, facing East. The weight of my pack pulled me back, so I leaned forward a little to ease the tension on my shoulders. My overall weight drove my right knee into the ground and I sank a little into the mud. But none of this could phase me; I was headed back to the FOB and in a few short weeks I’d be on a C130 out of this dump and back on American soil.
Then the brown out came. The rotor wash hit me like the gale force winds of a hurricane hitting palm trees. Small rocks and sand began flying around and hitting every part of my exposed body. Like I had done a thousand times before, I covered my eyes and my rifle, ducking into the force of the rotor wash so I didn’t get blown over. Then larger rocks and clumps of dirt began to slam into me. I had dealt with brown outs and the forces of rotor washes all deployment, but I’d never felt anything as strong as this. The rotor wash was almost lifting me off the ground. I was fighting against the strength of the wind, using every ounce of energy and every muscle I had.
Time froze. I slowly lifted up my head and the brown out was all around me, but there were no more gale force winds trying to blow me over. I was in the equivalent of the eye of the storm, at the center of the chaos. I saw the shadows of my fellow brothers in arms as they began to dive out of the way. Then I heard a loud screeching sound. Like metal being dragged across metal, like fingernails being dragged across a chalk board.
I quickly hit the ground when I realized I didn’t have time to dive out of the way. The helicopter was right over me and it was coming down fast. I made myself as small as possible, accepting the inevitable: I was about to be trapped underneath a CH-153 Super Stallion, a 15-ton piece of machinery. I braced myself, hoping for the best, praying no one else had gotten caught up underneath. Then I heard a crunching sound; the helicopter was touching down. A sharp pain shot up my right leg. The main landing gear had come down on top of it. I started sinking in the mud. I began to scream.
It was no use; my screams were drowned out by the sound of the helicopter. Everything began to fade into darkness. My time is up. What a way to go, death by helicopter crushing. It did fit my personality rather well. I wondered what the headlines would read or what they would tell my parents. I was hoping they might find the same dark sense of humor I found in it as I lay there in the mud.
The light started to return and I could see again. I felt the cool night air on my face. The crushing pain in my right leg was gone, as if 15-tons had just been suddenly lifted off my back. As soon as the helicopter was gone, I pushed myself up to my feet, using every bit of strength I had. Standing tall in the muddy waffle field, I looked around and I couldn’t see anyone. I tried to take a step. BANG!!! I face planted into the mud. The pain came back to my right leg, shooting all the way up from my toes to my hip. I began screaming. Not words or phrases. I was just making sounds, hoping and praying someone would hear me.
My prayers were answered.
I was surrounded by three Marines in a matter of seconds. One was my platoon sergeant SSgt. Ingwerson. The others were Doc Johnson and my buddy Fridge. All three rushed to my aid. SSgt was doing his best to calm me down, telling me I was going to be alright, but by the look in his eyes I knew I wasn’t going to be.
“Cass man, what hurts? Talk to me, I need to know what’s up so I can help.”
“It’s my leg Doc, I can’t describe the pain but it’s the worse pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”
“Alright man hold still, I’m going to cut your pant leg off, which leg?”
“Hmmm, there’s no blood, but there’s there a lot of swelling, you may have an internal hemorrhage. Try not to move.”
“You got it Doc. And hey can you do me a favor me?”
“Can you check and make sure everything down south is still there and in one piece?’ Doc Johnson smiled at my request. He took a quick peek inside of my pants.
“You’re good man, everything is where it’s supposed to be and it’s all in one piece.” We both smiled. I thanked Doc for following through with my odd request. Then my platoon sergeant returned to the scene.
“Cassavaugh, are you able to walk?”
“With help, I think I can make it.”
“Good, we only have to move about 150 meters. PATE, YBARRA! Get over here and help Cassavaugh to the helo.”
Sgt. Pate and Cpl. Ybarra rushed over to help me to my feet. They got me up, and I had one arm slung around each of them. Together the three of us hobbled to the helicopter, the same helicopter that had just landed on me. They loaded me on board, the rest of our stick followed in trace, and away we went. My long journey home and my long journey to recovery were about to begin.
Cameron Cassavaugh is from Concord, NH and was born on February 12th, 1994. He joined the United States Marine Corps right out of high school in 2012. He served with 1st Battalion 7th Marines, Baker company, 2nd Platoon from 2013 to 2016. While serving with them he did two combat tours, one to Afghanistan in 2014 and then one to Iraq in 2015. He was honorably discharged in 2016. He is now a full time student at New England College in Henniker, NH.