Spirit Mission: New Excerpt

Spirit Mission by Ted Russ
Spirit Mission by Ted Russ
To honor bonds forged twenty-five years ago at West Point, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Avery leads an illegal mission deep into ISIS-held territory in Spirit Mission by Ted Russ (Available November 1, 2016).

An MH-47G Chinook helicopter departs formation in the Iraqi night. The mission is unauthorized. Success is unlikely. But to save a friend, Sam Avery and his crew of Night Stalkers have prepared for one last flight.

ISIS operatives in Tal Afar, Iraq, have captured American aid worker Henry Stillmont. Avery knows Stillmont as “the Guru,” the West Point squad leader who taught him about brotherhood, loyalty, and when to break the rules as a young cadet twenty-five years ago. Sam will risk his career and his life to save him.

As they near their target, Sam reflects on his time in the crucible of the United States Military Academy. West Point made Sam the leader he is. But his fellow cadets made him the man that he is. The ideals of duty, honor, and country have echoed throughout his life and drive him and his comrades as they undertake their final and most audacious spirit mission.

ONE

0034 HOURS, 2 AUGUST 2015

I banked the helicopter slightly to the right to adjust for the crosswind. It was stiffer than forecast, and our ground track was skewing south. As we skimmed above the desert at 120 knots, I checked the navigation display. Forty-three minutes to the landing zone. The terrain-following radar showed nothing significant for as far as it could see. The vacant expanse of northwestern Iraq rose gently in front of us for almost 160 kilometers. The forward-looking infrared imagery was the same, showing only occasional terrified sheepherders in an otherwise empty desert sandscape. There is nothing like a war machine the size of an MH-47G sneaking up and flying over you at less than a hundred feet.

I looked at the clock: 0035 hours. I hoped we would get there in time.

“Pete, can you take her for a while?” I asked.

“Roger that,” Pete said from the left seat. “I have the controls. Heading three one zero, one hundred and twenty knots, one hundred feet.”

“You have the controls.”

I leaned back in my seat and tried to relax my lower back. More than twenty years of flying, marching, sleeping on cots, and a couple of hard landings had wrecked it. But it was a different pain that clouded my brain tonight.

This would be my last flight in a Chinook, my last flight as an army aviator. There was no doubt about that. We were going to be shot down or court-martialed. I flipped my night-vision goggles up and rubbed my eyes.

I felt the tweak of impending loss worse than before my divorce. The feeling of being past the point of no return, headed directly and irrevocably toward the permanent absence of something good.

I loved flying Chinooks, but not in the one-dimensional way of a pilot. I loved it in the sick, over-the-top way that special operations army aviators do. Army pilots are not like air force pilots, flying missions and then tossing the keys to the crew chief and taking a golf cart to the O Club. Army pilots live on their airframes, positioned as far forward as possible with the units they support in the desert, jungle, mountains, or wherever they need to be. That has meant a lot of nasty places over the past fourteen years of war.

Chinooks steal your heart in a way that other army airframes can’t. I had thousands of hours flying them, mostly at night, but I probably had ten times that living in them, eating in them, sleeping in them, shitting in them, planning and briefing missions in them. I knew the inside of a Chinook better than any house I’d lived in. I knew her contours, shapes, hard and soft spots more intimately than I knew my ex-wife’s. I knew the Chinook’s systems in detail and understood how they collaborate to keep two engines turning five transmissions driving two rotor hubs spinning six rotor blades that intermesh like an egg beater. It is a complex and elegant design from the 1950s that somehow yields the best stick-and-rudder flying I have ever experienced. I have told people that their great-great-great-grandchildren will ride to battle in a Zulu model Chinook. And I believe it.

The special operations variant we flew westward was highly modified. It could penetrate the weather and follow the terrain with its onboard radar. It could see in the dark with its FLIR pod. It could refuel in the air behind a C-130. It carried two 7.62 miniguns and two 7.62 M240s. The digital mission-management system and max gross weight of fifty-four thousand pounds made it Special Operations Command’s long-range insertion/extraction platform of choice. In Afghanistan it was just about the only machine that could carry enough guys and supplies high enough into the mountains to take the fight to the Taliban.

But as cool as the Golf model Chinook is on its own, its best qualities are the customers it serves: Rangers, SEALs, Delta, and the others, the best warriors the country has to send.

And this was the last time I would be on board one. I would miss the hell out of it, but I was okay with that, because after fourteen years of war without victory, this was the best mission I’d ever go on, the purest I’d ever fly, and the most illegal. That night my Chinook truly was a divine wind, a platform of salvation with a dozen trained killers in back speeding at over 135 miles an hour across the desert, weapons at the ready, seeking our friend. I wished every mission could have been like this one, like I had imagined they would be when I was a cadet.

The radio interrupted my thoughts.

“Bulldog 71, this is Thunder 06. If you’re hearing this transmission, I’m ordering you to return to base immediately.”

“He sounds pissed,” said Zack, leaning into the cockpit.

“Yep. He is.” I leaned forward and turned off the UHF radio. We had needed it during the earlier mission, but now I didn’t want to deal with the enraged voice of the task force commander, Rear Admiral Brick. He was a good guy, and I was not looking forward to the next time I’d see him. I would do so gladly if we were able to return successfully, though at this point I didn’t want the distraction.

We flew in silence for a few minutes. Silence is a relative term in a Chinook, of course. Sitting under the forward transmission and rotor hub puts you in a cone of noise that sounds like a fight between a freight train and a hurricane. Gears rotate madly only a couple feet from your head, and thousands of pounds of hydraulic pressure articulate the entire flight-control system a couple feet behind you. Without a flight helmet and noise-canceling earplugs, your ears would probably dissolve.

The satcom radio crackled. “Bulldog, this is Elvis.”

“Go ahead, Elvis.”

“Sitrep follows. Single individual left the target house. He walked a couple of blocks south, got in a vehicle, and departed north. We kept eyes on as long as possible. He just left our field of view.”

“Roger, Elvis.”

“I hope he’s not going to get any friends,” I said to Zack.

“Me, too. How far out are we?”

“About forty minutes.”

“Relax, Sam,” said Zack, putting his hand on my shoulder. “This is going to be a piece of cake.” As always, his cavalier attitude drove me crazy. I shrugged his hand off.

“You’ve got a strange definition of ‘cake.’”

“You are still such a pussy.”

Zack shook his head and looked at Pete, saying, “Chief, I can’t believe you guys let him call himself a Night Stalker.” He unhooked his headset and went aft.

“I thought you said you guys were friends,” Pete commented.

“We are.”

“You guys are weird.”

“You have no idea.”

The word “friends” didn’t cover it; we had endured West Point together. We were Beast roommates together, were tested for four years together, and, though we were not the best cadets to ever wear dress gray, we graduated together. And then we went to serve. We followed different paths as officers. He, infantry. Me, aviation. But the arcs of our service intersected again that night, long after graduation and far away from where it started. Giving us the opportunity for a common end point: to complete our final spirit mission together. And, like our last spirit mission as cadets, we knew that if we somehow succeeded, people were going to talk about this one for a long time.

***

Copyright © 2016 Ted Russ.

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Ted Russ is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He served as an officer and a helicopter pilot and eventually with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. After leaving the army in 2000, he received an MBA from Emory University and now lives in Georgia with his wife, Anna, and their dog, Henry. Spirit Mission is his first novel.

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