Tags: the reaper | ranger | nicholas irving | gary brozek

A Ranger in the Making: Excerpt from 'The Reaper' by Nicholas Irving

By    |   Wednesday, 28 Jan 2015 04:45 PM

An excerpt from the book The Reaper by Nicholas Irving with Gary Brozek

A Ranger in the Making

After a really hectic couple of days, it was good to have two days off. I hadn’t really been able to settle into my room yet. It was also good to have the time to get a better sense of where we were and what the reason was for things being so hot. Guys like to settle into a battle rhythm, but when you don’t have any kind of a build up but instead hit the ground running and are seemingly sprinting with no finish line in sight or even mentioned, you get worn down a bit. You know, we’re supposed to follow orders and do our jobs and just perform, but we’re human beings and uncertainty isn’t our friend.

Before my deployment to Afghanistan, I tried to keep up with what was going on there, but it wasn’t like I had lot more sources of information than what a civilian would have—television news and newspapers. Of course, when guys came back, we’d talk to them about what they’d done, but it wasn’t like we were conducting a State Department or Defense Department briefing regarding the overall battle plan and strategic maneuvering for the region. We were just guys doing a job and wanting to know what the chow was like, what kinds of operations they went on, the environmental conditions, that kind of thing.

As it turned out, the Helmand Province and the area in and around Kandahar was particularly important. The US hadn’t ever really maintained a large military presence there, from what I was told, and it was only after I returned from this deployment that news of a big push in the area came out. In fact, I was sitting on my couch watching CNN in September of 2009 when I heard that the US was going to send the Marines in there, and this was the first time since 2001 that the US would have boots on the ground there. I sat back and laughed thinking, Wait a minute, didn’t I just spend two and a half months right there?

That’s really when it started to make sense to me why the fighting was so fierce there. The area was a Taliban safe haven. A lot of the fighters who had fled from the action at the beginning of the war had made their way there. At the time, we were told that this was also the area from which up to 98% of the opium, and eventually heroin, that enters the US originates. The Taliban would use the profits of that sale to fund their terrorist activities. I remember thinking in those early days in country when we were being so heavily fired on, from where the heck did these guys get all their armament?

We had a terrorism specialist as part of our unit, and he was the one who told us about the 98% and heroin connection. I have to admit, that pissed me off a bit. I was out there laying my life on the line, along with all the other guys, and I believed that I was defending my country. Yet, some of the people I was defending were buying an illegal drug that was in turn helping to buy the weapons these guys were using to try to kill me. We’d be walking along for miles and these opium poppy fields would just go on and on, and I kept thinking about how weird this place was and how confusing the whole situation was. I wanted to just forget about it, and most of the time I could, but in those down moments, I tried to make sense of it all, but it was nearly impossible to do so. I eventually figure out I wasn’t the only who was struggling with all those thoughts.

So, in between those hours of debate, I did what I needed to do—clean my weapon. Just before lunch hour for the regular guys, I’d sit out on the balcony having a smoke and cleaning my weapon just before going to bed. Despite what happened on the previous assignment, I had to knock on Pemberton’s and asked him to join me. I never issued him a direct order or pulled rank on him. He was six years older than me, and at the age of twenty-two, I still wasn’t comfortable with the whole outranking guys who were older than me thing. I believed that guys who were older and had more time in the Army were due respect, so I asked them not to call me Sergeant. My attitude was, this was a stressful enough environment and we should be trying to enjoy it as best we could. No point in wasting you’re breath saying sergeant all the time. We were going out everyday getting shot at and our compound came under rocket fire daily. You could die any time, so why stick with those regulations and formality? I was Irv to my friends, so why shouldn’t I be Irv to all these guys who I was sharing such an intense experience? I really believed in and tried to live the brother’s in arms ideal.

I can admit now that I was a bit immature in some ways when I got into the Army and I did some things that I’m really not proud of. Same was true before I enlisted. My parents told me that I was always trying to act like I was really mature, but by trying to do that, I was actually being just the opposite. Maybe it was just teenage hormones and all the changes you go through with puberty and all that, but at sixteen, I was just into doing stupid stuff, mild by some standards, but still enough to make my mom and dad wonder about just exactly who I was and what the hell was going on with me.

I was on the Internet looking for ways to make weapons from household items and I came across instructions for a blowgun you could fashion out of a shoelace, a sewing needle, and a straw. I scavenged the supplies and spent a lot of time shooting that little dart around. Eventually, I got a bigger piece of pipe and a small nail and used that. I was surprised by how powerful the thing was. I shot a bottle of cologne I had and it started leaking. Then, I fired another shot and this one missed the target and hit my bedroom window. Andre was with me, and he freaked out when he saw the glass shatter. It also tore up the outside screen pretty bad. I cleaned things up the best I could but my dad spotted the damage and asked me what happened. I was feeling pretty good about myself for coming up with what I thought was a great excuse (lie) that matched the laws of thermodynamics. It had gotten cold the night before and then the sun shining on the window heated up the glass again. I shut it and the glass broke.

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He seemed to believe me, and all he asked was that I patch up the screen. He’d take care of the glass. I had to get a ladder and deal with the second story window—that’s when I discovered I was afraid of heights. I also discovered something else. My dad was a very cool guy and a very fair one. On the day I was to leave for basic he said to me, “Before you go, check your bank account’s balance.”

I asked him why.

“Because you’ll see you’ve got a few dollars less than you probably thought. I took out the money I spent to fix that window you broke with your blow gun.”

“How’d you know?”

“C’mon son, what you told me made no sense. I could tell you were lying. I also found the dart out on the lawn.”

“Wow. You’re good.”

“And you better be. Own up to your mistakes and learn from them and you won’t have any trouble.”

My mom didn’t have the same level of patience with me as my dad. That was especially true when that same year as the dart incident, I got into a fight with my sister. The rule was ironclad. Keep your hands off of her even if she came at you. I tried to push her out of my room, and before I knew it, my mom had burst out of the closet, and she was like a little Mike Tyson. She threw me out of the house immediately. It was cold and pouring down rain, and I wasn’t even given the opportunity to grab any of my stuff. Looking back on it, I don’t blame my mom at all for what she did, but at the time I was doing a little of why-me-whining as I wandered the neighborhood in bare feet.

I hadn’t gotten very far before dad’s pickup brake-squeaked to a stop beside. I watched as he rolled down the window, counting the seconds until the reckoning. I knew not to lie about this one. I told him that Jasmine and I had gotten into a fight and that I’d been kicked out of the house. He nodded slowly and his head disappeared for a moment as he leaned all the way over to push the door open for me. I got back in the house, but it was a long time before I got to get back out of the house for anything other than going to school.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I snuck out of the house a few weeks later and stole a neighbor’s car. Well, stole is kind of a strong word because the owner was this young girl who didn’t mind it when we took her car out for joy rides. She’d leave the keys where we could find them, and then we go for a drive around the neighborhood. This time, something possessed me, and instead of just leisurely touring the nearby streets, I decided to really gun it. I was going way too fast on way too tight of roads, and eventually ventured out of our area on a two-lane highway and nearly flipped it. I heard the police coming and tried to evade them. I drove the car back to the girl’s house, tires squealing around the corners, and went flying up her driveway before slamming to a stop.

There, a couple of doors down, was my dad standing in the driveway. He didn’t look too pleased.


Today, I know that a lot of young people, boys especially, suffer from what is now called a lack of impulse control. I didn’t have a name for it back then, but I can see how that diagnosis fits. If I wanted to do something, I did it regardless of the consequences. I don’t know if enlisting in the army immediately transformed me, but I know that I started to think about my decisions with more care after going through basic. When my stress fractures kept me from moving on to airborne school immediately after a basic, I think I finally was starting to show some sense. One of the instructors kept encouraging me to go despite the fact that my shins were so bad. I wanted to go. I’d made some buddies and wanted to stick with them and I didn’t want to feel like I’d somehow failed.

I resisted the temptation, and spent a few weeks putting myself through some physical therapy. If I wasn’t in the gym working on my fitness using low to no impact devices like the elliptical trainer, I was doing what my doctors had told me. I don’t know why the RICE acronym stuck with me. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. I performed each of those religiously, substituting my low impact work for complete rest.

I did all the Physical Training tests and was worried about the two-mile run, but I managed to get through it basically pain-free in 13 minutes and 38 seconds. I’m glad I didn’t cave in to the pressure, otherwise I would have just continued to do damage to my body and who knows what might have happened if my shins didn’t get better. Airborne school, of course, meant facing my biggest fear. Even though the mock AC-130 tower was only 40 feet high and you’re in a harness and all, letting go and getting into that tucked in position was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do. I got a bad case of the shakes but I’d gotten up there by not looking down and just staring at the back of the guy in front of me.

That’s a principle that I followed through most of my training. Don’t think. Do as you’re told. Eventually fear gives way. I was fortunate in that high winds were whipping up for the whole three weeks of airborne so we never went up on the 250 foot tower, just the mock up.

Be careful what you wish for. Not going through that next phase meant that the next time we jumped, it was going to be for real.

I'm trying to think of a word for how terrible it was. It was intense. I was a big adrenalin junkie, or at least I thought I was until that day. We got rigged up, and my parachute was good. My reserve parachute was fine. My helmet was fine. Going onto the aircraft, the AC-130, I'm walking out to the airfield, we're in two lines. I was in the first chalk and the second chalk was off to my right. I was walking up in the line when one of the Airborne instructors, a female, pulled me off to the side. I thought I was in trouble or something. I'm sitting there thinking -- What's going on? Then I heard the words I was dreading.

“You're going to be the first one to exit.”

She put me at the end of the line. I think she knew I had a fear of heights because she was with me on the tower and she saw the way I was acting. She put me at the very back of the line, the rest all filed in, and there I was, the first guy.

We got the one minute call, door came up, and we're already hooked up to the cable that stretched inside the length of the plane. This woman stood there, looked out, inspected everything on the outside of the aircraft, made sure there's nothing beneath us, the walk way's clear, all that good stuff. She pulled me up and handed me over to another Airborne instructor, a guy. He held onto my back and he tiptoed me to the very, very edge of the aircraft.

I remember watching movies as a kid, I always thought that when you opened the door on an aircraft while it's up in the sky, you all get sucked out. Not the case. It was extremely loud. The wind was howling. I'm getting thrown around. The aircraft was shaking somewhat. And it's kind of hard to keep my balance. That's why there's a grip on the back of your parachute. He's holding me there and I'm partially hanging out of the aircraft and we're going maybe 150, 180, 200 miles an hour. And that wind's just pushing me, pushing me, pushing me, and I'm standing there with nearly every one of muscles in spasm, and he said, “Don't look down, just keep your eyes on the horizon.”

I started getting weak in the knees again and I remember thinking -- What did I sign up for? This is ridiculous. I'm jumping out of an aircraft for no reason at all.

I was standing there and I could see out my peripheral vision to the right a red light, a yellow light, and a green light. The red light's holding steady. They called 30 seconds when the yellow light came on. And that's when I was thinking -- Oh, my gosh. This is really happening. The green light came on and the instructor smacked me on my ass and that's all I remember of the first few seconds. I jumped out and I remember feeling just almost like getting hit by a truck I guess, this wall of wind, just pushing me. I kept my eyes open and I was screaming out what I learned in Airborne school, counting out 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 and on 4,000 my parachute opened, I could hear the rubber bands that keep the static line held together just starting to pop.


And then I heard this boom, this push, this jolt, that you know, slowed me down. I looked up. My blood was pumping so hard at this point. I was huffing and puffing, screaming a little bit just out of excitement. I looked up, checked my parachute and as I was coming down I just completely lost everything I learned as far as don't look down, keep your eyes on the horizon so you don't anticipate the fall and overextend your legs and they break on landing. So, I was coming down and I could hear the wind blowing somewhat, and I was going pretty fast right now and landed exactly the way we weren’t supposed to. I fell. I hit my feet, went straight to my ass and tumbled on my head. I started getting dragged by my parachute. I took it off and looked up at the plane and was like -- Wow. I just jumped out of that thing.

That was an amazing feeling. Scared and excited. It was the whole mixture of feelings, just overwhelming. It was crazy. I couldn't wait to go back up and do it again as long as I was not the first guy.

That excitement didn’t last long. The second jump was cool. After my third jump I got worried about how many times a human could do this repeatedly before something bad happened. That's when the fear factor set in and I hated jumping ever since.

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I can reveal that now, but I had to keep those feelings hidden from the other guys. Airborne school was interesting because you had people from all the branches, different special operations people, all there to qualify. There were a few other Ranger candidates in my chalk and we didn’t really speak to one another much. We sized each other up, but even then I sensed that there was no real point in being too friendly with these other guys. First, you would most likely end up in different units, and second, this was war time and people were getting killed. Don’t get too close to anybody and you won’t hurt as much if something bad happened to them.

It’s funny now that I think that after Airborne, I was sent to Ranger Indoctrination Program. At the time “indoctrination” didn’t mean much to me, but later I thought about how that word can mean something kind of like being brain washed. Now it’s called Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), and that’s more fitting I think. There wasn’t much brain washing going on when I went through it. It was mostly just a physical beating—long, long runs and marches of up to 15 miles, three to four days without sleep, very little food. It’s that crucible moment when you found out for yourself if you’ve got what it takes. My dad always used to say that the truth will out—in other words, you can’t hide from who you really are and you will at some point reveal yourself.

And from the first moment you enter RIP, you’re being tested. That first day having to run a half mile carrying all my gear, 100 pounds of it, and knowing that if I fell behind even just a bit I might be out, no matter that I looked like a soup sandwich, I wasn’t one of the 60 or so guys out of our class of 180 who didn’t make it to the end of day two. I don’t know where I found the strength, but I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to quit. If my shins flared up or my body otherwise broke down and they tossed me out, that was one thing. Quitting was not an option.

I knew that even though I was lagging behind a lot of guys in the runs, my short legs weren’t meant for the distance thing, I was confident that I had other skills.

The first time I fired a weapon, I was 8 years old. I was down in the country with my dad and my grandfather. They did a lot of rabbit and deer hunting, and I was in a clearing with them, some bottom land and a few stands of trees. At one point, my dad handed me the gun. The thing felt solid but not heavy. My dad stood behind me, helped me level the gun, and then with his finger over mine, he helped me squeeze the trigger, real slow. The recoil knocked me back but my dad held me up.

I liked the sensation of firing a gun immediately and intensely. Part of it was power, but part of it was also about control. As impulsive as I was with my homemade weapons and things, I was somehow able to respect what a weapon could do and keep myself under control and eventually fire a weapon with real precision. I didn’t like school, and a lot of stuff seemed really complicated to me, but what my dad taught me, sight and squeeze seemed really simple. The simplicity of it made it fun for me. This wasn’t like doing word problems in math class or memorizing the Constitution’s amendments, or reading a story and trying to find a theme. Sight and squeeze.

I also know that I was really angry as a kid, even until I was through with high school. I’m not really sure how firing a weapon figured into that because I know I wasn’t one of those sociopath kinds of kids who love torturing animals and other things. I did hunt, but I was very squeamish when it came to handling the carcasses of the rabbits and squirrels I shot. I’d ask someone else to pick them up for me. I wasn’t into blood and gore, but I did get a great deal of satisfaction from mastering something. My dad would take me to the shooting range, and I developed more mental and emotional discipline there than I did anywhere else. I knew that I could never fire a weapon in anger at someone. That would mess too much with the simplicity of sight and squeeze. Sure, I felt a thrill when I was successful when hunting or hitting a target, and at first in going to the range, some of my anger and aggression came out. Later, precision shooting became like chess, a game that I enjoyed playing, because in order to hit a bulls eye a lot of planning and execution of steps had to take place.

Before I was a teenager, I had a .22 rifle with a scope and I tried to shoot a cigarette in half from 100 yards. When I got to high school and after spending all those hours at the range with my dad, I was able to do that regularly.

Part of the reason why I improved wasn’t just target practice. I also had to do some studying. When I was starting out and shooting outside, I had no clue about how much wind could effect a bullet’s path. I figured I was only 50 to 100 yards away from a target and a bullet travelled so fast, how could wind do anything? And the effects of gravity? Didn’t even consider them.

Finally I went to the library and got a book on long range shooting and sniping. I learned a whole lot and realized that I needed to understand better some of the math principles that I’d hated dealing with in school. I remember getting a book called Fundamentals of Math. It was a sixth grade textbook, and I would sneak it home because I was in high school by that time and I knew I’d get all kinds of crap from kids at school for having it. I studied and studied that book in a way that I would have never done in a classroom. It’s funny, but I was one of those kids who constantly complained that the stuff I was being forced to learn in school had nothing to do with real life. If someone had told me that math would apply to sniping, I might have paid more attention.

The more I read about sniping, the more I made the connection between chess and shooting. Anticipation, analysis, and prediction based on evidence are pretty high level thinking skills, and I started to develop them, but if you were to ask any of my teachers if I was capable of that kind of thinking, they would have probably said no. By all outward appearances, or outside of a shooting range, I probably looked like I didn’t understand the principle of cause and effect, actions and consequences.

In the Army, I had to learn a lot about navigation and orienteering. Its funny to think about how I was finding my way in life as much as I was finding my way through the woods.

The Cole Range is the Ranger’s version of the SEAL teams Hell Week. That was the point at which I really learned about camaraderie and team work. We started out with a group of 80 or so, and by the end we were whittled down to about ten. The thing that kept me going was that if you decided to drop out, you had to stand there in front of everyone and say those words. I was empowered by that. Every time another guy stopped during the middle of a march or whatever and said, “I quit,” I grew more determined to make it. Hearing, “I quit,” twenty, thirty, forty, fifty times over a four day period can really boost your confidence when you’re the one hearing it and not saying it.

I especially remember being sleep deprived and hungry as could be and being gathered near a bonfire. An instructor would say, “If you just come up here, leave your team, I have a nice hot cup of coffee for you and a slice of pizza. You’ll be good to go, but you’ve got to leave your teammates.”

A few guys would go up there and take the offer, and the instructor would say, “Welcome to Korea” or “Welcome to Italy,” or something, letting the guys know that they were bound for some kind of ordinary duty someplace. They’d sold themselves short and now they were getting the short end of the deal.

I was one of seven guys who made it through the end. I learned that my brain might shut down or quit, but my body could keep on going, and that was a lesson that served me well throughout the rest of my career.

I was enormously proud of joining the 3rd Ranger Battalion in October of 2005, and from that point forward, when I heard about guys who’d been in Somalia in what became known as Black Hawk Down, or them going into Granada, the first Gulf War, rescuing Jessica Lynch, that was all part of the legacy of the group I was now a part of. Well, not quite part of it yet. I had to report to battalion to see what my assignment was going to be.

1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions were each doing 90 day rotations at that point in the conflict. When I arrived, I have to admit it was a bit of a letdown. 3rd battalion was in Afghanistan, but I was assigned to its Charlie Company, 1st Platoon. That meant there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do until the rest of the battalion got back. I definitely had new kid at school nerves. I didn’t know what to expect now that I was a Ranger, and I really wanted to make a good impression. I was there with maybe 20 other guys and they hardly ever even talked to me, except to issue me some equipment. I didn’t have a TV or a radio, just a bed in the barracks and an iron and ironing board which I used almost constantly to press my BDUs. When I wasn’t doing that, I was polishing my boots making sure that I was as squared away as possible. I was a nineteen year old kid, living his dream of being an Army Ranger, and I had movie visions of how my life was going to play out.

I also had a bit of a nightmare running through my mind. I’d heard that the Rangers had their own indoctrination program for the cherry new guys. I’d been told that I could expect them to come busting into my room and take me out partying or to quiz me on some bit of Ranger Battalion history or do anything to test me. When I got word, after a week of mostly just waiting, that the 3rd Battalion was inbound and would be down in just about an hour, I sat on the edge of my bed nearly paralyzed. When the guys came back in, I could hear them running and shouting, asking where the new guy was.

What ensued was the consumption of more beer than I’d ever even seen to that point in my young life. I’d had a few beers before, but that night was the first time I was ever drunk. I didn’t want to show any kind of weakness, so I tried to keep up with them, but that wasn’t really possible. A few guys asked me about myself and my background and stuff, but nothing detracted from the drinking and the loud music and the general air of relief they all felt. They were glad to be back home, glad that they’d sustained no casualties, and clearly, I was the only one who was thinking about the fact that we had to be up at 0600 hours for formation.

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I wandered away from the action and got back to my room and began laying out what I thought I had to have organized for the next day. I showed up at 0600 in my starched and pressed uniform, my dazzle-shined boots and felt like the kind who wore a shirt and tie to the first day of school while everybody else was in jeans and t-shirts. That’s mostly what the rest of the guys were wearing. I was the only one not in civilian clothes. I was escorted over to the Charlie Company CQ desk and was introduced to a very large and very forbidding looking first sergeant who I would later come to know as Black Rhino. The name fit. He was well over 220 pounds of rock hard muscle, a coal black complexion, and a mouth with a missing front tooth that could make him appear menacing or goofy.

That first time, I met First Sgt. Seeley, he definitely was not goofy. He took me into a room and began his interrogation.

“Why do you want to be here? What makes you want to be a Ranger.” His voice defineitely matched his body, it came out strong and deep.


I didn’t know what to say, and while I was standing there, the platoon sergeant came in and stood in the doorway. I could see a little bit of light behind him, but mostly just his body filling that space.

Finally, I said, “I just want to be a part of the best fighting force that the military has to offer.”

The Black Rhino bust out laughing and then suddenly stopped. “No. I’ve heard that too many times before. I want your real answer.”

I shrugged, “I just want to fight, First Sergeant. I’m here to fight and go to war.”

“That’s what I want to hear.”

At that point, he informed me that I was going to be assigned to the 3rd Squad in Charlie Company as an assaulter. I was given my M4 rifle and a 203 grenade launcher. I was pretty much left on my own. There was a pretty distinct division between guys who were TABs—the ones who’d completed Ranger school—and the other guys like me. We were there on a trial basis, and I felt the pressure of believing that my every move was being closely monitored and evaluated. To that point, I’d not done a whole lot of real specific training with weapons, and it was clear that we were being prepared for urban combat. As much as I’d fired weapons before, it was a whole new thing to be in a small room with several other people, friendlies, knowing that you had to be very accurate.

Wearing night vision was also hard to adapt to. I don’t know if my color blindness had any effect on me, but I never really liked using that devise. The first time I put on PVS 14s, I got to experience what it would be like to lose an eye. The device slides down and blocks the vision in one of your eyes, and that really messes with our depth perception. I probably spent as much time bumping into things as I did making clear forward progress. Later, when we got into small unit training and I had to combine night vision work with my infrared laser sighting on my weapons, I had a whole new level of respect for what these guys were capable of. It was so different from open-sight in daylight. Point and squeeze became my new mantra. Put the laser on the target and squeeze. Eventually, spending enough time with the night vision, figuring out what magnification settings worked for me, made me more comfortable. Our brains eventually adjust and compensate for having two different images coming into it—a near one and a far one—but it did take a lot of time.

Physical training was still rigorous with the added dimension of P-Mask runs—when you wore your protective mask, what most people think of a gas masks. We were trying to simulate the high-altitude environment of Afghanistan.

During an airport seizure drill, I really got a sense that this was now big boy stuff. Night time parachuting, hot wiring vehicles to get them off the runway, lots of coordination among the various units and responsibilities.

I had never worked so hard in my life as I did in those six months prior to my first deployment. Twelve to 16 hour days were the norm. Family life was non-existent. Some of the guys told me that trying to maintain a working marriage was almost impossible, and the Ranger battalions had a really high divorce rate.

I don’t know if I would have done as well as I did if it weren’t for Mark Cunningham. He was one of the returning Rangers and for some reason we hit it off. He was just a year older than me, but he’d already done two deployments. He didn’t mind me asking all kinds of questions about what it was going to be like over there—the terrain, the people, our living quarters, and anything else I could think of. I also worked the chain of command properly and wasn’t afraid to ask my squad leader for clarification. I think that being the new guy and not being afraid to ask questions helped.

It was during that training cycle, during another of the many airport seizures, that I had that parachute incident when I could have easily died. I had one other near-fatal encounter, this time with a tin of Copenhagen. Mark was from Tennessee, and he said he’d been dipping tobacco since he was a pup, as he put it. One day, I was dragging, just having one of those low energy days when I could barely keep my eyes open.

So Mark said, “If you can’t stay awake, try some of this stuff.” He always had a little bump below his bottom lip. He handed me the can.

I opened it and I immediately thought of my days spent fishing and the worm dirt. I squinted at it and then at Mark.

“Here, like this.” He took three fingers and pinched a bit of it.

I did as he said. At first, all I felt was a bit of warmth on the inside of my lip and then it was like someone had opened a faucet in my salivary glands. I was almost drooling, and I was trying to spit as best I could, but I could feel little bits of the tobacco going down my throat as my saliva slid down from my jaw. The next thing I knew, I was a bit dizzy and lightheaded. Mark and a few other guys were laughing at me, and then suddenly everything was spinning and then everything in my stomach came flying out of my mouth. The guys were laughing hysterically, and as sick as I was feeling, I couldn’t really blame them.

They told me that everybody has a similar experience their first time doing dip. That was the only real hazing, if you want to call it that, I experienced. Once all the training began, we really bonded as a team. By the time we finished that intense six months and learned we were on our way to Tikrit, I thought I was really ready. Of course, I wasn’t. I remember on our flight from Germany to Tikrit, I had a moment of panic when the red lights came on and the pilot announced that we were in Iraqi airspace. I thought that this was going to be like D-Day. We’d land, drop the ramp, and run off with bullets flying all around us. That’s when the panic set in. I didn’t have any magazines of ammo with me or in my weapon. I tried to calm myself by saying that I could borrow some from one of the other guys. How could I be so stupid as to not load my weapon.

When we landed, the ramp did go down, but we didn’t take any enemy fire. We all loaded into vans, kind of like airport hotel vans, and as we drove off, I saw the familiar arches of a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and the most unfamiliar thing of all, a Green Bean coffee store.

Nothing could have prepared me for the smell, though. Diesel fuel and oil, human excrement. Still, the first time I set foot on Iraqi soil, I felt a thrill of pleasure. Wow. I’m here. I’m in combat.

I was still a bit out of it from the Ambien, the long hours of sleep, and the sense of disorientation that comes from climbing into an aircraft in one part of the world and climbing off it in another. We were told that we’d be conducting an operation that night. The briefing was a blur, and then what seemed like minutes later, we did a final check before mounting up. My squad leader came up to me and said, “Everything good to go? Give me a heads up.”

“Batteries good, Roger that.”

He rechecked my lasers, my night vision, my radio, both of us checking and re-checking everything.

Cunningham approached me and nodded, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be good to go. Should be in and out.”

Next thing I knew I was sitting in the doorway of a Blackhawk helicopter, squeezed between two other squad members, the pilot making sharp turns while flares and the rounds from the miniguns lit up the sky. I was startled by the sound of what seemed to be a chainsaw, but was just the laser array emitting more tracers downrange. When we got the one minute mark, I leaned out against my straps and saw this lone building in the middle of all this flatness.

Oh crap, this is it.

As soon as that thought was complete, the helicopter flared to scrub off all its speed. Like a horse being brought to a sudden halt, the helicopter rose nose first and its ass end settled, and we were in a near hover.

Stepping onto the ground, I thought of the moon. The soil there was so fine and dust-like that it reminded me of the images I’d seen as a kid of our astronauts jumping around on the moon kicking up little dust clouds. I didn’t have time to get lost in space. Everyone around me was moving, seemingly in different directions, guys zigzagging, cutting off angles to the building. I remembered that my team was responsible for covering and cutting off anybody coming out of the right side of the building. I was really shocked by how fast everything was happening. By the time I was able to make sense of what I was seeing, half the team was already making entry into the door of the building. I was still 50 yards away. I noticed the quiet and the absence of the helicopters.

I finally got my stuff together and ran towards the angle I was supposed to cover. As I was moving, I heard a loud pop. At first it didn’t register, but then I realized it was the flash grenades / bangers going off. I tried to picture what was taking place inside the building, but more than that, I was wishing I was inside there. I’d been told that nothing we did in training could really prepare you for the real thing. It was kind of like the difference between a practice and an actual game. Yes, you were told that you should practice with the same intensity you’d bring to the game, but the violence of action they’d talked about didn’t really compare.

The thing that didn’t compare for me at all was that I sat there loading my weapon before we left, I was thinking that I might have to really fire these live rounds at another human being. You couldn’t really train for that reality. I grew up in a religious family, and obviously, Thou Shall Not Kill is something we all believed in and put into practice. As I was sitting there on the Blackhawk, all kinds of thoughts were flying around in my head. By the time we’d reached the objective, I was really numb to all those thoughts and feelings and just went into a kind of auto pilot. That’s what all that training was supposed to do—just do the things you’d done dozens of times before, don’t think too much, just respond.

The mission went well. We killed two of the targets and apprehended a third. What I remember most is getting back to base and eating chow and watching CNN. Our mission was a breaking news headline. I thought of all those people in all those airport terminals waiting for their flights half-listening to what was going on in my part of the world.

I’d arrived.

From The Reaper by Nicholas Irving with Gary Brozek. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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Before my deployment to Afghanistan, I tried to keep up with what was going on there, but it wasn’t like I had lot more sources of information than what a civilian would have—television news and newspapers.
the reaper, ranger, nicholas irving, gary brozek
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2015-45-28
Wednesday, 28 Jan 2015 04:45 PM
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