Two minutes left.
Few Army engineers are brilliant enough to risk more deaths than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined just by surfing, but Michelle always insisted I bottled-up a genius for destruction.
It all kicked off in an HH-60H Seahawk helicopter.
The Navy is all about ships and planes. By comparison, their Spec Ops budget might as well be a rounding error. Only one active Special Warfare Sea Combat unit in the Navy.
HSC-85, the Firehawks.
Our pilot and crew chief took every opportunity to brandish their flaming-bird-over-golden-trident emblems. Everyone at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego was suitably impressed.
Even a noob 2LT like me knows to learn patches and badges. Especially when your life may depend on them.
Michelle acts clueless about uniforms, but she’s a wise wahine. Notices more than she lets on.
Ninety seconds until drop.
Our Firehawks pilot shoved the cyclic forward. Dipped the copter’s rad flame-painted nose down.
Picked up speed. Doors already open. Bare to the sky and sea.
Below, ocean waves crashed into a blur of black-rock cliffs. We flew down the Southern California coastline. Through salted air.
Adrenalin pumped. Amplified the waves. Blasted them against my eardrums.
Ready to go.
Michelle and I bounced into the air like we’d hit the peak of a roller coaster.
Stomach soared. Lousy turbulence.
We slammed back into the aluminum cabin floor. Black neoprene wetsuit material compressed below us.
My spine shrunk. Stomach dropped.
Dude! No need to kill us during the insertion.
Grabbed the back of Michelle’s parachute harness. Felt where the five straps combined. Double-checked they were still hooked to a safety line.
Secured beats dead.
The setting sun highlighted the tangled city hills on the far side of San Diego Bay.
Lit up the hill my family lived on the day I was born.
The hill where twenty years ago today, Child Services regretted to inform me my mom and dad died from collateral damage.
I was seven.
That taught me to hate collateral damage.
My first trip back since Army ROTC. First since putting on second lieutenant’s bars. My first love was the epic surfing at Lowers or off La Jolla.
San Diego held jumbled memories, sour and sweet.
Shook my head. Refocused. No time for nostalgia.
“Better make out on this trial run.” I forced my words through the wind. “Or my REMF colonel will rake over my career.”
Michelle turned her head. Tilted her lips toward my ear. “Pretend it’s a surfing contest. You used to win those.”
Not cool dude! Used to? I just shook my head.
Five seconds. Years of my team’s work to validate.
More than a surf competition. Our test reduced to the ultimate evaluation process: soldiers in combat.
Simulated or not.
Target reached. Green light. Leaned forward, ready to propel myself outward.
Left hand on one rubberized edge of the opening. Right hand on the back of Michelle’s wetsuit.
No more time to prepare. To back out.
The Firehawks crew chief doubled as our jumpmaster. Unhooked our safety cables.
Now nothing kept us in the whirlybird.
He tapped Michelle’s right shoulder. “Go. Go. Go!”
Naturally, she hesitated, so I pushed her.
She slid out of the cabin. Plunged toward the ocean.
Michelle was never into unquestioning obedience. We got along that way, although that attitude doesn’t optimize my Army life.
The Seahawk’s four-bladed main rotor whomped the air outside the cabin. Drove it more vertical than horizontal. That gust propelled her away. Yellow static line unspooled behind her.
She’d be fine.
My bare legs dangled out the open cabin door. Blond leg hairs danced in the draft. Courtesy of Uncle Sam’s logistics, my black Aqua-shoes matched my shorty wetsuit.
The jumpmaster stepped away. Hit the quick release for the tie-downs holding our pair of eSurfboards in the cabin.
I plunged forward. Dropped after Michelle.
Fought the rotor wash. Peeked back for a second.
He pushed the two eSurfboards out the opposite door, attached to their own static lines.
So far, so good, but falling doesn’t kill you.
Needed to escort Michelle, the High Value Target (HVT) for today, from here to the USS Midway aircraft carrier docked on the east side of San Diego Bay.
Ideally, without the dozen Ranger Reconnaissance Company (RRC) dudes waiting in ambush below, shooting us.
My ears popped. Extended my hands, arms and legs.
Dove through the air buffets. Tasted the offshore breeze.
Controlled my descent. Twisted to face the briny deep.
The sunset to the southwest reflected in the five foot swells off Point Loma. Golden rays turned the swells a luminous green.
Seafoam. My favorite color.
WARCOM, AKA The Center, stationed in the Amphibious base on Coronado peninsula, stretched between the bay and the ocean, making this SEAL home surf. They’d evaluate our tech test mission. Determine if my eSurfboard was useful.
See if it totally destroyed their existing equipment’s capabilities, like I’d promised.
Michelle reached the end of her static line. It jerked the deployment bag off her back. Her chute streamed into the rushing air.
Opened with a whoosh.
She only had to manage her wetsuit. I carried thirty pounds of tactical gear, plus an M4A1 carbine with I-MILES for use in the exercise.
The SEALs brought in Rangers from the 75th RRC as a Special Operations element. They could both use some water training and would provide a neutral OPFOR during the exercise.
Nobody wanted a biased result.
Chute deployed with a pop and a jerk. Harness transformed into a giant playground swing.
Prefer for safety to pack my own chute, but either way it’s a relief when it opens properly.
I tugged on a control line. Oriented myself toward a point in the ocean a hundred meters away from the breaking waves. Followed Michelle through the air.
The steady offshore breeze wanted to push us into the sand, but we needed to keep water below us.
Michelle hit the water like a cannon-ball under a dandelion.
I plunged into the ocean swells 20 meters from her. A sphere of water sprayed into the air around me.
My exhausted chute settled into the drink downwind. Left alone, it would act as a sea anchor. Drag me through the waves.
Bobbed up. Deep breath. Salty air tasted like heaven.
Popped a pair of quick-releases. Cut my chute loose.
The underwater kelp jungle grabbed at my legs.
Couldn’t get tangled or this mission would end faster than a shark who swallowed C-4 and a blasting cap.
Turned west. Shielded my eyes from the glare of the sunset with my left hand. Paddled against the water with my right to stay afloat.
My carbine, strapped to my tactical harness, dragged me away little by little with the motion of the crashing whitecaps.
Only so much weight a baby life-preserver can help with.
Our pair of prototype eSurfboards splashed into the rolling waves about 30 meters farther from shore.
Michelle released her own chute, so I ignored her as safe enough for now. How much trouble could she get into while floundering in the ocean?
Equipped with waterproof GPS trackers, a spec-4 would come collect our chutes once the surf pushed them up on the beach.
A series of waves smacked me in the face, but I duck dove through. Swam for the prototype boards. Held my breath with each submersion.
Facing white breakers just before dusk, I raced across the green waves. Dodged seaweed tentacles. Was at home here. I’d surfed since age ten, but lately I’d missed the inner peace of riding gnarly waves.
I’m a soldier, not a sailor. I’d completed Airborne school over the summer during ROTC. Made time for the Ranger leadership course during this, my first deployment, but despite my comfort on a board, certainly wasn’t a SEAL. Hadn’t endured their BUD/S training, conducted five miles away at WARCOM. Nor was I officially a Ranger, like those opposing us, not having been selected for the 75th Ranger Regiment by completing RASP.
My ROTC Instructor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo choked up laughing when he read my first name. Thought I looked like a Sam: a cocky beanpole of a surface-to-air missile. Faked a crestfallen expression when I mumbled and conceded I couldn’t play the harp, despite having “Harper” embroidered on my uniform’s nametape.
To a surfer second lieutenant, freshly commissioned with a degree in electronics engineering, a job to devise a hydrofoil eSurfboard for the Pentagon sounded like the perfect deployment.
I played with dense lithium-ion batteries.
Wired them to a silent-running torpedo-shaped electric motor.
The motor spun a hand-polished aluminum propeller.
Whole assembly connected underwater to the end of a three meter carbon fiber cylinder.
The hydrofoil, a swept-back fluid dynamics wing, braced that pole about a third of the way up.
Ahead of me, the top of the shaft floated my prototype short-board above the waves. I cut through the water toward it.
I loved surfing and engineering, so why did I hate my work?
First Sgt. Keith Bishop, top NCO of the 75th Ranger Reconnaissance Company (RRC), despised ocean swimming. Especially in waves colder than a penguin’s balls. Sure, Coronado Peninsula was surrounded by a bay, or a channel, or something, but when the Major gave him the option of staying dry or taking part in this tech demo, he’d opted to watch remotely with the SEALs in WARCOM’s crisis center.
And then the red-headed-step-child of the Company, 1LT Schnier, looked at him with his Texan puppy eyes bigger than a tornado and begged him to come along with his OPFOR platoon. “It’ll be fun! What? Salty old hound like you afraid of a little salty water?”
Bishop could only put on a brave face to take his medicine and respond, “Roger that, Lieutenant.”
Decent head for tactics, but Schnier never seemed to think how hard-living and partying would get him that ranch he always talked about.
Now, Schnier and his platoon spread out evenly ahead of him, two Abrams tank-lengths apart, dispersed across the 650 meters of water between Coronado and Smuggler’s Cove. A SEAL-sleek underwater propulsion device (UPD) pulled each Ranger along. Made them blaze through the water, wearing wetsuits, combat vests, and high-speed waterproof goggles.
Bishop splashed along behind his UPD. To the rear of the line of Rangers. Observed Schnier’s platoon, as ordered. Shook his head. Got a cheekful of brine for his trouble. Coughed and spit it out. What was he doing here again?
How did all this playing in the water help him get his family moved to Korea?
No way even an underwater opponent could sneak past Schnier’s ambush. They’d be the anvil in this scenario.
Schnier’d stationed a sniper team off Zuniga Point. Out front. The hammer; set to chase 2LT Harper and his HVT into this channel. Prevent retreat.
Just when his hard-working wife’d gotten the desert dust out of his sacred tan underwear, this trip’d fill his britches with wet ocean sand. She was gonna fetchin’ kill him.
His Poppa never swam. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s beach and swimming pool segregation policy saw to that. Whenever he asked to learn, Poppa gave his usual commentary on life, “That dog won’t hunt.”
Different for Bishop after he signed-up for the Army, but learning to keep his bulky muscles afloat almost lick’d him. He could drag behind a UPD, though.
Besides, he just had to watch, not fight. Schnier’s platoon set up along the only path from the Pacific Ocean into the bay where the USS Midway lay at anchor. Schnier gonna tear this cocky engineer a new one, no matter how gussied up his highfalutin’ improved UPD was.
Bishop almost felt sorry for Harper. When the SEALs wanted an evaluation against realistic opposition, the Major volunteered Schnier’s platoon. Back from a combat deployment in the middle-east, on their way to South Korea to train some locals, playing in the water sounded like a nice break to the other Rangers.
Not for Bishop. Another wave smacked him in the face. A reminder he’d rather hang with the piddlin’ WARCOM brass and SEAL leaders evaluating on dry land. Teeth-rattlin’ missions like this are why lieutenants are the nemeses of senior NCOs.