Biographies & Memoirs

Waking Up on the Appalachian Trail

By

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Loved it! 😍

Backpacking 2180 miles through the wilderness, a war veteran opens his eyes to see his country and himself like never before.

Synopsis

Nate Hankes returned home from his tour in Iraq unable to answer one simple question: Had his mission overseas been honorable? Determined to find clarity and forge a new identity outside of the U.S. Army, Nate, alongside his brother Ben, a recent college grad delaying his entry into the Great Recession job market, set out to hike the entire length of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Unpredictable weather, brutal terrain, straining health, and a fractured mind stretched beyond comfort by a wise but imperfect hiking companion turn this walk in the woods into an adventure of body, mind, and spirit. And in a world gone mad, this coming-of-age story reminds us that true clarity and peace can only be found within.

“Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail is a tale of transformation and emergence from trauma and confusion into something closer to insight and clarity. Hankes writes from the heart, and his story is both powerful and important. I hope this book finds the large, passionate audience it deserves.”—Chris Ryan, Ph. D., author of Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress and host of the Tangentially Speaking podcast.

Waking up on the Appalachian Trail by N. B. Hankes is a true personal account of a veteran who returns home questioning the meaning of his time serving in Iraq. Along with his brother, he embarks on one of the classic backpacking treks in the United States: the Appalachian Trail. The two of them spend five months traversing rugged mountainous terrain across fourteen states. The reader gets an intimate portrait of the calamities of a standard thru-hike: sore joints, blistered feet, terrible weather, hunger, body odor. They meet a cast of unforgettable quirky characters and get into heaps of ridiculous situations. Through it all they persevere and keep hiking, sometimes with the assistance of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. 


The author came to the trail looking for a place where he could sort out his feelings about his military experience. What he soon realizes is that his patriotic pride for his country and the freedom he believed it stood for is not as black and white as he thought. A fellow hiker, Dylan, serves as his guru and the catalyst for changing the way he thinks. I enjoyed Dylan's endless diatribes on government corruption and corporate greed. While whittling his possessions down to the bare basics, Hankes starts to recognize the connection between the American Dream, materialistic consumption, and the oil war that he was sent to fight in. His memories often take him back to Baghdad, where he describes in grim detail life where enemy mortar attacks are a fact of life and not everyone is guaranteed to return home alive. While backpacking, including the AT, is familiar and relatable to me, these scenes at the military compound were very outside of my experience and I found them enlightening.


This book is well-written, sometimes thought provoking and other times hilarious, and a worthy addition to the cannon of long-distance backpacking literature. It joins the ranks of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed's Wild while bringing an entirely different perspective than either. It’s a timely story that may get some readers to question their world views while also enjoyable as an adventure travel story. As an avid backpacker that also likes to question the status quo, I enjoyed reading it and recommend it.

Reviewed by

I spend my free time backpacking, rock climbing, biking, running, paddling, and exploring nature any way I can. I read about outside. I read nonfiction about outdoors sports, adventure travel, historical exploration, local history, and the environment.

Synopsis

Nate Hankes returned home from his tour in Iraq unable to answer one simple question: Had his mission overseas been honorable? Determined to find clarity and forge a new identity outside of the U.S. Army, Nate, alongside his brother Ben, a recent college grad delaying his entry into the Great Recession job market, set out to hike the entire length of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Unpredictable weather, brutal terrain, straining health, and a fractured mind stretched beyond comfort by a wise but imperfect hiking companion turn this walk in the woods into an adventure of body, mind, and spirit. And in a world gone mad, this coming-of-age story reminds us that true clarity and peace can only be found within.

“Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail is a tale of transformation and emergence from trauma and confusion into something closer to insight and clarity. Hankes writes from the heart, and his story is both powerful and important. I hope this book finds the large, passionate audience it deserves.”—Chris Ryan, Ph. D., author of Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress and host of the Tangentially Speaking podcast.

Chapter 1


“I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war was largely about oil.” – Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006



Forward Operating Base Falcon

Baghdad, Iraq

October 2007


First Sergeant’s voice wavered when he called Specialist Frank Steel’s name one final time. The booming echo, forever humbled, drifted down the hollow chamber of the makeshift chapel.

The pews emptied in a somber and orderly procession as the congregation paid their final respects, saying goodbye to a friend, a brother in arms. Stained and dusty combat fatigues were all we had occasion to wear, feeling fortunate enough just to attend the memorial during the brief quiet moments between missions.

Assault rifles rested diagonally across our chests and backs, held loosely at the hips with our hands.

We filed past a shrine at the plywood altar: two boots and a rifle, dog tags hanging from the pistol grip. A framed picture showed Steel’s grin, a devious smirk that never let on to what he might be thinking. The grin seemed out of place in the dim glow of the chapel, an untimely echo from the past.

The American flag in the photo’s background reminded me of the innocent patriotism that led to Steel’s final seconds in the streets of Baghdad, his willingness for duty, and his eagerness to please his superiors. I hung my head, reaching out to touch the dog tags, and I began to cry. Tears turned to stifled sobs as I failed to find the language to cope. The desperate cries from my mouth weren’t me. They were the release of months of fatigue and grinding psychological stress. Months of witnessing the worst in humanity, of never letting my guard down or letting myself think of home. Months of being stretched to the point of collapse. I wiped my eyes and buried the grief, gathering my strength for the night’s missions.

I set a coin at the shrine’s base, adding the precious silver medallion to the pile of offerings. The collection of honorary medals and simple mementos of shared moments were scheduled for shipment to his mother in California, along with the folded American flag.



July 2nd, 2009

Day 0

Trail Mile 5


The orgiastic buzz of nocturnal life filled the forest air around me. Each hum and click betrayed an insectile fear or desire, a battle and victory, a yearning to play a round of Darwinian roulette. I slapped at a mosquito on my neck, balling the crushed carcass with my fingertips before flicking the remains to the ground—a Pixar tragedy deep within the heart of Maine’s Baxter State Park.

The beam of my headlamp lit trees and falling raindrops, and my upward gaze stopped at the perfect specimen to turn theoretical book knowledge into action. Potential energy to kinetic. “That’s the branch we’re looking for,” I declared.

I stood there, in front of my brother, as an outwardly confident but desperately insecure middle-class American youth, the typical ’80s kid with no sense of history and a public- education world view. The military should have made me a man, but I couldn’t tell you with any certainty if my time in Iraq had been honorable or if I’d been exploited by a pathologically greedy tribe of ivy leaguers, an oil dynasty waging war for oil. The TV commentary argued both sides.

I was the kid in high school who cheered when the armed forces initiated the Shock and Awe campaign on Iraq. If asked why, I said that the act was about justice and democracy. If probed deeper, I could only fall back on the assertion that America was the best country in the world, that we had moral obligations as the freest nation on earth.

Looking back on myself in those days—the way I wove my identity into that nationalistic pride—I would tell myself to look deeper. I’d tell myself to investigate behind the shiny facade I’d come to believe as objective truth, the one I learned about from the authority figures and media outlets entrusted to shape my mind. But I couldn’t.

And I was not a victim either. I only followed the same cultural currents, the swift and relentless torrent followed en masse by all the unthinking that led to so many of my peers going to college without any real clue as to their true calling, and that leads to middle-aged men asking, “what for?” after a life of corporate servitude and consumption. This rising current finds young wives crying silently next to sleeping husbands that they don’t really know or understand. It’s the same unfeeling current that finds struggling families drowning in credit-card debt and onerous mortgage obligations in their unconscious efforts to keep up with their friends and neighbors. I dictated my behavior and thoughts on the way in which I imagined those around me would condone or even admire. I swallowed the cultural Kool-Aid.

And I became even more intoxicated with patriotic arrogance nearing graduation. The sustained surge in patriotism following 9/11 made me feel as if my world view occupied the cultural moral high ground, that I was part of something larger than myself. I listened to vengeful country ballads on the radio and memorized the lyrics. Yes, I’d “put a boot in their ass.” I nodded as I sang along. Just hand me a rifle and point them out.

Like a character in a war film, I imagined myself operating “in the shit” and “outside the wire,” wondering what it would feel like to shoot someone, to maybe even get shot, to earn a purple heart. People would buy me drinks at the bar and give acknowledging head nods. They’d know my name. Their nods and approving gaze were the only rubric I had for success and self-worth. And in small town Middle West, I would come home from war a hero.

“Okay, Ben,” I said. “Tie this end to the food bag.” I flung the bundle of rope through the rainy forest air.

He rolled the line between his fingers, asking, “Is this even gonna hold the bear bag?”

“Of course, it will!” I replied, careful to project an impression of confidence. The cordage came from an outfitter just outside of Fort Riley, Kansas. He’d assured me of the rope’s all-purpose backpacking utility. Water from the forest floor soaked into my hiking pants, but the strain and fatigue of the day’s hike had me past caring about comfort. “It seems skinny,” I began, “but it’s rated at like, eight-hundred-pound test or something stupid like that. You could reel in a bull tuna with that stuff.”

“A bull tuna?” He brushed off the idiocy of my claim with an incredulous puff of air. He wanted to tell me that I had no idea what I’d gotten us into, that I’d started us on a poorly planned and pointless excursion along the Eastern Seaboard. He suspected that I’d made a 2,180 mile, continental-scale blunder.

“Just tie it,” I urged, grabbing the bag as he pulled a knot tight. I tied a stout branch to the rope’s free end and threw the rope up and over a horizontal tree branch overhead, smirking condescending fuck-yous at my brother when the branch landed at my feet, just as I’d planned. When it came time to lift the food bag, I drew up the slack and pulled tight to lift our provisions. But the waterproof sack seemed to have taken root, so inadequate the rope and my attempt at American muscle were for the job.

“Humph?” Ben snorted, looking me in the eye with an unimpressed look of inevitability. His gloating slowly faded into shades of uncertainty and almost-panic as he realized that the threat of a bear attack was a real possibility. With the dim Aha! expression of a Neolithic-order epiphany, he stooped and lifted the food bag high into the air, his frame toiling behind the unwieldy weight of eleven days’ worth of food. I drew up the slack, my confidence shaken by the set back. He lifted, I hoisted. “Again,” I commanded. I lifted, he hoisted. I jumped, pushing upward. Grunt, curse. Heave, ho.

Ben pushed at the bottom of the bag with outstretched fingers and on tiptoes, trembling like a quaking aspen in a mountain breeze, a cascade of sweat swept bits of moss and duff down the side of his face. My chronic incapacity to think critically had turned a “How to Hang a Bear Bag” magazine article into a folly, approaching cinematic proportions.

“Okay,” I said, delaying the command ever so slightly, quite possibly sadistically, as I watched him struggle. I gave him a nod while I tied the free end to a nearby stump.

“Backpacking is really awesome,” he said, looking up at the swaying bag overhead. He stood in a six-inch-deep pool of stagnant rainwater, shaking his head. Then he looked at me, pointed his thumb downward, and made a farting noise with his mouth. “I shoulda stayed in Oshkosh delivering pizzas,” he added, glancing down at his submerged feet. I couldn’t blame him. I had doubts, too, but I knew—deep inside—that time in the wilderness would help me, that I could find answers and clarity, even if I wasn’t yet sure of all the questions.

“Now can you find the way back to camp?” he jabbed, wringing rainwater from his beard. He bent down and stretched his right knee, wincing as the inflamed tendon pulled tight. I didn’t care that he’d been uncomfortable all day. He’d asked to join my hike. If backpacking wasn’t his idea of adventure, he could quit whenever he liked. So, I brushed off his insult, all of his snarky comments. He didn’t understand what the trail had come to represent for me.

Besides, he’d lost sight of the true irony of the moment: He had signed on to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail for the same reason I had. His worthless BA degree had given him the same flimsy sense of identity as my confusion over Iraq had given me. We both felt something was wrong, that certain social contracts had been broken.

After all of our separate existential flailing, we’d found ourselves in the same spot—though, if you’d asked at the time, neither of us could have articulated why we decided to hike the trail. Ben might have said he tagged along because he had no real job prospects in the recession and maybe even that he looked forward for an opportunity to hang out with his combat veteran brother. And I’d have said that I intended to hike the Appalachian Trail for the adventure of it all.

Neither of us could imagine that in the months ahead, Ben would find his confidence and life’s calling, and I would find an unlikely and unconventional mentor to help sort out my confusion, leaving the Appalachian Trail with a completely new and lasting world view. All we knew, standing at the base of that tree, was that we didn’t know enough to be out there.



Day 0

Trail Mile 0

“Yeah, that should be enough,” I said, stepping forward from the weather-battered sign. I grabbed the camera, its metal frame cold to the touch. The wooden placard had been carried, many years prior and board by board, up the same trail I just struggled up with my brother. The fact that the sign existed in the first place and that a governing-agency committed resources to erect such a sturdy sign in such hostile terrain denoted the cultural import of its resting place. Generations of outdoors enthusiasts had revered the peak as the northernmost point of the Eastern Seaboard’s fabled Appalachian Trail.

“Are we good?” Ben yelled through the wind, looking toward me for guidance. He rubbed his hands together in front of exhaling, pursed lips. The mist of Alpine clouds collected into dewdrops on the scruff of his beard as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. I couldn’t be sure whether this was for warmth or to comfort his aching feet.

“Yeah,” I called out, stepping away from the iconic sign. “We can head back down.” I turned around for one last look at the lettering on the sign. I had seen pictures of thru-hikers, bowing down to kiss the jagged lettering on those boards. Their faces and clothing were as battered and beaten as the flaking brown paint and sun-bleached wood. I’d imagined the moment many times myself, except circumstance had determined those faded letters marked my beginning, not ending. But I was out there, and I was free. That’s all I cared about.

“Okay, well, let’s get going,” Ben insisted, attempting to coax me down the trail like a winged killdeer. “The weather really sucks up here.”

I turned around to follow. Walking south, I looked behind me one last time before the sign faded into the blowing mist. I’d walked into my daydream. 



Day 1

Trail Mile 5


My body felt like it had been thrown off of Mount Katahdin— so swollen and tender, every joint and tendon. I couldn’t tell if I’d slept or not. Stretching from inside the relative comfort of my down sleeping bag, I peered over at Ben. He shuffled inside his bag, shifting chaotically, almost defiantly, as if under a magnifying glass. He sighed, unable to find a comfortable resting place.

“What time is it?” I asked. A digital beep lit the tent with a faint blue tint.

“Quarter to four.”

I sighed at the thought and listened while so many expectation-shattering patters of rain rolled off the tent’s rainfly.

Rubbing my eyes, I considered the series of events that would have to occur before we could begin our first full day of hiking. First, I’d have to put on my clothes from the day before. They were wet and had filtered a perspiratory sheen I hadn’t produced domestically since before I’d left for the Iraq desert two years prior.

I would have to start with the socks, wringing them by hand before sliding them onto swollen feet, then the pants and shirt, followed by boots and rain gear. We would have to cook oatmeal inside the tent, but first, we’d have to traipse through the dark woods in search of our bear bag—assuming it had remained suspended above the forest floor and not become lodged in the digestive tract of a contented black bear.

Then, assuming we could complete those tasks, we’d have to pack our backpacks with all our wet gear, jamming the soaked tent into its stuff sack; our equipment had sopped up at least an extra pound of water that we’d carry for the rest of the day. On top of that, I didn’t know what direction we would have to hike to leave the park and enter the 100-Mile Wilderness.

I closed my eyes at the thought, though it all seemed domestic compared to my time in Iraq. A couple more hours of rest would help everything. The world dropped away as I drifted into a sort of half-sleep, pushing the day’s worries out of my mind.

“Alright,” Ben said, louder than necessary, as he sat upright in his bag. “Might as well start the day.” He unzipped his side of the tent. Cold water splashed onto my face.

“Can’t sleep for shit, and you’re already awake.” Son of a bitch. His tone registered like a shot across the bow. I rolled over in an act of nonviolent resistance.

Sliding out of his sleeping bag, he began putting on his cold, wet socks. “Wake up,” he said, nudging my shoulder.

Definitely a shot. Perhaps I’d misjudged his potential as a hiking partner when I told myself that we would have fun together. Maybe our five-year separation had irrevocably split us apart. Perhaps we weren’t as similar as I’d always imagined.

He might come around, I reasoned, pulling myself out of my sleeping bag and fumbling around the tent in search of my headlamp. “Can I borrow your headlamp?” I asked, too groggy to find my own.

“I’m using mine right now. You should have slept with it around your neck. Worked for me,” he said, tying his boots. Ben’s snarky reply, I imagined, was his way of getting back at me for having blindsided him with the physical toll required to hike up and down Mount Katahdin. I had forgotten to factor the 8,000- foot-elevation change into my verbal estimate of the effort required for our first day’s hike.

Okay, I told myself, my thoughts congealing firmer by the second: We would hike the trail. We would make it work. We’d start fresh.


Day 1

Trail Mile 17

“Let’s take a break at these boulders,” I called out, prompting Ben to drop his pack on the ground with the immediacy of a shift worker clocking out at the local lead smelter. Everything felt out of sorts, the contents of my life relegated to an eighty-five-liter backpack. I’d lived bare bones in Iraq, but never to such a degree. I felt as if I’d embarked on an alternate adventure, not the sun- bathed laugh-fest I had imagined. Survival had become a real consideration. The straps from my Osprey pack dug deep into my shoulders under the weight of its contents. Forty-three pounds of gear and food made walking on the relatively level riparian lowlands an arduous task. I never imagined backpacking could be so difficult or uncomfortable.

“Wooowwwww,” Ben said with the exaggerated pronunciation of a patronizing elder, his intonation deadpan, “backpacking is amazing. We’re going to have sooooo much fun out here.” He inhaled greedy gulps of air. His sides heaved, ejecting carbon dioxide and sequestering oxygen in a rushed and rhythmic succession. “The goddamn mosquitoes are going to send me to the loony bin.” He flailed a hand in front of his face at the persistent hum of vampiric life. “Nothing, nothing, was worse than putting on those cold-ass socks this morning.”

I sat down and looked at the forest around me, letting my big brother blow off steam. Thick moss covered the forest floor like a soft green blanket. Hikers had carved a deep anthropogenic scar into the landscape, the muddy trail exposing rocks and roots. Generations of hikers, some just out for a couple of weeks, others for half a year or more, had contributed to its unsightly curvature, which seemed to be the quintessence of physics’ observer effect: our attempt to observe the natural world had altered the very system whose beauty we wished to admire, but the Baxter State Park wilderness was far from tamed.

Rain fell from the low-hanging clouds, not aggressively, but persistently in a way that communicated an unfortunate climatic resolve. Overhead, water dripped from needles and branch bows, beginning its steady, downward march toward the ocean—a cyclical, Sisyphean journey each and every droplet had traveled repeatedly for millennia. The particular forest ecosystem felt foreign and alienating in the context of the moment, though not so unlike the northern forests of the Middle West that I’d loved so much as a child. I thought of the family trips that our parents had taken Ben and me on as kids. I followed my big brother to the end of the dock to watch him coax perch to the surface with the beam of his flashlight. I’d follow his lead as he rigged up his fishing pole, watching closely to see how deep he set his bobber. As these thoughts rushed at me, I began to feel the calming rhythm of nature around me, the soft patter of rain on the moist duff and breathing moss.

“Funny that the woods can be so tranquil while we’re struggling in our own little worlds.”

Ben didn’t acknowledge having heard me. I paused, mentally focusing on a bead of sweat as it fell from my shoulder blades down the curve of my spine, gathering momentum before getting lost in the void of my ass crack. We had at least one hundred miles to hike before there was any certainty of the civilized comfort of an actual town, any guarantee of dry clothing, and neither of us had any way to predict the upcoming weather. I took a breath, a deep clearing breath, and observed my body as each muscle relaxed.

“What are you expecting from this hike?” I asked after a long pause, curious about Ben’s attitude. In all the pre-hike planning, we’d never discussed this.

“Ah, well.” His head turned downward as he mindlessly massaged his right knee. I knew he was in pain even though he hid his quiet grimaces. “I didn’t really have any plans set up for after I got done with school, really. After three years I basically knew I didn’t want to do anything with my criminal justice degree, but I was too far along to change programs at that point. I didn’t care for my stint in the National Guard either. And, ah, well, you kept talking about the hike, so I figured I’d tag along.

“Then there’s Jill,” he continued after a reflective pause, perhaps uncomfortable with the silence in such an uncommon real moment between us. “We were having fun, for sure, and I’ve been thinking she’d be a good girl to marry. She’s hard working and loving, you know. If we can make it through this time apart, I might just have to ask someday soon.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, I think it will be a good test. But this hiking . . . I figured we’d just kinda hang out around campfires and eat beef jerky all the time. I didn’t ever really think about all this rain and cold, these bugs.”

“Well, we should only have another mile or mile and a half to the shelter.”

“Which is it?” Ben asked. “One or one and a half?”

“Shouldn’t matter.” I patted at the guidebook inside my pack. “We have to walk there regardless.” I hadn’t come to the trail to focus on such temporal minutia as tenths of miles. I wanted adventure, to fly by the seat of my pants, to get lost and meet strangers, to take detours and explore the out of the way treasures and mysteries the trail had to offer.

“Look it up,” Ben said. “I want to know how close we are.”

“I don’t want to get the book wet. We’ll just walk until we get there. We’re not in a rush, are we?”

“No, but it would be nice to know how far I have left because then I’ll have something to look forward to.”

“Well, the good thing about the trail is that if we’re heading south, we know that it will lead us to where we’re going. Maybe tomorrow we can try your approach.”

Ben kicked at the mud.

We sat in silence for several minutes, each of us thinking about our expectations for the hike. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew, dimly, that the trail was an unprecedented opportunity for growth. Ben adjusted the visor of his rain jacket’s hood, craning his neck backward, deep inside the protective shell like a pissed off turtle. Without a word, I stood up and put on my pack. A thin layer of fat on my stomach pushed up and over the waist strap as I cinched the buckle tight. Like starlings in flight, Ben mimicked my direction simultaneously, somberly and in silence. We continued on to Hurd Brook Lean-to.



Forward Operating Base Falcon

Baghdad, Iraq

April 2007

My experience of war was no different or somehow more tragic than the existence of any blue-collar shift worker. I set an alarm clock before bed, maybe hitting snooze a couple of times before rolling off of my cot in the morning. I’d get dressed in the work clothes I wore the day before, yawning as I tied my boots tight.

Early on, I carried out these morning routines in a tent housing fifty other soldiers. I’d dress in the three-foot section of personal space to the left of my cot, careful not to wake the soldier next to me. Like most working class, there was no joy or hopeful expectation for the day. An industrial air-conditioner the size of a car blasted chilled desert air into the space, pushing the plastic fabric of the tent walls outward like a balloon. A row of fluorescent lights flickered overhead 24 hours a day. Every few months leadership moved us around, first to an abandoned factory and then into modular dorm rooms.

I’d brush my teeth in the morning, looking forward to going back to bed at the end of my shift. Twelve-hour workdays, seven days a week for months on end could do that. With an assault rifle over my shoulder and a 30-round magazine in my back pocket, I’d step into the blistering sun ready to grab the day by the tail. The walk to the flight line followed a decrepit road cutting between old Iraqi buildings.

Forward Operating Base Falcon was like any town, really. The military mechanics set up shop in an old Iraqi warehouse on my left as I passed by a freshly constructed chapel. The sun-scorched and leathered mechanics stood around smoking French cigarettes as they waited for the next armored vehicle to wheeze into the garage. Some of them were on their fourth or fifth deployment. If they were smart, they stopped attempting a normal life back in the states. The seasoned vets had already been burned by a wife or two and swore them off completely. I knew more than one inexperienced soldier that watched in terror as a new bride drained their bank account dry each paycheck.

A few hundred yards to my north, the paper pushers and the high-ranking officers commandeered abandoned Iraqi office buildings where they’d installed desks, computer servers, and printers. Some even hung photos of their family on the wall. IT specialists in uniform kept things running. Somewhere further away and hidden, interrogation specialists performed their jobs, too. A makeshift prison hid out of sight, as well. Occasionally I’d walk past a returning patrol escorting a couple handcuffed Iraqis with burlap bags over their heads.

Soldiers buzzed around base performing their assigned tasks like so many sleep-deprived bees. Some moved pallets of bottled water around. They’d drop these near busy intersections where other soldiers were most likely to grab them while passing by. Others led foreign contractors around base, chaperoning and guiding these men in odd jobs like brush removal and building maintenance. Sometimes they’d install landscaping in front of some battalion headquarters, watering plants and pruning shrubs. Halliburton hired these Nepalese and Indian laborers for $400 a month, though they likely charged the American taxpayer twenty- times as much while things back home became increasingly desperate and dysfunctional.

The only difference between Forward Operating Base Falcon and your average American industrial park was the occasional mortar round dropping out of the sky that killed or maimed one of us. Rockets whizzed over the fortified brick walls like so many bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. The roaring, screaming, and whirring sounds eventually became routine, pedestrian even. After months on base, I’d learned to assess the pitch of incoming fire to predict its likelihood of falling near me. Most of the time I’d continue walking to work as if nothing were happening.

For most of us deployed in Iraq, there were no Rambo patrols or opportunities to punch Osama bin Laden in the face. Infantry and Cav Scouts called people like us POG’s, an acronym for “Pieces of Garbage.” They seemed embittered that we’d be able to claim the mystique of living in a combat zone without actually having kicked in any doors or fired any shots. These young men were used and abused more harshly by leadership, their traumas more primal, and their daily grind bleaker and consistently terrifying. I understood why they’d come to resent our version of war.

The unrelenting buzz and whir of helicopter traffic grew louder and louder as I approached the flight line and my work trailer. Apache helicopters shuffled troops from base to base; these pilots no more than glorified taxi drivers, and zipped in and out 24 hours a day. Checking in with the crew, I got spun up to date on the mission before taking place in one of three seats. Some days I flew the drone, others I operated the camera. But on this particular day, I’d serve as mission commander in the Tactical Operating Center. Briefly exchanging operational details with the current mission commander, I took a seat and studied the airspace map. A plane had just launched north of us and my crew needed to take control of it. Scanning the airspace chatroom for availability, I typed: “UAV16 requests 12FJ and 12FK at 5000 with clearance for climb above TAJI, transitioning through 13FJ at 5000.” Airspace requests over Baghdad flooded—unanswered— into the secured Air Traffic Control chat room. Hitting Enter, I waited for a response and started a sketch of the iconic AT symbol —the vertical pillar of a capital T extending downward from the horizontal beam of a capital A, forming a sort of upward pointing arrow—into my tattered notepad.

“Hey, ah, Hankes.” I heard crackle over my headset. “What altitude are you requesting? I need to load return home data.”

I pulled the mouthpiece close over my lips. “I’m going for five thousand. Just waiting to hear back from ATC.” James Jackson would be my unmanned aerial vehicle operator for the next twelve hours. He sat in the back of the air-conditioned Humvee, plugging data into the flight software, his freckled cheeks and gap-toothed grin picking up reflections from the four flickering computer monitors. Brandon, my best friend and camera operator for the night, sat to his right.

I occupied a folding chair behind a desk that held two computer monitors. Past the monitors sat a forty-two-inch flat- screen television that showed nothing but static, the Battle Captain studying the screen. He ran a sweaty palm over a black crewcut, bringing his hand down to rub a tight knot from his jaw.

The captain started to shuffle through the shift’s mission plans and without looking back asked, “UAV, when is the bird going to be on target?”

“Five minutes, sir. The bird is holding over Taji, just waiting for clearance from ATC. You’ll start seeing video as soon as we take control of the aircraft.” I shifted in my seat, trying to look busy, waiting for an airspace response. ATC had just granted clearance to two Apache helicopters and another UAV unit operating in Northern Baghdad.

“Tell that dick to mind his own fucking business, and tell ATC to hurry the fuck up,” I heard through my headset. I lowered the volume so none of the officers or high-ranking intelligence operators surrounding me could overhear.

“That’s not nice, Jackson,” my camera operator chimed in. “But, Hankes, seriously . . . tell that dick to mind his own fucking business.” Brandon and Jackson laughed, drowning out the hearing in my left ear. I scanned the room to make sure no one heard them. My makeshift desk sat in the back of the dome tent, facing the Battle Captain’s booth in the center of the circular structure. A desk sat directly in front of mine and two directly to my right—all manned by intelligence liaisons for the infantry and cav scout units operating within the Rashid District. Perpendicular to these two rows of desks, and on either side of the Battle Captain’s booth stood two long rows of desks manned by weathered and tired men in uniform with job titles like artillery liaison and communications equipment operator. Two rows of lights, lining the ceiling of the dome, cast a dim glow, even as the blinding Middle Eastern sun beat down on the dun-colored exterior. The smell of vinyl and windblown silt filled the air.

I fixated on the ATC chat room, ignoring everything else in the tent. A long list of entries popped into the chat-room window in a single block.

Nothing for me. I fidgeted in the plastic seat and glanced at the clock. But just then another list popped into the chat room window. I scanned the block of text:

“UAV16 CLEAR FOR 12FJ & 12FK AT 5K. CLEARED CLIMB AND TRANSITION IN 13FJ AT 5K.”

“Jackson, pick up secondary telemetry. We’re cleared.”

“Okay . . . just a sec . . . okay, got it. Tell ’em to drop primary.” “Prime dropped,” I affirmed, reading the confirmation off of

the Taji Launch and Recovery chat room. “Climb to five thousand feet when you get control. Head due south. We got 12FJ and FK.”

“Got it. Climbing.”

“UAV is en route, and video is up. Three minutes until we’re on target,” I called out to the Battle Captain. He looked up at the flat-screen television as the video flickered to life. “Brandon, prepare to copy.”

“Ready.”

“Grid 4-0-6-3-5 8-4-0-4-7.” I pronounced each number with a full and exaggerated enunciation.

The camera moved from its fixed focal point on the aircraft’s front landing gear to a far-off point obscured by suspended atmospheric dust. The grays and browns of the landscape, architecture, and air all blended into one diffuse glow. The image shifted from color to infrared, and the haze disappeared. Building edges morphed from fuzzy waves to crisp lines. The bright-white glow of Humvee engines came into view as Brandon focused the camera lens. The distant outlines of buildings and Humvees became more distinctive as the aircraft glided into position, 5,000 feet overhead and circling the convoy location.

“The mission plan just calls for support. Scan rooftops for snipers and the roadsides for IEDs—the usual.” I sat back and opened up a PowerPoint document on the computer monitor, preparing to copy screenshots and details of any firefights or casualties. Intel analysts and the brass liked to receive detailed reports of the missions, and I’d been in the country long enough to know that something worth reporting was inevitable. My work seemed a far cry from the action-packed shoot-’em-ups I had hoped for as a high schooler, but I couldn’t complain. Operating an unmanned aerial vehicle over Baghdad during the region’s most violent insurgence gave me a crystal-clear perspective into the reality of war that made me appreciate the job in aviation intelligence.

The image on the flat screen scanned over rooftops along the roadway. Suddenly a frail intel analyst burst into the dome shelter, letting in a disorienting flash of natural light. He walked directly to the Battle Captain and showed him a map.

“Jackson,” I whispered into the mouthpiece, “prepare to copy. I think we’re about to get redirected.”

The Battle Captain tore off a piece of paper and wrote something down as the analyst left the tent. “UAV!” he called out. “Prepare to copy . . . 4-0-8-9-6 8-4-3-3-5. 2-12 got hit by an IED. We need coverage.”

“Roger that, sir,” I responded. “Jackson, ready?”

“Yeah.”

I gave him the coordinates. “2-12 got hit by another IED . . .

those poor fucks. Christ, it was like three days ago that they lost a couple guys wasn’t it?”

“Alright. Yeah, two, three days. Brandon’s heading over there.” The camera zoomed out before rotating outward. I checked the map over my shoulder, relieved to see the location fell within our assigned airspace. “Goddamn,” Jackson whispered under his breath.

“What?” I was afraid something was wrong with the aircraft. “I like this pen. It fucking writes good.”

“Jesus, Jackson,” Brandon groaned. “Yeah, I can see ’em,

man” A Humvee lay upside down in a four-corner intersection, its burning tires pouring thick black smoke into the dry desert air. A blackened pit of smoldering earth betrayed the location where a combatant had buried an old artillery shell, wired for detonation. There was nothing Brandon, Jackson, or I could do but offer surveillance of rooftops while 2-12 regrouped and cleared the site.

Suddenly a screaming noise, mounting in intensity and rising in pitch, whistled downward through the sky. Before I had time to react, the men around me threw themselves on the ground.

“This is hostile fire, people! Take cover!” the Battle Captain called out.

A thunderous, but stifled clap shook my chest and rattled my lungs as the incoming mortar round tore into the dirt some twenty yards outside of the tent. Another screaming round tore the sky and fell toward us. Rattle. This time a bit closer. Another whistling, rising pitch. Rattle. A little further away now. Whistling, rising pitch. Rattle. Close this time. And again. Again. And again, like a hammer. And then, just as sudden, silence.

I ducked down in my seat but hadn’t completely thrown myself to the ground. I hadn’t yet seen what a mortar round could do to a soldier’s body to be appropriately terrified of noises and vibrations outside of the tent, and I knew that the UAV crew were the ones that had the best chance of fixing the situation.

“I need the point of origin,” I shouted into the silence. “What’s the point of origin? Get up! What’s the fucking point of origin?”

“Holy fuck,” Jackson blurted.

“What’s the point of origin?” Brandon asked, ready to track down the attackers.

“Is everyone all right?” called out the Battle Captain. He looked up from his position on the ground to see me sitting bolt upright in my seat.

The artillery liaison pulled himself up and peered at the tracking software. “Prepare to copy,” he ordered, kneeling beside his desk.

“Ready.” I relayed the grid coordinates to Brandon and Jackson.

The camera swung around to the edge of town. From this distant vantage, Brandon scanned for any cars speeding away from the scene. The communications specialist picked up a mic and requested immediate Apache Helicopter support at the point of origin site. By the time the aircraft got in place and the Apaches arrived on site, there was no enemy activity at the location. Three black mortar tubes lay on the edge of an empty field, propped up by rocks and left abandoned by enemy combatants. 

About the author

N. B. Hankes is a combat veteran, scientist, writer, and modern Renaissance man, of sorts. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. view profile

Published on April 11, 2020

Published by

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

Reviewed by

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