DAWN – 10 November 2021
An ear-splintering explosion at the outer blast wall threw a cloud of dust high into the air. As it settled on the compound, four Kiwi soldiers slowly raised their heads. One peered cautiously out of the sandbagged firing slot past the MAG58 machine gun barrel.
“Jeez, boss. You timed that well! Thirty seconds later and you would have been outside for that one!” The gunner, Private Joe Te Whaiti, raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded in agreement as his gun crew commander helped the young officer to her feet.
Second Lieutenant Anna Stewart dusted herself off, trying to look calm. She was anything but. 10 Platoon, Delta Company – her platoon for all of six months – had only moved into this Forward Operating Base a week earlier as part of 2/1 Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment’s regional stabilisation role. Right now, she was just thankful that some Vietnamese sappers from the Engineer Regiment stationed nearby had built the protective measures before they arrived.
“Thanks Corporal. Might be a day to buy a Lotto ticket ay?” Anna said with an attempt at a smile. Adjusting the chinstrap on her U.N. blue helmet, she asked, “Did you see where that came from?”
“Think it was a drive-by boss,” Lance Corporal Ryan Wilson replied. “Got the primary at 1400 mils around 400 metres. It wasn’t running out of steam when it got here so they’ve got the improved ammo type.”
At that moment, the crew’s Section Commander appeared through the chicane of sandbags protecting the entrance to the post. “Gidday Ma’am. Everyone OK here?”
“Yes thanks, Corporal” Anna replied. “I need to go check the perimeter if you’ll excuse me,”
“No need. Sarge has already done it. Just one RPG. All good,” he advised.
“Log and report the contact. I’ll be in the CP.” Anna responded a bit testily as she pulled back the black-out curtain.
Once she was gone, he turned to the gun group. “What’s up with her?”
Ryan shrugged. “I think that shook her up more than she was letting on. You remember your first deployment, don’t you? Give her some time – she’ll be OK.”
The rest exchanged the same side-eye look and went back to their tasks.
As Anna walked into the command post, the signaller handed her the handset. “It’s Sunray for you.”
She nodded. “Morning Sir.”
“I hear you’ve had some excitement there.”
“Yep. One RPG. I think it’s just the local militia trying to piss us off – maybe goad us into shooting back at them.”
“Everyone OK?” the Company Commander continued.
“Yeah, no worries.”
“Great, stay safe.”
Anna nodded to no-one in particular as she handed the phone back to her sig.
Back in the Four One Alpha gun pit, Ryan tapped Joe on the arm. “OK, we’ve got the go. You and Boo dismount the gun and get it cleaned asap. I’ll watch the arcs.”
Upon hearing his name, Boo, the gun number two, sat up from his sleeping mat. He and Joe went quickly to work stripping the gun and cleaning it. They had been close friends since meeting on the bus to basic training. They teamed up on infantry corps training for the not-so-sought-after job of machine gun crew and were now the best in the battalion.
“Did you get to Skype with home last night?” Boo asked Joe.
“Yeah, until the connection dropped.”
“My missus wasn’t home. Midwife appointment. What’s been happening?”
“Getting worse by the sound of things. 1st Battalion is still doing security in Wellington protecting parliament and government buildings. 16 Field Regiment is doing the port, rail and airport,” Joe said with a worried look on his face and a voice to match. “Everything’s under curfew.”
“Jeez…not sure who’s got it worse. Hey Ryan. Do you reckon they’ll bring us back to help?” Boo asked.
“Unlikely. If this place turns to crap, Fortress Aotearoa ain’t gonna last long. You nearly done with that gun?”
“Well hurry it up. We’ve got vehicle movement to the north. Looks like a convoy of pickup trucks.” As he spoke, Ryan raised the binoculars and steadied them on top of his MARS-L rifle scope. He could hear the metallic snapping of parts as his crew quickly began reassembling the gun. He swung the boom mic up to his lips and thumbed the press-to-talk button. “Corp. We’ve got company. Due north at 1200 metres. Four white pickup trucks have just pulled off the highway into a copse of trees 100 metres east of DF CHUCKLES. Three have armed individuals in the back. One appears to be a technical but I can’t make out the weapon type – could be a 50 cal, over.”
“Roger. Any insignia, over?” the section commander replied.
“Wait.” Ryan raised the binos again, scanning from vehicle to vehicle. “A range of company logo on the sides but flags on the aerials are identical. Armadillo on a green and red background. There’s a guy checking us out through binos, over.”
“Boundary Riders militia. Your gun back up yet?”
At that moment, Joe gave Ryan a gentle shove with his shoulder to move him out of the firing bay. With practised ease, the tripod locking pins slid into place, top cover raised and a belt of 7.62mm ball/tracer mix was loaded. Joe settled in behind the gun and set the sights up while Boo tidied away the cleaning kit.
Ryan winked at Joe who was giving him his trademark ‘chur bro’ pursed lips salute. “All up and ready. Four One Alpha out.”
The next hour or so passed slowly with the entire platoon stood to, watching the militia group who were in turn watching them while drinking beer and cooking on portable stoves at the edge of the treeline.
“All callsigns, this is Four One Sunray. Stand down. Four One Alpha and Four One Charlie – gun sentries, Four One Bravo QRF – patrol orders to follow in one hour, over.” Anna’s radio broadcast was a welcome break in the tedium and a swift chain of acknowledgements followed. The group of militia vehicles had been seen packing up and moving away fifteen minutes earlier, travelling north up the deserted highway and out of sight.
10 Platoon settled into its day routine. The FOB straddled a solitary road which bisected the remaining buildings at one end of the small rural town of Delnoor. Like many others, it had once been a thriving community but the loss of jobs caused by the COVID-19-induced economic depression was quickly followed by civil disorder and lawlessness. Many of the younger, able-bodied citizens had been conscripted. Others joined gangs or militia. The remainder had retreated to the perceived safety of larger cities.
To ensure uninterrupted observation and fields of fire, most of the smaller buildings had been bulldozed by engineers in the weeks before the Kiwi troops had arrived. What remained was ringed with razor wire fences and heavily sandbagged. Huge concrete blocks forced any road traffic to slow to a crawl.
All eyes turned skyward toward the high-pitched whine of the approaching resupply drones. The three large white quadrotors with ‘U.N.’ painted on both sides landed one after another on the base’s conventional helipad, expertly guided in the final landing stage by the platoon signaller who was standing nearby with a hand-held control unit. As soon as the last set of motors had shut down, the platoon sergeant converged with his work party to dismount the payload pods and replace them with a second set containing outbound items. They took just a few minutes and the sergeant, once his team was clear, turned to the signaller with one index finger in the air rotating to indicate it was clear to launch. The sig spoke briefly into her boom mic as the 12 electric motors came to life. One at a time the drones lifted off and held position at 100 feet above the pad. Once all three were flying she flicked the slave/swarm toggle to ‘On’ and handed off control to an unseen pilot somewhere in Sector Southwest’s administration area.
Ryan pushed past the gun pit’s door curtain making his best impersonation of a computer inbox. “Bling! Joe Te Whaiti – you’ve got mail!” He grinned and handed Joe an envelope with the address handwritten in ink.
“Your Dad?” Boo asked.
“Yeah, he’s old school bro. Doesn’t like skype or email but happy to write a couple of letters a week to everyone,” Joe replied with a grin.
“Take five and read your letter. I’ll man the gun,” Ryan offered.
“Chur!” Joe responded as he headed for his stretcher, excitedly tearing at the flap of the envelope. After a couple of minutes of reading, Joe sat up quickly. “Woah! The old man’s back in uniform!”
Ryan looked quizzically over his shoulder; one eyebrow raised.
“How come?” Boo asked with an equally confused look.
“He says that the Government has brought in something called voluntary national service. They’re training people to serve in defence, police, civil defence and a whole heap of other agencies in return for student debt write-off or free courses after they do their three years. Everyone does a common basic then goes to their own service for specialist training. He’s one of hundreds of retired veterans that have been asked to run the boot camps. Intakes of 1,000 at every base and camp in the country. He’s dropped a rank and is a WO2 at Waiouru.”
Everyone was silent – trying to contemplate what such large-scale mobilisation really meant. Clearly the surge in peacekeeping operations worldwide wasn’t abating any time soon.
“Anything else, Joe?” Ryan inquired.
“Yeah man. All the Reserve battalions have been brought up to strength with recalled ex-regulars and they’re all being deployed into the Pacific to help with unrest there. Naval reservists are crewing the IPVs while the full-timers escort cargo ships. There’s some big meeting happening soon to set up something like NATO but in the Pacific. China’s involved but not the Yanks.”
Ryan sat quietly for a moment than turned to Joe. “Not surprised about the last bit. Once Trump withdrew from NATO, it was inevitable the deck was going to be re-shuffled. Joe, I realise that’s your private letter but we should have received that news through official channels. Do you mind sharing it with the boss and Sarge?”
“No problem,” Joe responded seemingly pleased that his Dad’s letter writing habit had proved useful way out here.
“Head over to the CP now then. Boo and I have got this,” Ryan said.
“Later,” Joe replied as he holstered his pistol and headed out of the pit clasping his letter in one hand.
“HELMET!” Ryan called out.
“Oops, sorry Corp,” Joe said sheepishly as he came back in, clipped it on and disappeared again.
Boo was behind the gun when the sound of shuffling feet and crying children drifted across the compound. He looked across his arcs but couldn’t see the source of the noise. Just as he was rousing the softly snoring Joe with a kick to the boots, his radio earpiece burst into life.
“All callsigns, this is Four One Sunray Minor. Stand to, Stand to. Four One Bravo to north gate, over.” The platoon sergeant’s calm authority projected clearly across the radio.
Ryan appeared at speed through the sandbag entrance, forgetting to duck the cross-beam that held up the overhead protection. At 6’4”, hitting his head was a routine event for the rangey ex-farmer from Marlborough. He’d been having a shower when the stand-to call came in and had run straight back to the gun pit in a towel and unlaced boots carrying his weapon, uniform and shower gear.
Joe grinned. “Should have had your helmet on bro. Might have saved your head from those unintended consequences you keep telling us about!”
Ryan swatted him with his wet towel and quickly dressed. “What have we got?”
“Mob of about a hundred just appeared from the west. Men, women and children. Looks like they’re in a pretty sorry state. Refugees would be my guess,” Joe explained.
“They’re heading for the gate,” Boo added.
“Lucky that Bravo’s patrol got back early then. Hard work getting a couple of Humvees through a flash mob in a chicane,” Ryan replied.
A moment later, the Platoon Commander and Sergeant appeared in view heading toward the north gate where the mob had assembled. Four One Bravo’s soldiers had taken up positions behind sandbags about fifty metres inside the gate.
“PLEASE MISS…PLEASE!” a plaintiff voice called out as Anna and the Sarge got closer. “We need food. We need medicine. The children need a doctor.”
Anna identified the man calling out. He looked exhausted but it was obvious from his clothing that, in another life he had been a man of standing.
“I’m sorry but we don’t have anything to help you with. You need to go to the refugee camp at Tahooma,” Anna called back to the man.
“We know you have these things. We saw the drones. We followed them here. Please Miss!”
“Go to Tahooma,” Anna replied more forcefully. A glass bottle hurtled over the fence and smashed by her feet. The crowd became agitated and started shaking the wire gates of the compound. The Platoon Sergeant grabbed Anna by the arm and forced her back behind the protection of the inner sandbag wall. A couple of young men started climbing the loose wire gate. The QRF Section Commander had seen this type of thing before and knew how quickly it would escalate. He didn’t wait for further orders.
“GRENADIER, LOAD CS,” he shouted out.
The grenadier responded with smooth precision as the grenade slipped into the launcher under his rifle barrel. “CS – READY.”
“No – DON’T,” Anna shouted but her voice was drowned out by the Sergeant booming “GAS-GAS-GAS.” Everyone reached for their masks which were on in seconds.
Four One Bravo’s Section Commander shouted once more before dropping his mask in place. “MOVE THEM BACK SMILER.”
There was a dull, hollow thunk as the first 40mm riot strength tear gas grenade arced the short distance to the base of the gate. The crowd started screaming and jostling in every direction. Children’s cries could be heard above the coughing and sounds of general panic. A second thunk outside the wire to the left-hand side of the group started their retreat but it was stopped when the crowd moved outside the gas drift zone. Moments later a third grenade landed between the crowd and the gate. With the wind blowing away from the base the dispersal effect kicked in and people walked or ran – spluttering, coughing and crying up the road to the north.
The platoon sergeant removed his mask and the rest of the troops followed suit. “Good work Sid,” he said as he passed the QRF Corporal and gave him a playful punch on the arm.
Anna was furious. She strode over to where the two were standing. “I want to see both of you in the CP – Now!” She didn’t wait for an answer and carried on to the old Post Office that contained the Platoon Command Post.
“Ryan…check this out.” Joe chucked a cracker biscuit at the section 2IC to wake him.
Ryan rolled off his cot and walked over to Joe.
“That militia convoy is back. Headed for the same stand of trees.”
“The refugees still there?”
Ryan picked up the binos and scanned the terrain through the haze of the afternoon sun. The militia vehicles had pulled up on the edge of the trees and men were dismounting. A minute went by and two shots rang out. Ryan quickly donned his headset. “Corp. Shots fired in the vicinity of DF CHUCKLES. Better get the boss here, over.”
“Roger, wait, out.”
In a flash, the Platoon and Section Commanders piled into the gun pit. “In front of the trees where we saw the refugees head to, Boss,” Ryan said handing Anna the binos.
Anna surveyed the scene unfolding before her in horror. Militiamen were rounding up the refugees, beating any that resisted with the butts of their weapons. One young man made a break and was shot in the back. She lowered the binos and looked at the two NCOs.
“What’s your call, Boss?” the Section Commander asked.
“This is a Chapter 7 operation. Our Rules of Engagement don’t allow us to fire unless we are being attacked or in defence of someone in our care,” Anna responded.
“Aren’t we here to keep the peace?” Ryan was visibly angry. “Those civilians have no chance.”
“I’ll go and call higher HQ. See if we can get the Battalion or Sector Quick Reaction Force to deal with the militia.” Anna turned and left.
“They should send a friggin’ field hospital too then,” Ryan fumed. You thinking what I’m thinking Corp?”
The Section Commander nodded with pursed lips, gave Ryan a pat on the shoulder and departed.
“Boo. Get the target list. Lay on DF CHUCKLES. Go right 100, Up 50,” Ryan directed. The crew quickly sighted the gun onto his targetting instructions calling out “ON” when complete.
“Break the belt at 20.” Boo’s hand gripped and twisted the ammo leaving a short belt loaded in the gun.
“A single twenty round burst – Fire.”
Joe pressed down firmly. The MAG58 roared into life, its tracer rounds arcing before burning out just short of their target. The overhead burst had the desired effect with militia piling back into their trucks and driving away leaving the refugees lying flat on the ground, unsure what was going to happen next. The vehicle referred to as a ‘technical’ revealed its weaponry, and fired a few misdirected .50 calibre shells in the general direction of the FOB as it drove off to the north.
The noise of the machine gun firing had caused the whole base to stand to. Ryan was loudly berating his gun crew when the Lieutenant and Corporal arrived back at the gun pit. “Furthermore, you’re both on charge! Understood?”
“Yes Corporal,” the two gunners replied meekly, eyes downcast.
“What the frig happened?” Anna demanded.
“Accidental discharge, Boss. They were laying on DF CHUCKLES in case you wanted to support the QRF and the gun went off. I’ve reamed them out and put both on charge. Sorry, Ma’am. Won’t happen again.” Ryan looked genuinely sorry.
“What’s happening out front?”
“The militia took fright and drove off, Boss,” Ryan said a bit more cheerily.
Anna turned and left without saying another word.
The Platoon Sergeant fell into step with her as she strode across the street. “Ma’am, let’s go for a walk.” Without waiting for her reply, he took up an even pace down the road toward the south gate.
“What is it?” Anna demanded as she turned to follow.
The sergeant took a deep breath before continuing. “Ma’am, I can tell you’re struggling a bit.”
“What?” Anna sounded exasperated.
“It’s not a criticism. You’re a young officer with your first command and on your first deployment.”
“And because I’m female?” Anna countered wounded and annoyed.
The sergeant sighed. “Definitely not. Women have been commanding Kiwi troops in action since Bosnia. Look Ma’am – they know that you know your stuff but they don’t know you. There’s a wealth of experience in this platoon. They are trying to help you, believe it or not – we all are. Learn from them…and while you’re doing that show them a little bit of who Anna Stewart is; not just Second Lieutenant Stewart”
Anna remained silent for a while as they stopped walking and turned back to face the centre of the compound. “Thanks Sergeant. Anything else?”
The sergeant paused. “Yes. Show them you’ve got a bit of mongrel.” He smiled and Anna couldn’t help but do the same. This was a long way from OCS, she thought as they headed back to the CP.
The printer had just ejected a page when they entered and the signaller handed it straight to Anna who scanned it quickly. “This isn’t good,” she said.
“What is it, Boss?”
“The Green Zone is taking a hammering. The interim government is pulling much of its heavy assets back in to secure the approaches to the Capital.”
“Us?” the sergeant asked.
“No, have a read,” she said as she passed the SITREP to him. “But it does mean we’re not going to have much in the way of heavy assets or air support in this sector.”
They both looked silently at each other – contemplating the implications in the growing unrest.
The silence in the growing gloom of day was interrupted by a series of explosions in and around the compound. Everyone in the CP hit the deck. Outside, there was shouting and sounds of people running to their stand-to positions. Just as Anna peered cautiously out of the entrance an illumination round popped directly over the compound. It was followed immediately by the steady thud of a 50 cal gun. The rounds were thumping into buildings and sandbags as more 60mm high explosive mortar rounds fell, this time adjusted with deadly accuracy.
She heard someone yell “Medic” from the northern end of the base then her world went dark as she was blown backward into the CP.
“Boss – BOSS!. Can you hear me?” To Anna, it sounded like her father was calling her in to clean up for dinner. She opened her eyes slowly, taking a while to focus on the concerned face of the sergeant kneeling over her.
“Hey sarge,” she acknowledged quietly while running checks on herself to see what damage had been done.
“You’re OK, Ma’am. The entrance wall did its job with the frag. You just copped a bit of blast.”
“What’s happening out there?” she asked quietly.
“The shooting has died back to some sporadic 50 cal rounds. The Quick Reaction Force are on their way – should be here in just under an hour,” the sergeant explained. “Ma’am – we have casualties.”
Anna’s face fell and she sat up quickly. “How bad?”
“Four WIA – one is Pri 1. No dust-off helos till dawn.”
“Where are they?” Anna asked forcing herself to her feet with a grimace.
“Jackson is Pri 3 – he’s in the stores area. I’m afraid the rest are all in Four One Alpha’s gunpit.”
“Get onto Company HQ and see if you can’t hurry the dust-off,” Anna directed to the signaller as she picked up her rifle and headed out of the CP toward the north gate and Four One Alpha oblivious to the occasional crack and thump of the militia 50 cal.
There was scarcely room to enter the gunpit. Ducking under the door beam she surveyed the carnage. LCpl Wilson was sitting to the right of the door with a shell dressing on his shoulder and arm in a sling looking pale. Joe was on the other side of the gun. Another soldier was finishing applying a dressing over his eye and scalp. The Section Commander was working frantically on Boo who was motionless on the cot. Anna looked around. The gun had obviously taken a direct hit from the 50 cal and was a bent, twisted wreck hanging limply on its tripod. Blood and bits of twisted metal were all over the sandbags on the inside of the pit. She felt the bile rise and swallowed quickly.
Just then, the section commander swore softly to himself then put his head down for a moment.
“Corporal. What’s wrong?”
“We’ve lost him, Boss. Boo’s gone.” He removed the IV from Boo’s arm, stood then turned away briefly before starting to pack up the medical kit and empty plasma bags.
“Shit,” Anna exclaimed as she moved over to where her fallen soldier lay and placed her hand on his forehead. “Boo, you picked a hell of a time…”
“Hemi, Boss. His name is Hemi. Hemi John McDonald. He was going to be a Dad soon.” Joe’s voice was quiet but resolute.
“How did he get his nickname, Joe?” she asked.
“Best stalker ever. That’s what he would say after he’d snuck up and pretended to kill you,” Joe added with obvious pride in his friend.
Anna felt the tears start and didn’t try to conceal them. They streamed down leaving streaks through the dust and dirt on her face. There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere in the pit. Finally, she rose and wiped a dirty sleeve across her face. “I need to check the other posts. I’ll have the sergeant up here soon to help you both down to the stores building and then clean up in here. Corporal, you’ll take care of Hemi?”
“Sure boss. Keep safe out there,” the Section Commander replied as she headed out the door where a tattered blackout curtain hung limply.
Anna had just finished her circuit of the remaining soldiers and their posts when the sound of large engines approaching caught her attention. She was instantly on high alert. There was substantial damage to the FOB’s defences and another attack right now would be ugly. Her relief was palpable as she saw the first of a platoon of Stryker armoured vehicles roll up to the gate. UN flags flew from one antenna on each of the eight-wheeled infantry fighting vehicles. On the second antenna was an Iraqi flag. The Sector QRF had arrived.
The vehicles quickly deployed in a defensive cordon a few hundred metres outside the compound. Their heavy machine guns and grenade launchers tracked the turret as crew commanders scanned the fading horizon with their powerful optics.
Two soldiers opened the wire gate allowing the command vehicle to enter. The sergeant walked over to join Anna on the road outside the CP.
“Masa’ alkhayr sadiqi alqadim,” A voice boomed from the turret, before the Iraqi officer jumped nimbly down to the ground and raced over to the platoon sergeant with his arms outstretched.
“Haidar! Is that you? Masa’ alnoor to you old friend!” the sergeant replied.
Anna was taken back as the two men kissed on both cheeks, hugged and repeatedly slapped each other on the back. Finally, they stood back, arms on each other’s shoulder and looked at each other intently. “A Captain now, Haidar. Congratulations.”
“And you must be the oldest sergeant in your army, my friend!” Haidar laughed. But you will always be the best sergeant, just as you were when you taught me everything at Taji all those years ago.”
“You were a natural, Haidar. Come and meet my boss.” The sergeant led Haidar a few steps. “This is Second Lieutenant Anna Stewart. Boss, meet Captain Haidar Al Khouri.”
Before Anna could say anything, Haidar had braced up and delivered a crisp salute. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Stewart.”
She briefly returned the salute out of courtesy knowing it wasn’t tactically smart to indicate who is an officer when the enemy is watching. “Alsalam ealaykum. Please call me Anna.”
“Oh ho! You speak some Arabic – kowayes! Kayf halikm? And you call me Haidar. Hopefully the sergeant won’t tell you my academy nickname when my back is turned,” he said smiling. “Now, let’s go into the CP and talk about your militia problem.”
Anna led the way inside.
Haidar was conducting his orders group in the rear of the Stryker and Anna was working through a pile of reports and logs in the CP when the printer suddenly burst into life. The signaller came running into the CP, saw the printer going and let out a delighted ‘YESSS!”
“What’s that all about?” Anna inquired.
“The mortars took out the digital antenna, Boss. We’ve been running on HF and VHF only but I’ve just rigged up a workable solution. That’s all the spooled data coming in now.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Figured you had enough to worry about, boss,” the sig replied a little sheepishly.
“Well done, anyway,” Anna said with a nod and a smile as the sig started leafing through the growing pile of documents.
A few moments passed before she stopped and passed a sheet to Anna. “You should read this, boss. Latest update from New Zealand.”
Anna scanned the SITREP, her eyebrows raising as she went. Food riots in Auckland. Angry mobs raiding supermarkets and warehouses across the country. Unemployment at 30% and rising. Inflation and black-market activities skyrocketing. Worst of all were reports of a new strain and a third wave of the COVID-19 virus that had hit the country. It had been brought in, it would seem, by NRL players and their families given special dispensation by the Government to play in Australian-based competitions. So much for the ANZAC bubble, Anna thought.
The radio interrupted her thoughts. “Boss – it’s SUNRAY for you,” the sig said as she passed Anna the handset.
“Anna. We’re all gutted to hear the news. How are your troops holding up?” the Delta Company commander inquired.
“Not too bad all things considered. The Iraqi QRF are about to head out and sort out the militia group we assume attacked us.”
“OK, well listen carefully. The UN Force Commander has declared that platoon and company level bases are to be closed and that the stabilisation force must operate from Battalion or larger-sized bases. We’re pulling out Anna. There’ll be a LAV section at your location just after first light tomorrow. They will take your platoon plus your Humvees directly to Kiwi Base. I’ll see you there.”
Anna was lost for words.
“OK Sir. Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
“Four Zero Out.”
The Platoon sergeant entered the CP just as Anna finished the call with the OC. She looked contemplatively at him. “Sergeant. We’ve just been told we’re to withdraw from here back to Kiwi Base at first light. I need you to prepare the platoon.”
“No problem boss. Anything else?”
“Yes. Do you think you could convince your friend Captain Haidar to let us go out with him tonight? I’ll need all three Humvees and Corporal Davies’ section.”
“What have you got in mind?”
“I want to bring those refugees in from the trees. When we leave, they can move into the compound. It will give them some protection until the situation improves. I just need the Strykers to provide security until we are clear.”
The sergeant grinned and nodded. “Give me five, boss.” He headed out of the CP toward Haidar’s IFV leaving Anna to plan her next steps.
Twenty minutes later, Anna was buckled in to the front passenger seat of the lead Humvee as it led her patrol out the gates behind Haidar’s Stryker. The rest of his vehicles swung effortlessly into a spearhead formation around him spreading wide across the hard, dry terrain with the Kiwi vehicles tucked protectively in the centre behind the leading IFVs. It took little time to cross the 1200 metres or so to the stand of trees where the refugees had last been seen. The vehicles came to a halt a hundred metres out and turrets turned defensively outward.
“Anna – our FLIR shows they are still there. How do you want to play this, over?” Haidar asked across the command net.
“I will go alone. Can you light me up, over?” Anna replied.
“Sure. You be safe, Anna, over.”
“Shukran Haidar.” Anna stepped out of her vehicle leaving her rifle in its rack.
“Boss, you sure about this?” the Section Commander asked with a worried look on his face.
“Never been surer, Corporal. Back soon,” Anna replied with a grin. She walked off toward the trees. Once clear of the leading vehicles she was illuminated from behind by the powerful Stryker floodlights. She raised her hands above her head and walked on looking to the refugees, no doubt, like some eerie creature from a B-grade movie in camo, boots and UN helmet.
At the edge of the trees, Anna stopped and called out to the refugees. There was no response. She called again. This time a single voice called back. A man emerged cautiously from the undergrowth; his hand raised to shield his eyes from the intense beams. “Kill the white light,” Anna spoke softly into her radio.
The lights cut out and the vehicle crews switched to night vision equipment to watch as the man came closer to Anna. They shook hands and spoke briefly before he gestured toward the trees. Anna went with him and disappeared from sight appearing only as one of many glowing shapes showing on the infra-red optics.
“How long should we give her Corp?” the gunner asked from the top of the Humvee.
After what seemed an eternity, Anna emerged with a half-dozen refugees. “We have several walking wounded” she said into her radio. “Bring the Humvees forward – slowly. These people are very scared. Haidar, can you spare a vehicle and dismounts to help us?”
“Of course,” Haidar replied instantly. Moments later a Stryker moved out of its position in the cordon and rolled up next to Anna and her vehicles. The ramp lowered and eight Iraqi soldiers debussed. The next thirty minutes was all activity with casualties loaded into vehicles and ferried back to the FOB. Finally, it was time to make the walk back. Anna, her soldiers and the Iraqis formed a protective cordon around the group as they made their way slowly down the highway to the relative safety of the compound. Once on the way, Haidar’s vehicles leapt forward into the darkness in search of the militia group that had caused so much mayhem for troops and civilians alike.
While this was underway, the platoon sergeant had been preparing for the refugees’ reception. The wounded civilians had been brought inside the base and were being tended to by soldiers in a makeshift aid post in the town’s old Police Station. Outside the wire, every available hoochi, tent and tarpaulin had been turned into a temporary refugee area while ensuring that fields of fire weren’t impeded. Since they were leaving in a matter of hours, anything considered surplus was gathered up. Dry ration packs were broken down and handed out along with several plastic jerry cans of water and foil space blankets. Despite it being summer, the nights still got very cool.
The refugee leader, it turned out, had been a doctor before the troubles that followed the Great Covid-19 depression. As soon as he got his people settled for the night, he joined the soldiers at the aid station for the wounded.
11 November 2021 – 0030 Hrs
In the CP, Anna woke with a start from her five-minute power nap as the noise of the returning QRF filled the air. The vehicles wheeled smoothly into the familiar protective cordon a short distance from the fence and shut down once the gate had closed behind their Commander’s Stryker. Haidar and the sergeant were chatting as they entered the CP.
“Haidar! How did it go?” Anna asked, standing to shake off the grogginess from her nap.
“No good I’m afraid, Anna. We put two separate squad ambushes on the main road and hunted down the arterials further out. They must have gone to ground.” Haidar was clearly frustrated. “My men need to rest so we will stay here tonight if that’s OK with you.”
“Of course.” Before Anna could offer options, the sergeant cut in. “Spare cot in my room. Come with me.”
The two headed out the door, the conspiratorial chatting belying the twenty-plus years between them.
The white UN Super Puma helicopter settled smoothly onto the pad, ably marshalled by the platoon signaller. The crewman, dressed in a French Air Force flying suit jumped out and walked over to where the wounded were assembled for evacuation. Anna talked with the three of them and undertook to come and see them at the sector field hospital as soon as she was able. All conversation stopped as four soldiers appeared carrying a stretcher bearing a body bag. Everyone stood to attention as Hemi’s body was carried to the helo. Anna felt her lip tremble. Ryan leaned down and wrapped his good arm round Anna’s shoulders, taking her by surprise. “You’re doing fine, boss. Have a safe trip back,” he said quietly before turning and walking to the helo followed by the other two evacuees. Soldiers called out and waved above the noise of the turbine as they lifted off and disappeared toward the east.
The Iraqi QRF had said goodbye and headed back to their resupply area before first light, having offloaded as much food, water and other stores as they could spare for the refugees. Ten Platoon had worked tirelessly like the ‘Titans’ their callsign was known as. Since early morning all their gear for departure had been assembled and the refugees set up inside the compound where they would hopefully be a little safer. The tasks were close to complete when three LAV3s appeared at speed. They were flying UN flags as well as one with a white Kiwi on a black background. The compound was overflowing with people so they pulled up outside, turning to face outward. Ramps lowered and the vehicles shut down.
“Sergeant Boof Scanlon, Ma’am. I’m your ride this morning,” the youthful-looking armoured corps section commander announced to Anna as they shook hands. “And here’s Grandad, right on cue,” he added with a smile as he shook hands enthusiastically with the platoon sergeant who had just walked over.
Anna’s sergeant laughed. “Still a boof-head I see. Let’s get this all loaded up and get going ay? I’ve got a hot date with the hairdresser back at Kiwi Base.”
“What hair? Never mind,” he chuckled. “Sure. My crews will show your guys where to put everything.”
Anna interjected. “The three of us need to go to the CP and talk through the trip.” The two senior NCOs nodded and they all walked back together as the soldiers started loading up. “Did you hear about the Aussies?” Boof asked.
“No, what’s happening?” Anna inquired.
“They’re pulling out. I was talking to one of their crew commanders from 1 Armoured Regiment last night.”
“Out of the sector?”
“No. Out of the Stabilisation Force. They’ve got big problems with boat people in the north making land and setting up camps. Since the US Marines pulled out of Darwin, they’re just too thin on the ground.”
“Jeez!” the platoon sergeant exclaimed. “This force is getting smaller by the day and the problems are getting bigger.”
After going through the plan for exfil, it was time to go. Anna said her goodbyes to the refugees who thanked her repeatedly for her kindness. She assured them that she would contact UNHCR to get trucks to move them to a properly protected camp. The convoy of three Humvees and three LAVs formed up and headed down the main highway before turning East on the secondary route to KIWI BASE.
They had travelled only a few miles when Boof came on the radio. “Four One this is Tango Alpha Three Two, over.”
“Four One Sunray, over.”
“We have a sighting – at least four vehicles travelling toward your old FOB, over.”
“All Callsigns – This is Four One. Halt.”
The six vehicles came to a sudden stop throwing clouds of dust up in the process. Anna leapt out of her Humvee and climbed on top, binos scanning in the direction they had just come. “Shit, that militia group is back and headed for the compound.”
“Hardly a fair fight Ma’am,” her sergeant said as he walked quickly up to her vehicle. “But not our fight I’m guessing?”
“We came here to make a difference, sergeant. Maybe not a big difference in the scheme of things but huge for that group of people. Besides, you mentioned something about mongrel?”
The sergeant grinned. “I’ll go talk to Boof. He’s not technically under our command.”
“OK. Make it quick,” Anna replied as she started jotting in her field notebook. The sergeant jogged back from the leading LAV a couple of minutes later, gave Anna a thumbs up and continued on to his Humvee.
“All Callsigns. This is Four One. Standby for quick attack orders.” Anna rattled through the orders as the vehicles moved off with increasing speed, changing direction and formation. Inside the LAVs, her soldiers readied their weapons and checked kit.
The Humvees headed straight for the compound in an attempt to head off the militia trucks before they could open fire on those inside. As per orders, the Humvee gunners opened fire well beyond effective range but designed to draw the militia’s attention with their tracer rounds. The ruse worked and the pickups turned toward the guns, their 50 cal starting a rhythmic thumping. The Humvees simultaneously fired their self-defensive smoke grenades and once the screen was established, stopped and changed direction.
The trucks barrelled on regardless, unaware of the risk they were taking as they entered the thick smoke screen. It was then that the LAV’s 25mm Bushmaster chain guns opened up from the flank. Using their advanced optics, the smoke was no barrier to their gunnery and the Humvee’s were now safely out of the field of fire. Two of the four pickups burst out of the smoke and a third rolled out but was clearly damaged. As the smoke cleared, the wreck of the fourth militia truck came into view, its occupants strewn around on the ground, some moaning in pain. A short burst from Anna’s turret close to the damaged truck convinced the occupants to surrender. They threw their weapons down and lay on the ground, arms above their heads.
Meanwhile, the two remaining trucks, one of which contained the 50 cal hurtled toward the treeline in a desperate attempt at escape. The plan was quickly scuttled as a phalanx of Strykers rolled forward from concealment and advanced on the pair, UN and Iraqi flags proudly streaming from their aerials. The gunner of the 50 cal foolishly let loose a couple of rounds and that vehicle erupted under the multiple impacts of the Stryker’s main armaments. The remaining vehicle stopped and the militiamen who were able to surrendered. Anna looked around and saw a sea of faces pressed up against the wire of the compound and even above the din of all the vehicles she heard the cheer go up.
“All callsigns, this is Four One. Marry up at the trees.”
The Kiwi vehicles arrived to find Haidar’s troops policing the battlefield, treating the wounded militia and processing prisoners.
“Haidar! I don’t remember calling for the QRF,” Anna called out cheerily.
“Ha! At the academy, I was told by a wily and wise sergeant to always think like the enemy. I thought they might be back so we left in the dark and waited.”
“Much appreciated,” Anna replied.
“Anna, we can take care of all this. You should get going back to your base. I’ve called for UN Military Police to come out and get the prisoners already.” Haidar said.
“Thanks again. We owe you one. After the troubles, come to New Zealand. I’ve heard you like our ice cream,” Anna responded while winking at the sergeant.
“I will. And Anna – my report will say that your callsigns came to the aid of the QRF which was decisively engaged with a strong militia group. I hope yours will be similar!” he said with a smile and a flourish.
Anna just nodded. Her sergeant and his wily, wise former student hugged for a final time and the Kiwis left.
“About an hour to go sarge,” the voice from the back of the cab said.
“Thanks.” He’d been dozing off but had woken instantly when spoken to. His eyelids started to lower again when the same voice said, “Hey do you reckon it’s time the boss had a nickname sarge? Maybe something like Annie Oakley since she likes going to guns and all?”
“Nah, something more mongrel, I reckon,” the Lance Corporal behind the wheel countered.
A loud snore from the sergeant put an end to the discussion – for the time being.
The column of vehicles rounded a bend, slowed then stopped which woke Anna from an exhausted sleep. They entered the chicane that ended in hydraulic truck stops. Once the sentries had checked their paperwork, the barriers lowered and they crawled forward. Anna looked up from under the Humvee roof. She felt relieved to see the UN and New Zealand flags as well as the black and white unit flag with the Roman numerals II/I flying above a large wooden sign – Welcome to KIWI Base TEXAS. Sector South West. United Nations Regional Stabilisation Force – United States of America.
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