Best Gift Ever
Thomas Calabrese …. As I lie on my deathbed within days or hours of my final demise, I can’t help but look back and wonder how much of this tale is actual fact and how much has been distorted by the gradual destruction of my brain cells from too many years of bad decisions and hard living. I guess all that I can really do is put it out there then leave the rest to the military historians to separate lore and legend from the truth so here goes.
It was December 23rd and the hangar deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise was festively decorated with anything the crew could find to convey the holiday spirit and my squadron members were in formation or as close to it as Navy personnel can get. Commander Ron Pickering has just received a shaving cream pie in the face as part of his birthday celebration which happened to fall two days before Christmas and the mood was lighthearted and playful.
I was a hotshot Navy aviator who transferred to my new unit with a fairly impressive record; I had been to Top Gun, had fifty combat missions and five confirmed kills and turned down a spot on the Blue Angels because I loved the rush of aerial combat too much. I had every intention of showing my fellow jet jockeys what real flying was all about and looking back I wonder how I ever closed the canopy on my fighter jet considering the size of my inflated ego and big head.
Ron approached me as he wiped the shaving cream from his face, “You’re my wingman, Lieutenant Commander Kelly…1700 hours.”
The carrier turned into the wind and Ron took off first followed by me and the rest of the squadron and we ascended to a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet and headed into enemy territory. As soon as we were over Libyan airspace the anti- aircraft fire began immediately and was followed by surface to air missiles. It was like trying to dodge swarming bees while wearing a dandelion tuxedo. Ron went into a series of aerial maneuvers that literally had the missiles running into each other and I thought I knew everything a Super Hornet was capable of doing, but on that evening I saw things that not only defied aeronautical logic, but my vivid imagination as well.
Suddenly I took a hit to my starboard engine and my warning lights illuminated my instrument panel like a decorated Christmas tree during a power surge which only seemed appropriate considering the time of year.
I radioed Commander Pickering about my predicament, “Viper, This is the Bones, I’m hit and declaring an emergency.”
“Can you return to the carrier?” Commander Pickering asked.
“If I haven’t used up all my luck buying winning lottery tickets,” I jested as I swallowed a mouthful of fear and proceeded into a one eighty degree banked turn when five Russian T-50’s came out of the crimson sun. My plane was in no condition for aggressive or evasive maneuvers and I was easy prey for my supersonic predators. The first thought that crossed my mind was did I have my personal effects in order.
Suddenly there he was flaming the T-50’s in rapid successions, four down and one so badly damaged that the enemy pilot lost any will to continue the dogfight. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the emblem on the fuselage of the plane as it dived past me.
I almost thought my powers of persuasion were going to convince my broken bird to make it back to the Enterprise, but alas it was not to be and I had no idea why thinking in proper English would make my death seem nobler. My aircraft went into catastrophic failure forcing me to land my F-18 Super Hornet in the Persian Gulf where I popped my canopy and was just about ready to jump into the water when a Navy Seal Team in their Zodiac boat pulled up alongside.
“We were passing by and thought you might be interested in a ride,” Master Chief and Team Leader Oscar Martinez asked, “Are you alright?”
It took me a few seconds to mentally inventory my body parts and regain my focus, “Yeah,” and accepted a helping hand into the Zodiac.
The six Navy Seals which included; Martinez, Cuneo, Gibbs, Shalako, Jeremiah and Lucas whispered among themselves before Master Chief Oscar Martinez turned back to me, ‘We’re on a mission, but we can abort it and return you to your ship or you can come with us and we’ll get you back when it’s done, it’s your call.”
Hell, I thought to myself, I wasn’t going to abort two missions on the same day, “I can wait.”
The Zodiac raced to shore and when we got there, the Navy Seals gave me a HK -416 rifle and two bandoliers with ten magazines and off we went on a three click hump to the target. Along the way, Master Chief Oscar Martinez briefed me on the Navy Seals mission, they been assigned to terminate Mosama Bin Yasim, a high value terrorist target who was responsible for the beheadings of a dozen villagers and one American journalist and was a scourge of the region. The Navy Seal Team set up in a bombed out structure about three hundred yards from Yasim’s compound and placed the Barrett Fifty Caliber sniper rifle in position and waited for Yasim to appear. We had been in the building for thirty six long boring hours when I suddenly remembered as I looked at my watch that it was midnight on Christmas Eve and if I was smart I’d be sound asleep in my rack on ship, dreaming about home or eagerly anticipating a five course Christmas dinner on the mess deck.
Master Chief Martinez passed the word, “If we don’t get a shot by zero seven hundred then we’re out of here.”
We got good news and bad news at zero six twenty, Yasim came out into the open and we had a kill shot, but the bad news was he was addressing a heavily armed force of a hundred ISIS fighters so if the Navy Seals terminated Yasim, we would have to fight their way out of the village with the odds fifteen to one against us.
Master Chief Oscar Martinez turned to Shalako the radioman, “See how long before we can get any air support,”
“Roger that,” Shalako replied.
“It looks like they’re ready to move out,” Cuneo observed, “If we’re going to take the shot, we better do it quick.”
“Eight minutes until air support,” Shalako interjected,
“I don’t know if we can hold them off that long,” Lucas said.
“Thumbs up or thumbs down, majority rules,” Master Chief Martinez suggested.
It was no big surprise that the entire Seal Team voted to take the shot so when it came to me, my thumb automatically went up, what the hell, peer pressure can be tough to resist.
Master Chief Martinez got behind the Barrett and sighted in as the rest of us got ready for what was to follow. Cuneo handed me a pair of binoculars and I watched Yasim’s head vaporize into a red cloud when the projectile made contact. We didn’t have long to wait before hell rained down on us once the terrorists ascertained where the shot came from and they unleashed everything they had in their arsenal at us..
Jeremiah smiled in enjoyment as he returned fire from his prone position, “So many targets…so little time.”
I found a position next to Master Chief Oscar Martinez and did my best to keep up with these seasoned veterans then heard a grimace and looked over and saw that the Master Chief had been hit in the upper arm and his shirt sleeve was turning red with blood.
“You’re wounded,” I commented.
“That’s not a wound, that’s a wardrobe stain, Master Chief Martinez replied calmly.
Once the ISIS fighters got the range, they began dropping mortars on our position and sections of the building began falling all around us. I saw the enemy fighters moving closer and knew two things for certain: in a matter of minutes we would be overrun and two, the Navy Seals would fight until their final breath. Somewhere inside my bone chilling fear; I found the strength to stand my ground with these heroic men. We were firing and reloading as fast as we could and our rifle barrels were searing hot and the ISIS fighters were falling everywhere I looked, but yet they kept coming.
Suddenly I heard a distinctive roar and when I looked up I saw an emblem that I recognized on the fuselage of an F-16 and it couldn’t have been flying more than fifty feet off the deck, its Vulcan twenty millimeter cannon singing a sweet song of rescue for us and a chorus of destruction to the ISIS fighters. In a matter of minutes the tattered remains of the enemy force was in total retreat and when we left our battered fortress, all that was left were bloodstains and dozens of dead bodies on the dirt road. We made our way back to the Zodiac and returned to the Navy Seal compound. Mission accomplished!
“You sure you don’t want to join us for Christmas dinner, I know we don’t eat like you flyboys, but it shouldn’t be half bad,” Master Chief Oscar Martinez offered.
“Appreciate the invite, but I better get back to my squadron before I get used to this kind of combat and I’m sure my heart couldn’t take it.”
“If you ever decide to work for a living, I might be able to find a place for you with the team, you’ve got some potential,” Master Chief Martinez joked.
I caught a chopper back to the carrier and when my squadron found out I was headed back, they waited to have Christmas Dinner even though it was late in the evening. The emblem on the parked jet was visible as I looked out the window of the hovering helicopter, the toothy grin of a snake with the words; Smiling Viper beneath, it was a heartwarming site. This was the plane of Commander Pickering, the man who saved my “six” twice in less than three days and he was the first to welcome me back with a big smile and a pat on the back, “Good to see you.”
“Thanks, wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for…” I stammered.
Viper quickly interrupted, knowing what I was going to say next, “Food is getting cold,” This was just another day at the office to Commander Pickering and it was at that moment that my inflated ego accepted the glaring reality on how far I was away from becoming a great pilot and even further from being a good man.
On every Christmas since that fateful day and even now as I approach my final one on earth, as others think about Santa Claus, reindeers and decorations during the holiday season, my thoughts drift back to Zodiac boats, fighter jets and snakes, not snakes in general, but just one in particular, the one that I affectionately call; The Smiling Christmas Viper