Women At War

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Other Iraqis were walking and driving along the main road that led out of Fallujah toward the crash site. Brown and Sumner were unaware that the crash had attracted a growing number of spectators, until the A-10 pilot warned them about the mob now surrounding their aircraft. Vehicles had also started to arrive. Be on your guard, warned the pilot. 

Brown and Sumner sprinted from one spot to another, angling for a better  position, covering one another with their 9mm pistols as they moved. 

Then they started to hear gunfire, lots of it.

Brown looked at Sumner and both erupted in gales of nervous laughter. 

“Jeff, tell me that’s our fifty-cal cooking off from the heat of the aircraft on fire.”

He looked at her but did not say anything.

“Is it or isn’t it?” she asked, giggling. “Are they shooting in the air?”

They were accustomed to seeing Iraqis fire their munitions into the air as a sort of celebratory fire. Or, it could be Iraqis shooting at them or their rescuers.

“Tell me it is,” she said.

“Yeah it is,” he said, but neither knew, not being able to see the helicopter from their position. Still laughing, they joked about whether the Army would send them home because they had been through the trauma of being shot down.

Just then, Sumner and Brown looked up to see a young boy with a bike staring down at them. They decided to let him go, knowing that he would probably reveal their position. In the meantime, trucks had converged on the site of the downed helicopter and honked their horns in celebration. 

They could wait no longer and both raced up the hill. Fortunately, the Iraqis were walking away from the pilots and didn’t see them. The pair ran across the street and down into a patch of 12-foot grass along the Euphrates River, now so well hidden that their sister ship lost track of them. 

Sumner pulled out a two-by-two-foot fluorescent orange panel that he had purchased and tucked in his survival vest for this very situation. He laid it out and when Wallace and Teeden flew overhead, they spotted it.

“I GOT HIM! I GOT HIM!” Wallace shouted to his co-pilot.

He pointed to Sumner so the pilots on the ground would know they had been spotted.

Moments after the crash, a quick force was mobilized. When ground elements arrived, they secured the aircraft and got rid of the crowds. Wallace and Teeden found a safe location for two Black Hawks to land and pick up the pilots. With an A-10 providing security, as well as three Kiowas now on the scene and one incoming, the Black Hawks landed with a security force from Brown’s company. Teeden’s aircraft was running out of gas but he refused to leave until he saw his friends board a Black Hawk.

When the Black Hawks landed, a dozen soldiers poured out of each helicopter and formed a circle around the aircraft. After what felt like a long time, Brown and Sumner began to worry that their rescuers couldn’t find them. Their training told them to sit on their knees and wait for rescue, because moving from their position might expose them to hostile forces. 

But Brown and Sumner decided to move anyway and ran up to the ridgeline. The soldiers fanned out, facing away from the Black Hawks and carrying M4s, automatic weapons, and grenade launchers. A soldier found the pilots and pulled them into the circle, which then closed back in on the aircraft. Within four minutes of touching down, the Black Hawks had taken off with the downed pilots safely aboard. 

Aboard the Black Hawk, Brown kept slapping Sumner on the leg, proud that they had remained calm and rational. As soon as they reached the airfield, the pilots were taken to the first aid station, checked over, and then debriefed. It wasn’t until Brown sat down in the station that she realized she was bruised from hitting the dash. But what startled Brown the most was that the entire ordeal had transpired between 2:10 pm when they were hit and 3:30 pm, when the Black Hawk brought them back. She felt like she had been on the ground for four or five hours. 

Several hours later, Brown called her parents in Texas. Nothing about her voice, tone, or attitude was different from any other conversation they’d had. 

“Dad, what’s up?”

“Hey Robin, it’s good to hear from you. What are you doing?” 

“I’m just calling to check on you, see what you’re doing.”

 “I’m getting ready to go to work,” he said. It was 6:45 am. in Texas. 

“Oh, working banker’s hours?” Robin had made fun of him ever since he’d joined the civilian world. She thought 6:45 a.m. was late.

“Cut that out. Why are you calling at this hour in the morning?”

“I have to tell you before you hear it someplace else. First of all, I’m okay and so is Jeff.”

“What?”

“Well, we got shot down today over Fallujah. We think it was an RPG.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Three hours.”

She wanted him to know she was okay before he saw a television news report about a downed chopper. Speechless, Mr. Brown looked over at his wife, Kathleen, who was still in bed and said, “Robin’s okay.” 

“What do you mean Robin’s okay?” asked his wife.

He handed the phone to Kathleen so she could talk to her daughter.

Her dad walked into the living room, turned on CNN, and saw a picture of Robin’s helicopter burning, looking like a piece of crumpled foil. The announcer reported that the condition of the crew was unknown. Robin’s call had saved them untold heartache.