Friday, October 22, 2004

The value of being dressed for dress rehearsals

The Afghan government had been in negotiations with a senior Taliban leader, but talks had broken off, and the coalition made the decision - take him down. AC-130 gunships started the pre-dawn raid, targeting the towers at the corners of the outer wall to eliminate the heavy weapons - DSHKAs and ZSUs - that were reported to guard the compound. I rode in on the first assault helicopter, taking machine-gun fire from the ground as we swooped in towards the LZ. As the helicopter landed in the open field across the road from the heavily armed compound, I saw that the tower nearest the LZ was still standing - still a threat to us. The first man off of the chopper crumpled face first to the ground as he stepped into view of that tower. Raising my M-4, I leapt from the ramp and ran towards the compound . . .

How the following post will read in my autobiography

Dan, Jack and I were finally heading "home" to our A-camp in the southeast of the country after having been sent up to Asadabad for a little over a month. Notionally, we were there to support Operation Mountain Resolve, but since the premise of Mountain Resolve was that the best way to catch terrorists who were living within spitting distance of the Pakistani border was to spend four days flying a brigade's worth of artillery, vehicles and supplies in before beginning operations, there really wasn't a lot to support. It was an impressive four days, though, watching Chinook after Chinook fly in with a howitzer or HMMWV dangling under it. Apparently, no-one who planned this operation thought it would impress the bad guys into simply making the short trip to Pakistan until they saw Chinook after Chinook flying back out with equipment dangling underneath. Perhaps our intel people were counting on the efficiency and incorruptability of the Paki border guards to keep that from happening.

At least we were able to grab a chopper flight there and back. One of the teams tasked for Molehill Resolve had done a non-stop 26 hour vehicle convoy out of Bagram, through Kabul to Jalalabad and on into A'bad on some of the worst roads on the planet. It still shouldn't have taken 26 hours, but one of their trucks broke down about halfway and had to be towed, which reduced their progress to about 3 miles per hour. They felt like the only reason they didn't get ambushed was that the bad guys got bored waiting for them to get into the kill zone. ("Shah, are they coming?" "Yes, my friend, the Americans are heading for us" 30 minutes later "Shah, are they coming? "Yes, my friend, the Americans are heading for us" 1 hour later . . . Until finally the bad guys wander off disgusted as the US convoy is still inching its way down the road, stopping every so often to adjust the tow cable.) Travelling slower than the attention span of your enemy isn't taught as a counterambush technique, but maybe it should be.

We got into Bagram from A'bad and found out that we would be there for at least a week. The biggest problem with flying anywhere in Afghanistan was that moving around the country entailed catching a flight on one of the supply rings that visited most, but not all, of our bases once or twice a week. We had just missed the flight back out to our base, so we were stuck. We made our way over to the German compound (so called because the German Special Operations Forces had stayed there when they were in-country) to find a place to hide out for a week instead of becoming REMF targets in the main SOF compound nearby.

As we were unloading our stuff, we ran into Donnie, one of the team leaders from our company. We talked a little while about why we were in Bagram, and he told us that his team was part of an assault on a senior Taliban commander's compound, and if we weren't doing anything, he could really use some more people . . . It wasn't a hard choice between making a combat air assault right into a bad guy's compound or sitting around in Bagram doing nothing for a week, so we pretty quickly found ourselves assigned to the mission. The next day, we flew from Bagram to Kandahar by C-130 - Task Force 160 was providing the choppers for the assault, and they were in Kandahar. It was easier for us to go to the choppers than to bring the choppers to us.

In Kandahar, we went through the typical planning and rehearsal for a large scale mission like this. Most of the missions that we did in Afghanistan were pretty ad-hoc, but this particular bad guy was supposed to have heavy weapons, a militia of 70-80 guys and a brother in law in a compound about a klick (km) away with more bad guys and a no-shit working tank. So, we were taking all the planning pretty seriously. As it shook out, I found myself on one of the teams that would control the perimeter of the compound while the rest of us went in to clear it. My team's job was to move through an orchard along one wall of the compound to the main gate and keep anyone from leaving that way until the team inside moved past it. At that point, we would pick up and move to the far corner and keep an eye on both walls, and on the nearby compounds.
Since we were closest to the compound which supposedly had the tank, we had taken along a Carl Gustav (a kind of reloadable bazooka or anti-tank gun.) Craig, the biggest guy on our team, was naturally carrying the Carl Gustav - since I was the smallest guy on the team, it naturally made sense for me to carry all of the spare ammo. That meant that while everybody else was carrying belt kit or a small daypack, I had a full blown ALICE large army rucksack crammed with Gustav rounds to haul around on this event.

We didn't want to depend on radios to let the inside guys know when we were in position - and we didn't want to shoot each other over the walls because we each thought the other element were bad guys. So, we planned to use chemlights (glowsticks, for you rave fans) to let us know where the other team was. When the inside team cleared the main gate, they would throw a bundle of blue chemlights over to let us know they were in position. That was our signal to cross the gate and move to the corner, where we would throw a bundle of green chemlights over the wall to let them know that we had control of the outer perimeter.

Earlier, an SF team in Kandahar had built a Hesco perimeter just outside the main US compound. That was a nice secluded spot, with a huge expanse of flat ground to practice on, so we did our rehearsals and weapons test firing there. To keep any of the Afghanis from recognizing the layout of the compound we were planning to hit, every rehearsal, we would mark out the compound layout with engineer tape and stakes, practice the assault, and take the tape back up. We even did a practice assault with the helicopters, so we had a pretty good idea of how things were supposed to go.

What we didn't have a clue about is what the ground looked like. The night of the assault, we boarded the choppers about 2am and took off to the north. The flight was about 30 minutes longer than we expected - we found out why later - but we finally got to the objective and started off the assault. When we hit the LZ, the towers that were supposed to be down were still standing - and as Scott stepped off of the rear ramp of the Chinook, he went down face first. Since the towers were still up, we naturally assumed the worst - until he started struggling to his feet and moving off towards the compound. As soon as I stepped off of the ramp, I understood why he had fallen - the ground on the LZ was rough and broken, and staggering around under the weight of equipment and the rotor wash from the Chinook made tripping and falling almost inevitable. Worse, both sides of the road running beside the compound were bordered with 2' high mud "fences" and on the far side of the far fence was a 3' deep irrigation ditch. So, my first combat charge ended up being more of a combat clamber as I made my way over walls and through ditches towards the compound while carrying the Gustav ammo.
We got to the first point outside the main gate and set in, keeping an eye on the walls. In a matter of minutes, the blue chemlight came through the gate, and we moved off to our final objective at the corner. I dropped the rucksack full of ammo and moved to the wall to throw our chemlights over, signalling that we were in position. That's when I realized that I had miscalculated - our intel was that the walls were 10'-15' high; these walls were more like 20'-25' up there, and, while we had rehearsed this little ballet over and over - a quick dash into the open, throw the bundle, and then run back to cover - I had never done it wearing body armor and full kit. I ran out to the side of the wall, threw the chemlight bundle as well as I could with the body armor binding my shoulder- and watched them bounce off of the wall. I picked them up and threw them again - almost: they caught the edge of the top and slid back down. Picking them up a third time, I tried an underhand toss - the bundle went straight up, higher than the wall - and then came straight back down. About that time I heard Ross, the machine gunner on our team, calling my name in a hoarse whisper. I had already been out in the open way too long, and I spun around towards him and crouched, fully expecting him to tell me that a squad of bad guys were closing in on our position, or that there were guys starting up the tank, and I should get down. I wondered what to do about letting the inside team know where we were. "What? What is it" I whispered back. "Man, you throw like a girl" he replied. Well, that just made my whole night - I turned back to the wall and finally got the damn chemlights over it. Then I stomped back to our little ditch outside the compound, settling in to wait for the clearing team to finish inside.

Please stay tuned for Part Two of this little reminisce entitled "We get screwed by the Air Force", coming soon.


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