Saturday, January 29, 2005

Back to the war stories. . .

I started this blog as a place to tell war stories (and we all know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale, right?) but I noticed that my posts have been almost exclusively commentary on politics and current events.

I was thinking about that this past weekend - after a four month hiatus, we're back into our regular routine of one drill a month, plus a three week or so Annual Training exercise, plus whatever else we volunteer for (there are a lot of opportunities for NG SF to train with other cool-guy units now that half the active duty SF is overseas at any given time.) Or,as one of my more cynical NG aquaintance's puts it: "Yeah, the National Guard. All these benefits for only two days a month, plus two weeks a year, plus two years out of every five." Don't tell the recruiters - it might depress them.

We were sitting around drinking a few beers Saturday night, re-hashing things, telling stories, and generally re-forging bonds of friendship that had been strained by the deployment (if there's a downside to SF, its that every man there is an alpha wolf: opinionated, confident to the point of cockiness, and convinced that his ideas are the best - live in close quarters with someone like that for the better part of a year and you'll find your nerves fraying just a bit. I'm so glad that I'm not like that, too.)

At one point during the evening, Dan was reminiscing about the general perfidy of the Pashtuns - the firebase outside of Asadabad was getting rocketed, and a couple of CA (Civil Affairs) guys and their terp happened to be in a small village outside of A'bad and close to the firebase when the rockets started going off. They took some initiative and dropped by the village elder's compound to see if he could help them figure out who was shooting at us. They figured the guy might help them figure out if any strangers had passed through the village recently. This villager usually knew everything going on in his village and seemed to be on the American's side - genuinely friendly and helpful, and grateful for all the US aid flowing into his village - new wells, a clinic and a good bit of hard currency. Of course, he also benefited from the prestige of being the broker between his village and the Americans: for aid projects, for jobs, and for local purchases.

He wasn't home, but one of his younger son's told the CA team that he'd be right back, and invited them in to drink some chai (tea) and wait. They got put into the room where they usually met with the old guy - the room where he usually met with other village elders or whoever needed to see him. It was set up as a social room, with nice rugs on the floor, runners around the edges, and plenty of cushions to lean against - there was even a wood stove in the room to warm things up and keep the chai hot. The son left them alone there to go get a pot of chai and some candies.

Well, its not a particularly admirable trait, but the instinct to poke into other people's medicine cabinets seems to be universal to Americans. This particular team had been to this guy's house several times, and always met with him in this room. There was a door at the rear of the meeting room that the team had always been curious about, so, being left alone for a few minutes, they peeked in. Behind the door was a smaller room, also nicely appointed with rugs and whatnot - and there was also a very artistic terrain model of the firebase, with the surrounding hills convincingly built up, and the rocket launch sites and their approaches indicated with little bits of yarn. It was so well done that the considered opinion of the CA guys was that this terrain model would have gotten the builder a "GO" in the sand table test at the US Army Infantry School. (A "GO" is a passing grade - most hands on military skills are tested on a pass / fail basis, that is "GO/NO-GO." Building a "sand-table" - a terrain model of the area or site to be attacked for use in planning and briefing an operation - is considered a critical skill for military leaders.)

OK, let's be fair - its quite possible that the village elder had discovered the plot on his own, and had gone to the considerable trouble of building the sand table so he could explain it all the Americans, and besides, the CA team didn't have a search warrant, and, after all, we were the invaders . . . whoops, sorry, started channeling Barbara Boxer there for a sec. OK, Let's not be Democrat fair, let's be Republican realistic: this guy had let the operation be planned in his house, it turned out the ACM* who carried out the attack stayed in his compound, and he was out with them making sure they found their way into the right positions.

Dan's reminisce reminded me of where we were when the rocket attack happened - right down at the very front of the compound, at the fuel point filling up our GMV. We were getting ready to cross the Konar river at the bridge in Nowabad about 5 km south. The river ran directly in front of the firebase, and would have made a perfectly logical border with Pakistan - the local Afghans definitely suspected that the Pakistanis thought so, anyway. Because of the vagaries of the Durand line, though, there was a strip of land anywhere from 5 to 20 km wide between the river and the Paki border. The river only had a few bridges in the area, though, and most Afghans weren't natural swimmers, so bridges made a good natural chokepoints, and we tried to keep a pretty close eye on the traffic there. There we were, all gunned up and just a few gallons of diesel short of being ready to go when the rockets started coming in. Jack, our medic, was outside the vehicle fueling it up, Dan was in the turret on the .50 cal, and I was sitting in the front passenger seat.

The bad guys were shooting like Afghans, so the rockets were overshooting the main camp and landing - well, right outside the wire and pretty much right in front of us. The barrage started with 3 or 4 rockets whistling overhead (a rocket makes a distinct warbling whistle as it passes overhead - interesting example of the Doppler effect, if you're inclined to appreciate that kind of thing - and then a big ka-boom.) All the rocket attacks we had been in up to that point only consisted of 3-4 rockets, so we thought it was pretty much over. Then the second wave came whistling in, and seemed to be even closer. Dan squatted down out of the turret behind me - a fairly ineffective gesture, since a GMV is not armored. Jack, on the other hand, was outside, without even the comfort of 1/4" of sheet metal between him and the explosions.

Now Jack had as much courage as any man I've ever met, but he was not prone to the bravado about things that go boom that many of affected. While many of us had a "big sky, little me" attitude about rockets (which are, in reality, terribly inaccurate weapons) he had no problem looking for cover when things were blowing up. Right then, he took off at a dead run for a bunker about 50 meters away from us - he got to the bunker, and hooked a left to head in. At that point, he looked pretty much like Wiley Coyote about to go over the cliff and doing everything he can to stop himself. He backscrabbled a few feet, turned around and came running back to us away from the bunker at the same dead sprint he used a few seconds earlier to run towards it. It turned out that the bunker was there, not to protect personnel that might be at the fuel point, but to protect a 1000 gallon fuel blivet. Jack turned the corner, saw that he was in close proximity to 1000 gallons of diesel and things blowing up, and was simply not happy with life.

All this time, a wave of rockets was coming in every 30 seconds or so. Jack ran up and asked me how much fuel we had in the vehicle - Dan read the gauge and said it was about 7/8ths full. Jack looked at us and said "And we have another thirty gallons on back - and we're only going about 20 kilometers. Why the hell are we still here?" So Jack jumped in the driver's seat and I got on the radio to let them know we were leaving and we got out of the fuel point at a fairly rapid clip. Later, they figured there had been more than thirty or so rockets in the barrage.

And what about our brave CA team who suddenly realized that they were in the enemy commander's stronghold drinking his tea? They made their apologies, said they would come back later, slipped out and immediately got on the radio and reported what they had learned. The senior leadership at Asadabad acted with their usual decisiveness, and swiftly and surely hit the compound only 48 hours after the CA team called the situation in. By that time, of course, the sandtable was gone, and so was the village elder. We later heard that he had gone to Pakistan, which, after all, was only a few kilometers away.

There was something of a happy ending to the story, though. Usually the ACM launched a rocket attack by slipping up to the firing positions, laying the rockets on an improvised launcher (usually a stack of rocks), setting a Soviet era time pencil to trigger the rocket, and slipping away before the rocket went off. The time pencils were theoretically settable for between about a half hour and 8 hours - in reality, they went off randomly between 15 minutes and 24 hours later. The bad guys were usually home by the time the rockets fired, but these guys decided to launch their rockets in real time - because of the size of the barrage, we suspect they were correcting the aim of the later rockets based on the impact of the earlier ones. By a happy coincidence, the launch site turned out to be within machine gun range of a US OP (observation point) overlooking the firebase. The OP was manned by a squad led by a sergeant, and the OPs were in turn being commanded (via radio)by a junior officer. So, unaware of the complexities of war that our more senior commanders wrestled with, our men lit the bad guys up pretty good.

*ACM = anti-coalition milita - the generic term for whatever TB, AQ, general criminal shithead, or HiG we happened to be stomping on at that particular time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like it can be very frustrating dealing with the people over there.

Also I take it you are in the National Guard SF, have you served in active, and how do they differ once called up?

Tom M

1:00 AM  

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