Saturday, March 12, 2005

They shoot cows, don't they?

Papa Ray's story about shooting the water buffalo (or at least being there when "someone" shot a water buffalo) reminded me of something that happened to us pretty early on in our deployment:

I suppose because everyone involved is very aware of what one can do, the Army has a horror of a loaded weapon that approaches that of the most ardent gun control proponent. In peacetime, there are multiple layers of rituals and procedures to ensure that no-one ever has a loaded weapon off of the firing line of a range. Even in a combat zone, the emphasis seems to be more on ensuring that weapons are unloaded when not needed than on being sure that weapons are loaded when they are needed. Driving into the US Army's compound in Kabul, there is a line where all crew-served weapons are unloaded ("cleared") under the watchful eye of the camp guards before you can proceed deeper into the camp. (A "crew-served" weapon is one that's big enough to have more than one man assigned to it in a standard infantry platoon - machine guns are crew served weapons, for example.)

On Bagram, it was an against regulations to even carry a round chambered in a personal weapon, even a pistol - a regulation that we typically ignored, what with all the Hajis floating around doing day labor. Getting killed on Bagram would be bad enough, but getting killed while carrying empty gun would just be embarassing. (A Haji was one of the locals, for the more politically correct; also known as an HCN - host country national - for the bureaucratically inclined.)

I'm ashamed to admit that at the beginning, we let ourselves get infected by the unloaded equals safe mentality, while at the same time trying to make sure our weapons were up when we needed them, so we came up with a system that invited disaster. Whenever we rolled into camp, we'd clear the crew-served weapons, but, to save time when putting them into service, we'd replace the belt on the feedtray, so that all we had to do was charge the weapon (basically, "cocking" it by pulling the charging handle to the rear and releasing it.) The SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) then became pull the charging handle and go. Which, inevitably, created a problem. To load a Mark 19 - basically,a cross between a grenade launcher and a machine gun - you had to pull the charging handle not once but twice, with the trigger held down. Pull it a third time, and the weapon discharged. Now most people in Special Forces can count to two without a problem, but interpreting the SOP requirement of "pull the charging handle and go" was trickier. When reloading the weapon, did you lay the belt back in the feed tray, so that the weapon was ready to be charged (so the next guy to need the gun would have to pull the charging handle twice), or did you load it and pull the charging handle once, so that all the next guy had to do was pull the charging handle one time and go? You'd think that we'd have seen this one coming ...

We were heading out on a local patrol one day, and I was in the passenger seat of the lead vehicle with the Mk-19 on it. We did have a rule about not charging the crew-served weapons inside the camp. There was a series of fields on the other side of the road from the camp, and it was a good ways before there were any compounds to worry about, so, we'd wait to get through the Afghan Army checkpoint at the main road outside of camp, then pull over to the side of the road and charge the weapons. We made it out of camp and pulled over, and our gunner started to work on the weapon. He laughed, "Hey, I wonder if they already pulled the charging handle once already?" Cha-chink. The charging handle rode forward once. "No way they'd do anything that dumb." Cha-chink. The charging handle rode forward a second time. DHOOOMP! The Mk-19 sent a 40mm HE (high explosive) round sailing out over the field in a high arc. "Fuck, Fuck Fuck - where'd the round go?" "Can anyone see the round?" A few moments later there was a dull CRUMP and a cloud of smoke and dust from behind a small rise in the field. Suddenly, cows and goats came flying over the rise, running like - well, like a scared herd of cows and goats.

A second later, the radio comes to life, "Mongoose zero-five alpha, this is mongoose zero five. Are you guys OK?" "Yeah, we're fine." "What happened?" "Everything's OK. Uh, we'll explain when we get back in. Mongoose zero five alpha out." With that out of the way, it was time to find out if we were really fine. "Did it hit anybody?" "No, there wasn't anything out there but some animals." "OK, let's roll." It was already obvious that we'd have to do something about how we handled the crew-served weapons, but for the moment - no harm, no foul, and we had a mission to run. With the weapons charged and ready to go (and with an impromptu test-fire of the Mk-19) we headed out on patrol.

When we got back, we talked it over. The gunner was terribly embarrassed - the Army conditions you to think of an accidental discharge (an AD), or what they've lately taken to calling an ND (negligent discharge), as a personal failing - something that might happen to a private in a finance unit, but not to an experienced SF operator. Our gunner was harder on himself than anyone else was - he felt like he should have unloaded and reloaded the weapon instead of taking the chance if he wasn't sure. In retrospect, of course, he was right, but the rest of us in the vehicle had the same chance to catch the problem and didn't see it - in this case, the AD was the fault of the procedure and not the soldier.

The solution we came up with would have given big army conniption fits if they had found out, but we didn't have any more ADs. We decided that ADs happened when people screwed around with weapons that might or might not be unloaded, so - we'd keep the crew-served weapons hot all the time. Except when they were being cleaned, they were loaded, charged and ready to go. And we all felt like that was all there was to it. We had fixed the problem and didn't need to do anything further. There was some discussion about painting a cow or a goat on the door of the vehicle, but nothing ever came of it.

And that, we thought, was that. Until the next morning, when the Afghan Sergeant of the Guard showed up with an interpreter in tow. "What's going on?" "The sergeant says that there's a man at the gate who wants to talk to the Americans. He lives near here" the terp replied. Great, we've only been here a few weeks, and we've already got the neighbors dropping by. That's a good sign. "OK, did he say what he wanted?" The terp got this little half-smile, like he was trying to suppress a grin. "Yes, he says that yesterday, you killed his cow."

Well, damn. That's not a good sign. We went out to talk to this guy, and found him holding what looked like some huge strips of beef jerky, and deep in conversation with one of the Afghan soldiers. This particular soldier was an older man named Naji Shah -one of the original Muj who fought the Soviets, in fact - and he came from the area. Naji had become sort of the camp factotum - negotiating with the locals for supplies and labor, and making sure we didn't get ripped off too bad. We invited our neighbor in to talk, and sent one of the Afghans to grab some chai and candy for our guest. After a good bit of small talk - Pashtuns don't jump into business without a good bit of chit-chat - he came to the point. We had killed his cow, and it would be nice if we could pay him something for it. Well, that sounded fair. How much did he want? The interpreter, Naji, and the owner of the cow in question, got into a heated discussion. After a few minutes of back and forth, I had to interrupt the conversation and remind the interpreter that he was there because we didn't speak Pashtu. So, how much did the farmer want? "Two thousand." the interpreter told us. Naji looked disgusted. "Two thousand Afghanis?" I asked, "That doesn't sound like a lot of money for a cow." "No, two thousand dollars - American" the interpreter added, in case we didn't get it at first. OK, that was a lot of money for a cow. Dan was in there with me, and he seemed to think it was a lot of money too. He looked at the terp and said "ask him why the cow is worth two thousand dollars." After a brief conversation, the terp looked back at us and said "He says that it was a very special cow, very valuable. He says he walked all the way from Pakistan with that cow." So Dan looks at the famer for a second, the tells the terp "Tell him that if the cow walked all the way from Pakistan, he must be a very skinny cow. Why should we pay 2000 dollars for such a skinny cow?" Another conversation between the terp and the farmer, and the terp tells us "No, he says that he has spent years and years feeding the cow and making him fat again, so he is a very valuable cow." Then Dan tells the terp "Years and years, huh? So that cow was very old and about to die anyway?" The terp translates that for the farmer, and we're treated to an impassioned speech - we couldn't understand it, but it was obviously very eloquent, with lots of impassioned gestures. I realized that Dan could do this all day, and while it was amusing, it really wasn't getting us anywhere. I interrupted and told the terp to tell the man that we had to go and call our superiors and get permission to pay him for his cow. I gestured to Naji and got him to follow us out.

Once outside, I asked Naji "Is that cow really worth $2000 dollars?" After the terp had translated for us, there was an impassioned outburst from Naji. The terp looks back at us and tells us "He says that, in this area, you can buy a wife for two thousand dollars." Dan chimes in "So ask him if a good cow is worth more or less than a wife around here." It turned out that a wife costs a good bit more than a cow- ironically, this didn't make us feel any better about the way the Pashtuns treated their women. After some discussion, Naji suggested that he go back in and negotiate with the farmer. We agreed, but told him to err on the high side of fair when setting a price.

After about a half hour, Naji came back with our terp. They had agreed that $300 was a fair price. Naji thought that it was a bit too much, but not excessive. We went back in and paid the guy $400, telling him that the extra $100 was for the trouble and expense of replacing the cow (After all, it was apparently going to require a walk to Pakistan and back for our neighbor.) The farmer seemed pretty happy about getting $400 for a cow that was probably worth about $150 on the local economy, but he did make one more run at upping the ante. After we handed him the money, he talks to our terp a minute. The terp turns to us with this "you're not going to believe this" look on his face, and says "He thanks you for the payment, but he also says that you also scared many of his sheep." I told the terp to tell him, politely, that unless a sheep dropped dead of a heart attack, we weren't paying for emotional distress. Our farmer friend accepted that with good grace. I didn't know how to say "You can't blame a guy for trying" in Pasthu, but I'm pretty sure that was the body language I picked up.

The $400 turned out to be a pretty good investment. After paying him and drinking another cup of chai with him, we got up, told him goodbye and started to leave. The terp stopped us "He says, that he knows about some men in the village who are helping the Taliban. Do you want to talk to him about it?" Oh, yes, indeed, we do.

But at least someone in Papa Ray's unit got a meal out of their encounter with a deadly battlefield herbivore.


Blogger JACK ARMY said...

good story. I linked it on my blog.

what is Papa Ray's blog? I'd like to check it out.


4:17 AM  
Blogger Watch 'n Wait said...

Marvelous story! Like the solution for the weapons and really liked the farmer feeling fine about coming and haggling with you all about how much that cow was worth, being okay with the final price and then offering info on the bad guys. Very civilized.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Special Forces Alpha Geek said...

I don't think that Papa Ray has a blog - which is a shame, because it sounds like he's got his own stories to tell.

He left a comment in an earlier post of mine that reminded me of the day we killed the cow.

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Lilly said...

Well, I found you through Jack Army's blog, and I must say that in the context of war, I'd rather read cow stories than puppy stories :) I'm greatly enjoying reading your blog. Your writing is entertaining as well as informative. I love how your posts are so full of detail. Keep it up, and thank you for your service.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Lennie Briscoe said...

Great Story. The good old ND, or Naughty Dennis, we used to call it. It always used to happen at the end of an excercise when we were making safe. Some monkey would forget to take the magazine off before doing an unload...BANG.. hehe then there would be a second bang of the sergeants boot in the blokes backside...

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a great story...
stories like this are the reason why us younger 11b guys look up to you matured warriors..
thanks for the stories and keep it up..

4:19 PM  

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