Monday, October 29, 2007

Welcome Back to "The Suck"

Time warp. I'm back in Afghanistan, arriving at a little after 0100 local time last night. Ouch. Miserably long flights, a night in lovely Kuwait, and then a typically monumentally uncomfortable C-17 flight back into Bagram. I was secretly hoping my team would be out in The Valley and would have to come and get me in their own good time so that I could sleep forever.

Alas, twas not to be.

Just as well, really. They were all snoozing peacefully in the B-hut when I crept in at about 0230, suddenly unable to sleep. I dutifully notified the Colonel of my presence early this morning, cursing myself as I did so.

Various team members welcomed me back into the fold, regaling me with stories of the many TIC's (Troops In Contact... firefights) they have been in since I left.

There were another four ANP KIA and one of our boys who had become an RPG magnet got wounded in the second spectacular RPG hit on his vehicle in two weeks. The first had blown his machine gun completely in half while he was firing it, leaving him with not so much as a singed eyebrow. Miraculous. The second hit the door of his humvee and blew it open, sending metal fragments into his arm, glass into his face, and filling his ballistic glasses with high speed particles which they thankfully stopped.

He has decided that it's time to go and do tower guard duty at a FOB, and nobody blames him. He's going to be okay, but he's got metal in his arm that's going to take a while to work its way out.

Guilt crept in. Something like survivor's guilt. Probably more like deserter's guilt. I felt as if I had been doing something vaguely wrong whooping it up with my kids.

I wouldn't have traded that time for anything in the world. Still wouldn't. The guilty feeling is just that; a feeling. I feel it and move on. It's like a leg cramp; it will pass.

Anyway, I had started on writing the saga of The Great Valley Operation. It kicked off at the beginning of August, which is now two months past. Being very careful about OPSEC, here is the beginning of the tale:

Day One

The first day of the operation started with deceptive calm. Other than the fact that the firebase was chock full of more people than had ever been there before, the early hours of the morning seemed almost sleepy. The morning itself was a typical Afghan morning, clear and calm and becoming bright very quickly as the sun came up over the mountains to the east.

I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous about leaving the wire; that never makes me nervous. I was nervous because there were holes in the information that I had been given. We had stayed inside the firebase, while the 100 Afghans and the Colonel who I would be advising, or mentoring, during the operation had stayed a few hundred meters away in another compound, an Afghan National Police (ANP) compound. I wasn’t sure exactly where they would be marshalling.

A communications sheet had been distributed, showing the frequencies for various elements and the callsigns of major units. There were a lot of them. We had our own frequency, but it had become very unclear what frequency my little element would be operating on. I was, to a fair extent, “winging it” on an operation that had been carefully planned and backbriefed, then modified at the last minute and fired off like a catapult.

Our ANP were part of a three-element team that would operate together in one of the smaller sub-valleys that ran perpendicular to the main valley. The Afghan National Army was the lead element, we were second, and a “coalition” (American) element from the 82nd Airborne was third. There were several other teams of pretty much identical construction operating in other sub-valleys, the main features of each “sector.”

My crew consisted of myself, Staff Sergeant Ding, Specialists Cookie Monster and T-Dawg (who I often called T-Puppy to get his goat… he’s very young,) and our Terp (interpreter) Combat Terp. We had a single up-armored humvee (UAH) with a .50 caliber machine gun in the turret.

Our 100-man ANP company started out with 10 Ford Ranger pickups and only two belt-fed Russian-made PKM machine guns the Afghans call Pika’s. 10 ANP rode in each truck, making the procession look a bit undisciplined to the American eye. Afghans, of course, see nothing unusual about a horde of humanity in the bed of a small truck.

Cookie Monster and T-Dawg had done a wonderful job of packing up days’ worth of rations, cases of water, two basic loads of ammunition, and our personal gear into and onto the humvee. The rucksacks on the back deck were covered with my extra poncho to help keep the dust out and topped with a bright orange aircraft recognition marker called a VS-17 panel. That was so that we would be very easy to see from the air if we had to call for air support.

Our personal gear weighed in at nearly 70 lbs. The IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) with its massive ballistic plates, 210 rounds of rifle ammunition, three liters of water in a camelbak, my M-4 with attached M-203 grenade launcher, a pistol belt with my 9mm pistol strapped to my right thigh along with an extra magazine and my Gerber tool, my ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet,) and a radio. I also carried a digital camera in a grenade pouch. 40mm grenades in a separate bandoleer added so much to the weight that I learned to carry only what I reasonably needed for the threat level.

We were set to be part of the first element of a massive snake to wind down The Valley into our sector. The lead element were the engineers, clearing the road of any IED’s before the maneuver units moved through. When we reached our valley, we would take a left up the only road that went up our valley and begin our operations under the control of the ANA and ANP. The ANA had a two-man mentor team assigned to it as well.

We rolled out of the firebase in plenty of time to get set with our ANP, only to find that they weren’t completely staged. They didn’t have all of their trucks. We resolved that issue, but the clock was ticking. The radio frequency “cheat sheet” was turning out to be an apparent work of fiction. We couldn’t raise anyone. Finally, a Lieutenant ran up and asked if we were Dogbite 7.

“Yes, Sir. I’m Dogbite 7. “

“Your Deerslayer element has already left! You need to roll, time now!”

“Roger, rolling.”

I turned and signaled to the ANP Colonel whom I would be mentoring in The Valley, indicating for him to follow me. He nodded from behind the windshield of his green Ford Ranger LTV (Light Tactical Vehicle) that he understood. I climbed into my humvee and yelled to the driver to roll as I worked to get the headset on over my helmet.

Cookie Monster rolled out, doing his usual stellar job of driving our six-ton up-armored beast. T-Dawg stood in the turret behind the .50 caliber machine gun swaying to the beat of the terrible Afghan roads like some bizarre masked calypso dancer. The ANP pulled up behind us as we fell in trail behind the line of vehicles headed down the switchbacks from the firebase into The Valley.

We passed a couple of the elements ahead of us as I scanned the frequencies looking for our Deerslayer element. Our ANP dutifully followed our lead as we rolled down the twisting switchbacks. Suddenly we were waved down from behind by American soldiers waving from their turrets. We had found Deerslayer. We slowed and allowed them to take the lead.

I hadn’t found the frequency that they were actually using, but I did find the engineers on the radio and listened to them in rapt attention as they told the story of our journey south in clipped military radioese. I struggled to get our balky computer tracking unit to come on line, but it would only show us where we were on the moving map display, no help at all. I knew where we were.

We pulled into the bazaar of the little town and there was our turn; Deerslayer turned, the ANA turned, and so did we and our ANP. One big happy family. We pulled just out of the bazaar, to an outcropping where the road turned and we had a sweeping view from about 40 feet of elevation above the valley below. The ANA stopped, Deerslayer stopped, and we stopped with our last Rangers just nosing out of the bazaar. This was not the optimum position for my ANP to be in, but there was a seemingly endless stream of vehicles still passing through the bazaar on their way further south, so it wasn’t too bad.

I dismounted from the truck and moved to link up with the leadership, joining Colonel Jhala, the Deerslayer leader, SFC Diesel, and the ANP commander, Captain Ahab. CPT Ahab informed us through our interpreters that there had been a report of twenty or so Taliban just inside Our Valley, but that they were scared and not sure about what they should do. The Psyops team was called forward and a plan was hatched.

It was decided that we would split into three elements; left, right, and center. Each would consist of an ANA platoon, roughly a platoon’s worth of ANP, and a coalition squad, in that order. The senior Afghan commanders would go with the center and far right elements, as the road followed up the left hand side of the mile-wide valley.

As we stood examining our maps, I looked out over what was to be Our Valley. It was apparently flat, green, with fields bordered by trees and/or mud fences trailing up into the distance, and flanked by steep rocky mountain ridges. Our maps were 1:100,000 scale maps, which are fine for most purposes, but we were to find out that the lack of fine terrain detail was going to leave us amazed with some of the ups and downs we would encounter.

Colonel Jhala and I would be on the far right, farthest from the road. SSG Ding would be on the far left. The ANA mentors would be in the center. SFC Diesel would be on the road, a rolling command post along with the Psyops guys who would broadcast surrender messages to encourage the Talibs to give up.

We exchanged frequencies with Deerslayer 15, SFC Diesel. He had chosen a little-used frequency that was normally used by his small unit on independent operations. The assigned frequency had been all jammed up with other traffic that morning. I never would have figured it out on my own. He had looked for us on our “push” but we had already gone hunting for them on the cheat sheet frequencies.

At least that problem was solved.

We were winging it from here, so I briefed my crew and as I gathered up my terp and turned to go I found the Colonel and CPT Ahab with only a small ANP element. The ANA tan-painted Rangers were already beginning to move up the road. Ten green ANP Rangers with skeleton crews stood watch.

“Combat Terp, where are the dismounts?” I asked.

“They have left, sir.”

“Jeezel! We told them we needed a few minutes to brief our vehicle crews! Who told them to go?”

“They had their mission, so they left,” he stated.

Herding cats. This whole mission was to become an exercise in cat herding. I’ve found that in cat herding you need a lot of patience and really tiny spurs.

I got a small team to go with SSG Ding so that he could catch up with the marauding Afghans who were by now a couple of hundred meters to the northeast of our position, gathered up Colonel Jhala and his security detail and headed out to the right side of Our Valley.

We descended into a riverbed, crossed it, and began our month-long journey. We would sleep on cots next to our humvee each night, eat many meals with our Afghan counterparts, and test our endurance, our patience, and our faith.

We would learn a lot about the Afghan people, culture, food, and especially the terrain. What had looked like a flat expanse of farmland turned out to be a labyrinth of walls, riverbeds, and ups and downs that couldn’t be perceived from a distance or from a small scale map.

We learned by GPS that when you traveled a mile on the map, you traveled a mile and a half on the ground. It was like a low-level obstacle course sometimes cranking up to high-level obstacles. A twenty or thirty foot deep riverbed was something that just happened out of nowhere, and there was no easy way in or out. You just climbed.

Twenty or thirty feet of really steep rocky walls doesn’t sound like much until you wear 70 pounds of close-fitting stuff in 115 to 120 degree heat while you do it. Meanwhile, the Wily Afghan Rockhopping Cat bounds nearly effortlessly up and looks down at you with that, “what’s taking you so long” look on his face.

You briefly think of the pistol, but the impulse passes.

I eventually saddled one of the cats with my gear in response to one of them displaying amusement at my sweating visage emerging from one particularly rapid hump back to the patrol base we would establish in Our Valley. The saddled cat gazed with new appreciation from beneath my soaking helmet and pledged in jest to carry it all the next day.

“You couldn’t do it,” I suggested through the terp.

“Bali…” (“Yes”) he began. “Nay!” he finished with a laugh. No, he couldn’t… really he wouldn’t want to.

That demonstration was days away, though. The Afghans on the move are a curious thing. They naturally spread out… just like you would expect a herd of cats to do, and they are very curious. They peer over walls, around corners, into holes and doorways. It’s really like watching a group of cats flitting through the countryside. They are very careless with the direction that their weapons point; frequently at each other.

They move quickly and they never look back. They also make a lot of noise. A lot of noise. They call heedlessly to each other and look at you as if you’d lost your mind when you admonish them to be quiet.

When they pause for a halt, they all find shade and squat or sometimes sit on a convenient rock and engage in conversation, appearing for all the world like they have forgotten what they were doing that day. They drink from the nearest clearest water source. Some will wash their face. Others may wash their feet. If we stop near a khalat, the family will send out pitchers of water for the soldiers.

Many of the ANP didn’t have boots. Some wore sandals. Some wore loafers.

Then suddenly one of these careless cats will point out the lone figure way up the mountain. How do they do that?

As we moved through the heat that early August day, I began to learn all of these things about Afghans. At first it was exasperating. Acceptance and patience is a key.

They will probably never do things exactly the way that we do. Perhaps T.E. Lawrence was right, though. It is sometimes better for them to do things their own way.

We finally linked up with the southernmost group and began to move together through Our Valley. All of this time I had been calling in grid coordinates every twenty minutes or so to 15 (pronounced one-five, this refers to Deerslayer 15; SFC Diesel.)

Before the day was over, we would detain four individuals and capture over a kilo of raw opium and a small cache of ammunition.

More about all of that later. I’ve got to get to bed. Moving back down into The Valley tomorrow. I won't be able to post till I get back to Bagram for a visit. Military networks don't support blogging, but that's okay... it's their stuff. They can do what they want with it. Something about military business or some such tripe.


  1. I just learned about your blog from a mutual reader, and wanted to say, Good Job... and Stay Safe. Thank you for your service to our country.

  2. Once I heard a counselor expounding the difficulties between men and women in regard to communication. Men are typically "headliners" with only the vaguest of details given in a conversation, while women are "fine print" needing the smallest of details. The dilemma is being able to cross over in your communication style to meet the need of those who are listening. We are listening and you, sir, have crossed over. As I read your posting, I could "see" the people, places, etc. I could even feel your ambivalence in being back "home". I have never been in the Armed Forces but am eternally grateful to all those that have been and are now. Thank you for allowing me to participate vicariously in your adventure and for the gentle reminder that all of our warriors are still men and women with like passions, frailties,and needs just as we are and war doesn't change that. It just makes it a little harder to see.

  3. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 10/26/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  4. You have done another remarkable job. Don't forget to let me know what light-weight goodies I can supply for you. :)

  5. I just found your blog from a posting at Garry Trudeau's Sandbox and am I ever glad I did. There are many excellent writer's out coming out of Iraq. Afghanistan not so much. Your's sir, is brilliant writing. As Beezer wrote I can see what you are seeing.

    You're cat analogy for the afghan troops is a stroke of genious. (It also reveals a great deal regarding your character.)

    Thank you for serving and sharing so well your exxperiences, from a former Canadian soldier. Stay as safe as you can.

  6. THANK YOU for your service. You have a tough job...thank you for blogging about it so we can stay current on what's going on over there. God bless you and keep safe!

  7. P.S. Please sign up and tell all your buddies to sign up to get an Operation Gratitude care package...we're about to start sending a whopping 60,000 to troops deployed to combat zones. That would mean YOU. -- check it out if you haven't heard of it's all volunteer and supported 100% by donations...My family and I have loved being able to go down to the National Guard Armory to help!

  8. Hey! I really enjoy reading your blog - you have a great writing skill that I'm guessing is one of your hidden talents that we get to see here. :) Thanks for your service - and thanks for blogging!

  9. Thank you for sharing your adventure with me. You represent the best and brightest we have in this country.Thank you for your service. I will pray for you. I love the cats metaphor.Keep writing.

  10. Great stuff..thanks from an old old USAF MSgt.


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