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I recently found my old armor from my second tour in Afghanistan. Stuffed inside of it was a well-used Russian army bayonet. It brought back memories of how I came to own it . . .

It was the late summer of 2009. I was assigned as medic and combat advisor to the 3-2 205th Afghan Infantry Kandack, as well as the senior medic for Police Mentor Team Nomad (PMT) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).

By the end of that summer, Embedded Transition Team Venom had trained the ANA to maneuver and cordon-off villages and other strategic locations. Effectively. Primarily through the tireless work of the team’s Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge, PMT Nomad made the ANP a capable force for house-to-house searches and detainment.

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Eventually, that led to successful combined missions. The ANA would manoeuver to a site and cordon it off. The ANP would search it. As advisors, we would accompany both forces on all missions. That started paying off. So of course somebody had to ruin it.

Occasionally, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police force would work together for larger joint operations. We started having missions with bits and pieces of multiple forces: the ANA, ANP and the Afghan National Defense Service (ANDS, kinda like the FBI/CIA/DEA/drug dealing murdering thugs all rolled into one). We had converted them all to brand new NATO weapons earlier that summer.

It was all pretty confusing. The ANA wore old school woodland cammo and a mix of civilian clothes. The ANP wore blue uniforms with a mix of civilian clothes. The ANDS generally wore some kind of green uniform and a mix of civilian clothes. Equally concerning: we had no comms with the ANDS. Nor were there are any radio communications between Afghan units. As you can imagine, when all of these different Afghani units got involved, most of the cordon and search missions went straight to hell.

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During one of these combined cordon and search missions – in a small village in Zabul province, Afghanistan – I found myself as the lone American in sight (again). My job: move forward, behind the Afghan forces, cover as necessary and treat wounded as necessary. Using my comms I knew that our allies were close by. A couple of units were just a building or two away. Still there I was, fighting with Afghans, fighting Afghans, the only tall white guy in ACU’s to be seen.

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As anyone who’s done house-to-house work will tell you, there’s no such thing as “behind forces.” When you start searching homes, some take longer than others. Without great communications, forces get scattered and resources grow thin. Threats are anywhere and everywhere. I just did my best to keep my head on a swivel and go where I was called.

Most of the action in my little area was taking place in an alley in front of me. An ANP team had dragged a man out of a house. They were standing in the middle of the street, emptying his pockets and examining some items from his home. I was watching down the alley, a few feet behind the corner of another house. There were a lot of doorways between them and me and doorways all around.

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The ANP were wide open to ambush. My lonely 5.56 wasn’t much to back them up. I was comforted when, not too far ahead, I saw a member of the ANDS peeking out of an alcove. He was watching the ANP do their work. I couldn’t see a weapon but he was wearing the ANDS’ light green jacket. I had no comms with him. But he was watching the action, same as me.

For a few minutes, we covered the ANP from our separate positions. He never looked back at me. We were focused on our job, covering the action in front of us. Everything was as it should be – until he raised an AK-47. Not a NATO weapon.

While still denying what was happening, cursing my stupidity, I registered “threat!” My rifle raised itself. He barely got the weapon clear of the alcove before my rounds hit him. Poorly.

I don’t know how many times I fired. More than two, less than 10. I think all of my rounds struck him, but I don’t know. I don’t remember seeing my red dot sight; I don’t think I was looking through before I pulled the trigger. I don’t think I fully shouldered the rifle. Cheek-stock weld? Not even cheek-stock contact.

And yet there he was, laying in the dirt maybe 15 yards away, reaching out, reaching to his abdomen, grasping in the air, gasping for air. I’d hit him low and near or in the spine. He turned when he fell. I could see his eyes wide, betraying tremendous pain and confusion. Whatever the bullet did to him, he couldn’t breath. As a medic I immediately recognized that his intercostal muscles were trying desperately to overcome whatever wasn’t happening with his breathing.

There are people I have wanted to kill and there are people who I have killed. But I never wanted anyone to hurt. This man was hurt, horribly. At that moment, when I should have shot him again, he was a patient. I stood there, overtaken by his shock and his pain. And my own surprise that I was the one who just shot him so poorly.

It seemed like minutes passed. It was only seconds, and very few of them. Out of my right, shouts and shots rang out. A fellow NCO dumped a magazine into the dying man while quickly advancing on him. His last shots were fired as he virtually stood on top of the Afghan. No more threat, no more hurt. Good job, sergeant.

The man I’d shot was a little older than most of the local Taliban we were used to seeing. He was probably in his later 40’s, which means he looked in his 60’s. (It’s a hard living.) The AK-47 he raised was well adorned; the stock was covered in a kind of sparkling blue electrical tape. The barrel had a Russian army bayonet – the first and only time I saw a rifle with one attached.

At the end of the action, the local police chief came up to inventory the items found as we photographed and catalogued them. The interpreter told the chief – a man I would learn to deeply respect and was proud to call a friend – that I had shot the man with the bayonet.

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The chief walked over to the bayonet, picked it up and handed it to me. The interpreter explained that the man was old enough to have fought with the Mujahedeen. He’d probably taken the bayonet off of some Russian they’d killed.  Maybe, maybe not. But the rules about “war trophies” are pretty clear. So I put the bayonet back down.

An Afgan policeman saw it laying there. He picked it up and started to walk away. He didn’t get far. The chief walked over and bashed him over the skull with a rock. The chief then calmly walked back to me and handed me the bayonet. I treated the offending Afghan policeman for a skull fracture and medivaced him to Qualat. I kept the bayonet.

36 Responses to Afghan Journal: The Worst Shot I Ever Made

  1. No war trophies? My son’s unit in Iraq took everything from bayonets and gss masks to full auto AKs. The commanders kept the guns for the unit, the Marines kept everything else personally.

    • Early in the Iraq war that was much easier, by 2009 the ability to do such things was pretty much gone. I couldn’t even bring back a really cool switchblade I found over there. Though some with the correct friends or connections found ways around it I’m sure.

      • In half those years, Iraq was bad enough [‘war trophy’ wise] you had to stand in line (without your weapon[s]) to get your own crap out of the country (i.e., personally bought/carried bayonet, engineer’s compass, etc.) You had to get your CO of your unit to sign the form. DOD Form dod-dd-603-1. The process really sours you on retaining the items, and I gave them away when I got home.

        BTW, body armor is a trackable item, I would have started the story, “I know a guy who had a terrible fire at sea…”

        • Tried to give it back. They wouldn’t take it. They had a receipt that says it was turned in, I have a hand receipt that says they got it back. Tried 2 different 4 shops.

        • I am ALL FOR you keeping it. If they didn’t use it in the states for training, they would have had to burn it down to prevent the enemy from piecing together a look-alike suit. Hell, DoD gave my cammies to the local forces who gave them to ISIS who used them to attack Al Asad, and Ramadi, and . . .

          Our Uncle gave us some really nice stuff.
          Keep your gear, you more than earned it, I only hope that you never have to answer for any of it, or even worry about a stupid question (from DoD).

          I wish they let us keep our weapons until we got stateside, I hated the whole de-mil-you-here routine. Very difficult to walk around Kuwait base without one. Hated cleaning my Beretta 3x only to see her thrown up onto a small pile to go to depot maintenance, missing my M203 that first morning without it nearly made me piss the bed til I could remember I turned it in. Sitting in the chow hall without a weapon made ya feel very vulnerable.

        • @Joe R., a couple of years ago I was enjoying the buffet at the Gold Coast in Las Vegas with about 50 US airmen in uniform, and I was the only one in the room who was armed. Go figure that.

  2. Thank you for your service, and a great job telling the story. One thing about Afghans, they have a very different way of dealing with things and once they decide you are their friend there is no turning back. Please allow me to share a story as well.

    I was working private security for the opening of Bost Airfield in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province in June 2009, the first paved airfield in southern Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation. It was a big deal with both the US and British Ambassadors in attendance along with a lot of Afghan government and DoS types. Aside from a couple of PSD and DSS teams, we were relying on Afghan forces (Army, ANP) for security and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) for intel and advance warning for any possible attacks. We eventually decided the best way to protect the event was to invite some 400 local tribal elders to attend. I had no doubt that half of them were drug lords, and a good number were working with the Taliban, so we figured if they were there, there probably wouldn’t be any attacks. It all went smooth, with only one rocket at about 0500 before anyone else arrived.

    The next day my partner and I visited the local NDS commander in Lashkar Gah to thank him for his assistance. He was very gracious and pleasant to be around, and we sat in his very comfortable and homey office (it looked like Aunt Matilda’s living room if she’d been from Afghanistan) sipping tea and munching on locally produced raisins and pistachio nuts. But you don’t get to become a provincial commander of the NDS by being gracious, and every time I looked into his eyes, I had to wonder how many people he’d shot in the back of the head and dumped in a wadi to get where he was. He was an interesting guy, and as far as i know he is still alive and kicking.

  3. In ’04 they didn’t have a problem with blades for trophies. I have a nice dagger – it’s a souvenir (ie, bought it at the bazaar) not a trophy (picked it up off the field), but I had no trouble getting it home.

    • Same guy but the SNs don’t match. That’s assuming those scratched on numbers are serial numbers. We got all sorts of stuff off him.

      • Most likely the numbers are ID numbers for the Russians they came off of. I’ve never seen a serialized AK bayonet, even the East Germans didn’t serialize theirs. However, the Russians loved marking their kit with an ID number, usually three or four digits, and the practice really took off during their Afghan war.

        • I’d look into if the Soviet soldier it was issued to can be identified from the ID number. If so, there might be a story to hear, and perhaps a new one to make. If the Soviet was KIA, I’d return the bayonet to the family if possible. “I killed a Taliban old enough to have fought against the Soviets and found your brother’s bayonet on him. Would you like to have it?”

  4. Good sh1t JWT, I like how that LaRue cap just slipped in there 🙂 I have really been enjoying some of the “experiences” articles over the reviews lately and writing style compliments the story.

  5. “The chief walked over and bashed him over the skull with a rock.”

    Yeah. I would have kept it the second time too. Cut down on the patient load…

    • And prevent yourself from becoming one. That guy *really* wanted JWT to take that bayonet. I half expected the story to end with our author on his way to the hospital with a bayonet tucked into his pocket — and a concussion.
      🙂

  6. I’ve always been fascinated by the exchange of military gear through conflicts. Stories like this in the recent wars when soldiers find all kinds of interesting weaponry in taliban/insurgent caches’ like an Enfield or Mauser. Or old U.S. equipment lost in Vietnam that later turned up in these places.

  7. I don’t remember seeing my red dot sight; I don’t think I was looking through before I pulled the trigger. I don’t think I fully shouldered the rifle. Cheek-stock weld? Not even cheek-stock contact.
    You reacted well and I do not know if I could have identified and reacted in time.
    If it were me I would probably have been using the M4 more like an Ithaca shotgun going upland hunting.
    I was never in the military ( Vietnam fell when I graduated) but Dad was in Luzon against Yamashita and had been trained to shoot in a quick reaction mode both from the hip and from the shoulder. I thought the shooting was good considering the circumstances. You survived. Congrats.

  8. In my time. Very early 70s you could bring back non fully automatic weapons with the proper paper work thru the provost marshals office. I had a Tokarev that finally wound up with so much papers attached to it that they doubled its weight.

  9. A friend of mine who has since retired from competitive shooting had a son who was in the Aussie SAS in Afghanistan and Iraq who told us the following story about operations if Afghanistan.

    A local elder (more likely warlord) offered to take the SAS on a tour of the province to show them the area and possible trouble spots. They drove around the province for over a week in the Land Rovers with the elder in the front passenger seat.

    At the end of the week the SAS troop realised they’d been shown nothing, but the elder was showing the people of his province, and any potential rivals, who he had on his side.

    Afghan politics. Might equals Right. But a suitcase full of cash can be a game changer.

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