By Jonathan Taylor
31 May 2009
Shajoy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan
Finally a day off. We were supposed to have one three days ago, but we ended up rolling out to an area about 20 minutes outside of our gate because the Afghan National Department of Security (NDS) gave us a tip that there was a major Taliban commander meeting there. So we all put our stuff on as fast as we could and got out the gate, still snapping and buttoning and checking our gear as we were driving, about 15 minutes after we got the tip. The NDS was in the lead of our convoy, which included our three trucks, a couple Ford Rangers filled with ANA [Afghan National Army] soldiers and a couple Rangers with Afghan National Police. The fact that the ANA and the ANP were willing to work together on this told us that at least they believed the intelligence was real, because they absolutely hate each other. Anyway . . .
the NDS leads us through the town of Shahjoy, but takes us through all of the tiny side streets. The streets are so narrow and the walls so high that the mirrors got ripped off our trucks. Our grills were cutting through the walls of the mud houses on each side of us. That’s us, winning hearts and minds.
We take more turns than any of us can remember, and nobody other than the NDS has a clue where we are going. So all we can see is what is directly in front of us. The NDS trucks are much smaller and much faster than we are, so we are losing them over and over again. This does not feel good. I now know exactly what rats in a maze feel like, except at the end of the maze we are pretty sure there will be people trying to kill us. At least, that’s what we are hoping for. Like I’ve said before, this is a weird job.
We finally get out of the village proper and the walls lower and we see a group of houses separated from the rest of the village by a fruit orchard. The orchard, by the way, is gorgeous. Big rows of peach trees, green grass, surrounded by irrigation canals full of crystal clear water coming down from the mountains.
So, like I said, the walls here are shorter, but no wider. The same things that make this sight picturesque are the things that will get us killed. The walls and ditches limit our mobility and the orchard surrounded by civilian homes provide cover for an attacker to get close enough to use RPGs effectively.
We are almost across the orchard and up to the farm houses when all of a sudden the NDS in front of us start shooting. I can’t see what’s going on but I can definitely see the chunks being shot out of mud walls two feet from me from some location I can’t see.
Troops in Contact
The gunners take over the radio net, calling out movement in front of us and through the orchard, now on my left. But nobody can positively ID anyone with a weapon and nobody wants to shoot a bunch or farmers and kids running from the battle. So, with a steeled discipline that I have come to admire, they hold their fire.
The interpreter next to me is telling me that “they say someone is shot”. That’s my cue to get the hell out of the truck and find who’s hurt. I call “8-Zero out” and open my door…only I can’t, because the wall is too close. I can see I’m not the only one with this problem as I see the guy trying to dismount in the vehicle in front of ours bashing his door against the wall over and over.
I’m yelling over the internal net for the driver to get me where I can get out when I hear the low “whup whup whup whup” of the Ma Duece shake the vehicle as our gunner finds something worth shooting at. God forgive me, but that has to be the most comforting sound I have ever heard. I smile every time it goes off.
Two other .50 cals join in. A thousand meters away men with rifles watching our position are running for their lives down the opposite side of a hilltop. In my head, I can hear them screaming in fear. After all, if that was coming down at me, I know I would be.
It comes over the net that firing has stopped, the Taliban they were shooting at have escaped the village via motorcycle and now we are moving up to clear the rest of the farm houses and the orchard. The guy shot wasn’t one of us, it was one of the Taliban and he got out with the rest of them. How about that? It turns out I didn’t have to be in such a hurry after all.
Three-seven, the driver, gets some space as the truck in front of him is finally able to pull up and I can get out. But now my job has changed.
Our position is charged with pulling security for anyone facing Taliban forces attempting to escape or flank us through the orchard, which is to the left of our truck, on the other side of the wall. To our right is where our gunner was firing and because of that, and because the .50 cal would tear through the orchard’s trees and then the next 10 houses behind it, he keeps pointing in that direction.
So that leaves me and my handy-dandy M4 to cover the orchard. I’m out of the truck all of five minutes when I see people moving through the far side of the orchard with civilian clothes and AK 47s, maybe 100 meters away. I’m taking aim while I’m calling it out on the team net when 6 comes over the radio and lets me know that the NDS is moving through the orchard in our area and not to shoot.
I don’t like the idea that these guys look exactly like the Taliban, including carrying the same weapons and I’m not going to know who is good or who is bad until they shoot at us. (By the way, regardless of affiliation, people shooting at you are bad. It’s kind of a rule here.)
Another member of the team has the same idea and brings over the Squad Automatic Weapon to my position for supporting fire, just in case. The SAW doesn’t fire a big round, it fires the same tiny 5.56mm (.223) that our M4s do. But it shoots 800 of them a minute. Its acronym fits the effect it has on its targets.
So we spend the next couple of hours pacing back and forth watching our sector of fire. It was long enough to start enjoying the view, and if you have been to west Texas, you know the view. If you replaced the live oaks with the local walnut trees, you would have Sonora, Texas. Right down to the fields of grapes.
During this waiting time a very interesting thing happened. One of our terps [interpreter] was with 7 and he is with the NDS commander when the NDS commander gets a cell phone call. The terp can hear what is being said over the phone, and he translates it over the team net.
It’s the Taliban commander we have come to get. He is calling the NDS commander on his personal cell phone. He lets him know that he is on the way to the NDS commander’s home now, and that he will meet him there and the NDS commander will be in paradise soon. They accuse each other of incest and that’s when the NDS leaves. We are not invited to join him.
It sounds like somebody had a deal, and somebody broke the deal. These guys are the shadiest of the shady. They are supposed to be on our side, but as they say, “This is Afghanistan”.
That was the third direct fire contact with the enemy our team has had in just four days. Things were getting pretty slow and frustrating for a couple of weeks. Our ANA Kandak (read Brigade, but since there are so many Afghans that are AWOL or on leave, it is only company-size in reality) had been re-missioned to convoy security. That meant that every day we suited up, we drove to some point and waited for what was usually a civilian convoy to come by. The wait was usually at least a few hours. For someone who is 6’1“, this is murder.
It’s much worse when I’m in the dismount seat behind the driver, and not the actual driver. Imagine sitting in an airplane seat for 14 hours a day, every day. Except that it’s 90 degrees with the AC on, and the “padding” in your seat is about half an inch thick, your head is up against the ceiling causing you to lean forward, your knees are up against the seat in front of you and you have about 65 pounds of gear strapped to you.
My butt was actually bruised from sitting down so much. It was misery. What was even more miserable is that since we weren’t patrolling our area anymore, the IEDs planted and detonated went way up, with some pretty catastrophic results. One was particularly bad. An ANP convoy was heading south and we were their QRF (Quick Reaction Force). As they were driving past a Hesco barrier set up by the Australians in the road to slow traffic, an IED buried inside the barrier went off.
For those of you who don’t know, a Hesco barrier is a 4-foot cube made of heavy wire with cloth inside of it. You just fill the whole thing full of rocks or sand or whatever you have on hand and voila! Instant barrier. We use them for walls around our FOBS. They are good for that, because they are cheap, very easy to set up, and very hard to penetrate when stacked together. However, they are very bad when you can’t watch them all the time, because anyone can put anything inside of them and you can’t see in.
So we have been begging to have them bulldozed on the highway for some time. Well, nobody has gotten to it yet. So the Taliban set up a doozy of one about door-high on a Ford Ranger and set it off as one of the ANP vehicles was driving by. It was what we call a “directional frag”. Basically a big home-made claymore mine filled with whatever they have on hand for shrapnel.
It exploded about two feet from the driver side door, and of course the driver was killed instantly. There was nothing left of him but shreds. They didn’t even pick him out of the truck. The passenger suffered longer. What the hell is anyone supposed to due with a man that has ½-inch ball bearings through 75 percent of his body?
He was a siv. He made it through to the medivac. Tough dude. I later found out that he lived long enough to have an arm and both of his legs amputated before he died in surgery. The barriers are still there. Like I said, nobody has gotten around to it yet.
A few days after that another team got hit with a massive IED just south of us. Fortunately, the person setting it off misjudged the distance of our electronic countermeasure and detonated it too soon and there were no serious injuries. But the crater was huge: four-feet deep and 15-feet wide. The engineers estimated that there were at least 800 lbs. of explosives in it. It only takes about a tenth of that to disable one of our vehicles.
Now, the good news: the explosion was so huge that the rubble hid the immediate damage and the trigger man exposed himself to see his results. Big mistake — his second big mistake. The first being his lack of patience. He was more than 500 meters away, but the young buck sergeant manning the MK19 grenade launcher was quick to aim and quick to press that butterfly trigger and the Taliban trigger man found out that two on-the-job mistakes is more than enough to get you permanently fired in Afghanistan.
But then we got the very good news; there would be a “Highway Kandak”, an Afghan unit assigned to do nothing other than escort convoys up and down HWY1. That cleared us to go back to hunting the Taliban down and killing them. We got a new operations and planning officer, “Venom 2,” who is intelligent and fairly aggressive. Sadly for us, his counterpart on the ANA side is neither.
For example, after a “kicking rocks” patrol we decided that we were going to set up a small team, (a very small team), overnight OP. Now, this is some real soldier stuff, the kind of thing that you see in movies and the kind of thing that I longed for and thought I would never get to do.
Our mission; drive out into the desert at night where this very small team would then break off and head to a hilltop that overlooked where we had seen evidence of a large amount of Taliban activity earlier. We would remain there, dug-in and hidden overnight, to be taken out before daylight and repositioned if we didn’t see any enemy. If we did see the enemy, the job was to positively ID them and mark them. Then the rest of the team with the entire ANA Kandak would then ride up from multiple locations with all their heavy weapons and make the valley we were watching into one big, flat kill zone.
I was surprised and honored to be a part of that very small team.
Part of the plan is that we will head to one of the ANA COPs and set up like we are spending the night in plain view of the enemy. Then, using night vision goggles, we head out after dark. But as soon as we pull through their gate, we hear that the COP just to our north is getting mortared. We turn our vehicles around as fast as we can and get ready to head back out the gate to find the mortar team and kill them while the action is still going on.
The ANA officers are giving each other greetings. Hugging, kissing, holding hands and laughing. No one is in any hurry. After all, they aren’t being mortared. Their own countrymen, their own soldiers are, about 6 km away, but it’s not them. HQ refuses us permission to go out alone (why did anyone ask?) so we have to wait on the ANA.
Our 7 is screaming at them and that seems to scare them enough to get in their trucks, but their operations officer has no clue about what to do. He’s asking all these questions about the mission that they were supposed to be on and what happens now and blah, blah, blah. All of those questions are irrelevant at this time. He’s stalling. Our 6 expresses his displeasure to the ANA officer in a way that makes it look like his head is about to explode and gives him a two word lecture on the essence of leadership.
We all leave through the gate.
A short drive later we were at CP1 where they were getting mortared. No one was injured and we altered our original plan somewhat. We waited another 30 minutes until dark and split up, my team taking a position providing the aforementioned OP of the area we suspected the Taliban had fired the mortars from.
Through our night vision goggles, what was likely over 1000 meters away, we began to see lights moving on the other side of the valley floor and into the mountains to the west. At first it was just one or two, but then they started popping up everywhere. Lights would blink back and forth, signaling each other, and then a small light would move quickly up and down the mountain, obviously a motorcycle. We call it up on our radios and are told to wait there and continue to watch and report.
We wondered, what the hell else are we supposed to do? We’ve got what is likely 50 men or more out there that just proved they have mortars and the only thing keeping us alive right now is that they don’t know we are here.
I’m counting 11 different lights moving too fast for people walking all in front of us when 1-7 says, “I can see red lights without NVGs.” This is not good.
I turn off my NVGs [night vision goggles] and get what he just got, that a few of these guys aren’t 1000 yards away, it’s more like 400 yards away and moving closer. The thing that concerns me the most is the idea that maybe we weren’t so invisible as we had hoped. After all, some of them have night vision as well, or maybe a rat with the ANA just told them where we were.
About this time I question myself as to how I can make the radio even quieter, and I start getting a little paranoid, wondering if it’s possible to see the light from the NVGs against my eye (you can’t, not from any distance, it turns out). Other positions are radioing in the same thing we are. We stay there for hours, watching them move in and out of the mountains, some getting closer and some getting farther away.
By this time we can call in a good distance, direction and grid coordinate for close air support, but we are told there are no assets in Zabul province at this time. What? The most active province in Afghanistan for troops in contact and there are no air assets available? OK, this is Afghanistan. Targets are everywhere, all around us, and we can’t get anything or anyone to engage them.
More miserable, frustrating time goes by and we get radio traffic that 6 and 7 are coming out and we are leaving. Fine by me. If we can’t shoot at anyone, I’d rather not be sitting out here surrounded by the Taliban. We’re waiting to leave when 1-7 tells me not to even look behind us. Of course, I look.
It’s not our elements that I see. It’s a string of ANA trucks, all with their lights on, coming right for us. In no-time-flat we have five different trucks pointing their headlights right at us. “Hey Taliban, the Americans are here! They are right here!” I can hear 7 over the net telling them to turn their light off and the translator attempting to match his tone.
Everybody mounts up in the trucks and at this point I am considering what a good and wonderful thing armor is. Six comes over the net and says “Venom 6 redcon 1”. This means, “I am ready to go now. Are you?” The net is silent. You can tell what everyone is thinking. We are out here, they know where we are and we know where they are — somebody is going to start shooting and it ought to be us first.
“Let’s try this again, Venom 6 redcon 1”.
I can hear the frustration in his voice. We turn around and go back to the ANA COP we started from without further incident. It turns out that the ANA simply refused to go out at night. We are not in charge of them, so if their commander says no, then they don’t go. We would love to go out and light the Taliban up all by ourselves, but our orders are very clear about this. We can do nothing without the Afghans.
After a long, painful after-action report, it was agreed by all that in a few hours, right at dawn, the full Kandak and our team would head out to the village near where our team had spotted all the activity. It was likely that the Taliban would still be there in the morning and it would be possible to catch them off guard. The plan was for the Kandak to split up, one group providing a blocking force so that the Taliban couldn’t escape the village and the other would assault in directly with us.
Like I said, that was the plan.
We all got a couple of hours of sleep on the truck. I couldn’t help but laugh as we all called spots on the truck. Seven got the hood because it was the only place a guy his size will fit on a gun truck, 1-7 took the side of the turret, and I, always prepared, pulled the cot I stowed in the trunk for just such an occasion and sacked out on it. What is happiness to a soldier? Happiness is a cot.
A miracle of miracles occurred: the Kandak actually left on time. Somebody lost a bet. But the plan went all to hell as soon as we were supposed to turn off the road and head to the village we saw the lights head into. The ANA commander on the ground stopped his vehicle and we all sat there waiting. Finally we learned that the route reconnaissance that the ANA said they did never actually happened. So even though the villages were in sight, they didn’t know how to get there across the wadis and ditches that traverse the ground.
Then the commander decided that he didn’t like the idea of splitting his force up, instead choosing to keep all of his forces together. Safety in numbers. So, there goes the blocking force.
A lot of turning around, trying to find a way for all of the vehicles to get across to the village ate up hours. In the distance, we could see cars and motorcycles leave the village. When we got there, one of the village elders came out and told us that the Taliban had been there that night, but had already left the village and pointed the direction they went. The elder then told us about another village just to our north that the Taliban was at that night as well. Helpful guy. So we all mounted back up and headed that way.
About 20 minutes down a dirt road we could see the walls of a large village through the gap between two hills. Our terps were listening to ICOM [radio] chatter and called out what he heard. “They are coming, there are many trucks and three tanks. We are ready.”
They call our up-armored HMMWVs tanks. So here the ANA goes, hey-diddle-diddle right up the middle of the gap between the hills. Our truck was the last US truck in the convoy with two ANA trucks behind ours and the convoy was pretty stretched out in front of us.
“Umm, 1-7, what was that?”
About 400 meters in front of us I can see dust being thrown from the ground and black puffs of smoke explode in the air above us. A second later I hear it. BOOM BOOM pop BOOM pop pop BOOM. Mortars and RPGs were landing on the ground and exploding in the air inside the convoy.
They weren’t that accurate, but there were a lot of them. At least a dozen in the first thirty seconds. One-seven, our gunner, spotted where they were firing from and called it out as the gunners in all the trucks took over the net. Seven got on the radio to talk to 6 and they had a plan worked out riki-tik.
Seven tells 3-7, our driver, to swing left fast around the large hill in front of us and flank to the other side to get closer to the mortar teams firing at the convoy and engage them with the .50 cal. The rest of the element, already too far into the kill zone to turn back, would push through and spread out once they were through the saddle of the two hills.
As we took up our position, now roughly 300 meters from the village wall from where the firing was coming, an ANA Ranger pulled up next to us. The ANA and the rest of our team took up positions parallel to the wall and everyone returned fire. AK and RPG fire was landing around our truck when 7 says he is getting out to talk to the ANA and 3-7 tells me to stay put. I do not like him being out there by himself. After all, he’s an awful big target. But the gunner can overwatch him with the Ma Deuce far better than this scrawny medic can with my 5.56.
He’s not out long when he opens his door and yells “Doc, we need you.” “8-0 I’m out,” and I get out of the truck.
I run around to the back of the truck as I see a couple of the ANA carrying a young ANA solider covered in blood from his head down. Bullets and RPG round are still landing around our position so I grab him and get behind the back of our truck for cover.
The kid is conscious and his head injury and the shock is masking what will soon be a whole lot of pain for this guy. He was doing his job, a good, brave young man. Laying down, firing at the enemy, head to head when an RPG exploded in front of him. Shrapnel had torn holes the size of quarters clean through both of his shoulders and part of his thigh. On top of that, his whole upper body had been peppered and small fragments had pierced one of his hands, shattering his bones.
As soon as I could clear the blood away I could clearly see part of his skull torn from just above his hairline. I look around to get some help from the ANA medic to bandage this guy, but he has already taken off. Later that afternoon, he, I and my Berretta will have a heated discussion about his absence. It was what you might call a one-way conversation.
But right now I’m stopping the bleeding on this guy as fast as I can using just about every method I know at one point or another. I’m amazed that he’s still conscious and in his right mind.
Seven gets the information for a medivac for this guy and 6 runs over to me to coordinate where the helicopter landing zone is going to be and to get security for it set up. They both do an outstanding job. During this time the explosions seem to get a lot farther away and I assume that the battle has shifted. But everyone is still flinching and ducking when they go off.
At some point I realize that I can still see the dust being kicked up from the bullets around us and it’s not the battle that has shifted, just my focus. Those men stood there, exposed, calmly giving orders for both the control of the battle and to get my patient out of there, allowing me to focus solely on the patient. Whatever medals the Army gives for bravery and professionalism under fire, those men deserve them.
Seven lets me know that the bird is wheels up and to get the patient ready. The pain is just now really starting to set in on this guy so I put some narcs in his IV line. Not very much, because of his head injury, but enough to keep him from writhing in agony.
I can see the medivac bird and its gunship escort. I load the patient on an ANA Ranger and get in the back with him and head the 500 meters or so to the landing zone. As the dust from the bird kicks up, the patient, for the mysterious reason that they always do, reaches down and yanks the IV out of his arm. I cover the new wound he’s created with my hand and cover it with some gauze and the same tape he just ripped out as the ANA and I load him on the bird. I transfer care to the flight medic.
I give some big thanks to the ANA that helped with the medivac and we head back to the battle.
When I get back, the battle has in fact shifted. The Taliban are retreating and heading north through the village, using it for cover from our heavy weapons. They leave their dead where they fell and we let them lay there.
When I get back to our truck and start to restock my bag from the resupply I have in the trunk, I realize that I am smiling, grinning that same goofy crooked grin I get sometimes. I am, in fact, truly happy at this moment. Seven looks at me, shakes his head a little and says, “*&%* Taylor.” I take it as a compliment.
We move our vehicle up north in the hopes that we can block the Taliban from escaping and to provide support with Ma. Other members of our team and the ANA start the long house-to-house search-and-clear that it will take. Not another shot is fired after our forces move into the village. A couple of hours later the ANA inform us that they are tired and out of water and are going home now.
That’s right folks. They live in a desert but didn’t bring a resupply of water. Each man brought about half a canteen with them and they are out and dehydrated. So, with the Taliban cornered and being driven toward heavy weapons, the ANA packs up and leaves. In file. They actually get into ranks and march away to their vehicles. Ours and another vehicle pull up in between them and the village so that one Taliban machine gunner doesn’t take out the whole lot of them.
Over ICOM chatter we hear the Taliban making plans to regroup and attack us as we leave, but nothing ever happens. Following our orders, we leave with them and head back home.
Everybody in my truck lights up a cigar or a cigarette and winds down. When we get back, there are a lot of sworn statements to write, well-earned awards and badges to put in that most of us will probably never see. But I’m in awe of what I’ve watched some of these men do, and I am deeply humbled that they would write such things about me. Three-seven and 7 have more bravery left over in the sweat of their uniforms than I will ever muster.
Since then, we have been doing “presence patrols” through the villages of our area of responsibility. That is, we just get up in the morning and show up in some village that we’ve never been to or haven’t been to in a long time. Every time we have done this we have either gotten in a fire fight or have taken prisoners.
It’s working. The IED activity has dropped drastically and the intel has the Taliban using a much greater amount of resources and time to move from one place to the next. The patrols have had the added benefit of emboldening the village elders to turn over the Taliban to us. So, in the very short run, we are winning. At least for the first time since I’ve been here, it feels like it.
There’s so much more to talk about. Whole days of fire fights, hilarious patients, little victories and setbacks, incredible patience under fire. Heck, I skipped the time that I was puking my guts out with a 101+ fever, but still had to go out and respond to an IED attack. Of course, I passed out in the truck. I’ll have to get to that some other time.
This enough for now and I have some catching up to do with, well, with everything. There is a lot more re-fit in our rest and re-fit days than rest.
Take care of each other.
Former Staff Sergeant Taylor respectfully requests that TTAG readers make a donation to veteranoutdoors.com to honor the brave men and women with whom he served, and those who still serve our country.