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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.