Michael's Dispatches

Bad Medicine

On Pharmacy Road

Captain Henry Coltart on Pharmacy Road

24 August 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The British soldiers of 2 Rifles had a mission:  clear and hold Pharmacy Road.

FOB Jackson is currently home to Battlegroup headquarters for 2 Rifles.  The area around the river is called the “Green Zone,” but just as appropriately could be called the Opium Zone.  During season, the area is covered with colorful poppies, whose 2009 products are probably showing up by now on the streets in Europe.  European money flows back here and buys fertilizer in the Sangin Market, which can be used to make bombs, produce more opium, get more money and make more bombs and grow more opium and make more money and bombs and grow more opium.  Sangin is at once an ATM and weapons bazaar for the enemy.  Nearly all fatalities in this unit have been caused by fertilizer bombs.  The decision to mostly ignore the drug dealers has been a strategic blunder.

This mission was about tactical exigencies created by the strategic realities.  Though FOB Jackson is small enough to walk from one end to another in a few minutes, it is the main base in Sangin, with smaller patrol bases spread around the Sangin area of operations.  Two of those bases are Patrol Base (PB) Tangiers and PB Wishtan.  Tangiers is an Afghan National Army (ANA) PB often used by 2 Rifles, while PB Wishtan is manned by C Coy of 2 Rifles.  (“Coy” is British for “Company.”)

From Jackson, one can often see or hear fighting related to Tangiers or Wishtan while tracers arc into the night, and illumination rounds cast long, flickering shadows as they float to Earth under parachutes.

Though PB Tangiers seems randomly named, PB Wishtan is named after the local area which the locals call Wishtan.  The main resupply route from Jackson to PB Wishtan goes through the Sangin Market, past Tangiers, and west along the approximate 1 kilometer of Pharmacy Road through Wishtan to PB Wishtan.

British soldiers from 2 Rifles said they had sustained approximately twenty fatalities and injuries in the area.  (More were killed and wounded in Sangin since this mission.)  The situation is reminiscent of so many roads in Iraq, such as Route Irish, previously dubbed the most dangerous road in the world.  The short stretch of Route Irish is situated between main bases in Baghdad.  Since we never had enough troops in Iraq, the route was difficult to secure despite that it was a short stretch with bustling military traffic nestled between huge bases.  A lot of people were killed and maimed on that short stretch—I have little idea of the numbers of casualties on Irish—but the total must have reached at least the hundreds.  Irish was eventually made far more secure by allocating substantial Iraqi and Coalition troops along with what must have been many millions of dollars’ worth of physical defenses, all augmented with frequent coverage from the air.  Despite that, car bombs, IEDs and small-arms attacks continued to occur on a less frequent basis.  I’ve probably driven Irish a hundred times with no dramas, but it was never safe.  Despite international infamy and the sharp political desire to secure at least one small stretch of road between main bases in Baghdad, Irish was never completely secured.  Pharmacy Road in Wishtan is a small-town redux of Route Irish in Baghdad.

Pharmacy Road was effectively closed by enemy harrasment, including a blockage caused by two blown-up vehicles (a “jingo truck” and a British tractor).  Resupply and troop movements were performed by helicopter, despite that a patrol could walk from Jackson to Wishtan in an hour, and straight driving would only take fifteen minutes.  A bypass route was made with similar results.  Captain Alexander Spry told me that Wishtan is like something from a Freddy Kreuger movie where bombs are planted in broad daylight and the enemy chisels small firing holes through the fifteen-foot walls and launches bullets down the tight spaces and alleyways.  The Afghan mud walls are so robust that the 30mm cannons from the air will not penetrate.  Dropping a 500lb bomb into the middle of a compound will leave the walls standing.  In Wishtan, our snipers are of little use because they can’t see or shoot through the walls, and there is no commanding terrain other than the air.  As with Route Irish and probably hundreds (thousands?) of other routes in Iraq and Afghanistan, routes cannot be secured without pinning substantial numbers of troops.  Life is far easier for the guerrilla than for the counterguerrilla, just as arson is easier for arsonists than for firefighters.

With the shortage of helicopters in mind (and the fact that an RPG was recently fired at a helicopter as it lifted out of PB Wishtan), closure of Pharmacy Road increased enemy freedom of movement while decreasing our own.  Though British forces continued to push into combat around Wishtan, battlegroup commander LtCol Rob Thomson wanted Pharmacy Road open.

Most of us tried to sleep the night before the mission, but there was much to do.  At one point, perhaps half a dozen 81mm mortar illumination rounds from another base were shot straight over FOB Jackson.  The empty casings, weighing perhaps 2lbs each, swooshed through the darkness, possibly at several hundred miles per hour, and thumped onto Jackson.  (Terminal velocity varies from object to object.)  One casing was heading toward a sergeant named Marty who runs Flight Ops.  Marty hit the dirt and the casing landed just next to him.

The mission began under cover of darkness.  Conditions were far too dark to focus and the soldiers were not using lights, so focus was done by trial and error.  A sniper team quietly sat beside a dog and its handler.  The dog seemed to take interest in the sounds of the camera.

The few who speak only whisper.  A soldier checks his night-vision monocular.

Flipping up the night-vision monocular puts it on standby.

The mission will be very dangerous and the soldiers, who mostly could not see me taking photos unless they were using night-vision gear, seemed lost in thought.

The friendly attack dog.  A dog handler recently told me he was urinating when an Afghan soldier tried to grab his willy.  The handler said the dog bit the Afghan soldier who needed a few stitches.

We set off down the market road.  Some folks believe such reports are “security violations,” as if the thousands of people living here do not know exactly where the bases are, or do not know exactly where we came from and went to.  Operations take place here every day.  Civilians are everywhere.

We made it to FOB Tangiers with no dramas.  Some Afghan soldiers were on guard while others seemed comatose.

The commander of 2 Rifles is Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson (right), who this morning was constantly studying maps or soaking up information by talking with soldiers whose ears were glued to radios.  Most soldiers did the smart thing and immediately began to fall asleep; experienced combat soldiers never miss a chance to fill canteens or sleep.  Meanwhile, the Commander’s work has just begun (despite my having seen him work late the night before).  LtCol Thomson has chided other officers and NCOs about sleep, saying it’s an advantage of growing older.  You just don’t need as much sleep.  Plus having children is good training for combat.

Corporal Mark “Axle” Foley (left) is the JTAC who controls air strikes.  Axle is a good-spirited soldier and funny to talk with, always cracking jokes though sometimes I have difficulty understanding his accent.  When Axle picks up that radio, a magical toggle-switch clicks in his head from “fun” mode to “all business.”  While Axle talks business with the pilots, one can only wonder how well the American pilots understand Axle.  Yet the pilots work with Axle all the time, and seem to understand him perfectly on the first go, and he understands them.  One night, I heard a Southern accent come down from an aircraft, which set the Brits to laughing and trying to immitate the accent.  Brits and Europeans often get a big kick out of thick Southern accents but all attempts to imitate the twang seem to fall flat. (Except by country bands in Germany who can perfectly imitate the patois as if they grew up next door to Willie Nelson.)

Axle, who often works with American pilots, says these A-10 and B-1B pilots are probably the best to work with because they come to Sangin so often that they know the terrain, the roads and bases, so they are easy to talk onto targets.

Sitting there in the darkness, Axle works the radio while watching the downlink screen.  As the A-10s approach at about 0314, the aircraft are still about 40 miles out, and a pilot starts listing off all the various sorts of weapons they are carrying.  They had more spells than Harry Potter.  As the A-10s close in on our postion, Axle picks up a downlink and suddenly he can see through the A-10 crosshairs.  Whatever the pilot is looking at comes on Axle’s screen.  Axle gives the pilot some reference points and each time the crosshairs instantly go to that point, and within maybe thirty seconds, the crosshairs slewed precisely to the spot where we were sitting.  Axle told him that’s us, which probably sounded to the A-10 pilot something like, “Ah roga, dat’s us,” and then Axle starts walking the pilot through to all the friendly locations so he can know where our guys are.

An A-10 was transmitting downlink but we were getting interference, maybe from the building or other radios.  Axle moved outside where Corporal Henry Sanday from Fiji came in.  Henry is a good man whom I got to know in Iraq, and sometimes we have lunch or dinner at FOB Jackson, where he constantly invites me on missions.  Henry is battle-proven and very good under fire.  When your life is at stake, Henry is a man you want to be with, as you will soon see.   This morning, his men were falling asleep, but as a section leader Henry kept working.  Major Karl Hickman (right) is the A Coy Commander, and while his men plopped down to sleep, Karl kept working.  I’ve never been in combat with Major Hickman, but his men say he’s good and steady under fire.  Axle as JTAC is a crucial link to this mission, which explains why when Henry and Major Hickman might be sleeping, they are checking in with Axle to keep their SA (Situation Awareness) updated.

We had the A-10s for only a few minutes when a radio call from a different net came to Axle to release the A-10s for a TIC (troops in contact) somewhere in South Helmand.  Axle radioed the pilots to switch freqs, and I recall a pilot apologizing and saying he looked forward to getting back up here.  Axle put down the radio and looked straight at me, saying, “That’s such a bummer,” as if his fishing buddy had to go home early, then Axle finished with, “However, the guys that get them will be well happy,” and started shutting down his gear as the sounds of the A-10s faded into the darkness.  While Axle worked, I asked about times when he “smashed” the Taliban.  British soldiers like to use the word “smashed” when talking about the Taliban.  When Axle would finish talking about one fight, I would ask about another.  Finally, Axle said, “You Yanks are great.  You like to hear stories about us smashin’ the Taliban but people at home want to know how much we miss our families.”  We both chuckled, and I asked, “Really?  They don’t ask you about smashing the Taliban?”  “That’s right,” then Axle said something like, “They only want to hear how sad we are.” Axle and I got along great because I didn’t care if he missed his family and he didn’t care if I missed mine.  This part is about smashing people who would help those who smashed the World Trade Centers and blew up people in London and Bali and Jakarta and Israel and Spain and the Philippines and anywhere else they can reach.  There is a crucial development and governance aspect to this war, and still a crucial smashing side.  Sometimes you’ve got to swap hats for helmets.  Mullah Omar is still alive, apparently in Pakistan, and he needs to be killed.  Just on 20 August I heard a Taliban singing over a walkie talkie that Mullah Omar “Is our leader,” and they were celebrating shooting down a British helicopter only twelve hours before just some miles from here.  There will be time to hug families later.  Now is a time for fighting.

We talked some more about smashin’ the Taliban.  When the A-10s turned toward some distant battle, nobody here complained.  Yes, we need more helicopters, but since I have been in Sangin, we never have been short on attack aircraft.   The JTACs are happy.  Air cover, since I have been in Sangin, is better than we could honestly hope for.  Axle talked about strike aircraft; “The F-15E Strike Eagles are brilliant,” he said.  The JTACs, if given a choice of the other fourteen types of piloted aircraft that come on station, seem to vote for F-15E Strike Eagles.

The F-15E package (weapons, electronics, and strike pilots) is particularly lethal for this fight.  When strike aircraft come onto station, the pilots declare their weapons load.  A typical F-15E declartion sounds like this: An American voice crackles over the radio, “Good morning.  I’ve got 4 GBU-12s, 6 GBU-38s, 2 GBU-31s, and 1,000 x 20mm cannon.”  [GBU-12: 500lb Laser Guided Bomb is the JTAC favorite here; GBU-38 is a 500lb JDAM and also very good; GBU-31 is a 2,000lb JDAM and too big for use in Sangin but there are many other fights in Afghanistan; 20mm cannon can destroy armored vehicles but bounce off the compound walls here.]

In total, the two F-15Es arrive with a dozen accurate bombs, a thousand rounds of 20mm, incredibly good optics, and a great downlink package so the JTACs can peer through F-15E crosshairs and coordinate with the pilot.  Most importantly, the Strike Eagle pilots are specifically trained for this mission.  Nobody on the ground complains about this package.

Whereas Strike Eagles are favored in Sangin, there are close runner-ups.  B-1Bs  are called “Bones” because B-One spells bone.  Bones were made for nuclear war with the Soviets and for carrying hydrogen bombs, and so they don’t carry a lot of different tricks for small battles.  B-1Bs do come with 12 GBU-38s and 8 GBU-31s, very good optics and Axle says the pilots are easy to talk onto targets.  When a B-1B runs low on gas, refuelers can fly to us.  One day, Axle could see Bones refueling directly overhead while continuing to track a target.

In all, about fourteen types of aircraft fly topcover, including American, Belgian, British, Dutch and French.  JTACs here say the least desirable aircraft of those fourteen are the French M2000D.  A package of two jets carries no cannon, no downlink and a total of only 4 GBU 12s.  The optics aboard the aircraft are not good, and the trail aircraft spots targets with binoculars like the Red Baron.  Also, the French and British have problems understanding each other’s accents.  The British who work with French forces refuse to say a bad word.  They say the French are good and ready—which can be surprising because the Brits and the French like to slag each other—but the French aircraft simply are primitive in comparison to the American jets.  An American unit in Zabul Province last year said that some French pilots probably saved them, or at least made a big difference, and so any words about primitive aircraft should be taken in light of respect for the pilots.

No mention is made of the Apache helicopters because Axle was talking about jets.  The Apaches seem to do most of the heavy lifting—for every jet strike I must have seen 5-10 Apache strikes.  Apaches are very effective.  We are too far out for coverage from Kiowa Warriors.   Predators are excellent but Reapers are especially welcome.

The A-10s were gone and so Axle headed to sleep but Corporal Henry Sanday keeps working while all his men are zonked out.

The following account does not pertain to Pharmacy Road, but pertains to Corporal Sanday, his men, Axle and others in these photos.  These photos were made on 09 August.  On 13 August, a bomb detonated at 0523, wounding Matthew Hatton and two others.  Sanday arranged to evacuate the wounded by helicopter but there were IEDs along the routes to the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site).

As Daniel Wild and Mark Hale helped the wounded Matthew Hatton, they were hit by a second bomb, killing all three men. In total there were five casualties, and call-sign “Pedro,” helicopters from the United States Air Force had come in to evacuate the killed and wounded.  Henry Sanday was acting Platoon Sergeant and wanted to land Pedro on a roof but the roof was too small.  He finally got the casualties loaded out.  After suffering three killed and two wounded, the men continued the mission though some of the men were very rattled.  Later that evening, when the mission had been completed and the soldiers were moving back to FOB Jacskon, they were hit by a third bomb leaving two casualties.  Sanday was setting up another helicopter extraction when a fourth bomb detonated and an interpreter turned into a “white mist” leaving only a leg.  The interpreter went MIA.  Sanday asked the Apaches to search for the body but they found nothing.  I’d seen this happen in Iraq and it took us a long time to find two of the bodies.  One missing body was maybe a hundred meters away.  The other body was farther.  It’s been a long time, but I think it might have taken an hour to find the last body, and we had dozens of people looking.  Sanday was down to four unwounded soldiers in his section and in Sangin the IEDs often seem to come in big clusters.  No matter which way you go, there is a high probability of more.  Two interpreters were killed in the strike and three were wounded.

Some of the men were in shock and did not react to Sanday’s commands.  They were seriously battle-affected and refusing orders, though others rose to the occasion and were the glue.  I’ve seen this breakdown happen.  Soldiers typically bounce back.  Two officers described to me their thoughts on Corporal Sanday.  “He is an absolute hero,” said one, and the other agreed.  Sanday’s name was mentioned with respect all the way back in Iraq.  Now in Afghanistan he continues to rise to the occasion, but now with more experience.  The next day, Sanday went on a combat mission in Sangin.  About 100 meters in front of him an IED detonated on another section.  Three soldiers from the Royal Regiment Fussilliers were killed.  During extraction to the HLS, a pressure-pad IED caused more casualties.  Again, I am told Sanday and others rose to the occasion.

The interpreter who disappeared was found in the Helmand River, about 20 miles south at FOB Price.

But those attacks were still a few days away.  Today, Sanday had more dangers to lead his men into, and through, and as they slept, he worked.

Body armor for a pillow.  Many soldiers buy those bracelets because they say the profits go to support wounded warriors.  Next time I’m in Camp Bastion, I’ll buy a couple.

“Axle” Foley, who was on that horrible mission with Sanday, went to sleep until more aircraft were scheduled to show up.  This photo was made at about 0517 and I put down the camera then my head down at 0521, just in time for the first explosion seven minutes later at 0528.  The explosion was close and powerful and literally raised some dust.  AFTER it exploded, someone said it was EOD for the first controlled detonation.  The Bang Boys were out there in the danger zone, cracking away.  I said a little prayer for them and put my head back down and that’s when the rooster started crowing—from inside the building!  Look at the halls in the photo.  A rooster is very loud inside here, as if he were crowing straight into our ears.  The ANA keep the rooster for fighting.  He was incredibly loud.  BOOM at 0540.  EOD was back at it, and at 0548, then 0558, then 0610 and 0612 and 0621.  The EOD soldiers were into a rhythm.  Between the rooster crowing inside the building and EOD blasting away nearby, sleep was hard to come by, so I got up and walked to one of the guard towers.  LtCol Rob Thomson seemed to be the last one working, and warned me not to get shot.  (During the bad morning on the 13th, LtCol Thomson saw some gloom on a few faces and he jerked those faces back into the fight.)

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