- Published: Thursday, 11 August 2011 13:03
August 11, 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
The plan was bold and dangerous. The troops were to fly by CH-47 helicopters to the insertion point. There would be no moonlight. Illumination was predicted to be 1%. Flying with night vision goggles and no lights, the pilots were to put wheels down at exactly 0300 in the middle of a field near targeted areas of interest.
The landing zone (LZ) was in a dangerous area with the specific number surrounding enemy fighters unknown. Just a day before, the enemy had fired an RPG at a Kiowa Warrior helicopter near the LZ, but missed. The pilots often can identify an RPG that misses: unlike in the movies, RPGs make no trail. If it misses a target it normally self-destructs. When the RPG explodes in the air, it leaves a small donut shaped cloud, and a small “smoke stick.” The smoke stick is created after the warhead explodes leaving smoke, and the spent rocket motor continues to fly through the smoke, dragging smoke with it. The pilot can look at the smoke stick and guess the firing point. On the other hand, if a pilot sees a smoke trail coming her way, it’s a surface-to-air missile and a bad day is unfolding.
Troops face many dangers at LZ’s, from bombs planted on or around the landing zone to RPGs and machinegun fire from enemy troops lying in wait. Less than a week after this mission, 38 people were killed, including members of SEAL Team 6, in this same sort of helicopter, also at about 0300hrs. Other helicopters have been shot down over the years during this War in Afghanistan, although we don’t like to advertise this for obvious reasons.
Back at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Pasab, while the rotors beat the air and the helicopters roared and blasted us with hot fumes in the darkness, we practiced embarking and disembarking the CH-47s. Unfortunately, during a practice run, my pant leg was inauspiciously ripped open on the muzzle of the ramp-machinegun.
When troops are about to board a helicopter, or embark on a combat mission, they are counted multiple times by multiple people. The Army leaves zero excuse for error on exactly how many people step off into the wild; dead or alive, they want exactly that many bodies to come back. As troops board the helicopter, the helicopter crew counts yet again, and there are multiple people recording and comparing notes, though it is seamless to the troops who barely notice this repetitive procedure. When they leave the helicopter, they are counted one more time, and when they assemble on the LZ, they count again and radio back. It’s doubtful that banks even count their money so often and so closely with so many separate people comparing notes.
Combat, chaos, and old fashioned darkness, make it incredibly easy to lose someone on the battlefield. Therefore, everyone is assigned a specific battle buddy. Mine was the battalion Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Charles Cook, who served in Bosnia, Iraq, and now here. Interestingly, CSM Cook checks space news as much as I do and gets the daily email updates from NASA. So beyond getting combat education, CSM Cook is interesting to talk with.
Tonight, I was sticking like Velcro to CSM Cook. My plan was simple. When CSM Cook stepped off the aircraft at the LZ, I would keep my gloved hand on his rucksack and hold on. I did not want to lose CSM Cook in the helicopter dust storm because if a serious firefight broke out at the LZ with RPGs flying, and all sorts of other explosive dramas, the dust can suddenly become a blinding, mini-storm and the night vision goggles (NVGs) quickly lose value.
Approaching the landing zone
Although the above two photographs look bright, there were no white lights burning inside the helicopter. They were either dim red, dim green, or pitch black. These two images and many others during the mission, were made with a specially modified Canon Mark II 5d. The modifications allow the sensor to ‘see’ infrared and other wavelengths beyond normal vision, and so the images before or after adjustment will look a bit animated.
When the helicopters finally lifted off from FOB Pasab, the compartment inside was black. I flipped down the PVS-14 nightvision monocular on my helmet and prepared for the ramp to open on the landing zone. One RPG into this helicopter could write the final dispatch: “Afghanistan: 40 Killed in Helicopter Crash.”
If we were shot down, and some of us survived the crash, the enemy does not call time out to let Soldiers regroup. It’s game on.
Shortly before we landed, a B1 plane, flying high above us in the night, bombed the landing zone to detonate any IEDs that had been planted. The enemy has known for years that we do this and they react accordingly. When some of them hear the sound of our bombs bursting, followed by the whir and thumping of rotors, they race in the opposite direction as fast as they can. But others consider these sounds to be an invitation to a fight, and they move to the sounds of rotors.
While we have the advantage of air and night vision, the enemy has home field. If the enemy does not know we are coming, we have the element of surprise. At this time, usually our aircraft, cannon, mortars and other weapons can be brought to bear with maximum effectiveness. But if the enemy knows we are coming, they can seize the initiative. If they are truly brave, they might move quickly and close tight with our troops to initiate small arms engagement, because once they come tight, we can’t use air, artillery, mortars and other key weapons. If they can get in tight, they’ve wholly committed; if they try to break contact after sticking for a while, probably our air and other weapons will get them as they make distance. More likely they would stick to guerrilla style hit and run attacks because local fighters, which most of them likely would be, don’t tend to be suicidal. Better for them is to hit and run, which they do at least several times a day at TF Spartan, and usually more.
The CH-47 ramp dropped and we flowed out into the farmer’s field and the helicopters roared away.
The silence of the night…was far from complete. The airspace is like a multi-layered cake, with each sort of aircraft confined to a slice of altitude. The lowest slice of air belonged to the Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and just above that is Apache air territory. The Kiowas are so low that if you wave, the pilots wave back. (Not at night.) They must think I’m a big Afghan kid because I’ve waved at hundreds of Kiowas, probably the same pilots over and over here and Iraq. Imagine a pilot on the radio, “Hey, look, there’s that waver again. Saw that guy in RC-East, and Mosul.” Not once has a Kiowa pilot thrown out any candy, but I keep waving.
Other aircraft have their own slices of the sky. Above the helicopters, are the Unarmed UAVs, at least one of which could be heard buzzing overhead. Maybe it was a Shadow UAV, which sounds like a lawnmower and has no weapons. They are used for reconnaissance and surveillance among other things. Several different traces from running lights blinked through the sky; UAVs keep their lights on to help avoid collisions. Higher were the silent birds such as the Predator or Reapers, piloted back in Nevada, but their camera feeds also come down into various headquarters back on base just five minutes flight away. Amazing to think that people in Nevada were watching our mission live, and they could shoot missiles or drop bombs if needed. Somewhere up there were small jets, perhaps A-10s or F/A 18s, or F-15s and F-16s. The favorites among Soldiers seem to be Kiowa helicopters, then A-10s and F-15s. The A-10s are loved because they are A-10s and that’s all that needs to be said. The F-15E Strike Eagles come with great optics, long loiter times, and a smorgasbord of weapons to chose from, although I haven’t seen an F-15 in a while. Higher still was a B1 bomber, also a favorite because of the great optics, long loiter times, and belly full of bombs. The B1s are stationed several countries away. They can fly all day and all night, and refuel while still flying above you. The B1 crew, flying miles in the sky, can easily spot us. And, if he comes down for a show of force, meaning a very low pass, it’s something you’ll never forget.
With that much noise, the enemy had to know we arrived. No doubt enemy commanders in the area were trying to figure out exactly where we landed, our troop strength, and our intentions.
But for this mission, the only aircraft that would engage in the firefights about to unfold were the Kiowa Warriors (KWs) and the Apaches. And they would shoot a great deal over the next 48 hours and 27 firefights. Given that, it’s probably a good idea to say a little more about the Kiowas and Apaches before getting into the firefights.
The men and women who fly the KWs are almost a hybrid between pilots and infantry. At times, they fly so low you literally could shoot their helicopters with slingshots, and definitely with bow and arrow. Often they fly in pairs, and we call those pairs of KWs a “Scout Weapons Team.” The tiny KWs only have two pilots and limited weapons, usually a .50 caliber, some rockets, or even Hellfire missiles. The Hellfires are so reliable and accurate that they now are considered to be direct fire weapons. The copilot often can be seen shooting out his or her door with an M4 rifle. The Soldiers love these crews. Here are two of many reasons why:
Last year, I was with the 5/2 Stryker (5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division) just north of here in the Arghandab, where the Soviets got their rears handed to them but we’ve done much better. Just before I joined 5/2, Lieutenant Dan Berschinski, a courageous Soldier from Peachtree, Georgia, was engaged in a firefight. He took a wrong step and had his legs blown off by an IED. Because there were so many other injuries in different locations, the MEDEVAC was slower to arrive, which is rare. Seeing how dire the situation was, a KW helicopter landed on the ground in the middle of the firefight. The co-pilot jumped out, grabbed the wounded Soldier, and placed him in his co-pilot seat. The co-pilot intended to stay on the ground and fight alongside the infantry while the KW pilot flew the wounded Soldier to the combat support hospital. Although the co-pilot tried his best, the wounded Soldier could not be secured in the seat because of his injured legs. And so the Kiowa left the wounded Soldier in the care of his unit and provided cover until the MEDEVAC arrived shortly thereafter. As soon as the KW pilots knew the injured Soldier was safe, the KW flew back up and plunged right back into the fight.
Another KW story…about three days ago, in the first week of August 2011, just near here, a unit that was in an engagement ran “black on water.” (Need water ASAP in this heat.) And so a KW was immediately dispatched to deliver water. However, the pilot did not want to simply airdrop the water because the water bottles usually burst. Instead, the crew landed the Kiowa, and one then ran out with the water bottles in hand…and got blasted by an IED. Luckily, he is okay and returned to duty. Sometimes the IEDs leave you in tiny pieces, and sometimes you sail through the air and have a superman story to tell. The bombs are weird like that. I could go on for several pages with confirmed KW stories and all are like this.
For tonight’s mission, there was one KW with an Apache for top cover. That’s called a “Pink Team.” When there are two KWs and one Apache, they are called a “Heavy Team.” The Pink Teams and Heavy Teams are about the best you can get, because you get that crazy KW down low, who are brutal on the enemy, and for top cover there is the Apache, and the Apache can get ugly quickly. The KW/Apache mix of flying and weapons is potent. But one drawback to the KW is that they are like hummingbirds who have to eat all the time, and so they constantly have to dash back to the FARP to refuel. (FARP: Forward Arming and Refueling Point.) Basically refueling KWs is like a NASCAR quick gas and ammo stop. Sometimes you’ll even catch a pilot dashing off to take a leak while the still running helicopter is refueled and reloaded, and then the pilot sprints back, takes off, and heads right back into the fight. The quick dash to the FARP and back to us is called a “YoYo.” The enemy watches the KW carefully. They hit us pretty much like clockwork between the “Yo” and “Yo.” When you see a KW beeline to the FARP, prepare to fight. Sure enough, this would happen to us numerous times over the next 48 hours.
The plan included a short stay on the landing zone while other elements moved to search compounds we planned to occupy. Once you land, it’s also a good idea to find a secure position and wait a few minutes to clear your senses of the loud helicopter sounds, and to adjust to the atmosphere of the battlefield. Unless, of course, you land in a firefight in which case the adjustment is complete.
So we landed, secured, waited, and adjusted.
Two fields of view
The night looked very different between my two eyes, and this is how most of the troops were outfitted. My left eye saw the night as the enemy would see it—stark black. My naked eye was drawing a blank in the darkness. My right eye saw through the PVS 14 optic (nightvision monocular) and the Soldiers around me appeared crystal clear in green and black.
On missions like this, some Soldiers also use small infrared (IR) beacons or “fireflies,” which are invisible to the naked eye. However, to aircraft overhead, or for those using a night vision monoculars on the ground, fireflies appear as bright strobes and mark the location of combat troops. As Soldiers moved about, IR lasers would appear like light sabers, shooting beams to infinity, or at least to whatever it pointed at. I could also see IR chemlights and innumerable other tiny lightsources that were either invisible to the naked eye, or could not be seen past a small distance by naked eye.
And so through my two eyes, the left eye being “naked,” and the right eye with the night vision monocular, the battlefield looked dramatically different. Through the left eye, little seemed to be happening other than occasional moving shadows. The right eye saw the equivalent of Time’s Square, including blacked-out helicopters and UAVs overhead, each with their IR beacons (the UAVs also radiate normal lights). Even the satellites in space were easily visible as they silently traced through the low heavens.
When the enemy fires upon us at night, muzzle flashes are extremely bright as seen through the night vision gear. The pilots’ night vision gear is even better than ours, and ours is very good. While the enemy shoots at us in the dark, our people will switch on their rifles’ IR lasers, and within seconds drill in with accurate fire on the enemy’s muzzle flashes. It’s very dangerous for the enemy to fight us at night, but they still do. If the aircraft spot an enemy that we can’t see (whether KW, Apache, A-10 or whatever, including Reapers and Predators), the aircraft can say, “Three armed men in the wood line, 200 meters to your front. Watch my laser.” A laser invisible to the enemy is as bright to us as a sunbeam from the heavens. “Got ‘em. Thanks for the laser.” The enemy has no idea, though increasingly they have used cell phone cameras which can spot our IR lasers. (Not OPSEC because I learned this from the enemy.)
Soldiers have to be careful in a shoot-out and aware of all the elements around them, especially KWs. The KWs have a magical way of suddenly zipping low over the battlefield and straight at the enemy. The KWs are hell on the enemy, but situations like that are precarious, too. Our Soldiers do not want to accidentally hit a KW with a ricochet or a grenade from a launcher because they did not see the KW flying in. The KWs are very aggressive and so our people on the ground have to keep an eye on them.
“Friendlies to our left”
As soon as we landed and troops secured our position, the Soldiers in 4-4Cav worked quietly but not altogether silently. There were muffled conversations, and muffled radio calls. In the distance, we could see fireflies from other elements, and our NCOs would say things like, “Those are friendlies to our left.” Of course we knew they were friendlies to our left because we could see their fireflies and the outlines of their gear. But in the business of war you never assume everyone is tracking. You communicate. You say the obvious. And you do it constantly. If you can shave off some risk with a few words, you do it.
Professional Soldiers never assume the obvious is understood or seen by everyone because, as veterans like to say, when you “ASSume,” you make an ass out of “u” and “me.”
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