Michael's Dispatches

Night Into Day

Sangin, Helmand Province
Afghanistan

Finding the Enemy

29 July 2009

Orders are given before every operation.  The orders filter down through various unit levels involved, until each platoon finally recieves its specific mission.  The concept for this mission came down from the 2 Rifles Battlegroup (battalion) to the  companies, including elements of the Afghan National Army and their British counterparts from the Welsh Guard, and down to each 2 Rifles platoon involved.  So for any mission there might be literally dozens (or more) orders and rehearsals until each man and woman knows the perceived enemy situaton, their specific tasks, and much more.  While soldiers here at FOB Jackson received orders, undoubtedly pilots and others, stationed far away, perhaps on an aircraft carrier or even farther afield, were finalizing related plans.

On 23 July, the afternoon before the mission, a call came into headquarters that two British soldiers had been wounded by two IEDs, and that the American helicopter medevacs known as “Pedro” had been called to extract the casualties.  Pedro is a potent morale booster; British soldiers know that their American brethren in the medevac helicopters will come for them anytime anywhere, guns blazing if needed.  Medevac is dangerous work; earlier this month, a bomb detonated, killing and wounding soldiers from 2 Rifles, and when they moved to prepare for medevac, another bomb exploded.  In all, five soldiers were killed and many wounded. Yet the soldiers know that if they can get their buddies while still alive onto Pedro, chances for survival are dramatically increased.  In addition to carrying outstanding medical crew, Pedro would roar back to Camp Bastion’s first-rate trauma center in about fifteen minutes.  Night or day, gunfight or not, Pedro will be there.

23 July 2009, at 1600 hours: Corporal Kris Griffith, from British 2 Rifles FSG Snipers, receives his mission.  The gear is already prepared.  The weapons are spotless.  All that’s left is one last round of checks, and then to try to sleep until about 2345 hours.

At midnight, soldiers arrived in the mess tent for breakfast.

After breakfast, the soldiers pulled on their body armor and what seemed like dozens of sorts of weapons: rockets of various sorts, different types of machine guns and rifles, grenade launchers with odd sorts of grenades, hand grenades, pistols, knives, radios (probably most deadly of all) and lots of attitude.  A few soldiers smoked last cigarettes and then we trod on foot into some of the most bomb-laden stretches of Afghanistan.  Everyone wore night vision gear, but it was so dark that I left the PVS-14 flipped up, on standby mode, and used what little ambient light was there.

Even at 3200 ISO, f1.2, 1/8s, precious little light was registering on the camera sensor.

The camera was nearly useless (as the shot above will attest), but in fact the enhancement below shows the eerie apparition of the soldier as we headed into the battlefield.  With water crossings ahead and the darkness, the camera was better stowed in the waterproof bag inside the rucksack, so was soon tucked away.

Each soldier had been told to carry at least six liters of water, and so I carried 8.5 liters.  Everyone carried medical kits, including bandages and tourniquets on the right side, and an un-cracked infrared chemlight on their helmet, and a blue chemlight for casualties.  Twenty British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this month so far [the number since this mission has increased], and probably another hundred to hundred and fifty have been wounded.  Ingress was dangerous, with land mines and other bombs planted in every route the soldiers were likely to take, and so we set off through the most unlikely routes that the commanders could manage.  All roads and paths are mined or laced with IEDs, at choke points such as bridges and easy ground.  And so we slogged through muck and soft ground, and crossed irrigation canals by ladder or wading through in the dark.  The soldiers were quiet and used no lights, though some used the night vision monocular that would leave a faint green glow around one eye.

This is an active battlefield—even as I write these words on 27 July an Apache is firing down with its 30mm (killing four Taliban) nearby and combat occurs many times per day—and so this mission can only be described in general terms.  In broad strokes, the mission on 24 July was to bait the enemy to take certain actions, and there were multiple moving parts to our side, making it difficult for the enemy to keep track of our combat elements.  Though we would leave obvious boot tracks through fields and neighborhoods, our units split and went here and there, and so despite that the enemy had home field advantage, we could still achieve relative surprise for at least short periods.  As the soldiers quietly sweated and moved through the darkness, dogs barked in the night; the canines sometimes go nuts at quiet but high-pitched emanations from the metal detectors.

Along the way, Rifleman Ryan Grieves busted his ankle, possibly breaking it, so the British soldiers pushed out into security positions and my section of eight (seven men, one woman) pushed through a canal and forward.  We moved up to a compound and there an incadescent light made me very uncomfortable and I tried to melt into a shadow near a rifleman who was doing the same.  A British soldier moved toward the light – many times soldiers just whack out the lights – but he carefully unscrewed a few twists and a more comfortable darkness returned and we moved forward.

Other sections pushed forward and entered a compound where more than a half dozen Afghan women and girls were sleeping in the open on a raised platform, under the Milky Way, where it was cool.  The lights inside bathed the compound with an amber glow.

The interpreter explained our situation to the women and girls, who hardly seemed startled and not the least bit afraid.  Everyone knows that women and children will be treated well, and I kept the camera mostly out of sight and away from the women.  The British soldiers stayed away from the open area where the women and girls just watched us from the platform, though a couple of them seemed to fall back asleep.

Rifleman Grieves had been on point—an extremely dangerous place to be—and was unhappy to suddenly be carried by his buddies and to slow down the mission.  But that’s the way it goes; the ground was favorable to a broken bone or two, and Rifleman Grieves had drawn that straw and busted the ankle.  (Later we learned it was not broken.)

Medic Lance Corporal Beth Sparks is on her job, while Rifleman Karl Dresser talks to Ryan Grieves who is on his back.  A soldier took Grieves’s weapon and cleaned it spic and span; the barrel got stuffed with mud, which can be a problem out here, and you’ve got to pay close attention, especially at night.  Firing the weapon with mud in the barrel will cause it to explode, which takes the rifle out of action and possibly the rifleman, too.

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