Michael's Dispatches

No Young Soldiers

10 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Daily dramas unfolded, including the bangs, booms and small-arms fire that punctuated the times.  At 1800, I was preparing to go to orders with 1 Platoon, A Company of 2 Rifles, when shots from a large-caliber rifle began cracking low over base.  I passed by sniper, Kris Griffith, and said, “Hey Kris, why don’t you grab your rifle and go shoot that guy?”  Kris replied that two other sniper teams were on it.  “He’s close,” I said, and Kris answered, “About 600 meters.” Then we went our separate ways.

Orders were given and then the soldiers performed final checks on their gear and tried to fall to sleep in the sweltering evening heat.  Some nights I would go to sleep using the sleeping bag as a pillow, only to wake up with it drenched in sweat.

The alarm was set for 0213 hours, but at 0211 I sat up and turned it off before it could wake the soldiers who were not going on the mission.  I had nineteen minutes to pull on my boots, body armor, and small rucksack, before I had to get to breakfast, engage in final conversations, and then show up for the mission at 0310.

The mission was to begin at 0330; my section was to slip off base at 0345.

The following series of photos were taken during the early morning hours of August 2nd .  The conditions were “red illume,” meaning there was less than 10 millilux of ambient light and it was too dark for most helicopters to fly, even while using night vision gear.  It was plenty dark.

Soldiers and section leaders did “final check” after “final check” of their gear, and talked quietly among themselves while last-minute updates came over the radio.

In red illume, the soldiers used dim red lights that were harder for the enemy to see.  Red light also preserved our night vision.  By showing up a half-hour before departure and sitting quietly, our eyes and senses had time to adjust and tune in to the battlefield.  The battlefield was a thirty-second walk away.

Some soldiers smoked cigarettes before stepping out into the wild zone.  Most were quiet.  There was little talking during the last ten minutes.

In Green: Lance Corporal Jamie Nicholls, section commander for 1 Platoon, A Company, 2 Rifles

My section assembled…

…While another section waited.

The first section moved out nine minutes before the mission for my section began.

Six minutes to departure.

Final red lights were out. Our mission started three minutes early.

Despite low ambient light, the market in Sangin was dangerously lighted.

By 0357 hrs, some shops were already open, including this shoe store.  The Taliban in this area did not seem to wear running shoes as did some of the enemy groups elsewhere in Afghanistan.  Here, the enemy mostly wore sandals or went barefoot.  (Many often ran right out of their sandals, especially during combat.)

Shops on this very street sold fertilizer used to make bombs.  They might as well have sold dynamite.  (The fertilizer also happened to be good for growing opium.)  The bombs regularly blow the limbs off troops around Afghanistan.  Soldiers may lose their legs, or their legs and an arm and their eyesight, or worse.  But what can we do, really?  Gasoline, like fertilizer, can be an incredible weapon.  Are we to ban gasoline and attack gas shipments while trying to build a country from scratch?  We talk about weapons flowing in from Pakistan, while in reality most of the casualties in this area come from bombs made from fertilizer sold in the open markets.  We talk about Pakistani Taliban flowing in, while the local ANA Commander, Colonel Wadood, tells me that some of the fighters are Tajiks from places like Ghor Province.  Tajiks generally hate the Taliban but they come to make money, he says.

1 Platoon, A Company, 2 Rifles moved silently through darkness cut by bare bulbs.

The sensitive camera and fine lens seemed to amplify low light.

The crux of the mission was a raid, but the task of our section was to provide security and fire support for the raiders.  If the enemy were to try to hit our guys during the raid, our job was to kill the enemy, and so our objective was a farmhouse that overlooked the target.

British soldiers moved into an occupied farmhouse as the man willingly opened the gate to let us in.  Several cute children were sleeping under the stars. The soldiers were so quiet the kids were not disturbed.  I thought to myself, “What would the kids think if they woke up and saw the soldiers?” About fifteen minutes later, one of the children woke up, and his voice could be heard through the silence of the night.  The man with the turban stepped over and spoke quietly to the child who immediately zonked out again, as if it were all part of a dream.

After the compound was quietly and respectfully searched, some of the soldiers sat down while others pushed into security positions.

The soldiers were perfectly early: not so early that they risked tipping their hand too soon, but early enough that they had time to collect thoughts and tune-in after the movement and get into good positions while the raiders skulked in on the nearby target, only 150 meters away.

Instead of pushing everyone into position immediately—increasing the chance of compromise—most of the team waited down in the compound until just before first light.

This man seemed unconcerned. The British soldiers respected the locals while the Taliban acted out on a whim, murdering innocents or splashing acid in the faces of schoolgirls.  Within hours of the time this photo was taken, we felt the rumble as the Taliban blew up a local bridge and killed two ANA soldiers.  In addition to the killing, the bridge was important to the locals.  This was not a fight for terrain, but for the sentiments of the people.

As with al Qaeda, the Taliban is our best weapon against themselves.  The Taliban issued a code of conduct, which likely was a blunder on their part.  Why?  Because the Taliban are undisciplined savages, and every time they violate their own code of conduct—which happens every day and night—the good guys have a chance to broadcast the transgression.

Rifleman Robert Welsh

More soldiers moved to the roof at 0442 while the raiders got into final position. At 0500 the raid began, but only two air rifles were found.  At 0510 “dickers” (watchers) were spotted on motorcycles and on a roof, as the FST plots potential enemy positions.

Fire Support Team members: Hatton, Wotherspoon, Beale

Though it might seem like a simple raid, it would take many long dispatches for the untrained reader to develop a reasonable understanding of this three-dimensional battlefield and what the soldiers were doing.   There was more going on than just “1 Platoon, A Company, 2 Rifles, with guns on a roof in Afghanistan.”  1 Platoon was a small part of a larger package.

Embedded within 1 Platoon was a handful of specialists from 636 (Arcot 1751 Battery), 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, “The Lowland Gunners,” simply called the “Fire Support Team.”  Most soldiers just say FST.

The primary function of 1 Platoon was to provide security for the raiders, and to deliver the FST, whose primary function also was to provide security for the raiders.

The FST controls air assets, mortars, cannons, howitzers, and remote rocket systems known as GMLRS, (which Americans pronounce “Gimmlers” while the British say each letter: G-M-L-R-S).

GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System) scares the heck out of the enemy; GMLRS can be launched from dozens of miles away and reliably kill a man—or a lot of men—without warning.  GMLRS are like the ultimate sniper rifle, only the bullet is a large explosive warhead. The system is so reliable and accurate that during operation Arrowhead Ripper during the summer of 2007 in Iraq, our people were hitting IEDs from dozens of miles away.  Whereas the enemy can see or hear most aircraft, they get no warning with GMLRS.  Even with the invisible and silent Predators and Reapers firing the small Hellfire missiles, the enemy has a few seconds warning.  Hellfires are like gigantic hand grenades with a homing system.  A Hellfire can hit a car and not necessarily kill everyone.  But if GMLRS hits a sturdy two-story house, the house is gone.  The Taliban hate it.

The FST had an array of tricks up their camouflaged sleeves; the primary weapons of this mission were the devastating 81mm mortars, the even more devastating 105mm howitzers, and the GMLRS many miles away.  Overhead were two American A-10s; British Apaches attack helicopter; and a supersonic American B-1B bomber that was designed to deliver hydrogen bombs into the heart of the Soviet Union.  The call sign for the B-1B might as well have been “Strangelove” and it’s not difficult to imagine Slim Pickens at the controls.  (A message came that a B-1B crew who had covered us on a recent mission, had read the dispatch and sent a message to me.  The Brits relayed the message; thank you B-1B!  During upcoming missions, I’ll be the one waving up at you in the stratosphere.  The enemy has IEDs, but the riflemen are monkey-stomping these guys.  Thank you for the top cover.)

FST soldiers plotted all suspected enemy firing points and listed the coordinates while other soldiers were ready near the mortars and howitzers and would fire into the target mere moments after a “FIRE MISSION…” radio call came in.  At 0521 a man was spotted in a dark dishdasha moving through a woodline.  Sergeant Wotherspoon, a Scottish soldier who sounds very much like the Scotsman on the Simpsons, pulled out his laser range finder, checked the distance and plotted a fire mission.  The “dicking screen” seemed to be increasing so the FST stayed busy plotting potential targets.  At 0544 the first raid was over and the raiders moved to hit a second compound.  Amazingly, some people in the United States believe that the raiders should take time to gather forensic evidence for later court cases.  This would spell many death sentences for us, and prove a potent disincentive to soldiers who risk their lives to capture suspects alive.  If soldiers at war are held to the same evidence collection standards as law enforcement officers at home, we need to end the war before we sink further into the quicksand.  If the judiciary enforces unbearable standards in this ugly war, a fair-minded, informed person likely would say that we need to conclude our attempts to raise up Afghanistan, and we should bring home the troops.

At 0546 there was a large caliber rifle shot that kicked up dust about a hundred meters from us.  A minute later there was another shot but we saw no splash.  Wotherspoon said, “That’s how it started last time; single shots trying to find us.”  (Wotherspoon really does sound like the Scotsman on the Simpsons but I didn’t dare say it.)  They had gotten into a serious firefight here before and expected another.  I fell asleep when shots woke me up at 0633. There were sounds of motorbikes and sporadic shots being fired as I fell back to sleep. While most soldiers worked some were switching watch and a few slept.  An infantryman’s rule of thumb: never miss a chance to fill canteens or sleep.

Modern battlefields bring countless strange sounds.  What does a bomb sound like when it slices overhead through the dark to a target?  An RPG launch?  How about a Javelin or Hellfire or 81 or 105 or 107 or 155 or A-10 or Shadow?  Everyone reading this likely knows the sound a train rumbling by, or a car horn, yet out here on the battlefields there are probably hundreds of new sounds to learn.  While falling back to sleep, an incident came to mind from my first day or two at FOB Jackson.  The mess tent was crowded and we all heard a THUMP, which sounded remarkably like an incoming mortar launch.  This base – despite all the combat – does not take mortar and rocket fire (touch wood), so nobody hit the deck.  But in the seconds after the THUMP, the loud mess tent went completely silent as all ears strained to hear.  And then came a slight whistle and at least fifty people were on the ground in a second or two.  But one soldier, Corporal Ryan Hone, just sat there and said “What?” Corporal Hone was temporarily deaf because he had been flat-blasted by an enemy bomb some days back, and so he didn’t hear the whistle.  And there was no incoming mortar.  I’ve never heard one whistle, anyway.  The whistle came from Serjeant Rob Grimes from 2 Platoon!

In addition to plotting potential enemy FPs (Firing Points), any potential enemy group who came within our reach was also immediately plotted.  The machine guns, rifles and grenades the soldiers carried were the least things the enemy should have been concerned about.  Fine training and attention to detail are crucial in this job.  All targets were “danger close” to us, and often to the other elements on the ground.

“Danger close” means that even if everything goes just right, friendly troops are so close to our fires (such as bombs, mortars or the guns), that we might take casualties from our own fires.  Any fire missions that the FST would have called from the position we were in would have been danger close, to us and probably to the raiders.  Most fire missions in the Green Zone are danger close.

So if one of these soldiers made a mistake—even one digit off—the mistake could have wiped out an innocent family, us, or both.  To safeguard, they train constantly, and during missions two FST members plot each target separately then compare answers.

Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton

FST soldiers must be able to pass the tests during firefights and when bombs are exploding or when people are screaming with horrible injuries. They must reliably call fire missions during all conditions, such as fitful, dark nights when the men are tired, hungry, and in need of rest.

L to R: Corporal Pat Cunningham; Sgt Lee Wotherspoon; Gunner Jake Beale.  Many soldiers adapted the camouflage to blend into the local condition.  The green shirts help in the Green Zone.

While the soldiers on the roof worked radios on different nets, plotted their own solutions and shared information, the family below offered bread and tea to the soldiers.

From the roof, the FST can call a fire mission from scratch and have rounds landing in -- let’s not give the enemy a clue, and just say “very fast.”  Since the FST had already plotted all likely enemy positions, the fire mission would be accelerated Time Of Flight (TOF) for the 105mm Howitzer shots would be 22 seconds while the 81mm mortar bombs will fly for about 33 seconds before detonating.  All fuses are dialed to “proximity low” to reduce structural damage and increase damage to Taliban fighters.

On the roof, Gunner Jake Beale mentioned that he turned 19 in May, and later Corporal Mark Foley recounted how he saw Gunner Beale shoulder his 40mm grenade launcher and take aim at a Taliban who was about 200m away.  Beale launched the grenade, which arced lazily to apogee and fell straight into the Taliban and detonated.  While shots were being fired in the distance, the soldiers joked that it takes eight washings to get the smell of Afghanistan out of your gear.  Beale said that if you iron your uniform, the smells take you on a tour around Afghanistan with smells from fields, compounds, markets, irrigation ditches and shit.

This A-10 had just popped flares and headed straight over the unfolding ambush.  British soldiers love to see a couple of American A-10s on station.  It’s like having a backup battalion in the sky.  The A-10s are not sexy like F-15s, but they are fantastic platforms operated by capable pilots.

There were various shots as the morning unfolded and at 0743 there were two explosions that we thought were an RPG attack. Actually it was an IED attack with two bombs on the ANA.  The sun was rising and the morning was already hot when we heard random scattered shots and a short but brisk firefight.  The soldiers were in good spirits.  I said, “Those guys out there with guns are not very friendly,” and they laughed and told jokes of their own.

Bones the B-1B had flown over a couple times, and at 0759 the two A-10s flew over and popped flares nearly over our heads.  The ANA, some hundreds of meters away, had been ambushed by a bridge and the bridge was destroyed.  One soldier was dead and another dying.  We could hear bullets flying but could not see the action other than some dust.  A British rescue helicopter carrying a MERT (Medical Emergency Response Team) was dispatched from Camp Bastion and headed straight into the danger.

The raids were over and the raiders had pulled back, so we departed the roof.  I saw a couple soldiers say goodbye to the turbaned man who was waving his farewell.

As we entered the first funnel between two compounds which ended at an open area, we were in the perfect position to sustain a hit.  When we entered the open area we saw a half dozen men watching us from a mud building that had been melting through time.  We seemed to have surprised them.   No weapons were visible but my danger alarms kicked to red-alert, and the same happened with the soldiers who immediately prepared for combat.  It seemed to me that soldiers were clicking rifle selector switches to FIRE, but I am not certain.  Some kids were also watching from another position.  Everything seemed wrong.

One man, among the group of men in the melting building, pushed a small child in front of him and at least two British soldiers told all the men to “Get out of here right now!”  I could sense that British trigger-fingers were a glance away from pulling into action.  No shots were fired and we moved on.

Were those men and the children part of something bigger, or just onlookers?  A European or American likely would have taken cover if they saw a firefight brewing, but that doesn’t mean these people would.  Combat veterans of the Iraq war might remember seeing women and children walking down the streets during the middle of firefights.  Hundreds or thousands of bullets might be snapping by, yet some woman with a couple kids would appear and leisurely cross the street like nothing was going on, as if protected by a force field.

Some people say the Taliban are cowardly for planting bombs, but I do not believe this makes them any more cowardly than the A-10s, Apaches, B-1Bs and Reapers make us cowardly.  We didn’t come here for a fair fight.  We came to win.  Some troops even say that if you show up to a battle and find it’s evenly matched, you didn’t plan well.  What most of us find cowardly and despicable are the enemies who hide behind children.  The bombs they plant for us are fair play.  But males who hide behind children are not worthy of respect.

It’s difficult to move unpredictably in tight areas.  There are choke points and only so many ways to travel in the limited battle space.  And so we were bottlenecked, and the point man detected something suspicious.

Most of the bombs here are command detonated, requiring only that someone push the button or connect the battery.  Despite the danger, the point man crawled on his belly to the suspected bomb.  If what he saw was a command detonated bomb, he likely would die suddenly and we would be pelted by the blast.  If what he saw was a pressure plate, he might save the life or limbs of one or more of those behind him.

A cow was munching green just to my right.  The soldiers were quiet, as they scanned the danger areas.  Everyone was quiet: If you’ve got nothing to say, now is a good time to not say it.  Should the point man have been killed we would likely have been in a firefight right there.  By this time the British helicopter is just minutes out from picking up the dying ANA soldier who had been blown up earlier, while his buddies loaded up the dead soldier.

Point man said quietly back, “Barbed wire,” and it was relayed back to me and I said, “barbed wire” to the man behind, who said, “command wire” and the file behind immediately started to pull back. I said, “No, no, barbed wire, not command wire,” and he understood then, so we all moved forward.  The point man found no bomb.

We pushed farther into another fatal funnel.

The enemy often plants bombs in the walls, or they can easily dig under a wall and put a bomb under the path without leaving visible disturbance.  These are normal tactics.  They also shoot through small holes in the walls.  At this range, the A-10s and Bones the B-1B could do little more than watch.

The soldiers cleared through the funnels and moved back onto the market street.

The suicide bomber threat was high, and unfortunately we had become an irritant to the people.  We could not let motorcycles and cars just roll by or it would be just a matter of time until a bunch of guys would get flattened.

Back in May, a motorcycle rammed a patrol and when soldiers got out to help, he detonated, killing two British soldiers.  This happened in nearby Gereshk.  One of the soldiers had been a Gurkha.  Word came to Brunei where I was training with Gurkhas.   The soldiers halted the exercise briefly and held a moment of thought, then returned to training for a return to Afghanistan.  That attack had occurred in Gereshk.  There had been four suicide attacks in Sangin.

When we stopped traffic the people would become irritated; most of them were just going about their lives.  I saw a letter wherein one American officer said that he did not see people irritated when he stopped traffic in Kabul, but he must not have been paying attention.  The people do get upset, and so it was important to smile, wave and act as non-threatening as possible.  Sometimes there was little else you could do.

Typical transport on the main road in the district capital of Sangin.

There are many tractors in Sangin.  Diesel fuel can be mixed with the fertilizer to make bombs (ANFO: Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil), but here the bomb-makers had been mixing the fertilizer with fine aluminum powder used in spray paints.

Apparently this ANP is not accustomed to shoes or boots with laces.  The golden sacks on the right are fertilizer that can be used in bombs.

We made our way through the market and one motorcycle looked like he would crash the patrol and a soldier immediately shouldered his rifle, aimed at the man and yelled, “STOP!” The man skidded to a stop.  I waved and he actually waved back.

Nobody liked doing this, pointing a rifle at someone who was probably in his hometown.

Back where we started: Soldiers clear their weapons, head back to clean their gear and go for a swim in the river.  The blonde and bespectacled Jake Beale turned 19 years old in May.   Rifleman Matty Meakin (far right).

Some of the soldiers out here might seem young, but there are no young soldiers here.  Not even one.

Guarding the body

The British MERT helicopter had landed on the battlefield and picked up the severely wounded Afghan soldier.   He was delivered to Camp Bastion where he died that day.

While the helicopter had evacuated the soldier who died shortly thereafter, the Afghan soldiers loaded up the dead soldier, the one who was killed in the initial attack, and brought him to our base despite the fact that he obviously was dead.  Maybe they thought the British could do something but he was dead and nothing could be done, so the Afghan soldiers kept guard on the body and for a time at least two of them cried for their comrade. I brought them water.  They wanted a British helicopter to come take the body somewhere, but this was not going to happen.

It’s a bad idea to land helicopters here in broad daylight other than for casualty extractions, and the ANA has helicopters; their own commander could request the same.  FOB Jackson is a busy little base where Afghan soldiers also live, so most people probably had no idea why the Afghan soldiers were even sitting there—but the medics had told me.

Later that afternoon the two Afghan soldiers were still there, but had lightened up and wanted their photo taken. That day like every day kept unfolding, and ended just as it had begun.

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