Michael's Dispatches

One Night in Zhari

2011-08-20-144517-10004-4 Cav Soldiers firing a 40mm mortar on the evening of 20 August 2011.

12 September 2011

Note: This rough dispatch was written over many days during slivers of time between prepping gear and going on missions. Different sentences were written at different times.  Many operations unfolded and there were more injuries and fatalities in the brigade, and more progress against the enemy in this area.  On the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, 4-4 Cav was again in combat, as they are every day.

4-4 Cav, Task Force Spartan
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The sun was setting and the Soldiers were still scuffling here and there in small firefights.  Most of the surrounding skirmishes had ended but there were still a few bullets flying.  Some enemy were spotted nearby.  American Soldiers carefully aimed 40mm grenades and 60mm mortar rounds at the enemy position.  From my location, the enemy were invisible but there were Soldiers elsewhere who could see them.  It was the evening of 20 August 2011.

The 40mm is a shoulder fired weapon and is excellent for hitting “dead space.”  Dead spaces are areas where the enemy can take cover, such as in a ditch, and we can’t hit them directly with small arms fire.  Indirect fire weapons can be agile in ways that direct fire weapons like machineguns cannot match, such as hitting or firing from dead spaces.  “Indirect fire” means aiming and firing without relying on a direct line of sight between the weapon and the target.  It’s like lobbing a softball that arcs up and then drops down on a target, which might be on the other side of a hill.  Field artillery can be used as direct fire or IDF.  These inventions explode in target areas and so they are also called “area weapons.”

Our people, and the enemy, attack each other daily with grenades and rockets of various sorts, and usually also small arms fire.  Such was the case during a mission on 03 September, when Private First Class Brandon Longshore--a young trooper from Opelika, Alabama who keeps getting into combat--was lightly wounded when the enemy fired grenades.  It’s possible that Brandon shot the same enemy who killed Private First Class Brice Scott several weeks back in another firefight during an air assault mission.  The element I was with during that same mission arrived shortly after that deadly firefight.  Everyone was saddened by Brice’s loss.

Recently, Brandon Longshore was limping around here on crutches.  He’s in good spirits and we talked for a while.  In describing the 03 September mission, Brandon said he heard the incoming grenade for about half a second before it exploded.  His ears were ringing like crazy.  Some may ask why he wasn’t wearing earplugs, but it’s unrealistic to expect troopers to wear them all the time.  Combat rarely happens during ideal circumstances.  A few weeks ago I photographed Brandon saving an Afghan boy from possible asphyxiation during a firefight.  After the war, Brandon will have a lot of bragging rights.  My guess is that nobody is going to believe him because he looks too young to have seen so much fighting.  [Update: I saw Brandon yesterday on 11 September.  He’s back in the fight.]

2011-08-20-144841-3-10004-4 Cav Soldiers firing a 60mm on the evening of 20 August 2011 during Operation Pyrite Pike.
Where are the Canadians?

Shortly before the twilight images were taken, Sergeant Edward Wooden and Specialist Ian Stauffer, both from Pennsylvania, were wounded in an APOBS accident (Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System)  The two Soldiers were clearing enemy bombs from very close to where our 40mm and 60mm mortars were firing.  Sergeant Wooden is still healing from his burn wounds. I watch his daily progress as we share a tent at FOB Pasab.

Specialist Ian Stauffer recovered from his minor injury with the APOBS.  He left our tent and went to a smaller outpost nearby called Hadji Rammudin II (HRII).  I went out to HRII for other business and took a cot in the medical tent, which happened to be just 150 meters from where Specialist Stauffer stepped on a bomb after he returned to combat.  The IED only partially exploded, injuring Ian’s ankle by twisting his foot around.  Ian has gone home.  (If you are reading this from home, Ian, everyone wishes you a speedy recovery.)

Incidentally, a similar IED detonation to what Ian experienced also happened to Private First Class Nick Ortlieb in March. The two are from the same platoon.  I never met Nick but they say he is a solid trooper. Nick’s tour of duty ended when the IED detonation caused a compound fracture to his ankle.

Just as I wrote the previous paragraph on 04 September, FOB Pasab took two incoming 82mm recoilless IDF rounds from the enemy.  There were two minor casualties.  A few days before this strike, there were three minor casualties from a similar attack when six 82mm shots hit us. Recently, strikes from the 82mm disabled three of our heavily armored MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles in about 30 seconds.  Nobody was killed but that was good fortune for our side.  I was not on that particular mission and only saw the damaged trucks after they returned to base.  Several Soldiers, including the squadron commander, experienced mild traumatic brain injury from that attack.  Impacts like that scramble your thoughts.  Concussions from nearby bombs often make your mind blink out like a television that suddenly loses signal.  In Iraq, Soldiers who experienced bomb concussions would often say, “My TV went out.”

The 82mm is a powerful weapon and with a direct hit can kill everyone in an MRAP.  When the Canadians took on the Afghan district 4-4 Cav is now operating from, they had a difficult time with the 82mm recoilless rifles.  Lately, the history of the Canadian troops is softly being rewritten as successful in Afghanistan.  Reality differs.  The Canadians troops have an excellent reputation and they served with distinction, but after nearly being swallowed whole, they were ordered to abandon their battlespace.  There were many causes.  The Canadian combat forces could have prevailed, but Ottawa is weak.  The prime cause for the Canadian defeat was that tough men in mud homes without electricity defeated comfortable politicians in Ottawa, who seem to think that manufactured history will make them victorious.

In the book, “A LINE IN THE SAND: CANADIANS AT WAR IN KANDAHAR,” the author Ray Wiss writes:

“Very few will recognize the names of Shah Wali Khot, Arghandab, and especially Panjwayi and Zhari.  Those are the province’s districts where virtually all the combat in which the Canadians have been involved has taken place, an area roughly the same size as the Greater Toronto Area.

“Why did we expend so much blood and treasure in such a small area?  Because it is the birthplace of the Taliban, and the area where they have the most support.”

The Canadians are gone from the area described above.  Canada came late (in force), and left early.   If they had stayed, neither 4-4 Cav nor I would be here as witness this night in Zhari.

2011-08-20-145046-1000An enemy position burning after hits from a 60mm mortar.

The Battlespace

On the afternoon of 20 August, I was with Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, the 4-4 Cav Commander.  He had been visiting various outposts which were fighting intermittently over the past couple days.  Around sunset, we headed back to a compound where we had left gear with some Soldiers. The firefights around us were slowing down, possibly because the enemy who had not been killed this day were heading for dinner, or maybe digging graves.  The enemy’s custom is to bury their dead the same day they die (or are killed), but that is not always convenient or possible for them.

Sometimes when you walk on the battlefields, it’s like an IMAX movie.  Surround sound with surround action.  The drum rolls of machine guns, the popping of small arms, thumps from grenades, karummphs from mortars, crackling radio calls, the helicopters zoooom low just over your head and fire at the enemy while jets roar in the twilight high above.  Sometimes an A-10 rolls in for a strafing run, or an Apache fires its cannon or Hellfire missiles.  Sometimes a Predator or Reaper, piloted all the way back in Nevada, will shoot a missile.

This war has gone on for so long--and there is so much experience on both sides of the fighting--that it’s become bizarrely normal.  The only thing abnormal about this war is that it has become normal.

We play by dumb rules.  For example, we are not allowed to shoot at known enemy during the heat of battle when they are collecting their wounded.  These enemy are the same men that do not hesitate to shoot at our helicopters emblazoned with Red Crosses when they are being loaded with wounded.  Some people outside the war zone talk about the Geneva Conventions, which are as relevant here as are the laws of Bolivia.  People love to say, “According to the Geneva Conventions (as if they’ve read them), blah blah blah…”

2011-08-20-145419-1000Soldiers collapsing security from rooftops. They move quickly to avoid being hit while silhouetted.

Back to Operation Pyrite Pike – the exfiltration

The photographs in this dispatch were made during Operation Pyrite Pike on 20 August.

At the end of the mission, near the middle of the night, the plan was to exfiltrate by helicopters.  The enemy has some good shooters in our area.  A common term for these shooters is “snipers.”  The term sniper is loaded, however, among US combat troops.  The US military idea of a sniper is that of a highly skilled, highly trained person who can do great damage with an otherwise puny rifle.  And so the meaning of the term “sniper” varies dramatically depending on the writer and the audience.  In Zhari the enemy has some good shooters, and they do some damage, but these “snipers” are not world class.  They are not Marine Snipers.  Nevertheless, it’s best not to be silhouetted on a rooftop.  And so in situations like the one in the photograph above, our people move quickly as they move positions.

2011-08-20-160920-1000After nightfall, there was far to go to reach our helicopter landing zone. Soldiers take a knee as the path is “cleared” before them.

“Cleared paths”

We already had been in the middle of Taliban country a couple of days, having roared in late at night by helicopters.  By now, the enemy had time to seed the landing area with more bombs.  Many of the Taliban are local farmers and are good at planting things.  As we filed out, Soldiers in front of us “cleared” the path, but “cleared” deserves the same quotations as “sniper.”  Despite the best efforts to “clear” a path, troops often are blown up far down the file.  You might be number three or number ten in the file and suddenly—BOOM—it’s over.  You may have a broken leg, be a triple amputee, or dead.  [Just yesterday, on 11 September during another mission, an Afghan Soldier far in front of me was about number 20 in line and he stepped on a weak IED, which mostly failed to work.]

The “cleared” path is narrow.  Even with night vision gear, you can’t see the footsteps where others have walked before you, and besides that you need to keep scanning around for other ambushes.  A path is never really and truly cleared until it’s behind you.  Far enough behind you that a Soldier behind you who gets blown up won’t take you with him.  An inch off the ant trail is 100% uncleared, and the ant trail itself is only vaguely cleared. The ambushes often are designed so that a man far up front triggers many bombs back down the path.  At night we have to close our interval or risk getting split. This increases the chances of IEDs hitting more than one Soldier.  There is no grey area.  It’s all a bloody battlefield.  It’s never cleared.

2011-08-20-163434-1000Soldiers carry heavy gear and many fall here and there in the shifting landscape. On the right of the photograph, an Infrared chemlight is glowing in the weeds. It’s invisible to the naked eye, but bright to our night vision gear and to my specially adapted camera.

Note: another break in writing.

It’s now 09 September and I’m writing from a cot in a tent at a tiny base in the middle of Taliban country.  This small base, called Hadji Rammudin II (HRII) and is only a couple miles from the larger base called FOB Pasab where many of the Soldiers from Task Force Spartan live.  Every operation and firefight here is happening within just a few miles of FOB Pasab.

Soldiers at HRII talk about an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) sergeant they greatly respected.  I had recently written about him in regard to another battle.  He just lost part of both his legs while clearing an IED.  Apparently, he cleared one IED but a second got him. The enemy may have deliberately targeted him, as it’s well known how important and special EOD troops are to us.  The troops at HRII said this sergeant helped them clear many dangers.  Days before the operation where he lost his legs, the EOD Soldier had been working in the area where Specialist Ian Stauffer stepped on the IED that broke his ankle. The difference between this tent and Taliban country is less than a rifle shot.  It’s less than shouting distance.

2011-08-20-163619-1000The four small lights in the center is actually one blinking IR strobe called a firefly. Sometimes we turn on fireflies so the aircraft can see us. The bright light in the sky is Infrared illumination fired from a distant cannon. It can be seen with the naked eye but it does not light up the ground much. But with our night vision monoculars, it’s very bright and even casts shadows.


In this area, this year, the multi-layered enemy has sent or brought “Punjabi Cells” from Pakistan. The Punjabi Cells are believed to be from Pakistan, and are better trained than normal local Taliban.  The Punjabi Cells are known to track us and mimic our movements, anticipate our moves and circle ahead to set ambushes.

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