Michael's Dispatches

Sad News from Borneo

08 May 2009

Gurkhas in the British Army are training to return to Afghanistan.  I’ve been invited to train alongside them.  There is a sense of realism in the unit, probably because, as the British commander told me, about a third of the soldiers are combat veterans.  During these war games, the enemy (also British soldiers) is given free reign.  They can attack anyway they wish – without breaking the law, of course.  They are not permitted to, say, steal a helicopter to attack.  Just about everything else is game.  If the British enemy wages a successful attack against the British defenders, they get a day off from training and lots of bragging rights.  The commander told me that one time, they put the soldiers into the jungle and gave them three days to “kill” as many enemy as possible.  The winner would get time off.  Apparently it was three days of cat-like “combat,” with soldiers tracking and counter-tracking, ambushes and so on and so forth.  One group ran out of ammo so they tried a deception by slinging their weapons over their shoulders.  They got non-tactical and crashed through the jungle toward the helicopter landing site.  Another group had sneaked up to the site and were defending it.  The plan was to act like the exercise was over, and get close to the defending soldiers, then beat them up or whatever, and take their weapons.  The Brits play rough.  But the group with ammo (blanks) didn’t fall for it, and shot them.

During another exercise, at the same place we are at today, Gurkha soldiers mounted an attack against other Gurkhas who were in a fixed and reasonably defensible position.  The attackers opened fire on the camp.  During the “firefight,” another Gurkha slipped into camp, made it to the headquarters, then walked inside and yelled Allah u Akbar!, and “detonated.”  The “suicide bomber” had crawled a long distance in a drainage ditch, through a culvert, and slipped up to the perimeter.  He cut a small hole in a fence and slipped in while the deception attack was happening elsewhere.  This was very realistic. Something similar happened in Mosul in December 2004, killing more than twenty people in an American dining facility.  One time in Diyala Province, Iraq, a suicide attacker took the hand of a small child so that he would look innocuous, and walked up to a police station and detonated.  There are countless such stories from Afghanistan and Iraq.  The terrorist enemies are heartless, ruthless animals.

The commander took a small break from training today and assembled his men.  There was news from Afghanistan, not yet reported.  A convoy was moving on a road when a motorcycle apparently crashed into the second vehicle in the convoy.  He said the motorcycle driver was on the ground.  British soldiers piled out to help.  There was a detonation killing three British soldiers, and apparently about thirty local people also were killed.  One of the soldiers was a Gurkha, known to some of the men here.  Next of kin has been notified.  Suddenly it felt as if we were back in the war.  It’s always so close.  The news was very saddening for me, and also to the men.  They took the news and returned to training for Afghanistan.

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