Michael's Dispatches

The Elusive Kandahar Cougar & Murphy’s Laws of Combat

2011-09-01-093316-1000aSergeant TJ Vowell insists he's seen the mysterious big cats of Kandahar many times. Recently, Sergeant Vowell got shot. 

06 September 2011
Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan

4-4 Cav, Bravo Troop, 2nd Platoon 2nd Squad

There is much talk about “jaguars” or “cougars” among the troops here.  At least a dozen American Soldiers claim they have seen gigantic cats in these flatlands.  “Gigantic” being defined as roughly the size of a German Shepherd.  During a mission, I asked about these mysterious big cats.  Several US Soldiers insisted—completely insisted—they were eyewitnesses.  The Afghan soldiers chuckled, saying their American counterparts were hallucinating.  The Americans remained adamant.  The inevitable follow-up questions came.  “How do you know what a cougar even looks like?  Have you ever seen one before?”  An Afghan commander said to a particularly persistent American, “You saw a sheep.

No, it was a big cat!” replied the American.
You maybe saw a donkey,” conceded the Afghan.
Everyone laughed.

We know there are big cats in Afghanistan.  This is widely accepted as fact, yet big cats are not reported living in the Zhari District of Kandahar Province.  We know there are polar bears in the United States.  But if you find yourself stumbling out of the Florida Everglades, ripping moss from your hair while mumbling that you saw a polar bear, locals might ask you to sit under a shade tree and enjoy an iced tea and a nap.  A polar bear in Florida is as likely as an alligator in Alaska.

Snow Leopards have been photographed this year in Afghanistan, but the climate and geography in the Wakhan Corridor is extremely dissimilar, and far less populated than Zhari.  We are in hot, dry country, just a short drive from the Dasht-i-Margo or “The Desert of Death.”  I visited this desert in the spring of 2006 and dozens of times since.

The Afghan Soldiers refute any suggestion that there are big cats here in Kandahar.  “No way,” they say, “impossible.”  American Soldiers insist they have seen them by naked eye, by weapon optics, and by thermal optics that can zoom with amazing clarity.  I look through these kinds of optics almost every day, and to be sure, they are so precise it’s hard to conceive anyone mistaking a sheep or donkey for a big cat.  But even when Soldiers agree another Soldier may have seen a big cat, the discussion turns to, “How long did you see it?  A second?  Ten seconds?  A minute?”  Sometimes they see it for minutes at a time.  Two Soldiers in separate locations claimed they saw large cats jump over high walls.  One Soldier told me he saw two cats at the same time.  Troops in different outfits who are miles apart are reporting seeing these cats from around Panjwai and Zhari.

Sergeant TJ Vowell, from McKinney, Texas, had spotted one.  LTC Katona, commander of 4-4 Cav was visiting the small base called Pashmal South where TJ and his unit are stationed. They seem to get attacked every day and are dishing out the same.  While LTC Katona studied a map with Captain Danny Sjursen, B-troop commander, I was asking TJ about the cats.  TJ reported that sees them “plain as day” almost every morning at the same time and place.  (Finally a “bingo” moment.)  But then LTC Katona took a break from the map to say that TJ had recently been shot.  Actually, the Commander was trying to brag about TJ, which is something you commonly see with American and British commanders.  They spotlight good fighters as if they were cherished sons.  LTC Katona was flagrantly bragging about TJ getting shot and returning to the fight.  (Look at my son the warrior!)

Well, when you run with the big dogs in combat, you meet a lot of warriors who’ve been shot, but you don’t meet a lot of warriors who see big cats here.  I wanted to ask more about the cats, but to be polite I first asked about how TJ got shot.  And besides, there’s never a boring way to get shot.

Murphy’s Law of Smoke Grenades

TJ and his buddies were on a search and destroy mission in Zhari district near Mollyan Kalache Village.  About 14 of our men were out there with about eight Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and one interpreter.  TJ and team were closing in on the enemy.  Suddenly (firefights often begin with a “suddenly”) our Soldiers started taking potshots and returned fire.  Apparently the enemy was also on a search and destroy mission. Many of the enemy are (or have become) respectable fighters so these skirmishes can go any direction.  The ANA quickly fired about eight RPGs and the engagement was full on.

TJ and another Soldier were using their grenade launchers to mark enemy positions with red smoke.  Two Kiowa Warrior (KW) helicopters rolled in and went to work with rockets and machine guns.  The KW crews are just about the deadliest people who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If you were to somehow add it all up, and see who killed the most enemy per capita, the KW pilots might leave our Special Operations people in the dust.  Maybe killing so many of the enemy is not something to brag about, but that’s just the facts.  Or at least the facts as I think of them, true or not, based on my time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anyway, TJ and gang were in a no-kidding firefight when the KWs rolled in attacked enemy at the red smoke.

WHAM!  An RPG hit between TJ and an ANA Soldier and they both went down.

2011-09-01-093900-1000aTJ’s weapon appears to have stopped a small frag.

Bullets were flying and TJ was hit in a calf with a through and through, meaning the bullet hit only meat and kept on going.  He felt a burning in his calf and ended up on the ground. Suddenly he was engulfed in red smoke.  The KWs had been cleared hot to attack any areas they saw red smoke.  TJ carries red smoke grenades in pouches and one had been fragged by the RPG or shot by a bullet.  A grenade in TJ’s pouch was burning red smoke marking TJ and the ANA soldier.

2011-09-01-093809-1000aTJ's grenade pouches with red smoke stains.

What happened next?”  I asked.  TJ tried to pull the red smoking grenade from his pouch to throw it away but it burned his hand even through his glove.  He couldn’t get a firm grasp.

Bad news!” I said, “So the KWs were rolling in to attack on your smoke grenade?

TJ said that a KW came in and was hammering away with the .50 caliber and bullets slamming the ground.  The helicopter was close and very loud.

How did you make them stop?

2011-07-18-053703-1000Raisin hut surrounded by grape rows in Kandahar Province.

TJ said Specialists Zachary Newberry and Justin Earle both got the idea to jump up on a grape row and wave an orange VS-17 panel, hoping to catch the attention of the KW pilots and not the enemy or a bullet.  (Soldiers often use brightly colored VS-17 panels, marking their vehicles and such, so that they can be identified from the air.)  And so Specialists Newberry and Earle courageously jumped up and began waving their panels in the middle of the fight.  It’s a wonder the enemy didn’t shoot them flat.  The KWs immediately broke off the attack.

Holy mackerel, brother!  So now you are shot, and what happened with the ANA Soldier with you?  You said he was shot too?

TJ said the ANA soldier was named Pasha, and Pasha got fragged in the neck and then shot in the hip.  The medic, Private First Class (PFC) Edderick Mangruem, first made it to TJ and saw that the bullet had gone through his calf and missed the bone.  He quickly treated TJ and ran over to Pasha and went to work.  Meanwhile, the medical helicopters (love these crews) apparently already were on their way.

The Soldiers had to work their way to an HLZ (helicopter landing zone) and TJ was able to use his rifle as a crutch, but Pasha was helped by a US Soldier under one arm with an Afghan under the other.  They had to move about 250 meters to the HLZ while still dealing with small sporadic gunfights.

They had to climb over grape rows and some obstacles, so it was a bit of a challenge but they made it, and were only waiting about one minute when the helicopter arrived.  It landed very close, nearly on top of them; TJ said the helicopter Soldier was out the door in a second and ran straight to the wounded. The helicopter Soldier had them aboard in about a minute, and only about 15 minutes later he was in the hospital at Kandahar Airfield.  (One of the best trauma facilities on Earth, they say.  I’m not a trauma specialist with worldwide experience, but I believe it’s probably true.)

TJ said the medical staff was very good.  As soon as he arrived, they cut off his whole uniform and he was completely naked and some doctor was checking him head to toe.  “You always end up completely naked in the trauma centers,” I said.   TJ laughed, “Yeah, I was naked.”

I said, “TJ, now that’s very weird, isn’t it?  One minute you are shooting red smoke, next minute you are in the red smoke, and less than 30 minutes later you are far away from the grape rows and in a hospital.  What did you do?”  I asked.

TJ called his wife even before he went into surgery.  A Soldier from 4-4 Cav is always stationed at Kandahar Airfield to help wounded Soldiers in situations like this.  The 4-4 Cav Soldier pulled out a cell phone and handed it to TJ who dialed his wife.  I asked what TJ told his wife, and he answered, “Honey, don’t worry I just got shot in the leg.  It’s okay and I’m going into surgery. I’ll call you when I get out.”  He said she was freaking out.  I said, “TJ, I remember another Soldier in Mosul who also got shot in the leg and said almost the exact same thing to his wife.”  (Gates of Fire)

2011-09-01-093808-1000aTJ's smoke grenade pouches.

Bottom line is that TJ and Pasha turned out okay, but it took weeks for TJ to get back to the unit.  Leadership tells me that TJ is not one to be held back, so there were some issues with him wanting to get back in the fight before he was ready.  Now he’s back in combat again.  (Commander still bragging, and not even subtly, “Look at my warrior son!”)  Despite the leadership bragging, it’s true, you only have to meet TJ for about two minutes to realize this man was not made to sit the bench.  He’s from Texas.  Seems like half the Army is from Texas.

So, with the gunshot story over, I asked TJ what color is the cat he’s been seeing.  He sees the cat almost every morning, and it’s brown and has spots or stripes. He said it stays about 300 or 400 meters away, and sometimes hangs out for up to twenty minutes.  I asked if he’d stake it out with me if I came back, because with my camera gear we can practically get its eye color from 400 meters. He said sure, come back and we’ll stake it out.

It might not be long until we settle the question of the Kandahar Cougar.

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