Michael's Dispatches

The Elusive Kandahar Cougar & Murphy’s Laws of Combat

43 Comments

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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tammy · 7 years ago
    I'm very happy T.J. and Pasha are going to be fine, can't wait for photos of the bit cat!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Roger · 7 years ago
    Outstanding Warriors! And waiting on the kitty!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    josi · 7 years ago
    this was a cool story. cant wait for the proof that TJ was seeing this. we have cougars where i live too. :-) :-)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    A&N · 7 years ago
    We remember a photo you took of a wild dog in Afghanistan bye the side of the road munching on a corpse. It was the ugliest, most unbelievable looking animal we ever saw. Could you repost it? Great story about TJ. And Gates of Fire was well worth re-reading. One constant in your dispatches...our men are the greatest.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stu · 7 years ago
    Nice story Mike. A well written and welcome break from the politics. Thanks for taking the time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla Najma · 7 years ago
    Thank you for sharing as always! Glad everyone was okay and I'll look forward to seeing photos of the mysterious cat!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Papa Ray · 7 years ago
    "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."

    Yep, and from what I have read, the numbers from Texas were very high in all of our past wars.

    I know that during my hitch in the U.S. Army 63-66 I met more fellow Texans than any other, except maybe for those from Tennessee and Kentucky. Those were some wild guys but damn good in a fight.

    Good story. Keep pushing.

    Papa Ray
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Solar · 7 years ago
    Leopards are found in the region

    http://ds.dial.pipex.com/agarman/bco/leopard.htm
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Philpot · 7 years ago
    Mr. Yon, once again, you bring the absolute greatness of the kids making our fight there to the public eye. I'm amazed by the grit and professionalism that are carried and displayed by these warriors. Keep your head down, and please keep reporting, sir. I sincerely hope that the censorship issue will not end your efforts there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert C Smith · 7 years ago
    Found this from back in June. It is not just the 4/4 Cav reporting these in the Zhari district.
    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/dispatches-afpak/big-cats-stalk-troops-rural-kandahar-province

    While he may not have talked with Micheal, my son claims to have seen big cats just a dusk while out on patrol. He was raised hunting and knows a big cat from a sheep or donkey...LOL
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Andre Mauboussin · 7 years ago
    Thanks again for another great dispatch. I'm betting TJ knows a cat when he sees one ;-) I hail from nearby Frisco, TX. Please give him and his comrades our best regards.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Docbill · 7 years ago
    There are leopards all over Asia and not just snow leopards. Pull a picture off the net of an Asian leopard and see if they can identify it. They wander all over Indian villages at night.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patrick Quinn · 7 years ago
    stay safe
  • This commment is unpublished.
    3VP · 7 years ago
    In 2007, my platoon set a night ambush in the hills at Masum Ghar. Sometime in the night, the clacker got yanked out of my buddie's hand. We assumed it was the En tripping over the wire. After no enemy sighted and daylight broke, we saw that the claymore had been chewed up, by something huge! No clue how it didn't go off. So next night, we set up again, and this critter chews through the cord connecting the clacker! Nobody sees it! A week later, one of our vics see a cat in thermal, but it jumped about 15 onto a rock outcropping. Big Cat in Kandahar confirmed. Seems they're working for the Taliban though...

    Charlie Company
    3 PPCLI
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon · 7 years ago
    3VP -- THAT's an interesting story.Will ask if we've had any Claymores chewed up. I've heard that dogs will eat C4. Claymores have C4. Makes me wonder if the cats-dogs around here have ripped open any Claymores. If so, maybe need to rub something on the Claymores that tastes terrible but that the enemy cannot smell.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    USMC · 7 years ago
    Thanks for the reporting...it's ...always amazing to look at the gear and clothing these men are using today..and try to think what all those things are for...some are rather easy, like cartridge belts...but others...???? and just viewing the good men who are fighting this war...grateful TJ is OK....and thanks again Mike for your efforts keeping us informed...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Long · 7 years ago
    :-) This story reminds me of the tiger stories we heard about in Vietnam. The guys on point would claim to see them in the jungle; I can't say they really did or not, but it made a good story.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 7 years ago
    It's kind of a coincidence that you put up this article as their was a Nature documentary recently on PBS that claims Leopard populations are the rise as other big cats are declining.

    It also claimed that Leopards are increasingly being sited closer and closer to human populations, even in major large cities around the globe.

    I believe that if the troops are seeing these Leopards then they should consider themselves to be very lucky to even see them as they are extremely secretive and mostly nocturnal.

    The descriptions you have relayed sounds indicative of the Leopards that do exist in the middle east though they are smaller and lighter colored than their African cousins and South American cousins, the Jaguars.

    If anyone is interested here is the link to the Nature documentary:-) http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Leopard
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Frank · 7 years ago
    Glad the guys are ok,...danger close???? Really curious about this cougar. When I was @ KAF, we heard about the cougars. Never got to see one though :sad:
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phyllis · 7 years ago
    Interested in the answer to this one. Inquiring minds want to know. I can't imagine these guys would tell such a tale if there wasn't some truth in what they were saying. They know they'll be teased. I hope you get a picture sometime.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lee Zundel · 7 years ago
    Thats my Boy !! My lucky boy!!
    He is a great soldier, dad and a great son! Stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    peter · 7 years ago
    Great reporting. Semper fi.
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    Chris · 7 years ago
    So what happened to Pasha?Was he able to get back to the unit?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BravoBilly · 7 years ago
    I was at a meeting the day or so ago and someone who had been a Navy SEAL stationed in Viet Nam in the Early days, talked about walking on a trail and coming up a tiger. They both looked at each other in shock, and the tiger ran off. The SEAL said to this day he still wakes up sometimes with the tiger on his mind. I think the topic that day was fear. :eek::
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sara Johnson · 7 years ago
    Your reunion with TJ will be a welcome report. Be Safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kathy · 7 years ago
    So proud of T.j and his Brother Bryce,
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    Orion · 7 years ago
    I have a feeling this is going to turn out to be a Caracal, about 30-40lbs and about feet long. Very quick, very secretive and its range extends from Africa through Pakistan - and since they don't exactly follow borders, it's not much of a stretch to imagine it in Afghanistan.

    Not quite 'gigantic' or the 'size of a german shepherd' but I've noticed people tend to exaggerate the sizes of cats a lot. And since there aren't a lot of reports of people being silently carried off and devoured, I'm doubtful it's any sort of leopard.


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caracal

    Orion
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PJRanger · 7 years ago
    Michael, As a KW pilot, I can attest that the situation TJ and Pasha found themselves in is a KW pilots worst nightmare. His buddies did exactly the right thing by calling for the wave off. Cudos to 4-4 Cav and the KW pilots who are "over the shoulder" of the ground guys!

    Maybe the KWs can get some recon info on the Big Cats...

    Give 'em Hell!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon · 7 years ago
    PJRanger,

    The KW teams from the air to the mechanics are extraordinary. If you ever see someone waving at you from a firefight giving a high-five, that's probably me. :-)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PJRanger · 7 years ago
    I'm not downrange at this time but will be come February. My brothers and sisters are there bringing the fight, your words do them credit and I thank you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MTN · 7 years ago
    There are all kinds of wild cats in Asia. The troops could be seeing felis chaus, the jungle cat, for example. It is larger and taller than a typical house cat and could look like a cougar from a distance.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kathy Benton · 7 years ago
    The part about TJ's grenade being too hot to handle even with the Army gloves on made me think about how the soldiers' pants aren't holding up. Do they get issued crappy gloves too? Or is that to be expected with hot grenades?
    Does anyone how long good gloves should last? (My son was a repairman, so he may not be the best person to ask, but I will ask him.) His friend is US Army in Kandahar and he asked for a pair of Wiley X gloves when he went over 4 mos ago. Is it time to send him another pair?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Old Seabee · 7 years ago
    Great story! Glad everyone came out ok on that occasion (except for the enemy). I can't wait to see the cat!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Staghounds · 7 years ago
    Thank you for giving Pasha his name! We usually hear of "ANA soldiers", and I know there are security reasons as well as chauvinism/audience focus favtors at work, but our allies are in the fight and bleed just as red.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Philpot · 7 years ago
    [quote name="Lee Zundel"]Thats my Boy !! My lucky boy!!
    He is a great soldier, dad and a great son! Stay safe![/quote]

    God bless you, sir, and God bless TJ and his crew. You obviously raised a great kid who's turned into a great man.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SteveInSD · 7 years ago
    I think Orion is probably right. The Caracal's range includes much of Afghanistan. The wiki article says they are easily domesticated, and are used by Iranians as hunting cats. Hmmm.

    They do resemble cougars. If no range reference was handy when sighted,I could see them being mistaken for a bigger cat.

    I had unexpected face-to-face meetings with both mountain lions and black bears in the Sierras. Works better than coffee to wake a body up!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paddy mac · 7 years ago
    There is no doubt that big cats exist in Kandahar....are Sniper section reported them on more than one occassion
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim · 7 years ago
    My experience is that the wiley-x gloves a crap. not to plug oakley but their gloves are phenomenal and you can get them at discount from usstandardissue.com with a military ID.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Orion · 7 years ago
    PJRanger and Mr. Yon,
    As a Chinook mechanic (15U2O), I must object to the characterization of Soldiers getting IN a Kiowa. I saw one of these up close at USAALS and mistook it for a half-size trainer (much to the irritation of the folks working on it).

    One does not 'get in' a Kiowa. One 'puts on' a Kiowa, much as one would put on body armor, or a shirt. And like every bird in the inventory, they ROCK at what they do. :D

    And Tim: Agree with you on the gloves 100%.

    Orion
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Trey · 7 years ago
    I've seen the big cats in the Zabul Province, East of Kandahar...FOB Wolverine area via IR "Eye in the Sky". No mistaking! They are out there!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark · 7 years ago
    Reminds me of the stories I have heard about servicemen in Vietnam teeling the "story" of a L.R.R.P. and in the night a big jungle cat dragging off one of the patrol members...to not give away his position he doesn't shout out and kills the cat with his knife and crawls back to his position..I have heard the same story but it was with a Force Recon Marine then a Army Ranger then a seal...Always got a kick out of hearing that story several different ways.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan Wolf · 7 years ago
    I did not look through all the above posts to see if anyone else might have reported this yet, but what the soldiers are probably seeing is a Jungle Cat. It is a resident of KAF. They can grow up to 37 inches long by 14 inches tall and weigh up to 26 pounds.
    I am a wildlife vet in the US, but I served at KAF earlier this year as an ARMY veterinarian, working with the MWDs and CWDs. We also provided euthanasia service for animals that might have transmitted disease, namely rabies. Sometimes these cats would walk into the traps set up to catch stray dogs and domesticated cats. The domestic animals were euthanized, but the Jungle Cats were given a subcutaneous ID chip and released. We ID'd them so we could tell which ones were smart enough to come back to the cages for a free meal.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SPC Flory · 7 years ago
    About the "big Cats". I just returned home from Afghanistan in late Aug, where I had spent the last 2 1/2 - months of my deployment with Bandit 4-4 where I was flying my UAV around the clock. I have seen these large cats myself, both with my UAV and my very own eyes while on mission... I'd Like to say hi to my brothers out there at South. Stay strong and come home safe!

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