Michael's Dispatches

Tracer Burnout

2011-08-19-031847-3cc-1000A Female Engagement Team (FET) at work in an Afghan compound. The notions that women should not, cannot, or do not go into combat, all are invalid. They should, they can, and they do. And here we need them.

22 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

Operation Pyrite Pike

The helicopters landed in Taliban country after midnight.  This was not a community outreach moment.  Commanders expected serious resistance and casualties were likely.  In broad strokes, the two-day mission amounted to a “shaping operation.”  Task Force Spartan is successfully using such missions to build outposts in the various hearts of Taliban-controlled areas.  Most of these areas have never been tamed, largely due to insufficient troop commitments early in this war.

We landed in the darkness and the helicopters roared away into the night.  We stayed low in the marijuana field for a few minutes, until silence settled in our heads, and then we began to move out to the objective.  Using night vision gear, we scraped and stumbled and climbed through farmers’ fields.  Sometimes we needed ladders to scale walls and there were some falls in the night, but nobody was hurt this time.

By daybreak, 4-4Cav occupied mutually supporting positions in several Afghan family compounds.  Spreading out to “strong points” made it more difficult for the Taliban to operate until they could pinpoint our positions.  Knowledge comes at a cost during these operations, and both sides often pay for the lessons in blood.  For instance, the Taliban might realize only after someone dies that a distant sniper can see them.  BAM.  And the same for us.  We have the advantage of air, while the Taliban have the supreme advantage of ground familiarity.  The air advantage is there so long as we maintain cover.  Home turf is advantageous 24/7, 365.

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In the compound we were to occupy, a woman had delivered a baby about two hours before.  This was the sort of unexpected circumstance we can’t tell from the sky.  When the planned outpost suddenly has a newborn baby, it puts our people into a predicament.

Meet the FET

Some folks at home get upset when our women wear headscarves.  They do not cover their faces and usually don’t wear headscarves. But when they do, it’s a small gesture of cultural acknowledgment. In the UK, it’s okay to have a woman showing her breasts on page three of the newspaper.  In America, that doesn’t fly.  In America, you don’t show up to someone’s door unannounced wearing sandals, shorts, and a tank top while trying to sell a vacuum cleaner.  In Kandahar Province, it can be good to wear a headscarf.

All that aside, the young Afghan girl in the photo above became excited when the FET started talking with her.

Our FET talked with the Afghan girls, and then moved to talk with the older women, and soon a firefight broke out.  Many bullets were snapping around and at least one of our Soldiers on the roof came very close to getting hit.  An Afghan Soldier also had bullets dancing around him but he was okay.  The Afghan Soldiers with us are enthusiastic and courageous, and they seem competent at this level, but I must spend some more time in combat with them for a better idea.  They were doing fine in this firefight.  Not excited, just doing their jobs.

2011-08-21-142754cc-100060mm mortar during the shootout.

The Afghans and our Soldiers returned fire with all sorts of weapons, including many 40mm grenades, and a 60mm mortar.  This mortar crew turned out to be excellent shots.

During our firefight, a Reaper UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) fired a Hellfire (an air-to-surface missile) at another target we had been tracking before this scrap broke out.  In all the noise, I wasn’t able to tell if the Reaper target was directly related to our action, or if it was going after a separate target in an adjoining fight.

[Update: about one hour before this dispatch went live, I saw the Reaper UAV recording of this Hellfire strike.  The enemy had been shooting with a sniper rifle.  He ditched the rifle but we stayed tracking.  As he walked across a field there was a direct hit by Hellfire.  The targeting was so good that even if the missile had no explosives, the 'sniper' likely would have been killed.  We had PID from three separate methods.  (Needed only one.)]

Fire in the compound

The enemy seemed to be okay shots even though they had been missing. They were not firing wildly.  Luck happened to be with us.

A tracer round shot into the compound and nearly hit a US Soldier.  It stopped in a large pile of hay like a fire arrow hitting a covered wagon.

2011-08-19-040120-4cc-1000Amazing what one bullet can do.

The enemy apparently could not take the return fire, or maybe we hit them.  I don’t know, but they broke contact.  They left us with a raging fire.  This farmer was trying to save his hay.  Winter is approaching and he has animals to feed.

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Off-screen: thick smoke is filling up the “barn” where the cow and calf are housed.  The farmer (on the left) tells a young boy to rescue the cows.  The boy covers himself with a blanket and goes in.

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The farmer instructs the girls to get inside the safe areas of the compound.  Meanwhile, the boy covered in the blanket (far left) passes PFC Brandon Longshore from Opelika, Alabama.  Longshore had grabbed a yellow jug of water to help put out the fire.

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The boy wrapped in the blanket disappeared inside the smoke.  Brandon Longshore wondered what happened to him and asked the FET interpreter to find out.  She asked the father who said the boy was saving the cows.  The cows had not appeared.  The boy had disappeared.  Smoke was pouring into the building and Brandon sensed trouble.  Brandon took off his helmet and crawled through a window to find the boy.

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Brandon saw the boy curled up in a corner under his blanket.  Now inside, Brandon Longshore pushed the cows out the door.

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