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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter T · 10 years ago
    Michael, this great reporting. Not strategic stuff, but up close and personal, the human drama. Michael, thanks for doing this. I know you could be back home, cooling your heals with a pina colada. We all owe you congrats.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    shotgunner · 10 years ago
    The army can buy this farmer some hay, right? Seems like a fair thing to do. And cheap. In the USA it's a hundred bux a ton or so. What can it be there?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    phil childers · 10 years ago
    Keep up the good work, my brother!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    for this poor peoples !

    Can you "speed ball" some hay balls down there ?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan · 10 years ago
    Mike, Note - PFC Brandon Longshore from Opelika, Alabama - I was also born in Opelika, and a bit of trivia, Col (R) Bob Howard MOH and DSC, was also born in Opelika.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MAUREEN · 10 years ago
    Thanks for the photos. The poor chicken looks as if her feathers were torched. The women are brave to do what they do. Keep on Keeping ON, Michael
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James S · 10 years ago
    "I saw Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona up on a roof. He said the family would be compensated for the losses."

    They'll get money eventually, but if there was a lot of hay available, life wouldn't be so hard over there. Plus you have to think about transportation. Who's carrying around that hay?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patrick Lasswell · 10 years ago
    Hay is cheap...unless you have to haul it up a mountain into a hostile fire zone. How much would you charge to deliver a load of hay someplace the Taliban likes to shoot people who help the locals on behalf of the Americans? Also, the thing about compounds is that you can't just back your truck up and dump a load of hay, unless you're driving a CH-47.

    For the cost of delivering a load of hay with a CH-47, you could probably send a kid to college...if you amortize the cost of lost helicopters into the mission. I'm not saying that it isn't worthwhile, but I am saying that enemy action makes everything more expensive.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Roch Thornton · 10 years ago
    Military practicality and cultural context aside ... I find those headscarves colorful and attractive on American girls.

    The traditional Vietnamese ao dai looked strange to me when I first saw it in 1970. But as it became familiar it also started looking graceful and attractive though very modest compared to what American girls were wearing at the time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Philpot · 10 years ago
    Mr. Yon, great dispatch once again. You can't get info like what you're publishing anywhere else. I have passed on the info from one of your earlier dispatches concerning the shortage of ladders to my nephew, who is in a National Guard unit likely to deploy there soon. Thank you for what you are doing, and please keep your head down.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ryys · 10 years ago
    That's pretty cool that women are fighting for the US of A. Are they Afghans?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan · 10 years ago
    I wonder what a cammie headscarf would look like, or even if it was tried? Would fit in well culturally though.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan · 10 years ago
    WOULDN'T fit in culturally
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bobby Wingate · 10 years ago
    Enjoy your dispatches. Keep up the great work. Extend a much appreciated thank you to LTC Katona,CSM Cook all 4-4 Cav Troopers for their service to Our Country. Never Forgotten 24/7 65. Please thank PFC Longshore for his most quick reaction in saving life of small boy. Please maintain security 60 at all times. CTM God Bless All The Way
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla Najma · 10 years ago
    It's too bad people are stuck in the middle especially their homes and way of life. You guys are the good guys and at least they had you all to help out.


  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randy Hensel · 10 years ago
    Michael, I would like to see you go out with A/4-4 sometime. Can you break away from the HQ section? CSM got you tied down? Your photojournalism is very important to us at home. I predict many more awards coming your way. Thanks. Randy Hensel, vet, Army ADA, Cpt.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Will Cushman · 10 years ago
    Great dispatch. The photos are exciting and the narrative really tells the story. Keep safe and stay as safe as you can while completing your mission. What a fine bunch of young men and women we are blessed with over there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Hustvedt · 10 years ago
    As a wildland firefighter who has put out a lot of burning hay bales for Wyoming ranchers here is an important message:
    You must spread the burned hay and put it out completely to avoid this kind of disaster. You might want to pass it along to the troops. Hay is extremely important to Wyoming ranchers and Afghanis.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    Has really BIG HANDS : strange, is she a he undercover ?

    And VIVE OPELIKA,the boy was rescued !
    Michael,I read with relieve that you had ladders ...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tj · 10 years ago
    It is *SO* important to help the locals caught in the cross-fire. Almost no matter what the financial cost, it is a CHEAP way to get & keep them on our side, and shows the whole neighborhood we are the good guys. A pile of hay we give them or pay for today turns into TONS of life-saving intel in the weeks to come!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    kyles mom · 10 years ago
    Thank you for doing this!! There is a picture of my son in your article!! It is amazing yet terrifying to see!! I am so proud of him and all of our soldiers. Please be safe and may God continue to bless each of you and keep you wrapped in his comforting and safe arms.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eric · 10 years ago
    And thanks to you for raising such a fine young American, who's willing to risk his life to protect all of us and make a better life for the poor Afghans in Michael's report. I pray your son comes home safe and sound, with a big hug for his Mom!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eric · 10 years ago
    ...pulling the unburned hay away from the smoldering pile will prevent the entire supply from going up if the embers reignite.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 10 years ago
    The problem with hay in Afghanistan is first finding it. Then if you find it, transporting it. Transporting it by a helicopter like the CH-47 is very expensive. Bringing it in out of country is just way to expensive. The cheapest and safest thing to do is just pay the farmer for his cattle, then he can slaughter them and sell the meat and buy new cattle after winter.

    But there is another problem which points to the USAF being a**holes big time because they are loosing pilot slots and will do anything to keep slots or steal slots from the other services. For a while the USAF was letting the US Army have fixed wing transports that were in the CH-47 size. A lot cheaper to use twin engine transport to haul stuff than a helicopter any day. The US Army has a small fleet of British made C-2 Sherpas that the USAF no longer wanted. But they are worn out from Iraq. The US-A was going to replace the C-2 s and along comes the USAF. With C-2 s they could load and shove it out.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    cdkr · 10 years ago
    Great read, thanks michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karen · 10 years ago
    I love to see how our troops help the locals in situations like this, especially Pfc Longshore's actions to save the young boy. Proud of them and also proud of our military who finds a way to compensate the locals for losses precipitated by combat. What other country does that (except maybe the Brits and Canadians -- maybe someone can tell me)??? Michael, your photos show us so vividly what it's like there and how our troops have to sleep while they're out on missions, how the females play a part, etc. Outstanding report! Also, glad to hear the censorship issue is resolved! You had me worried. We NEED your dispatches!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Aleric · 10 years ago
    Last I heard we have a large number of Helicopters that could carry a load of hay. Load it up, fly it over, drop it in the compound, take off with the dors open, residual hay blows out, problem solved. I have transported lots of hay for my Step Dads horses, it isnt a hard task to gather up a bunch of round bales and cart them in a chinook.
  • This commment is unpublished.
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