HIGH ON THE SUNLIT DECKS a week later, just below the signal bridge where the old Navy traditions of flags and blinker lights lingered into the twenty-first century, my troops were kicking my ass on a blue rubber mat. I may have been the platoon commander, but many of my Marines were bigger than I was and better fighters. We passed idle time on the ship by training in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, universally known as “semper fu.” My machine gun section leader, Staff Sergeant Law, was instructing.
“OK, listen up, all you pussies who’ve never been in a fight. If you can fuck or play baseball, you can fight. It’s all in the hips.” Law looked more like a librarian than a Marine machine gunner. He described himself as “skinny but fat,” tall and thin but soft. He was one of the platoon’s only combat veterans, with a handful of Balkan firefights in his past. His “skinny fatness” didn’t inhibit his skill as a semper fu artist.
The Marines mimicked Law by slamming someone, preferably of higher rank, to the mat. Having been stomped two or three times in the past hour, I was relieved when one of the company clerks came rushing up the ladder with a message. “Lieutenant Fick, the skipper needs you in TACLOG right away. Important message traffic.”
Captain Whitmer waited in front of a computer. “Nate, I’ve just been called over to the Peleliu for mission planning. I want you and Patrick to come with me. No time for questions right now. Pack a bag for two or three days and be ready to go in five minutes.”
A dry-erase board hung on the wall behind Captain Whitmer. Our current list of missions, under the heading “Be Prepared To,” was written in blue marker: “BPT reinforce USEMB Islamabad, BPT secure forward airfield at Zhob, BPT reinforce Jacobabad.” This mission didn’t sound like any of those. I ran down the passageway to my stateroom and threw my planning paperwork, some workout clothes, and a paperback copy of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose into my waterproof bag. After closing the door, I realized I had forgotten my plastic Dubuque coffee mug and went back for it. Mission planning meant late nights. I climbed back to the top deck and told the platoon I’d be gone for a couple of days but would be in touch as soon as I knew more.
Captain Whitmer and Patrick were waiting for me. “No helos flying. We’re going by RHIB.”
The Dubuque carried two eleven-meter rigid hull inflatable boats. They were small black craft, grossly overpowered, and usually used to insert SEALs on clandestine missions. We climbed down narrow ladder wells to an open cargo door in the ship’s side. Ten feet below, the ocean foamed past. One of the RHIBs maneuvered off the ship’s beam, and beneath us dangled a rope ladder.
As the boat slid beneath the ladder, we swung our way down and clambered aboard. The RHIB crew seemed intent on showing off their boat’s performance to a group of Marine officers, and we shot away from the Dubuque as if it were steaming in reverse. Open ocean lay ahead. We rocketed along at forty knots for ten minutes before the Peleliu’s hulking profile loomed in the haze. Coming alongside, we reversed the earlier process and climbed up a rope ladder into the cavernous hangar bay. The Peleliu’s flight deck stretched from bow to stern, like an aircraft carrier, and the MEU’s whole squadron was aboard. Inside the hangar bay, helicopters and Harrier jets crouched on their landing gear in the dim light, while maintenance crews scurried around and a group of Marines practiced semper fu on a blue rubber mat.
The Battalion Landing Team (BLT), composed mostly of infantry Marines from 1/1, planned its missions in a room the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. Computers lined one wall, and a huge map of Pakistan and Afghanistan covered the opposite bulkhead. Exposed pipes and fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling, and some wag had taped a drawing of Osama bin Laden to the door. Its caption read, “You can run, but you’ll only die tired.” Battalion officers and staff NCOs filled the scattered chairs.
When Captain Whitmer, Patrick, and I walked in, the battalion’s executive officer called the room to order. He freed up chairs by dismissing several Marines from the room. “We’re keeping details on this one close to our chest, gents. Sorry.”
They walked out, looking hurt, and the door was closed behind them. This was starting to sound interesting.
“Welcome, Bravo Company,” he said with a nod in our direction. “What I am about to say will not leave this room. You will do your planning, theorizing, and bullshitting within these four walls — not on the mess deck, not in the wardroom, and not in the gym. Is that clear?”
We all nodded as he continued. “As you know, the United States has been dropping bombs on Afghanistan for the past nine days.” He explained that there was a small CIA and Army Special Forces presence on the ground, mainly in the north. There was as yet no ground presence in the country’s south. The executive officer paused for effect. “That is about to change. On Friday evening, October 19, Task Force Sword will conduct a mission into southern Afghanistan to seize an airfield and attempt to capture a high-value leadership target.” Pause. “We have been tasked with providing a Bald Eagle for that mission.” Pause, and a slow turn to face Captain Whitmer, Patrick, and me. “Bravo Company, you’re it.”
The three of us glanced at one another. A Bald Eagle was a company-size reserve element, ready to help in case a raid force ran into trouble. The question on all our minds was “Why Bravo?”
Captain Whitmer was too self-effacing to say it, but I knew the answer. Among the battalion’s company commanders, he was the iconoclast, the outcast stepchild who trained his Marines to be good instead of look good. He pushed us hard, questioned authority, and couldn’t even feign obsequiousness. But when the first real mission called, the battalion turned to him.
“Task Force Sword is composed of SOF currently embarked on the Kitty Hawk,” the executive officer continued. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was being used as a floating base for special operations forces working in and around Afghanistan.
“Here’s your mission statement.” He handed us a sheet of paper marked SECRET in bold red letters. I read, “On order, Task Force Bald Eagle launches from PEL in 4 x CH-53 to OBJ RHINO, links up with TF SWORD mobile reserve, and conducts relief in place. Defend RHINO with Bravo Company for up to twenty-four hours. O/o turn over OBJ RHINO to TF SWORD and withdraw to ARG shipping.” This prompted more questions than it answered.
After a more comprehensive brief, I thought I had a good idea of the plan. On Friday night around dusk, elements of Task Force Sword, mostly Army Rangers and Special Forces, would launch from the Kitty Hawk. They would fly into Pakistan, securing a small airfield near Dalbandin, code-named Honda, to use as a refueling and rearming point. From Dalbandin, part of the force would parachute into a desert airstrip in southern Afghanistan code-named Rhino, while the other part would raid Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s residential compound outside Kandahar. We would serve as a reserve in case something went wrong during any part of the mission. This sounded complex, I thought, and a lot could go wrong.
Bravo Company flew over from the Dubuque the next morning. While the NCOs settled the troops in their temporary berthing and began distributing ammunition and gear for the mission, Captain Whitmer, Patrick, and I continued with planning. Every MEU mission ran through three planning stages. First came a warning order from some higher command notifying the MEU to “be prepared to” execute a given task. That task may have been distributing food to the people of East Timor, evacuating the embassy in Islamabad, or serving as the quick reaction force for a mission into Afghanistan. Once the warning order was received, the MEU staff went into overdrive, developing a course of action for how the MEU would accomplish the mission.
It is a central tenet of the Marines’ war-fighting philosophy that each subordinate must provide options to his boss — tell him what you can do, rather than what you can’t. Depending on the situation, two or three or four courses of action would be developed and then roughed out into basic operational plans. For the Sword mission, helicopter pilots calculated distances and fuel burn, charting different paths through the mountains. Infantry officers studied maps to memorize the layouts of Rhino and Honda and decided how many men they’d need in different scenarios. All the hypothesizing came together in the final construction of three possible courses of action — put the Bald Eagle on the ground at Honda in case it was needed, keep it airborne over the ocean until called, or keep it on the Peleliu, ready to launch on a few minutes’ notice. The MEU commander reviewed the options and decided to keep the quick reaction force aboard the Peleliu. Its response time would be almost as fast and at greatly reduced risk. With a course of action chosen, the MEU fleshed out a detailed concept of operations for accomplishing the mission.
The wheels spun madly again. Numerous small planning cells, each focused on a different aspect of the mission, convened in coffee-fueled debate sessions. Pilots plotted their courses and picked the mix of Super Stallion transport helicopters and Cobra gunships. Grunts finalized their manifests, picking platoons and dividing them among the helicopters so that one crash wouldn’t wipe out all the machine gunners or all the officers. Other cells focused on communications, requesting dedicated satellite radio channels and preparing encryption codes to scramble the transmissions. Logisticians brought ammunition up from the ship’s magazine. Medical teams prepared the ship’s operating rooms and thawed blood for the Marines to take with them. All the details of the plan were then presented to the MEU commander in a concept of operations brief.
Preparing a concept of operations during training had always frustrated me. The briefs were PowerPoint presentations held in the Peleliu’s wardroom. Captains and majors fought over font size, background color, and whether to include cute graphics of moving helicopters. The purpose, though, was sound: to air the plan publicly, criticize it, test its assumptions, focus on the friction points where something was likely to go wrong, and strengthen it. Finally, after the appropriate changes and refinements were made, the plan was rehearsed from start to finish in a confirmation brief, with each key player explaining his role to the MEU commander. According to MEU (SOC) standards, the whole process, from warning order to confirmation, had to be done in less than six hours.
Only after the plan was approved did I feel comfortable briefing the Marines. I wanted to insulate them from the confusion of changing details in the mission.
“Weapons platoon, circle it up,” I said, standing in the hangar bay with my notebook and a photocopied map.
The Marines stopped loading ammo and programming radios, pressing close to hear the word. I quickly outlined the mission to low whistles and nods of approval.
“It’s important right now that we stick to our timeline. We have a lot to do. The rest of this evening is your time to prep individual and platoon gear. Get some rest tonight — tomorrow’s a busy day.” I tore a page from the notebook and taped it to the bulkhead above the platoon’s gear. “Here’s the schedule: 0600 breakfast; 0630 to 0800 draw weapons, issue ammo, and stage equipment; 0800 to 0900 helo drills; 0900 to 1000 formal platoon order issued; 1100 to 1200 final gear staging; 1200 to 1300 rules of engagement brief; 1300 to 1600 rehearsals; 1630 test fire; and 1700 call away and final load rehearsals. After 1730, Sword is airborne, and we’re on alert 10 — that’s ten minutes from notification to launch.”
I looked around at the crowd of faces. “You’re it, fellas. A hundred million American men would like to be in your shoes right now. We have the honor of fighting back.”
On Friday, I got my first look at the wartime military. While the platoons ran through the schedule, Patrick and I gathered equipment for the mission. I was used to signing for a roll of duct tape and accounting for each individual MRE we ate. But now gear seemed to materialize from nowhere — Javelin antitank missiles, iced coolers full of blood, atropine injectors for defense against chemical nerve agents, and two laser marking systems for guiding smart bombs in the dark.
By 1700, our packs, ammunition, and medical equipment were staged in the helicopters, which sat, fueled and waiting, on the flight deck. The evening was balmy and clear, with dry air seeming to throw the ship’s features into high relief. I sent the platoon to its berthing area with orders to stay together — no trips to the gym or the late-night chow line. At last, I joined the company officers in TACLOG, where the Sword mission was unfolding over the radio speaker.
We listened as the Rangers on the ground in Afghanistan vectored AC-130 Spectre gunships in on targets. Feeling helpless and wanting to be rested in case we got the call, I climbed five levels down from the Peleliu’s tower and then up into an empty bunk, turning off the light and drawing the privacy curtain around me. Fatigue won out over excitement, and I fell asleep.
The battalion executive officer yanked back the curtain. “One of the Sword helicopters crashed. Get up and stand by.”
I leaped from the rack and pulled on my boots, laces still flapping as I ran down the passageway to the battalion planning room. The clock read 3:45 A.M.
The Sword mission was still under way, and information was incomplete and contradictory. The helo had been shot down in Afghanistan, or it had crashed in a cloud of dust while landing in Pakistan. No casualties, or everyone aboard had been killed. Rescue would launch immediately, or the Rangers would attempt to do their own recovery. Our default setting was to wait and let the situation develop. I picked up a phone to wake the Marines and then thought better of it. Each adrenaline rush is followed by a crash. Each time we prepped to launch but didn’t go would leave us a little more tired, jaded, and frustrated. It would be better, I thought, to protect them from as much of that as possible. With dawn an hour away, we didn’t have enough darkness to launch and reach the crash site before sunrise.
The parachute jump into Rhino had been successful, and the Rangers had overcome limited resistance. The Sword mission to capture Mullah Omar failed because he hadn’t been there when the raid force had arrived. The Americans had narrowly avoided disaster when their helicopters came under fire while taking off. One Chinook had clipped a stone wall, knocking off one of its landing gear, but escaped safely.
The crash had occurred at a staging base along the Pakistani border. Two Rangers had been killed when an MH-60 special operations Black Hawk rolled over after the pilots got disoriented in swirling dust. The dead men had been pulled out, and the survivors had been evacuated on other aircraft, but the helicopter was still where it had crashed.
Despite the Pakistani government’s nominal alliance with the United States, it had only loose control over the border regions, where Taliban sympathies were strong. After one attempt to recover the helicopter was thwarted by heavy hostile fire, reaching the Black Hawk became a high priority. This was partly because of the sensitive nature of its avionics, and partly because of its propaganda value to our enemies. But mostly it was because the Marines weren’t going to let a few Pakistanis with rifles chase them away. Planning began for a beefed-up recovery force to go in, shooting if necessary, to bring back the Black Hawk. It would be built around Bravo Company.
Again, we staged our gear, issued briefs, and coordinated the countless details of air support and communications. At 2030, word came to stand down. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan was afraid we’d end up killing Pakistanis and damage the fragile American alliance with President Musharraf. Pakistani security forces would surround the airfield at Panjgur, where the Black Hawk sat, before we went in. The mission was on hold until the next night.
The MEU commander, Colonel Thomas Waldhauser, scheduled the confirmation brief for four o’clock on the afternoon of the mission. Colonel Waldhauser had the tall, spare looks of a combat Marine. He had served as a young officer in the infantry and recon and had a reputation for letting his subordinates do their jobs.
Patrick and I arrived fifteen minutes early to get a seat. Too late. Every table was full, and more people were crammed along the back wall. Only two platoons were going on this mission, but there must have been fifty officers in the room for the brief. I was exasperated but also reassured that so many people had a hand in it.
The MEU operations officer began the presentation, speaking from the projected slides and talking mainly to the MEU commander and the Navy commodore in charge of the ARG, seated together at a table in the front row. They had sole veto power over any part of the plan. In succession, each key player, and many peripheral players, briefed his portion of the night’s mission. Air, intelligence, operations, communications, logistics, medical, weather, even the chaplain said a few words.
Finally, Captain Whitmer stood up. He would be the leader on the ground in the dark. Looking rumpled and speaking softly, he had none of the perkiness of the earlier briefers, those who would stand on the ship and watch the helicopters fly away. He flashed a sympathetic smile at Patrick and me, as if acknowledging the necessity of this circus, and talked the commanders through our plan. Whitmer’s brief was thorough and confident, running through each of the mission’s decision points, from deciding whom to bring to deciding when to abort.
Throughout the confirmation brief, Colonel Waldhauser had been pushing power down the chain of command, authorizing his subordinates to make the critical decisions at each point in the mission. When Captain Whitmer said he would be leaving his mortars behind due to space limitations on the helicopter, the colonel nodded. Abort criteria were no different. The colonel ordered only that we would abort the mission if we came under fire while approaching the landing zone. After landing, whether to abort would be a command decision by the men on the ground. When he was comfortable with the details, Colonel Waldhauser stood, faced the room, and said, “This mission is confirmed. Good luck, gentlemen.”
After the brief broke up, Captain Whitmer, Patrick, and I had an appointment with Colonel Waldhauser in his cabin. Captain Whitmer rapped on the door, and the colonel himself opened it. He invited us to sit on two sofas and poured coffee for four before sitting in a chair opposite us.
“Gentlemen, I invited you up for this private talk because I need you to understand the importance of this mission. General Musharraf has put himself way out on a political limb in order to support Operation Enduring Freedom.” The colonel leaned toward us for emphasis and went on. “What’s the most important thing you can do tonight?”
Patrick and I looked at each other and said in unison, “Recover the Black Hawk.”
“Wrong. The most important thing you can do tonight is not kill any Pakistanis. The Pakistani army has a security cordon around the airfield. Several hundred armed men will be out there in the dark. You might hear them, you might see them, but you must not shoot them. I don’t want a nervous young trigger-puller losing his cool and sparking an international incident. That, not recovering the helicopter, is the most important part of your mission tonight.
“But,” he added with a smile, “I expect you’ll recover the Black Hawk, too.”
I walked down through the Marines’ berthing area to check on my platoon and answer any final questions. Staff Sergeant Law was briefing his machine gunners, drilling the pyrotechnic signal plan and call signs for what must have been the hundredth time. “All right, warriors, once more. Red pyro means emergency extract. Green pyro is a squad pulling back — don’t shoot ’em. White is for illumination only, and smoke of any color is solely for concealment. Everybody got that?”
Leaning against the wall, I listened as he ran through the call signs. “Mission commander is Proud Tiger, the forward air controller is Neck, and the escort Cobras are Swordplay.” When eyes began to glaze over, Law cut it short and turned to me.
“Well, LT, we’re about as ready as we’ll ever be,” he said. “Let’s hope this mission actually goes tonight.” Law’s eyes were red behind his glasses. “Too much of this up-and-down crap and even my sharp edge gets dull.”
“I think this time it’s a go,” I said. “Don’t forget to get some rest yourself.”
I was pulling the metal hatch open at the base of the ladder well when Law called out, “Hey, sir. Don’t worry ’bout machine guns. We’re locked and cocked. These are good motherfuckers. They’re ready to go.”
Suppressing a smile, I paused and nodded before climbing the ladder.