TURBINES WHINED in the predawn darkness. Pure potential energy, building, storing, promising to go kinetic on the thundering gallop north. Blue static electricity spun off the rotor blades as the platoon ducked aboard. I climbed forward to the space between the pilots’ seats and plugged into the intercom. We had met the night before to rehearse the mission, so there wasn’t much to say. A platoon commander’s only job on a flight like this is to track the pilots’ navigation and make sure they drop us in the right spot. It also pays to have some situational awareness outside the helicopter in case the bird is forced down and the Marines have to shoot from the hip.
As always, we lifted off hesitantly. The big Super Stallion rocked back and forth while inching upward. A cloud of dust, the frenzied rotor wash, enveloped us. Suddenly finding its purpose, the helicopter’s nose dropped, and we blew through the murk, seeing the horizon again and picking up speed. Two more birds followed close behind.
We flew low, rising and falling with the contour of the hills. Our destination was one hundred miles due north, just outside Kandahar, one hundred miles from the nearest Americans. I had read enough about Afghanistan to know that helicopters had an uninspiring history there. The Soviets had been wearing down the mujahideen until the CIA introduced Stinger missiles and turned the tide of the war. A Stinger is small enough to pack on the back of a donkey and homes in on an aircraft’s hot exhaust. In 1986, an Afghan commander named Engineer Ghaffar fired the first Stingers of the war and blew three Soviet Hind helicopters out of the sky near Jalalabad.
Marines call the CH-53 “the Shitter.” I’d heard two different explanations for the nickname. One was that mortar fire destroyed a CH-53 on the ground at an airfield in Vietnam; the wreck became a makeshift latrine, and the name stuck. The other story was simply that the big bird poured out so much hot, smoky exhaust. I imagined flocks of Stingers chasing that heat signature and hoped the former explanation was the right one.
My paranoid sightings of Stinger teams behind every hill resolved themselves into trees, shepherds, and at least one camel. We saw remnants of the Soviet occupation — the circular berms of artillery positions and rusting trucks staining the soil red. Roads cut across the desert, many showing tread marks from tracked vehicles, tanks perhaps. The United States had no tracked vehicles in Afghanistan.
Behind me, thirty members of the platoon sat facing one another on two rows of fold-down canvas seats. Their packs were piled between them. Gunners stood in the open doors, crouched behind .50-caliber machine guns, their visored heads stuck out in the slipstream. One clamped an unlit cigar in his jaw. I wondered idly what would happen if they started firing. Bursts of spent shell casings would fly through the cargo bay, whipped along by the wind to burn any skin they touched.
The pilots talked back and forth, monitoring gauges and pointing out potential threats of rising terrain and figures on the ground. I was irrationally reassured by the fact that they were on edge, too. I looked out the side of the Plexiglas windscreen at the other helicopters. They flew impossibly low, throwing plumes of dust into the sky behind them. This made us more visible from a distance, but flying low and fast meant that we would be past a gunner before he had time to see us, aim, and fire. At least I hoped so.
The GPS made it easy to track our progress. Even without it, dark mountains on the horizon announced our emergence from the flat deserts of the south. Their jagged regularity conjured up dragon’s teeth and welcomed us to the Afghanistan of myth and legend: Alexander the Great, the Great Game, the Hindu Kush. Looking at the snow, I thought that nature could be as deadly as any terror network. I’d felt this way in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, usually in the late fall, racing darkness to the trailhead, aware that being caught on the mountain overnight meant losing fingers, or even worse. Our canvas desert boots weren’t designed for tromping through snowdrifts. We had only light jackets and thin gloves. Nights at Rhino had been uncomfortably cold; in the mountains, they would be dangerously so.
“Five minutes!” I extended an open hand to the seated Marines. Goggles down, weapons loaded, packs grabbed by a strap for a quick drag down the ramp. Pocket the map, turn on the radio, last savor of sitting here, last comforting illusion of a short hop to safety.
“Thirty seconds!” Standing now, thanking the aircrew, removing my headset. The blades’ pitch changed as we flared to land, the smooth whir becoming a choppy clatter. Nose up, tail down, and the thump of landing gear settling onto the ground. The ramp dropped, and the platoon ran out, fanning to secure a perimeter around the landing zone. The other two birds followed their leader, and two more streams of Marines arced into the circle. I bent my head and closed my eyes as the climbing helicopters blasted us with sand. They turned south and left us in a growing silence.
LAR and the recon teams already manned positions on a rocky rise two kilometers away. Our two infantry platoons completed the package. We shouldered our packs and moved to join them. It was colder here, less than a hundred miles north but much higher in elevation. A sharp wind rustled the carcasses of plants still upright in the ground. Others rolled along like tumbleweeds in an old Western. Afghanistan’s rugged, spare beauty reminded me of the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. That beauty can overwhelm a person when its immensity isn’t tempered by a lodge or a campfire. Infantrymen feel the immensity. They are part of the landscape, not observers of it. No windshield or cockpit separates them from the mountains and the wind. The sense of space and time is like gazing at the stars.
Staff Sergeant Marine organized the platoon’s digging while I joined the other officers for a brief in the tiny tent that served as the battalion’s traveling command post.
“Welcome, Bravo Company, to Patrol Base Pentagon.” The battalion commander, who went by “Shaka” in honor of the famed Zulu warrior, had been awaiting our arrival. His brief was triaged — most vital information first. Aerial surveillance reported a radar dish to our south and a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) to our north. An MLRS is a set of rocket tubes on the back of a truck. It can obliterate a square kilometer. First priority for the battalion was to learn more about those threats. The colonel sent Jim along with an LAR patrol to check on the radar and recon to investigate the MLRS.
The next priority was a rough outline of our short-term plan. A few klicks to our north was a river, its banks dotted with villages and farms. The highway from Kandahar to Lashkar Gah paralleled the river on its north side. That night, according to the colonel, our little band of Marines was slated to be General Tommy Franks’s main effort. Franks commanded all American forces from the Horn of Africa across the Middle East to central Asia. All eyes would be on us. We would patrol the highway to interdict traffic and send a message to the Taliban.
“Go after them, gentlemen,” the colonel said, pointing at the young commanders along the sides of the tent, “until they fear us more than they hate us.”
We expected to continue this tactic for the next several nights, probably moving the patrol base each day to make it more difficult for anyone to attack us. When Kandahar fell to the Northern Alliance, a portion of our force would move to secure the airport there in order to replace the runway at Rhino with something larger and more permanent. The colonel couldn’t speculate on possible missions more than a few days out. Our enemy would adapt as we adapted, so we couldn’t expect to set the agenda. We would initiate as much as we could, but we’d also have to respond to the other guy’s moves.
I was still in the tent when the LAR patrol, with Jim in command, reached the reported radar site.
“Shaka, this is Cossack. We’ve reached the location of that reported radar dish. It’s a tree.”
“Negative, Cossack. We had good reporting that it was a radar, maybe disguised. Take another look.”
I imagined Jim cursing and running his hands over the bark.
“Shaka, Cossack. Roger, we checked again. It’s definitely a tree.”
Recon found that the MLRS was actually an MLRS, but it was unusable, probably rusting in place since the Soviet withdrawal twelve years before. For the moment, Patrol Base Pentagon was safe.
Jim and I occupied the highest crag on the rock pile the battalion surrounded. We lined up our laser range finders, rifles, binoculars, and scopes for easy use. Then we began to dig. We rotated digging and watching over the valley beneath us. I dug while Jim stood watch, and then we switched. The sand was dry and loose between the rocks, but digging was slow. We didn’t have full-size shovels, only collapsible entrenching tools that attached to the outside of our packs. By prying rocks from the ground, we built a parapet in front of our deepening hole and soon had a protected vantage point overlooking the valley.
“People down there are checking us out.” Jim pointed out along a rocky ridge that extended below us into the valley. Two figures peeked from behind a boulder. I focused my binoculars on them. Young guys, maybe our age, dressed in traditional shalwar kameez. I didn’t see any weapons.
“Probably shepherds or villagers from down by the river. Maybe they saw our helicopters.”
We watched shadows in the valley lengthen in the dusk. The wind picked up, and the temperature plummeted. My thin gloves had holes in all the fingertips, and I resolved to fix them as soon as I had time. We fantasized about building a fire, but nothing attracts bullets in the dark like a flame. So we sat and shivered and watched. After sunset, the eastern horizon flashed as if with distant lightning.
“Air Force is pounding the piss out of Kandahar,” Jim mumbled around a piece of dried grass stuck in his mouth. He reclined on his elbows, perfectly at ease.
I tried to feel some remorse, some sense of the gravity of watching people die by the score. But I couldn’t. The explosions’ flickering yellow light reflected off the high overcast. Low rumbling followed the biggest flashes.
“Poor fuckers,” Jim said. “Most of them have probably never even seen an airplane up close, and now they have JDAMs coming down their chimneys.”
Jim was referring to the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a GPS-guided “smart bomb” that could hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Our conversation was interrupted every few minutes by radio calls from the LAR patrol that had departed at sunset. The patrol was supposed to move down into the valley, where recon was looking for a site to ford the river, and then stop traffic along the highway. So far, the night had been a bust.
We listened in as the recon platoon got a Humvee stuck in the river’s silt and spent three hours trying to free it. Meanwhile, Cossack was teaching us all a lesson about the unforeseen complications of real-world operations. In training, LAVs burn diesel fuel. But pulling up to the pump is not so easy in Afghanistan. We relied on aerial resupplies of fuel from the helos based at Rhino. They carried five-hundred-gallon bladders that the LAVs could pump from when they landed. To streamline our logistical tail, all the vehicles burned JP-8, the same aviation kerosene burned by the helicopters. But JP-8, being cleaner than diesel, burns hotter and faster.
“Shaka, this is Cossack. We’re burning fuel at an unbelievable rate. I’m almost at half a tank, and we haven’t even crossed the river yet.”
Shaka aborted the mission, and the LAVs whined back into Pentagon long before dawn. Our night as the main effort had been a frustrating waste.
Two nights later, I shook Jim awake shortly before midnight.
“Your watch, man.”
Our new hole was perched on a sandy ridge, hundreds of feet above the river and the highway. We had moved from Pentagon to reduce the roundtrip time and distance for the patrols. I had gone on the last one, the night before. We had sat near the highway for two hours, unable to find any targets. Another fruitless mission. But this night looked more promising. I had watched throughout the evening as lights winked out in the windows of the houses clustered in trees along the riverbanks. Around dusk, traffic began to move on the highway — trucks mostly, traveling west from Kandahar.
This patrol base, perfectly situated for defense and observation, had one crucial flaw: the high ridge obstructed line-of-sight radio communication between the colonel and the patrol. Jim and I, with our radios and antennas, sat right on the edge of the ridge. We had a clear shot to the patrol on the highway and to the headquarters tent a few hundred meters down the slope behind us. We became the radio link between the two.
After climbing out of his sleeping bag, Jim hopped into the hole, rubbing his hands together, and I briefed him. “Cossack is moving toward the highway for interdiction. A recon team, Quizmaster, is looking for a ford site on the river. Patrol doesn’t want to come back the same way it went out. A Huey-Cobra mixed section should launch from Rhino soon to be on station for a couple of hours while they’re stopping traffic. And it’s freezing.”
Jim took the radio handsets, and I clapped him on the back. I shook out my sleeping bag and shimmied in, zipping it up to my neck. The only sound as I closed my eyes was a subdued chirp each time Jim keyed the handset to relay a message.
Less than an hour later, he woke me with a shake. By the time I sat up, Jim was twenty feet away, dropping back into the hole. “Get dressed, bro. Shit’s about to go down.”
Climbing out of my bag, I caught my breath, as if I’d jumped into a cold river. I rushed into my jacket and hat, Kevlar vest, and gloves. The temperature was probably only in the twenties, but the cold had a way of seeping inside you and draining your warmth. We’d been living outside day and night for weeks, without fires or showers or roofs and walls to protect us from the weather.
A high overcast had blown in, and a cold wind whipped across the ridge, flapping my jacket as I struggled to zip it. Airpower was our lifeline, and we scrutinized the clouds like aspiring meteorologists. They looked high enough to have little effect on us. From left to right, I scanned the sweep of dark horizon. No lights visible. No sounds. No immediate threats. Jim juggled the radios, briefing me between message relays. The raid force was in place down on the highway. The LAVs sat back off the road, with recon closer to the pavement. They had strung a piece of concertina wire across the highway to stop traffic. A Navy P-3 surveillance plane reported a vehicle approaching the roadblock from the direction of Kandahar.
“Where’s that mixed section?” I wanted the comfort of a pair of attack helicopters nearby.
“They crashed, bro.”
“Heard on the radio that at least one of them crashed on takeoff at Rhino. So, yeah, they’re not coming.”
We watched from the heights, trying to see the LAVs down on the dark plain. Headlights approached from the east and became a Toyota pickup truck. Seeing the wire, the driver slowed, then gunned the engine. He succeeded only in wrapping his axle with wire, and the truck slid to a halt near the Marines. A recon team approached the truck. Their translator told the men to put up their hands.
Instead, two figures in the truck’s bed sat up from under blankets and raised AK-47s. The Marines opened fire, killing all the men in the truck. Fuel and ammunition ignited. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), lying in the bed, cooked off, streaking wildly past the LAVs. I watched the tracer fire in the dark, tendrils of red drawn across a black canvas.
With dead bodies sprawled on the pavement and the truck now engulfed in flames, the Marines on the scene hurried to put some distance between themselves and the ambush site. As they scrambled to free an LAV, spinning helplessly in soft sand, the battalion radioed a warning from the P-3: two more vehicles approaching from the east. Down on the highway, the forward air controller set up his laser marking system. A minibus and a dump truck, carrying dozens of armed men, stopped a few hundred meters short of the burning wreckage.
The Marines hunkered down in the shadows, eager to avoid a fair fight. The forward air controller whispered into his radio, talking a Navy jet onto the target. I heard its engine pitch change to a high whine as the pilot dropped the jet’s nose, accelerating, putting the trucks in his sights. Two five-hundred-pound bombs dropped off the wings and whistled through the dark sky. I watched the jet’s glowing afterburners fade into the overcast. Ducking in anticipation, I instinctively closed my eyes.
I had seen dozens of air strikes in training, dropped thousands of pounds of ordnance in the Nevada and California deserts. But this was real. Three, two, one . . . I counted down to the bombs’ impact. The concussion cracked past. Two trucks full of Taliban soldiers disappeared in the flash, leaving only twisted metal and charred lumps of flesh on the highway.