So there I was, on a chopper in Afghanistan, no shit.
Since I was wearing the headset to communicate with the pilot, I couldn’t sleep on the way out. A mistake I would not make again. “One minute,” the disembodied voice says into my headset and I dutifully pass on the message. The rotor noise to too loud to speak so we use hand and arm signals. Holding up one finger I signal the other passengers of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
Everyone repeats the motion all the way back with the last man copying the signal to confirm that the message made it all the way back. Smiling he holds up a middle finger causing a laugh through the chopper. It lightens the mood, which is exactly what this situation needs.
As the smiles fade I hold my thumb and forefinger close together in the international signal for, “a little bit” it means “30 seconds” to the collected. Now the adrenaline kicks in and I go through my last minute checks. Which way do I go once I exit the rear of the helicopter, who do I link up with, what are our actions on the ground, it all goes through my head as my thumb runs across the safety of my rifle in an instinctive move to verify it is on safe. Then the chopper flares and gently touches down.
First out the back are the off road motorcycles and the ATVs, they are going to chase down “squirters,” bad guys who literally run for the hills when they see the choppers. Next off are the Afghan Security Force (ASF), more or less a militia who are American trained and will be absorbed into the Afghan National Army when it is more established. Fresh faced, they are not their battle hardened fathers who chased the Russians out of the country, but trained by U.S. Special Forces they are not as skittish as most new recruits.
Everyone files out, as the first one on; I am the last out and mindful that the pilots don’t like to be on the ground long. Altitude is their friend and I don’t want to be still on board when they take off.
Hefting the seventy pound pack, I step out the back and link up with my battle buddy “Butters” before hoofing it to the village. It doesn’t take long for the choppers to lift up and be out of sight. They will circle a few miles away and come back when called. None of that is my concern now; I am on the ground, in the middle of nowhere, Afghanistan looking for one of the most dangerous men in the region.
Every mission was different, but that one sticks out in my mind. I was part of a two man PSYOP team attached to a Special Forces (SF) unit. Our mission was to use our portable loudspeaker, basically a bullhorn on crack, to address the entire village. Today’s message, come unarmed to the center of town and do not interfere with the soldiers.
That mission doesn’t stand out in my head because we were after a man who had daisy-chained four antitank mines together, thereby combining their explosive power into one detonation that took the lives of four American heroes a couple months before, men from this very unit. Neither the heat nor the helicopter ride was something I was unaccustomed to, this mission stood out in my mind because it was the day my daughter saved lives.
Approaching her fourth birthday she was 9,000 miles away and safely compartmentalized in my mind so I could focus on the task at hand. But it was lessons I had learned from her that paid off that day.
I had spent the previous six months running missions with a team whose main purpose was to build rapport and win “hearts and minds.” That day however, I would not be sipping tea as I talked to the village elders about the current state of their country or helping to set up a medical clinic for the day. Nor would I be handing out beanie babies to the kids that had been donated by people back home. That day was a cordon and search, Intel had it that there was a specific bad guy in town and we couldn’t wait to meet him.
It did not take long to surround the village. The motorized vehicles were coordinating with Apache attack helicopter to contain the area. The pilots would spot someone and radio to the ATVs who would chase them down. The men in the village were being contained in an open area in the center of town. Out of respect for the culture, the women would be held somewhere else.
My loudspeaker was set to broadcast with the touch of a button. After we broadcast a few times, we settled into the center of the village while the SF team cleared the buildings. I was happy to help control the villagers if for no other reason than to not have to walk about with my rucksack for a while.
My heavy pack finally resting on the ground I was watching the men of the village as they were placed against the wall while we ferreted out our man. Most had that patient indifference of people waiting for a minor inconvenience to be over so they can go back to their day. Like people waiting outside their building until the fire drill is over so they can go back to work.
All except for one guy, he looked like he would rather be anywhere but here. Somewhere in the back of my mind it conjured up a memory. I had seen this before, my training in psychological operations, the months of working closely with locals of the country and understanding the intricacies of the culture didn’t help me see what he was thinking. His actions mirrored those of a three year old standing in front of cheese.
Instantly, in my mind I was transported back to a day in the dairy aisle of our local supermarket with Anna. For some reason that kid loved to look at cheese, and as a gracious parent, I would let her. Like most times in this very spot she was not just looking at gouda, she had a plan. Too young to understand the fine art of being subtle, she would telegraph her intentions every time.
Her favorite game was to suddenly take off in a run; she would break away and run around the corner giggling the whole way. It was a private joke only she was in on. In her head, around the corner was safety and that is as far as she thought she needed to get. If she could just get out of sight, she would be home free. I highly doubt she thought of what she would do once that happened, but that was the game.
Even when I would warn her not to do it, bless her heart, she had to try. If it is a bad idea, but still fun it just might be worth it. Clearly she is my daughter, regret is for the things you didn’t do, not the things you did.
I could see the look in her eyes as she estimated the distance to the corner of the aisle, and then gauged how far away I was, all while pretending to look at cheese. A child who couldn’t say the word “physics” was using it in her little head. She calculated her acceleration and top speed, factored in my reaction time, acceleration and top speed and determined how close she would have to be to the corner to get away.
Slowly she drifted a little to her right. That gave her more distance from me and less distance to the end of the aisle. I could swear she was recalculating speed and distance again trying to find the right equation that was favorable for her. Testing a theory I took two steps towards her. In an instant her entire demeanor changed. There is no way she could take off running and get anywhere before I would be upon her. Sweeping her up in my arms and ticking her to celebrate my victory.
Standing in a far away dusty land I could swear I was watching the same kind of situation unfold. Reading his eyes I could already see what he was thinking. Squatting in typical Afghan style he could easily explode up and be in motion before anyone nearby knew what was happening.
Surprise was his ally as he jumped up and took out the Afghan soldier nearest to him. He wouldn’t have to kill him, just knock him aside and take the gun from his hands. His next move would be to shoot me, then Butters, then some of the ASF.In that time one other guy from the group would grab my rifle or another AK-47 from another dead ASF soldier. They would use our weapons to make their escape.
I could see his plan clear as day, once you live in extraordinary circumstances long enough, they stop being extraordinary. But I am not above admitting that my feelings were a little hurt that he had already planned my death. In his head he was going to kill me. Needless to say, this displeased me and I felt I had to take immediate action to protect my life and the life of others.
Snapping my fingers to get the attention of the ASF soldier I motioned him to move over a couple feet. As soon as he did, my would be killer’s entire demeanor changed. He recalculated the distance and realized that those extra few feet would give the ASF troop an extra half second of reaction time, which would be enough to fight him off. Just like that his plan was foiled.
All my time in country, all the study of the country and culture, working closely with locals and it was being a father to a precocious three-yea- old that saved my life. I couldn’t help but laugh as I warned everyone around to keep an eye on him.
A couple minutes later I went forward to talk to the team leaders. They had a man in custody that they thought was the bomber, but weren’t sure and asked me to be another set of eyes to verify of they had the right guy. As much as I like myself, it was flattering that men of this caliber were asking me what I thought. To me, this meant I had earned their respect. We compared pictures and recent information that gave us clues that this was indeed the guy.
As we walked back past the area the men were gathered one senior man asked, “Who goes with us?” They wanted to know who else was dirty.
Without hesitation I pointed out my guy. “That guy knows something,” I said, “I don’t know what, but he knows something.”
Sometimes it all comes down to a judgment call; every other adult male was lazily waiting for us to be done so we could leave their village. Most Afghans are even happy when a known Taliban is taken away. All they want to do is live without strife. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, Afghans, Americans, it could be green aliens as long as they will let them live in peace.
But the one guy who wants to get away more than anything is suspect. Afghans are a hard people, they do not scare easily. Blind fear would make you want to run, not plan our deaths. His inability to hide his intentions got him a free chopper ride which is more than most people can say.
When we walked out of that village I leaned on my pack, refusing to pick it up again. Butters offered to trade me packs. Without hesitation I said, “Fuck you, your pack is heavier than mine.” The choppers coming back in were a welcome sight. We had gotten into the village, secured our target and everyone went home with all their fingers and toes, all without firing a shot.
Not that we had a lot of downtime, not long after getting back it was announced that it was “Halo thirty” which, apparently, is half past “Halo o’clock.” We fired up the Xbox and grabbed the controllers. It would be four on four against the guys across the courtyard and this time we would take no prisoners.