Death in the Corn: Part II of III

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Published: 17 September 2008

The ambush was set, but “Terry” Taliban didn’t step into it. The most successful hunters are not the ones who bag something every time, but the ones who hunt all the time, and 2 Para has been hunting the most dangerous prey. The soldiers of C-co 2 Para are not sure how many they’ve killed in the past five months, but the estimates are around 200, and during the days I spent with them, their average daily kill would put them well over that number.

Moving out of our ambush position, we set off from the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound to “tab” (walk) back to Gib, watching every step. While a soldier with a metal detector swept a skinny path ahead, other soldiers scanned the flanks, simultaneously trying to step in the prints just laid. The soldiers watched not only for ambush and mines and other bombs, but for “dickers.” Dicker is a British term derived from the war in Northern Ireland, where the enemy had a simple but effective system of look-outs to track British patrols and activities.

We arrived safely back on Gib, and the soldiers went about their business. Some headed to the outdoor gym nestled among the mortar pits, while others cleaned their dusty weapons. By 0800, the heat was already rising, but I fell asleep, sweating on a green canvas cot under a mosquito net inside a tent that trapped heat during the day.

Perhaps an hour into the slumber, a British sniper and his spotter were up scanning the corn, tree-lines and buildings with their optics. The sniper’s .338 caliber bullets are powerful enough to flat-blast a Grizzly. The bullet is powerful enough to penetrate most body armor, and still kill the wearer. The sniper scanned through the crosshairs while corn tassels waved in the hot breeze, until the image of a dicker fell under the reticule. The bearded man wearing a turban was observing a British patrol, apparently thinking he was hidden by the trees. The sniper dialed in the range.

But neither the sniper nor spotter could see a radio or weapon in the dicker’s hands, and they did not want to mistakenly shoot a curious farmer. Yet a dicker doesn’t always need a radio or telephone. He can signal, or just walk away and tell what he sees, or pick up a radio hidden nearby. He can carry a snuff box with a little mirror inside for checking his mustache, and use the mirror for signaling. The decision was made to fire a warning shot. If the man was Taliban or working for them, he would get a free lesson on how to do it better tomorrow. If he was just a farmer, he might say the British shot at him but missed.

The sniper controlled his breathing and slowly exhaled one final breath. He squeezed the light trigger…BAM! Bear-stopping bullet launched at three times the speed of sound over the corn, startling birds that fluttered away. The slug hit a tree, splintered through bark, ricocheted, and struck the man, who fell.

What can be said other than, oops?

The man probably was dicking the patrol, and the locals had been duly warned to stay back. Still, the ricochet was unfortunate and the wound turned out to be critical. Locals gathered the wounded man and rushed him to the gate of FOB Gibraltar, where medics quickly took him in. The British and Americans provide one-stop shopping for the enemy; they will shoot down the enemy free of charge, and if he survives, provide top-notch free medical care. The British doctor, Captain Aki Lalani, pulled on the blue latex gloves and went to work. While Dr. Lalani and the medics tried to save the man, they called for a medevac helicopter, which roared into Gibraltar. (The British are critically short on helicopters, yet on two separate occasions the British diverted helicopters solely to pick up wounded Afghans. In each case, I saw good reason to believe that the men were Taliban, or at least helping the Taliban.)

Medical evacuation: ATV with trailer and stretcher rushes Afghan shot by sniper to the helicopter.

Gibraltar is so small that when a helicopter lands, the whole camp is dusted, tents flap and rattle and quickly fill with even more grime, if that were possible. I stepped out of the tent, the grime and sweat turning to mud on my skin, and came around with the camera, just as some soldiers loaded the wounded dicker on the helicopter, which evacuated him to Camp Bastion for the best trauma treatment just about anywhere in the world. There was credible information that Taliban were trying to shoot down a helicopter, but that the Taliban also did not shoot when they knew one of their wounded was aboard. Information would arrive that persuaded me the wounded man probably was either Taliban or working for them.

The British doctor who treated the Afghan is in the middle with blood-covered blue gloves.  The last I heard, his patient had survived for at least about the first 24 hours.

Each day, I would ask Major Adam Dawson how the convoy to Kajaki was going. I was very concerned that it would fail, providing a windfall for the enemy (and a huge setback for us). Major Dawson was tight-lipped, but as the days rolled by, occasionally I got snippets that the top secret convoy was inching forward. Later it would become public that the average speed was a painful 1 mph for the more than 100 miles just to deliver the turbine.

Later that afternoon, after the man was shot and the helicopter flew him away, the enemy sniper started shooting again. The rifle cracks were very loud, as if the rifle were being fired from somewhere on the small FOB. The crack-to-bang got shorter by the day. There was maybe a third of a second between the supersonic crack of the bullet (which truly was very loud) to the bang of the rifle that fired it. Sound at STP (standard temperature and pressure) travels at roughly 1,100 FPS. A rough estimate: 1,100FPS (1/3S) = a range of about 370 ft, or about 120 yards. He could be hit with a bow and arrow! Whatever the case, the sniper was very close, apparently hiding out in the cornfields.

There were some Danish soldiers on Gib—the British soldiers get a kick out of them. The Danish infantry, despite their small numbers, have a good reputation among the Brits because the Danes, they say, will mix it up. But the Danes at Gib were intelligence, not infantry. Recently, an American mission was running nearby, but our folks did not alert the Danes, who could have told our guys that they were about to be ambushed. A few minutes later, sounds from a fierce firefight rumbled over the base.

The Danes have always been interesting. I recall Special Forces friends coming home from Denmark, telling tales of the rigors of their scout swimming course, and saying that the Danish frogmen all swam like fish. The Danes would tell stories about the Vikings, but the SF soldiers were more interested in hearing about Danish women. I’ve never grown tired of hearing Danish stories. One never knows what they will say next. A Danish soldier at Gib told me that when he was younger, he operated a call-girl service from his house, right in front of his mom and his girlfriend.

The Danish section on Gib was just near the headquarters, and so I saw them frequently. Often, at least one of the Danish soldiers would be watching porn on a computer. When I told them that American soldiers would get busted for that, they were astonished. No, they were shocked. What?! American soldiers are not allowed to watch porn? The Brits couldn’t believe it, either. We’re just a bunch of Puritans to them. One particularly energetic Danish soldier had bought two blow-up dolls, and when I saw the dolls still in the packages, I thought it was a joke. But other Danes assured me, “It’s not a joke. He bought those for business.” Nobody seemed to mind that another soldier might be sleeping among them with his love balloon.

The Brits didn’t know what to think of the Danes, except that they were great at their job. The Danes served two functions: saving British lives, and comic relief. The Danes also had scored 16 cases of American MREs, and offered me all that I wanted. I promptly took a whole case and thanked them profusely.

That sniper in the corn, or wherever he was, kept shooting over FOB Gibraltar. A real sniper would have killed some of us by now. He was just a guy with a powerful rifle, yet it was only a matter of time before he blew someone’s head off. Usually he fired around dinnertime, but then grew bolder and began taking potshots during the day. He was at least smart enough to fire only one shot at a time, and to space out his shots, while apparently moving around.

Time: 0Dark30.

The next morning at about sunrise, we were out on a mission, heading in the direction where the sniper was known to lurk. We were not looking for the sniper, but the Brits were attempting to lure the enemy into attacking, and Terry kindly obliged.

The Taliban imposes a curfew. After sunset, Terry turns on the bombs in case the British come to attack at night. Then, just after sunrise, they turn off the bombs so locals can work the fields. The locals often mark IEDs with plastic in a tree, or a bottle on a stick, or some other marker. Terry uses saw blades and mortar rounds and HME (homemade explosives), and landmines in their bombs. Soldiers get arms and legs blown off. With the excellent body armor, immediate access to doctors like CPT Aki Lalani, helicopters, and outstanding trauma centers at places like Camp Bastion, sometimes a soldier will lose multiple limbs and survive.

Green Zone means danger.

Irrigation ditches and muddy ground surround the fields.

Approaching the abandoned compound.

The mission was divided into several sections. The section I followed was to occupy a fire support location called Lima 1-1. It was a recently abandoned family compound, which can house up to a couple dozen family members. The compounds are made like little forts, complete with firing positions, sometimes even moats and watch towers.

We would get into position first, to observe and cover the other two elements as they moved deeper into Terry country. As if we could go any “deeper.” The Command Sergeant Major, who told me to call him Charley, was at the head of our group, while Major Adam Dawson led the element most likely to get into serious contact. The Danes had told me that every time the base comes under attack, CSM Charley just walks around calmly. The Danes said that one day he had a cup of coffee in his hand—saying things like, “Stay focused. Pick your shots. Good job, keep at it boys. You’re doing fine work.”

Soldiers with metal detectors walked ahead, clearing the path.  As I walked up, a soldier had just found something.  The choice was simple: stay outside where it would be very dangerous while he cleared, or walk on by.  I walked on by.

Inside the compound, soldiers moved into security positions.

The soldiers often haul ladders.

I waited to give them time to get into position before climbing up. If a firefight broke out, or there was a bomb hidden on the roof, it would be bad to have an extra man in the way who was only carrying a camera. As a writer, it’s better to stay out of the way while the soldiers set up security, then move into position after they settle in, unless they tell you to come straight away.

Once they were set, I climbed up to where soldiers were watching the next position.

The soldiers had seen a man who appeared to be a dicker, possibly tracking the unit that we were over-watching.  But since we all split up in the corn, the dicker seemed to have lost sight of our element, and didn’t realize he was in the crosshairs.  The sniper reached up and dialed the range on his scope bezel.  Soldiers had said earlier that this British sniper had already dispatched his share of Taliban.

Dust can be seen puffing off the sniper’s shoulder as he fired.

“I’ve got him,” said the British sniper, as he steadied the crosshairs, controlled his breathing and squeezed the trigger. BAM! The rifle cracked and the bullet raced at about Mach 3—SNAP!—just next to the man, the bullet crashed through the trees. Since neither the CLU nor the sniper could see a weapon or radio, the sniper fired only a warning shot. The man hit the ground and slithered away.

Some soldiers were betting when we would be attacked, but then an hour had passed, and nothing. By 0900, I was asleep on the roof. Then a firefight broke out far in front of us. At least one of the forward elements was in contact. The gunfire and explosions were loud, but none of our guys at Lima 1-1 had identified targets, so they just scanned while holding fire. An 81mm mortar at Gib fired a single HE (high explosive round) with a 40-meter lethal radius. Wham! The shot arced straight over our heads—we were between Gib and the target. Artillery is unmistakable, but that mortar seemed quiet, or the shooting drowned it out; I did not hear it fly over us: BOOM! Impact. On target. The mortar team launched more HE rounds, which rained down directly on target. Fine shooting, and very fast. Enemy firing stopped, and the Brits stopped firing.

At 0920, Major Dawson ordered white phosphorous smoke to be fired in the vicinity of the enemy, hoping to draw a response. If they were alive and well and still there, the enemy wisely refused to fire. Word came that some enemy were moving in our general direction, then I fell back asleep. While I slept, at 1012, Major Dawson ordered more smoke, which also drew no response. The soldiers at Lima 1-1 stayed on high alert, and constant communication (I would occasionally wake and hear them).

USMC Harriers were flying overhead cover, but they had to go somewhere else. I heard two or three bombs that morning and they were likely no more than a few miles away, which might have been the Harriers. There was at least one short firefight that was not related to 2 Para. The CSM, Charley, said he thought our Marines were attacking someone, or maybe it was Special Forces. Major Dawson told me later that the Marine Harriers came back, but were short on gas and had to get fuel, and so were replaced by British Harriers, which loitered until they, too, had to go away for fuel. Each time contact started, the jets were gone bombing someone else or getting gas.

There was some heavy shooting far in front of us that abated within minutes, and I fell back asleep in the last slivers of shade. Then a very sharp firefight broke out at the forward positions. Again, Lima 1-1 was not involved, but intelligence came in that Taliban might be heading in our direction, although no one knew if they were aware of our position. Probably they did know, because two boys rode by on a donkey, and there were other compounds nearby where we could hear dogs barking and kids playing. Some of the dogs here are massive and look like Cujo.

I tried to fall back asleep, but the shade was evaporating as the sun rose, and every time sweet dreams started, they were interrupted by a firefight, so I climbed down the precarious ladder to sit with Dr. Lalani. Soldiers have great respect for medical doctors who can justifiably stay on base, but instead push into combat. If the doctor is there during those first minutes after a soldier is wounded, there is a far greater chance of survival.

At about 1106, the enemy initiated contact on one of the forward positions. It was so loud that I thought our guys were firing from the roof. Rockets were blasting away. About 40 seconds after contact, the 81mm mortars were firing straight over our heads and crashing down on enemy positions about a klick to our front. Thousands of rounds were being fired, though the guns all around me were silent.

The elements up front were fighting while I just listened to the gunfire and explosions while eating one of the MREs the Danes had given me. Up front in the fight, Lance Corporal Alex Fraenzel was hauling a Javelin missile. Fraenzel and Private Richard Lloyd ran forward. While Fraenzel set up for the shot, Lloyd began firing his SA-80 rifle into suspected enemy positions to provide cover.

Fraenzel spotted an armed target that was out of Lloyd’s rifle range. He pressed and held the seeker trigger until the picture came on. Then he released the seeker trigger. Javelins are incredibly accurate. Fraenzel brought the tracking gates down to cover the target, then pressed and held the seeker trigger to get a lock. With bullets snapping by, Fraenzel held the firing trigger and . . . instead of WHOOSHHH, missile away, he got the red symbol of a missile with a line through it. Misfire.

Fraenzel released the triggers and locked on again, and again tried to fire. Nothing. With bullets cracking by, Private Lloyd did not realize there was a misfire and wondered why Fraenzel was taking so long. He turned to Fraenzel and said, “Hurry the fuck up!!!”

Fraenzel was in a pickle. The missile might fire on its own at any moment. Fraenzel held his ground, turned off the CLU, turned it back on and tried the whole thing again. The Javelin didn’t work. Fraenzel took off the CLU and attached another Javelin. This one launched and hit the target. But they couldn’t leave the dud for the enemy, and so the two soldiers began packing it up while the mortar crews started hammering away again.

Finally, on the sixth mortar fire mission that morning, smoke was dropped to cover extraction. We all moved back out through the corn, linking up with other elements, then back to Gibraltar.

On the way back to base we cooled off – against our will – in the filthy water.

The patrol returned to Gibraltar, not knowing how many Taliban they had killed, if any.  But tomorrow they would go out hunting again.  This time, they would bag their limit.



To read Part I of this series click here.

To read Part III of this series click here.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rob · 9 years ago
    Cheers for great Dispatches Michael. Just one pointer though, in our army CSM stands for Company Sergeant Major (who holds the rank of WO2), not Command Sergeant Major.

    Keep up the awesome work.

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