Michael's Dispatches

Night Walk with 4-4 Cav


04 November 2011


It’s amazing how many lights can be seen on a dark night.  Especially if you are with the US military.  Different-colored lights are useful for differing purposes. The color you use can depend on your job. For medics, blue light is good for blood.  It’s also good for tracking blood trails.  Bright white is best but then the enemy can shoot you.  Red light can make blood disappear, but then again blue light makes petroleum look like blood, and so if you are treating patients at night from after an IED strike on a vehicle, there can be confusion.  American military maps are made to be “red light readable” because red light preserves night vision and is harder to see from a distance.  The question of lights and how to use them can soak up thousands of words and so let’s keep it simple and move on.


These are night photographs, and so the shadows are coming from moonlight, which of course is reflected sunlight.


The light on the Soldier’s helmet is called a firefly, or IR strobe.  The flashing infrared light is invisible to the naked eye but can be seen with night vision gear and also with my special camera.


Tonight was very bright and so it’s tempting not to wear the PVS-14 night vision device; it’s easier to walk without it.  But I—and probably 25 Soldiers over different missions—have been chastised by the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, for not wearing them.  After five previous combat tours, he runs herd on wearing the night vision no matter how bright the night.  During one mission, I joked with LTC Katona that he’ll still have on the PVS-14 at eight in the morning.  But it’s no joke and he’s right.  When the enemy starts firing, if you’ve got that night vision on you’ve got an instant and extreme advantage; if they are in a position to hit you, their muzzle flashes will be very bright through the PVS-14, and with the great accuracy of the M4 rifles, the troops can return decisive fire very quickly.  During a mission wherein it was very bright, an NCO and I were not using our PVS-14s, and I followed him right off the cleared trail.  IR chemlights were marking the trail but we didn’t even know that.  One of our Soldiers died similarly in September.  The Afghans don’t wear the PVS-14s, and some walked off the trail, and our Soldier was hit by an IED while following them.


Americans with night vision, Afghans without.


Both at night and daytime, it can be difficult to maintain convoy or patrol integrity.  You can end up with a slinky-effect, or often just a break in contact.  If it’s a big group, say 100 troops walking at night, and they keep a five-meter interval, that’s five hundred meters.  About a quarter mile.  And one big problem is that you don’t move like a snake where the head is connected by a long body to the tail.  You move more like a broken slinky, or many broken slinkies is more like it.  Southern Afghanistan is filled with obstacles such as grape rows, and so when the point element comes to a grape row, everyone ends up waiting while each person goes over.  A snake can only move its head a very short distance before the tail gets the message.  But with people, you end up kneeling and sitting a lot, and occasionally you have to move fast to catch up.


Movements with many Soldiers at night can get tricky and you can accidentally shoot each other.  For instance, during this movement, not far from where this photo was taken, the patrol took a right-hand turn that was about 90 degrees.  And so now instead of being in a line, we were in an L shape.  If you take contact, everyone must be very careful with their trigger finger.  Those night vision devices can be crucial advantages in deciding friend or foe.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    ASD · 9 years ago
    Michael - I have spoken with someone who has recently completed 2 tours overseas - he used the night vision goggles a lot - he and his friends now have vision problems in one eye - unsurprisingly in the eye that uses the goggle. He can not see clearly out of that eye from 6 feet away without new glasses. Is there anything the Army can do to adjust the goggles so they don't damage our soldiers' vision?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Benjamin · 9 years ago
      That could also be a problem with the NV equipment not being properly focused. The ones i always used you had a focus wheel on it. Anything that changes the focus of the eye has the ability to ruin the eyes natural focus. From safety glasses to ballistic glass. The only thing is if its messing with both eyes they will both take the strain and there will be no difference from one to the other. If one eye is taking more stain than the other it will cause vision problems and be a lot more noticeable.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Michael Yon · 9 years ago
      ASD -- interesting. Have never heard of that but sounds like something that needs to be looked into.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Hughes · 9 years ago
    We had similar problems with the Star Light (gen I) scope in VN that was supposedly caused by strain. It diminished to the point where it wasn't that much of a problem but it took several years.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Fritz · 9 years ago
    Hey Michael,
    Another great article.

    I have one question that seems to be troubling me:

    The "Fireflys" the troops are wearing? If a Taliban has a pair of nightvision, or even a common cell phone with IR, wouldn't they be able to easily see the US soldiers in the dark with IR lights on their helmets?

    It seems like a major flaw in the use of IR, considering how much commonly available electronics are available world wide with IR sensors.

    Just thought I would ask,
    Keep up the great work and be safe,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 9 years ago
    Michael, I thought red lights were actually *best* at night because they have a longer wavelength so they "carry" farther. That's why we use red lights as brake lights on cars or as warning lights on the tops of radio towers at night -- so airplanes can see them sooner....
    In any case, thanks for the work you do!

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