Forward: This story may have some incorrect timelines and I replaced some people and/or merged personalities into single characters. The incident itself is factual. It happened. Dialogue obviously created from intent. Some people may not want to be linked whatsoever to these events. I respect that and your privacy. So you may recognize a situation, but not your character – only a consideration for your privacy; but I still need to tell the story. This event happened about 2/3rds through my tour. I want to start the blog someplace…may as well be in the seasoned action. Further blogs will fill in time and space. This event represented a segway from Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN) to War-fighting. It was time to start punching back, the rules changed and we were more than prepared.
Summer in Salavat….
As most days, the valley was brown and dusty; but had a rustic beauty where the dessert met the irrigated fruit, marijuana and opium fields closer to the wadis – “the green zones”. The sun blazed through the bright blue sky raising the temperatures to a common 40 degrees celsius. My section had just finished a Chinook escort and was heading out to do over-watch for infantry teams patrolling Panjwaii. As usual, the greenhouse heat in the cockpit was well over 50 and sweat poured down from my helmet filling my ear cups and stinging my eyes. Every now and then, to improve hearing, I pinched my lower ear cup, breaking the sound seal allowing the fluid to drain.
“Shakedown 25 Flight, this is Slayer TOC,” the radio opened requesting communication with my Canadian Griffon Weapons Team flying over the Tarnac River a few miles west of Kandahar Airfield, KAF. We had been in theatre for a half-year. It was to be a ten-month tour, one of the longest consecutive overseas tours the Canadian Forces had authorized since the Korean conflict. The fliers of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, Rotation 8 (ROTO 8) or Task Force Freedom, were well into their routines and had become seasoned theatre pilots but not without weathering some operational and personal storms. Shakedown was more than a call-sign; it was our role.
“Go for Shakedown,” I curiously responded to what Slayer needed. Slayer controlled all the airspace in the Canadian area of operations – the AO. This involved aircraft weapons systems and he had direct access to artillery. Slayer responded to the fire support needs to both Canadians and the Allies working in this area. He also monitored all the Canadian troop activity in the Panjwaii area, one of the most violent areas in Afghanistan. He responded to their needs; which at this time of the year was numerous and daily.
“Shakedown. TIC in progress near Salavat. 22 in an IED ambush – Can you respond?” An Improvised Explosive Device is a homemade bombs made by skilled explosive manufacturers in rudimentary labs through the country. Sometimes they had enough explosive power to create craters ten meters in diameter across highways. They had been successful killing hundreds if not thousands of people over the past several years. 22 was the callsign of the infantry commander needing assistance because his Troops were In Contact with the enemy (TIC).
“Romeo Tango,” I responded affirmatively meaning ‘Roger That’ or yes.
“Shakedowns have 8000 rounds each of seven-six-two dual-Dillons and sixty minutes playtime,” I added to let Slayer know what weapons and ammunition type (7.62mm ball) I had on board and how much fuel time remaining.
“Contact India 22 for a Battle Update Brief,” Slayer directed and continued with critical airspace information. “My ROZ is hot but the guns are cold; cleared into my ROZ,” he added to advise me that his area was active but no friendly artillery was going to be threatening us in the ROZ (restricted operating zone). A Battle Update Brief is summary of situation directly affecting a commander’s troops. I would get that directly from the infantry officer I would be supporting.
“Guys, we got Troops in Contact – the guys near Salavat. They were on patrol when we last checked with Operations.” I advised my copilot and gunners.
My copilot was new, a first tour pilot. He was intelligent and inquisitive; however his enquiries were not always timely appropriate for the situation and I admit drove me crazy at times. Likewise, as a grumpy old bugger, I knew I drove him nuts too. Balance! He often asked for positive re-enforcement about his flying technique while concurrently flying the next sequence; usually absent-mindedly towards some threat, like the ground or another helicopter coming at us. This often led to an emotional response of ‘What the fuck are you doing…?’
However, after six months, accustomed to mutually working thru the stress, we became synced to each others’ quirks. So when these situations arose, we seemed to transition into battle in fluid harmony.
“Roger Haycce,” my always perky engineer exclaimed from the rear right gun position acknowledging he understood the situation and was ready. He was always excited about the mission to unfold despite knowing that the area around Salavat usually offered a challenge. He was a perpetually smiling, a keen Newfoundlander. He had a knack of being able to engage in battle yet still find the opportune moment to document the event with the camera permanently strapped around his neck. Of course interpreting his high speed accent was a challenge. “Haycee” translated was AC, or Aircraft Captain which he still calls me to this day.
“Taliban’s going down today,” Gunny’s voice flatly added from the left-rear seat. I served with three different army gunners, all of which were outstanding soldiers. But to save the names and confidentiality, I’ll blend them and write the best dialogue I can recall to the situation; not of course to minimize their unique individual character. These guys were all young, but had previous Afghanistan experience as an infantry soldiers; making them my ground tactical advisors. Gunny had a positive sense of humour blended with a keen professional eye. His marksmanship with the Dillon was remarkable. His accuracy suggests he had an in-brain firing computer figuring the helicopter flight path, winds and distance so that his first rounds landed on target; reliably. This would be extremely useful later in the war as I was requested to put suppressive fire less than 20 meters from friendly troops…another story.
“26, this is 25, we gotta TIC at Salavat! 22 needs support, switch to his frequency and monitor,” I directed to my wingman on the radio. He was flying in formation behind me, to cover me while I researched and choreographed the plan.
“25, this is 26, on frequency,” indicating he was on the army radio listening.
“Infantry 22, this is Shakedown 25 Flight checking in,” I radioed to the Platoon Commander.
“Shakedown, roger.” A loud, partially gasping voice answered. “We have had an IED explode at Grid Reference QQ41XX90XX. One ANA dead. My troops are cordoned around a grape-hut. Suspected enemy is two FAMs (Fighting Aged Males) northwest our location 200 meters. I need you for over-watch and track those dickers,” huffed the army commander.
It was obvious from his pitched and panting voice he had been running and stabilizing chaos while under fire from the enemy. He needed us to watch for dickers – enemy combatants that observe their targets from fairly close. Dickers watch and pull the trigger using cell phones to detonate IEDs. Sometimes they observe innocently and then give a hand signal to someone far away to pull the trigger. Regardless of technique, they are effective and deadly.
“Roger 22, we’ll be there in three mikes,” acknowledging that I am three minutes away.
“Alright guys we’re looking for dickers,” I briefed the crew. “Any strange Patterns of Life or dickers stalking from compounds, let me know – watch the north-east.”
“26, its 25, follow me for a high sweep, then I’ll stay high over the friendlies and look around, you go low and poke around,” I gave my initial tactical plan to the wingman.
“Check.” the radio confirmed bluntly.
I didn’t have to direct my crew to the area that was given in the grid. They knew Salavat well. They could see several kilometres ahead and correctly assumed the dust cloud from the explosion was our destination. I didn’t have to direct my copilot at this point. He automatically knew how to position the aircraft for everyone’s best mutual support and tactical advantage. The streets and compounds below were empty, unusual for the time of day. The pattern of life (POL), felt eerie. When bad things happened, locals stayed off the streets and hid in their compounds.
“POL is quiet, no-one outside of compounds,” I radioed the ground commander.
Then the radio broke out excitedly between the infantry section leaders.
“22, this is 22 Alpha, I got another IED wire north road, they are setting us up.”
“22 Bravo, roger, I got the same on the south road. We got IEDs all around us. We walked into an ambush.” Another voice flatly reported as if this was a normal day in the job.
“22 Alpha and Bravo, keep it tight, cordon around the grape hut. Clear that hut and get me observation from the roof,” I heard the commander order. “I’m trying to get Counter IED from higher HQ.”
Shit was about to fly and we were above the middle of it. In these situations you never knew if you were going to be the target, witness or find something. I remember the hairs on my neck tingling as I looked for threats. However, our mentality had shifted by this time in our tours. Everyday, briefings showed us death of ground troops and civilians targeted by the Taliban. Rarely via combat, almost always an ambush; hit and run. We too were shot at, shot down and had lost brothers. I think by this time we had transformed our psyches into warrior hunters instead of the cautious hunted.
“Haycee, gotta guy running tru de field on da nord side, he’s dickin from da trees,” my engineer reported.
“Good eye.” I answered then continued onto the radio. “26, contact. FAM northeast running through a field to a tree – come back and put some low pressure on him…I’ll observe.” I guided to my other helicopter.
“Contact, I got him,” my wingman confirmed he was visual with the suspect.
From high above, my Griffon didn’t seem to be a threat to the Taliban soldier below. He did stay covered; but was being tracked. My wingman’s aircraft aimed toward the man and remained low-level directly flying over hm. He was surprised. The low level chopper was masked by my noise. As soon as they flew over, the insurgent’s eye’s filled with panic and he bolted in the opposite direction towards a grape-hut. He didn’t know he was also being observed with an MX-15, a high powered optical system that enabled me to see him in what appeared to be him communicating into his collar, as he moved.
“He’s dicking; he’s the fucker that pulled the trigger! But who’s he talking to?” I mumbled rhetorically then continued talking with Infantry 22.
“22, Contact. One FAM, he’s talking into his collar, running towards the Grapehut at Grid 41629019”.
“Roger Shakedown, that’s the FAM that’s been tracking us all morning; continue to track him…there is another one, keep your eye’s out,” he warned.
“26, this is 25, FAM is now in the grape-hut. I’ll continue high, you continue to prod — it’s working.” I further asked my wingman.
Every time 26 flew near the suspect; the suspect ran in an opposite direction and made apparent communications. He continued to move in and out of the grape-hut watching for the low Griffon that was interrogating him. Compounding the excitement on the radio was activity from the headquarters wanting details about the soldier who had just been killed. He seemed to have been a relative of a local ANA leader; he was recently a teammate that the Canadian’s had been training. He was dead, physically re-arranged from the explosion.
“2, this is 22,” the infantry commander was calling the Forward operating Base Masum Ghar.
“How’s my Counter IED team?” he asked. “I got three wires around me and still trapped.”
“They are on the way, but it will be awhile.” A sympathetic tone replied. Unfortunately, this would take time. The convoy had to move cautiously as typical tactics used by the Taliban was to hit the emergency responders as they moved from the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases – where soldiers could have a ‘relatively’ secure area to base from). Unfortunately, the time required to make the trip would be longer than my Shakedown team had fuel to support. The Taliban knew this. They just had to lay low until the helicopters ran out of fuel, then resume the attack.
“Shakedown, how much playtime do you have?” 22 asked.
“35 minutes,” I answered.
“Roger, we are working on getting the counter-IED folks out. It’s gonna take awhile.” He seemed to be calm yet alert. He had to be, several of his troops were ANA; it was personal and traumatic to them. He had to be an example of professional stability, courage and compassion in this situation where IEDs and machine guns could be going off toward them any moment.
“25, this is 26, contact!” my radio boomed. “One FAM running in towards the other man from a compound 250 meters northeast,” my wingman discovered.
“Gunny, he’s on your side, got him?” I asked my left gunner.
“Got him,” Gunny responded. I immediately directed my copilot to fly his orbit so that Gunny would always have his eyes on the two Taliban soldiers.
“Guys, I’m staying in the left orbit, I’m not losing PID.” I adamantly stated over the radio so my lower wingman knew my intention. Positive Identification (PID) was required to be established and maintained before fire could be directed onto the enemy targets. The crew knew. They understood. I felt like a dog with a bone in my mouth and wasn’t letting go. So many enemy forces had been let go only to kill again due to “ROE” – rules of engagement restrictions. Every nation interpreted the same ROE differently. As a soldier hunting an enemy, it was paramount to abide by the tightest standard in overlapping regulatory zones. The enemy was smart. Their first priority was to cause us to lose continual contact with them and create doubt in our minds as to their identity. But I had PID. I wasn’t letting go!
“They are both dickering from the grape-hut.” My wingman called. “We have contact on the two guys, they are in the grape-hut. That’s a suspected weapons cache, possible RPGs, be careful.” He further highlighted from our Intelligence brief received earlier in the day. An RPG, Rocket Propelled Grenade was a very effective weapon in taking out helicopters especially at the height and speed we were working at.
“We got PID, we got POL. Shit, we have weapons release criteria.” I stated out loud. I realized at that moment that these two Taliban’s days were numbered. They had made some critical mistakes in their tactics and revealed their intention. They wouldn’t be pulling the trigger anymore.
“26, we have weapons release criteria, confirm?” I double checked with my wingman.
“Roger that, I concur,” he stated.
“Advising 22, its his turf.” I added.
“22, I got PID on two FAMs at a suspected weapons cache with erratic behaviour and POL indicative of enemy activity, we have weapons release authority on target at the grape-hut,” I stated. “Get your heads down.”
There was a pause.
“Shakedown, roger that,” the Infantry Commander answered.
I continued on the other radio to my wingman. “26, Fire Mission. Friendlies on the grape-hut 400 meters west, enemy is two FAMs at the grape-hut below, circle pattern – left gun attack, you hit the building, I’ll catch the squirters, no effects directly west – I’m dropping back into behind you from high, stand by for fire.”
“Visual friendlies, tally target,” my wingman acknowledged.
I took the controls of the aircraft and assertively dropped in from high above into a trail position behind 26. The target was in view of Gunny only 300 feet below and 75 meters away. The IED days of these two enemy soldiers was about to end. I looked over to the west at the friendly infantry on the ground; they had done just the opposite that I directed to their leader. They all got onto the roof and stood up to watch. I shook my head and muttered over the intercom: “Look at our guys – dumb-asses!”
A flashback went through my head. How had we gotten to this point? We were about to remove two more combatants from the planet. It was clean and unemotionally professional. It was a culmination of years of professional duty, practice and over a half of year of looking eye-to-eye at my potential executioner, often the same guys. There was no hatred, nor anger; only respect. He was my adversary and I was his. I respected him for his devotion to his system, religion and his people but I detest his methods and affect. I took a breath.
“You ready Gunny?” I asked my left gunner.
“Romeo-tango – Visual friendlies, talley target,” his response.
“26 this is 25, FIRE!…left gunner, FIRE,” I ordered over the radio and intercom. The Dillon deafened the entire crew. The smoke from the cannon filled the cockpit window. The rooftop of the grape-hut and earth surrounding exploded into a cloud of dust. Two men came squirting out, one with a bulky silhouette of an AK-47 concealed under his man-jammies. One ran under the large solid mud-wall trying to hide in the grape rows, the other went towards a compound. However, both were engulfed into an exploding cloud of dust….then a half an orbit later, the gunners stopped firing.