A wonderful woman I am acquainted to, fought for her life against stage 4 cancer and shared an inspirational Buddhist quote which I shall use here (I read this in your story Sherry):
“Like a lotus flower that grows out of the mud and blossoms above the muddy water’s surface, we can rise above our defilements and sufferings of life.”
- The Devil’s Infidels.
I thought I would sleep soundly. However, after settling from the rocket attack, my bliss only lasted for about 2 hours; my body adjusting to the 12 hour time change. Then finally I slept. Then up again. It was a rough sleep and at 5:00 am I couldn’t force the slumber any longer and decided to explore the gym. Perhaps some exercise would help loosen up the stiffness of numerous days of sitting. On the way out of the tent, through the partially hinged flapping door, I collided into Grumpy.
“Morning. Are you going to the gym too?” I whispered.
He smirked. “Just coming back, I’ve been there since 3:30,” continuing his stumble to his bunk.
I turned, admiring his dedication, and walked slowly to the American gym. The road was dimly lit. Combined with the pot-holes and large cable bundles covering it, rolling an ankle was something to be careful of. I cautiously placed my feet, step-by-step in the dark and arrived at the gym unscathed. Hoping for a peaceful early morning workout, I was surprised. There was about 200 soldiers varying in size from the body-building gorillas to the lean marathon runners. It was difficult to find an apparatus without waiting a few minutes but I still managed to complete a 40-minute mind clearing treadmill jog and some weights before starting day two. I felt ready to start work.
After the gym, shower and a quick breakfast, I waited for the bus with the other newly arrived and enjoyed the cool twenty-five degree air. It only had a vague hint of poo-pond lingering. The sun was rising over the dessert to the East, not a cloud in the bright blue sky. No coughing yet. The morning air was breathable until about nine a.m. Once the traffic started rolling up the dust; it became debilitating. Over the concrete barriers the sound of the bus could be heard. It was prevailed by a tidal wave of moon dust. Once the bus stopped, the wave of continued and bathed us all in a brown-film coating.
“What was the point of showering?” I coughed out rhetorically only to have it returned with a few moaning coughs of displeasure.
This was my first trip to the other side of the airfield. A twenty-minute slow drive; but we enjoyed it like enthusiastic tourists. The living side of the airfield seemed to stretch forever; the entire length of the runway. The rows upon rows of military vehicles and aircraft never seemed to end. Of course the dusty trip was made longer by the slow moving traffic jam which was a normal daily event. Aircraft were taking off and landing every few seconds roaring just a few feet above the vehicle traffic at the end of the runway. Two F-16s zipped by in afterburner, staying low to the dessert floor before popping aggressively upward, banking and shooting off defensive flares as they broke their trajectories and proceeded high into the atmosphere. It was an airshow every few minutes.
Finally we arrived at work; our new office for the next year. A warm welcome given by the outgoing 430 Squadron from Valcartier, Quebec. 430 always had their way of dong things as does 408 from Edmonton, Alberta. The fundamentals are the same but the “how to” interpretation has always been different. It’s just like Quebec and Alberta in real life: same grass root pride but different cultures. Same end result.
Task Force Faucon (Falcon) had just finished a 6-month tour and were extremely happy to see Task Force Freedom arrive. They had accomplished a few mile stones. One was moving the operation centre to a new location on the airfield without affecting flight support to the Army. They had also integrated the Dillon cannons into operations. Sadly, they also lost 2 members of their squadron in a terrible accident up near Qalat. Additionally, they were also enduring the war-fighting season without being scathed too bad. This all led them to being physically and emotionally drained. It was time to be relieved.
430’s tour was from April through September. Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN) occurred with a focus on diplomacy through the winter. During the summer, Taliban fighters and foreign fighters joined from the north, west from Iran and from Pakistan in the south to fight against us apparent “infidels”. Once the poppy resin is finished being harvested in April/May, the Taliban sympathizers exchanged their farming tools for AK47s. As one Canadian General stated: “We have three seasons of COIN followed by one intense season of war.” 430 Squadron had just endured the war; they were hardened and seasoned veterans, but exhausted.
They had been involved in some fights and had been shot at to the point they could differentiate between the sounds of the 7.62mm and a .51 caliber missing their helicopters. I was awed from their stories and tactical tips. It didn’t help lower the anxiety. And I only wondered how I would ever expect to get that sharpness and focus.
After introductions and tactical banter, myself and Grumpy were assigned to merge with 430 crews. The aim was to fly with the experienced crews for a few days before they left for home so they could part some knowledge with us. This helped orient us to radio, airspace, ground forces and tactical realities. Once 430 crews departed, the first officers and gunners from 408 would arrive and be oriented by myself, Grumpy and the other new Task Force Freedom captains.
Despite appreciating the mentorship of the outgoing crew, the feeling was not 100% reciprocal. From the Faucon’s perspective, a new ‘green’ captain would be in charge making life and death decisions for these veteran teams. And what credibility could we possibly offer at this point?
Our tour commenced with the 430 Commanding Officer introducing himself then passing us to appropriate specialists and section leaders to guide us through our orientation. I was directed to the Tactical Operations Centre (TOC) for the helicopter Squadron to meet the aircraft captain I’d be replacing.
“Bonjour, it’s nice to finally meet you.” A tall slender man stated in a heavy french accent. “Now I can go home.” I knew him from Canada. I had worked with him at 403 Squadron. He was always perky and chipper; a professional and engineer educated. I’ll refer to him as Chip due to his upbeat personality (Short for Chipper the Skipper).
Chip looked younger than his age. He raised his eyebrow in an inquisitive manner, studying me for readiness. He had confidence in me but knew I had a lot to learn and my education was about to start – as did his a half-year earlier. But he was happy to finally see me; I was physical fruition that the end of his tour had come.
He showed me the TOC. It resembled the bridge of the StarTrek Enterprise. All the chairs oriented towards the front of the room where numerous map screens and text boards showed conversations of platoon commanders talking to each other live over the Canadian A.O. – mostly Panjwaii. Center stage was a large-screen TV showing a live video feed from a surveillance drone in the south Panjwaii district; near Canadian troops at Sperwan Ghar. A few staff soldiers were manning radios and following the flight paths of the Canadian helicopters currently airborne. They were keenly paying attention to immediately brief the Operations Officer or Commanding Officer should they enter for a Battlefield Update. A senior shift supervisor, a Sargent, calmly announced in his raised voice:
“We got a TIC in progress at Howzie!”
There was an IED explosion and fighting along the main highway, which circled Afghanistan. Each day it seemed, logistical supply convoys, escorted by security call-sign COMPASS, were hit with IED and engaged by small party’s of enemy fighters often injuring or killing people. There were frequently vehicles destroyed, craters made in Highway One (almost daily) and not uncommonly, deaths associated. The unscathed traffic just veered around the holes and continued. This was normal. Despite the news, most Canadians in Canada were not aware that it was a daily event.
“We got Shakedown 25 flight responding for over watch,” I overheard the duty Sergeant state.
“Go get the CO (Commanding Officer),” ordered the duty officer to his Radio Operator, a corporal.
Wow! This was a first hand ‘real-life’ demonstration of how things were going to unfold for my days, weeks and year to come. This was just like an exercise back in Wainwright; but real. And this was day two – already action. My contemplations were interrupted as Chip and I were asked to leave. The Commanding Officer (CO) arrived and was requesting an update; it would be too disruptive to run an operation and a tour at the same time.
“Sir, Shakedown 25 Flight responding to TIC in progress here. They’ll be on target in 7 minutes, fully armed, 45 minutes playtime…” I heard him briefing the CO as the door came closed separating us from the action.
“You’ll get acquainted to that soon enough. Its daily.” Chip advised leading me upstairs to a lounge and offered me a Diet Pepsi. I hadn’t had a soft-drink in a week. What a treat! It was ice cold. The room was cool and I sat back in a recliner and put my feet up. That was the most refreshing Pepsi I think I have ever had. I almost felt like I was on vacation for a second. We bantered, exchanging stories and listened for any news of the unfolding battle for Shakedown 25 Flight from passer-byes in the hall.
“They were stood down.” someone reported.
“That was quick. Why’s that?” I raised his chin toward Chip.
“The Taliban broke contact. Once they hear the helicopters, they stop fighting and hide because they know they will lose when we find them.” Chip explained.
“They hide, pick up shovels, fake being farmers and escape in the green zone.” He added pointing to a map of the irrigated, treed area of the Arghandab River.
The Arghandhab valley filled with great tactical concealment in the form of canals, tunnels and grape huts for Taliban to hide in and ambush from. Pursuing them by foot was lethal as they often placed explosive traps to protect escape routes. However, it was very difficult to escape from a helicopter once they had PID. PID is an acronym that meant ‘positive identification’. Once a bad guy was caught in the act and PID was attained, their life expectancy was minutes. Thus the Taliban, upon hearing any helicopters, broke contact and hid immediately.
“Let’s go back to the TOC,” Chip stated.
In the TOC, the situation had already moved forward. A black and white TV screen was showing 3 men walking in the mountains near Sperwan Ghar.
“What’s going on there?” I asked to the duty sergeant.
“It is a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) drone feed”. He advised.
“HHQ (Higher headquarters) has been covertly tracking these FAMs from a known enemy arms cache near the Reg Dessert for several hours; if not days.” He pointed to the screen, then the side screen. “If you follow the text on the prompter over there, you’ll get the entire story since late last night,” he added.
The insurgents had been using weapons and explosives from this cache to conduct ambushes near Sperwan Ghar, Gundi ghar and Haazi Me Dhad. They just trekked up this mountain and just placed some new material in a secret stash near the top. It was all captured on UAV camera. It was all very surreal. These guys looked like normal local people. How would I be able to tell the difference? I turned to leave the TOC.
“Dead-men walking.” The radio operator stated to get my attention.
“Pardon me?” I leaned back in the door.
“You don’t wanna leave sir, there’s a Shamus team coming in and these guys are about to be hit.”
Shamus was the call sign for a team of Kiowa warrior helicopters that patrolled the entire area 24 hours a day. They were armed with 50 calibre forward firing machine guns and rockets. They had been in theatre over a year and were known for taunting fights with the bad-guys. They knew how the Taliban played ROE (Rules of Engagement) games and countered with the art of provocation. Basically, the ROE at that time was that you can’t shoot a suspect, only someone directly proven to be trying to harm someone. But you can always use self-defence and match lethal force with lethal force. The “art of provocation” would eventually be taunting the known bad guys to engage you which included making your self a target and getting face to face with your enemy. The Roto 8 pilots and gunners would eventually get some informal mentoring with Shamus.
I watched the video feed. Three men were sauntering casually up the mountain. Moments later, numerous clouds of dust and white-flash exploded all around them. The TV screen flashed black and white, then went blurry and slowly regained focus. There was a massive dust cloud. The camera operator scanned left and right quickly to try and track any movement. It panned out. It found one person staggering down the hill to the left of the screen. It went to colour mode. A shadow of a Kiowa warrior flew over and disappeared off screen. Seconds later, the ground around this last man exploded like popcorn in what appeared to be a 50 calibre strafing run – then two more rocket explosions. Obviously the second Kiowa’s follow on attack. The last man standing took a direct hit from a rocket. I actually saw something flash in from the right of the screen directly onto the FAM. Then the details obscured by an exploding cloud of dust that dominated the TV screen. I switched my focus to the text bars rolling information on the other TV screen. It was the factual play-by-play.
Time XX:XX Shamus – “Shamus contact 3 FAM hill top.”
Time XX:XX: TOC – “That’s your target, no friendlies in the area, cleared to fire.”
Time XX:XX: Shamus – “Shamus tally target and rollin’ in hot.”
Time XX:XX: TOC NOTE – “Shamus engages, standing by for Battle Damage Report.”
It was an unemotional account of communications regarding the event. I looked at the TV feed again as the picture started to clear. The camera operator on the UAV was switching camera modes from Infrared to colour attaining the sharpest perspective. It then went white hot and held. Pieces of hot metal, presumably rocket shrapnel and heated rocks illuminated along side what appeared to be warm pieces of body parts spread around 100 square yards of mountain ridge.
The text screen reported:
Time XX:XX: Shamus: “Shamus BDA (battle damage assessment), Grid reference XXXX-XXXX, 3 times insurgents destroyed, 6 rockets, 50 rounds of 50 caliber expended, continuing on patrol with Slayer…Shamus out.”
That was it. A simple aviation task while patrolling the Panjwaii district resulted in 3 insurgents being killed. Several small arms and explosives caches were also discovered. Then the Shamus flight of two Kiowa warriors continued on patrol as if it was normal. Possibly several weeks of intelligence reports, finding the targets for days, then tracking them hours, all culminating in a ten minute aviation task at the sharp end.
“Wholy shit!” I caught myself muttering. It was a reality check. I had an immediate epiphany that the last 8 months of intensive training was now coming to fruition; with a real purpose. There was a war going on here in Afghanistan. People died daily. I was at war.
Chip saw my face empathizing with it from his own feelings six months earlier.
“Oui Steve, that was real. You’re not on exercise anymore….welcome to Kandahar.” He affirmed staring me right in the eye. He saw my novice apprehension.
“Wow. Rocket attack last night, TIC an hour ago and watching an engagement of what we will be doing all within 24 hours of arriving. I’m a little overwhelmed.” I mentioned.
“Watch.” He stated focusing me back to the UAV feed.
I looked at the screen as it panned over to the village a few kilometers away from the Kiowa strike. The locals heard the explosions. They knew there was dead. People started to come out of the village and were walking up the hill.
“What’s going on?” I inquired.
“The women and older children will go up the hill and collect the bodies; apparently they have to be buried before dark.” The sergeant guessed. “These insurgents terrorized those people and may not have been respected; but they share the same religious traditions, and are given that dignity.”
I nodded my head. The learning never seemed to end.
“Anyway, you have a big day tomorrow sir.” The duty sergeant concluded las he reviewed the schedule. “Might as well get back and settle in for some sleep – you’re up tomorrow with the Devil’s’ Infidels,” he advised.
I raised my brow and smirked inquiring silently that I wanted more info. He said nothing. He nodded and gestured with his chin to follow Chip out of the room.
Chip guided me to the flight preparation room. This is where all the pilots, gunners and engineers gathered to determine their tasking for the following day. The crews were divided into 4 sections with table time, briefing time, and launch time for the next subsequent task. The board showed that I was scheduled for a day familiarization and one at night which was combined with a night BLOWTORCH escort mission to move some Special Forces personnel.
“Devil’s Infidels?” I queried.
Chip laughed explaining. “We got into a TIC. An overwatch task suppressing a tree-line with a few thousand rounds. The bad guys were engaging our troops from from the green-zone. The Infantry Company Commander we were supporting (the officer in charge in the battle below) reported that i-comm chatter used that description of us from an enemy conversation he heard. I-comm chatter is the intelligence network that listens to the enemy radio and interprets what the Taliban are saying in real-time. In this particular case, the Afghanistan interpreter reported that the man being shot at was cursing because he could not escape:
Man One: “You must leave now, the helicopters are engaging.”
Man Two: “I can not leave, I am pinned down and getting shot at by those flying devil’s infidels!”
We chuckled at the story. Chip continued: “This is my section and they are very proud of this.” He unzipped his flight suit to the waist and showed me his T-shirt beneath further educating me. “Ironically, we are Quebec Catholics who proudly mock the enemy by wearing this.” He pointed to a logo of a Griffon logo and words stating “THE DEVILS INFIDELS”.