Blog 13. Nakhoney – A Response to ‘Casualties of War’
Nakhoney is a small village about an hour drive south of Kandahar, ten minutes by helicopter. It was a hot spot for my section. We had been responding to attacks on FOB MADRAS (school); where a small unit of Canadian Infantry was based. It holds many memories and the area became personal to my crew.
All the landmarks were close together – basically the effective range of an RPG round. To the south of MADRAS (school) was THREE HILLS, the west was a north-south creek called WEST WADI and immediately on the other side was STEEL DOOR. It was a three-story grape-hut with a steel door facing east and a solid roof as opposed to most grape huts that were open. To the north-west was BELL GRAVE yard, from the air it looks just like it’s name. To the west another 200 meters from STEEL DOOR was a group of compounds known as the Adamz-eye chain.
The overwatch in Nakhoney was my favorite mission. It involved being the helicopter directed by a patrol commander on the ground: for observation, fire power, lifting injured soldiers, or whatever they wanted. Scrappy knew this and he tried to arrange it so I could go support our troops there when the opportunity rose. And by this time, my crew seemed to prefer it too. Everyday I would meet our team at the Table bringing back scheduling news for our next mission.
I could present, “We got Nakhoney over-watch at 5:00 am!”
Followed by: “Awesome. Woohoo!” or,
Or “We’re walking the dog all morning.”
Answered with whiney, “Oh man….can you get some over-watch after they’re done.? When are they done?”
Being in Nakhoney also offered the advantage of being central to respond to any other TIC or IED activity in Panjwai. MASUM GHAR was a two-minute flight, CHALGOUR one minute, SALAVAT 30 seconds and SPERWAN GHAR three minutes. All the Canadian’s getting into TICS were often in this area; and Shakedown’s wanted to be here too.
After taking on fuel at the FARP, our section was waiting, with the engines idling, for our next mission to come over the radio. The guys got out to stretch their legs, take a piss, have a Redbull and Pop-tart – the standard food supplement. Some guys even slept in the shade of the helicopter lying in the jagged rock; while still connected to the intercom system. The ballistic vest and helmet helped the protruding rocks from being too piercing our skin.
“Shakedown 25, this is Ops, TIC in progress at MADRAS.”
“Roger, Go for Shakedown.” I responded on the radio. I looked around at the guys who sat up and started prepping their weapons.
“25, they have shots fired from the west, platoon of 40 friendlies dismounted and under fire, contact SLAYER for an update, call when airborne.” Scrappy ordered.
“Roger that.” I responded.
I held my hand out the door and spun my fingers in the air signalling it was time to go. Skipper was already boarding his crew as he heard the call and returned the thumbs up. Irish wound up the throttles. The silence of excitement and cautious anxiety could be sensed in the cabin as everyone completed their individual duties with precise professionalism.
Irish lifted the helicopter and departed west, Skipper dropped into the wingman position slightly behind and right. As we flew west, I contacted Slayer.
“Slayer, this is 25, checking in.”
“Shakedown 25, this is Slayer, the ROZ is hot, the guns are hot at WILSON, Gun line is north. TIC in progress at Nakhoney, contact India 21 with your numbers.” he advised.
“This is Shakedown, copy that and switching to India 21.” I confirmed before talking to Skipper.
“26, Switch India 21 to follow along.” I stated. Skipper acknowledged.
We had about six minutes further to fly at this point. In these six minutes, we needed to build a complete picture of the battle on the ground as well as visually identify all friendly and enemy targets. There were no explosions this time so pin-pointing the objective area would be tougher.
“India 21, this is Shakedown checking in.” I called to the Infantry unit getting shot at.
“Shakedown, this is 21, we have shots being fired towards us from one or two insurgents. They are in the vicinity of STEEL DOOR. We are on a foot patrol in a north-south line 200 meters north-west of MADRAS near BELL-GRAVE. Possible RPG and IED west of our locations. We are thirty Canadians and ten ANA soldiers. We are spread out over 250 meters at grid XXXXXX. From my location, enemy fire is coming from one of the grape huts near STEEL DOOR, approximately 150 meters west. We do not have PID (positive identification) on enemy at this point. I say again. No PID. Request assistance to PID and suppress.”
We could hear the occasional snap of gunfire in the communication. My crew became excited the helicopter got closer, they would expect the shooting to stop and the insurgents to hide. However the Taliban would most likely take several shots towards us if they were in a position to conceal the muzzle flashes from their AK-47 rifles.
“26, this is 25, did you copy all that?” I asked Skipper to ensure I didn’t have to repeat the battlefield report. I was programming the GPS while he replied.
“Romeo – Tango.” Skip understood everything.
“You guys copy?” I asked over the intercom.
“Roger that Haycee…Romeo Tango Cap.” The gunners replied calmly.
“Irish, just head straight there, I put their position in the GPS. Follow the needle and offset right so first turn is left over the friendlies. Plan a north-south figure eight, low level down the road to identify them. Got it?” I directed.
“Got it.” Irish knew exactly what was going to happen.
“Snapshot, your side will be exposed first, get ready!” I cautioned.
“Check.’ A simple response. The camera was put away. He was tuned in. Everyone was vigilant. We were about to get shot at.
“Skipper, my plan is Left base. North to south figure eight to P-I-D friendly and enemy, fly along the friendly line. If we engage, all effects west.” I ordered to my wingman. He didn’t need to respond. He would just follow along since he knew I would be busy coordinating. We were about two minutes back.
“India 21, smoke the target area.” I requested of the ground commander. I wanted him to identify exactly, which hut the shots were coming from.
“Roger that, red smoke,” he answered. “This is the target area. I can not confirm exact spot yet.” Five seconds later a stream of red smoke landed near STEEL DOOR.
Zorg called out. He usually got really excited about these tasks as the guys on the ground were from his regiment; his army family.
“Visual friendly troops on the nose, slightly left, behind the wadi wall!…’bout 40 of them!” He called bringing our attention to the line of troops.
“26, I’ve got a visual on the friendly patrol at twelve o’clock about 1000 meters. Call when you are visual, red smoke is target area.”
“Visual friendlies and contact smoke,” he responded.
“Irish, Left gunner, right gunner, Friendlies are a line of troops 40 long on our nose 800 meters, they are taking cover along the road wall,” I formalized the situation as per our procedures.
The two gunners stretched their necks out of the helicopter door and took a verifying look.
“Visual friendlies, contact smoke!” They each called in sequence.
We were turning onto the north-south line. I could see the soldiers leaning up against the wall. Princess Patricia’s soldiers. They would take turns leaning over the wall to try to locate the enemy fire. However, most were sitting in the shade taking a break now that the helicopter would take over observation. They were pretty casual about getting shot at; it was daily for them. The five minutes of waiting for us was an opportunity for a break. They carried over a hundred pounds in combat gear on their backs in 40 degree temperatures and would take a break whenever they could get one; even in the fight. And they couldn’t chase them. They had to be cautious as the grape-rows were rigged with IEDs. The Taliban often baited our soldiers; hoping for them to pursuit. And we did the same in return.
A few days earlier I worked with the same platoon in CHALGOUR. The instructions from India 21 were a little different than today.
“India 21, Shakedown’s checking in.”
“Roger that Shakedown. I need you guys to stay about 8 kilometers back.”
“What? Irish stated rhetorically over the intercom.
“Confirm 8 km?” I answered on the radio. I was confused why he didn’t want me there.
“Ya, we got some dickers visual but they ain’t pulling the trigger yet. We need him to attack so we can chase the fuckers down. If you guys get too close you scare them away. So pretend your looking at something about 8-10 km south and I’ll call as soon as they engage and you can chase ‘em down.” He requested.
“Copy your plan India two-one, proceeding south.” I acknowledged in reservation.
It wasn’t a typical battle plan I had heard before. We didn’t practice that one in Wainwright Alberta, but it seemed like a good idea. ‘Find em, fix em, fuck em up.’
“Snapshot, to the right of the friendlies 150 meters is a grape-hut with a steel door, closed roof.” I directed.
“Contact hut, contact red-smoke,” they both responded.
“That is the target area, no P-I-D yet, do NOT SHOOT unless self-defense – observe only – all effects west but mind the village on the other side.”
“Roger that!” they acknowledged.
All our inter-plane communications were being done on the Freedom Ops frequency. We had an agreement that they would not interject and only listen. It offered immediate feedback to Scrappy and the CO.
“You asked me to come and get you when they got there boss.” The RadOp interrupted Scrappy at the Operations Centre.
“Roger that, coming.” Scrappy acknowledged, placing the phone down and followed the RadOp. He reviewed the text information on the TV screens to orient himself with the situation. However, the text prompter was a little behind.
“What’s up?” he stated to the duty warrant.
“They’ve been give a target area brief by India-21 and it seems shots are being fired at them.” The warrant officer explained. “No damage reports so far.”
“Seems so.” He breathed some relief. “Alright – go get Skipper.”
“Skipper’s the number two sir, he switched out the Professor this morning before you were here. You were at the TFK meeting. He’s 26,” the radio operator summated. Scrappy walked over the manifest to check the crew names.
“Oh right!” Scrappy realized. Perhaps the lack of sleep catching up with him.
“Go get the second in command – Butch.” Butch was a Chinook pilot and Skip’s Deputy. He listed through the protocols of getting the chain of command informed of the fight.
The radio operator added, “He’s at the FARP, just got back from FOB TERMINATOR — you’re it, sir”.
Scrappy paused, looked at each of his staff, reviewed the screen, grabbed his chair, placed it up on the bird table, sat up high and smirked.
“I’m it lads! I’m in command. Let’s watch and listen to the show boys!” he stated as he leaned back, hands behind his head crossing his legs. “I need a coffee.”
Inside my aircraft, all eyes were on the grape-hut near the red smoke.
“26, keep your eyes near the red smoke, go trail be prepared to counter. I’ll stay low.” I briefed. I figured I’d be in best position to draw fire, identify the source then Skipper could release hell on the target.
Skipper acknowledged. He slid into position climbing slightly. Irish flew the guns: low enough to observe and engage if required. My aim was to visually look into that hut to see any persons or fire arms. Additionally checking the fields to see if any Taliban would pop out of a grape row. But they stayed in the shadows. We flew by the hut at 50’ off the ground and very close to it. Small explosions of dust from bullets were impacting the walls beneath me.
“Who the fuck is shooting?” I retorted over the intercom.
“India two-one, this is Shakedown, are you shooting? I got impact strikes on the hut.” I called.
“Negative.” 21 answered after a brief investigative pause. “The ANA are firing on the smoke.” I could hear the snaps of the ANA AK-47 assault rifles through the radio.
“Do you have P-I-D?” I radioed back.
“Negative, it’s the ANA, no Canadian PID. We still can not verify the target.” He cautioned.
Despite our Rules of Engagement, the ANA interpreted them differently. They were great soldiers, just not all that savy with NATO protocols. It was their land, their rules. They saw red smoke, so their section commander started shooting at it, even though our helicopter was almost directly in front of them. However, the Canadians still did not have the legal criteria to fire simply because there was no positive target yet. It was only suspected area and person(s). The smoke was an indicator to investigate the area, not shoot at it.
“I can’t even suppress yet?” I stated rhetorically thinking out loud.
Irish answered: “Nope.” Re-enforcing my interpretation of the rules.
“Skipper, it’s the ANA. They are shooting on the target area, Canadians do NOT have PID yet, do you have PID?” I asked hoping he might see a target.
“Not yet, still looking,” the Skipper stated inquisitively.
“They might not even be in the hut, they could be anywhere…keep looking guys.” I stated.
We continued in the pattern while observing and moving back slightly as the ANA continued to shoot. Everyone, including the ground troops, was trying to find the spot. The ANA didn’t care, they just fired at the sound and the smoke. After a couple of threatening patterns from the griffons, the enemy revealed themselves.
“Shakedown, I’ve got I-comm chatter, do you want it?” the ground commander radioed signifying relevant intelligence was available.
“Roger that.” I answered. Everyone in the cockpit was quiet ready to hear the message.
“Bring the package!” India 21 answered. “The TERP says the voice on I-comm chat sounds anxious,” he added. A local Pashtun Interpreter was assigned to the Canadian unit to assist in communicating with the ANA and listen on enemy radio frequencies. He also advised on the emotional behaviour of the voices he heard.
Bring the package? I pondered on what that could mean. He must be bringing a heavier weapon, RPG maybe?
“Guys, keep eyes out for anything suspicious, watch for RPG plume. Icomm sates: Bring the Package.” I cautioned my section. RPGs were a weapon of choice for the Taliban and they were easy to acquire. They had been firing RPGs at India 21 almost daily during the past month so it was probable.
Scrappy came to his feet. He read the screen showing the icomm chatter. He was concerned about what it read. ‘Bring the Package’. Could it be some thing that would harm the helicopter? He needed more information. “Go get the Int briefer now!” he told the radio operator.
The Intelligence Briefer arrived. Scrappy update him with the situation. He outlined his concern and asked for a threat analysis.
“Sir, it is most likely an RPG or possibly a dishka 51 caliber weapon system. But if it isn’t in position already, they wouldn’t be moving it while in contact with us.” he reported.
“What about SAMs?” Scrappy was asking if there was any change to the Surface to Air Missiles threat from his understanding. He needed all the info to pass to our team should we need it.
“No change sir, yes there are SAM possibilities but no recent reported activity – the chance of them using these limited resources on a small helicopter is low; they’d be saving it for one of our Hercs or C-17s.” He advised.
“Thanks, that’ll be all.” Scrappy released him.
“25 Flight, Freedom OPS, do you have the icomm chatter?” the radio asked.
“Roger that, do you mean the package?” I responded.
“Roger, we can’t make out; just keep safe. No change to the Int from this morning.” Scrappy quickly reported. He said no more. He knew we were busy, but he was also concerned.
“25, 26 checks all from Ops.” Skipper called to acknowledge he heard the report rom Scrappy.
“Actually, watch out for the fuckin’ ANA friendly fire, it’s more likely to hit us!” Zorg practically hollared. The bullets from the ANA rifles continued to splash off the walls of both STEEL DOOR and the next grape-hut south despite us flying directly between the target and the friendlies. It was only 30 meters away at times. I tucked my head and shoulders a little more inside my armoured seat on subsequent passes fearing both enemy and friendly fire.
“Shakedown’s, I’ve got PID!” announced India 21, “Are you ready for a 5-liner?” he asked. Wholly shit! This was it! We are going hot. This was our authority to fire on his command.
“Go for Shakedown.” I responded.
“Five liner: Friendlies are patrol N-S line west of MADRAS. Enemy is one times FAM with AK47 rifle in STEEL DOOR. My plan is advance upon that target from east. Required you to provide continual suppression for five minutes, all effects west, maintain fire line over the friendlies to cover my advance.” India 21 ordered.
I read it back quickly, “Visual friendlies, Talley target. All effects west”.
“Roger.” he stated. “I-comm chatter still repeating to bring the package.”
“26, this is 25, did you copy 5-liner?” I radioed to Skipper.
“26 is in.” He acknowledged curtly.
“Attack plan, next southbound pass, start with right gun attack, figure eight pattern.” I commanded to my wingman.
“Roger that.” Skip’s response.
Irish started his turn towards the south as I indicated with my hand to roll in hot. We were going to rain down pieces of led for the next five minutes in short blast of fire. The Breath of Allah, as the enemy had been heard to say, would be echoing through the Panjwaii valley, raining down on the building and the FAM inside to finally finish his days of killing Canadians and ANA soldiers. We had to be careful to cover the attack of the Canadians yet protect them. Everyone was focused. We had a clear target, PID and permission.
“26, 25 is rolling in HOT.” I stated to Skip. No response was required.
In Operations, Scrappy heard the attack brief and read the teleprompter on the TV:
Time XX:XX Shakedowns HOT at MADRASS. Supporting I-21. Grid XXXXXX
“Wholly shit, there going hot.” Scrappy stated outloud as he heard the news. Butch had just walked into the room still in his flight gear from the mission we were previously on.
“Shakedown is rolling in hot in Nakhoney right now; you’re just in time. They’ve been getting shot at and are in overwatch for India 21 patrolling.” He reported while pointing at the battle map on the table between his feet.
Butch smiled, raised his eyebrows, and looked at the screen while tilting his head in contemplation. That was his initial body language response for everything; even after taking the bullets near Tarin Kowt, he calculated all situations with the same physical response.
“India 21, Shakedown’s in HOT, get your heads down.” I advised to the Patricia’s infantry below. I watched them take cover but watch. The shots would be about 150 meters from friendlies and we were about 75 meters from the target at the closest point. Hot shell casings would be raining down on their heads of the Patricias. We dove to get low to shoot inside the narrow windows and cracks of the grape-hut.
“Right gunner – confirm visual and talley?” I asked Snapshot before releasing the fire command.
“Roger Haycee, visual troops and talley target!” He took aim at the openings.
As the griffon crossed over the friendly troops I ordered, “Fire.”
There was a pause. Was it jammed? Why am I not deafened by the Dillon?
“Its No good!…Its No good!…Checking fire, Checking fire.” Snapshot yelled back just as I was covering my ears from the anticipated intense blast of the Dillon.
“I got a WAC, 75 meters other side of STEELDOOR in my arcs; No, it’s a man! He’s dragging a child towards the grape-hut.” Snapshot called.
I immediately shifted my eyes beyond the target and onto the Taliban soldier dragging a child by the arm.
“Check fire, check fire. Child west of STEELDOOR.” I called to 26 and then repeated it to the Army commander.
“Fuckn’ bastards. Cowards.” I swore profusely over the intercom drowned out by the sound of the rotor blades. We passed the target but continued in the patter to observe, firing no shots.
The man jogged fairly quickly dragging the stunned boy to the other side of steel door. The boy’s face pale with fear. A man came out of the west end of STEEL DOOR, he grabbed the boys other arm and he glared directly at me over his shoulder. We made eye contact. They jogged over towards the compound. He knew the helicopters wouldn’t shoot if children were around. He used that child as a human shield.
“India 21. It’s the package! A small boy. A human shield, check fire.” I reported.
“Continue to monitor, tell me where they go.” He requested, frustrated.
We overflow the corner of the road they rushed up. The Taliban men went into a compound, left the boy with a woman who collapsed onto her young child embracing him. She was distressed. The two men then disappeared into the labyrinth of mud walls. They were not seen again.
“I almost pulled the trigger…that kid was in the back-line of my aim. They would have taken rounds for sure.” Snapshot sounded somewhat distressed.
This could have been the worst nightmare for my crew. The act of accidentally killing an innocent weighed heavily on everyone’s thoughts. No-one wanted to have to deal with that. The Taliban won this battle today…but hopefully, not against that family.