A few hours later, I boarded a C-130 with Dyess AFB painted on the tail and thought about how my dad always told me… “Man those webbed jump seats are horrible.” My Dad was an Army paratrooper who had jumped from various Air Force aircraft to include the C-130 and C-141. He’s the one who convinced me to join the Air Force as opposed to the Army. “Better food,” he said. My grandfather was a ball-turret gunner on B-17s in WWII. I grew up totally enamored with the Air Force and airplanes. Grandpa flew more than 30 combat missions and spent many hours cooped up in a ball hanging off the belly of a bomber with German fighters and flak trying to kill him. Dad was right about the jump seats. After about an hour, my butt was entirely asleep. It didn’t help that my knees were in between the knees of the guy across from me and his rifle was digging into my leg. We were packed in like sardines with full battle rattle, which included Kevlar vests and helmets. I was ready to get to my destination. If only my grandpa could see me now. He wouldn’t give me much sympathy. About an hour or so later, we began our rapid descent into Kandahar. We hit the ground with a violent bounce. I had made it to my destination. I thought to myself….”I can’t wait to get to my room, I’m sure it’s all set up.”
I in-processed through a square yellow building called “TLS,” the Taliban’s Last Stand. Legend has it that when the SEALs and DELTA came in to town late in 2001, this building was the Alamo of sorts, where the Taliban retreated to until the Seals took them out. The building was riddled with bullet and fragmentation scars. It smelled musty and old. There was a stack of water bottles and a box with some MRE’s. I found a phone and dialed the contact number I was provided before I left the states. Some British guy answered the phone. I told him my name and told him that I had just arrived. He told me Captain S. would be there in a minute. I grabbed my bags and headed outside. It was warmer than Bagram, but still not hot. October was still a fairly mild month for Southern Afghanistan, but it would get bitter cold during the night. Dust was everywhere and there were a ton of cigarette butts littered along the path. I saw a Captain with a boonie hat headed my direction. I walked toward him. “No salute there LT?” he said. I had figured that since this was an active war zone, salutes were not required, which is pretty much what I told him in reply. “This isn’t the movies.” he said. “Do you have your reflector belt? It’s getting dark.” The Captain said. I remembered my wife laughing at me when I slipped a reflector belt into my luggage. She said, “you are going to war and you need to bring a reflector belt?” I replied, “I’m in the Air Force, we don’t leave home without one” she laughed. Needless to say, I decided to keep it put away for the duration of my deployment in my one act of defiance. Reflector belts are a big deal in the Air Force. It makes sense. The bases in Afghanistan are not well lit and large vehicles are constantly on the move. Most folks find themselves walking to and from work and chow and with all the dust flying around it’s hard to see people walking along the road. Reflector belts do save lives. I just couldn’t bring myself to wear the stupid thing and no one was around to tell me otherwise. Back when I was in SERE school, they taught us about the concept of small victories. Little events that keep your spirits up and your will to fight engaged. Not wearing the reflector belt was my small victory.
I should have known, but of course my “accommodations” were not set up. Lodging was pretty tight at Kandahar and at the time the Dutch were in charge of doling out the room assignments. Long story short, I didn’t have a formal room assigned so my first night was spent racking out in a non-descript room on some stranger’s bed who was working night shift. All I know is that when I woke up, there was some Danish warrant officer getting ready for his day. He turned the lights on, so that pretty much did it for my sleepy time. I put my boots on and strolled over to where I thought the Dining Facility (DFAC) was located. The DFAC was a cluster of tents that were attached together with various entry doors. I guess I was on the wrong side because when I went in the door I found myself in the kitchen. A bunch of KBR contract cooks stared at me. They all seemed like they were from the Deep South, based on their accents. I would learn later that many of these guys could make more cash on one deployment than they could make in five years back home in the states. “You’re on the wrong side LT,” said a burly man with a paper hat. He pointed his spatula and said “Go ‘round yonder there, that’s the entrance.” The food was actually pretty good. Eggs made to order, sausage, bacon, fruit, everything. Not bad at all. After breakfast I made my way over to the office and met up with Lt Col K to get my in-brief.
Lt Col K was a tall, laid back guy who was getting close to retirement. His job was the collection manager for our region of Afghanistan. He took ISR requirements from various units spread out throughout the South, consolidated them, and pushed them through various channels until they reached the CAOC, where those requirements were translated into tasking for specific air assets. Sounds easy on the surface, but once the requested targets start to stack up, things get ugly. When I told him that I was there to be the ISRLO, he smiled and said, “Well, that sounds fine, but you have to perform the collection manager duty as well, because the British guy they assigned to that slot doesn’t want to work that job, so you get to do it. Oh, and what do you know about Predator? You might have to do that as well.” “What do you mean Sir?” I said. The Lt Col replied, “We have a Pred tasked to us sometimes and you tell them what to do.” Thankfully, my time in the Air Force to that point had centered around ISR. Due to my stateside assignment, I was lucky enough to work with a number of airborne ISR assets on a daily basis. I knew how they operated, what products they could provide and better yet, I had back channel connections. A good Air Force friend and mentor once told me “the most important thing in intel are your relationships.” He was so right. I was looking forward to what the next few days would bring as I settled into my job.
“You going to the ramp ceremony LT?” Asked Senior Airman John Lusk. John was a smart young Airman who was essentially tasked to be my right-hand man. He had been in Kandahar for a few weeks prior to my arrival. “What’s a ramp ceremony?” I asked. “It’s when we all go out to the flight line to pay respect to the fallen.” John replied. “We need to get going, they are starting in five minutes.” John and I walked a short distance to the apron of the flight line. Hundreds of people were forming up into a giant formation. I took my place next to a British Sergeant and stood at the parade rest position. The scene was surreal. It was pitch dark and our group was dwarfed by a massive grey C-17 parked on the apron, with its rear cargo door lowered to the ground. There were about 400 of us formed up; Americans, Dutch, British, Canadian and French to name a few of the nationalities represented. An ambulance rolled up and an American flag draped coffin was removed. “Dang…one of ours” I thought. Someone was playing a solemn hymn on bagpipes that echoed through the still air. The entire formation was called to attention and the coalition of men and women snapped to. The men carrying the casket on their shoulders toward the waiting C-17 were wearing civilian clothes. They had scraggly beards and looked beat up, literally. One of the men had a large gash across the bridge of his nose. Another one of the men had a slight limp. They all appeared tired, sad and solemn. This crew was obviously from the special ops community and one of their brothers didn’t make it. As the fallen operator passed us, we saluted, and the brothers loaded him into the aircraft for the long journey home. This was a sobering introduction on my second day in country. “Unreal” I thought to myself. Later, John would tell me that there were a few ramp ceremonies every week.
As I settled into my first few days trying to figure out the collection management process I was curious about some of the imagery products produced by a certain airframe. I spoke to an Army Sergeant who was in charge of disseminating finished intelligence products that came into our shop to the end users. “So, when you get the images in, what is your process to disseminate them out?” I asked. He replied, “I don’t disseminate them.” I responded, “No, really, how do you push them out…to the guys who asked for them?” “I don’t Sir.” He said plainly. He continued, “I get so much imagery in here I can’t handle it, and besides, there is no way for me to know which image belongs to the original requestor. It comes in randomly, some here, some there, sometimes not at all. The system is jacked Sir.” My blood was beginning to boil. My unit back home was one of the many units producing intelligence products that were sent to this location, to this Sergeant. I had friends who were the pilots of various aircraft, risking their lives to gather these images, all so this guy could sit on them. I was livid. “We can fix it.” I said. “It can’t be that hard.” In the back of my mind, I was wondering how long this guy was struggling with his job, and wondering how many images and intel products were not making it out to the guys who needed it, the guys outside the wire. Honestly, I didn’t want to know, but I knew we had to fix it and fast.
The Sergeant was right. It was a daunting task. A lot of imagery was coming in via our various classified systems. Sometimes we would receive hundreds of images per day. The hard part was that at the time there was no receipt system in place to know if a requested target was going to be imaged and when we could expect to receive it. The second issue was that the images would come back labeled with a different target name than what was listed on our original request. For example, if we had a target list of 20 targets, all labeled with specific names, such as: Bob Target 1, Frank Target 36 or Red House 33, which is how the units identified their specific areas or point targets of interest, the imagery would come back with something completely different such as, Mosque A3. Without going into specifics, the computerized system that the CAOC utilized to allocate requested targets was changing our original requests and renaming all of our targets. The system was built for a different war, with standard hard targets that everyone knew about… known facilities, areas and buildings, all with a specific code or name. If we had a target near one of those locations, our targets would automatically be given the name of the “known” place, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with our specific target. I initially thought that the fix would be to simply use the tasked geo coordinates and match up the listed coordinates on the image against our original requests. The Sergeant looked at me and said “Sir, we have thousands of images here.. It will take you too long to manually match em’ up.” He was right. It would just take too much time. It took us a few days to figure out that problem, but the workaround solution was fairly easy. I called my guys back in the states and explained our conundrum. They recommended that I include a special instruction in the ISR request that identified our original target names and the tasked coordinates. This way, when an Image Analyst was working on an image, he would see the special instructions, use the target coordinates to cross reference his specific image to our original list of names from the same group and he would manually place the proper target name in the top right corner of the image. The image would still have the “known” location that was meaningless to us, but at least we could now quickly identify our imagery as it came into our inbox and dole it out to the right people. A little back channel coordination and some non-standard solutions fixed a major problem. This issue was documented in my after-action report and briefed to some key players. Thankfully, the right people listened and the problem was corrected with the system within a few months.
One morning a group of three guys walked in to our ops center. They were dressed in North Face jackets and varying combinations of climbing pants and t-shirts. They looked mean, and they were headed toward me. “Ey’ mate, you alright?” The short one asked in a thick British accent. “Yes,” I replied. I would soon learn that the term “you alright”, pronounced all at once, like “ual-right?” was a standard Brit greeting. Usually, the correct response would be to say the same thing right back “ual-right?”. It became sort of a joke, in which two people could go back and forth, each asking the other “ual-right?” three of four times. “We got a pred tonight and we wanted to check in with you.” quipped the short guy who looked like he could bench 500 pounds. “We’ll be back at 1900hrs.” That was my introduction to the UK Special Boat Service (SBS). Their mission was to complete high-priority missions in Southern Afghanistan as well as do anything else that higher HQ threw at them.
Unmanned aircraft, UAV’s, RPA, drones, whatever the acronym of the week is, are the new normal. The ability to provide persistent coverage over a target area has changed the way we fight. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that now-days, ground Commanders always require persistent ISR coverage prior to and during an operation. ISR is the new buzzword and “Don’t leave home without it” is the new mantra. The ability to watch a target from above for hours, days, weeks or even months, as well as the ability to provide force protection, situational awareness and even shoot if necessary has transformed the battlefield. That said, there are a cast of characters involved to make everything come together. Pilots, Sensor Operators, Airspace Coordinators, Maintenance, Imagery Analysts, CAOC, contractors – a team of hundreds spread all over the world all have their place in helping get a single bird on target. Attached to the SBS at the hip, my job would be to direct the Predator in accordance with the mission of the day. I would communicate with the Predator crew as well as the exploitation nodes to request specific intelligence products using terms such as: “Move left, take a look at that, go right, ok, head to target XYZ, follow that truck, what is he doing?, hold here, etc.” . It was very important to utilize the Predator to it’s fullest potential. There are hundreds of examples of when a Predator showed up on station and the asset was completely wasted with a non-responsive “customer” who didn’t know how to utilize the asset or properly employ it.
1900hrs rolled around and a group of SBS rolled in. These guys were definite door-kickers. Many equate the UK SBS to our own Navy SEALs. They have similar missions and go through similar training. Most of these guys were older, in their mid-30’s and 40’s, some nearing retirement. They had definitely “been there, done that.” They had that “look” about them, true silent professionals. “White one, mate!” said Maj J. As he sat behind me with his chair so close his knees were practically around my waist. I would soon learn the various codes for tea orders. These guys were mad about their tea. We drank it all night long. Thank goodness the wives back home in the UK were sending a steady supply of PG Tips – the brand of choice for these knuckleheads. “White one” means tea with milk and one sugar. “White none” means no sugar but milk. Some nights, I’d have 10 SBS guys yelling their various white one, white two, none-none, orders at me. It was pretty comical. The tea kept us going. Maj J was the task unit commander, a veteran SBS operator with many operations under his belt. If I met him on the street I would have no idea of his profession. He looked like the younger brother who makes funny speeches at weddings. He had a jovial look about him and he was a pleasure to work with. Using the Predator in support of his objectives was new for Maj J and his team. They honestly didn’t have a solid grasp of what Predators or ISR could really do for them. Over the next few weeks, I taught them everything I knew about the various assets at our disposal and as we proceeded through various targets and operations, the light bulb went on. Everything started falling into place.
One night while I was talking to my wife on the phone, the Taliban started lobbing rockets at the base. This was a fairly common occurrence at Kandahar. In fact, the DFAC had been hit a few weeks before my arrival and a bunch of Canadian soldiers were wounded. One was killed. Tonight, the fire was spot on and they got one in close. The boom was deafening and the shock wave moved through the ops center and my body. It is hard to explain but, I actually felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I told my wife that I had to go, and hustled out to the bomb shelter. My wife and I still laugh about that day, one moment we are talking about the kids and the next someone is trying to blow me up. It sure is a crazy world. The rocket attacks would usually come at night and I found it pretty comical that the Dutch would take the time to put all their gear on, taking 10 minutes or so just to get out to the concrete shelters. During most rocket attacks I’d stroll out in flip flops and huddle in the shelter with the rest of the gang and then we would see the Dutch guys finally roll out with full battle rattle on ready for impending doom. Someone had the idea to create a “rocket pool.” We would take a map of the airfield and section it off with grid marks. Each square was a dollar and the person who guessed the correct point of impact for the next rocket attack would win the pot. Guys were winning hundreds of dollars! I never won, but I would argue that not getting hit by a rocket goes in the win column.
Over the weeks and months I would become good friends with the SBS guys. We would spend long hours watching targets, sharing stories, talking about home and family and telling jokes. All of the SBS team had nicknames. There were three of the guys named Sean, so one of them, a rugged and seasoned member of the team was called “Ugly Sean.” “Mate, I’m the ugly one, so that’s why I’m called Ugly Sean.” He told me with a smile. He also had a joke that went something like this: How can you use the word “and” five times in a row in a sentence and it make sense? He made me think about it for a few hours while we watched a target area before letting me in on it. The joke goes on to tell about an owner of a pub called “The Fox and Hound.” The owner was having a wooden sign made and the artist put the words too close together. The owner wanted the sign to have larger spaces between the words, so he told the artist: “I need more spacing between THE FOX and AND and AND and HOUND” It took me a few times before I got it. Say it out loud and it will make sense.
Some nights I would be all alone in the Ops Center staring at the big screen at the front of the room while communicating with the Predator crew. My job on nights like these, was to provide over-watch of the team as they moved to a target location. I would make sure the airplane and sensors were looking in the right spots in order to provide immediate warning should anything look out of place or if some badness was headed their way. To me, this was the most important part of my job. The guys were out there, all alone and I was their lifeline, the “eye in the sky.” The guys trusted me. They knew I would do everything in my power to keep them alive. Every time before they would go out on a mission, they would come see me in the Ops Center and say goodbye. When they returned from a mission they would ask “Hey mate, did you see me waving at you?” Sometimes I felt ashamed that I wasn’t going out with them on their missions. Those feelings didn’t last long, because these guys made it very clear that they were depending on me, and that I was an integral part of their team and their mission. One night Ugly Sean told me, “Look mate, when we are out there and it’s cold and we are getting close to the target, I feel better knowing you and the pred guys are up there watching, taking care of us. Just knowing you are there makes a difference – we know you will keep us out of trouble.” Hearing that made my day and reinforced the age old adage that everyone has their place. After many of the successful missions, I would share a word of thanks back to all the distributed members of the team, the aircraft crew and the intel piece. It makes a difference when the specifics of a mission are debriefed…the good and the bad. Thankfully I was able to work with many of the same distributed mission crews over the course of my deployment. The relationships were strong and we worked together very well. One night, our Predator missed a hellfire shot. The pilot called me to personally apologize. A pilot apologizing to an intel guy? Classic.
As the months progressed the trust level between us grew as did the importance of our missions. The Regional Commander had placed special trust in the SBS to accomplish some very critical missions to take out some seriously bad people. On a number of occasions, the SBS Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) would sit next to me and control the fast air (F-15’s, B-1’s, etc.). He left the Predator work to me. While he was busy on the radios working with the bomb droppers, I’d be keeping the Pred on task and looking at the right target and coordinating the various mission activities. Many nights the JTAC and I would make life and death decisions, and I’ll leave it at that. Things don’t always go like they do in the movies. Roles and responsibilities become intertwined. My hands would shake during some of these missions. The adrenaline and intensity was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I found myself involved in decisions and actions that I definitely wasn’t “trained” for, but in those instances, instinct takes over and everything else goes out the window. This is something that anyone who has worn a uniform can understand. We are often put in extreme situations with limited or no preparation. Looking back, it seems crazy, but even though I was physically removed from the actual location of the fight, I was definitely in the thick of it. My effects on the battlefield were implemented through a TV screen, a keyboard and a phone. Welcome to the new style of warfare.
As our deployment timeframe came to a close, the missions started to die down. Maj J would still sit behind me for most ops grabbing my shoulders and saying “Come on LT – there’s gotta be some nefarious activity down there…I want to do some top bombing tonight!” I was never sure why he loved the term “top bombing” so much, but it always gave me a laugh. Days and weeks of watching targets punctuated with short bursts of crazy activity, or our intended target popping up out of nowhere. Sometimes I’d come on shift and Senior Airman Lusk would inform me that they took out one of our targets while I was sleeping. In fact, John performed the same exact functions that I did, but because I had to coordinate with the day crew, John worked more of the night missions and therefore saw a lot more action. He was part of many successful operations and was a critical part of the team. I actually wrote his parents a short note one night to express to them what a great job John was doing. I couldn’t go into details of course, but I basically told them that their son was a rock star. John was a good guy with a huge lack of respect for authority. It was almost comical to watch this young kid speak to his superiors. I don’t think I heard the word “Sir” or “Ma’am” leave his lips, but I’d go to war with him any day.
Over the course of my deployment to Afghanistan there were numerous challenges with personnel, systems and procedures. There were so many, I could write a book about it. It was difficult trying to balance the daily operational requirements while attempting to work on solutions for some completely broken processes. The easy route would have been to just give up and leave it for the next guy, but of course, that is not an option. Anyone who has served or has deployed understands that these challenges are simply a part of doing business. The goal should always be to leave the place better than you found it and try to improve things if you can. The focus of course, was always to keep the mission first. Sometimes, in order to keep things rolling, the relationships really do come into play. It might require walking down the block and handing a special target request written on a sticky note to the UK Harrier squadron, completely bypassing the formal channels. It might mean having a very heated discussion with someone who outranks you because they are adversely affecting the current mission outcome. It might be a quick call to a brother in the States who can put some priority on a certain intel product or get a key target that hasn’t made it via the formal channels. It definitely means having to perform beyond one’s training and job description. These are the reasons that we win. Flexibility is the key to airpower.
One day Maj J asked John and I to come out to the flightline with the SBS team. They were all dressed in full battle gear, complete with weapons. The Major told us that they were going to take a group photo to commemorate their tour and would like us to be part of the photo. John and I took our places in the middle of the group and they snapped the shot. The photo came out pretty good. Two skinny Air Force guys surrounded by a big group of UK ninjas armed to the teeth. We were like the adopted little brothers, and it felt good. After the photo, Maj J presented John and I with SBS coins. These were not the standard five dollar challenge coins that all of us military guys collect. These were the real deal, 100% sterling silver, manufactured at a mint in the UK. What an honor. I told the men of the SBS that day that working with them was the highlight of my military career. It still is. To play a small part with these special operators was truly an amazing experience. We succeeded in various important missions that had a huge effect on the battlefield in Southern Afghanistan. More importantly, all of the guys survived and returned to the UK in one piece. I will never forget it. No shit there I was…