My time in A Squadron was essentially up. I had spent the last eight years with the same locker, in the same team room, on the same team. Two of my mates on my five-man team had died in those eight years. Samuel Booth Foster died of a heart attack while running through a canyon in Arizona. I was in Berlin when the news came. Sam left behind a wife and two young children. Gaetano (Guy) Cutino was hit in the head by a rotor strike from an MH-1 Little Bird helicopter. I had not been on that mission since I was in Bosnia at the time. The news knocked me to my knees. Guy left behind a wife and three young sons.
My position for the next two years would be in an Advance Force Operations (AFO) cell. It should have been a good fit for me, as I was qualified by Defense Language Institute (DLI) standards in six foreign languages. My heart wanted to remain with the Sabre Assault Squadron, but I understood that it was time to do something else for my last two years with the Unit. I had roughly one week remaining with A Squadron until I was to report to the AFO cell.
Then it happened. Word came down from our operations that they found a condemned building scheduled for demolition on the periphery of main post Ft. Bragg, a scant five miles away from the Unit compound. Operations maintained a vigil for unoccupied buildings to serve as assault target subjects to give the squadrons objectives with unknown floor plans. It made for much more realistic training in Close Quarters Combat (CQC).
The assault objective this evening would also have two Black Hawk helicopters for support. Alpha squadron immediately went into planning for an evening assault on the objective to rescue a single hostage being held in our newly discovered location.
I was told I didn’t have to go on this assault, but I would have it no other way. I maintained my position on the assault team that I had served with for the past eight years; I would have my last hurrah.
After a couple hours of planning, we gathered the entire assault force together for the usual mandatory briefback. An exterior door would be explosively breached. Door charges had been prepared. The breaching team briefed they would attack the door with a rigid linear triple-strand explosive detcord charge that would be command detonated.
The target building was linear in shape, long and rectangular with entrances/exits on south and north sides only. The main body of the assault force would breach the south entrance and flood the objective, clearing all rooms from south to north, neutralize all threats, and liberate the hostage. Assaulters would freeze down the north exit to neutralize any threat that tried to escape.
Sketchy intelligence reports indicated a possibility of a chemical warefare agent on the objective so we were, by default, doomed to wear protective masks. These masks were uncomfortable, reduced your field of vision, and made breathing considerably more difficult.
Our helicopter pilots understood their flight route, landing zone, loiter area, and instructions for evacuation of hostage and assault force from the objective. In all cases of helo assault, fast ropes are attached to the helo and coiled, ready to toss out in the event that touch-down on the intended landing zone is not possible.
Fast ropes are thick, heavy ropes approximately three inches in diameter. When deployed, assaulters slide down the ropes much in the same way a fireman slides down a pole in a fire station, fully dependant on the strength of his arms and legs to create enough friction to slow down his decent. Unlike firemen, assaulters carry upwards of 60 pounds of equipment when they descend the ropes.
I was assigned a gasoline-powered “quicky saw” (sawzall) to bring to the objective. I would leave it just outside the breach point in the event it was needed, and continue on the assault with Bravo Team. Fast roping with a quickie saw was like sliding down the rope with a small lawn mower hooked to your person. We all carried a pair of thick leather gloves for slipping on over our much thinner assault gloves, which were essentially pilot’s flight gloves. The leather gloves would be removed immediately once on the ground.
We moved down range to where our helos already had their rotors turning and ready for lift off. My Bravo team mounted the same helo as the Alpha breaching team. Their rigid linear charge was a wooden board one inch thick by three inches wide, and was approximately 84 inches long. The firing device was not attached and would only be attached at the breach point.
After successful communications checks between helos and assault teams we lifted off and sped toward our assault objective. The helos were grotesquely crowded, but this would be a flight of only 5 minutes. I could tell that we were parallel McKellar’s Road by the headlights of the few cars that were on the road, probably Unit members headed home for the night. Knowing the transit would be short, I cradled the quicky saw in my lap.
As the helos made their short final approach to the landing zone, shouts were heard that there were obstacles on the LZ and we would have to fast rope to the ground. I reached for my leather gloves attached high on the left side of my chest, but there were none. I made some frantic sweeps with my hands to find them… nothing. Rotor wash from the descending helo had blown them over my shoulder where they hung down my back. I would have to rope in with just my thin flight gloves. I contemplated my quicky saw with disdain.
The helos came to a hover and the fast ropes were thrown out. The breach team exited the helo and I noticed immediately that the breaching charge was still in the aircraft. Had they truly forgotten it?? I grabbed the charge and lay on my stomach and reached as far out toward the ground as I could to shorten the distance the charge would have to fall, and I let it drop.
So far, so good. With no time to try to attach the quicky saw to my waist I threaded my right arm through the carrying handle of the quicky saw, grabbed the rope with my hands and started my descent. I held on as long as I could until the rope eventually burned my hands to the point that I lost my grip. I fell from the rope and hit the ground hard, like a sack of no-leather-gloves-havin’ potatoes.
I sat up and instantly there was a loud explosion very close to my right rear; I felt the heat from the blast. The door charge had detonated, but how? At once several plastic Simunition rounds smacked hard off the clear face plate of my protective mask leaving smears of pink paint. Great! I was being engaged by the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) that our operations had assigned as role players for this assault. The helos jettisoned their fast ropes and thundered off. It started to rain.
I swung my rifle up with my right arm and squeezed off several shots in the direction of the OPFOR, which was defilade by a wood pile. I grabbed the quicky saw with my left hand and ran toward the breach point. Gun fire was already cracking away inside the target building and flash bang grenades were booming. Windows were shattering from the blasts and much shouting could be heard.
I dropped the quicky saw at the breach point where our Troop Sergeant Ray R. was positioned. There would be no “catching up” with the assault, which was already in full swing and halfway through the objective. Ray directed me to the west side of the building to link up with my troop commander and his radio operator.
“George, we need you to get out there and drag those fast ropes off the LZ!” Ray directed. “Roger,” and I ran for the fast ropes, wiping the pink paint off of my face plate. It was at this point that I could see that the obstacles on the landing zone were two large cargo trucks.
By this time the ropes were wet from the rain. I grabbed one end of the first rope and began to drag it. I can stake the claim that dragging the full length of a wet 90-foot fast rope across concrete is a physically daunting task. I recovered the first rope and doubled over to pant like a race horse for a few seconds, sucking hard through the charcoal filter, my mask collapsing down against my face on each inhale. I dashed back out and recovered the second rope, then flopped on the ground for a breather.
“George, we need you to get those trucks off the LZ so the exfil helos can land and pick us up!” Ray shouted. I gave him a brief “is you crazy” glance and staggered out to the first truck, vaulting myself into the drivers seat. “What the hell was this?” It was a foreign vehicle. Nothing was in the right place: where was the starter, where was the emergency break, where was the gear shift? I fumbled around for a few seconds pulling levers, pushing buttons, throwing switches, until the truck finally roared to life. I eased the truck ahead, double-clutching the whole way as it refused to go into any gear without it.
I parked the truck on the north side of the building, putting it between the assault force and the OpFor that was engaging them from the woodpile, then dashed around the target building and toward the second truck, this time vaulting myself in through the passenger door. As I sat in the driver’s seat I was vexed by the fact that this, too, was a foreign vehicle, but not like the other. Just before I started pulling levers and throwing switches, it dawned on me that if I could get the driver’s side window down I could stitch the OpFor in the back that was behind the woodpile, harrassing our team that was freezing down the north target exit.
I dropped the window and squeezed off 29 well-aimed shots at the OpFor and watched them do the “Simunitions dance.” If you have ever been hit by Simunitions rounds, you know well that they can hurt like hell and you will be inclined to do the dance. I changed magazines. I must have been holding my mouth just right because the truck fired up pretty quickly this time. I parked it by the first truck. Assaulters were outside the building pulling security and I heard the dull thump of Black Hawk rotor blades in the distance.
I jumped from the truck and entered the building from the north door, shouting “Eagle, eagle” as I entered to let the internal security troops know that I was part of the assault force. I moved down the hall and linked up with Bravo team. Just inside the south entrance was a group of assaulters with what appeared to be the hostage who we came to liberate. The guys already had him dressed in a ballistic vest and helmet for evacuation.
“George, where the hell were you?” demanded my Bravo team leader. “I stepped out for some PT and a short drive” I replied. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you all about it later, bro.” Some quick nods and chin tips to my teammates and I picked up security facing out the east side of the building. The room was still ripe with smoke from flash bangs, littered with broken glass, detritus of an assault, and one “dead” OPFOR role player laying very still and playing the game. Good on him.
I heard the Hawks touch down outside and the team with the hostage sprinted toward them. We collapsed down our security, I grabbed the quicky saw on my way out, and we took our place on the helos. There was an immediate lift off and we made the quick transit back to our compound. On the ride back, the breaching team was squirming and feeling around in the helo. “Where the hell is our door charge… are we on the wrong bird?” one breacher shouted. What, the one they left behind on the helo? I was confused, but we would talk about it soon enough.
Once back we all gathered again for a mandatory After Action Report (AAR). I was dying to hear the breacher’s story. It turned out that the breach team decided to make a flex linear charge as well as the rigid linear charge in the event that we had to fast rope onto the objective.
A flex linear can be rolled up and carried in a leg pouch and is much easier to fast rope with. That was a great idea but the foul, as the commander explained, was that they failed to brief that to the rest of the force, resulting in a confusion and a bad night for at least one man trying to get a forgotten door charge out to the breach point.
We wrapped up our AAR and, as I left the building to get in my truck to go home, I noted that it was raining a little harder than before, and as you how the old saying goes, just as it had gone for me on the objective that night: when it rains, it pours.
(Edited by Cynthia G. Boutelle and Andreas Ulbricht.)