My first deployment was to Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after the September 11th attacks. There, I conducted a mission that changed my life. None of my training could have mentally prepared me for the life-and-death situations I would soon encounter.
The morning started off with my boss numerically listing the precedence of tasks he required us to achieve. Down a long hallway, a dozen section leaders stood studiously along the walls toting pen and paper to record any pertinent information to be tasked out.
“Number one: Kill Osama Bin Laden.” I never grew tired of hearing this. The adrenaline rush reminded me of the pep talks my high school football coach gave prior to a big game. My boss continued to list tasks ending with that night’s requirements: “Number three: Insert into a village to locate, close with, and destroy a key Taliban leader.”
It was just past 0200 when I found myself hanging from a helicopter, skimming the ridge tops of the Tora Bora Mountains in eastern Afghanistan. I looked down through my night vision goggles and saw people huddled around small campfires deep inside the vast mountain peaks. These places were considered uninhabited by civilians, and I understood that these men were more than likely Taliban. I wondered if any of them could possibly have been Osama Bin Laden.
As the pilots guided the helicopter toward the area of insertion, enemy gunfire erupted from a nearby mountain. I remained steadfast and focused while watching the carbon from bullets scream by like a “Star Wars” movie. Getting closer to the target area, I heard, “One minute out,” over the radio. I thought about my mom, brothers, and the girl waiting for me back home. The thought of never seeing them again consumed me.
The tail of the helicopter pitched upward and we began to descend. I could now see the snow-covered ground and unhitched the strap keeping me inside the helicopter. As the skids grazed the terrain, snow rushed into the aircraft cabin, temporarily blinding me. I bounded from the helicopter and my knees buckled from the 55 pounds of survival gear, weapons, and ammo I had attached to my back. As I moved to my assigned sector, I realized my training and instincts were guiding me; we were still being engaged heavily and were in for the fight of our lives.
After two minutes of intense fighting, the sky lit up. Before anyone could say anything, I realized that rockets were being fired in our direction. I had about four seconds to get inside the helicopter before it departed the scene with or without me. Sprinting across the large rocks with my ankles turning sporadically, I dove back into the helicopter while simultaneously smashing my face against the cold steel of my 23-pound machine gun.
The mission was aborted and everyone made it home that night. I came to the realization that being killed in a Third-World country where nobody cared about me was a very real possibility. I had to get over any fear of dying and do my job. In order to do this, I knew I had to forget about any family, friends, loved ones, or personal problems to survive this Hell. Sometimes explaining this mindset feels like trying to describe the color red to a blind person. However, this philosophy gave me peace and the ability to conduct years of successful missions that greatly influenced terror operations and planned attacks against the United States and other sovereign nations. I am around to tell my story because of the lessons I learned on that cold winter night in Afghanistan.