You can read part I here.
And then it happened…
At the 18-minute mark into the breach I heard our master breacher, Crapshoot, call for cooling water. That couldn’t be right. It just didn’t make sense: that would indicate that he was through the door.
Brothers were quickly hauling up cooling water. Soon — WHOOSH — the hiss of water striking molten steel sounded and steam was pouring from the portal. I remained mesmerized by the activity at the portal, though I could not get a fix on the specific details. Guys were crouched around the man-sized hole that Crapshoot had torched on the exterior side of the door. He was all the way inside the door so I could see no trace of him. The door’s thickness and makeup disturbed me.
Guido next to me had snapped down his Night Observation Device (NOD) and alerted me:
“Aw hell… Geo, there’s still a bunch of hot spots out there where the brush was burning — whaddaya think?”
“Ah… well, there’s really nothing out there left to burn so I’m not alarmed. You can run an ATV out there and churn up the soil with the tires where those hot spots are if you want, but something might be happening with the breach real soon; I think Crapshoot got in.”
“You’re shittin’ me… that hardly seems possible. I’ll just hang out here then.
A two-flight of AH-6J little birds purred low overhead just to remind us that we still had eyes and teeth in the sky. I reckoned it must be Chief Warrant officer Greg Coker and his wingman. Greg was a land shark on the prowl; he could smell one part per million of blood in the air. He was probably up there hanging his head out of the chopper sucking in all available gas like a Goddamned black hole, searching for that one part platelet in a million that would compel him into the six-gun and hydra plunge from Hades, Jericho trumpets blazing full-on!
Our Team Leader called us to collapse down on the breach point and make ready to enter the complex. There we had it; Crapshoot had punched through the portal door in under 20 minutes, a miraculous thing by my own estimate, a thing that caused a distinct spike in my respect for the brother. As a matter of coincidence rather than irony, two ATVs shot out in the field and began grinding the dirt away where the hot spots were.
“Great minds,” observed Guido, “but I wanted to enter in through that blast valve!”
“Really, Guido? You want to ride the spinning teacups rather than the merry-go-round? This isn’t Disney Land, bro!”
Crapshoot half crawled and then was pulled out of the hole in the door like a rat. His face was black and he was coughing, having pulled his gas mask off at some point during his ordeal. He had crawled in there with a full leather welder’s apron on over his combat load. It hung down to his knees and was spattered with slag burns.
His hair and mustache were singed and he had smoke coming off him… somehow. He was helped up and sat down with his back up against the concrete bunker. One man was left to stay with him while he rested for a spell and traded the contents of his lungs for actual air. He cradled his rifle in the crooks of his elbows like a man whose hands were burned.
One-by-one we wormed through the hole in the gargantuan portal door. We all regarded Crapshoot in some positive manner as we passed him: a sap on the leg or the shoulder, a punch in the arm and a compliment for a job well-done. Crapshoot had an imitation grin on his face, but otherwise closed eyes that were so glad to be done fencing with a demon for the last 20 minutes.
“Where do we get these guys,” I wondered. I struggled eternally with my own humility being immersed in a group of men like these, relentlessly falling back on my inductive reasoning template: all the men in A squadron are badasses; geo is in A squadron, therefore geo must also be a badass. That excursion always ended with my forming the same conclusion: “Well yeah but I don’t count because I’m just me… the rest of these people though — different story!” I didn’t mind at all keeping my humility in check — it regulated the temperature of my ego at a constant lukewarm.
The foyer just past the portal door rocked with flashbangs stuffed through the wormhole by the lead assaulters. The hope was to disrupt any opposition long enough for a snowball’s chance in hell of getting inside unscathed. The inner passageways were quickly frozen down by Unit gunners as they spilled into the foyer. Guido and I could see opposing forces darting back and forth deep into the complex, jockeying for the best positions to harass us as we cleared through. Guido gave me his doleful look that we would have to fight our way to the last room of this labyrinth for any expectation of working in peace.
The next hour was a din vortex of rifle reports, screams, cursing, face-slapping concussions of a baker’s plethora of flash-bangs, breaching charges, shrieks of gas-powered saws, sledgehammers, glass shattering, timbers cracking, girders creaking, and staccato drumming of assault boots across concrete floors. Gradually the welcome crackle of “All clear!” came across all radios. The sensation when pulling open the seal on my mask to let the sweat gush out was almost overpowering.
Guido sat on the masonry stairs sipping water through a canteen from a hose connected to his gas mask.
“Guid… can I get a hit off that canteen?”
Guido stepped over handing me the canteen, and through his gas mask called out in his best Godfather voice:
“My son, we will accept this favah, with the expectation that one day I may come to you and ask for a favah in return,” always the quid pro quo guy, that Guido was! We two were ushered to a point two floors farther down below where the brothers had recovered the precious cargo. It was the warhead of an Iraqi SCUD-B rocket, which was the reason we had come to assault this complex in the first place. We did the gas mask jog (very slow and pathetic sort of shuffle) up to where the guys were huddled and working.
The weight was guesstimated at about 2000 lbs. To recover it the bothers were shuttling in the parts of a portable Wallace Crane that could lift such a massive and heavy payload. The guys were already learning the system of the complex’s heavy cargo elevator that we could use to raise the warhead, suspended by the wheeled Wallace crane, to the surface deck. From there we could deliver it to a terminal transport vehicle parked in the foyer, if the boys could figure out how to throw open the massive portal door.
“If if’s and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a very merry Christmas…”
A point of great interest here: our 2-troop, who was working an identical breach solution on the opposite side of the complex, had given up trying to breach their door stating that it was impossible. They were redirected to join the fight by gaining entrance into the site via Crapshoot’s sub-20-minute breach. Crapshoot sat there still with his burnt face and kinked back up against the bunker wall grinning as the troops filed by him wondering what in hell had happened to the poor slob with the blackened face.
2-Troop brother: “Christ… what happened to your face, Crapshoot?”
Crapshoot (singing): “Maaammy, Maaammy… the sun shines east, the sun shines west… but I know where, the sun shines best…”
When we pushed the Wallace crane off of the elevator and onto the top floor, a Pinzgauer was parked immediately there ready to take our cargo — the brothers had successfully mastered the portal door opening sequence. The warhead was deposited onto the truck, which rumbled out of the underground complex and headed for a distant airfield, a duo of Little Bird gunships buzzing overhead. Blackhawks cycled onto the recently brazed fields to scoop up assaulters and fly us back to our compound at Ft. Bragg.
On the flight back the men broke the seals of their masks to empty the flood of sweat that was collecting therein. In each case, they all resealed their masks properly, a thing that I admired under the circumstances. The floor of our helo made me homesick as it made me think of the Louisiana bayous. I say, the chemical threat had been notional on the objective, but “fight like you train, train like you fight,” was a moniker that carried considerable weight in the Unit, and every man had a hyperactive conscience.
Back at the compound, there was a full contingent of chemical warfare troops tasked from Ft. Bragg to run a full decontamination operation for the assault force coming off of the objective. They had been set up there for a few hours, and it was getting late… so they were cranky and obstreperous children expected to do the work of adults. That was too much to expect from the Army’s rear echelon types that night.
We moved through the decontamination line in the dark of the pine woods of our compound. The chemical troops blocked-checked, pencil-whipped, and nose-thumbed the entire process. It was an absolute insult to us from the left to the right of the playing field; a fully anti-climactic end to an otherwise noble action on a complex objective.
We were naked when we reached the end of the contamination, which was tactlessly staffed by the one female control officer in the group. It was there that we were finally permitted to strip off our gas masks. We had been sealed up tight in them for a grand total of eight hours and thirty-four minutes. None of us could recognize each other due to the grotesque manner that our faces had been contorted.
“Whatever happened to ‘preserve the customer’s modesty’ during these things?” Guido justifiedly remarked as he stood with his Howard Johnson hanging and noting the control officer.
“Guido, you know that saying: ‘This is a man’s world’? Well, this is not at all a man’s world.”
“Don’t try dragging me down into your personal hell, Geo.”
And so it always went with Guido and me.
I watched my good buddy Colin “Chainsaw” Rich In front of me. He was naked and the last thing left was for the control officer to lift and hand him his bag of assault gear. She tugged and pulled at the bag trying to get it off the ground. Finally, the frustrated and slightly irate Chainsaw grabbed the bag with his left arm and snatched it up onto his shoulder:
“I got it, hon,” he declared in his impatience, “Does turd in a punchbowl mean anything to you?”
“Chainsaw — WOAH!” warned the 1-Troop Leader; I recognized his voice.
I reached in and grabbed my bag, without the slightest obeisance, before the controller had a chance to not be able to lift it either. So ended another day at the office for A squadron.
That Hardened and Deeply Buried Target was an absolute baptism of fire for us all. It truly changed the way the Unit looked and operated when going in on such a complex problem. There were a million problems to solve, but we solved them all with the best of intentions and the greatest of enthusiasm. All of the brothers did so love a challenge — that was just the beauty of the beast, and after all, Selection is an ongoing process.
By Almighty God and with honor,