When we arrived back at Kandahar we found a buzz going through the entire camp. Our planned 12-hour outing had turned into one of the most high-profile missions of the war effort to date, and everyone was fired up about it.
Some of the other snipers, especially the Danes and Germans, started requesting that Osman and I come over and debrief with them so they could learn more about the terrain and the forces we were up against. The notoriety of our success at Zhawar Kili soon led to a request from the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), the Germany Special Operations team assigned to Task Force K-Bar. They had been slated to go with the Army Rangers on a direct action mission, but after that disastrous ODA mission had gone bad they changed their minds and said they would rather join forces with Navy SEALs.
After the attacks on 9/11 the world, in general, felt a tremendous amount of solidarity with America, and nobody more so than Germany. The German people were horrified at what had happened in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville, and our KSK buddies were pretty much in the same frame of mind we were: They wanted to get into the action.
The historical significance of the fact that we were going out on a joint raid with German Special Operations forces was lost on none of us. The last time the Germans were on a battlefield was in World War II, and then we were on opposite sides of the trenches. Ditto in World War I. Hell, there were Hessian mercenaries arrayed against us in the Revolutionary War. This would be the first military mission with German and American forces working together since… well, since ever.
The Germans were amazingly well-trained and extremely solid guys. Most of them also spoke decent conversational English, so communication was not an issue. It was about time we got to work together, and our association was one of the highlights of my experience in Afghanistan.
Our mission briefing started off with the Germans’ OIC, Major Mike. (I never learned his last name, and who knew if “Michael” was even his real first name, since most of us were going by nicknames anyway, and they all had fake identities.) Major Mike had developed the mission plan jointly with Cassidy, who would get input from all of us on particulars of helo landing site, insertion points, and other elements of the plan.
This was an HVT mission, meaning a high-value target. We were going to descend on an Afghan village called Prata Ghar, a handful of miles northwest of Zhawar Kili, in search of an important al-Qaeda higher-up. Prata Ghar was also the site of another cave complex with known al-Qaeda ties. The site consisted of one large central building, four stories tall, surrounded by about a dozen smaller buildings. As this was a joint raid, we would divide up the village and field of fire: The Germans would take down the large central building, and we would comb and clear all the others.
We flew up to Bagram in a C-130 (by now my preferred mode of air travel) the day before and prepared for the op. As usual, we would be leaving in the middle of the night so we could get on target hours before first light when anyone in their right mind would be asleep. We needed to hit these guys hard and fast.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 24
We made the brief flight down to Prata Ghar in two Chinook 47s and set down on the far side of a hill, three or four klicks from the village itself and well out of sight. With its dual rotors and long slender rotor blades, the CH-47 is an extremely agile and maneuverable chopper, the bird of choice for dicey inserts. The moment we stepped out into the snow one of our guys, Forrest Walker, rolled an ankle. Dumb luck. We had to put Forrest back on the chopper and send him home, so we were now down one guy.
We took a headcount, rallied up, and moved out. It was still pitch black when we reached the village about 45 minutes later. We communicated with the German group, moved to our set points, and got ready for the signal. I knew all the other guys were experiencing the same heightened state I was, senses so acutely tuned it felt like the buzz of a high-tension wire. In our briefings, we had seen a single photograph of the place shot from a distance. The interior layout of the individual buildings was a complete unknown, which meant we would be improvising based on what we encountered, and doing so at lightning speed.
“Fifteen minutes,” came the word over our comms. We waited, still as statues. “Ten minutes.” “Five minutes.” “One minute out.” Then it was time.
We started taking the place down.
It’s an intense experience to bust into a compound like this, knowing that a) you have no idea how the place is laid out inside, b) you’ll have only seconds to act in each location if you want to retain the advantage that comes with the element of surprise, and c) the place is packed with highly motivated and determined people who are probably armed to the teeth and will not hesitate to blow your brains out if given half an opportunity.
Prata Ghar village was pretty big, roughly two square kilometers. We had about a dozen buildings to clear, and we would have to play most of it by ear.
We burst into the first room and immediately heard a woman screaming. There on a thin mattress on the floor lay a husband and wife, an infant between them. The baby couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. The woman continued screaming her head off. It wasn’t hard to see why. Here she was, safely in bed for the night with her family, and suddenly her door was kicked in and two guys were standing there in balaclavas, pointing weapons at her and shining a SureFire flashlight beam in her eyes. No doubt she was terrified. Of course, that was the idea.
These people were clearly aiding and abetting the enemy. Villages like this one were serving as host-and-resupply stations for Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. That’s why these guys didn’t have to carry around much in the way of supplies. They relied on the hospitality of these villagers to feed them and house them as they roamed around.
Of course, it wasn’t like these folks had a whole lot of options. What were they going to do, say no to those guys? Besides to some extent they were obviously sympathetic to the cause, not only because they shared their Muslim faith but also because these were the people who had helped them fend off the Soviets when they had invaded their country. What’s more, most were afraid of the mullahs and pressured through fear into helping the Taliban anyway. So we could empathize with them. At the same time, though, they were harboring guys who were plotting to kill as many of us as they could.
We broke into the next room to find one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed. There in their bedrolls on the floor were a woman and two girls I surmised were her two teenaged daughters. They were just as surprised as the couple in the next room, but they didn’t react the same way. Having jumped up at the sound of us busting open their door, now that they saw us enter the room they immediately got back down and lay still. On their backs. The two girls looked terrified; the woman just looked at us stony-faced, betraying no emotion, with an expression that said, “Just do what you came here to do.” For a moment there was no sound in the room but our own ragged breathing and a quiet whimper from the youngest of the three. Osman and I stared at each other for a few seconds as the meaning of the scene sank in. These women assumed we were there to rape them. They thought if they gave no resistance, maybe we wouldn’t kill them.
“Jesus,” one of us muttered under our breath.
“It’s okay,” I mumbled to the women in bad Pashtun.
Was it their experiences with the Taliban? No, more likely the Soviets. Lord knows these people had seen enough invaders over the centuries. We moved on to the next room.
We took that place down hard and fast, plowing through rooms, villagers screaming, doors smashing and bursting, us calling out our signals so we could move fast without surprising each other — “Clear left!” “Clear right!” “All clear!” Within less than half an hour, we had gone through all the buildings. We wrapped up our search, brought out a few persons of interest, then did a reclear. Now we went through the place like the soldiers in a Vietnam movie poking through rice bags and finding weapons — and there were plenty of weapons in the finding: RPGs, AK-47s, all sorts of bad stuff.
Later, in the course of interrogating our prisoners, we learned that the HVT we were there to capture was gone by the time we arrived. We’d missed him by one day. Still, we had gotten some good intelligence and taken down a significant cache of weapons, and the raid was considered a success overall.
As we regrouped, Cassidy approached me and said, “Listen, the Germans are asking for our assistance. Can you and Osman help them out with something? I trust you guys.”
Apparently, the Germans had underestimated the terrain and inserted with too much gear. Once they were on the ground, they had decided to stash their big packs as they approached the village. I shook my head. Just like our recon mission to Zhawar Kili all over again: going in too heavy. This was something we’d had to learn the hard way, and the Germans were learning it now, too.
“They’re asking if an element from our team can go with one of their guys to retrieve those bags before we exfil.”
The sun was already coming up, and we were going out into uncharted territory. I wasn’t crazy about this idea, but what could I say? Three of us — Osman, this crazy German guy called Dieter, and I — formed up and commandeered a pickup truck from one of the locals. The plan was simple: Go get everyone’s kit and bring it back, fast. We hopped into our “borrowed” truck and took off, Dieter at the wheel.
Within minutes we ran into two Afghan guys with guns. Osman and I hopped out and took them down at gunpoint, zip-tied them, threw them in the back of the truck, kept going. We came up over the crest of the mountain, headed for where our KSK buddies had all stashed the gear, and —
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Scheisse,” murmured Dieter.
“Fuck!” was Osman’s comment.
There were four or five Afghans crawling all over the site, looting the Germans’ packs like Sunday afternoon yard sale scavengers. We yanked the truck to a stop, got out, and headed down the ridge toward the scene. The looters weren’t armed and didn’t seem especially dangerous, just a nuisance. We shooed them away and started loading ourselves up with gear. There was no way we’d be able to bring the truck down here into this ravine, so we’d need to haul everything up to the road, maybe 20 feet away and up a significant incline. There were at least 40 packs there in the ravine. At four per person, we could carry at most a dozen packs at once between the three of us, so this was going to take a good four trips back and forth. We started hauling.
We got one load to the truck, then came back for load number two, which we hauled up, then repeated the process for load number three, then headed back into the ravine for the last load.
Suddenly we realized we were not alone.
Word had evidently spread to another nearby village that there were some Americans here. Within 10 minutes there was a mob there on the road watching us. At least 50 guys and clearly pissed off. With guns. They didn’t appear to know exactly what was going on, but whatever it was, they weren’t happy about it. Why were we hauling all these packs out of this ravine? And why were two of their compatriots hog-tied in the back of our truck?
One guy, who seemed he might be the elder of the group, started screaming at us in Pashtun. None of us knew what the hell he was saying. We stood there in the midst of the last batch of packs, trying to figure out what our next move was. They were yards away now, encircling us, and then we were completely surrounded. A bunch of them were still up on the road, and it wasn’t hard to see that at any moment one of them would commandeer our vehicle, free the two in back, and drive the thing the hell out of there, leaving us stranded out here. That is if they didn’t shoot us first.
I glanced at Osman, then at Dieter. “Wonderful,” I thought, and I could see Dieter thinking it too. “Wunderbar.” Not only were we outnumbered by something like 20 to one, which is not the kind of odds we like to have, but we also had the low ground. Perfect. All we had to do was get these dozen heavy packs up the ravine and into our truck and drive out of there. Through a mob of 50 or 60 angry, armed, screaming Afghan mountain men.
“Okay, guys,” I said, “I think we need to get aggressive with these dudes if we’re going to get the fuck out of here.”
Nuts, but what other choice did we have?
We started brandishing our weapons at them, shouting and gesturing at our hand grenades, yelling back at them, knowing they wouldn’t understand a word of English or German, and knowing that it didn’t matter. There is the language of words, sentences, and syntax — and then there is the communication of angry apes in the jungle grunting and bellowing at each other. We may have had an impenetrable language barrier, but they got our message very clearly. They understood very well what we wanted, and what we intended to do about it.
And they were not about to back down.
By now they were on us, screaming in our faces, physically pushing us. The charge in the air was only intensifying. We figured whoever shot off their weapons first would gain the psychological advantage. Time to start shooting.
We fired off a few rounds into the air to show we were serious. It had no effect. We targeted a few of the guys closest to us and fired directly into the ground, inches from their feet, to show that we were really serious. Somebody’s gonna get dead if you fuckers don’t back off.
That got their attention. They backed off — just a little, but enough to get our foot in the door. We grabbed those dozen packs and hauled them up into that truck faster than I would have thought humanly possible and then backed that truck out of there like a videotape on fast rewind. We nearly ran over a few of them on our way out.
We made it back to the main group, hoping we hadn’t held up the team from extracting, only to learn that the squad of helos that was coming out to get us had been delayed. We would have to wait until nightfall, still many hours away. Nightfall finally arrived, and word came that the helos were delayed some more. We continued to wait, along with our prisoners and our captured intel.
It was probably no more than four hours, but it was so unbelievably, mind-bogglingly cold there in the January snow at Prata Ghar that it felt like an eternity. We had been cold at Zhawar Kili. I’d been cold in survival and resistance training, cold in the land nav portions of BUD/S. Never in my life had I been as bone-numbingly cold as we were here. I remembered Instructor Shoulin in BUD/S saying, “Cold as you are now, trust me, you’ll be colder in the teams.” We would say, “Yeah, right, whatever.” Shit, though, he was right. I was truly freezing my nuts off.
An hour or two after sundown, everyone gradually grew silent. It was like that grueling night on the beach of San Clemente Island in BUD/S: no more bitching and complaining, just silent suffering. That’s when you know things are really bad: when nobody even talks.
And here was the great irony of it: when we got back to Kandahar the next day, there was a surprise waiting for us. Our shipment of cold-weather gear had finally arrived. We were so happy to see that big crate that we didn’t even let ourselves think about the fact that it had been sitting here unopened and unused at the very moment that we were freezing nearly to death up north the night before. So what. We would suffer no more — it was here!
We hungrily tore open the box. I reached in and grabbed at the corner of what was obviously a down sleeping bag. “Oh, man…” This was great! I yanked it out of the box, pulled it out of its case, and rolled it out on the floor — and then stared at it, trying to change what I was seeing by sheer force of will.
The thing couldn’t have been longer than three and a half feet. And no wonder. It was a sleeping bag made for a child.
I grabbed it and looked it over. Sure enough: ON SALE! There was the frigging REI sale tag. We knew immediately what had happened: classic military bureaucratic supply thinking. FUBAR. We had submitted a detailed request-list completely specced with exactly what kind of gear we needed, but the people in supply had decided to save money, so they went out to REI and dug through the sale bin, doing what they could to match up everything on our list with whatever they could find there at better prices.
The whole box was filled with garbage like that. Off-size shoes, off-size gloves. It was all junk, completely useless. We were so irate we all wanted to kill somebody.
Chief Dye fired off an e-mail directly to the team’s commanding officer, Captain Adam Curtis. I don’t remember the body of the text, but I do remember that it wouldn’t have made it through the Motion Picture Association of America’s criteria for a PG-rated film, and I recall Chief Dye’s closing line:
“Thank you very fucking much, sir, Happy Fucking New Year, enjoy your fucking hot egg nog. Chief Chris Dye, Freezing in Afghanistan.”
Not long after Chris had dispatched his e-mail another shipment of cold-weather gear arrived, and this time they had spared no expense.