A few days after Christmas, an event occurred that shook us up and showed us how little margin for error there was in this country — and how far we still had to go to get our shit sufficiently together if we intended to come out of this place alive.
About a 30-minute drive from the Kandahar Airport there was a place called Tarnak Farms, where the 9/11 attackers were said to have trained. (Tarnak Farms was also believed to have been home to bin Laden for a while and was the site of a narrowly missed opportunity to take him out a few years earlier.) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the news channels had run a captured video clip of terrorists-in-training running an obstacle course and monkey bars at a training camp. That was Tarnak Farms.
The place had now been completely leveled by Coalition bombing raids, but it was still a useful training site. We had set up a mock shooting range there and would go out to test weapons, check our explosives, and blow off captured enemy ordnance. We had been out there not long before Christmas and had used the site to sight our .50 cal and grenade launcher and do some basic weapons training.
Now, a few days before New Year’s, we headed out there again to do some more testing on our weapons and make sure our zero was good. We didn’t have a lot of the technology we’ve developed since then. Today I wouldn’t need to go anywhere to confirm my rifle’s zero; I could just plug my local coordinates into my software and it would correct for that part of the world, with its particular elevation, degree of latitude, and environmental conditions. Back in 2001, we didn’t have that sophisticated software, and nothing could replace getting out on the range and physically testing the weapons. We also had a bunch of enemy ordnance we wanted to take out there to blow.
About half the platoon went out this time, maybe eight guys including our two EOD guys, and we took just two vehicles. We arrived and parked, and as I stepped out of the Humvee I’d been riding in I happened to glance down at the rear tire. My eye caught a glimpse of something that looked like a pink pig’s tail sticking out from under the tire. I bent down slowly to get a closer look. Damn, that looked an awful lot like det (detonation) cord.
It was det cord.
Shit. I froze. “Hey Brad?” I called out to one of our EOD guys. “You want to take a look at this? It looks a whole lot like det cord to me.”
Det cord looks much like an M-80 fuse, only bigger. I’d done enough demolitions to know what I was looking at, but when you have an expert handy it never hurts to get a second opinion. This was a situation where it would certainly pay to be sure.
Brad stepped over cautiously to where I stood and angled in close for a good look. “Holy shit,” he murmured, and he looked around at the other guys. “Okay,” he said quietly, “everybody slowly step back.”
Everybody slowly stepped back.
Brad called over his buddy Steve, who slipped over to Brad’s side to become part of our tableau. Brad and Steve very slowly, very carefully, checked the whole scene out, inch by freaking inch. I heard Brad let his breath out, and it was not from relief. It was from the need to maintain maximum control, which you can’t do effectively when you’re holding your breath. “Okay, guys,” he said, “here’s the situation. We have parked directly on top of an antitank mine. Which happens to be tied into three antipersonnel mines.”
It did not take a degree in physics or expertise in demolition specs to know that the shit our Humvee was sitting on was enough to blow us all to Pakistan.
We stood in place while Brad and Steve dismantled the whole mess, wondering how on earth we hadn’t set the explosives off. I mean, we didn’t just lightly brush the damn thing. We parked a frigging Humvee on it. Why were we still standing here, left alive to tell the tale? Not that we were complaining any — but it was weird not knowing. Was the thing a dud, or were we just ridiculously lucky?
Our answer came soon enough. Brad came over to us after they’d finished their work and said, “Whoever set this thing up missed one step. They didn’t set up the drum correctly. As a result, the pressure plate didn’t rotate properly and failed to initiate the charge. Which, all things considered, was a good thing.”
We couldn’t argue with that. Without that one human error, the thing would have gone off and taken all of us with it—us in our Humvees with no armor and no doors.
I still have a picture of that little det cord, and with it, another picture of me standing in that same area initiating a charge later that day on some of our captured ordnance, and in this one you can see a bombed-out blue minivan in the background. We’ll come back to that second snapshot again, because that blue minivan took on new significance to me about three months later.
Here was the really freaky thing about our close encounter of the nearly fatal kind: only a few days beforehand, an EOD team had been out there and cleared the whole area. So how was it we’d just driven in and parked our Humvee square on top of an economy-sized Armageddon, when the whole place had already been scoured and pronounced clean? There were only two possibilities. Either our EOD guys had completely missed this series of mines, which was extremely unlikely… or else someone was out there surveilling the area and had slipped in and booby-trapped the place after the EOD guys left, figuring that we’d be back. I was pretty sure it was the latter.
Three months later, I would be 100 percent sure of it.
This is an excerpt from, “The Red Circle” the memoir of former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb.