SOFREP is pleased to present the second part of our two part interview with Scott Zastrow, whose ODA was the first into hostile territory during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
How did your ODA get inserted into Afghanistan and what was this experience like?
Task Force 160th flew us in. We actually had a dry run first because the birds we were flying in lost instrumentation the first time and didn’t want to risk going over the mountains without them, so they turned us around and we tried again the next night. I guess you could say we got the ‘penguin’ from them that first night.
When we finally did infil, the biggest memory I had of it was just that eerie quietness after landing, when the birds took off and everything was this dusty haze from the rotor wash. Pitch black and I couldn’t see two feet in front of me and remember just giggling to myself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
People throw the word surreal around a lot, but in a time like that, you have no idea what to expect when that dust settled. We work with 160th quite a bit because they are co-located at Campbell with us, so we know their capabilities and weren’t really worried about the trip. I have tremendous respect for those pilots because they have so much experience in their platforms.
But flying in Chinooks, you always have this fear that any tool with an RPG can take you down. You aren’t really being secret in something that size. On previous trips, we operated with pretty good freedom of movement, so knowingly going somewhere that people not only didn’t like you, but actually wanted to shoot you on site, definitely came with a pucker factor.
We didn’t even discuss it until a year later when one of the reporters asked us what it was like being the first men America called on in response to a terrorist incident, and if that much responsibility weighed in on what we were doing. We all kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, never thought of it that way.’
How did you link up with the Northern Alliance and what was your first impression of them?
As was very publically portrayed, we had direct Agency involvement as a go-between, so it wasn’t like we had to do the old-school Robin Sage link up and establish rapport. The books First In and Jawbreaker detailed their involvement pretty well on their side of it. But again, those books are very one-sided and hubristic. Anytime a SOF guy reads about how just one guy did something, they are the first ones to call bullshit. They did, however, provide a very time-saving introduction and plenty of Starbucks coffee, so kudos to them. The Deguello paints a much more realistic picture.
As far as impressions, most of us had operated in the Middle East for a while at that point, so we weren’t expecting too much to begin with. By keeping our expectations low, and planning for worst case, it made it much easier to deal with what we had to work with. They had good leadership, though. Several of the Generals we were working with as counterparts had been educated in Russia at their War College, so they were keen to the tactics we wanted to use because they had to study American manuals there. So things like Ambush, react to contact, break contact were very simple concepts to grasp for them. We had a Russian speaker, so the translation went from English, to Russian, to Pashtu, back to Russian and English. Play that out in your head with just a ’Hi, how are you,’ and you’ll see how insane the beginning was.
The troops, however, whew. Some SF Teams would go down to a local unit like the 101st or 82nd and get privates to train with to practice doing UW/FID; We should have gone to an elementary school for this trip, and gotten them high first. We saw stuff that even with our experiences up to that point made us go ‘wow’. Guys sitting with their backs to a wall and holding the gun above their heads, facing backwards, and depressing the trigger with their thumbs. Funny shit like that. Or seeing a guy fire his weapon and after the first round, all the rest fell out of the bottom of the magazine because they did zero weapons maintenance. In the middle of engagements, we would just burst out laughing at some of the things we witnessed. In hindsight, that stuff helped because when you start laughing, it helps relieve a little of the anxiety and you can focus more on what needs to happen next.
What was your mission at this time? How did it change from your initial impressions while in isolation?
At first, the plan was to just get a lay of the land, see what we were working with and where we could make the biggest impact. Regardless of what anyone is told, there is always a secondary mission of ‘Providing Ground Truth’. We had just broken into a new tech age in SOF, so the communications were much better and there is always someone, somewhere, standing in front of a map with a little stickpin that said ‘ODA 555” on it for his boss. So the ‘where are you now’ traffic was endless. I can only imagine the speculation that was coming out of the two sentence blurbs we were sending back.
Some of the NA Generals weren’t too receptive to us being there at first. Remember, they had like 1500 dudes and the Taliban had 15,000. So we got the, “Oh, great, now we have 1510, that should really help.” They had been privy to the blanket carpet bombing north of Kabul by the Air Force and weren’t too impressed with the impact those randomly dropped bombs were having on enemy forces. But all that changed pretty quickly that first day at the Tower in Bagrahm.
Once they realized what we could bring to the table, even with our small numbers, things started to progress pretty rapidly. We had a great intel guy that really set us up for success, and once we were into full combat ops, it followed really close to our original plan.
What did the Taliban lines look like at this point and how did you begin to advance on them?
Without a map, its hard to describe. But you could tell that after the Taliban pushed into Kabul, they went as far north as they could before they hit the mountains of the Panjshir. They were south enough so no artillery could be fired at them from the mountains and were gathered in likely areas of vegetation and water, but along a pretty noticeable line just to the south of Bagrahm in both directions.
Seeing them from the tower of the airfield, directly on the other side of the runways was strange to all of us. Because they had such a large land mass to cover, even that many troops were spread pretty thin, and the ones we had were pretty massed up when they traveled so they presented a good signature. Because of this, neither side really wanted to advance on the other. With no real air assets, there wasn’t much need for the Taliban to advance on the tower and try to take the whole airfield. To them, it was just more rundown buildings. But seeing these two sides literally stare across the street at each other for that long was hard for us to comprehend.
What prompted you to write a fictionalized account of your experiences in OEF I in your book, The Deguello?
Man, who knows what got it started. I could give you 50 reasons.
I kept a pretty good journal going while I was there, and after a few years decided to type it up so I could toss the chicken scratch. So I had a good reference to some of the things that happened. Like I said previously, I read a handful of things about us that always left a bad taste in our mouths because it was always an outside point of view. I joked with Steve one night at his house over a few beers that I was going write one someday, and he thought it was a great idea because of how animated I was when telling normal Team stories at parties. So I dabbled in it from time to time, but then went back to Afghanistan for a long deployment which gave me ample time to sit and write. So I guess you can say boredom was a huge factor.
We’ve all read many books on Special Operations, not to mention all the movies out there, and you know it’s hard to read or watch anything nowadays without raising the Bullshit Flag every other page or scene. Even the stuff written about us made us roll our eyes every five minutes. So I wanted to make a book even my CAG buddy would enjoy without making fun of me, although I put something in there on purpose just for him to grit his teeth on. That’s why it’s not a documentary, but a story. And there’s no self-glorifying crap that would make you go ‘Come on, man.’
I tried to make it as true to the real story as I could within the confines of staying legal. Obviously some things had to be omitted/changed, but most of the things in there can be pulled right out of the non-fiction accounts of that mission, newspapers/magazines and interviews. Anyone could have written this story had they read everything that’s out there on us, but it wouldn’t have the same flare this one does, adding the element of the characters. Whenever someone asks me about the legitimacy of the story, I am the first one to say I lied: JT isn’t that smart, Steve’s not that good looking, and I’m not that funny.
But the biggest reason I can give is I wrote it for those guys, that Team. We all went on with our careers and have done pretty well. There was a time a few years back where three of us were Team SGTs of three different dive teams in 5th Group at the same time. Only now we would use whole Detachments in competition with one another, it was great. We didn’t want that trip to be our only claim to fame, our only life event, ya know. We didn’t want to be sitting around a VFW somewhere in 2025 talking about how we were the ‘Triple Nickel’ blah blah blah. To us it was just another trip, and we had plenty more ahead of us.
I just wanted to give something to them to say thank you, because those guys are a huge part of the man I am now, and not just because of this mission. Something for their kids to read 20 years from now and say, “that’s my Dad.” I wouldn’t care if I sold a million books – if those guys didn’t like it, I’d have pulled it in a heartbeat. Getting the thumbs up from those guys, hearing them say they gave one to their mother, uncle, brother, that’s all I wanted.
Advertising is ridiculous nowadays and Army guys make peanuts, so there’s no way I’m doing that either. If your name isn’t Tom Clancy, you’re not walking up to a publisher and giving them a manuscript for publishing. I didn’t want to do the legwork involved in that crap, so I self-published it for a ridiculous amount of money, and I’m sure I’ll never recoup that. But when I sent out the first 10 copies to just those guys, months before anyone else got their hands on it, and got phone calls from them telling me how much they enjoyed it, I’d have paid twice as much.
Scott’s website is The Deguello where you can learn more about ODA 555 and the novel he wrote based on his wartime experiences in OEF I. The book can be purchased on the website or at Lulu.com. Thank you Scott for sharing your experiences with our readers, best of luck with your book and we hope to see you again on SOFREP real soon!