Thomas Rathsack’s “Jaeger: At War with Denmark’s Elite Special Forces” is now available in english! What follows is an excerpt from the book:
DEEP IN TALIBAN TERRITORY
I can finally call myself a Jaeger again. From day one, I felt totally at home in my new five-man team.
René is our team leader. He is the most experienced, with eight years of operational service. His outgoing and social manner makes him our natural leader. He maintains an infectious positive attitude no matter how pressured or tired he is.
Peter is our medic, a type of advanced nurse. He is exceptionally competent and sharp, often offering intelligent, analytical observations. He possesses a raw strength despite his lack of interest in fitness training. One day after jogging a few hundred metres from our camp he passed a “Reduce Your Speed” sign. He took it literally and returned to our air-conditioned patrol room.
Our scout, Mikkel, has a calm and relaxed demeanor. He is a small, compact fellow but strong as an ox and highly respected in the corps for his skills.
My final teammate is Henrik, and he is responsible for communication. He is a tall, athletic and likeable guy with a marked stubbornness, which ensures that he always strives for the optimal solution. He is the youngest member of the team and one of my most valued colleagues, both as a soldier and as a human being.
I land the vacancy for a demolitions expert. “The man with the key”, is how the Americans describe my function. I blow up obstacles, such as doors and walls, in and around buildings wherever our team is operating. It is also my responsibility to place grenades and alarm devices to protect my team when we are operating from an observation post.
After a couple of weeks in the team, it happens. This is what I have been waiting for. We are going on assignment. René has been informed about the job and has called a meeting in the patrol room.
René and I have just been for our daily 10-kilometre jog around the base in the dusty afternoon heat when we step into the small, dark patrol room, which also functions as a lounge and sleeping-quarters. I am tense and can hardly wait for the brief, but the rest of the team seems rather relaxed. Peter, our medic, is lying on his bed, chuckling along to an episode of »Friends«. Mikkel, the scout, is lying on his front listening to his favourite American west coast rock music. And the communications man, Henrik, is sitting at the table intently studying one of the American field rations that we are so privileged to have been given for operational use.
After drinking a lot of water, René gathers us around him and shares the details of the mission. Unmanned American spy planes, MQ-1 Predators, have in the last week been observing the border regions in the mountainous provinces 400 kilometres north east of Kandahar Air Field (KAF). The Americans are acutely aware of a few specific localities around villages along the border. The spy planes have captured pictures of Taliban and al-Qaida members crossing the border to Pakistan along small tracks and roads, and then returning to Afghanistan to fight the American forces. There is also an assumption that the villages are being used as refuges for terrorists and their suppliers.
In favourable weather conditions, the Predator spy plane can identify a person’s heat signature from a height of three kilometres using its infrared, digital zoom camera. However, the unstable weather of the current late winter makes the Predator less effective. Task Force K-Bar has therefore been assigned the task of observing activities in the area. Fortunately for us, this means boots on the ground.
We listen attentively as René imparts his knowledge of the assignment – named QA05. He is the only one in our team who has been in a real war zone operation, even if it was in the somewhat softer environment of the Balkans in the 1990s. The concentration fixed on our faces bears witness to the gravity of a task fraught with risk and danger. We will be transported by helicopter at night, flying low over hills, mountains and valleys, through areas swarming with armed enemies.
The terrain is challenging. The mountains from which we will observe our goal are at an altitude of three to four kilometres. Steep rock faces, narrow gorges, steep ravines and the thin air will push our physical ability to the limit.
The operation is to span 10 days, which intensifies the demand placed on gear, food and water requirements. The mountainous terrain has no water. We have to carry everything we need on our shoulders.
Al-Qaida and Taliban forces are on home turf here and are further motivated by the prospect of capturing enemy soldiers – trophies – from the coalition. Special Forces soldiers in particular. To capture, torture and kill one of us in the most bestial and grotesque way leads to great recognition and respect among their people.
A US Navy SEAL met a gruesome fate when he was captured. He had been wounded during an operation after falling from a helicopter as it lifted off the ground. Al-Qaida forces found him, shot him in the knees and between the legs, cut his throat and left him with his penis hanging from his mouth.
Obviously, we fear being captured. In fact, we would rather die fighting.
In spite of his positive nature, René is sombre as he concludes the briefing by stressing that being discovered is the biggest danger of the mission. Contact with the enemy, even civilians, will in the best possible scenario lead to us pulling out. In the worst case, we will be fighting for our lives.
We need to be ready for action in three days. The moonlight will be minimal then, offering the best conditions for us to go in.
Preparations include gathering and compiling intelligence. Authentic, detailed information about the enemy is crucial to the success of military operations, particularly for missions carried out in isolated territory such as this. We need information about wind, light, rainfall and temperature; about where the enemy is assumed to be, whether they are armed and organised, their morale and their ability to fight. We need information about whether the local population is friendly or hostile and where the nearest town or settlement is located. All of this has significant bearing on the decisions we make in the preparation phase.
If the enemy detects us, it is not just a question of moving to a new area after a possible battle. Everyone in the area – Taliban, al-Qaida and the local population – would soon find out that there are foreign soldiers in the area and commence a merciless hunt.
Advanced computer programmes provide us with information about the altitude and gradient of the mountains. We seek out the best places from which to observe the villages and the tracks we are interested in. The mountains flatten slightly towards the north, which should make it easier to move around there. Unfortunately, it means the same for our enemy.
Very few spots appear to be suitable for observation posts. It’s all extreme cliff drops and impassable terrain. We have never seen such mountain terrain despite our extensive training in, among other places, the Swiss mountains. All the gear we require for the 10-day operation must be carried in. Hence, we have no room for climbing equipment such as ropes and harnesses and must plan accordingly.
Mikkel eventually charts a landing zone using maps and computer generated images. It is a massive challenge considering the terrain. The landing zone cannot be too close to our observation base, since the enormous CH47 helicopter taking us in is extraordinarily loud. Nor can the landing zone be too far away from our destination, since we must be able to reach it before daylight. Mikkel also picks out meeting points in case the team splits due to a gunfight. Furthermore, we need a plan in case it all goes wrong. Emergency escape routes all the way back to KAF have to be mapped. We also need to prepare procedures for contact with our own units.
Henrik is busy preparing our communication systems. Internal radio frequencies need to be fixed and coded. Peter checks and packs all the medical equipment and gives us each an emergency package including, among other things, bandages and medication for pain relief and acute stomach ills. I test and prepare explosives, camouflaging all the grenades and leads to be used in securing and protecting the base with a sand-coloured paint. I also reinforce our packs – affectionately called »ticks« – at critical bearing points after realising how heavy they are going to be.
We have to bring explosives, grenades, extra ammunition, radio, GPS, day- and night-time binoculars, thermal observation gear, tripods, cameras, enough batteries for 10 days, sleeping bags, shit bags and freeze dried food rations. When I have finished packing my »tick« I drag it out into the hallway to weigh all my gear – pack, vest and weapon. I look at the scales in astonishment: 82 kilograms.
Furthermore, we need to bring drinking water with us. A Jaeger should drink at least five litres of water a day in the conditions we are going to face. We need 50 litres each for the 10 days – 250 litres in all, which has to be transported in two extra packs.
We leave in just eight hours. We are practicing formations and helicopter procedures by the camp’s perimeter. It’s a still and sunny afternoon when a sandstorm suddenly engulfs us. Sky and the horizon become one in a big cloud of dust and sand. A brownish fog envelops us with dust and makes us look like expressionless wax dolls.
But we are focussed and hardly notice it.
We are privileged enough that the American 160th Operations Aviation Regiment, also called the Night Stalkers, which works solely with Special Forces, will be inserting us. Better helicopter support simply does not exist anywhere in the world. They have the best pilots, the best equipment and the best helicopters. The giant MH-47D Chinook with its tandem rotor is developed exclusively to work with Special Forces. It has three 7.62 Gatling Miniguns, air fuelling capacity, a system for fast-roping and abseiling and other
improvements on the standard version. The 160th unit flies in conditions that no other helicopter crews can or will. They land in the most difficult and unreachable landing zones, nearly always navigating in the dark without a single light source on the helicopter.
During the coordination briefing with the helicopter crew, the captain – a talkative but straight-faced chap in his early thirties – tells us that the hour and a half of flying will be difficult and dangerous, taking place at night through a terrain where mountain peaks rise sharply with minimal warning. He plans to fly wearing night vision goggles, as close to the ground as possible, just 10-20 metres off the ground. There is also a high risk of attack from enemies using rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns or even handheld weapons. Meanwhile, the landing zones are especially difficult because of the steep rock faces.
The crew’s calm professionalism puts us at ease, however. They are service minded and make it clear that they will do everything in their power to deliver the best possible product. We are their customers. They exist for us.
Two hours before takeoff we gather at our small patrol room, drink lots of water and have one last solid meal – spaghetti with meat sauce. Our feet are almost as important as our stomachs. Hard skin is filed off and the feet taped up before we carefully put on our boots, which we will not be taking off for many days to come.
We exchange a bit of everyday stuff about families, girlfriends and dogs. Everyone knows it is meaningless chit chat but there is no point in dwelling on the fact that we will soon be in enemy territory face to face with people who have nothing to lose and will do anything to kill us. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Will our operational procedures function? Can we communicate with each other and KAF under the extreme circumstances of being in mountains and desert? Can we actually manage this – just the five of us?
As a rule, in the army, you never move outside your base in units smaller than 30 soldiers. You are backed up by firepower from light and heavy machine guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons, as well as the option of support from aircraft or artillery. And reinforcements in the form of your own units are on standby.
On this operation we are five men completely alone on a mountain 400 kilometres from our base at KAF. When the helicopter leaves we have only ourselves, our packs and whatever else we can carry. Nevertheless, we can ask for support from jet fighters and the awesome American flying fortress, the AC130 Gunship, which carries a whole arsenal of weaponry systems. The AC130 operates only at night, however, and five men on the ground cannot count on jet fighters being available in the daytime, even if the need is there.
We are sitting on the ground in a large, dark, concrete space a few metres from the big Chinook helicopter’s loading ramp. It is a big spooky clump of metal against the starry night sky. Only the small green dots from the chemical light sticks in the cabin give an impression of this giant’s size. It can carry up to several vehicles.
I am ready to go but we have to wait for the chaplain to come and bestow his blessings and prayers on us. As an atheist, this aggravates me. I believe in my ability as a soldier and a human being, in coincidence and luck. Right now, in the minutes leading up to my first operation, most of all I just want a bit of privacy, not to be bothered by rituals that I am fundamentally opposed to, even though they are well meant.
We board. The turbines slowly grind into action with a metallic screeching. The Chinook gets moving and rolls toward the take-off point where the remaining checks are carried out. The rotor revolutions increase and the four wheel-sets lift from the ground. The outlines of darkened tents and buildings at the airfield disappear in the distance as we roar eastward. It soon becomes clear that the helicopter captain’s promise that the flight would be rocky was no exaggeration. I have experienced low-level flying before but nothing like this. The cabin sea-saws, jerks and bumbles as if a bunch of drunken sailors are steering it. Sudden downward and upward lurches force me to plant my feet as tight as possible on the floor and struggling to stay in my seat.
I flick on my night goggles and look out through the big opening at the back of the cabin. In the green light, I can see the load master kneeling behind his fast-shooting Gatling Minigun right by the edge of the opening at the back of the helicopter. Suddenly, I get one hell of a fright. A deep loud rumble cuts through the cabin, drowning out the engine noise. The cabin is sailing and I am fighting to hold on to my seat. What the fuck is going on?
I turn toward the sound and see the other load master standing by a Minigun placed in the side door. It occurs to me that he has just fired at something on the ground. The pilot continues to swerve and weave to get away from the enemy. This is serious. I look at Mikkel. His camouflaged, bearded face is set in a broad grin. I return the grin, albeit a slightly more strained one.
I have drunk a lot of water in the last few hours and that liquid, as we all know, has to pass back out. After flying for half an hour, with at least three quarters of an hour remaining, I realise that I cannot hold it in. We have brought double plastic bags for this purpose but I had hoped I would not need them. It’s now unavoidable. I hold on to the row of seats with one hand and unsteadily get to my feet on the see-sawing cabin floor, which, as if to make the exercise even more difficult, is lubricated with hydraulic oil. I wrap the free hand around my »friend« and get the double bag over it like a giant condom.
There, 5000 kilometres from home, over the mountains of Afghanistan, I am standing half upright, dangling like a rodeo cowboy in the belly of a big unruly metallic beast, emptying my bladder. Had the situation not been so serious I would have laughed at how bizarre it was. Instead I finish my business in a hurry and locate the black garbage bag on the wall.
Half an hour later the load master signals for drop-off for the first time. 10 minutes. I switch on my GPS and memorise the infiltration route one last time. I also check that everything is still in the pockets of my vest. Even though all the vital equipment is secured with a bungee cord, I have loose items in the vest, such as, among other things, my map.
There is nothing written on the map. We never write on them, because it would reveal our exact location if it landed in the wrong hands. It would be catastrophic to drop the map, regardless. Not only because we need it to navigate, but also because it would reveal our presence in enemy territory.
I also check my weapon, including the infrared light and the strength of the small red dot in the special Aimpoint-sight, which enables you to shoot with both eyes open, allowing you to orientate yourself while you shoot. Then I suck some water from the hose attached to my camel bag, which holds four to five litres of water. I flick on my night goggles to get my eyes used to the green light and to more easily see my friends in the cabin.
For all of us but René, this is our first mission. Even so, through the darkness and noise I sense an atmosphere familiar from previous training exercises. It’s the calm that descends when you are in the right place, at the right time, in your element. That’s at least how I feel. I am in the best company possible – with some of the world’s top soldiers. Those bastards can bring it on.
Almost simultaneously with the load master’s signal of one minute, the pilots lower the speed. I locate the carrier straps on my packs, getting ready to drag them along the ground and off the ramp. Both our primary and alternative landing zones are small plateaux on ridges, according to the maps. In my night goggles I can make out a black cliff face in the background. The load master is lying flat on his front, halfway out over the ramp to direct the pilot. This is the most vulnerable stage of the insertion phase, with the 15 tons of metal hanging noisy and exposed. A single grenade from a portable rocket launcher and the whole operation is over.
We are hanging here for too long. Way too long. Why not just land?
Suddenly, the engines roar and the pilot rolls sharply to the right. I battle not to fall over. Are we compromised? Has the enemy already seen us? The Americans usually do not hold back from using their weapons, if there is reason to do. There is no firing from the Miniguns. We cannot have been spotted. It seems the primary landing zone is not useable.
We fly for another five minutes before receiving a »one minute« signal. This time there is no hesitation. Slow and steady, the helicopter descends until we are hanging still. Our load master kneels, turns and points with rapid movements of both arms, directing us out over the ramp. “Go, go, go!”
With my packs dragging along the floor, I get out over the ramp and hit the ground. I let go of the water pack. Dragging both packs is impossible. They are too heavy. In an inferno of dust and gravel whipped up by the big rotor blades, I use all my strength to crawl away from the giant body of metal.
I throw myself on the ground as the Chinook lifts off and turns away like a majestic bird soon swallowed by darkness. Our last contact with friends disappears. We quickly secure our position from all angles. A deafening silence sets in. Not a sound in the night.
I have been in Afghanistan a long time but this is the first time I have experienced total silence. No barking dogs. No breeze. Nothing. It is as if we have found ourselves in a vacuum. Slowly, the whirled up dust falls to the ground and we are able to orientate ourselves. I look around and gape in astonishment. That helicopter crew is too cool.
They have dropped us off on a flat area not much bigger than five by five metres. They have actually backed the helicopter toward a vertical mountain slope until just touching the edge. At no time has its wheels touched the ground. The load master has directed everything with surgically precise instructions.
Made in America. Respect.
The terrain is rocky and barren and we are surrounded by steep rock formations, which, like a theatrical setting, form a silhouette against the night sky. Only sporadic vegetation is noticeable on the scattered plateau. It is surprisingly warm despite the 3000 meter altitude. I take a sip of water.
“We are at the alternative landing zone,” Mikkel reports.
Everyone nods. There is no need to explain why we had to choose the alternative zone. We figure there must have been a problem with the primary one. At the same time, we realise that the infiltration route to our observation post is longer.
“Everyone okay?” René asks. We answer him with silent nods. “Good, now let’s get moving,” he whispers.
Getting away from the landing zone as fast as possible is paramount. The Chinook has probably been heard in the villages a few kilometres away. That means al-Qaida and Taliban are aware that there are Special Forces in the area. They know that infantry units are not inserted in this kind of terrain.
“Thomas, we will hide the water packs,” Mikkel whispers. I crawl over to the one I am responsible for and grab the straps. The noise seems deafening as I drag it over the rock surface, dump it in a small hollow and cover it with sandy camouflage netting. We grab our personal “ticks”. It is not possible to just sling a 65-kilogram pack over your shoulder, so we assist each other, while the rest of the team secures our position. We all nod to René and he signals to move forward.
I walk behind Mikkel, who, as our scout, leads the pack. He and I are moving 10 to 15 metres ahead of the other guys. Mikkel focuses on finding the way, while my task is to be our eyes and ears. I look and listen for any abnormal activity such as movements in the terrain or changes in light and sound. I sharpen my senses and unlatch my weapon.
We move slightly downhill from the landing zone to a larger plateau. I am already leaning forward to compensate for the extreme weight of my pack.
After a few hundred metres, we reach the foot of the incline and stop behind some bushes to listen and observe. The others arrive and we nod to René. He immediately understands that this is where Mikkel and I will stash our “ticks” and return for the water packs. We walk back to the landing zone, locate the packs, heave them on to our shoulders and return to the team. Then we repeat the procedure, hide the water packs and continue our trek to the observation post.
I am already drenched in sweat. This is going to be a long, hard night.
It’s going to be hard as hell, because it’s uphill from here – abruptly uphill. Climbing with just leg power is impossible. I am forced to lock my weapon and leave it dangling from my shoulder strap to free my arms and enable me to pull the combined 165 kilograms of the pack and myself. I find footholds one boot at a time and mobilise all the strength in every fibre of my legs. My thin pilot gloves are already torn to bits by the sharp rock.
I look down the side of the mountain. To lose your balance here would result in certain death. This is beyond my wildest fantasies. Memories of the Jaeger Corps selection process race through my mind – pain, fear, insecurity and the taste of blood in my mouth. The thin mountain air is affecting me severely now as well. We have only just begun but already I am reaching the limit of my physical abilities. The Jaeger selection hell makes a lot of sense to me now. Working through the pain and carrying on even though the body is screaming no.
I stop for a moment for a drink of water. A few small stones trickle down past me from above. I freeze and hold my breath. The stones fell from above Mikkel. I lean against the cliff, get my weapon ready and attempt to look up. Is it the enemy? An animal? Nature’s whims?
If we are ambushed here our options are limited. We are stuck on a rock face. An enemy would have an unbeatable advantage. I turn my head and see the rest of the team about 10 metres below me. Their weapons are pointing up. I listen but can hear only my hollow and rapid pulse. Mikkel continues and I start climbing again. Come on, get your fat ass up this mountain.
Another few metres on, we reach a rock platform. “This is fucking insane,” Mikkel gasps. “Yes,” I mumble, “but we can comfort ourselves with the fact that we have a couple of water packs to climb back down and pick up.”
The night is progressing much too fast for comfort. It is crucial that we reach our post before dawn. Proceeding in daylight is out of the question. If we do not reach our destination before the sun begins to rise, the only option is to seek out a dark place like a hole or a cave, and stay put until darkness reappears.
We reach the top of yet another knoll and are about halfway there now. Mikkel waves me forward. From behind a rock, we are looking at the exact thing we do not want to see up here: the outline of a small building about 50 metres ahead. Our maps and intelligence show no sign of buildings in the vicinity of our route. This is very bad news. Buildings mean people. I relay the bad news to René, who emits an angry grunt.
“We have to investigate that building,” he says. “It’s too close to our observation post. We have to know if it is occupied. Mikkel, Thomas, get up there and check it out. We will cover you from here. Go.”
Mikkel and I discard our “ticks” and move toward the building in an arc to avoid the firing line of our cover. It’s a clay hut, six to eight metres wide, with a flat roof. Our weapons are unlatched and pointing towards the closed wooden door. I move slowly on the left-hand side of Mikkel. I am left-handed and lead my weapon from my left shoulder.
We reach the door. It has no handle but we quickly locate the hinges and stand on the opposite side so Mikkel can push or pull it open. Without a sound, he places a hand on the door. We exchange nods and he pushes open the door. We jump into the hut and activate the infrared light on our weapons.
No people, just an empty room with a small window, a mattress with a blanket and a small bowl and a glass beside it on the floor. Local shepherds probably use it to sleep and eat in. Shit. This whole area is full of shepherds, sheep and goats. We shut the door and return to the group.
Daylight will arrive in less than an hour and we are about 100 metres from our destined observation post. The five of us are lying flat in a small circle behind some rocks trying to catch our breath and regain some energy after what is turning out to be the infiltration of our lives.
“Okay, listen up,” René whispers. “Mikkel and I will go ahead and check out the conditions. We will be back in an hour. If not, you know the plan.”
As they leave René turns to me with a big grin on his face and asks: “Are you cool, granddad?”
We are actually about the same age, but he enjoys calling me granddad.
“Piss off,” I laugh.
They depart and the rest of us relish a welcome break. The air is completely still. Not a sound. The sky to the east is brightening. Henrik taps me on the shoulder and offers half a chocolate bar, a Raider.
“You are doing well. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” he says, subdued.
“Eight years,” I reply. “My body has no idea what the fuck is happening,” I add, and devour the chocolate.
The knee of my uniform is torn and I am massaging my knees, which are sore and bloody after continuous knocking and scraping against sharp rocks throughout the night.
René and Mikkel’s silhouettes appear after about an hour. They kneel like two sacks of potatoes, looking anguished and exhausted.
“We are in deep shit here,” René whispers. “We have found only one place from where we can see the target unobstructed. It’s difficult to look back into the base from there. But it’s our only option. It will have to make do. It is a small ledge, just big enough for an observation post and somewhere to sleep. Questions?”
We know Mikkel and René have done their utmost and chosen the best option under the circumstances. No questions. The break has stiffened our muscles and joints. I notice Peter groaning and battling to sit up. His beard is dripping with water and he is bent over with his hands in his lap, looking like an old grumpy bear. Had I not known better I would guess his age to be somewhere between 70 and 80 years old. But I am too tired to laugh. I am in a hurry. The first light has arrived and a bird can be heard chirping. The base needs to be secured quickly and that is my job.
I secure the entrance to our base with a couple of Claymore grenades, containing 800 small steel bullets each. I cautiously push the detonators into place on top of the grenades. To camouflage the grenades I dig some twigs well into the ground in front of them. If the twig blows away in the wind, the grenade will be visible and our presence compromised. Then I scratch a groove in the hard surface, place the detonation lead in it and cover it with dirt. Now the release mechanism just needs to be connected.
The small opening in the rocks where the grenades are set up is the only way into the base. Due to the way the rocks are shaped, the first grenade can only hit an unwanted guest once he has moved a couple of metres through the opening. That’s far from ideal as we would like an intruding threat eliminated immediately.
Another problem is that we cannot see the other side of the opening where there is an almost vertical drop of a couple of hundred metres, after which the terrain flattens into a valley with small settlements towards the north and the west. To have a full overview in that direction we need a man right out on the edge, but he would be visible. This is a real weakness of the position and makes us vulnerable.
Our target is to the south. The terrain drops away vertically from our base in that direction. The only exception is a small crevice in the rock, which follows the slope of the mountain as it drops away below. It is our only alternative way out.
The observation post, where we will take turns keeping the targets under watch, is dangerous in itself. I have observed from a wide variety of places – holes in the ground, bushes, lofts, and in dark pine forests – but never from a post like the one Mikkel has prepared.
Moving with baby steps, I cover the five metres from our base to the observation post, which is less than 30 centimetres wide and only just big enough to allow you to lean back against the rock face. One wrong step will send you hurtling into the abyss.
Mikkel has camouflaged the observation post with a piece of fine netting called Bow Flash, which blends perfectly into the mountain. He has laid out all the essential tools: the powerful Swarovski binoculars, cameras, tripods, a log book and a map of the entire area with every crucial focus point and object in the terrain. Mikkel gives me detailed instructions, shows me the village a kilometre to the south, and points out all the roads and tracks al-Qaida and the Taliban use.
Mikkel takes the first watch himself and I return to the base. I have an hour and 10 minutes before taking over the watch. I should eat but I am too tired. I just drink half a litre of water and collapse in my sweat-drenched uniform, still holding my weapon, and slip into a deep sleep.
Normally I am a light sleeper and react promptly to the slightest sound. But my physical exhaustion has sent me into a strange, deep sleep where fragments of colour, sound, smell, faces and moments are dug from the farthest reaches of my sub consciousness and explode in glimpses for my inner eye. I am in a distant place and pretty confused when Mikkel grabs me by the shoulder.
“Thomas, it’s your watch. Are you awake?” I sit up with a start and stare absentmindedly at him. “Yes, I am awake. Give me a minute and I will be there .” My voice is hoarse and snuffling and I doubt that Mikkel understands what I am saying. But he turns away and crawls back out to the post. I put on my vest, pack my sleeping pad away, check that my pack is ready and check my weapon. I have managed to shake off the sleep and am ready to go. An hour’s sleep has made a world of difference.
I wave Mikkel in from the ledge. He states that there has been no activity in the village or on the tracks and roads. I sit on the small piece of sleeping pad at the observation post and study the area for a long time through the Swarovski binoculars.
The village beneath me consists of 14-15 single plan houses, all made of clay and enclosed behind the concrete walls that nearly all Afghani homes have. Afghani men tend to shield their wives and children from the outside world, not wishing for people outside of the family to even see them. A gravel road leads through the village and an approximately five-metre wide river weaves through the fields west of the settlement. At this time of year, a lot of melt water runs off the mountains through the river and the small irrigation canals, giving life to the cultivated areas around the village.
The time is 8.30 am and, strangely, no one is working in the fields. The only sign of life is a herd of goats, bound to a tree in the western part of the village. Mountains tower up on the Pakistani side of the border to the south. A myriad of valleys run up through and into them. At the bottom of the valleys furthest to the east, gravel tracks and roads used by al-Qaida and the Taliban at night run parallel with small creeks.
I search for anything that stands out from what you can expect to see in an Afghani village. I have been in many of them and have a good impression of what they ought not to contain. For example antennas, satellite dishes and phones, Toyota pick-up trucks with metal stands designed to carry weapons on the back, donkeys carrying excessive loads and groups of armed, young men moving in and out of buildings.
Just after 9 am two men step out of one of the bigger buildings in the village. They are dressed in loose, brown robes and walk slowly to the small grove of trees where the goats are tied up. They sit in the shade up against a tree and start talking. I note it in the log book. It is the only activity on this watch.
On return to our tiny base, I find myself astounded by the guys in my team yet again. They have made the base almost melt into the surroundings. Sandy camouflage nets padded with branches have been tied in a soft arc over the small area. They have even placed stones around the edge of the net to avoid shadows between the net and the ground.
It is time to revitalise my battle strength. This is a military expression, which means taking care of oneself. Eat, sleep and clean. I put on dry socks and place the wet, sweaty ones to dry on my shoulders under the T-shirt. It is an old Jaeger trick, and even if it does not feel that great, it is where the socks dry best. Changing our socks is the only time we are allowed to remove our boots, one at a time.
There are many safety precautions at the base. At no time do you stand up. All unnecessary activity must be avoided. No superficial communication. Speak only the operation. Gear must not be left lying around. When you finish using something, pack it away straight away. All rubbish, even the smallest piece of paper or food scrap, must be put in a designated bag, which each carries in his pack. Always pee in the same place, a crevice in the rock, and when you need to “go big”, you do it in a bag and put it in another bag in your pack.
I heat some water, prepare and eat my ration of freeze-dried American chicken and rice. Then I brush my teeth, swallowing all the toothpaste before finally washing my private parts. I put all the garbage in a bag in my pack and close it. There is no need to camouflage my face since it is daylight. Our pale faces only need concealing at night.
Sated and clean, I get comfortable on my bedroll, rest my head on my vest and pull out the waterproof map from my pocket. Once more I study our location and the surrounding terrain. The four or five houses a couple of kilometres to the north worry me. Most of all, I am concerned because they are not on the map. What more is missing from the map? I memorise our meeting points once again, put the map in my pocket and close my eyes in the morning sun.
It is dark and I am halfway through my watch on the fifth or sixth night. Our routines have become second-nature and time is meandering along like a lazy stream. The body has gone into hibernation. It feels like a dead weight after the many days without physical activity. Just moving seems an insurmountable task. I stink and am covered in a thin layer of greasy dust. The temperature is reaching 30 degrees Celsius in the shade and the daily water ration of five litres is not enough. My urine is dark yellow, a telltale sign of dehydration, and I have a constant headache. I am also bitterly regretting wearing my warm Gore-Tex boots. When I changed my socks today, both feet were like sponges in desperate need of air. At least they are not hurting. It could be a lot worse.
What is bad though, is the dangerous illusion of safety sneaking up on us. It’s a feeling that nothing is going to happen, of security, and must be combated constantly. Slacking off on discipline and routines equates to endangering yourself and the team. No matter how safe the situation seems, no matter how well you think you know the area, you must maintain your concentration. Al-Qaida and Taliban are right around the corner, right at the bottom of the mountain, in a village just over a kilometre from here.
I look through the thermal binoculars. The ticking sound its cooler makes irritates me. It sounds so loud to me that I fear it can be heard for miles, even though I know it is not possible. Adjusting the zoom, I scan the village, the roads and tracks for activity in the same horizontal pattern as I have done hundreds of times before. Rain drops fall on me. Now I have experienced that too – rain in Afghanistan. But I have no time to dwell on it. I freeze at what I see through the binoculars.
A group of men are walking along a trail from one of the valleys south of the village. I count 12 men, all armed with Kalashnikovs. They are moving slowly, stopping occasionally, and not using torches or any lighting. They hold their weapons in a relaxed manner, which suggests they are experienced soldiers. One of them at the back of the group, who is much taller than the rest and has his weapon slung over his shoulder, appears less vigilant than the others. I am guessing he is the group’s leader. I take pictures with the digital camera and check the time. 2.43 am. The group is clearly on its way across the border from Pakistan. They do not look like shepherds on their way home from work. They continue to the village and turn off behind some buildings, where I can no longer follow them. The rain is getting heavier and my uniform is saturated, but I do not care. I am thrilled with my observations. The long days of observation and waiting have finally been vindicated. There are armed Taliban or al-Qaida forces in the area. It appears we are on the way to completing our task.
I grapple with the camera equipment, and prepare pictures and text for Henrik to send home.
Nothing more happens that night, apart from a scorpion falling out of my sleeping bag. Since that happened, I never fail to shake my sleeping bag, clothes and boots before using them.
In the days after first sighting the armed men, there is more activity in the village. Groups of armed men are moving in the terrain at night. There is movement in and out of buildings. We radio these details to KAF. We also report the work routines in the fields, the number of women, men and children in the village, the estimated thickness of the concrete walls around the buildings, and send sketches of the village.
We keep observing and await a message of what will happen to this village. Calling in a couple of F-16s to drop four one-tonne bombs on it would be the easiest thing to do. But obviously, that is not an acceptable solution. Innocent women, men and children that have nothing to do with the Taliban or al-Qaida could be killed. A better solution would be a direct attack with Special Force units from our Task Force. But that would require extensive preparation and a lot of resources. Besides, there are no indications that such a course is going to be chosen.
It is morning and I have just eaten my favourite breakfast – porridge with strawberry flavouring. I am on my way out to the observation post, when my heart virtually stops. Less than 10 metres from me, two men carrying Kalashnikovs are sneaking towards our base. They clearly cannot quite fathom what they are seeing, squinting in the morning sun. This is their territory, their backyard, and something looks not quite right. One of them is clutching his weapon as if he is determined to use it. I have my weapon ready and raise it in slow-motion to point it at them. Using my thumb, I remove the safety catch silently. I am ready to do battle.
In my peripheral vision, I can see René and Henrik positioning themselves, their weapons cocked and ready. Without the camouflage netting, the two bearded men would have seen us already. Their clothes are ragged and their leather boots worn. One of them has black cloth wrapped around his head. Typical Taliban. Mikkel reaches for the release mechanism for the grenades placed at the entrance. Another metre and the first grenade will hit the first of the two would-be intruders. They each take one more cautious step, prompting Henrik to unlatch his weapon. At the sound of the faint metallic click, they stiffen. In an instant they turn and dash off.
“Fuck!” René yells. “Get them.”
Mikkel and Henrik leap out from under the netting and pursue the men.
“Peter, Thomas, pack up. Now!” René orders.
The observation post and base must be broken down urgently. I throw all the vital equipment from the post into a bag, scramble back to the base and make sure my pack is ready. I ignore the camouflage netting. It’s irrelevant, since we have been uncovered. Besides, it weighs too much. Weight is paramount when fleeing the enemy.
My heart is throbbing. I throw Mikkel and Henrik’s half-eaten breakfast into their packs and close them. In a minute we are ready to flee.
René runs out through the opening in the rocks. I follow him since Peter is watching the village, which must under no circumstances be let out of sight, even if it is in the opposite direction of where our problem is. Mikkel and Henrik are lying flat on a ledge. René throws himself down beside them
“Where are those assholes?” he hisses.
“We have no visual on them. They must be flying head over heels down the cliff. It is the only way down. Do you think they were shepherds?” Henrik asks in a hoarse voice.
“Shepherds! What the fuck would someone bring their sheep and goats up here for? If they are shepherds, my ass is a jet-ski,” René snaps. There is a hint of a smile on his face.
“There they are,” Mikkel exclaims “They are whipping down towards the village.”
How they got down so quickly, is beyond me. But there they are, sprinting towards a small cluster of buildings situated at the highest point in the valley. I take out my small Zeiss binoculars. The middle house has a small tower with three or four masts with colourful flags jutting up. I scan to the west through the valley with the binoculars and spot another batch of houses on top of a hill. A tower there has hoisted similar flags.
“René, I will contact KAF,” Henrik says, before sliding backwards from his position and inching back to the opening of the base.
“Yes, call KAF and report that we have been compromised. Tell them to prepare to dispatch a QRF.”
A Quick Reaction Force is a unit on standby to help in emergencies such as this. And René wants them activated. To be picked up by the Chinook before dark is not an option. It is just too dangerous to fly during the day. We can call in jet fighters and direct them via radio to bomb the enemy. We can also flee. But in full daylight deep in enemy territory, that’s almost a guarantee of capture and macabre death. We may be forced to flee, nonetheless, if we get caught up and pressured into a firefight.
I look at my watch. 9.54 am. This is not good. Eight hours until it gets dark. In the daylight, our only advantage is that the base is situated at such a high altitude, making it difficult to reach for our enemies. But that’s it as far as advantages go. We are five men, 400 kilometres from home, with a feeble amount of firepower. We each have our 5.56 mm C8 carbines and a few hand grenades. We also have Peter’s 40 mm grenade launcher. But we have not even got a machine gun. And we are up against an enemy, which in the space of a few hours can mobilise hundreds of rabid warriors with machine guns and mortars.
A QRF may take several hours to reach us. It might even be too late by that stage. Despite that, we delay calling for a QRF and decide to wait at the base. Mikkel and I observe the group of men in front of the house with the flags. All of them are armed with Kalashnikovs. The two men, who discovered our base and fled, are standing in the middle of the group. They are presumably describing what they experienced up on the mountain, eagerly gesturing and pointing in our direction. One of the men leaves and enters a house. Another one hurries into the house next door, returning a few seconds later and handing an item to the person who looks to be their leader. He speaks into the item. Damn it. It’s a radio.
At 11.48 am Henrik receives a signal from KAF on the radio. Our QRF with 30 armed soldiers from the American 10th Mountain Division is on standby at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. From the moment we mobilise them, it will take two hours to reach our area.
René grunts and mumbles something, which is definitely not an expression of his satisfaction.
Henrik has already tuned the radio frequency to the coalition’s flying commando centre, AWACS, which is a large aircraft managing and delegating all aerial support for the forces on the ground. René now wants Henrik to set the radio to the fighter jet frequency. René is the only one in our team authorised to call in low-flying fighter jets and direct them to hit targets on the ground.
At 12.32 Peter delivers a disturbing message. New flags in different colours and sizes are being raised on the masts. Soon after, the same occurs at the house further to the west. Apparently, this is how communication works between the valleys with the handheld radios unable to reach across the mountains.
The hectic activity continues. I can now count 10-12 bearded men who look like soldiers preparing for battle. The situation is coming to a head and René decides it is time for a greeting from the air. First up, it will be just a show of strength so that the Taliban know that, on instruction, the pilot can drop a thousand pound precision-guided bomb. René grabs the radio and makes the call.
At 12.48, René hands the radio back to Henrik. He is furious. The fuckwits in the AWACS-craft say there are no fighter jets available. We can try again later, they say. Here we are, stuck in the mountains, asking for help, and then the resources are lacking. Nobody says anything. The mood is tense. The severity of the situation is etched on our worn-out faces and tired, bloodshot eyes.
At 2.10 pm, we still have not asked for our QRF. René judges that it is not yet necessary. Why have the Taliban fighters down there not attacked us yet? Maybe they think there are more of us up here. Perhaps they are waiting for reinforcements?
At 2.41 pm, we obtain a message from KAF, which unleashes a torrent of verbal abuse from our side. Our people at KAF have come up with the outrageous idea that, after dark, we should pack up, move six kilometres to a new base and resume our observation of the village. Have they failed to grasp the magnitude of the situation? Some paper-shuffler, who probably never leaves his office, has conjured up this monster of a plan, while sitting on his fat ass sipping chilled water from a bottle.
Notwithstanding our reports that al-Qaida and Taliban with near-certainty are mobilising forces to hunt us down, we are expected to further penetrate this terrain, which is thick with enemy activity. To top it off, the six kilometres are in a straight line from here. We would end up covering about 10 kilometres. Assuming that we can find a new base without having studied maps or made any preparations is just ridiculous. I am not sure who I fear the most right now – al-Qaida or this madman from my own unit?
René blankly rejects the instruction and explains with painstaking diplomacy that he is better placed to make an informed decision.
At 3.53 pm we are informed that there is still no fighter jet support available, but that the Chinook will come and get us at 7 pm. With some skill and a bit of luck we will be sitting in the helicopter in three hours.
“Give me the Swarovski,” Peter demands, turning to me with a strained look. “I can’t quite see it through my Zeiss but I think they have reinforcements on the way.”
My heart skips a couple of beats and I quickly fish the bigger binoculars from my pack. Peter points them north-east.
“Shit,” he mumbles.
The light is weakening and it is difficult to get a clear picture over such a distance but there are definitely 20-25 men moving towards the building with the flags. That’s in our direction. It sends a chill down my spine. This is why they waited. They were too few to launch an offensive. And they know it’s urgent. They know we will not be staying up here much longer, that we will be either picked up or receive reinforcements soon. The next hour is crucial. René makes a decision.
“We’re out of here. It looks like they mean business. We have an hour before pick-up – half an hour to get to the landing zone, half an hour to keep it under observation. Any questions?”
No questions. “Then let’s get home and eat some steak,” he laughs. We camouflage our faces, check our weapons and equipment, and make sure we have all the vital bits and pieces from the base. Henrik picks up one last message and reports triumphantly that we have been assigned a gun ship. Five sickly grins gleam on our blackened faces. At last we are getting what we have asked for. An AC-130 “Spooky” Gunship in an hour. The specially built C-130 Hercules is ready to back us up with its enormous firepower including 25 mm Gatling machine canons, a 40 mm canon and a 105 mm howitzer. All we need to do is point our lasers in the direction of the enemy, and they will be obliterated.
My pack feels heavier than ever on the trip down the mountain. I am dripping with sweat and feel weak because I have lost several kilograms of muscle mass after all this time of inactivity. My strength suddenly revives as I hear the most beautiful sound: the deep rumbling of the AC-130’s four motors. The aircraft is circling three kilometres above us. Our situation now feels a lot safer. Henrik’s soft but excited voice confirms our position. He informs the crew that we need their help.
“Our pleasure, gentlemen.”
About 200 metres before reaching the landing zone, we stop. If the enemy detects us at the landing zone, the Chinook will not land. Then we would be in deep shit. But darkness has settled in and the zone looks safe, so we continue. We stop about halfway up the hill and hide in some bushes 20 metres from the top, where the Chinook will land. I glance impatiently at my watch. 6.56 pm.
“Yes, I have him on the radio. One minute,” Henrik whispers, so loud that it makes us jump. Right, let’s do it. I bring myself up to a kneeling position and flick on my night goggles. A powerful light-beam illuminates the whole landing zone. I am stunned. The AC-130 is using its infrared projector to help the helicopter pilot locate the exact position.
I can now hear the faint and comforting sound of the Chinook’s double set of blades. We activate the small infrared strobes on our helmets and crawl up to the top of the hill. My stomach churns. I am more nervous than I have been at any point during the operation. If anything goes wrong now, it goes terribly wrong.
As if out of nothing, the Chinook appears, roaring and loud. It approaches at great speed, bucks like a horse to slow down, and transforms the hilltop into a cloud of dirt and sand. The pilot swings the side of the hull toward the hilltop and reverses in until the loading ramp almost touches the ground. Small bits of rocks are getting sucked up and hitting the blades, creating a flurry of sparks. The load master blinks an infrared light, signalling for us to board.
I can only glimpse the ramp and can hardly stay upright in the harsh turbulence the blades are creating. Stones are flying around, hitting and stinging my face like needles. I fall and land on my knee. I feel like I am going to black out but it is of no consequence. Nothing can stop me now. I throw myself on the row of seats with a heart that has never before thumped so hard. I feel a vague sensation of having been rescued but I do not feel fully secure until, after some time in the air, the Chinook refuels its almost empty tank from a KC-130R aerial tanker. Not before the KC-130R leaves and I know we have enough fuel to get home, do I feel safe. It’s a relief like nothing I have experienced. I want to shut my eyes and go to sleep. But I refrain. We are not home yet.
A Jaeger never sleeps before he is home.