On Christmas Day 2001, we went out on our first patrol in Afghanistan. We spent all afternoon packing our gear and were ready for anything. We had the Mark 41 automatic grenade gun, which launches a series of mic-mic (40 mm) grenades. It’s like shooting a machine gun, only instead of bullets, you’re firing a string of grenades. We had rocket launchers and LAW rockets strapped all over our vehicles, as well as a .50 cal and an M60 machine gun. Our comm antenna was hooked up so our comms guys could link into satellite, and we were all outfitted with night-vision gear. We were, in other words, loaded for bear.

The environment was not the sand desert of Kuwait but a rough, high desert terrain. Just outside Kandahar, it was more plains than mountainous, the largely flat area far more manageable for our vehicles than what we would experience later on, farther up north. We had two EOD guys with us, Brad and Steve, as well as our new Air Force CCTs, another Brad and Eric, who were solid, mature guys and fit in right away. Chief Dye had clearly made the right move firing the younger pair back in Oman.

On the ride out we didn’t encounter anyone, but the journey was a little hairy nevertheless because we kept seeing red rocks everywhere, which we assumed signified mines, or at least the possibility of mines. We’d stop, our EOD team would dismount and scope everything out, then they’d get back in the vehicle and we’d keep moving forward. Progress was slow and tense.

We had set out in the early evening, maybe 2000 hours (8:00 P.M.). After six or seven hours of this halting progress, we’d hit all our checkpoints and hadn’t seen anything worth noting. By now it was two or three in the morning, time to lay up for the night and get a few hours’ sleep. We had just come to a river and were looking for a good spot to cross. On the other side, we could see a series of massive, beautiful, dark red sand dunes that rolled on for miles. They were gorgeous, like something you’d see in an epic film. 

Right in the midst of the dunes, I noticed a small cluster of trees. I was in Lt. Chris Cassidy’s vehicle (now a Navy SEAL Astronaut), and I saw that he was focusing on this cluster of trees, too. Alarm bells went off quietly in my head. This was something we’d been taught in sniper school: It’s human nature to gravitate to an object of note in an otherwise featureless stretch of landscape. If you’re looking at a wide-open stretch of beach, for example, and you see a cluster of rocks and not much else, you’ll automatically gravitate to those rocks. That was exactly what was happening with Cassidy and that little cluster of trees nestled into the endless stretch of sand dunes.

As snipers, we were taught two things about this. First, it’s a natural tendency to be drawn to that unique feature. Second, fight it! Do not give in to the obvious. Not only do you not want to be predictable to the enemy, but you also don’t want to be accidentally compromised. If you are drawn to that landscape feature, other people will be, too — and those other people might be there right now. Or they might be drawn there once you’re settled in and starting to relax.

I sidled over to Cassidy and said, “Hey, LT, that’s not a very good option. No doubt other people have been there and will use that place to hole up. We’d be better off going out into the open, setting up our own camouflage netting, and camping out on the sand dunes.”

He fought me on it. “No,” he said, “we’ll go own that area. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s no good reason to think that there’d be anyone else holed up there.”