An excerpt from my memoir, “Murphy’s Law“:
Things took on a new level of cool when Little Bird helicopters showed up at our FOB one night. We were going to have one night of training for an aerial platform support mission, then, during the next period of darkness, we were going hot for a high-value target strike against a Taliban leader. Remember, I was a 21-year-old Ranger. I was living out every Special Operations dude’s dreams. In the past, this was stuff that probably only seasoned Delta Force operators got to do. Since 9/11, things had changed. Everyone was expected to step up to the mission before them.
Since I had never fired a sniper rifle, or any weapon, from a helicopter, I asked Joe if he could give me a little class on how to go about it. Joe was a sniper god, as far as I was concerned, and knew his precision marksmanship forward and back. He was a shorter guy with sandy-colored hair and a long red beard, which was why we would joke that he looked Chechen. In conversation, I learned that he had grown up all over the world and had a pretty rough upbringing prior to joining the Army. Joe was a tough customer, and this definitely wasn’t his first rodeo.
“It’s simple,” Joe replied. “You know how you have to lead a moving target?”
When you fire a bullet at long range, depending on the range and the type of bullet, it could take a second or a second-and-a-half before your bullet impacts its target. This is called time of flight. When you are shooting at a moving target, you need to lead him — that is, fire in front of where he is when you pull the trigger, so that he walks into the bullet by the time it arrives at his location. You are shooting where your target will be rather than where he is.
“So, it is just the opposite: You are the moving target, because you are on a helicopter,” Joe replied matter-of-factly. “So you just use a reverse lead and fire behind the target.”
Eventually, I got up to speed on how to snap-link myself to the exterior pod on the Little Bird so I didn’t fall off (that’s important), how to snap-link my SR-25 to myself so I didn’t lose it in flight (that is also important), and how to fire at enemy combatants. The safety aspect isn’t a joke. One time a Little Bird landed on an incline. The Delta operator on the pod got off and moved out, not realizing that the pitch of the rotors was tilted due to the incline. The rotor blades took off the top of his head. His teammates found the top of his helmet with the top of his skull inside it, sheared off in a perfect straight line.
It was actually pretty straightforward. I would straddle the pod as if I were riding a horse, John Wayne-style. The SR would just lay in my lap, and I would use my infrared laser — which I could see with my PVS-14 night vision goggles — to shoot any bad guys. At night, the pilots walked us through a familiarization of their aircraft before we got started. The Little Bird is like a little black egg of death, one that can deliver troops on target or be specially outfitted with machine guns and rocket pods.
Targets were set up on a nearby range for us that night. We snapped into the pod on the Little Bird, gave the pilots a thumbs-up, and lifted off. So, do you think riding outside a helicopter in flight, during the night, under night vision, and shooting guns from it sounds cool? Well, I won’t lie to you. It fucking is. Joe and I lit up some targets that night as the Little Birds took us overhead on several passes. The SR would chirp in my lap as I oriented the IR laser onto the targets and squeezed the trigger again and again. Then the pilot would bank and peel off, with me suddenly looking straight down at the ground below.
The following night, we were waiting around for the green light for our mission, and I got to talking to the pilot. He seemed like a super-cool dude. He told me that this was his last combat operation before he went home to run the flight simulator and train new pilots. Needless to say, he was hoping to go out with a bang and really wanted the assault force from Charlie Company to get their man. Before long, word came down from higher up. Charlie Company had launched its ground assault force in Humvees.
We waited back at the FOB, timing our departure so that the air and ground elements would arrive on target at the same time. These dudes definitely knew what they were doing. If you read about the history of Special Operations Forces, you will notice the 160th was created after the Desert One debacle in Iran. In 1980, the newly established Delta Force was tasked to rescue American hostages held in Iran, but the mission was a failure, largely due to conventional helicopters being used; America simply did not have a Special Operations aviation capability back then. Afterward, this very special helicopter unit was formed to undertake the most dangerous missions in the most adverse conditions.
After an hour or so, the pilots cranked their engines and we lifted off. It was winter in Afghanistan, and I had come prepared. I wore a heavy Columbia winter jacket over my plate carrier. Under that I had on more snivel gear, because I was expecting to be turned into an icicle on the side of this Little Bird. I was excited and ready to roll. Once the pilot brought his helicopter around and nosed us in the proper direction, he hauled ass. I was John Wayning it on the pod, which became an endurance event for my abs due to the wind pushing me backward. We blasted over mountains, dusty dirt roads, valleys, and walled compounds that looked empty aside from the faint traces of light that you could see only under night vision.
After about half an hour of flying, we arrived at the target compound just as Charlie Company was pulling up. The Ranger assault force departed their vehicles and prepared to make entry. We hovered overhead, watching for “squirters,” or bad guys trying to run away. The 160th pilots spotted someone on the compound trying to walk out and decided to keep the pressure on them, you know, give them a little something to think about instead of escaping. Through my night vision optics, I watched the Little Bird that Joe was on do a dive-bomber run on the compound. The pilot expertly dove right into the center of the compound before pulling up at the last second, stirring up a blast of rotor wash inside the compound walls before disappearing back into the darkness of the night.
Charlie Company made entry, and before long they radioed a code word: “Jackpot.” It meant that they had secured the Taliban leader we were after.
“Yeah!” the pilot exclaimed in my headset.
Read the rest of the story in my memoir, “Murphy’s Law,” available in bookstores, on Amazon, and as a audio book.