In preparation for the mission that night, we each had our specific tasks. Doug and Jackie’s job was to tape up all the vehicle lights before we left. There were two reasons for this. First, obviously, was to dark out the vehicle so the enemy couldn’t see it. If anyone who happened to be close enough would be able to hear the vehicle, but without any lights showing we’d be invisible, so they wouldn’t be able to place us or even know for sure who was driving it. (This was, after all, a vehicle we’d taken from some of their guys.) The second reason was equally important, and that had to do with our ability to see what we were doing. Night vision is so sensitive that any significant source of light renders it useless. Even a vehicle navigation light will flood you with too much illumination and make you as good as blind.

At 2:30 the next morning we were ready, present, and accounted for, our gear assembled and tied in tight. The six of us loaded up our vehicle and climbed in. We were already buzzing with anticipation. This would be a dangerous mission; inserting smack into the midst of armed enemies of unknown number and location is always a relatively freaky thing to do. We had no way of knowing how many hostiles we might encounter, or where, but we were as ready as we’d ever be, and itching to go round up all the intel we could.

Doug switched on the ignition — and all the dash lights came on. 

No one had taped them up. 

“Jesus,” I muttered.  Dan leaned over into the front seat and glared at Doug. “Doug, dude, what the fuck?”

“Damn,” said Doug. “I thought I told Jackie to tape them up.” In the next seat over, Jackie responded with a look that said, Hey, don’t lay it on me.

I was furious. This had been their one and only job: tape up the damn lights. It was a mission-critical task. Doug was in charge of making sure this happened — and it didn’t.

We clambered out of the vehicle and tried to make a quick job of it, but it was too late. Timing was critical. The sun would be up by five or earlier, and if we were going to do this at all, we had to be out there before then. The marines were waiting on us, because they’d be taking off a few minutes after we did to create a staggered insert (SOP). We couldn’t hold things up. We had to make the call: Go now, or cancel the mission. I did not want to make that insert with our lights on, but there was a lot riding on this mission: We needed that intel. “Fuck it,” we said, “let’s go.”

We tried driving with our night vision, but it was hopeless; the dash lights made it impossible, as we’d known they would. So of all ridiculous things, we now had to drive out there with our headlights on, meaning we could be seen from miles away. Halloooo, Taliban, anyone out there? Here we are! Doug drove up the valley while Dan and I did our best to get our rage under control. 

We reached our insert point at the northern end of the valley, and the four of us rolled out of the backseats. Doug turned the vehicle around and headed back the way we’d come. We took cover and sat like statues, watching the lights slowly disappear.

The rule of thumb for an insert like this is that once you’re dropped off, you immediately rally up in a small perimeter behind cover and then spend your first few minutes motionless and silent, doing nothing but sitting, waiting, watching, and listening. We sat motionless and silent for about fifteen minutes, waiting, watching, listening. We saw and heard nothing. 

After a few minutes, we proceeded to make our way up the mountainside as silent as the snow, heading for high ground. We stopped about an hour later when we’d gotten about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, reaching what we call military crest.

This was something we’d all learned way back in Third Phase of BUD/S, in the land nav training. Gaining high ground is one of the most basic tactical advantages known to every military force in history. High ground gives you a better view of your field of engagement, and if you should become embroiled in any direct action it’s a lot easier to fight downhill than it is to go up against someone who is above you looking down. On the other hand, you don’t want to take position at the very peak of your terrain, called skylining, because there you’re more exposed. 

Once we reached the ideal elevation (probably at something like 9,000 feet) and found an appropriate hide site, we clipped on some veg and dug into the mountain’s flank. We had all three of the conditions we wanted: good concealment, solid cover from potential gunfire, and good eyes on our sector.

Just then the sun started coming up. We called over to the marines on the radio. “ECHO-1,” they said, “we’re not set. We ran into a little problem on our way out. We’re not exactly sure what to do here, over.” 

“Roger that,” we said, “we’ll be right there.”

Dan and I left Mark and Patrick there and headed back down the mountain to where the marines had stopped. When we reached them we could see that they’d been scared shitless. They described what had happened.

The marines’ team had gotten a late start, and by the time they reached their insertion point, it was already near sunup. On their way up the mountain to their surveillance location, they had stumbled across a cluster of heavily armed Afghans in rough fighting position. Despite their arms, these characters were disheveled and disorganized; it looked like they’d just woken up and the marines had startled them. Evidently, these Taliban guys hadn’t realized that the shock and surprise were mutual. They dropped most of their guns and ran. The marines could not believe what they’d left behind: guns, rocket launchers, grenades, a frigging armory. After marking the location, they moved on and were just debating what to do when we called them.

Dan and I told them to go set up on the northwest mountainside according to plan, and we’d go check out the location they’d marked.

We started patrolling back toward the coordinates the marines had given us, which were in the general direction of our insert point. It was daylight by this time, so we had to go slow, using cover all along the way. It took us a while. We finally got to the spot, stopped, and looked around us.

There were rocks stacked up into a fighting position. Clearly, this place had been used before. From what we could see, there’d been five guys there. We found one bedroll with about four RPG (rocket-propelled grenades) wrapped in it, a bunch of Chinese hand grenades, a few Enfield bolt action rifles, a few AK-47s, and a bunch of other shit they’d left behind. There was a teapot on their little cookstove. The teapot was still hot.

After thoroughly checking out the site, we started looking around at the surrounding terrain and glanced down the hillside. We both saw it at the same time. 

It took an effort to keep my knees from buckling under me.

The spot we were staring at, maybe 150 yards downslope from this heavily armed campsite, was the precise location where we ourselves had inserted four hours earlier, fully lit up and headlights blaring. We had driven practically right into these guys. Our vehicle had to have woken them up when it drove by. There was no way they would not have heard that thing coming and seen its headlights. And they had the high ground. 

Dan and I stared at each other, both in full realization that it was a marvel we were alive. Because we had sat there in silence for fifteen minutes after rolling out of the truck, and had kept ourselves extremely quiet once we did get on the move, these guys had not seen us. If they had, we’d be dead men. No doubt about it.

We examined the campsite again and did our best to work out exactly what they’d been doing there. It clearly was not a makeshift or impromptu site, such as you’d set up if you were passing through and needed to hole up for just one night. It was a planned location, not 150 yards from a road they’d probably seen us traveling before. They were here to ambush us, plain and simple. They knew we were operating in this area and figured one of our daytime patrols would pass by again sooner or later. Only a matter of time. They had dug in a well-concealed fighting position on this hilltop and were waiting for us. They just hadn’t expected anyone to run into them in the middle of the night.

We worked out the sequence of what must have happened.

Our truck woke them out of a dead sleep at something like 3:00 A.M., then surprised them by turning around abruptly and leaving the area. They shook off their sleep, made some hot tea, and were in the process of setting up for the day—when a team of armed marines on foot stumbled into them. Murphy’s Law. 

We radioed back to base. Commander Smith happened to be monitoring the radio. We explained the situation and reported that we were sitting on a substantial cache of weapons, as well as a bunch of paperwork and field notes these guys had (incredibly) left behind. What did he want us to do?

“Just take the paperwork,” he said, “and leave the weapons there.”

Leave the weapons?! Why — so these guys could come back and shoot at us the next day? It made no sense. We signed off. Dan and I each took an AK-47 and brought it with us just to have as extra weapons, then carefully dismantled everything else. We hid the rockets, then destroyed the RPG launcher. It took us about an hour to get it all squared away, but there was no way we were leaving all that weaponry there for someone else to use.

After we’d sanitized the place, we made our way back to our hide site up on the northeast face, where we met up with Mark and Patrick and told them what had happened. We spent the day out there, but it was unsatisfying. We saw little, and there was not much to bring back in the way of intel. As much as we’d hoped to chart out the comings and goings of the bad guys we knew were all over the place, we weren’t able to see much.

We returned to camp at night a little frustrated — and angrier than ever at Doug. Dan and I wanted to kill him, and he was not happy about being dumped on. But this was the second time in two days that someone’s carelessness or laziness had nearly gotten me killed.