Saturday, July 11, 2009
Trip to Vegas
In any case, Vegas is pretty much its own little world, more cut off and isolated than any of the other positions. At Vimoto, we at least had the Marines and Army personnel at KOP to keep us company and vice versa. And all the FOBs along the Pech are easily accessible between each other. Vegas, with its Army platoon, two Marines, and ANA platoon, is kind of on it's own. Many of the patrols those guys do involve long, difficult, uphill hikes to not-so-nearby villages such as Chitrall. FB Vegas ostensibly provides some overwatch on the road leading into the Korengal. Given how infrequently the road is used anymore for supply trips, one might wonder what purpose Vegas is serving, other than providing another nice target for our enemy. Of course, to say that a base exists only to help with re-supply to another base would make it look like we exist out in the Korengal simply to exist. Bureaucratic-type behavior invading a warzone. And that is not the case now is it?
At any rate, we had a "tourist" come out to Blessing at one point not long ago. (From time to time, we have active-duty guys visit us (generally field grade officers and senior SNCOs) from somewhere in the rear. They make excuses to come out and embed with us in the hopes of getting to see some combat. I am not sure whether we really have a choice whether to accept them or not...they are often more trouble than they are worth, though occasionally the come in handy to help man our vehicles.)
This particular tourist was an older guy, but had some infantry experience in his background, so we sent him up to Vegas in the thought that he might be useful to them and help break up the monotony. He may have helped with the monotony, but he (not surprisingly) did not prove useful. On his first (and only) trip outside the wire, he promptly sprained his ankle, which necessitated the patrol being interrupted to bring him back. Had to be embarrassing for him, so maybe I should feel a little empathy, but frankly, these are the kinds of things that happen when people come out unprepared in the hopes of getting a Combat Action Ribbon (CAR), which is something everyone wants. That particular tourist apparently spent the next couple of days convalescing while waiting for the next round of helicopters to come out and pick him up, and from there went straight back to wherever he came from without us seeing him again...probably spared him some ignominy.
On the subject of CARs, I can recall another tourist pestering us about writing him up for one after our convoy that he was a part of heard a round go off nearby. I use that phrasing deliberately ("heard a round go off nearby"), because oftentimes when driving down the main road (Route Rhode Island) we "take fire". More often than not, these rounds rounds do not impact anywhere near us, but we can certainly tell they are shooting at us. Depending on the situation, we might just ignore the incident completely without returning fire if we can not establish where the shooter is with any reasonable degree of certainty...and furthermore, once we start shooting back, the Afghans will start shooting, which more often than not results in a loss of ammo with nothing to show for it. In my experience, it is just as well to move on if it is not a serious attack, because the shooter is generally well up the hillside, well dug in, and simply trying to harass and delay us. A platoon of Marines would probably go up the hillside and eliminate the shooter, but a platoon of Afghans...no. At any rate, we told that visitor that a few rounds going off nearby, without even response from anyone, certainly did not rate him a CAR.
I digress. My one and only trip out to Vegas was to deliver them their quota of NATO weapons, so they could commence weapons training. Delivering weapons is not so simple as putting them in a box and leaving it on the LZ for the cargo guys to deal with...no, they have to be hand carried, like othe sensitive material. Since the NATO weapons training fell under my responsiblity, I got the joy of carrying a load out there, though I managed to rope others in to help at times with the deliveries, as we took more than one load out to different bases out in the Korengal.
As mentioned above, the way to Vegas was via helicopter, so a trip out there involved a late night. Daytime helo trips ended when we had a bird shot down (which incidentally "landed" just outside FOB Vegas). Helicopters were fired on fairly frequently around Vegas, whether nighttime or daytime. In fact an older Russian supply helicopter that was used to bring the ANA food was shot down just before we started our deployment.
Being on those helicopters at night was never the most comfortable time for me, at least not after my innocence was lost in January when that 47 went down. Having no control over your fate when confronting a situation with a relatively high probability of mayhem is never fun. And further adding to the unease, little was done to help make these helicopter approaches much safer after the one went down. One has to understand, the 47's are large targets, and they aren't just tapping down and dropping off a load of spec ops guys and then departing. Out in the Korengal, the 47's are delivering supplies with every run, as well as people. Supplies in the Korengal means sling loads...underneath the aircraft. Those loads have to be released while the bird is hovering near the ground. This means extra time hovering, as well as a slower approach...and sometimes they have to pick up slings too, which means more time on the way out. All of this time is important when the nearby hillsides provide plenty of decent vantage points from which to take your shot.
Before the incident in January, the 47's would come out accompanied by Apaches in broad daylight. After January, the 47's only come out at night. But their arrival is preceded by Apaches buzzing around the area, using their thermal and night scopes to look for the enemy. They do quite often shoot rockets or gun rounds. Whether sending the Apaches out first is a good idea or not, I could not say. Perhaps the intention is to intimidate the enemy. I will say that an Apache doing its thing with rockets can be a startling way to be woken up. I can only imagine how startling it would be if they were shooting at you as you are alone and dug into the side of a hill, waiting to take your shot at a helicopter. With the available communications technology, surprise is probably out of the question anyway. Word gets out.
So yes, tactics did change, but nothing was done to make things "safer" in my opinion...primarily because the guys on the ground did nothing in particular to support the helicopters. Not only did the guys on the ground seem to progressively use more and more supplies as these FOBs get more and more developed over time (It's the American way to improve your station in life...and that applies here...FOBs get better over time, but "better" often means they require more resources.), but no additional effort was made to "secure" the LZ. Of course, men were on watch during the helicopter approaches, but we did not send people out on ambushes or patrols to distract or hunt the enemy. That would have been proactive...but our entire posture was reactive...and the helicopter delivery operations were no different.
Landings in the middle of the night when you are in a hurry are always chaotic. The noise and darkness broken only by red lights add to the other-worldliness of the experience of floating around strapped to the inside of a huge metal tube. The bird finally thumps down after hovering just over the surface for what seems to be an eternity, as it must first drop off the sling loads it has underneath. Upon landing, you unbuckle and make your way out the door, struggling under the weight of all your gear and whatever it is your are bringing with you. (Unless the helicopter is supporting a tactical operation you are doing, which we did very few of, you are going to be carrying something more than yourself and your gear.) You quickly hand over a sea bag full of M16s to a sergeant from the team, noticing how he's managed to grow quite a beard in the 6 months since you have seen him. You trade hellos with your eyes and nods, give each other a clap on the back, hand off the package, and go your separate ways. You try to facilitate getting the ANA on and off the bird so you can get out of there. Finished, you strap back in, quickly take off and are back at Blessing in minutes.