For our patrol one day, we decided to move up the hillside toward Restrepo and then set up a kind of observation post on a rocky little plateau to the southeast of Restrepo...more or less in the center of a triangle between three of our positions: Restrepo, OP Dallas, and Vimoto. From our position there, we'd have visibility down into the village of Loy Kalay (a place we rarely if ever go). Given the terrain, it can be challenging to visualize what you will and will not have visibility of until you actually get to a position, despite the maps. So I decided we would go up there and get a first-hand look at what we could see from there. Along the way to and from that outcrop we would sweep the area for possible hidden weapons, as shooters had set up in that vicinity to shoot down a helicopter in January.
Setting up on an exposed hilltop in broad daylight would undoubtedly draw fire, but then, this was how we did business out there: locate the enemy by letting him shoot at us. (I use the word "at" in the previous sentence to emphasize the fact that the enemy shot in our direction...but did not often actually shoot us...thankfully, shooters in the Korengal were not terribly accurate...on most occasions.)
Of course, this is a terribly reactive tactic...but identifying the enemy in counter-insurgency can be hard, to say the least. At any rate, once we got up to our spot, we found the area to be sparsely vegetated, like most of the land at that elevation (about 5000 feet above sea level), though there were a number of hasty fighting positions available that had been constructed out of large rocks. We quickly dispersed our roughly 12-man patrol (8 ANA, 2 Marine ETTs, an interpreter, and a cultural anthropologist who was along for the ride...in retrospect it made little sense to bring him on the mission as we had no intention of talking to anyone...but then he didn't often let us leave him behind, and would later do all academics proud by popping off a few rounds with his M16).
I quickly directed the ANA to disperse around the area, oriented where we were most likely to take fire, that is from the south and potentially from across the valley to the east, though taking fire from the east would involve a long and likely errant shot. We ended up arranged along about a 50 meter long stretch of the hillside, more or less in a line oriented to the south/southwest. We had a little knoll in the middle of our position, which would make communication within the patrol itself a bit more difficult. Our setup finished, I settled in to my own little "fighting position", which was certainly not the best one...but it was the only one available after the others had taken their places. It was formed of few low football-size rocks strewn about in the form of a half-moon. A tree of about a one-foot diameter was directly in front of my fighting position, which obscured my field a view a bit. I would shortly become very grateful for the presence of that tree.
As always, while we were up there we were constantly receiving receiving LLVI (low-level voice intercept) feeds. Basically, the LLVI guys (a stationary unit back the KOP, though mobile capability does exist) intercept radio communications between the bad guys. Since the bad guys use handheld radios (we called them all ICOMs...a popular brand), we are able to not only hear what the enemy is saying (which often has limited utility due to our interpreters' inability to understand the Korengali language), but more importantly, get an azimuth (or direction) from where the signal was coming from. Extrapolating from signal strength, the LLVI guys could also give a rough distance on how far away the signal was emanating from. Distance plus direction equals location. Not an exact science, but helpful. I went so far as to draw angle lines on my map I carried with me allows, which most importantly had a list of the many indirect fire targets. So if I heard from the KOP that the signal was coming from a 190-degree azimuth I would basically trace that line from the KOP down my map until the came to an area that looked like where the enemy might be. I would then make note of the pre-planned indirect fire targets we had in that area. Once the shooting started, I would likely call in mortars on that target or a nearby one, as a kind of opening salvo.
After a short while it became apparent the bad guys knew we were there...and thanks to the LLVI teams updates over the radio, I had an idea of where they were. Figuring I would kill two birds with one stone, I decided to relay that information to the ANA, which would also allow me to check to see if the ANA had their heads in the game. After making the rounds and relaying the information, I was on my way back to my position when a shot rang out. Though I didn't hear that round buzz overhead or feel that it was close to me, I nevertheless took the sound of that shot quite personally, as it seemed they had waited until I was walking around in the open to start the shooting. I quickly scurried back to my position and began trying to get an idea of where the now steady fire was coming from.
It didn't take long to realize I was completely pinned down as rounds began peppering the tree in front of me and ricocheting off the rocks around me. I quickly got on the radio and called in a mortar strike on a pre-planned target in the vicinity of where I guessed the shooting was coming from. What I remember about that radio call was not so much where the round went or why I called for it in that spot, but rather the fact that my voice cracked as I called it in - a bit embarrassing, and can indeed be frightening to be on the receiving end of accurate machine gun fire; however, it is a testament to our training that despite the density of fire coming my way, I was able to make the radio call. I didn't freeze up or panic, and did not feel scared...at least not on the conscious level. Of course, there is certainly there is nothing heroic about what little I did in response by making a radio call, it just a reaction...but it was reassuring to know that when you get into a tight spot where you're inches from death you can still think and perform.
In any case, not being able in those moments to get eyes on the shooters (tough to get eyes on much of anything when your more or less hiding behind a rock pile), I quickly deferred the adjustments of that initial mortar rounds to the other marine on the patrol with me, who had smartly taken the best fighting position available and was well placed to control fires and return fire with his own weapons. He was able to adjust the rounds close enough to get the shooting to stop and then actually saw the shooters as they ran down the hillside away from us after taking their shots, though neither he nor our Afghans were able to shoot them. It was a nice display or working together, though I did not relish my role as the bait that drew all the fire.
In any case, that's what friends are for, and that particular incident also nicely demonstrates the advantage we have on the enemy. They unfortunately nearly always have the initiative and the element of surprise, but we have much more firepower. If they want to concentrate fire on one person and pin him down, that's all good as we have 10 other guys on patrol and multiple other positions around the valley, as well as indirect fire support that can respond. In that case they certainly came closer to getting us (me) than we did them, but more often than not we will come out on top in these little engagements.
We hung out in our spot for a bit longer (don't want the enemy to think they succeeded in determining our course of action...though of course they do in many ways) before heading home.
23 Dec 2011
I was reminded of this incident when I was recently robbed at gunpoint by two men. After they removed my bag from my person, I decided to fight the one with the gun and had nearly succeeded in disarming him when a third attacker jumped out of a car that had pulled up and began sighting in on me with another pistol. And that point, I ceased resisting, and they thankfully didn't shoot me afterwards. I had the awareness to remember the plate number and immediately called the police. The incidents were similar in my mind in that while my execution in both cases was much less than perfect (failed to disarm my opponent in a quick fashion during the robbery, and failed to effectively plan and anticipate the enemy on the patrol), I did at least show courage and the ability to operate under stress in both cases.
In neither instance do I recall being scared at that moment...the effects in both cases were more afterwards. After the incident in the Korengal, I no longer viewed what we were doing out there as a kind of high-risk game. The "risk" was just too close to home after that to really enjoy "the game" anymore. I had been in plenty of firefights prior to that, often in exposed positions while on patrol, but none of those incidents affected me the same way. The incident up on the rock that day changed my attitude...I would continue to operate the same way as before, but from that point onwards I fully appreciated the risks and the "fun" was gone. Thereafter, I went about my daily business out of a sense of duty rather than a sense of adventure.
As for the robbery, it (re)awakened me to the risks I face living in a 3rd-world country. Sometimes one has to be reminded of past lessons and relearn the same things. In 3rd-world countries there is simply less margin for error. It's less forgiving. If you get in a fight with your wife, and decide to walk a few blocks home from the office with what is obviously a laptop bag...well, someone will likely take notice and make efforts to dispossess you, whether you are in a nice part of town or not. Call it metaphysics or simply losing situational awareness, but thinking about being angry with another person and not paying attention to what is going on is always a bad idea in some places, whether it's war or a poor South American country.