Brandon with two “friendlies.”
So regular readers around here know Brandon Webb as the former editor of Military.com’s Kit Up! blog, but he’s had an equally impressive career in the Navy and you can read all about that in Brandon’s new book THE RED CIRCLE: My Life in the Navy SEAL Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen, due April 10th from St. Martin’s Press.
Brandon served with SEAL Team Three in the Persian Gulf in Afghanistan and went on to design a new sniper curriculum that “took sniper training out of Cold War methodology and shaped it into what it is today, training a generation of SEAL graduates who have become some of America’s finest warriors of the 21st century.”
If you don’t want to wait until next month, we’ve got an epic excerpt from THE RED CIRCLE where Brandon talks about his service in Afghanistan.
When we arrived back at Kandahar we found a buzz going through the entire camp. Our planned twelve– hour outing had turned into one of the most high-profile missions of the war effort to date, and everyone was fired up about it.
We debriefed with Harward and could tell he was proud of us. It was good for us and our reputation. Some of the other snipers, especially the Danes and Germans, started requesting that Osman and I come over and debrief with them so they could learn more about the terrain and the forces we were up against. The notoriety of our success at Zhawar Kili soon led to a request from the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), the German Special Operations team assigned to Task Force K-Bar. They had been slated to go with the Army Rangers on a direct action mission, but after that disastrous ODA mission went bad they changed their minds and said they would rather join forces with Navy SEALs.
After the attacks on 9/11 the world in general felt a tremendous amount of solidarity with America, and nobody more so than Germany. The German people were horrified at what had happened in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville, and our KSK buddies were pretty much in the same frame of mind we were: They wanted to get into the action.
The historical significance of the fact that we were going out on a joint raid with German Special Operations was lost on none of us. The last time the Germans were on a battlefield was in World War II, and then we were on opposite sides of the trenches. Ditto in World War I. Hell, there were Hessian mercenaries arrayed against us in the Revolutionary War. This would be the first military mission with German and American forces working together since … well, since ever.
The Germans were amazingly well trained and extremely solid guys. Most of them also spoke decent conversational English, so communication was not an issue. It was about time we got to work together, and our association was one of the highlights of my experience in Afghanistan.
Our mission briefing started off with the Germans’ OIC, Major Mike. (I never learned his last name, and who knew if “Michael” was even his real first name, since most of us were going by nicknames anyway, and they all had fake identities.) Major Mike had developed the mission plan jointly with Cassidy, who would get input from all of us on particulars of helo landing site, insertion points, and other elements of the plan.
This was an HVT mission, meaning high-value target. We were going to descend on an Afghan village called Prata Ghar, a handful of miles northwest of Zhawar Kili, in search of an important al Qaeda higher-up. Prata Ghar was also the site of another cave complex with known al Qaeda ties. The site consisted of one large central building, four stories tall, surrounded by about a dozen smaller buildings. As this was a joint raid, we would divide up the village and field of fire: The Germans would take down the large central building, and we would comb and clear all the others.
We flew up to Bagram in a C-130 (by now my preferred mode of air travel) the day before and prepared for the op. As usual we would be leaving in the middle of the night so we could get on target hours before first light, when anyone in their right mind would be asleep. We needed to hit these guys hard and fast.
Thursday, January 24
We made the brief flight down to Prata Ghar in two Chinook 47s and set down on the far side of a hill, 3 or 4 klicks from the village itself and well out of sight. With its dual rotors and long slender rotor blades, the CH– 47 is an extremely agile and maneuverable chopper, the bird of choice for dicey inserts. The moment we stepped out into the snow one of our guys, Forrest Walker, rolled an ankle. Dumb luck. We had to put Forrest back on the chopper and send him home, so we were now down one guy.
We took a head count, rallied up, and moved out. It was still pitch black when we reached the village about forty– five minutes later. We communicated with the German group, moved to our set points, and got ready for the signal. I knew all the other guys were experiencing the same heightened state I was, senses so acutely tuned it felt like the buzz of a high tension wire. In our briefings we had seen a single photograph of the place, shot from a distance. The interior layout of the individual buildings was a complete unknown, which meant we would be improvising based on what we encountered, and doing so at lightning speed.
“Fifteen minutes,” came the word over our comms. We waited, still as statues. “Ten minutes.” “Five minutes.” “One minute out.” Then it was time.
We started taking the place down.
It’s an intense experience to bust into a compound like this, knowing that first, you have no idea how the place is laid out inside, second, you’ll have only seconds to act in each location if you want to retain the advantage that comes with the element of surprise, and third, the place is packed with highly motivated and determined people who are probably armed to the teeth and will not hesitate to blow your brains out if given half a chance.
Prata Ghar village was pretty big, roughly 2 square kilometers. We had about a dozen buildings to clear, and we would have to play most of it by ear.
We burst into the first room and immediately heard a woman screaming. There on a thin mattress on the floor lay a husband and wife, an infant between them. The baby couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. The woman continued screaming her head off. It wasn’t hard to see why. Here she was, safely in bed for the night with her family, and suddenly her door was kicked in and two guys were standing there in balaclavas, pointing weapons at her and shining a SureFire flashlight beam in her eyes. No doubt she was terrified. Of course, that was the idea.
These people were clearly aiding and abetting the enemy. Villages like this one were serving as host-and-resupply stations for Taliban and al Qaeda forces. That’s why these guys didn’t have to carry around much in the way of supplies. They relied on the hospitality of these villagers to feed them and house them as they roamed around.
Of course, it wasn’t like these folks had a whole lot of options. What were they going to do, say no to those guys? Besides, to some extent they were obviously sympathetic to the cause, not only because they shared their Muslim faith but also because these were the people who had helped them fend off the Soviets when they invaded their country. What’s more, most were afraid of the mullahs and pressured through fear into helping the Taliban anyway. So we could empathize with them. At the same time, though, they were harboring guys who were plotting to kill as many of us as they could.
We broke into the next room to find one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed. There in their bedrolls on the floor were a woman and two girls I surmised were her two teenaged daughters. They were just as surprised as the couple in the next room, but they didn’t react the same way. Having jumped up at the sound of us busting open their door, now that they saw us enter the room they immediately got back down and lay still. On their backs. The two girls looked terrified; the woman just looked at us stony-faced, betraying no emotion, with an expression that said, Just do what you came here to do. For a moment there was no sound in the room but our own ragged breathing and a quiet whimper from the youngest of the three. Osman and I stared at each other for a few seconds as the meaning of the scene sank in. These women assumed we were there to rape them. They thought if they gave no resistance, maybe we wouldn’t kill them.
“Jesus,” one of us muttered under our breath.
“It’s okay,” I mumbled to the women in bad Pashtun.
Was it their experiences with the Taliban? No, more likely the Soviets. Lord knows these people had seen enough invaders over the centuries. We moved on to the next room.
We took that place down hard and fast, plowing through room after room, villagers screaming, doors smashing and bursting, us calling out our signals so we could move fast without surprising each other—“Clear left!” “Clear right!” “All clear!” Within less than a half hour we had gone through all the buildings. We wrapped up our search, brought out a few persons of interest, then did a reclear. Now we went through the place like the soldiers in a Vietnam movie poking through rice bags and finding weapons—and there were plenty of weapons for the finding: RPGs, AK-47s, all sorts of bad stuff.
Later, in the course of interrogating our prisoners, we learned that the HVT we were there to capture was gone by the time we arrived. We’d missed him by one day. Still, we had gotten some good intelligence and taken down a significant cache of weapons, and the raid was considered a success overall.
As we regrouped, Cassidy approached me and said, “Listen, the Germans are asking for our assistance. Can you and Osman help them out with something? I trust you guys.”
Apparently the Germans had underestimated the terrain and inserted with too much gear. Once they were on the ground, they had decided to stash their big packs as they approached the village. I shook my head. Just like our recon mission to Zhawar Kiliall over again: going in too heavy. This was something we’d had to learn the hard way, and the Germans were learning it now, too.
“They’re asking if an element from our team can go with one of their guys to retrieve those bags before we exfil.”
The sun was already coming up, and we were going out into uncharted territory. I wasn’t crazy about this idea, but what could I say? Three of us—Osman, this crazy German guy, Dieter, and I—formed up and commandeered a pickup truck from one of the locals. The plan was simple: Go get everyone’s kit and bring it back, fast. We hopped into our “borrowed” truck and took off, Dieter at the wheel.
Within minutes we ran into two Afghan guys with guns. Osman and I hopped out and took them down at gunpoint, zip– tied them, threw them in back of the truck, kept going. We came up over the crest of the mountain, headed for where our KSK buddies had all stashed the gear, and—
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Scheisse,” murmured Dieter.
“Fuck!” was Osman’s comment.
There were four or five Afghans crawling all over the site, looting the Germans’ packs like Sunday afternoon yard sale scavengers. We yanked the truck to a stop, got out, and headed down the ridge toward the scene. The looters weren’t armed and didn’t seem especially dangerous, just a nuisance. We shooed them away and started loading ourselves up with gear. There was no way we’d be able to bring the truck down here into this ravine, so we’d need to haul everything up to the road, maybe 20 feet away and up a significant incline. There were at least forty packs there in the ravine. At four per person, we could carry at most a dozen packs at once between the three of us, so this was going to take a good four trips back and forth. We started hauling.
We got one load to the truck, then came back for load number two, which we hauled up, then repeated the process for load number three, then headed back into the ravine for the last load.
Suddenly we realized we were not alone.
Word had evidently spread to another nearby village that there were some Americans here. Within ten minutes there was a mob there on the road watching us. At least fifty guys, clearly pissed off. With guns. They didn’t appear to know exactly what was going on, but whatever it was, they weren’t happy about it. Why were we hauling all these packs out of this ravine? Also, why were two of their compatriots hog– tied in the back of our truck?
One guy who seemed he might be the elder of the group started screaming at us in Pashtun. None of us knew what the hell he was saying. We stood there in the midst of the last batch of packs, trying to figure out what our next move was. They were yards away now, encircling us, and then we were completely surrounded. A bunch of them were still up on the road, and it wasn’t hard to see that at any moment one of them would commandeer our vehicle, free the two in back, and drive the thing the hell out of there, leaving us stranded out here. That is, if they didn’t shoot us first.
I glanced at Osman, then at Dieter. Wonderful, I thought, and I could see Dieter thinking it too. Wunderbar. Not only were we outnumbered by something like twenty to one, which is not the kind of odds we like to have, but we also had the low ground. Perfect. All we had to do was get these dozen heavy packs up the ravine and into our truck and drive out of there. Through a mob of fifty or sixty angry, armed, screaming Afghan mountain men.
“Okay, guys,” I said, “I think we need to get aggressive with these dudes if we’re going to get the fuck out of here.”
Nuts, but what other choice did we have?
We started brandishing our weapons at them, shouting and gesturing at our hand grenades, yelling back at them, knowing they wouldn’t understand a word of English or German, and knowing that it didn’t matter. There is the language of words, sentences, and syntax—and then there is the communication of angry apes in the jungle grunting and bellowing at each other. We may have had an impenetrable language barrier, but they got our message very clearly. They understood very well what we wanted, and what we intended to do about it.
They were not about to back down, either.
By now they were on us, screaming in our faces, physically pushing us. The charge in the air was only intensifying. We figured whoever shot off their weapons first would gain the psychological advantage. Time to start shooting.
We fired off a few rounds into the air to show we were serious. It had no effect. We targeted a few of the guys closest to us and fired directly into the ground, inches from their feet, to show that we were really serious. Somebody’s gonna get dead if you fuckers don’t back off.
That got their attention. They backed off— just a little, but enough to get our foot in the door. We grabbed those dozen packs and hauled them up into that truck faster than I would have thought humanly possible and then backed that truck out of there like a videotape on fast rewind. We nearly ran over a few of them on our way out.
We made it back to the main group, hoping we hadn’t held up the team from extracting, only to learn that the squad of helos that was coming out to get us had been delayed. We would have to wait until nightfall, still many hours away. Nightfall finally arrived, and word came that the helos were delayed some more. We continued to wait, along with our prisoners and our captured intel.
It was probably no more than four hours, but it was so unbelievably, mind-bogglingly cold there in the January snow at Prata Ghar that it felt like an eternity. We had been cold at Zhawar Kili. I’d been cold in survival and resistance training, cold in the land nav portions of BUD/S. Never in my life had I been as bone– numbingly cold as we were here. I remembered Instructor Shoulin in BUD/S saying, “Cold as you are now, trust me, you’ll be colder in the teams.” We would say, “Yeah, right, whatever.” Shit, though, he was right. I was truly freezing my nuts off.
An hour or two after sundown, everyone gradually grew silent. It was like that grueling night on the beach of San Clemente Island when Osman nearly quit BUD/S: no more bitching and complaining, just silent suffering. That’s when you know things are really bad, when nobody even talks.
Here was the great irony of it: When we got back to Kandahar the next day, there was a surprise waiting for us. Our shipment of cold– weather gear had finally arrived. We were so happy to see that big crate that we didn’t even let ourselves think about the fact that it had been sitting here unopened and unused at the very moment that we were freezing nearly to death up north the night before. So what. We would suffer no more—it was here!
We hungrily tore open the box. I reached in and grabbed at the corner of what was obviously a down sleeping bag. “Oh, man …” This was great! I yanked it out of the box, pulled it out of its case, and rolled it out on the floor—and then stared at it, trying to change what I was seeing by sheer force of will.
The thing couldn’t have been longer than three and a half feet. No wonder. It was a sleeping bag made for a child.
I grabbed it and looked it over. Sure enough: on sale! There was the frigging REI company sale tag. We knew immediately what had happened: classic military bureaucratic supply thinking. FUBAR. We had submitted a detailed request list all specced with exactly what kind of gear we needed, but the people in supply had decided to save money, so they went out to REI and dug through the sale bin, doing what they could to match up everything on our list with whatever they could find there at better prices.
The whole box was filled with garbage like that. Off-size shoes, off– size gloves. It was all junk, completely useless. We were so irate we all wanted to kill somebody.
Chief Dye fired off an e-mail directly to the team’s commanding officer, Captain Adam Curtis. I don’t remember the body of the text, but I do remember that it wouldn’t have made it through the Motion Picture Association of America’s criteria for a PG– rated film, and I recall Chief Dye’s closing line:
“Thank you very fucking much, sir, Happy Fucking New Year, enjoy your fucking hot egg nog. Chief Chris Dye, Freezing in Afghanistan.”
Not long after Chris dispatched his e-mail, another shipment of cold-weather gear arrived, and this time they had spared no expense.
A few nights after we got back from the mission to Prata Ghar, we had a party to celebrate the successful collaboration of German and American forces. Since the Germans were the only ones on the base with beer, they played host.
This would be the first of a series. Over the following weeks it became commonplace to hear a bunch of SEALs leaving our compound saying, “Hey, we’ll be back, we have to go debrief with the Germans.” We had a number of parties with the Germans after that first mission, the last of which was quite memorable—although not in a happy sense.
We also went on additional joint missions with the Germans, including one that took us high up in the mountains to Ahmed Kheyl, on the Pakistan border north of Zhawar Kili, to explore another complex of caves. This place was high above the snow line, so we were going to insert by helo and trudge up there on snowshoes to check these caves out. All the intel said it was a fairly benign environment.
Once again, we flew up to Bagram the day before the op and stayed there overnight, departing early the next morning on a few Sikorsky H-53s. This is a big-ass helicopter, much louder than the CH– 47, and it puts out such a large rotor wash that you can’t really use it for targeted search-and-rescue missions. Stealth was not an important element here, as we were going to be inserting at a friendly checkpoint.
They dropped us off right before sunup, and we immediately sank 3 or 4 feet into the snow. We set a quick perimeter and affixed our snowshoes. This was the first time I’d ever been on snowshoes. I loved it.
We hoofed up to our checkpoint and checked in with the commander there. This was my first sight of a blond– haired, green– eyed Afghan. Despite his traditional Afghan clothes and hat, with his cheap shades and blond beard he could have easily passed for an American. I thought it must be the Russian influence. I was wrong. In fact, I later learned, there are a lot of Caucasian, blond– haired, green– and blue– eyed Afghans that trace back to an invasion of Europeans led by Alexander the Great. These guys had been defending their turf for a long time.
We hiked up another 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation and confirmed the location of the entrance to the caves. It was a big complex, and we explored pretty much all of it. In retrospect, I think of this as a low– key mission, since the intel turned out to be correct and the place was more or less abandoned. Yet we couldn’t be sure of this going in. When you spend hours creeping through thousands of yards of dimly– lit caves and tunnels known to be host to a terrorist enclave, never knowing what you’ll find around the next corner (or what will find you), it burns an awful lot of adrenaline.
After we had cleared all the caves, we prepared to hike back down again. I stood and looked out over the valley. Perched up there on that mountain, we could see for miles and miles—a hundred at least. Everything was silent except for the constant flux of the wind wafting through the mountains and crags. It was breathtaking. The snow conditions were unbelievable. This would make a great place for a ski resort, I thought. That is, except for the part about the constant warfare.
I thought about everything I’d seen in this place. I’d been in Afghanistan now for more than two months, but this location right here seemed to exemplify the place. This was really harsh terrain, extreme altitude, incredibly steep, and incredibly rocky. The ultimate natural impregnable fortress. We were fighting an enemy in an environment where they had the advantage of having been here for generations and generations, back to Alexander the Great and doubtless beyond that. Then it hit me: You can throw all the technology you want at this place—Predator drones, B52s dropping JDAMs, even teams of the finest Special Operatives troops in the world—and they’ll just laugh at you. Just ask the Brits and the Soviets. You can’t win here.
I mentioned our parties with the Germans. Two were especially worth noting, and the first of those occurred shortly after our snowshoe trek up to the Ahmed Kheyl cave complex.
The night we went over for this particular shindig, the Germans had already been hitting it pretty hard by the time we got there. As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, SEALs tend to be a pretty high– voltage, hard partying bunch. Yet those KSK guys? They could drink.
We arrived to find they had set up a little tent where they were serving the beer. The stereo was turned up loud, and they were singing and marching in circles to the music. Something interesting was going on, but we weren’t sure quite what. We stood there watching them. We couldn’t understand the music’s lyrics and had no idea what the context was.
Major Mike spotted us and headed in our direction. He had heard about our showdown with the angry Afghan mob, and as a result Osman and I had sort of a special standing with these guys, Major Mike in particular. He came over next to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “Hey, please do not be offended by this, I just want you guys to know what this is all about.” He proceeded to tell me that a lot of his guys had grandfathers who had served in World War II, and they were very proud of the fact that their ancestors had fought to the death. During those final war years in the mid-1940s, quite a few soldiers in the German army had “gone missing”—in other words, they had deserted and fled. Most of these KSK guys had family members who would never quit and had fought to the end, and they were proud of them.
As he was explaining this we realized what it was we were listening to. These were patriotic German songs from World War II. This was their war music.
By this time all the Americans had gathered around the two of us, listening to what Major Mike was telling me, while all these Germans went on singing and marching to their World War II songs. It was hypnotic.
“Listen,” said Major Mike, “if you find any of this in poor taste, please let us know, but we’re proud of our heritage. Please understand, we are not at all proud of the Nazi story. The atrocities, it was terrible, all of that should never have happened. Our ancestors, though, all they wanted was to be good soldiers, to fight for their country, to be men of honor—no different than other soldiers.
“In Germany today,” he went on quietly, “you can be arrested for drawing a swastika. It is quite taboo. You do not say the word ‘Nazi’ in public. We all know how horrendous it was, the same as you, still, our grandfathers were our grandfathers, and we are proud of them.”
It was a bizarre scene. I didn’t have any ancestors who fought in World War II, and I don’t have any Jewish relatives. You though, know, I could have had. Any one of us there could have. If we had, how would this scene have hit us? I glanced around at my guys watching our German brothers singing and marching. These were good men, men we’d fought with side by side; none of them had even been born yet when World War II was happening.
It’s a strange thing, war: men of honor, fighting for their country. We see ourselves as the good guys, fighting for a just cause. I know I certainly believed we were the good guys there in Afghanistan, and I still do today. Then again, these guys’ grandfathers had thought they were the good guys, too. I suppose we are all heroes of our own story.
In early March we were tasked to work with the Danish Frømandskorpset (Frogman Corps), their elite Special Operations team, to stand QRF watch (quick reaction force) in support of the action that was heating up in Zurmat, a district in Paktia, the province directly west of Khost, as part of Operation Anaconda. The largest ground offensive since the battle of Tora Bora, Operation Anaconda was a massive effort to hem in and wipe out some key HVTs along with an estimated two hundred enemy combatants. That two hundred turned out to be more like a thousand.
Standing QRF is a high– stress, get– ready– and– wait proposition. You and all your gear are prepped to go, your magazines loaded with bullets, everyone in the fighting force and the helo crew ready to take off literally at a minute’s notice— and you stand ready like that for hours, days, however long your station lasts. It’s something like being a fireman on call at the fire station.
We flew up to Bagram Air Base with the Danes and settled in. Everywhere we went, every minute of the day, we carried radios with us. No matter what we were doing, whether we were sleeping, eating, at the gym, or on the toilet, we were always completely set up and prepared to drop everything and run.
At one point I turned to Osman and said, “Hey, where’re our maps? How come we don’t have any maps of this area?” We had big country maps, but they didn’t show a lot of detail. We were QRF for a very specific region, the district of Zurmat—and we had no area maps for it. Where the hell were they?
We had each been assigned as department head for a different job. If you were assigned to diving, your job was to keep track of all the diving gear. If you were air, you were the one who packed all the air equipment for the platoon, certified it, kept it up, and took care of it constantly. Every one of us had a different specific duty. Mine was air equipment. Who was in charge of intelligence?
Turned out, it was Doug. Damn! There was already a lot of tension between Doug and me because of the taped– out lights that never got taped out at Zhawar Kili. Now I was seriously pissed off. Frankly, intelligence was a pretty easy duty. There was no equipment to be in charge of. All you had to do was make sure we had the maps we needed and that the GPSs were programmed. It was an important job, but not a difficult one by any stretch.
Osman and I found Doug and called him out in front of the other guys. “Doug, where the hell are our maps?”
“Oh,” he said, “at the TOC, they said they’re out of them right now.” This was a bullshit excuse, and we told him so. He was just being lazy, and I did not want to get stuck out there in the hostile mountains with no idea where the hell I was. Sure, we had GPS, but that only gets you so far. GPS tells you where you are, in an absolute sense—but it doesn’t necessarily give you all the context, what’s around you. Especially in that part of the world, where the terrain is so starkly inhospitable, GPS data on its own is practically useless for anything but calling in an air strike or an exfil.
Osman and I said, “Fuck it,” and hotfooted it over to the DEVGRU compound (a.k.a. SEAL Team Six), where we explained what we needed. “Here,” they said, and they handed us all the maps we could want. That’s how complicated it was. We thanked them, took the maps back to our own compound, threw them down on the table, and said, “Well, there you go, Doug. Appreciate all your hard work getting us the maps.”
Doug did not like my attitude, and he let me know it. I let him know it right back. “Look, man,” I said, “you almost got me killed once. I’m sure as hell not going to let it happen again.” We were toe to toe and almost got into a fistfight right there in the tent.
Later that evening I sat down and thought about what was going on. This was not good. In fact, it was very not good, and it had to stop.
I searched Doug out and pulled him aside so we could talk.
“Look,” I said, “this isn’t personal. I don’t want you and me to have this friction going on.”
I explained where I was coming from. I didn’t apologize for calling him out in front of the other guys. I explained that in GOLF platoon our leaders never let any sloppy behavior slide, and they would call us out in front of everyone for the slightest infraction. That’s what happened to me when they hazed me for not telling the truth about having gotten married: They let me know that they would not tolerate any lying or withholding of the truth. Honestly, I thought that was the right way to do things. I still do.
Get called out in front of your peers, and it shapes you up.
Most people think SEALs are these perfect and infallible warriors. It’s true that SEALs are some of the most dangerous, disciplined, effective fighting machines on the planet, but we’re human, too. As much as there were guys who had their shit together, there were also guys who didn’t.
The truth was, Doug was a good guy. He just hadn’t been brought up right in his first platoon. As for me, I have the tendency to be a hard-ass and not the most diplomatic when it comes to these things. It’s just my nature.
We shook hands and made our peace with each other. From that point on, Doug and I didn’t have an issue. What’s more, from that day on he was in solid shape.
Later that night a few guys from DEVGRU were flown in to our medical station at Bagram for emergency medical attention. They were in rough shape, really blown to pieces. Word was that their convoy had been hit by a Taliban ambush. The SEALs all survived, but a number of others in the convoy did not. There were guys dying on stretchers as they wheeled them in. It was terrible.
I spent a little time that night with one of the poor bastards from DEVGRU who’d come in to get patched up. He had glass fragments embedded in his skin all over his face. We talked for a bit, and he told me what really happened.
“Man,” he said, “that was one of our gunships. No doubt about it.”
One of ours? Was he saying that the hit that had messed them up so bad, that wasn’t Taliban, that was us?
He nodded. “We’re driving along and blam! Something explodes in front of the convey, like a howitzer round in the lead vehicle. Then the rearmost vehicle blows up, too, and suddenly we’re taking heavy fire. Holy shit, I’m thinking, this is classic C-130 gunship tactics. Is this a blue on blue?”
In fact, it was a blue on blue, otherwise known as friendly fire. No one likes to believe these things happen, but they do.
The only reason he wasn’t dead, he told me, was that when the attack started he managed to get down underneath the engine block of the vehicle he was in. “Man,” he said, “when I get back home I’m buying a Toyota—because that thing saved my life.”
I don’t know whether someone in the convoy hadn’t been in touch with air support, or someone made a mistake with their coordinates, or what. Maybe it had been something that at the time seemed no more consequential than Doug neglecting to tape over our dash lights. Whatever it was, something had gone badly wrong. When you’re operating in that kind of kill box situation, you better hope the person responsible checked in first with the gunship.
Otherwise, out in those mountain ranges, you’re just another heat signature on Murder TV.
First thing next morning we got the call: “Let’s get it on!” QRF had been activated. We were going in. Where, or to do what, we had no idea. All we knew was, it was now. “Saddle up, you guys,” said Cassidy when he showed up at our quarters. “We’ll brief en route.”
We and the Danes got ourselves loaded up in two Chinook helicopters, Razor 01 and Razor 02— and then sat there on the tarmac. Nothing happened. Minutes ticked by, and still nothing happened. Cassidy was going back and forth on the radio. Why the hell weren’t we taking off? Finally we saw some Army Rangers running out toward us. Cassidy sighed and said, “C’mon, guys, we’re getting off.”
We climbed out of the two birds, and the Rangers got on. Obviously there had been some kind of pissing match between Task Force K-Bar and Task Force Dagger over who was responsible for whom. We sat down on the tarmac and waited for a while to see what would happen next. The Rangers took off. We waited. Finally we went back to our tent and waited there on standby.
Soon we heard people scrambling everywhere. Something heavy had happened, but at first we didn’t know what. Then we heard that the Rangers who had replaced us in the two Chinooks were in trouble.
Eventually we got the whole story.
Two teams of SEALs had gone out to insert high up on a nearby mountain called Takur Ghar. Originally they were supposed to insert in the dead of night at two different points in the valley, to provide observation support for an op there, much the way those six marines and four of us had done that day in Zhawar Kili when Doug failed to black out our vehicle. Delays and mechanical problems had forced a change in plans, though, and they were ordered instead to insert closer up toward the peak itself at close to dawn.
A daytime landing in the mountains—not a good idea in Afghanistan. The Taliban knew how to shoot down helicopters. In fact, they’d learned it from us back in the days of the Soviet occupation, using our ground to-air Stinger missiles. Fortunately the Stingers were no longer operational, but the Taliban were well equipped with RPGs and knew how to use them.
Sure enough, an RPG ripped into one of the SEALs’ helos as it went in to land, and one of the team, Neil Roberts—a totally solid guy, a badass who was ready to rock on insert and be first out and on the ground—was hurled through the chopper’s open door. The bird was shot to shit and crash-landed a short distance away, where its occupants immediately came under fire. The second helo, carrying the other SEAL team, came in to pick up the remaining personnel from the first chopper and also came under immediate fire. An Air Force Combat Controller was killed. That helo was forced off the peak and requested backup.
That was when a QRF team was dispatched to come get them—which was us, until inter-branch political squabbles intervened and we had to exit the helo. The Army Rangers took our place and took off for the ridge, but when they tried to put down they, too, came under fire, killing their door gunner. Moments later their chopper, Razor 01, was shot down by another RPG and crash– landed, just as the previous helo had done, killing three more of their crew. The surviving crew members and the Rangers who made up the QRF took cover, now also under heavy enemy fire.
Back at Bagram they now put us on another set of helicopters and flew us to a refueling station they had set up in the middle of nowhere, maybe fifteen minutes by air from Takur Ghar. We sat there with the Danish Frogman Corps, listening to everything unfold over our comms. Gunfire, screams, guys dying, pleading for help, and no help arriving. It was brutal.
We heard the Ranger captain, Nate Self, on the radio, begging for reinforcements, but the air force general in charge of the task force, General Gregory Trebon, wouldn’t send anyone in. They didn’t want to lose another helicopter. “Sorry,” the guy on the radio passed the word, “the general says nobody else is going in there, not in daylight.”
We begged to get inserted up there, even anywhere close by, so we could go help these guys out. “Go in with F-18s or whatever you have,” we said, “and pound the place if you have to first— but put us on the ground.”
It wasn’t going to happen.
When you have guys ready and willing to risk their lives to go in there and get their fellow soldiers out of that hell they’re in, you let them go do it. If it were me out there, I would want to know that our guys were doing everything in their power to come get me, and come get me now. Going into battle you have to know that will happen, that your guys will come after you no matter what. That’s the psychology you have to have in order to be able to function effectively on the battlefield. “No man left behind” isn’t just a catchy slogan, it’s the nonnegotiable bedrock of a fighting force’s existence.
Do I think it was a bad call? Yes I do. No question in my mind, and morale suffered for sure.
I understand the situation they were in, not wanting to lose another helicopter, but if it were me, I’d take a deep breath, let my guys come up with a solid plan, and execute it. Yes, those first few sorties were kind of fast and loose and got confused, and that’s when things can so easily go wrong. Yes, things had fallen apart up there, But that’s when you sit back and say, “Okay, time out, let’s take stock and plan this out.” Then you let the guys who are closest to the action and have a hands-on understanding of what’s happening out there make the plan—and then you go. That’s what should have happened there.
Instead, we sat there all day, the Danes and us, all geared up and ready to go, just a fifteen– minute hop from the spot where our brothers were fighting and dying. It was agonizing, listening to Captain Self’s pleas for help all day long, talking about his wounded. Every time he checked back in the casualties were worse—and he’d lose another guy. Ten to twelve hours of daylight went by with no support whatsoever. People died because of it.
Soon after we had relocated to the refueling station, another element of that Ranger QRF did successfully insert, but a good way farther down on the mountainside. We followed their progress on our comms as they struggled up the face of Takur Ghar to link up with the downed helo and Rangers on Roberts Ridge (as the site would come to be called in honor of the downed SEAL), because those guys were being hammered. It took them hours to get up that mountain.
There was also an Australian SAS force nearby, holed up in a reconnaissance outpost on the side of the mountain, observing with long-range optics, providing some situational awareness, and calling in air support. Hats off to the Aussies: They saved some lives that day.
That second Ranger force did eventually succeed in climbing up there with all their kit, fighting their way through, meeting up with the downed QRF group, assaulting that position, and taking it over. There was a huge Taliban force up there that mounted a counterattack, and the Rangers took more casualties, but in the end they got control of the ridge line.
After spending the day sitting on our hands and listening to this whole thing go down, we boarded the helo and flew back to camp. The mood at Bagram was pretty dark. We all felt these guys had died for what appeared to us to be no good reason.
I’ve thought about this a thousand times, ten thousand times. What would have happened if we had been allowed to leave on those two Chinooks? Would it have just been us who got shot down instead? Or if we had left ten minutes earlier, right when we first boarded the helos, would things have gone differently?
One of the SEALs who was in Neil Roberts’s team was a guy known as Turbo. A few years later Turbo and I got to be good friends when we worked as instructors together, and one night over some beers he told me the full story of what happened there on Roberts Ridge.
According to what I remember from Turbo’s account, when they were on approach to that ridge, they got the thirty-second call: ready to put down. He was standing right next to Neil. Turbo and Neil were close friends. “Neil was always squared away,” Turbo told me, “always had his pack on and ready to go. He was going to be the first one off that 47’s ramp.”
The ramp went down, they prepared to leap off, and Neil had just lifted one foot off the floor and was half a step out when boom! they took that RPG hit. The pilot yanked on the stick and banked the helo abruptly back in the other direction in a desperate bid to escape the volley of gunfire. Before Neil had a chance to catch himself, the inertia of heir forward movement hurled him out through the chopper’s open door. Turbo reached out and just managed to catch hold of Neil’s ruck—but he didn’t have a firm enough grip on it to make the critical difference. The ruck tore out of his fingers, and Neil plummeted out of the helo and onto the ridge.
The helo took some further hits and crashed on the hillside, about 4 miles away from where Neil was left behind.
The other chopper swooped in, picked up Turbo and the other guys, and headed back to Bagram. Turbo and his teammates argued with the bird’s crew, insisting that they turn around and go back for Neil. The crew had their orders. The team kept arguing and insisting. Finally they practically put a gun to the pilot’s head. “Look,” they said, “we’re going back for our friend. You are going back there and putting this copter down.”
The pilot took them back to the same spot on the ridge where they’d lost Neil, and Turbo and his teammates jumped out.
Turbo told me it was the most intense firefight imaginable. “We shot so many of these guys,” he said, “and they just kept coming and coming.” At one point he was back to back with one of the other SEALs, and he could feel the burn of bullets whipping past. Later he found burn marks all over the sides of his body from the friction of the rounds. Firepower from the enemy was so overwhelming they eventually realized that if they had any hope of surviving, they had to get off the ridge. They stepped off the ridge line and started sliding down the slope.
It was incredibly steep, a 70-degree incline at some points. Predator drones were orbiting the area, and after it was all over I was able to watch this happening on the Predator video footage. It looked like a group of guys shooting down a mountainside on a frigging bobsled.
The moment Turbo stepped off the ledge he took a .762 mm round right through his leg. It blew out his calf, so now he was bleeding badly as he slid hundreds of feet down the hill along with his buddy. Once they came to a stop, he found he couldn’t walk. He asked his buddy to leave him there, and when he refused, Turbo insisted—he felt like a complete liability—but the guy would not do it. He put a tourniquet on Turbo’s leg and carried him a few miles.
Their OIC was an absolute maniac. The Taliban were pouring down the tree line after Turbo and the rest of them, and this guy held the whole scene together. He’d come back and check on them, then run out to the tree line and lay down a bunch of fire and kill a bunch of guys, then run back again—running back and forth, engaging the enemy and somehow managing to keep them at bay. “He saved all our lives,” Turbo said.
Their OIC finally was able to drag Turbo farther away from the firefight, and this was when they made the call for help. The nearby QRF was alerted and boarded a helo to come help them.
That was us. You know what happened next.
The surviving SEALs spent a lot of time out there in the woods, and Turbo thought it was all over several different times, until he finally lost so much blood that he lost consciousness altogether. Miraculously, they were finally picked up, and Turbo survived.
Seven of our people died there on Takur Ghar: three Army Rangers, Corporal Matthew A. Commons, Sergeant Bradley S. Crose, and Specialist Marc A. Anderson; the two aircrew on Razor 01, Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman and Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham; Sergeant Phillip Svitak of the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR); and Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts himself.
After the whole thing was over, the group that had picked up the surviving Rangers went back to survey the scene. There were hundreds of Taliban dead. “We found dozens and dozens of them lying there with multiple shots to the head,” they told us later. “That was the SEALs’ work.”
They could possibly save his leg, they told Turbo when they got him to a hospital, but he’d be crippled for life. Nah, he said, cut it off at the knee, and he would get a prosthetic lower leg. His rehab was unbelievable. What he does even to this day with that prosthetic is insane. You’d never know it was a fake leg.
Ten months from the day he first got back to the States, he was back in theater over in Afghanistan again with his new leg. Turbo is an amazing guy, a true patriot, and an absolute animal.
Brandon instructs a sniper school class on the basics of stealth and concealment.
By late March we knew we were winding down. We had a stellar track record in Afghanistan, but we’d been in this theater of operations for close to six months, and soon it would be time to rotate back home. As it happened, the Germans were about to rotate in a new crew themselves, and the group that was getting ready to leave wanted to have us over for one last get-together before they were gone.
This time the party was held at our compound, around a raging bonfire.
That night the Taliban were shooting mortars at us. They were staged pretty far away and weren’t likely to score a hit. There was nothing for us to do about it, anyway; we weren’t responsible for camp security, and the army was dealing with it. So we just treated their firepower like fireworks. Every time another mortar went off the Germans would yell, “Prost!” and raise their beers in the air. We thought it was pretty hilarious.
Late that night, as we were enjoying ourselves, drinking, listening to the stereo, and laughing every time the Germans raised a toast to another futile Taliban mortar round, I heard a loud voice yell, “Turn that fucking music off!” I looked around and saw that someone’s head had popped up over the wall that separated our compound from the one next door.
At Kandahar there was a small camp where all the Air Force Combat Controllers hung out. We had Brad and Eric, our two CCTs, living with us, but there was a small contingent of CCTs who were piecemealed out to various other units. Among them were the two young Combat Controllers that Chief Dye had fired in Oman. Even though they were no longer with our platoon, they had still come over to Kandahar and were now living with the other Combat Controllers in this compound—which ironically enough, had ended up being moved right next door to us.
These two guys had not gotten over what happened in Oman. We would see them in passing around the base, and they were clearly copping an attitude and trash– talking our platoon. They had gone to their OIC, an air force major, and given him their story on what went down—who knows how they’d described it—and we could tell he wasn’t very happy with us. This major was a big, burly dude, 6’6″, looked like he could rip your arms off with his bare hands. We’d heard he was very big in mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting.
The issue got to the point where Brad and Eric went over and talked with this major and gave him their perspective. “Listen,” they said, “we’ve worked closely with this platoon for quite a while now, and these are good guys. We know those two young Combat Controllers weren’t happy about what happened in Oman, but there are two sides to every story, and the truth is, those two young fellows have a lot to learn.” They came back and told us there shouldn’t be any more problem, that they’d cleaned up the tension there.
Apparently, though, some tension still remained. The head glaring at us right now over that wall, spitting and fuming and going off on us, belonged to the air force major.
Dave, a SEAL who’d come to Kandahar to augment the DPV group (which I’ll get to shortly), started arguing with him. One of the Germans called out some comment, and the major shot back a profanity. The German chucked an empty wine bottle at him. It missed and smashed against the wall.
This thing was escalating fast, and our guys were turning into an angry mob—and then all at once the major was gone and everyone went back to his business. At first it seemed that the whole escalation had reversed itself and things had gotten under control. When I saw Dave stand up and start over toward the CCT compound, I realized what had actually happened. Dave had told the air force major to “come meet me in the alley,” and he was going out there now to settle the dispute man to man.
This was not good.
He came back a few minutes later bleeding, with a big cut on his nose, and told us that when he stepped out there, he’d been blindsided by a handful of guys together with the major.
That did it. Osman got to his feet and said, “Let’s go,” to Dave, and the two of them went back out there. A few minutes later, I followed.
Osman is a street brawler. He grew up in a tough San Diego neighborhood and learned early on how to stand his ground. With Osman there’s no foreplay. He doesn’t do any trash-talking, chest-thumping, or pushing and shoving. If it’s on, it’s on: He just flips the switch and goes.
Osman walked off the compound and laid this guy out. Punched him so hard that he broke his nose, knocked him out, and severed a vein. There was blood everywhere. The other air force guys who had ambushed Dave stood there horrified, looking at their commanding officer, this major they all looked up to, this frightening guy with the big reputation as a mixed martial artist, lying on the ground bleeding all over the place. Osman looked at them all and spoke matter– of-factly. “Who’s next?”
None of them was next. They were terrified. Not only was Osman standing ready to take out anyone else who moved, but they were also now facing an angry mob of SEALs who looked like they wanted blood. A bunch of us had by now moved from the bonfire out the gate to where this was all happening, and we were standing there ready to back our guys up if necessary.
One of the air force bunch ran to get army security, and the rest just stood there, afraid for their lives.
Suddenly this big German guy, Enne, started pushing through the crowd. “I’m a medic, I’m a medic!” he was shouting. “Let me through.” He crouched down with his head lamp over the air force major and started checking him out.
Wait a minute, I was thinking. Enne’s not a medic, is he?
Enne grabbed the major’s nose and started raking it back and forth. The major came to—and found himself lying on the ground with a big German guy tweaking his broken nose. He screamed in pain.
“Oh, yah,” Enne said with a completely straight face. “Diss iss definitely broken
He looked over, smiled, and winked at us. I could not believe the audacity of this dude. After a minute Enne let up; the air force guys carried the major off to get him to the medics (the real ones), and we returned to our fading party.
A little later two army MPs came over to our compound to take Osman away. I met them at the gate. “Look, guys,” I said, “you aren’t taking anybody anywhere.” One of them opened his mouth to object—but I stopped him. “Let me explain something,” I said. “This is the last place you want to be right now. These guys have been drinking. They’re pissed off and they’re ready to rip someone’s head off. You don’t want to come in and try to take anyone out of here right now.”
I saw them wrestling with the situation, trying to figure out if they should back down or press their case.
“Look,” I said, “we’ll sort this thing out tomorrow afternoon with our chain of command, after everyone’s had a chance to get some rest.”
They could see the logic of that. They backed down and left.
Harward flew back down early the next day from Bagram, and man, was he livid. He reamed our platoon out, no holds barred. It was not pretty. Fortunately for us, when the medics operated on the major’s nose that night they could see that he’d been drinking, which meant that everyone involved was culpable and not just us. Technically speaking, nobody was supposed to be drinking on the base. Harward had known we were having parties here and there but had turned a blind eye to that. Until now. Now he had an enlisted man who had struck an officer, and his ass was on the line.
Within eight hours Osman and Dave had their bags packed and were on a flight out of there.
I have to admit, it was the right move on Harward’s part. Taking Osman and Dave off the base defused the situation. Now the army couldn’t come put Osman in the brig, and the two of them wouldn’t be around for the air force guys to run into. He had quickly put a lid on the whole thing.
Later that day the air force major came over and apologized to us all, shaking hands with each one of us in turn. He told us that he’d been drinking and he had instigated the trouble. I thought this was a stand– up thing for him to do. At that point the tension had finally gone out of the whole conflict—but the long-term repercussions of the event were still to come.
After this deployment Cassidy put us in for some major awards. Several of us, including myself, were lined up for a Bronze Star with Valor. Because of incident with the air force major, Captain Harward knocked all our awards down a notch, and I ended up getting the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor. If you read the language of the award (“heroic achievement … in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service”), you can tell that it was originally written up for a Bronze Star and then demoted to a Commendation Medal after the fact.
I suppose Harward did what he had to do. As I said, the guy was an animal, without a trace of sentimentality. Regardless, I was proud to have been nominated for the Bronze Star with Valor.
Our last op in Afghanistan was a mounted direct action mission we would be conducting jointly with the Danish Special Operations forces. We would be taking a convoy about three hours out to an area outside Kandahar City to a village where we knew the people were harboring an HVT. We were going to go take down the whole village in the dead of night.
We also had a DPV (desert patrol vehicle) crew with us. This team (which had included the now– departed Dave) had been flown in to join us while we were out in the mountains of Khost on our nine– day Zhawar Kili mission. I’d also seen these things back when we were first in desert training at Seal Team Three.
Designed by Chenowth, the race car company, the DPV is essentially a dune buggy powered by a souped-up VW engine. In addition to the driver, the thing holds a navigator riding shotgun and a gunner in the back. These babies were designed for open desert, the kind of terrain you see in Kuwait or Iraq. (During Desert Storm, the first U.S. forces to enter Kuwait City were SEALs on DPVs.) They can go up and down all sorts of wild terrain. One of their best features is that you can fit one in the back of an H-53; the helo lands and that little monster comes zipping out of there, fully loaded and ready for action. We’d had a DPV platoon at Team three and had fun bombing around Coronado on the beach, Rmmm, rmmm, rmmmm! They only assigned guys with field experience to the DPV program, though, so we would mostly see the older dudes, some of them combat injured, driving around in these hot vehicles. We called the program Fat Guys in Fast Cars.
Now, I’m no mechanic, but I know that altitude affects performance, and those engines were definitely not designed for the higher altitudes we were seeing in northern Afghanistan. You lose a lot of power at 9,000 feet. Besides, we liked using indigenous vehicles; they worked well with the local terrain, and they could blend in. The DPVs looked like freaking souped up Baja 1000 racing rigs, and they were definitely going to stand out. From my perspective, these vehicles weren’t very useful up north in the Hindu Kush.
For this mission, though, they would be perfect. The DPV crew would be going with us to set a perimeter with their heavy firepower. Once on location we would enter the compound, clear it, and get our high– value target out of there.
I had all the GPS coordinates and worked out our route, planning the whole insertion/extraction sequence. It was a solid mission and sure looked good on paper. Now all we had to do was execute. I was point man for this op, so I felt an added sense of responsibility for everything going smoothly.
We rolled out of there in the dead of night. For the next two and a half hours the trip was silent and uneventful. Serving as navigator, I called the directions at every turn; it wasn’t that complicated. We drove in a fairly tight formation, slightly staggered but close enough to keep visual contact. We had two vehicles, the Danish had their two vehicles, and then we had the four DPVs behind us, all loaded for bear.
As we approached our turn off from the main highway, I radioed the other vehicles to let them know what to expect. “Delta 1,” I said, “five out,” meaning we were five minutes away from our turnoff.
One of the DPV crew radioed back, “Roger, solid copy. <break> We show twenty out.”
I repeated my call. “Negative, four out.” We were now almost on top of the turnoff.
They went silent. Then, “We show different.”
“Negative,” I replied. “We’re turning in two.”
I don’t know if the reset point on their GPS was off, or they’d entered their coordinates wrong, or what, but somehow their data were all screwed up and they were way off.
Navigation is more than a matter of looking at a little dot on a GPS or following a map. You have to look at the sky, at the sun and moon and stars, at the landscape and features on the horizon, at everything available to you; it all helps paint the picture you need. I’d looked at the satellite imagery ahead of time so I’d know what the roads and terrain would be like. I’d been navigating my whole life. I knew for a certainty that this was the goddam turnoff.
I turned to Cassidy and said, “Chris, this is our turnoff.”
This was one of those moments that leadership is all about. Cassidy had me in the front seat telling him we had to turn left, and a whole convoy of DPVs insisting that we had to keep going for another 10 miles. The decision had to be made that instant. We had to turn or go straight—and at least one of those two choices meant completely blowing the mission.
Cassidy didn’t hesitate. “Take the turn,” he told the driver, and to me he just said, “I trust you.”
We turned. For whatever reason, the DPVs decided to keep going and chase down their phantom coordinates. We were now just a few minutes from the compound. We and the Danes were going in there to take down this whole village—without the DPVs and our secured perimeter.
We reached the target, came to a halt, and silently slid out of our vehicles, formed up, fanned out, and launched into a sequence we had rehearsed hundreds of time, a classic room– to– room assault– and– clear operation. The big picture would be coordinated by Cassidy, who would also be in constant contact with the Danish assault element, giving and receiving updates, but in the individual assault element, everyone functions as a leader as the thing moves and shifts second to second. You have to be able to flow seamlessly through a building. It’s incredibly fluid, and has to be.
As we entered the first building Chief Dye stayed behind us, serving as hall boss and fanning us out with hand signals— two guys this way, two guys that way. If we hit a locked door we might just smash it open if it was flimsy enough, or else blow it with a breacher charge. What ever it took, we’d blow through and flow through, pushing our way through the house.
Two of us kicked open the door to the first room and tossed in a flashbang—crash!—waking two guys out of a dead sleep. They lurched up, blinded and deafened, and made an attempt to grab for the guns they’d had lying next to them as they slept, but they were too late. We were on them and they were zip– tied, hoods over their heads, before they could complete a thought. “All clear! Coming out!” I shouted, and we were down the hall to the next room.
We poured through the entire compound like the unbridled currents of a tsunami flooding through a coastal city’s streets and sweeping away everything in its path. Anyone who put up even a moment’s resistance and pop! they got a muzzle strike in the chest. Took the wind right out of them. In movies you’ll see assault teams making strikes to the face, but that’s Hollywood. Muzzle-strike someone in the face in real life and chances are you just killed him—and that wasn’t our aim here. We were here to take these guys alive. They had intel we wanted, intel that could help us snuff out their pals’ next operation before it happened.
These were bad, bad dudes, surrounded by tons of weapons and mountains of ammo. Everyone in that compound was as armed and dangerous as armed and dangerous gets. We took well over a hundred guns, grenades, RPGs, you name it. If we’d had any hitches, if they’d had a chance to use any of their arsenal, it could’ve gone very badly for us. There were, however, no hitches. Our team coiled through those buildings striking with the speed of a 100– foot– long rattlesnake.
The Danish did an excellent job, too. As with the Germans, it was obvious from the start that these guys were first class, in both conditioning and tactical training. Going into the raid, we never worried for an instant about whether or not they would hold up their end. They did.
The DPV convoy arrived about halfway through the raid and belatedly set up their perimeter. They were embarrassed, but we didn’t give them too hard a time. Having to pull off the raid without our planned secure perimeter could have completely thrown us off. Nevertheless, it didn’t, not for a moment.
This is something unique about Special Ops forces: We’re trained to make decisions on the fly. In a sense, we are all trained to function as leaders in the field when necessity dictates. In a conventional unit, all too often when something screws up the whole mission grinds to a halt. In Special Ops we’re trained to adjust immediately, to say, “Okay, the thing screwed up, got it— so let’s get on with it,” and then make whatever executive decisions we have to without hesitation. That’s what happened in 2011 in the raid that took Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The team that went in suddenly lost one of their choppers, which could have been a catastrophic mishap— but it wasn’t. They adjusted immediately, blew up the downed copter, completed the mission successfully, and got everyone out of there without losing a single member of the team.
We took more than twenty prisoners that night. They didn’t know what had hit them until it was over. We got our HVT, too. If you were following the news at the time, it was a name you’d have recognized. We commandeered a few of their vehicles, threw these guys in back, and headed back to process them into the EPW camp at Kandahar. General Mad Dog wouldn’t have been happy, but this was our job.
Not a shot was fired. It was our last op in Afghanistan, and with the exception of the temporary DPV defection it was flawless from start to finish.
A few days before we left Afghanistan, an event occurred that cast a pall over all our victories and triumphs. At the very end of March, some DEVGRU guys from Red Team, the group that would years later be credited with killing Osama bin Laden, went out to Tarnak Farms to do some training. This was exactly the same area we had trained in back when we were still newly arrived in Kandahar.
Back in December, after that episode when we had parked our Humvee on top of a series of live land mines and Brad and Steve had to defuse the entire mess while we stood and waited; we had gone back and given a full report. “Nobody should be going out there,” we said. “The area is definitely not clear. It was cleared previously by EOD, but it has obviously been visited since then. There’s a good chance someone is watching it right now and planting more mines.”
We thought our report would handle the problem, that nobody would go out there again. We were wrong. In a classic war time lack of communications—FUBAR—evidently no one passed the word to Red Team. On March 28, a SEAL named Matthew Bourgeois stepped out of a vehicle at Tarnak Farms and directly onto a land mine. Probably it was very much like the mine I had found there—except that this one wasn’t defective. It exploded, instantly killing Bourgeois and injuring a second SEAL.
Later that day I talked to a few of the guys from Red Team. As they were describing the scene to me one of them said, “We were standing right next to a bombed-out blue minivan.”
A bombed-out blue minivan. These guys had been standing in precisely the same spot where my buddies and I had been back in December—the spot in that snapshot I still have.
There was no way the mine that killed Bourgeois could have been there a few days after Christmas when we were out there. We were all over that area, walking everywhere. Just as we had said in our report, the place had to have been mined after we left.
The people we were up against were devious and fiendishly smart. They kept their swords sharp. No wonder they had fought off the British and Soviets successfully for so many years. How long would we end up being here?
Copyright © 2012 by Brandon Webb. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press