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Tip of the Spear
The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret's Return to Battle
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When the bulky C-17 Globemaster touched down at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and the rear loading ramp dropped down, I was slapped in the face by the summer heat—sticky and in the 90s. Then came the smells, which were a mixture of burning trash, raw sewage, and aviation fuel.
I wrinkled my nose, but that wasn’t going to change the shit-smelling air assaulting my nostrils. None of this caught me by surprise, though. Before I left Fort Bragg in North Carolina, I heard that Kabul city, twenty-five miles to the south and the country’s largest city with 3 million residents, was an open sewer, home to some of the dirtiest air in the world.
Despite the fetid smells and oppressive heat, I felt like a kid at a pizza party on this steamy June day. I had just graduated from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and this was my first time in Afghanistan and my first mission as a Green Beret. I had left the U.S. Air Force for the Army so I would have the chance to take the fight to the enemy up close and in person. My wish was coming true. In my mind, I was a well-oiled machine ready to take on any challenge as part of Special Operations Forces.
When I graduated from Q Course, I entered an elite world as a Special Forces Engineer, which was known as an 18C—or 18 Charlie—in the SF community. Now that I was being deployed to a war zone like Afghanistan, I would have a lot of duties on the team but chief among them would be finding, removing, or detonating the number-one killer of U.S. troops in the War on Terror: Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), or homemade bombs and mines. While all jobs on my team were extremely important, I was trained to do something that you better not fuck up.
As an Improvised Explosive Device detection expert—and I use the term “expert” loosely—I would be directly responsible for my teammates’ safety while on patrol in combat. If I let my concentration wander or missed one little detail, bad shit happened—meaning that I or any one of my fellow soldiers could lose a limb or be killed. I would have to do my damnedest to ensure that we all returned home alive and with the limbs we deployed with.
After exiting the C-17 ramp and looking to the horizon, I was taken aback by the almost picture-perfect views of the surrounding mountains. I say almost perfect because I would soon find out that beyond the base’s security walls, anyone associated with the Taliban wanted to shoot you or blow you up with IEDs that littered the killing fields.
Carrying my sixty-pound rucksack and dragging a Tuff box full of my gear, I headed out across the concrete tarmac. Beads of sweat dripped out of my pores and drenched my beard. Special Forces soldiers blend in better with the local population if they sported full beards, so Green Berets grew out their facial hair prior to deployment in Afghanistan. I had stopped shaving a month earlier. I’d never had facial hair before, but I was pleasantly surprised that a full brown beard grew in and covered my cheeks and chin.
Each step was a reminder that I was the rookie on my team, the new guy on Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces. My role as an 18C engineer was one of six main jobs on a Special Forces team. The others were: weapons expert, communications expert, medical expert, intelligence expert, and leadership.
My teammates had done previous tours in Afghanistan, so the brotherhood they’d formed and the bonding they’d done was something that I hadn’t been part of. I was aware that I was an outsider trying to fit in with a bunch of battle-hardened Green Berets since I hadn’t proven myself in combat with them. Finding my place wouldn’t be quick or easy.
I didn’t have to wait long to get out into the field. From Bagram, we made a few brief stops on our way to southern Afghanistan until we reached our home for the next six to nine months of our tour—Forward Operating Base (FOB) Tycz.
FOB Tycz was a large, comfortable base with the requisite security walls. The Dutch had a fire base adjacent to ours, which meant we were not alone, and the Dutch soldiers turned out to be good neighbors. The base was located in Uruzgan Province, so we were right in the thick of the fight. Like most places in Afghanistan, we were surrounded by towering mountains that gave way to dry desert in the valley below, where FOB Tycz was. We were a short drive away from the Helmand River, which was a lifeline for farming and producing huge marijuana plants, another cash crop.
FOB Tycz had what every Green Beret knows is as important as water on a hot day—a good-size gym. We didn’t have to have anything fancy, but there were appearances to keep up, and no one likes a flabby Green Beret. Staying buff was the first of three rules that were taught to me while going through training. The three rules were:
1. Always look cool.
2. Don’t fuck up.
3. If you fuck up, look cool doing it.
We didn’t spend much time at the FOB. Instead, we pushed out to a location along the Helmand River just across the provincial border of Uruzgan and Helmand provinces. This position was pivotal to keeping the pressure on Taliban fighters operating along the Helmand River, which ran north-to-south through the Chutu Valley. Our U.S. outpost was the best location for cultivating the Taliban’s drug crops.
Constant pressure was the name of the game in the fight against the Taliban. The pressure not only came in the form of U.S Special Forces troops on the ground but a relatively new strategy to the War on Terror: Village Stability Operations, or VSO.
Up to this point, the Taliban had control of the farmlands and rural villages where they could freely bring the fight to us. VSO missions would be an attempt to disrupt the Taliban’s freedom of movement around the countryside and deny them safe haven, which was where Special Forces fit in perfectly.
Winning “hearts and minds” was a Special Forces soldier’s bread and butter. We trained for it and, for the most part, we believed in this mission.
When summer was coming to a close, my team, along with other detachments from our company, was tasked with entering the Chutu Valley from different locations and clearing out the Taliban to a central point, which would send the bastards running for the mountains. Working against us, however, was the fact that this was not a covert mission. Everyone up and down the valley knew we would be coming, which gave the Taliban ample time to place IEDs and prepare for us.
Finally, it was time to push into the valley. We were ready to take the fight to the enemy and not just hold ground.
One of the major concerns, besides IEDs and small arms fire from Taliban fighters, was the Helmand River. Our compound was located on the western side of the river, and the villages we planned to clear were on the eastern side.
As the 18C engineer, it fell on my shoulders to figure out a way to move men, weapons, and equipment across the headwaters of Afghanistan’s longest river—which began in the Hindu Kush mountains—to where we were staging our mission.
In the bottom of the valley, the fast-flowing Helmand was probably twenty meters wide. To ford the river, I had at my disposal a Zodiac inflatable rubber raft, protective pieces of large Styrofoam blocks, and lots of lumber.
I figured I could MacGyver something up. I constructed a ramp and a platform system that would ride on top of the raft and used the Styrofoam to prevent the lumber from puncturing the rubber fabric. The platform atop the raft was designed to safely transport our gear, ATVs, and personnel during multiple trips across the river. The current was swift, and any mistake could lead to drowning or being swept away and landing in the hands of the Taliban farther downriver.
When the word was given, we set out for the Helmand River late in the afternoon of September 11, 2010—an auspicious date, for sure. I was crazy nervous because if I failed, it would be all on the new guy. The plan was to cross the river with the ATV and equipment first, then return for the next load.
When we arrived at the Helmand, it was the moment of truth—time to find out if I knew what I was doing. We loaded the first Zodiac and pushed out into the Helmand, which was fairly wide and deep. If I fell in, at least the water was warm in the summer. There was a cable across the river that we used to pull the raft across.
So far, so good, I thought. Let’s keep going.
More than halfway to the other side, there was no turning back. We safely arrived with the first load. My amphibious contraption had worked: no ATVs or equipment ended up at the bottom of the river. I was excited with my success.
In all, we made three crossings without incident, and then we moved north about five hundred meters and staged there, waiting to kick off the operation.
Missions of this caliber with many moving parts were best left for the cover of darkness. Pushing out at night was the small advantage we had over the enemy, especially because they knew we were coming—just not the exact day or time.
The Taliban were not fond of fighting at night; darkness favored us due to our superior equipment and advanced technology. The disadvantage of moving at night was that finding IEDs would be very difficult. As good as our night vision goggles (NVGs) were, they had little to no depth perception.
It was easy to get disoriented if you were forced to run, sprint, or quickly move to cover, or really do anything besides making slow, controlled movements forward, while using NVGs. Fortunately for us, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages because having the ability to see even a little in pitch-black darkness made you better off than your enemy. One motto we believed in was: If they can’t see you, they can’t kill you.
The moon was bright as we waited in the staging area. I lay on the riverbank waiting for Ben, our detachment commander, to give us the word to move out.
Hours passed. As a slight sliver of morning light spread over the valley, we checked our gear one last time. There was still plenty of darkness, so NVGs were necessary, but the sun would soon rise, and no one wanted to travel over open ground in broad daylight. We had a good distance to clear before we got to our first village, and time was running out.
Finally, Ben made the call: “Let’s move out, guys.”
We slowly trudged our way toward the village of Sar Tutu in the distance. Sar Tutu was made up of several mud-hut compounds, and my group was tasked with clearing one of the sections.
Keeping strict noise and light discipline, we scanned the hillsides and the riverbank for any movement. I kept my thumb on my weapon’s safety selector, ready to switch it on to engage and kill the enemy.
Taking fire from the Taliban was a risk we all knew was possible, but the more likely scenario was experiencing a catastrophic IED explosion resulting in loss of limbs and broken bodies. All the team members were fully aware that one wrong step could change their lives forever. My job was to make sure that did not happen.
These insidious bombs could be hidden anywhere: buried in the ground, hung in trees, stashed in cooking pots, inside the carcasses of dead animals, within car trunks, or under clothing with the infamous strap-on suicide vests.
While they might have been built with fertilizer and discarded spare parts and looked like a junior high school shop class project, I never underestimated the lethality of these homemade bombs. All it took was a handful of high explosives, a few inches of copper wire, and a battery. Detonation could be triggered by compression, the weight of a soldier or a vehicle passing over the explosive charge; remote control with cell phones; or an electrical circuit from a distance. The Taliban were limited only by their imagination, which was limitless when it came to killing Americans.
The morning light took up more than half the sky, sending beautiful fluorescent colors shooting across the horizon. Even in a war zone, Mother Nature could flaunt her beauty and put on an amazing show. After moving for just over an hour, we were on the southern outskirts of the first village, and one thing was for sure: You could smell an Afghan village long before you saw it.
The odor was a combination of rotting animal carcasses and trash, mixed with the smell of wood fires used for cooking the day’s meals. The smell that dominated, however, was the overwhelming stench of human shit. Given the lack of westernized sewage treatment facilities in the rural countryside, villagers usually used an abandoned room in their compound or squatted and did their business right outside the compound wall in kind of a shit trench. When the temperature rose, the feces atomized, and the noxious germs floated freely through the air, punishing my nose with each breath I took. At times the smell was so bad I could taste it on my tongue.
Moving up, we intercepted a radio transmission from the Taliban indicating that they knew we were on the move and could see us. At first, the news made my heart race. My palms got sweaty as my eyes darted around, looking for anything slightly abnormal.
I felt like I was starting to see things that really weren’t there. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? Or my ears? It seemed like I was hearing all sorts of things when we stopped to get our bearings.
The guys called this hypervigilance and told me that when danger was imminent, your senses rose up several notches to high-alert status. Fueling this hypersensitivity was an overwhelming desire to stay alive.
Taking a brief moment to assess my situation, I realized there was zero chance the Taliban were unaware of who was stomping around in their backyard. Of course they knew we had arrived, but the hair-raising question was, where were they watching us from? The ridgeline? Were they hiding near the river, ready to put a burst of bullets into our chests as we walked by? Were they inside the village, hiding somewhere in the compounds? In other words, since they knew we were on their turf, what were they going to do about it?
The village was deserted when we entered. This was not unexpected. It was no secret that we were in the valley, so the villagers had wisely deserted their homes—probably days before this assault. Whether the Taliban were hiding and waiting to spring an ambush was anyone’s guess. One thing every SF guy knew was that when you enter a village and it’s deserted, you better figure that you’re in for a big fight or a village full of IEDs. In our minds, IEDs were a coward’s way of fighting, but no one could deny that they were extremely effective.
We had to clear each compound or home, so we advanced slowly and deliberately, looking for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary that could conceal an IED. We were professional soldiers. Details mattered. A slight discoloration in the dirt, a suspicious pile of rocks, an abandoned water pail, a tree that had been tagged with a marker, a disturbance in a mud wall, or a lone person walking quickly and directly toward us—everything mattered. But we didn’t see any people or anything questionable, even though I assumed that every doorway and window had a pair of eyes looking at me and my buddies.
After we hit our first planned stopping point, the team broke up into smaller elements to cover a bigger area in and around the village, including a World War I–like trench that ran adjacent to the Helmand River, one of the Taliban’s favorite positions to fight us from. Each small element was made up of two or three Green Berets and a handful of Afghan fighters assisting us in clearing the village. My element consisted of myself; our team sergeant, Lance; and six Afghans—one of whom was Nick, our interpreter. Nick wasn’t the man’s real name, but everyone who supported our team was given an easy-to-remember nickname for ease of communication.
Our job, alongside the Afghans, was to clear the first set of compounds running parallel to the river. Once these compounds were clear, we would move on to the next set.
As I approached within fifteen meters of the first compound, I watched for everything and anything—from movement in the compounds to variations in the terrain to where I was stepping next. I stopped and turned around to check on Lance, who was behind me and several Afghans. He gave me a nod, meaning I could keep moving with the Afghans and check out the first compound.
I motioned to Nick to come closer.
“Tell your guys to move up and clear the compound,” I said. “Keep your fucking eyes open.” We both knew what that meant: Sweep the courtyard while watching every nook and cranny for a rifle barrel waiting to open fire.
Nick turned and relayed my direction to the handful of Afghan soldiers. Instead of moving, they stood there like statues. As precious seconds passed by, it became clear to me that they were not going to move.
What the fuck, I thought. Do they not understand what I need them to do? Are they too scared to go?
I whispered to Nick, “What’s the problem?”
“It’s too dangerous,” Nick replied.
No shit. Of course it was dangerous. This was what war was all about.
I knew they were scared; I was, too. I figured they wanted the Americans to go first because they felt we had better weapons and knew we were better fighters. I kept my cool and refrained from losing my temper, but I was pissed.
This is your damn country, so fight for it.
I wanted to holler at them like a college football coach to get moving, but we needed to be as quiet as possible, and I really wondered what good it would do. Yelling at them would not make them rush into the first compound with their AK-47s ready to kill anything that moved. What I’d noticed was that Afghan men were stubborn as mules, especially the Afghan soldiers. Once they made up their minds that they weren’t going in, they weren’t going in.
I turned around to have a word with Lance when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nick moving toward the front of the compound about fifteen meters from me, where a wooden door into our first mud hut was slightly ajar.
What’s he doing? And why is he walking into an uncleared part of the compound without Afghan soldiers leading the way? He was my damn interpreter, not a fighter.
I knew better than to yell out to stop him since that could have invited a firefight. Even though the Taliban knew we were on the move, tactically it was best to assume the enemy did not know where we were and to remain relatively undetected for as long as possible in case Taliban fighters were inside the compound and waiting to spring a nasty surprise.
Lance grabbed me by the arm. “Get Nick away from that door!”
This wasn’t the time or place for an Afghan Rambo. Even though fifteen meters wasn’t a lot of ground to cover, each step was a gamble in a Taliban-controlled area.
I carefully but quickly moved up to Nick and grabbed his arm.
“Nick, don’t move. Bro, we need to move back to Lance’s position and regroup. This is uncleared ground.”
Nick looked at me.
“We’re going to back away… slowly,” I continued. “I want you to place your feet over my boot prints and slowly move with me back to Lance. If you stay in my steps, you’ll be okay.”
Nick didn’t want to retreat. “We can still get our guys inside the compound,” he said.
“No, the time is not right,” I reiterated. “We need to get reorganized.”
The firmness in my voice told Nick that I meant business. He started to move back from the compound, and I retreated slowly as well, making sure I had my M-4 ready to rock in case someone in the compound moved around the corner and opened fire on us. My eyes were sweeping the compound as well as looking where I placed my feet. I took one slow step after another when—
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
FALL RIVER MILLS, CALIFORNIA
I grew up in the unincorporated California town of Fall River Mills, nestled between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges in rugged Shasta County. If you know where Redding is in Northern California, Fall River Mills is seventy miles to the northeast. It’s a dinky town in the middle of nowhere, and even back then, there were pot farms tucked in out-of-the-way places. The population when I was born in 1978 was a little over 375 people, but could have been more with the boom-or-bust logging industry.
The population dropped by three when I was three or four years old. My father, Larry, my sister Wendy (older by two years), and I moved down the Sacramento Valley to Redding in search of a better and more stable life.
Life pretty much sucked because my mother, who’d delivered my sister and me into this world, was hooked on drugs and alcohol. I guess everyone has their demons, and hers came in the form of stimulants. The upshot was that she didn’t or couldn’t take care of Wendy and me, so Dad sent her packing when I was in preschool.
In my early years, Mom had visitation rights for my sister and me, but all that ended around the time I was in middle school. After that, I had to track her down and make the effort to see her. But at that time in my life, our relationship wasn’t a top priority to me. Looking back, I probably should have made more of an attempt to have a connection with my mother, but it wasn’t in the cards. I didn’t know her, and consequently I grew up without a mom, which created its own set of issues.
My dad was a Vietnam veteran who did two tours as an aviation crew chief before returning to the Pacific Northwest and eventually Northern California following his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. During the Vietnam War, my dad’s primary aircraft was the DHC-3 Otter with 54th Aviation out of Vũng Tàu, but he constantly found himself flying into a combat zone in a Huey—a military helicopter formally known as the Bell UH-1 Iroquois. It was in a Huey that my father experienced the true horror of war as an M60 door gunner, using the deadly firepower at his fingertips to rain death down on NVA troops and the Viet Cong.
From what I’ve seen on the History Channel and read in books, my dad must have gone through things that are beyond my imagination, but he has a way of keeping everything contained and burying the demons of Vietnam deep inside. All I can do is speculate on how bad his war was.
To this day, I know very little about his tours, although he did squeak out a few stories from time to time. Like an 18C engineer sweeping for IEDs, the door gunner position was extremely dangerous because you were exposed in the open door of the helicopter as the aircraft swooped in over the enemy. My father was lucky—he lived. But what he saw, did, and experienced would stay locked away in whatever closet he used for the vilest of his demons. He was always of the mind-set that this was his issue and he was damn sure he wasn’t going to let others into that part of his world.
We arrived in Redding as the logging industry was taking a major hit from the northern spotted owl, which had been declared a threatened species. Before you could shout “Save the spotted owl,” the entire logging industry in Northern California was in the shitcan.
Suddenly, sawmills were shutting down all over the place because the environmentalists got the U.S. Forest Service to close millions of acres of forest to loggers. Dad, who was hoping that Redding would be a place to get back on his feet, found job opportunities to be slim pickings. This figured because Redding was originally named Poverty Flats during the Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century once its residents realized there wasn’t much gold in the foothills surrounding the town. When the Central Pacific Railroad selected Poverty Flats to be the northern terminus of the railroad in 1872, the railroad wanted a more dignified name. In honor of the land agent who bought up property so that the railroad could be built, the town was renamed Redding.
My father did the best he could picking up odd jobs, mostly in construction. It helped that Dad was good with his hands at just about everything. His talents were put in check, however, by living in a region with more than 20 percent unemployment. We managed, but regardless of how hard life got, my dad always took care of us, and he often wound up feeding other children on our block who had no food. Our neighborhood was filled with run-down, clapboard houses and families barely scraping by, so there was never a shortage of hungry kids.
I can remember a hot summer day when my dad filled our VW bus full of neighborhood kids and drove us out to Clear Creek on the outskirts of Redding, where we went for a swim and grabbed an ice cream cone on the way home. Simple pleasures like that were his way of helping where he could. A kind gesture went a long way and took the kids’ minds off the shit they called life.
We lived in Redding for a few years, but then it was time to move on in search of jobs. That seemed to be the way life went for us: jobs would dry up, we’d move to a new place for work, Dad would pick up some journeyman work, he would get laid off, and we’d move on. Not a bad life, but I never got a chance to settle down in one place to make lifelong friends and develop the kind of lasting relationships I saw in Stand by Me, a movie that came out in the mid-1980s about four boys growing up in a small town in Oregon.
Despite moving around more times than I can remember, Dad made sure he gave us the best possible life he could, given the fact that he was a single parent responsible for raising two kids, putting food on the table, and keeping a roof over our heads. I’m sure he would have been happier out at the bars chasing some tail or following his passions, but he gave that up to raise us kids.
Before Wendy and I came into the world, though, my dad was a guy who liked his beer. He’d get drunk, and if you happened to cross paths with him in the wrong way, you would most likely be at the losing end of a fistfight. He worked hard at logging, putting in crazy twelve-hour days, but he partied even harder. When the logging industry was booming and good money was coming in, he was blowing a healthy portion of his dough on booze. You could say that alcohol and partying filled his life when he wasn’t out in the woods, knocking down tall Douglas firs with his crew.
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Center Street