It was dark. There was no light switch, no lamp, there wasn’t even electricity, unless you were lucky enough to find a line that ran off the generator at the TAC 200-ft away. There was no sign of the civilized life anywhere. We, the sniper detachment, managed to get an orange extension cord run down the hill and into our room, but it had one outlet. It was enough to put a work lamp on, during the night hours, and run a water heater off during the day for heating water to cook hot meals.
I woke up at 0100 and turned on the light that was mounted on my wall above my M4. The floor was freezing cold on my feet, but it helped jump-start my brain to get moving. The old cot whined with remorse as I reached for my combat shirt. I had four total. I was saving one, and the other three were getting pretty nasty. I smelled the best two and stifled into the one that smelled the cleanest with a cringe. Exhaling a deep breath, I smiled as I thought sarcastically, ‘the hardest part of this mission is already over.’ Sherwood was doing the same on the cot 3-feet away from me. Sherwood and I were living an Afghanistan school house classroom that was not larger than 10’ x 10’. I’m starting to think he’s not a morning person, or maybe his shirts were worse than mine, either way, he’s not even acknowledging my presence right now.
I grabbed my head lamp off the corner of my cot and M4 off the two nails in the wall and walked out the door. Around the corner was the main entrance of the abandoned school house. I walked outside and across the courtyard to the porta-johns for a very relieving midnight piss break. The porta-johns had been there for a while; probably years. Although we had yet to receive any of the guaranteed enemy mortar fire the unit before us had promised would arrived each week, but the johns were proof that the rumors were true. And it hadn’t been that long. They almost looked like a cheese grader. They had been pepper with much hot shrapnel they almost looked like a cheese grader. Every square foot of each wall was tore up. As I stood there, glaring at a strangely shaped hole from a previous mortar attack, I couldn’t help but think, how dead I would be if I was taking a shit in here when the mortar hit. I wondered if I should be wearing body armor to the shitter. If that was the case I need to wear it to the chow hall too. The entire had been hit with mortars. The Taliban had this place zeroed in perfectly. Somewhere out there was a mortar tube that was pointed at us 24/7 and it had yet to be found. But where do you draw the line? The guys that lived there for an entire year would be able to answer that question. I didn’t know it then, but I would be relocated a few weeks later.
We left the COP at 0300 and sneaked quietly through the rural side of town behind the COP. The COP was placed in the middle of town, right off the main road. Further down the road was the river with a bazaar (store-front trading area) and urban style homes that were closely built together. Behind the COP was farm land and more openly spaced rural homes. We walked through the orchards and off the beaten path to avoid mines and IEDs. It was about a 1,000 meter walk to get to the base of either of the two mountains that were behind the COP.
I guess you could call it a short halt. Everyone was using good noise and light discipline. No one was talking except for whispers exchanged between the point man and the squad leaders. We were at the last house on the outside of the rural part of town and about 300-meters from the base of the mountain. They were discussing how to proceed. We quietly walked across in the cover of darkness. We didn’t expect any contact in the middle of the night, but I unslung my weapon just in case. It would have been hard to shoulder and fire it from the prone position with the sling around my torso, and without any cover around in the field we were about to walk through, I would have hit the ground and returned fire from the prone to keep my silhouette the lowest.
Slings were great for walking around inside the walls of the COP so you could carry shit, but once outside the gate, it could be kind of restricting. Maybe I just didn’t have mine set up right. I was the guy who climbed a mountain with a leg rig that held 4-extra mags and chaffed my entire inner thigh raw for no reason on a mission last week. I learned quickly that more was not always better. My sling was simple and kind of jerry rigged too. I made it myself from a tan strap that I found in a bag of ghillie stuff being shared around the sniper section. I had it set up as a simple 2-point sling, and had a buckle sewn in the middle so it could be quickly removed, but it didn’t work very well. But it never failed. It worked great around the COP though, so that’s where I used it most.
We got settled right before sunrise, and about 2-hours later, the platoon we were over watching came along and almost immediately took contact. We were taking some rounds on the mountain as well. They were least 10-feet away, but our first thought was that we were getting peppered with some stray rounds from the contact below. The platoon took contact for another 30-minutes and got split up when the enemy moved through the orchards and villages. We could see everything from the mountain top, I helplessly stared down at our fellow brothers fighting for their lives in an ambush. The insurgents were firing from windows and walls, during the attack, and then calmly exfiltrate across open terrain. They were fully exposed to our position, and yet, we could not reach them. Sherwood’s M110 Sniper Weapon System’s maximum effective range was 800-meters.
The serial number read, ‘00002’ so it was kind of a legend. Knights Armament’s first unit ever produced and sent to the military operation. Serial number 00001 sets on a self in a museum somewhere as a memoir of the first M110 model. Despite the age of the gun, we could still shoot groups within a minute of angle, but despite all this, the Taliban were more than three times the maximum effective range of the weapon system’s capabilities.
I watched as the enemy regrouped and moved into another orchard, but we could not reach them with the M-110. When we ranged them with the laser range finder it displayed an error at first. So we tried again and found them to be approximately 2,200 meters from our position. Sherwood was pissed and determined to put forth an effort to get retribution for the hell they put on our boys below. He spun the elevation dial until it stopped. Holding at the bottom of the reticle, and with a clear line of sight, he lobbed a few rounds their way, however, we received no indication there were affected.
Once the platoon began their way back to the COP, we picked up and moved along the mountain to explore. It was the first time we occupied this mountain, so in staed of turning back immediately, we patrolled the ridgeline. As a new unit occupying the area, it was very beneficial for us to explore the mountain, but minutes later, we found ourselves in a difficult situation.
I was face down on the side of the mountain, sucking each breath of air from right off the ground. My head was turned slightly up the mountain so I could see Sherwood. Granules of rock and dirt danced back and forth in front of me as I inhaled and exhaled they rolled back and forth with each breath. My assault pack laid lifeless between Sherwood and I. He was only about 10-feet away and looked down at me with a blank stare. Completely emotionless. He could have been dead if not for a second later he began to slowly raise his hand out toward me. His index finger extended and pointed to the small rock I was trying to get safely behind. Something had pushed me down when I tried to get up a moment before, and Sherwood was pointing to where the impact of the enemy’s round went. It was the first sign that Someone else out there was looking over me, and it wouldn’t be the last time I would need a guardian angel.
A platoon on the ground was in contact with 6 Taliban fighters and we were pinned down by an enemy sharp shooter. He was in an unknown structure at the base of the mountain and must have seen our movements just before we got settled into a hasty sniper hide minutes after dawn. He probably saw our bodies silhouetted on the ridge-line as the dawn broke the night. Only two weeks into the deployment, and we had yet to realize the importance of using the cover of complete darkness to conceal our entire movement into the over-watching position.
I felt stranded. Almost within arm’s reach of Sherwood, I felt miles away and completely alone. I was waiting for Sherwood to do something because I felt helpless, but he was pinned behind a rock too. Just then, another shot rang out. It made the same, “CRACK!” sound the one before it made and couldn’t have been more than 2-feet away. It must have impacted close to my legs that were exposed past the small rock because Sherwood pointed there and his eyes came alive looking for a way out. He knew we had been spotted, and now we were zeroed in. The sharp shooter could see our every movement and it was only a matter of time before one of us got shot.
We could not move, much less try to locate or fire on this guy from our current position and situation. There were no large rocks around us to move to. The shortest distance to get cover and return fire would be from the other side of the mountain, and the fastest way to get there, was over a low point in the ridge-line that dipped down; saddle. The saddle was about a 20-meter sprint. It was risky, but it was the only choice we had because the rest of the ridge-line towered 40-meters almost straight up.
I couldn’t see this spot very well from my position so I looked to Sherwood to get his perspective on making the run for it. He was looking the other way and talking to someone. There were six other guys on this mountain with us that morning, all of whom I thought were safely on the other side of the ridge. I don’t recall his name, but he was a team leader and was leaning rather comfortably against the mountain behind a larger rock about 5-meters behind Sherwood. The slope got very steep as it went up higher. He was tall with blonde hair and carried himself well. He seemed sure footed and agile on the steep mountain slope, and as a team leader, he carried a yellow smoke grenade on his kit.
Just then, Sherwood turned, looked at me and said, “We’re going to run like hell after he pops smoke!”
Finally. I felt reconnected and a part of the team again. For a while there, I felt like I had been left behind already. It’s amazing how fast the brotherhood of the band-of-brothers builds when your pinned down on mountains and everyone’s life is on the line.
I needed to roll onto my back to get a better look at the evac-route. I tried to keep my head and torso behind the rock while I rolled, but had to exposed my arm on the other side of the rock to keep my silhouette as low as possible. Every inch counted with this guy, he seemed to be pretty good and clearly new what rock I was behind. But as soon as I flattened out on my back, something strange rushed over me. It felt like I had just gone over the biggest hill of a roller coaster and never come down. My stomach was fluttering with butterflies and I was having trouble breathing. It was not a good feeling. I felt terrified for some reason. I mean it was intense and scary, but this was different. The sky started spinning too, but I knew I needed to lay this way, so what the heck was going on? I slowly turned my head down to look back at Sherwood, and as soon as my eyes caught sight of the mountain again it helped ground me back to earth. My breathing quickly returned to normal, the spinning stopped, and within seconds I was back in the fight. Maybe going from looking at the ground, 2-inches away from my face, to staring into the endless abyss of a clear blue sky had tripped my head into thinking I was falling through space. I wasn’t sure exactly, but wow, I could see so much more now. It looked like was going to have to run a good distance under enemy sharp shooter fire.
I looked at the mountain for the fastest possible climbing path and for areas of loose rock to avoid. I looked for any cover along the way, but there was none. ‘Screw it,’ I thought. I’m just go to run the shortest straight-line route from here, to my bag, and from my bag, to the saddle. It was going to be interesting.
Then, I heard Sherwood say, “Get ready.”
I looked around hoping to see the smoke, but didn’t see anything.
The smoke grenade was rolling down mountain. I couldn’t see what he the team leader was doing, but I saw some yellow smoke start to billow and drift toward Sherwood. It shifted left and then right for a split second and back left again. It was obeying every command of the wind drift, but it was not helping me at this point. I was still about 10-meters from the smoke, but for fear it would run out soon, I scrambled to my feet and ran for my bag. Completely exposed I began to hear the sounds I dreaded most. “POP!” “CRACK!” and then “WHIZZES!” It was the sharp shooter making his last attempt to kill one of us. He now had with a nice yellow back drop against my Multicam uniform to follow my every move. With my M4 in one hand, I grabbed my bag strap with the other. I rounded a half-left turn at my bag and was getting closer to the smoke screen but still about 5-feet away. I ran as fast as I could, following the path I observed while laying on my back earlier. My footing was on point, but a few strides later, I was in the smoke and could barely see the ground. I heard a hurl of “WHIZZES” from the sharp shooter in a desperate last attempt to hit one of us in the big cloud of yellow smoke.
Marking with smoke is relatively easy, but screening with smoke requires a little more practice. A delicate combination of timing, wind drift, and precise grenade placement ideally places the smoke screen between you and the enemy. This was not an ideal situation. I was on the wrong side of the smoke at first, and was now running inside the smoke cloud, but the smoke was moving pretty good, so I caught a glimpse of my next few steps without tripping over anything. The smoke was drifting up the mountain to the exactly place I was running. So, I didn’t really get out of the smoke cloud until I was on the other side, where I found the rest of the guys waiting for us.
Once on the other side of the ridge, a frag grenade was hooked back over the ridge and sent rolling down the hill. It wasn’t very effective, but it was a fun way of saying…we’d be back, but for now, we had to RTB. Lunch time.