55. Combat

Combat

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.

Psalm 33:6

By week two at Panda Ridge we established our presence without incident. We patrolled the dirt highway to our west, the parallel riverbed leading south, the green zone and its surrounding villages and visited our brothers at Griffin. The valley between our two outposts was secure. No shots fired. No IEDs detected. No suspicious activity. Time to go north.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Time:1300

Our mission is to go north between the Crown & the Nipple & set up an OP to observe the 40 series of buildings. Once there, sniper team 1B & A will make their way up on the eastern side of the wadi, north of Griffin. There they will conduct a census on the town to our north. Our time to return is undetermined.

We took a pic of everyone in full gear. I must weigh about 280 – 300 lbs with everything on. 210 rounds of 5.56, 12 HEDP,1 1 40mm smoke,2 500 7.62 mm link,3 200 ounces of water, 2 days of food, kevlar, sapis,4 NVG’s,5 metal detector, CLS kit,6 M-16 and M-203.7

Third Squad. I’m furthest on the right.

My breathing rate briefly hastened due to the slight reduction in thoracic volume brought on by the combat load. The pressure gripping my shoulder girdle caused me to tense as my nerves were allotted their usual ten to fifteen minute protest of discomfort. Typically my pain and pressure receptors at the start of any weight-bearing endeavor, of which there have been many as an infantryman, complain over their unpleasant circumstance and accuse me of being a most abusive host. However, after their complaints are duly spurned by my callous indifference, my body soon quiets to numbness.

Once the nerves silence, all that remains are the infrequent and irregular inspirations and expirations. I attempted to exhale while still maintaining some intrathoracic pressure. This would help offset the stress of the cargo’s grip on my chest. Occasionally these breaths would seep out as a pitiful low; like that of a taxed mule.

Beasts of burden we are. Were it not for our seared pride, bleating and lowing would resound from our gut as it does distressed cattle. However, this exasperation is restricted to the mind, and eventually tuned out like the rest of the disquieted nerves. All that escapes are low, slow, diaphragmatic breaths. Perhaps this is why we infantryman are called “Grunts;” not necessarily because we are stereotyped as muscle-bound, gutter-brained, knuckle-dragging hominids, whose only form of communicating are throaty irks and oomphs, but because of the groans that escape us due to the loads we carry.

We scuffled past the Marine standing guard on our northernmost position, taking the narrow, well-trodden path leading to our objective. I walked in the middle of the file, attempting to scan parts of the path with the metal detector. My roughly twenty-five pound belt wrung out my hips with each short step and needed frequent adjustment. Everything screamed: feet, shoulders, waist, chest, arms, legs. As my short steps and strained breaths continued, I hovered the metal detector everywhere within reach. With each swing of my right arm my rifle’s sling sandpapered the right side of my neck as it dangled and bobbed over my left side. 

About fifteen minutes through our journey, we stopped as the front element swept a small tabletop above us for IEDs. During our pause I hunched over at the waist, propping my hands on my knees to rest my shoulders. During their sweep, they confirmed one IED previously marked by 3/2, but found nothing new. This would serve as our LZ.8

As the path turned slightly right, I noticed a five-foot diameter divot to my left. It looked like a crater. I couldn’t help but think of Corporal Jones.9 Was this where he got hit? It must have been. I wondered what happened that day, the chaos of it all. In all likelihood I too would witness such atrocities, maybe worse. 

I would most certainly get my first taste of combat during this op. Sergeant Toon gave ample warning. Not once did they avoid contact at the Nipple during daylight. Our silhouettes would be exposed on a landmark high above the town where these fighters likely lived their entire lives. We would be armed invaders perched atop a monument impossible to miss, visible to angry, armed men motivated to kill us. Whatever the cause of our dispute with the local threat didn’t negate the fact that I anticipated an impending stand-off. After four long years, I finally was ready for war. 

I needed the extra time. If I had been shipped off immediately after School of Infantry like some of my classmates, I don’t know what would have become of me. I do know I would have been terrified. I was not the type of teenager who could perform in a combat environment, especially during the heat of the war in 2008. The soft passivity I developed throughout childhood needed the extra time to be beaten out. Though my nerves quickened as I strained towards the objective, I felt a sense of calm, readiness and welcoming. 

On our way to the Nipple I saw the few small, scattered objects off the beaten path where 3/2 marked their IEDs. Typically well-worn routes are to be avoided in IED country, but not when the alternative is soft dirt mounds. This route was a bit of an exception to the rule too because most of it was visible under 24/7 surveillance between the Marine on duty and the Oculus. 

As we approached the rock formation, the path stopped before a fifty foot drop. From here, the flat stone outcrop along the edge guided us to our destination. Avoiding buried IEDs necessitated we cross this section roughly six feet between a rock wall and one-way ticket into Panda Ridge’s butt crack. Though the width of the passageway was more than enough to cross with minimal risk, not only did the dizzying drop feel within arms reach, the sheer mass I carried above my waist made me so top-heavy that an unexpected bump could have sent me tumbling down.

Once we arrived at our destination, I heaved forward at the waist to toss my pack overhead. I could breathe again. Soon thereafter, I unbuckled my belt strapped with extra magazines, a pouch full of thirteen HEDP grenades and a combat life saver’s pouch. I’d never felt so light in my standard combat gear. 

We parked behind the Nipple as Lieutenant King consulted Sergeant Ward. With the remaining duration of dwindling daylight, they wanted to investigate a nearby trench system. I’m not sure where this intelligence originated from, but hearing the word “trench” manifested images of an eight-foot deep culvert, with heavily fortified machine gun bunkers. 

Could there really be an enemy trench just around the corner?

“Decoupcrank,” Lieutenant King said as he approached me with Corporal Ward behind. “You’re going to be joining us up the hill to check out this trench. You’ll be running point with the metal detector.”

“Roger that sir,” I said. 

I slung my rifle behind my back and unfolded the CEIA.10 When Lt. King gave me the go ahead, I stepped up the flat rocks behind the tip of the Crown, maintaining a low profile. Once I reached the dirt, my steps softened. 

No time to think. Just act. Fear seeps its way into the mind of the one who ruminates on what ifs. The possibility of IEDs, if effectively drilled into the psyche of a naïve mind, would render the hills of Hollywood as terrifying as a minefield. An IED is only a problem if someone gets hit. And we haven’t got hit yet.

My posture slowly erected as the curve of the slope obscured our visual of the town. Within only a few minutes, we reached the flattened top of the ridge. Sweeping forward, we found our trench. This trench however, though it ran further north than I could see, stretched six inches wide and three inches deep without any suspicious spiderwebs or mounds, as if someone planned to run a lengthy pipe to God knows where and forgot to install it after their digging. Lt. King relayed our findings to Panda. After our brief pause, he motioned for us to head back. 

I crept methodically towards the dipping ridge then turned right before our silhouettes could be visible to any onlookers below. My eyes were now fixed to the ground with each step as I hovered the wand as closely as possible to the ground without disturbing it. Then the metal detector broke the harmony of our crunching footsteps with rapid, high-pitched beeps.

I stopped. Withdrawing the CEIA from the hot spot, I took a closer look. No brass, no scraps, no metal at all, just dirt. I waved it over the spot again and the chirping continued. My pulse hastened. Turning my head to my left shoulder, I said, “I got a hard hit.”
“You see anything?” Ward asked.

“No,” I said. As much as I wanted to know if I was a step away from catastrophic injury or death, I was content with leaving curiosity’s killings to cats. “Just stay away from here.”

I marked the spot with a chem light, turned left and led the way back to the others. No more beeps.

The last of the sun’s veiled rays slid behind the horizon. The night enshrouded us with a blanket of darkness and a persistent breeze, allowing us to stand fully upright and make quiet conversation with minimal risk of compromise. Each Marine found their own nook to rest on, while a handful sat atop the crown overlooking the town. 

“Decoupcrank, I’ll take watch ‘til 2300, you can rest until then,” Kath said.

“Okay, sounds good.”

Happy to receive the news, I sat down on the uneven rocky surface. With my flak and kevlar on, I layed down on what would have been jagged edges gouging my back, my rear SAPI now acting as both a protective layer sleeping mat. I rested my eyes on my hefty pack and closed my eyes amidst the hums of suppressed chatter.

Over the next few hours I scavenged for what little rest I could gather while laying at an odd angle on rocks with a teetering backrest and a lumpy pillow. 

“Decoup, you awake?” Kath said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re up.”

“Alright,” I said. Once I stood up, the wind infiltrated my armor, and uniform, sending a chill through my spine as my sweaty shirt peeled off my back. Picking up my poncho liner, I threw it around my shoulders, hugging it tight, the tip of the rear end flapping like a cape. Kath remained seated.“You sleepin Kath?”

“Nah man. No way I could sleep in this shit.”

“Yeah, I never slept. All I could do was rest my eyes,” I said, sitting down a few feet away from him. 

“This wind fuckin’ sucks. I brought all this shit and the one thing I didn’t think about was a poncho.”

“I know, I forgot too since it was so hot today. I’m glad I at least brought this.”

“Can I get a piece of that?”

“Sure, come on over.”

Kath scooted and sat down next to me. I opened up my shell and welcomed him in. The small, porous nylon blanket without the help of the wind-resistant poncho offered little protection against the steady gust, and even less so when expanded around two fully geared Marines. 

“You scared yet Decoup?”

“Yeah I am.”

“Took you long enough.”

“I’m not a fearless person. I just feel at peace. I believe God is with us.”

“I gotta say, I’m nervous as hell.”

Paused for a moment, scanning the town below with my NVGs. No movement, no lights. As I tilted my head up, white specs amongst the green peppered my field of view. I folded my NVGs up, staring at the undiluted celestial array. Shy formations otherwise invisible to my eyes polluted by distractions and washed out by city lights  now clamored into view to show off their bashful splendor. The light indeed shines brightest in the darkest places. 

“Check out those stars, man. They look freakin’ amazing,” I said.

“Yeah,” Kath said, tilting his head up. 

“It says in the Bible God breathed ‘em all out with a word.” A warm tingle ran down my spine. “If God could do that, how hard is it for him to alter the trajectory of an enemy bullet, or protect us from an IED blast?” 

Kath took in and let out a deep breath. “I hope you’re right.”

When the darkness began receding and the glow of dawn seeped over the ridge, we crept behind cover and assumed the prone position. As day broke, so did the wind. Smoke rose from a once dormant chimney and loudspeakers projected the morning call to prayer. Shortly thereafter, a handful of locals trickled out of their homes, into the streets and their courtyards. At about 0640 a woman appeared about two hundred meters away on the roof of the compound closest to us. Shortly thereafter, I heard a pop. 

My chest thumped, pupils dilated and the fog of sleeplessness evaporated. For a few seconds though, my mind took an unexpected detour. The surge of adrenaline transported me from Afghanistan to World of Warcraft. The same physiological response was sparked by the hundreds of competitions I sweated through in a video game. Images of team battles flashed in my mind. The body’s response to combat, whether real or on screen, is no different. No wonder I was addicted.

I snapped back into the moment when Lt. King radioed the snipers. 

“Any idea where that shot went?”

“Negative.”

I slid back to grab my ammo belt and dragged it to my side. Peering through my ACOG,11 I  looked for possible threats. No more locals. 

I scanned the buildings and across the valley up to the opposite ridge where I noticed a small bump visible to the naked eye. Snipers were set in. Ideally a sniper’s hide should be impossible to detect a hundred meters away, let alone over a thousand, but there wasn’t much they could do to remain unseen atop a flat, barren plateau.

Pop… pop, pop

Kath sat exposed fiddling with his radio. “Kath!” I whispered. When he turned his head to my direction I signaled for him to get down. 

Schwhoo… schwhoo, schwhoo

I looked up to the sky and over my left shoulder as my ears tracked three whizzes.

“Shit,” Kath said as he slid to his side peeking over the rocks. “Here we go.”

“Oh hell yeah,” Davis said as he pressed his cheek to his buttstock.

“Anyone see anything?” Ward said.

All those within earshot reported “Negative.”

The steady clicks sounding down the line reminded me to flick my rifle off safe. We continued to scan as low chatter between the Marines called out suspicious activity. 

“I got eyes on two trucks about a click12 away,” Davis said. “They’re comin’ in hot.”

Shifting my gaze up, trails of dust kicked up behind two distant trucks. We followed their movement, as they continued down the road, one turning at a fork to the east and the other passing us through the valley towards Cho’ Gra. I continued scanning for suspicious activity.

As the minutes wore on, adrenaline fizzled into anticipation. Anticipation smoldered into alertness. Alertness stagnated into apathy. Chatter between the squad and through the radio slowly diminished. With no further activity for over an hour, by 0830, Lieutenant King ordered us to return to base. There was no combat.

  1. High Explosive Dual Purpose grenades are the 40 mm “bullet” looking grenades that are shot out of the M203 grenade launcher.
  2. Smoke grenade launched out of M203
  3. Higher calibur machine gun bullets linked together.
  4. Small Arms Protective Inserts are the hard shells that slip into the body armor which can protect the wearer against small arms fire.
  5. Night vision goggles.
  6. Combat Life Saver med bag.
  7. Grenade launcher tube attached to the base of my M-16
  8. This Landing Zone would be used if we needed a casualty to be evacuated.
  9. If you missed it, I wrote about Corporal Jones on this post.
  10. We pronounced it “Cheeya.” This was the metal detector I used, which was made by an Italian company, so CEIA stands for Compagnia Elettronica Industriale Ansaldo.
  11. Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight
  12. One kilometer

1 thought on “55. Combat”

  1. Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me. O LORD, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him? Ps. 144.

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