60. Fire

Fire

You will not fear… the arrow that flies by day…

Psalm 91:5

Green and gray. Light and dark. Two and three dimensions. My NVG’s hanging over my left eye split my vision into two screens, my focus shifting between the two. 

We patrolled in file once again, our formation stretching over a hundred yards. Stepping over the choppy ground formed by harvested fields hardened by the sun, I repeated a verse from Psalm 91 in my head, hoping to prove its worth. You will not strike your foot against a stone. I wondered if it would hold true as I repeated it over and over, but my boot clunked against a mound more than once.

We paused several times, one of which lasted at least thirty minutes. Snipers, having set out the night before, began their movement to Lwar Julji via a satellite patrol some distance from us. I heard Thacker hopped into a ditch and injured his back with all the weight he carried and needed to be evacuated. Once the helicopter flew him out, we continued on. 

By about 0500, we arrived at a small hill stretching along the western edge of the town. Each of us laid down on our chest a few feet from the other. Once again I found myself laying on top of a land feature overlooking a hostile environment with zero cover and concealment. If things got crazy, the only protection we had would be to scurry down the shallow slope behind us.

A few street lights illuminated patches of walled in mud huts with narrow paths and alleys weaving between them. A single large road split the town into two halves, the mouth of which now opened wide before us. Everything was quiet. Everyone was ready. 

The distant mountains began to glow. As the scenery brightened, the lights turned off and the chimneys turned on. Knowing the sun would be up soon, I reached into my pack that I laid by my side, pulled out a Rip It1 and gulped it down. 

The Taliban took their sweet time getting ready. Perhaps they, or at least the men we faced, were so disciplined in their daily morning ritual of prayer, naan, chai and whatever the hell else they do to start their day that not even a company of Marines and tanks loitering in their backyard could interrupt their routine. After what felt like hours of nothingness, people began to stir. Women and children exited their homes and made their way east. 

They collected their young and walked nonchalantly to the other side of town, as if they’d been through this many times before. After they left, vehicles kicked up dust in the distance near a compound with a red door, and one man on a motorcycle sped towards us through the main road and parked at the hut closest to us, about one hundred fifty meters away. He dismounted his bike in a hurry and jolted into the building. Then, the Marine listening in on the enemy radios relayed to us the message they heard over the net: “Gather the fighters to the center.” 

My arms stiffened. My grip tightened. My ears opened. My eyes strained. My cheek pressed harder against the buttstock of my rifle as I scanned buildings and paths and corners and doors. Nothing. Only silence.

Then I heard shots in the distance. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves as we waited to receive the Taliban’s greeting. Faint whizzes sailed overhead. The sound eased my tension. They were way off target. 

Marines on either side of me start calling out targets. I tunneled into my optic. Although I swept my barrel throughout my sectors of fire many times over, I couldn’t see where the bullets were coming from.

My exhilaration waned. I knew this would happen. I knew the enemy would remain in their shaded huts and never confront us head on. To give them credit, remaining behind cover was the right thing to do in this situation, rather than walking head first into a firing line of Marines in an elevated position, but come on, I wanted to see something, anything. 

We remained in place without firing for several minutes as the steady cadence of enemy rounds flew well above our heads. I heard Marines continue calling out suspicious movement nearly a thousand meters out, way beyond the effective range of my M-16. I gazed more intently through my sights, eying the few buildings I could engage with my rifle. Still nothing.

Then I heard several shouts down the line.

“RPG!”

Hot brass clunked into my kevlar and singed my neck when the man to my left, along with a handful of others opened fire. A loud thud directed my gaze downward to a dust cloud near the wall of the building the biker entered, followed by a hissing streak that shot towards me and flew about ten feet over my head. By the time I oriented my muzzle to the origin of the blast, I only saw dust. Out of frustration I fired a shot into the dissipating dirt. Thirty seconds later, I heard the RPG’s muffled boom from about a mile behind us.

Now it was on. The machine gunners ripped off bursts from their M240’s while Marines by their sides called out targets. They spotted movement about eleven hundred meters away and enemy targets near two trees well beyond eight hundred meters. Snipers popped off shots from their position half a kilometer to our south. Benson engaged spotters identified near the compound with the red door, hitting one after his third burst and Grove’s team engaged an enemy in the corn fields to the north. 

Amidst the action I heard to my left and right, and rounds continuing to sail high above us, I looked with increasing frustration through my rifle’s optic. I couldn’t see anything at or approaching any of the landmarks called out except the distant signal fires.

Our standoff lasted close to an hour, and the enemy never managed to walk their rounds any closer to us. They must have sent hundreds that only whispered over our heads. We were so accustomed to their inaccuracy that I remember some Marines began standing fully upright telling others to pick up their trash. Not long after the tension continued to ease, I heard that my squad would be the first to set foot into the town.

I remember standing up with my fellow squad mates, overlooking the scene without a care in the world. A peace I can only describe as supernatural melted any remaining tension in my muscles. My lungs filled with the fresh morning air peppered with the smell of carbon. As I exhaled I distinctly remembered thinking, 

It’s just another day at work.

We patrolled through the sections closest to us and faced minimal hostility. The bulk of the enemy must have been smart, staying a kilometer away, fully vacating the housing near our position. Though we still swept our route with diligence, in my mind, the threat of IED’s was relatively low because the village was fully occupied only a few hours ago and they didn’t have time to prepare for our arrival. 

About four hours, three pop shots, two possible IED’s and one long conversation in the town square with the village elders later, we headed back to the rest of the company on the hill. On our way out, second squad found some IED’s at the ruins and needed help with security while the engineer dealt with them, so we linked up with Heath at a corner of a building.

“We’re takin shots from a building about three hundred meters away. Sprint past the alley over to that wall,” he said, pointing to the side of a compound where others gathered, “and I’ll cover you.”

We nodded. Heath shouldered his rifle against the corner, cracking off rounds while Davis and I took off towards the others. I heard two snaps during our brief exposure, but we reached the safety of the ten-foot high wall within a few seconds. 

Turning my back to the wall, I looked up to the ruins. These “ruins” were so ruined that no structures remained except a thirty-foot-tall mound of dirt with a flat top and a shallow rim of mud for cover. 

“So what happened?” I asked one of the Marines.

“We were setting up overwatch when Devack got a hard hit. Once the engineer confirmed it was an IED we came down.”

“How big is it?”

“I think I heard him say nine pounds.”

I turned to see the engineer hop, skip and slide down the raggedy path, elevating his hands for balance. 

“Two minutes!” He shouted, “Get back!” I slid my back down the wall to take a seat. “Plug your ears, open your mouths!” he yelled.

I stuffed my fingers hard against my eardrums and let my jaw dangle. As we waited, I thought back to the breaching range with the six pound ghostbuster bomb2. Although now I was only about fifty meters away and the charge was several pounds bigger, I had an idea of what to expect: a loud boom, a burst of dust, and a nudge of air pressure.

Two minutes ticked slower than ever, but I kept my ears blocked and mouth open. After an agonizing wait, some of the guys spoke up.

“You set this thing up right?”

“The hell’s goin on”

“I thought you said tw–”

The moon dust surrounding us levitated three feet high as my focal point at the top of the ruins turned black from an eruption of debris. A shockwave of pebbles and overheated air smacked my face, stalling my next breath and rattled my bones and brain with a skull-splitting, seismic thunderclap. 

After we all finished gasping, we began cheering. That was a lot more than nine pounds of explosives. I later learned there were four nine-pound IED’s chained together, and an additional two pound charge the engineer strapped on to set the whole thing off. Thirty-eight pounds of TNT equivalent explosives. All of second squad was up there, set in as overwatch before they discovered the bombs. They were packed on top of a thirty to forty-foot wide cylinder. Thirteen Marines would have turned to three in an instant. How they didn’t set that thing off with so many feet in such a small space was beyond me. I thought of Psalm 91:3, and thanked God. He will save you from the hunter’s net. 3

Our exhilaration faded for only a few minutes before it was reinvigorated by the beat of a .50 caliber machine gun. The sound tickled me with joy knowing a weapon with such incredible power was being unleashed upon the enemy. Finally the tanks were getting in on the action. Fists and shouts from each Marine shot into the sky.

“Get some!”

“Fuck yeah!”

I joined in with a mighty cheer and a raised fist.

The pounding of the weapon continued for ten seconds when a frantic voice yelled through the radio.

Cease fire! Cease, fuckin’ fire!

  1. 6 oz energy drink issued to us on deployment
  2. I write about some training I did in Recapture Tactics Team in post 38. Splinters.
  3. I prayed this Psalm over the whole company in the previous post, 59. Into the Darkness. For more information on the Psalm, I wrote about it in 56. Miracle Book

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