Wednesday, March 2, 2011

From the Pages - The War I Always Wanted

Growing up in the shadows of the giant B-52 Stratofortresses that thundered away from the nearby Barksdale Air Force Base, Brandon Friedman dreamed of becoming a warrior and defending his country. But dreams of heroism and the realities of war can look very different, and when Brandon joined the army as a second lieutenant in peacetime, he had no way of knowing how his world was about to change.

In the following excerpt from The War I Always Wanted, Friedman recalls his experiences on the first morning facing off against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley in "Operation Anaconda."

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An eerie quiet has descended upon the Shah-e-Kot Valley and its surrounding peaks. As the sky turns from black to purple to blue, I sit, unmoved, against my ruck. I am a small, living, breathing dot on a smoking expanse of desolation. The stillness is palpable. All I can hear are my own teeth chattering in the cold air. With the light comes sobriety, and Life itself seems a bit self-conscious about its behavior during the night. Eventually I will learn that the silence and calm following butchery is directly proportional to the amount of bloodletting that occurs.

I am groggy. I think that I must have dozed for nearly an hour because the night’s events are already beginning to seem like a dream. I hear movement around me as guys who aren’t pulling security start to wake from their short naps. As the sky begins to lighten, my heart sinks as I realize mountains buttress us to the east—mountains that will block our only source of heat for hours.

Sergeant Collins is next to me. We make some small talk as I scan our surroundings for the first time in the early morning light. Being in the low ground, I can’t see much. The platoon is facing southwest, stretched in a defensive line spanning a hundred yards. They are on the reverse slope of a rise in the earth. I look for Charlie Company, but can’t see them anywhere. In the night it had come across the net that they had been engaged in a firefight the day prior and are now somewhere on the high ground to our east.

I can see several guys changing their socks, while others brush off their weapons. Objective Ginger looms above them to the south. I have removed my set of equipment and it lies on the ground next to me. Sergeant Collins has taken off his helmet despite the cold. Having worn mine for over twelve straight hours, I decide to do the same, setting it gently on the ground by my ruck. My weapon lies in my lap. I can hear other quiet voices speak to each other in the growing light.

An inbound bullet is always felt before it is heard. I twitch involuntarily as the first round streaks through the air above me, cutting a path through the thin mountain air. Breaking the silence, the crack is loud and nearly instantaneous. Later I find that this sensation is caused by the tiny sonic boom let that accompanies whizzing bullets. I have never before been on the receiving end of any projectile other than baseballs or paintballs. At worst, those leave bruises, not holes. This is serious. This is a new thing for me.

I am awake.

I’m on a stage. The spotlight has just found me. Blinded, I try to cover my eyes. I look into the crowd. They are waiting. I am unprepared.

My brain clicks back on. I yell the obvious. “Sniiiiiiiper!” The call is echoed throughout the platoon. I hit the ground. On the way down, I snag my helmet. As I lie on my stomach shivering, I put it on and try to snap on the chinstrap with my nearly numb fingers. I can feel rocks digging into the palms of my hands as well as my knees. I try to flatten myself as much as possible. As a kid, I’d seen surprised squirrels do something similar to this in my neighborhood. Now I am doing my best imitation. It seems like the thing to do.

Complete thoughts slowly begin forming. That round came from behind us. What the fuck? Everyone else realizes the same thing and they are instinctively repositioning themselves to face the northwest.


Then: “Who sees him?” I yell it. Another voice asks if anyone has been hit. Suddenly there is a jumble of “Who sees . . . I don’t . . . anything . . . do you . . . what?” Words and sentences become tangled. As the squad leaders desperately try to glean from their men if anyone has seen anything, I look for Taylor. He has the radio.

I see him twenty feet away, but he may as well be on the moon. Sergeant Divona is with him. I start to crawl toward them, but I only get a few feet before I realize I don’t have my load-bearing vest with my extra ammo magazines. I move quickly in reverse and grab it. I drag it behind me, knowing full well that sitting up on a knee to don it can mean a bullet in the head.

As I crawl, I become aware that my teeth are chattering—literally knocking together—in my head. I notice that I am still freezing. For some odd reason, I feel cheated. I had hoped that if I had to fight, I’d least have enough adrenaline pumping through me to ward off the cold. I feel that this isn’t fair. It never happens like this on TV. On TV no one ever has to fight with teeth clanging and hands so cold they can barely operate the trigger on a gun. I had hoped a shootout would at least warm me up.

I am almost there when the second round pierces the air. I dig my face into the ground. Then I look up. I glance behind me, at most of the platoon. “Did anybody see an impact?” I shout. Suddenly Rito Diaz, one of Sergeant Beville’s machine gunners, calls out: “I just saw it hit behind me!”

Sergeant Collins is scrambling on all fours toward Taylor and me. He looks at Diaz and asks, “Are you sure?”

“I . . . I think so, Sergeant,” Diaz responds.

Fuck. Finally, I make it to Taylor and Sergeant Divona. All right. Think, think, think, goddammit. Okay. “Taylor, call it in to the CP. Tell ’em we’re gonna engage the sniper. Sergeant Divona . . .” I stop, wheels turning furiously in my head. I look at him. “Hold up.” I want to get a better look before I make another move. CRACK!!! Another round passes directly over my head. As with the others, I can feel it.

The call goes out from the platoon, “Is anybody hit?!” Nothing. No one has been hit. I am beginning to think that this is the world’s worst sniper. Three shots have been fired at a stationary platoon with no hits. My next thought is a bit more cynical. If we’ve been so lucky on the first three, then it is only a matter of seconds before our luck will run out. Then someone calls out, “Can we shoot?!” This strikes me as an utterly stupid question. I yell as loud as I can, “Yes, goddammit! Light the motherfucker up!” Collins screams something similar at the same time.

He is next to me. “Come on, let’s flank around to the left. Let’s get up the hill and waste this motherfucker!” he urges me. It is the moment for which Collins has been waiting his entire life. He is actually going to get to close with and destroy an enemy. In his mind, I think, he has already charged up the hill, pulled out his bayonet, jammed it between the sniper’s ribs, and watched his lifeblood run out.

“Hold . . . Hold up, man!” I say, worriedly. He has a look in his eyes that says if I hesitate, he will take the platoon and go on without me. He is serious. At once I am concerned that the age-old power struggle between platoon leaders and platoon sergeants is about to reach a breaking point. In the six months we’ve known each other, we’ve never had a conflict over what is best for the platoon. It looks like that is about to change now. “No No No! Wait,” I plead. I am thinking again. I want to prop myself up on all fours to get a clearer look up the hill. For a second I think about the sense in that.

I do it anyway. I have to do something. I can’t see anything. As I lower myself back into the prone position, I suddenly feel that aliveness—that by propping myself up to see, I’ve somehow cheated death by surviving. I can hear Sergeant Collins, “Sir, let’s go!”

A fourth round cuts through the cold morning air, the loud crack echoing around in my brain. We try to get as close to the ground as we can. “I see him, I see him!” It is Pfc. Smerbeck. The next sound I hear is his M4. Smerbeck doesn’t hesitate for a second in returning fire.
“He just dropped out of sight!” Smerbeck calls out. The machine gunner next to him, Kamauf, turns to Sergeant Beville and asks, “Can I shoot?” Kamauf wants to unleash his heavy machine gun. No answer from Sergeant Beville. He is at a terrible vantage point and can’t see anything. Then Beville, deliberately disregarding the danger, cracks a joke about Smerbeck screwing up the round count. After he says it, he looks at me, wide-eyed and grinning. Somebody asks Smerbeck if he’s hit him, and Smerbeck answers in the negative, saying he doesn’t think so.

I look at Sergeant Collins. “Wait. Let’s prep it first.” I shift my hips and turn to Sergeant Divona, my forward observer. “Hey man, call it in and have ’em drop some mortar rounds on the sniper.” I realize we’re way too close for mortars, but I don’t care. I don’t know if I have the stomach for an uphill assault. I pause for a second, waiting for Divona’s retort. For the first time in four months, however, Sergeant Divona doesn’t complain about the mission. He doesn’t question it and he doesn’t give me the usual look like I’ve just killed his dog. Relieved by his reaction, I watch as he goes to work on his radio. He is now calling in a strike with literally no margin for error.

It has been about a minute since Smerbeck returned fire and the sniper’s rifle has fallen silent. This is good at least. Divona finishes with the radio call. For a few more moments we wait. It grows quiet again. I’m not breathing. Suddenly Taylor’s radio comes to life. “Sir, it’s for you. It’s First Sergeant.”

I take the handset from him and put it to my ear. First Sergeant wants to know the direction of the sniper and his distance from us. Have I not called that in to the CP already? Wasn’t that the first thing I did? It is the first thing I should have done, anyway. I must have forgotten. “Roger,” I answer, “it’s a hundred meters at, uhh, fifty-five degrees, over.” He repeats it back to me in confirmation and then there is silence.

I look at Divona, concerned. I ask him what the holdup is. He just frowns and shrugs. I glance back at the platoon. Everyone is still down, but their eyes are still trained intently on the sniper’s position. No one speaks as we wait for the mortars to fall.

The radio crackles again. Taylor answers it and I see his eyes widen. I can’t make out much, but I distinctly hear, “Cease fire! Cease fire!” come across. Taylor drops the handset to his side. “Sir,” he says, “they’re telling us to stop shooting immediately.”

Perplexed, I ask him why. This makes no sense at all.

“Sir, they said it’s a friendly grid. They said we just called in a mortar strike on our own scouts.”

I am stunned momentarily. How can the scouts be that close to the sniper? That can’t be. Wait a second. . . . A new thought begins to mate-rialize in my rattled brain. “No. No,” I shake my head. “Those rounds were close. . . . Diaz saw one impact behind him,” I stammer. Jawdropping surprise does not begin to describe what I am feeling. If it’s true . . . Words like “friendly fire” and “fratricide” begin to dance behind my eyes.

“No sir,” Taylor says. “Battalion says that scout snipers are behind us and that they were engaging targets in the valley and they just reported being fired at.”

I have now fumbled my platoon through our first combat action. I have ordered my soldiers to fire on their own scouts and asked my forward observer to drop mortars on these same soldiers. This is not my fault, but I can see that this type of work is not as easy as it looks on TV.

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