For your enjoyment, here is Chapter 1 of my audience favorite,
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
You can say it started three years before on that Op up in the mountains… “See anything down there?” “Ace” asked.
“No, and that bothers me,” “the Ghost” answered as he continued to scan the small village below through the Leupold telescopic sight on his Mk-110 sniper rifle.
Ace had a pair of M-22 Steiner binoculars and was doing the same thing, looking for movement or any sign of life down there, but there was none. They were sent here because Intelligence said there was to be a meeting of five of the local Taliban khans and their lieutenants in the small village this morning. That would be at least a dozen enemy soldiers and their leaders. So far, nothing. No one was there. Or, it was meant to look that way.
It wasn’t much of a village, or “Vil,” as they called it, to begin with:
eight dilapidated mud-wall huts sitting between the main north-south valley trail and a dry stream bed. Not much else: no activity, no people, not even any goats or chickens.
The Ghost was Major Robert Tyrone Burke, team leader. Ace was
Master Sergeant Harold Randall, Bob Burke’s #2, his top-ranked NCO and best friend, but never to be called Harold or even Hal under penalty of death. Their team of ten Delta Force “operators” had flown out of Kandahar in two Black Hawk helicopters at 8 p.m. the night before and dropped off five miles south. They double-timed it up the valley along a narrow goat trail that wound along the mountainside in order to be in position in the rocks above the Vil before the sun came up. They were hidden, but the site didn’t afford much cover. That was never a good thing, especially in the heart of Helmand Province, the deadliest place in Afghanistan for Americans.
“Where did this Intel and Op Order come from, if I may be so bold?” Ace asked. “Tell me it wasn’t from that dumbass new Light Colonel in G-2.” “Okay, I won’t tell you it’s from that dumbass new Light Colonel in G-2.”
“And a bad op is a bad op.”
“Copy that,” Bob said as he looked at his watch. It was already after 10 a.m. “Well, Master Sergeant, we can’t sit here in the middle of Indian country much longer,” he said as he swept the Vil with his scope one last time.
“A rolling stone gathers no bullets? But if we’re going down there, we should light it up first – a little recon by fire to see if Haji pops out of his rabbit hole.”
“That’s what I was thinking, but I didn’t know you went to West Point too.”
“Me? West Point? No, just Uncle’s School of Scars and Hard Knocks. And I’ll tell you, after six tours I’m getting a little old for this shit.”
“Copy that. Only my fifth, but it takes a handful of Motrin to roll my ass out of the rack in the morning.”
“And harder and harder to tolerate fools.”
“Roger that. No wonder we get a bit cranky from time to time,” Bob replied as he looked around the valley and up the hill behind them. “Something bothering you?”
“Probably nothing; but ever since the sun came up, I get this weird feeling somebody’s watching me. You ever get that?”
“Depends who I’m dating and whether her ex-husband is still around, but I’ll tell Lonzo and Herbie to keep an eye on your Six. You never can tell.”
Bob had placed Sergeant First Class Vinnie Pastorini fifty meters up the trail to the north and left Sergeant Joe “The Batman” Hendrix to block the trail behind them to the south. They kept the heavy weapons group in the center, consisting of Sergeant Henry “Lonzo” Hardisty, Sergeant Herbert “Herbie” Jacobs, and Sergeant Miguel “Toro” Torez. He activated the mic on his PRC-154 Rifleman squad radio and said, “Wake up gentlemen, siesta’s over, folks. Time to go to work. “Lonzo, on my mark, hit the Vil with your SAW,” referring to their squad M-249 light machine gun. “Herbie, you and Toro drop some ‘thumper’ rounds in there too.” Those were the accurate and lethal grenade rounds they fired from the M-203 grenade launchers attached under their M-4 carbines. “Let’s see what we flush out. All right, light it up. Now!”
The Army’s Delta Force has three peculiarities that distinguish it from other units. First, membership in the elite infantry unit is top-secret. Other than wives, its members tell no one, not even their mothers or girlfriends, for their protection. Second, like undercover cops, Delta “operators” were not required to adhere to the Army’s normal physical appearance standards. Long hair, beards, tattoos, and earrings were not only the norm, they were needed to rid them of that telltale “Army” look so they could blend more easily into civilian populations. Except in formal military settings with other soldiers around, they usually used their tactical radio names or “handles” in normal conversation, regardless of rank. It was a sign of unit cohesion, exclusivity, and even affection.
While Bob Burke was a major, the others were senior sergeants in their mid to late 20s and 30s, all seasoned professionals, and older and far more battle-weary than the average soldier at Kandahar or Bagram. Most were on their second, third, or even fourth tour in Afghanistan plus a couple in Iraq, always out in the field on Special Operations that ended up kicking everyone’s ass. But soldiering was their choice. They got what they had bargained for. Now they were trapped in it. Get out? To do what? Private security work? Hire out as a mercenary? Or stay in and go back to Bragg or Benning as an instructor or a goddamned supply clerk? There was nothing else they could do that gave them the camaraderie, the sense of mission, or the incredible high that this did.
In the States, they dressed like a motorcycle gang – trendy, hairy, and Jim Beam “country.” Ace Randall usually wore a long, tightly braided ponytail, a Fu Manchu moustache, and a tattoo on each forearm. One read,
“Been There, Done That,” and the other said, “Kill ‘em All. Let God Sort It Out.” But when you are six feet two inches tall, a muscular two hundred and ten pounds, and ruggedly handsome, camouflage was essential.
On a deployment like this “to the desert,” which meant anywhere in the Middle East, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, or parts unknown, their appearance went “native.” They wore the same unkempt hair, scraggly beards, earth-colored baggy pants, shawl, and flat “pakol” hat that the Afghans wore.
The firing lasted no more than thirty seconds, but neither the half-dozen gold-tipped high-explosive grenade rounds nor the bursts of machine gun fire flushed out any response from the Vil. All they accomplished was to knock the corners off a couple of buildings, pockmark the walls with bullet holes, cave in a roof, and kick up a large cloud of dust. As the last of the echoes died away, the Valley became dead quiet again.
“Damn,” Ace said as he scanned the Vil again, “looks like we’ll have to go down and kick in some doors.”
“Take ‘Chester with,” Staff Sergeant Festus Blackledge, “and The Bee,” Sergeant Jimmy Beemaster, “and Crispy,” Sergeant Jamil Johnson, “We’ll cover you from here.”
Keeping low, Ace and the other three men leapfrogged down the hillside from boulder to boulder until they reached the valley floor. They paused behind some large rocks to recon once more. Still, nothing. But as soon as they left the cover of the rocks and were out in the open, all hell broke loose. Bursts of automatic rifle fire drove them back to the rocks, where they took cover as best they could, but Crispy was down and The Bee was hit trying to drag him away. He managed to get them both to relative safety behind one of the boulders a hundred meters short of the Vil, as Ace, Chester, and the six men up on the hillside trail all opened up on it with supporting fire. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the morning’s surprises. “Ghost, Vinnie, I have Hajis coming down the trail from the north,” he heard Sergeant First Class Vinnie Pastorini say over the tactical net.
“Squad strength at least. Am engaging.”
Before he could reply, he heard a second radio call from the south end their line. “Ghost, Batman, same-o, same-o, a half-dozen, maybe ten.
Am also engaging.”
Fortunately, the trail was very narrow, forcing the Talis to come at them in column and making it easy to stop them where they were for the time being. Bob rolled over and looked up the mountainside to see if there were any more enemy troops getting in position above them, but he saw nothing. Reaching under his shawl, he pulled out his handheld AN PRC154 field radio. It was about the size of an old-fashioned walkie-talkie, but much more powerful, which he used to communicate with the fixed-wing, forward air controller usually circling northern Helmand Province when operations were ongoing.
“Sky Bird, Ghost…” he called, hoping the guy hadn’t gone back to
Bagram to refuel. “Sky Bird, Ghost,” he called again, knowing reception was worse the further north they got.
“Ghost, Sky Bird,” he finally heard the scratchy reply. “What can we do for you this fine morning?”
“Not so fine at the moment, Sky Bird. We need fire support and an extraction, ASAP.”
“I have two F-16s north of Kandahar I’ll vector them in. Should be over you in five minutes. Call sign ‘Hoosier-15.’ ”
“Sooner would be better. It’s getting a tad toasty up here.”
“Copy, that, Ghost. I’ll also send in two Black Hawks for extraction and two Apaches for fire support, but they’re at least fifteen minutes out.”
Fifteen minutes, he thought. The gunfire from the Vil was increasing and his four guys down there were seriously outgunned. At the same time, activity was increasing at both the north and south ends of their position. So, while he was talking, being the best shot in the unit as well as its commander, he took shots at anything that moved or even looked suspicious down in the Vil with his M-110 sniper rifle.
“Lonzo,” he called out, “reposition north and support Vinnie with the SAW. Herbie, take your Thumper and support The Batman.”
“Ghost, Sky Bird. What are the targets?”
“We have enemy infantry with automatic weapons dug in a small Vil. Eight mud huts and a reinforced squad at least. Also, we have enemy in the open on the trail at each side of our positions. Priority to the Vil and tell him to put a rush on it.”
“Copy, Ghost. Hoosier-15 and his wingman are toting Mark-82
500-pound ‘dumb’ bombs. They should be perfect to flatten your huts. Then they can come around and hit the trail targets with guns or rockets. Hoosier-15 will want you to mark the friendlies with smoke and vector him in.”
“Roger that,” Bob told Sky Bird and switched to the squad tactical net. “Ace, we have two fast movers coming in and we need to mark your position. What color smoke do you have?”
Ace rummaged through his rucksack and said, “Ghost, I have an orange smoke grenade, I say again, an orange.”
“Roger that, Ace, go ahead and mark.”
Feeling like a one-armed paperhanger with two radios and three firefights going on simultaneously, he finally heard the slow drawl of the Air Force F-16 pilot come online.
“Ghost, this is Hoosier-15, starting up the valley. You marking with smoke?”
“Roger that, Hoosier-15. We marked friendlies with an orange, I say again an orange. Your target is 90° and 100 yards east and across the valley from the smoke.”
“Copy that, Ghost, commencing run. I see an orange… No, I see two oranges.”
“Damn!” Bob swore. The last thing they needed was a confused F-
16 pilot with 500-pound bombs. “Abort, abort!” He said as he looked down into the valley and saw a second cloud of orange smoke beginning to waft over the Vil.
“Look like Haji’s learned some new tricks,” Ace said as he dug in his rucksack and pulled out a yellow smoke grenade. “Ghost, I’m dropping a banana,” he said as he popped it downwind from their position. “I say again, a banana.”
“Hoosier-15 come on around. My guy’s put out a banana, I say again, a banana.” But no sooner did the jet pilot acknowledge and start a second run than Bob saw a second cloud of smoke in the Vil. Naturally, it was also yellow. “Hoosier-15, Abort, Abort. Looks like the bad guys have a well-stocked supply room. But come on around one more time.”
“Ace,” Bob told him, “the bastards are matching your smoke to confuse the FAC. What else you got?”
“Purple. I’ll toss a purple.” As Bob watched, the purple smoke drifted away from Ace’s position, but that was all he saw.
“Ghost, this is Hoosier-15 again. I have a grape… Lo and behold, just one grape. Target in view, with some leftover orange and banana, just like Carmen Miranda.”
“Hoosier-15, you best take Carmen out, ‘cause we’re fresh out of fruit down here.”
In a matter of seconds, the two F-16s rolled in and put four Mark82 500-pound bombs into the cluster of mud huts. The explosions rocked the valley, sending rock and debris into the air and columns of choking dust.
“Hoosier-15, Ghost. All good, but we still need some help up on the hill. We are being pressed at each end of our line by enemy infantry.”
“Well, Ghost, if ya’ll think you can get the smoke right, from today’s menu, the chef recommends our 20-millimeter Vulcan Gatling gun for that particular application. It ought to clear off that trail right quick for you.”
“Vinnie, Koz, mark your positions with smoke.” Bob saw yellow smoke pop from Vinnie’s position and orange smoke from Koz’s, and then called pilot again. “We are on the inside of those two markers, a banana and an orange – I say again, the inside – bring it on in.”
“Ghost, Hoosier-15. I see one banana and one orange. I say again, only one each. Commencing our runs, I’ll come in from the south and strafe the north target, and my wingman will come in from the north and hit the south. But Ghost, we saw their positions from the muzzle flashes last time around and the Tali are ‘danger’ close to your guys. You sure you want us to do this? Or would you rather wait for the Apaches?”
“No time, Hoosier-15. Take ‘em out or we’ll die here.”
“Roger that, Ghost. Tell your boys to get their heads down.” Bob tried to locate the two jets, but the sky was too bright. “Vinnie, you and Koz shoot everything you got down the trail, then get the hell away from there and take cover.”
Perhaps ten seconds later, the first F-16 Eagle screamed directly up the valley, drifted up the hillside, and flashed over the American positions, low and hard. It opened up with its Vulcan Gatling gun and strafed the trail, beginning exactly where the smoke grenade spewed a bright orange plume of smoke. The Vulcan had six barrels that rotated like a Gatling gun and fired up to six thousand 20-millimeter cannon rounds per minute. It sounded like a high-pitched, shrieking chainsaw when it was fired, but even that loud, grating noise was drowned out by the roar of the F-16’s engines as it passed right over their heads. It is a devastating weapon. The burst from the 20-millimeter cannon couldn’t have lasted more than three or four seconds, but Hoosier-15 fired it with pinpoint, devastating accuracy. Hundreds of 20-millimeter rounds shredded a 300-yard long by 10-yard wide stretch of the trail and hillside, slicing and dicing every living thing in its path with the high explosive rounds and flying shards of stone. It was both terrifying and exhilarating.
As he turned off and soared out over the valley, his wing man swept in from the other direction and did exactly the same thing to the trail beyond Koz’s position, beginning at the spot where his yellow smoke canister lay. Again, another three- or four-second burst and the hillside trail erupted in dust, flying rock, and shrapnel before he too powered out over the valley and was gone. Their day was done.
“Hoosier-15, Ghost. Right on target. Thanks for the help.”
“Your friends up here in blue always aim to please, Ghost. Now, ya’ll have a good day ya hear,” he said, no doubt headed for the bar at the officers’ club for a beer, a steak, and a hot shower in their air-conditioned hooches at Bagram Air Force Base over the mountains to the east. Yes, Bob thought, it was one hell of a war.
The Taliban, or what little was left of them, vanished as quickly as they had appeared, and Bob was able to quickly reposition his men down on the edge of the Vil. They commenced treating their wounded as two Black Hawk helicopters swept up the valley for their pickup. Two Apaches circled above them, providing high cover, but there was no need. The short, sharp fight was over. It was impossible to come up with a hard body count; but from a quick scan of the body parts and weapons strewn about the rubble that had been the Vil, he figured they’d killed eight or ten there, plus another dozen or more between the two ends of the trail.
In the process, however, Bob had lost two good men KIA: Sergeant
Crispy Johnson, who died from bullet wounds in the initial attack on the Vil, and Specialist Herbie Jacobs, who died from Taliban rifle fire up on the south end of the trail. In addition, Lonzo, The Batman, The Bee, and Toro all sustained one or more minor wounds, but none were lifethreatening.
As they flew back down the valley, Bob sat next to Ace in the open door of the Black Hawk, legs dangling out on the struts as it flew down the long valley and headed for the field hospital in Kandahar. As he looked out across the desolate rock-strewn countryside, he couldn’t help wondering about this country and its people.
Helmand was home to dozens of fiercely independent hill tribes. The truth was, they harbored no more dislike of the Americans than they had for the Russians, the British, the Persians, the Mongols, the Arabs, or the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Nothing personal, but they just didn’t like foreigners of any kind coming in and telling them what to do; and they had kicked everyone’s ass who tried, including ours. That was the reality of Afghanistan. So were the two bodies lying on the floor of the helicopter behind him, and the four men sitting on the benches, bandaged and glassy-eyed from painkillers.
It was 11:30 when they landed at the Kandahar Military Hospital. As Bob and his remaining men stood silently watching, the medical staff rushed his wounded off to triage. After they came back and unloaded his two KIAs, Ace looked over and said, “I don’t like that look in your eye,
Ghost. Tell me you ain’t gonna do what I think you’re gonna do.”
Bob turned and stared at him with those hard, black eyes and an expression hot enough to burn through steel. “Me? I’m a pussycat. What’s wrong with stopping by and saying Hi to the new Deputy G-2?” he asked as he threw his gear over his shoulder and set off at a brisk pace toward the Special Operations Command – Central compound, or SOCENT, a quarter mile away. Ace signaled Vinnie, Koz, and Chester, and they did their best to keep up.
Kandahar wasn’t a large base. That made it an easy place to walk and a hard place to keep secrets. Bob and his unwanted entourage of babysitters were only halfway to the SOCENT compound when he saw a very large black man in crisp, fresh-off-the-plane camo BDUs and clean boots coming toward him on the dusty road. No need to walk much further, he thought. It was Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson Adkins of the Adjutant General Corps, the new Deputy S-2 in Plans and Ops. At 6’ 7” and 270 pounds with an in-grown, angry frown, the man was hard to miss.
Adkins’s sullen attitude was perhaps understandable. A former AllBig 10 offensive lineman and son of a GM auto worker in Detroit, his prospective professional football career ended when he blew out his knee at the end of his junior year of college. Instead of the New York Giants or the LA Rams, he ended up with a Physical Education degree and an Army ROTC commission. Still, when it came to important staff jobs in Special Ops, where guys lives are on the line every day, one hoped they would plug someone in who had plenty of combat time in a branch whose emblem shot something, like the crossed rifles of the Infantry, the cannon of the Field Artillery, or the tanks of the Armor Corps. Seeing those Adjutant General emblems on the collar of his BDUs in a war zone did not inspire confidence. Word was someone in higher authority thought it would be a good idea to put him in the Deputy S-2 Military Intelligence slot in SOCENT in Kandahar, albeit temporarily, to help pad his resume for the upcoming promotion board.
Given the time, Adkins was probably headed to the officers’ mess, which was around the corner, and an early seat at the General’s table, when Bob cut him off. Burke was a little guy, only 5’ 9” and maybe down to 150 pounds after weeks in the field, so the Colonel towered over him. Dirty, haggard, and still dressed in his Afghan hill tribe attire with no name or rank, as opposed to his dress uniform which bore a 75th Ranger Regiment and a chest full of medals, it was no surprise that Adkins didn’t recognize him. Still, Bob Burke was already a Special Ops legend and the field pack over his shoulder and the long M-110 sniper rifle in his hand should have given Adkins a clue.
Adkins went to his left and Bob stepped in front of him. He went to his right and Bob did it again. Finally, the Colonel stopped and glared down at him. “You playin’ games with me?”
“That intel you gave us last night was bullshit! It got two of my men killed this morning, because you sent us right into an ambush.”
“I didn’t do shit, boy!” Adkins glared down at him, as the other Deltas gathered around. “I guess you must be Burke,” he said as the lightbulb must have finally come on. “Yeah, I heard there was a firefight out there. Too bad! But don’t blame me just because you screwed up the op. Now get the hell out of my way, MAJOR, ‘cause I’m late for lunch.”
Adkins put the palm of his huge hand on Bob Burke’s chest and stepped forward, intending to shove him aside and continue on to the officers’ mess. Big mistake, and the last thing Jefferson Adkins remembered for a while. A lightning fast straight right caught him on the button, lifted him several inches off the ground, and dropped him on his back on the dusty road, out cold, with a broken nose and minus one front tooth.
All this happened on a busy street in the middle of the base in broad daylight. When Adkins came to some minutes later and tried to file a report with the MPs, it was amazing how they could find no witnesses who saw anything other than him push the Major, slip, and hit his head as he fell to the ground. Funny how things work out sometimes. It didn’t take long before everyone in the headquarters knew what happened. Most just smiled, figuring the big guy had it coming.
Bob never regretted it, but that was one more big straw on the camel’s back. From the direction the war and the Army were headed, he soon realized it was time for him to get out. What he didn’t realize was that this was not the last time that he and Jefferson Adkins would cross swords.
If you are interested in reading more, you can find the book on Amazon.
All books can be found on Amazon and are available in Paperback, Hardback, Audible, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited formats. All of my thriller novels are available in English, German, Spanish, Italian and soon in French editions. However, my non-fiction Vietnam books are only available in English.