Saturday, October 26, 2019

On patrol in Afghan: Always stressful. Must be zoned in.

“We’re playing big boys’ games ... What I’m interested in is getting the job done, and let’s face it, getting the boys back safely.”

Lieutenant Colonel Carew Hatherley, Grenadier Guards, Britain

"We're at war out here ... That means patrolling aggressively from the first to the last day of our deployment. The Taliban will cut us no slack, and we return the sentiment."
Lt. Col. David Bradney, USMC

What was it like to be on a ground patrol in Afghanistan 2013 and earlier. This attempts to convey some of the experiences, a glimpse, presented by one who has not done been on such a patrol.

A  Marine sums up well how many of our combatants there have felt, at onetime or another:

“Definitely the hardest part about being out here is watching your friends get killed or altered for the rest of their life. Civilians don’t wake up in the morning and see, huh, am I going to lose my legs today or die today, so, I won’t tell anybody anything. I mean, nobody wants to know what anybody saw or did out here. If you really want to know about it enough, you should come out here and do it yourself.”

An assistant patrol leader echoes that view:

“The (American) civilian populace, they stay in their own little bubble, you know, they’re content in that little bubble they stay in. They don’t need none of this shit. No one needs to know the shit that we go through. ‘Cause if they start asking us questions about the shit that we go through, they wouldn’t have any understanding because they were never there, they would not know what you felt, of how it affected you mentally and physically. They wouldn’t have nay idea of what it feels like to hold a tourniquet on somebody’s leg like while you’re watching him bleed away. They wouldn’t know any of that.”

Spc. Kyle Klobuchar,USA, put it this way:

"Play your A game. It would be a shame if we let up on our last patrol and somebody got hurt ... You can't afford to break concentration, even for a second ... It's so stressful. You always have to be zoned in. You can't ever get distracted."

The Terrain

Our forces do a lot of climbing in this terrain. One captain said:

“The terrain here will kick your ass. It’s not a joke (even though he was smiling). And you can feel it in your lungs, feel it in, you get that feeling in your chest, you feel like (and then he blew out air). Every day.”

And they spend a lot of time in valleys. They often find themselves located below enemy hideouts. The enemy can engage our forces downward, with rockets, grenades, rocket propelled grenades, machine gun and small arms fire downward at our forces.

Or they are on a plateau with many ridges and ravines where the enemy scoots around unseen.

The enemy

The men on patrol know their enemies are not idiots. The enemy knows what he’s doing. They have state-of-the-art weapons, including thermal seeking weapons to attack helicopters. 

One Marine said:

“They have been fighting in these mountains for years. They know how to fight. We have a hard time countering them.”

The enemy is often hard to locate. Our troops receive hostile fire, but have to find the source. A Marine commented:

“Alls I want to do is put two cross hairs on him and shoot him right in the face, but I can’t.”

He can’t because even when only 700 meters away, our guys often cannot see their enemy. The common refrain is, "Get eyes on the enemy."

The enemy likes to conduct hit and run attacks, only a few strong. They’ll hide, take a few shots at our patrol, and get away as fast as they can so there cannot be much of a reaction.

The enemy likes motorcycles, often two per bike.

The enemy has his own way of fighting. For example, enemy fighters leave their homes and families in the morning as they go to work to fight against the Allies, and then return home at night for dinner and sleep, just like us going to the office!

A radio operator said:

“I don’t think I had a respect for the Taliban that I do now, they just kinda seemed like random farmers, but their tactics, they are wicked smart. Mines and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are ingenious, like how they use them, how they employ them, as well as guerrilla warfare in general, dressing them up to match the local population, is like crazy smart because you don’t know who they are, they could be watching, they could be shaking your hand.”

Friend or foe?

The  trick is to get “eyes on the enemy.”

Locating the enemy is one challenge. Another is to identify people as enemy or innocents.

Rules of Engagement (ROE)

Rules of Engagement (ROE) rank among the top complaints of Soldiers and Marines on the ground.
  • They oblige our forces to be certain, almost dead certain, the target is enemy.

  • The troops must hunt the enemy aggressively, fight hard, yet be good guests, earn the people’s respect, reduce civilian casualties.
One soldier said:

“During the Bush administration, we were able to engage terrorists planting IEDs with greater ease. Now, if we see two guys on the side of the road and it looks like they're planting an IED, we are told to wait -- because they might be farmers.”

Philip Smucker reported, “The US military will rarely bomb a column of fighters without knowing precisely who they are and what arms they have stored.”

One officer said this:

“We are willing to restrict ourselves to the point of helplessness to avoid even a possibility of civilian casualties. I have personally watched the same man arm and disarm 12 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over a week, with no strikes allowed due to collateral concerns.”

Another officer said:

“We’ve embraced the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine without remembering to maintain the true power of the US military, which is an unstoppable killing machine. Now the buzz words are ‘development’ [and] ‘partnership’.”

The villages

Many villages are safe havens for the enemy. Many have served as Taliban strongholds for a long time, places to store weapons and supplies, recruit. The enemy co-mingles with the villager; hard to identify

The enemy often threatens the villagers, obtains protection money, and kidnaps villagers.

For our forces, the villages are important for several reasons:
  • Expand area of control.
  • Rout out and kill the enemy, capture their supplies.
  • Mingle with the villagers, impact them in a positive way.
  • Obtain intelligence.
Our troops go into areas they know to be hostile and dangerous. SSgt. Christopher Gehart said:

“You grow up quick out here. You’ve got to. You can’t be a little kid when your buddy gets blown up next to you ... It doesn’t matter which way we go, because we’re going to get in a firefight, and we’re not going to get far. I need (my men) to have your game faces on. This is what we do here every day."

When entering a village, the men on patrol may regularly stop, look around, assess, then proceed, most with their weapons pointed downward. It receives hostile fire. The patrol stops for a moment. The men look around for the source, then disperse to take cover. Get “eyes on the enemy.” They have to keep their heads on a swivel. Know where your own men are. Coordinate quickly, professionally. Call out for air. It comes in. The enemy leaves. Go into the village, talk to the people, find out who was shooting. The villagers are scared, and may claim ignorance. The patrol moves on.

Commonly a patrol will walk in single file, leaving a a distance between each member, silently. In the background dogs barking, kids playing, some Afghans watching. The patrol remains stone cold silent. Hand signals only.

Patrolling in the bazaar is filled with risk. There are many people walking and mingling around the area. It is hard to tell who is who. One soldier might mingle with as many as 50 Afghans. Or a single vehicle with a .50 cal mount might through a massive amount of people in close quarters, at very slow speeds.

Attacks have occurred in the midst of a crowded bazaar. In one case, one enemy was wearing a suicide vest. A patrol in a rough single column approached. The bomber closes in on the patrol just before pulling the trigger. Three American and sixteen Afghan soldiers were killed.

When patrolling through villages, quite often our forces, along with their Afghan Allies, must break into homes. Captain Max Ferguson, USA, said: 

“We hate going through doorways. Every time I take a step through one of those I flinch. It's just a role of the dice whether you are going to step on anything."


The presence of children in a village present special problems. Children in Afghanistan have shown hostile intent and have helped the enemy.
 On many occasions the troops walk through narrow passages in a village. The kids will tag along.

The problem is deciding who is a legitimate target. Debate has arisen over even the phrase “legitimate target” when applied to a child. Some argue there is no such thing; i.e., no child is a legitimate target.

Some argue that identifying children as having potential hostile intent and then targeting them is unlawful.

Patrols in villages are often immediately surrounded by children, many wanting to try their English, many just wanting to mingle with the troops, most of them laughing and smiling. 

 Most often the kids look innocent enough, but it has to linger in a soldier’s mind whether that child is so innocent. On the one hand, the patrol would like the children to get away. On the other they are good for intelligence.

This is hard for many American soldiers. American GIs have long been known to love being with the kids,

“Pushing out”

Our forces do live in fortified compounds. The enemy often lives in caves. The US military is a maneuvering one. There is no such thing as a routine patrol.

Our troops will pursue their enemy through small but dense cornfields and treacherous, rocky mountains. The cornfields magnify the heat. Commonly the soldier cannot see the enemy. But they know the enemy is out there, hiding. Ambushes are common.

Some ambushes end almost as fast as they started, employing only a few enemy, lasting only a few minutes, hit and run style, so the enemy can run before seen. Some fights go on for many hours, even days, but others just last a matter of tens of minutes. There is no such thing as a routine ambush.

Turret gunners are vulnerable. One was hit in the head, through his helmet. He fell to the floor of his Humvee. One troop provided first aid, another walking outside jumped in, manned the turret, and returned fire.

Convoys are frequently struck, some trucks on fire. The trucks provide good cover, so some troops use them and return fire. Others move into other positions. The leader might study the map, able to get only a general position. The smoke may make it hard to see. The men fire into general locations, hoping to force the enemy to show himself. The trick now is to get the convoy moving, as fast as possible, leaving behind the burning vehicles.

A British patrol went in single file through farmland. Occasional trees around behind which the enemy could hide. The last man in the patrol was swinging back and forth, often stopping, pointing his rifle at a spot or two. At one point, he seemed worried about a stack of hay. He , stopped, gazed at it for a minute or two, was ready to engage at a moment’s notice, and then he decided to move on. The rest of the patrol saw him lagging behind, so it stopped, spread out, waited for him to return or engage. He returned and on they went.

While out on patrol, the men sleep for the most part in fighting positions, often curled up behind trees, weapons by their side, trying to stay warm.

On their return to the outpost, many will simply drop all their gear, fall on it, and sleep right there on the ground. Once done, hygiene is a top priority, their bodies, their clothing, their weapons. The men will recount the day, adrenaline still pumping.

Steve Mumford reported on a truck convoy in 2005. A staff sergeant briefed:

"We’re gonna be traveling slow this morning -- I’m taking my time. No one’s in a hurry to get here; no one’s gonna tell me to be in a hurry out there!

“Canals -- be careful! Remember that truck from the other company that slid into the water a couple weeks ago? Guys couldn’t get out -- they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart.  Don’t wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parents’ house to tell ‘em you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now let’s do this. This is awesome! I am motivated to be here!"

The Improvised Explosive Device (IED)

There is little in this war that worries our forces more than the IED. Our young fighting men are very fearful of losing limbs, most fearful of losing their “manhood.”

Jon Boone of The Guardian wrote this in July 2011:

“The threat of IEDs have come to shape nearly everything in this war.”

Some IEDs are radio activated, but most are victim activated by walking on a pressure plate.

Patrols often walk on well used paths, which can present a major IED threat. The men will walk carefully, in single file, slowly but steadily, perhaps 20 ft. separating them, trying to walk in the footsteps of the man in front of him, led by the minesweeper. He’s known as the “sweeper.” Some call the path the walked behind the sweeper, "The pathway of life."

Following a battle, a patrol, what was left of it, worked its way back to the outpost. The pressure plates of hidden bombs did their job. Two soldiers lost their legs, another lost a leg and some fingers, and shrapnel scarred two more in the face, all in less than an hour.

The best sweepers can combine their technology, tracking skills and intuition sharpened by studying past bomb placements. The also can feel their gut, sensing when something is not right.

In 2012, a patrol could only move one-half mile in eight hours. Incredibly, their sweeper, SSgt. Kelly Rogne, known as the “IED Whisperer,” found 29 IEDs on that movement.

A “sweeper” commented:

“Lately I’ve been sweeping, it’s been my job, and when we first got here it wasn’t as bad, but now, the IED threat is getting a lot heavier. It’s kinda starting to suck, each day, like going out, I’ve got to sweep again, but I’d rather it be me rather than anybody else. So definitely quick to let everybody know I’ll do it. I mean, I’ve lived, I’ve enjoyed my life, if I die, shit I’m in a more peaceful place than being around all this shit, so I really don’t care.”

Hal Brenton has written:

“Those who plant the IEDs are often elusive, quick to duck under trees that hide them from overhead surveillance cameras. Under cover, they can drop their weapons or bomb-making materials, put on new clothing and transform themselves from fighters to villagers. They are also canny scavengers, even turning a staple of Army field life — the foil wrappers that encase Meals Ready-to-Eat — into the outer casing for a pressure plate. U.S. soldiers are wary of contributing to the bomb-making materials. They are under orders to cut up any big, empty plastic jugs, such as those that contain protein powder, before leaving them in the base trash. No one wants those jugs smuggled off base and packed with explosives.”

Soldiers must think before they react to receiving hostile fire Moving too fast could take thm into the path of IEDs.  Command Sergeant Major Eric Volk said,:

“They are shooting at us to try to force us to go in a certain direction, which is more dangerous than if you just stay put. The men have to display a lot of discipline.”

First Sergeant Michael Robinson said:

“It's a mindset. If you let the fear take hold, it will rule you, and a bad thing will happen. If you understand that the IED is just an obstacle — something that is just there: You can identify it. Go around it. Or take it out. But you have a choice.”

A gunner said:

“I imagine losing my legs or arms all the time, and we just make jokes about it. You see all the time people losing their legs and you have to help them out, and then you think about yours and, man I can imagine going to Germany and getting your surgery and get healed up and then I get my little ‘tink-tink’ legs, is what we call them, our little metal legs. We talk about it in jokes and you know, I think swimming would be so much easier if we just attached paddles to our little metal legs. It’s all about making jokes out of it. If you don’t make jokes, it would be too grim.”


The prospect of taking casualties, especially when bringing on new guys, weighs on the NCOs.

Sgt. Andrew Bragg said:

“I don’t want my guys going … I’ll go for them. I want revenge. It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.”

Sgt. Adam Lachance said:

“I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks. I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”

Staff Sergeant Rosa, a senior squad leader, said:

“This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties. My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the (new) unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there. If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me. When we cross that second canal, I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”

Medics and Medevacs

Medics and Corpsmen often travel with the patrol. Most warfighters have at least elementary medical know-how in case a medic is not there, or there are more casualties than can be handle by the medics on hand.

The immediate challenge is to get the wounded out of the killing zones. Someone has go out and drag the wounded a safer place. The enemy often will engage. The medic often has to protect the wounded with his own body. Next comes stabilizing the patient. Next is to get him out of the battle area. Calls go out for medevac.

If airborne medevacs cannot come in, a vehicle will have to do. If no vehicle, they’ll have to gut it out until some help arrives.
Quite often, the medevac flights take considerable fire. Quite often, Apache attack helicopters accompany medevac flights. Apaches’ job is to suppress the enemy attacks.

Enemy snipers commonly wait for medics to move the wounded.

Editor's note: You may wish to read a story I posted in April 2019, "'Doc, let's go!' And she went." Spc. Monica Brown, USA, 19, a medic. She received the Silver Star for her heroics.

Air power

Air power, especially close air support (CAS), has been a core feature of the Afghan war.

The air power oft times crushes the enemy, forces him to break off the fight and flee.

But it’s not always that way. One pilot, commented:

“Often you arrive to a smoking hole and guys calling for medevac, and (in a jet or attack helicopter) you feel pretty helpless.”

Pilots with advanced technology can often watch a firefight from the cockpit, from many miles away. Many times the battle is complex, there is confusion on the ground. The enemy is hard to pick out and track. 

Lt. Paul Oyler, USN, a F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot, said the enemy would hide under trees in the gullies. He said:

“It was the biggest firefight I had ever seen. For the next two and a half hours we were overhead and doing our best to track it.” 

Two more F/A-18s arrived. No one dropped bombs. They were not exactly sure where to put them. So they strafed, each strafe about 150-200 rounds, working in sections until they cleared the whole area. The F/A-18s ran low on fuel but two USAF A-10 Warthogs arrived to take over. The battle ended.

The pilots rely heavily on ground controllers, whether trained professionals, or men from the unit under attack doing their best to guide them in.

 The interchanges are fast and furious. The men on the ground are engaged, but have to give instructions.

“Danger close” means incoming fire and/or bombs from the air will be close to where the good guys are located. The ground controller will clear the fighter in “hot.” The pilot may warn,”I’m coming in not, danger close. One controller responded, “Roger, cleared baby. Gimmie the run baby.” A female voice recording alerts the pilot he is too low, “altitude, altitude, pull up.” The pilot continues in to the target, and hits it, "danger close." The men on the ground might clap, holler happiness, and shout, "Make it rain, baby, make it rain."

On top of the list of worries is to avoid civilian casualties. The US may control the air, but it cannot be used to full power. 

Ground controllers and pilots have be quite cautious.

C.J. Chivers, reporting for The New York Times in January 2012, said this:

“The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.

“Fighter jets with pilots, however, remain an essential component of the war, in part because little else in the allied arsenal is considered as versatile or imposing, and because of improvements in the aircraft’s sensors.”

“Show of force” missions are used a lot. These warn the enemy, and demonstrate intimidating capabilities to kill and destroy. Cmdr. Layne McDowell, USN, an F/A-18 pilot said:

“So much has changed from when I was here the first time. Now I prefer not dropping — if I can accomplish the mission other ways.”

In one instance, a medic was wounded. His Marines could not get to him, pinned down by a sniper. The call went out for air. A F/A-18 was nearby and responded. The pilot could see the Marines taking fire from multiple angles. A controller asked for a 500lb. bomb,”danger close.”

The pilot decided “no.” Instead, he made multiple passes at 500 ft. and 550 mph directly over the enemy. He released flares over them. The enemy persisted. The pilot strafed, which slowed the enemy enough to get a medevac helicopter in. Two Super Cobra Apache attack helicopters arrived, the fighter pulled away. The Apaches laid down fire. The enemy broke off the attack.

The Air Force Tactical Air Controller (TAC) on the ground is quite the story. Under heavy attack by mortars, heavy machine gun fire, RPGs and small arms fire in 2011, a patrol was trapped.

The TAC was a Senior Arman, such as shown here, the third enlisted rank, pay grade E-3, a “three striper,” called in two USAF F-15E Strike Eagles to support “Troops in Contact,” TIC.

The battle was so intense and noisy he had to yell his instructions on the radio. The F-15s orbited overhead, awaiting their instructions from this Airman.

In this case, he had to stop and tell the pilots “Standby.” He saw a soldier shot badly in the legs, ran over to him, picked him up and carried him to a covered location. He ran back and forth retrieving wounded soldiers, administering water. He then ran back to the radio, he asked the F-15s to “smoke in” on a show force, high speed and low latitude. The fight ended, helicopters came in and picked up the wounded.

Men on patrol and in the outpost pay attention to what’s in the air. They love hearing a helicopter approach, hoping it has fresh supplies, maybe a letter from home. They’ll cheer when a fighter sweeps in at fast speeds. Sometimes they’ll listen to the air-to-ground communications. A pilot once radioed how many seconds before his laser bomb would hit the target. The men in the outpost did a count-down, and then bang, and then cheers.

The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF)

The quality of the Afghan forces who are leading many combined US-Afghan patrols can be worrisome.

Insider attacks, called “Blue on Green,” have been a problem. For example, there were 61 Allied forces killed in 45 insider attacks in 2012.

ANSF use of drugs can be a problem. One group with a British patrol took a break, sat down, smoked opium or hashish. Then a few jumped up, grabbed their weapons, ran out and fired off rounds, often in the air, like wild drunkards.

The Afghans have told their American partner they would not go out with them. Their concern was the Americans were too aggressive. On one day, Lt. Kurt Hoening, USMC, a platoon commander, told the local police they did not have to patrol with them, they could stay behind in enemy territory, without Marine protection. The police decided to join the patrol!