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Death in the Corn: Part II of III

Medical evacuation: ATV with trailer and stretcher rushes Afghan shot by sniper to the helicopter.
Soldiers with metal detectors walked ahead, clearing the path.  As I walked up, a soldier had just found something.  The choice was simple: stay outside where it would be very dangerous while he cleared, or walk on by.  I walked on by. Inside the compound, soldiers moved into security positions. The soldiers often haul ladders.

I waited to give them time to get into position before climbing up. If a firefight broke out, or there was a bomb hidden on the roof, it would be bad to have an extra man in the way who was only carrying a camera. As a writer, it’s better to stay out of the way while the soldiers set up security, then move into position after they settle in, unless they tell you to come straight away.

Once they were set, I climbed up to where soldiers were watching the next position. The soldiers had seen a man who appeared to be a dicker, possibly tracking the unit that we were over-watching.  But since we all split up in the corn, the dicker seemed to have lost sight of our element, and didn’t realize he was in the crosshairs.  The sniper reached up and dialed the range on his scope bezel.  Soldiers had said earlier that this British sniper had already dispatched his share of Taliban. Dust can be seen puffing off the sniper’s shoulder as he fired.

“I’ve got him,” said the British sniper, as he steadied the crosshairs, controlled his breathing and squeezed the trigger. BAM! The rifle cracked and the bullet raced at about Mach 3—SNAP!—just next to the man, the bullet crashed through the trees. Since neither the CLU nor the sniper could see a weapon or radio, the sniper fired only a warning shot. The man hit the ground and slithered away.

Some soldiers were betting when we would be attacked, but then an hour had passed, and nothing. By 0900, I was asleep on the roof. Then a firefight broke out far in front of us. At least one of the forward elements was in contact. The gunfire and explosions were loud, but none of our guys at Lima 1-1 had identified targets, so they just scanned while holding fire. An 81mm mortar at Gib fired a single HE (high explosive round) with a 40-meter lethal radius. Wham! The shot arced straight over our heads—we were between Gib and the target. Artillery is unmistakable, but that mortar seemed quiet, or the shooting drowned it out; I did not hear it fly over us: BOOM! Impact. On target. The mortar team launched more HE rounds, which rained down directly on target. Fine shooting, and very fast. Enemy firing stopped, and the Brits stopped firing.

At 0920, Major Dawson ordered white phosphorous smoke to be fired in the vicinity of the enemy, hoping to draw a response. If they were alive and well and still there, the enemy wisely refused to fire. Word came that some enemy were moving in our general direction, then I fell back asleep. While I slept, at 1012, Major Dawson ordered more smoke, which also drew no response. The soldiers at Lima 1-1 stayed on high alert, and constant communication (I would occasionally wake and hear them).

USMC Harriers were flying overhead cover, but they had to go somewhere else. I heard two or three bombs that morning and they were likely no more than a few miles away, which might have been the Harriers. There was at least one short firefight that was not related to 2 Para. The CSM, Charley, said he thought our Marines were attacking someone, or maybe it was Special Forces. Major Dawson told me later that the Marine Harriers came back, but were short on gas and had to get fuel, and so were replaced by British Harriers, which loitered until they, too, had to go away for fuel. Each time contact started, the jets were gone bombing someone else or getting gas.

There was some heavy shooting far in front of us that abated within minutes, and I fell back asleep in the last slivers of shade. Then a very sharp firefight broke out at the forward positions. Again, Lima 1-1 was not involved, but intelligence came in that Taliban might be heading in our direction, although no one knew if they were aware of our position. Probably they did know, because two boys rode by on a donkey, and there were other compounds nearby where we could hear dogs barking and kids playing. Some of the dogs here are massive and look like Cujo.

I tried to fall back asleep, but the shade was evaporating as the sun rose, and every time sweet dreams started, they were interrupted by a firefight, so I climbed down the precarious ladder to sit with Dr. Lalani. Soldiers have great respect for medical doctors who can justifiably stay on base, but instead push into combat. If the doctor is there during those first minutes after a soldier is wounded, there is a far greater chance of survival.

At about 1106, the enemy initiated contact on one of the forward positions. It was so loud that I thought our guys were firing from the roof. Rockets were blasting away. About 40 seconds after contact, the 81mm mortars were firing straight over our heads and crashing down on enemy positions about a klick to our front. Thousands of rounds were being fired, though the guns all around me were silent.

The elements up front were fighting while I just listened to the gunfire and explosions while eating one of the MREs the Danes had given me. Up front in the fight, Lance Corporal Alex Fraenzel was hauling a Javelin missile. Fraenzel and Private Richard Lloyd ran forward. While Fraenzel set up for the shot, Lloyd began firing his SA-80 rifle into suspected enemy positions to provide cover.

Fraenzel spotted an armed target that was out of Lloyd’s rifle range. He pressed and held the seeker trigger until the picture came on. Then he released the seeker trigger. Javelins are incredibly accurate. Fraenzel brought the tracking gates down to cover the target, then pressed and held the seeker trigger to get a lock. With bullets snapping by, Fraenzel held the firing trigger and . . . instead of WHOOSHHH, missile away, he got the red symbol of a missile with a line through it. Misfire.

Fraenzel released the triggers and locked on again, and again tried to fire. Nothing. With bullets cracking by, Private Lloyd did not realize there was a misfire and wondered why Fraenzel was taking so long. He turned to Fraenzel and said, “Hurry the fuck up!!!”

Fraenzel was in a pickle. The missile might fire on its own at any moment. Fraenzel held his ground, turned off the CLU, turned it back on and tried the whole thing again. The Javelin didn’t work. Fraenzel took off the CLU and attached another Javelin. This one launched and hit the target. But they couldn’t leave the dud for the enemy, and so the two soldiers began packing it up while the mortar crews started hammering away again.

Finally, on the sixth mortar fire mission that morning, smoke was dropped to cover extraction. We all moved back out through the corn, linking up with other elements, then back to Gibraltar.

On the way back to base we cooled off – against our will – in the filthy water. The patrol returned to Gibraltar, not knowing how many Taliban they had killed, if any.  But tomorrow they would go out hunting again.  This time, they would bag their limit.



To read Part I of this series click here.

To read Part III of this series click here.

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