13 May 2009
An email from Borneo:
The Gurkha soldiers started at midnight. Each man carried between 80-100 lbs for the eight mile walk to the assembly point. They would attack at first light. Most of the men carried two 81mm high explosive mortar rounds for a total of 40 rounds. They would be tactical which would make the going more difficult, but these men are rugged and the movement itself would be nothing to them. I’ve seen their relatives in Nepal carry more than twice that weight for days on end, high in the Himalaya up to maybe 17,000 feet. Often the porters don’t wear shoes, if you give shoes to them they will say thank you and then sell the shoes. One Gurkha soldier told me that he must walk four days from the road to get to his home.
About half of the platoon is new and so that half does not have combat experience. Others have fought in places like Afghanistan, where some of them actually went on operations with American soldiers. The Gurkhas liked the Americans, saying the Americans’ training and gear are very good, and that they treated Gurkhas well.
The Gurkhas arrived before sunrise, and I came by Landrover with their new commanding officer, who had not actually taken charge yet. The British officers speak very highly of the Gurkhas. Today, Major Will Kefford said something interesting. Major Kefford said that an officer should never yell at a Gurkha. The Gurkhas will think you’ve lost your mind and won’t trust you again. Later, I asked some older Gurkhas about this, and they said it’s okay to yell in a firefight or something like that, but never curse at a Gurkha. They will rebel. They don’t like profanity. Major Kefford also had other interesting observations. Some American and British soldiers will talk down to soldiers who are not performing well. “Get your xxx going!” But Gurkhas don’t talk to each other like that. They only encourage each other and offer help. They look out well for each other, and always for me. I’ve found this also to be true of trekking guides in Nepal. The ones I have hired have been outstanding.
Today’s mission was to attack an Afghan “compound” and to kill the enemy while sparing the non-fighters. These Gurkhas are British soldiers and abide by British rules of engagement (ROE), which tend to be far tighter even than American rules, and our rules can be pretty doggone tight. There’s been much hoopala about our rules of engagement being too tight or too light, but the reality of it is that the ROE tend to be wisely applied. It’s a complicated matter and the ROE for fighting in Mosul, Iraq, might be far less restrictive than ROE in a different area of Iraq. Many British soldiers think that when Americans take fire from mortars, we counterfire with 155mm cannons even into neighborhoods. This is untrue. I’ve never seen it happen. Needless to say, I tell as many British as possible that we don’t flatten neighborhoods for some mortar fire. It’s not good for the Brits to think we do such things. With persistence, pattern analysis, information from the people, and a little luck, we’ve killed more enemy mortar teams than might seem possible. It’s like deer hunting. You can get them without cannons. The enemy often fires the mortars from next to a school or hospital or mosque because they know that if they set it up in a palm grove, they might actually get some return fire from a 155mm, or an airstrike. But that’s okay. We can take their light hits and sooner or later our boys will get them, without alienating the people.
It’s rarely appropriate to talk about ROE other than in general terms; if the enemy knows the ROE, they can use that knowledge to kill our soldiers, but it’s fine to say that today the Gurkhas would try hard to kill the enemy without shooting civilian targets. The platoon leaders would be given free hand to fire and maneuver as they saw fit. There were some range safety personnel to make sure nobody accidentally got shot. No need to take KIA in training. I had to wear body armor and a helmet, loaned to me by a Gurkha who was in the rear with the gear.
The Gurkha gear is squared away. Weapons are clean, gear well packed, and they do actually carry those long, curved khukuri knives.
There was dew on the long grass and scrub on the range, which I managed to keep getting on the camera lens. The water on the lens filter, and the fact that we were attacking into the sun, made for some distorted photos. (The British soldiers would rarely attack into the sun, but for training they had to work within the limitations of the range. The Taliban are well known for attacking out of the sun.)
The Platoon leader was Captain Suresh Thapa. Captain Suresh had been a sergeant, then a warrant officer, and now he’s a captain. Nepalese do not go by their last names. In Iraq, the last name denotes the tribe. For instance, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, was from the Tikriti tribe. Someone with the last name al-Jabouri is from the Jabouris, a very large and powerful tribe. In Nepal, last names are similar but they do not indicate a tribe, but a people. A man with a name Suresh Gurung would be from the Gurung people, from which many Gurkhas come. So if you call for Rifleman Gurung, you might get a hundred people at your door. The Gurkahs handle this by not even using their first names, but by calling each other by the last four of the service numbers. Others have nicknames, such as “Bear”, who got chased out of a jungle by a bear. The Gurkhas have some interesting stories about their Army training.
They were in Kenya and got ambushed by a water buffalo. If you get attacked by a water buffalo, your chances are not good. I heard someone say that if you get attacked by a gorilla, if you lay still he will probably leave you alone. If you run from elephants, they will leave you alone. If you sit still for a water buffalo, he will kill you. If you run, he will chase you down and kill you. If you climb a tree, he’ll try to knock down the tree and kill you. I haven’t tried any of these so I do not know, but I do know that some Gurkhas told me they got ambushed by a water buffalo and the buffalo got a soldier. The only soldier with live ammunition. The buffalo threw him into the air but he lived and returned to duty. Another time, they said, a herd of elephants ran them out of base camp. On another occasion, some elephants found the Gurkha water resupply and destroyed it, causing them to walk through miles of heat to find more water. These soldiers lead interesting lives.
And today was training in fire and maneuver to take down Afghan compounds that they soon will be taking down in real life. The guns were hot and smoke rose as they burned off the lubricant. The machineguns were “talking,” and men were controlling their fire. The soldiers moved methodically, always laying down fire, and the maneuver to the “compound” (simulated with burlap) was deliberate. Captain Suresh’s combat experience was showing, but some of the new soldiers, who had been in the army for less than two years and have no combat experience, needed some tuning. The mortar fire was a bit slow because the soldier calling the fire mission had never done so, but it was deadly accurate. The 81mm mortar, in the hands of a trained team, is brutal. The shots would have been devastating to an enemy without good cover.
For the final assault, a squad moved down a steep hill with full gear and then up a small hill to the compound. The mountains will confer no advantage to the Taliban if they face Gurkhas. These soldiers run the hills better than mountain goats. They popped in grenades and burst in shooting the bad guy targets.
One Gurkha was “shot” in the leg, and was moaning and acting wounded. In the training, the wounded offer no help when it comes time to move them. The wounded act like limp spaghetti. The medic did his medic thing, including writing on the forehead of the patient that he administered morphine. He also wrote the time and date on the patient’s forehead.
Soldiers carried him back to a helicopter landing site (HLS), only to be told that the helicopter landing site was far away and they had only twenty minutes to get him there. The terrain was hilly and the HLS seemed easily more than a mile away, but they made the distance with the casualty. By now it was already getting hot, but they did a run with full combat gear back to another meeting point. So after that long night of walking with heavy weight, fire and maneuver, casevac and run, they got a few hours off and headed back to base for the next training.