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Under Cover of the Night

Night photo looks like broad daylight.

After finding a suitable RON (rest overnight) location, the task was security and making a plan for the night.  With a full moon rising the Taliban could easily slip silently through the folds and creases of the land and strike.  The Taliban likely already knew our strength.  Tracks from the heavy Strykers would show our direction of travel, as would villagers along the way.  Of course, if the enemy followed the tracks they would eventually lead to a hail of devastating fire.  Most of the enemies are too smart for such mistakes.  More likely, the enemy would try to anticipate our next move and get bombs in front of our most probable routes.  They had all night.  Our people up that game by pushing out snipers and observers who might be watching the Taliban—even from miles away—ready to kill them on our routes.  Winning and losing deadly little skirmishes depends heavily on expertise, and luck.  We and the enemy have great advantages and disadvantages.

It was dark when the above photo was taken at 9:19PM local.  The moon was bright but the camera lens seemed to vacuum in the light and brightened to look like nearly daylight.  (Image data: 1649Z/2119Lima 50mm f4.5 30s ISO 800.)

With security out, SFC Olaf Munch made a schedule for the sentries while the soldiers dined on MREs and unpacked sleeping bags.  Lights were hardly needed.  Red filters were used because red lights are more difficult to see from a distance and they preserve night vision.

Actual data for the above image includes: 1650Z/2120L 50mm f4.5 30s ISO 800.  The “Z” or “Zulu” suffix denotes GMT or Greenwich Mean Time.  GMT is the time at the Prime Meridian—which runs through Greenwich —and so the image was made at 4:50PM on the 24-hour clock used by the military and others.  The U.S. military deals with every time zone in the world every minute of the day.  I adopted the military’s good idea by setting my cameras to Zulu.  Leaving the cameras on Zulu, it’s not important to remember to change the camera time or wonder if you did.  The  “L” or “Lima” means local time.  Troops might say that “so and so” will happen at “0200 Zulu,” or maybe “0200 Lima.”  Our military has myriad moving parts in different time zones and cannot have everyone operating on local clocks.  The Navy would show up early, the Air Force would show up late, and the Army and Marines would crash into each other.  Imagine the Air Force flying through multiple time zones to parachute supplies to a remote base.  The aircraft might have come in from a thousand miles away, while Air Force HQ might be in a different time zone, and the Marine HQ in another, and the target drop zone in a different zone.  So our people work off Zulu time, and everyone shows up on time.  Usually.

Photo from back of a Stryker with orienting starts.  (North is off to the right.)

Soldiers who had guard duty crashed quickly.  Some wear boots while sleeping; others dry their feet.  The military sleeping bags have enough footroom to allow for boots.  The sleeping bag zippers are designed to easily rip open.  Soldiers can go from sound asleep to fighting in seconds.
(1657Z/2127L 15mm f6.3 30s ISO 800)

Stryker ramps still open but will soon close.

The soldiers don’t walk much in case of land mines or IEDs.  We stay within a small area, dispersed enough for safety, yet close enough to communicate.

No flash is needed.  Only moonshine.

The mortar crew quietly telling jokes after the long day.

With no clouds, the earth radiates heat to outer space and the desert chills quickly, causing the mortar team to pull into sleeping bags.

The M4 rifles must deal with this dust night and day yet the rifles function well.

Brightness on the upper left is from the moon.  The machine gun on the Stryker is scanning while the orange in the distance is from an artillery illumination mission.   Lower right are my bare feet at 11:15PM.

The Stryker could be heard as the electrically operated .50 caliber scanned for targets.  The only way the enemy could attack us while maintaining a pittance of survivability was with rockets or mortars, but the moment those came in, we’d call aircraft that could arrive in minutes scanning the folds with their thermals.  We also had another Stryker platoon out there in the darkness and they had a 120mm mortar—a devastating weapon with uncanny first-round accuracy.  Whatever the enemy might do, they would need to do without being seen.  We camped in the middle of pure battlefield without the complications of city or village fighting.  If the enemy attacks tonight, their life expectancy plummets to seconds.  Long before we are within range of their weapons, they are within range of sudden precision fire from ours.  The enemy might be able to slip into one of the terrain folds, but there was no easy approach and the thermals on the Strykers and the night vision carried by the men made a successful, direct attack improbable.  And besides, most Taliban are poor shots even in broad daylight.  At nighttime they’d be lucky not to shoot each other.  The enemy is good at some things, but many of us were better shots when we were 14 years old.  If the enemy fired, our men would turn on the invisible lasers on their rifles, peer through night vision that made the lasers appear, and shoot them.  The enemy would need Harry Potter invisibility cloaks to sneak in on us.

11:17 PM

During times when there is a good possibility of being attacked, it’s best to not take off more than one boot at a time to let feet dry.  But with such a low probability of being surprised and being surrounded by combat soldiers, it’s fine to take off both boots and keep them close.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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