The chaplain asked if I was the lieutenant who had killed a man the day before. I told him I was.

 

For our new mission we were deploying farther to the east, deep into Afghanistan’s Upper Shah-e-Kot Valley, where the fiercest fighting thus far between U.S. troops and al-Qaeda had taken place. It was where the Navy SEAL Neil Roberts and the six other special operators had been killed.

The bigwigs back at Bagram Airbase, monitoring the battle from cameras in the sky, had seen him fall from the Chinook, they told us. Then they saw Roberts rise to his feet and attempt to flee from the chasing enemy. A firefight ensued. Roberts fought to the end but was captured.

Al-Qaeda didn’t kill him, the men at Bagram told us. Not at first. Instead, they tortured him. Only when a team of special operators landed and joined the fight did the al-Qaeda forces end Roberts’s life with a 9mm shot to the head.

After hearing that, it’s a wonder we didn’t commit any war crimes ourselves. After what happened to Chief Roberts, all of us, myself included, were out for vengeance.

In contrast to the bleak landscapes we had seen so far in Afghanistan, the Upper Shah-e-Kot was beautiful. My platoon, as the main effort, was the last to land. The other platoons had been given the mission of clearing our route to suspected cave sites south of the landing zone. As we landed, we heard explosions in the distance. Cobra helicopters buzzed above us scanning for enemy fighters and destroying two bunkers they had spotted to our north with Hellfire missiles. The helicopters gave us red-blooded American confidence that we once again had our guardian angels above us.

We soon began to head south into a streambed, the ridges to our right and left rising sharply. Up ahead the explosions continued. First Platoon had found a cache of rocket-propelled grenades but had thrown a grenade into the cave instead of clearing it properly with plastic explosives, which would have destroyed the missiles completely and safely. Instead the missiles were just on fire, and every so often a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) would cook off and come screaming over our heads.

Bullets shooting over your head are bad enough. Rockets are worse, and my men were understandably nervous every time one whizzed by. I’m sure every soldier had the same image I had in my mind, of taking one of those rockets to the head and being decapitated.

The danger from the flying rockets became so immediate that I was forced to alter our route westward, out of the streambed. We began to climb the steep ridge. Our platoon advanced single file, not the most secure way to move but the quietest, and the only way the rocky, mountainous terrain was passable.

Eventually we crested the ridge and advanced down the slope toward our objective, the suspected cave, now about 800 meters away. We were about 300 meters from our objective when we spotted the first of many enemy bunkers, in a gulley to our west. I radioed Captain Rogers for permission to halt my column in order to destroy the bunker. He agreed, and I set my men into place.

I felt like the conductor of the world’s most violent symphony orchestra. With a wave of my left hand, my men launched an antitank rocket into the bunker. Then with the wave of my right hand, 40mm grenades rained down upon the bunker’s roof. I saw the antitank rocket burst into flames on impact, showering the bunker with its smoke and gases. I watched as the grenades fired from tubes 300 meters away ripped full-grown trees in half.

Once the dust settled, I quickly scanned the bunker for movement and then tapped the back of my lead machine gunner, Junk. He opened up with his M240B, sending 50 rounds into the front aperture of the bunker. I tapped him again and he stopped.

We waited.

The bunker remained silent. Either the enemy had already gone, they were dead, or they had decided not to answer our call to join the battle.

We continued on down the ridge, spotting another bunker to our west and giving it the same treatment. Finally we arrived within 100 meters of our suspected objective, and Ray and I moved in for a closer look. Ray was one of my squad leaders, a staff sergeant we all called by his first name because of his laid-back style, and with whom I’d become fast friends. We dropped our rucksacks to move more quietly and advanced carefully down the ridge. We didn’t say a word, for fear of alerting the enemy—who from the explosions now surely knew we were in the area—to our immediate presence. Instead we sent signals and pointed out to each other with our left hands, never removing our right hands, our firing hands, from the pistol grips of our carbines.

After 30 minutes of searching the area where the cave was supposed to be, we had found nothing. We saw a lot of wreckage where air force bombers had obviously dropped heavy tonnage, as well as some old, uncovered fighting positions with rocks stacked up two feet high for walls. But there was no cave, and no trace of al-Qaeda.

I brought the rest of my platoon forward and organized them into two groups. One group would stay on the ridge and continue looking for the cave. The other group, led by myself and consisting of Ray’s squad with an attached machine gun team, would descend into the gulley to the west to search the bunkers we had just cleared and look for others.

Sergeant Montoya stayed on the ridge with Junk and the other machine gun, providing covering fire as we moved through the valley. Junk called this his “Jesus Fire”—that is, fire from above that protects us sinners who march into the valley of death. Junk never ceased to bring a smile to my face, and I trusted him. Probably not enough to loan $20 but to guard my life, sure.

The first thing we spotted in the floor of the gulley was a mortar cache, which we marked and left for future demolition. As we advanced toward a bunker Sergeant Montoya had spotted through the binoculars, Ray’s squad marched up ahead while I moved up the trail with McCauley’s gun team, my radioman, Flash, and my forward observer, known as Uncle Jesse.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

FEATURE: A Dark Task
By Andrew Exum
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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Interview with the author:
Report from the Front
By John Prendergast