We had worked our way up into some rough, rocky terrain when we spotted the bunker. We weren’t sure if it was manned or not. It wasn’t one of the positions we had fired an antitank rocket at earlier.

Ray sent a team behind us to guard our rear, and I set to work organizing our assault on the position. After some quick radio coordination between Sergeant Montoya and myself, we attacked. Junk opened up with the gun from high above, peppering the bunker with 7.62mm rounds as Sergeant Lane’s team advanced, with Ray eyeing their progress. If there were someone in the bunker, we were counting on Junk to keep their heads down long enough to let Sergeant Lane’s team get close enough to toss grenades.

As Sergeant Lane’s team got closer, I threw a purple smoke grenade to signal Junk to lift his fire. Junk did so, and the bullets ceased zipping into the bunker. Sergeant Lane then crawled up to it and threw a grenade into the aperture. The bunker shook as smoke bellowed out the entrance. As this was going on, Uncle Jesse shook my shoulder.

In his North Georgia twang he yelled, “Sir, I thank there’s a position behind us!’ I spun around and saw what he was talking about. To our rear and up a steep hill, a poncho hung in the trees above what looked to be a fighting position. If someone was there, Sergeant Lane’s team was in the middle of the enemy kill zone with no cover around them.

I yelled to Ray, “I’m going with the gun team to take care of this.”

He nodded, and we set off.

I first instructed McCauley to set his gun aside and pull out his sidearm, a Beretta 9mm pistol. McCauley’s heavy machine gun would be too awkward to maneuver in the steep narrow gulley leading off from the one we were in. Tayo, his assistant gunner, went in first with his carbine, followed by McCauley, then me, then Flash bringing up the rear with a radio. We advanced carefully and were creeping up slowly, trying to flank the position covertly.

Suddenly McCauley whispered, “Sir, I see feet to the right! Feet to the right!”

During the long days spent in the Kuwaiti desert, I had fired hundreds of rounds through my carbine, sometimes practicing for hours on end. I had sought to build what’s called “muscle memory”—training your muscles to react immediately and correctly to a given situation through intense repetition so that they will perform as a reflex no matter the level of stress.

In less than a second, I lowered the muzzle of my weapon, flexed my right knee, stepped with my left foot ninety degrees to the right, and pressed my weapon up to my cheek. My right eye was already on the sights. Through them I saw two feet, just like McCauley had said.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired two shots.

After I fired the first two shots, the man sat up 12 meters directly in front of me, swinging a machine gun in our direction. I released four more rounds, sending them into his chest. McCauley opened up just after me, firing his pistol, while Tayo simultaneously shot the man in the thigh.

At that point, the man either fell back into his hole or ducked down into his position. We couldn’t be sure, so we kept firing to keep his head down. I wasn’t taking any chances.

It wasn’t but a few seconds before Ray came tearing in from the right with Uncle Jesse on the high ground. He had been watching our movement out of the corner of his eye from 50 meters away but had mostly been worried about Sergeant Lane’s team until he heard us open fire.

“Cease fire!” Ray yelled, and as I did I also grabbed McCauley’s pistol to make sure he did the same.

Ray briefly halted, aimed, and fired three shots from his carbine. Then he yelled, “Clear!”

McCauley and I ran up with our weapons at the ready. There, in the hole, was the man I had shot living his last moments on Earth. After the holes I had made in his torso, Ray had shot three rounds into his head. The man was now twitching and shaking as his body went into shock. He was already dead but he was going through his death throes.

My first thought was more amazement than horror. Actions unleashed by my hand had ended the life of this man. I couldn’t believe it.

My second thought is the one I never talk about. There has only been one moment in combat when I was truly frightened, and this was it.

As I looked down on the man I had just killed, I took stock of his clothes: North Face jacket, Mountain Hardware pants, and synthetic long underwear. By his clothes he looked more like a Vail ski bum than a terrorist. I then saw his weapon, an American-made M249 light machine gun.

I didn’t show it to any of my men, but inside I began panicking. What if I had just killed an American soldier? Some Special Forces operator or CIA agent operating deep behind enemy lines in civilian clothes? What if the man I just shot was a friendly-fire casualty?

Ray brought me back to the moment, to the reality at hand.

“Sir,” he whispered patiently. “Sir, we have to get security.”

I came to my senses and deployed my troops in a hasty perimeter around the body. I also told two of my soldiers to begin searching the dead man.

What they found began to put my earlier fears to rest.

Strewn among all the American equipment was a collection of Soviet-type small arms: two AK series assault rifles, three Makarov pistols, hand grenades, and Soviet ammunition. Also mixed in were assorted American gadgets usually belonging to special operations soldiers: night vision devices, load-bearing equipment vests, infrared targeting lasers, and global positioning systems. I put two and two together and realized we had discovered a cache of equipment stolen from the dead SEALs and Rangers atop Takur Ghar.

I don’t remember when the body stopped moving. But before we headed back out, McCauley produced a “death card” from his pocket. He had taken a deck of Kampgrounds of America playing cards and written the name of our unit on each of the cards. In the Vietnam War, units would leave death cards on the enemy dead so the Viet Cong would know who had killed them. It was a form of juvenile schoolyard intimidation transplanted into a combat zone.

McCauley dropped the nine of spades onto the motionless corpse.

It read, “3rd Platoon, A Company. Jihad this, motherfucker.”

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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