I Thought I Was Going to Die: Part 1
There were many times in Afghanistan that I thought I could die, but there were only two times that I thought I was going to die for certain. The first time that I thought I was going die was on my first deployment, the second time was when I was shot. When I sat down to write this week’s entry, I planned on talking about both times in the same entry. I wanted to talk about the events that made me think that I was going to die, the feelings and emotions that I experienced, the lessons that I learned and the difference between each time. After writing for a couple days I was near 20 pages and decided that I should turn this into a three part series. During this entry I am going to talk about the first time I thought I was going to die and the emotions that I felt, next week I will continue talking about the first time I thought I was going to die and the lessons I learned. In the third week I will talk about when I was shot, the emotions that I felt and how the experience was different from the first time. So without further ado, I Thought I Was Going to Die, Part 1.
We had three weeks left in our deployment when the order came down for our team to do a helicopter assault south of our base. Due to a lack of air support in the previous six and half months, this would only be our second air assault mission. The area we were going to was controlled by the Taliban and was a key smuggling route. Intelligence reports told us a lot, but the expressions on the Afghan Commandos faces told us everything we needed to know; this was a bad area and we better be ready for a fight. In fact, I had never seen the Commandos take mission preparation so seriously; they knew what we were getting into. Also, our replacements had just arrived and would be going on the mission. This would be the first combat mission for some of our replacements. To make matters worse, the temperatures routinely reached 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit during the middle of the day. Our replacements were only in Afghanistan for three days when they went on the mission, leaving them no time acclimatize (the average temperature when they left Fort Lewis, WA was in the high 60’s, the average temperature in Afghanistan was in the 100’s).
With all of the preparation, planning and anticipation, I could not sleep the night before the mission. I wrote a death letter to my family just in case and placed it on my desk in plain sight. I thought that if I died, someone would find it when they cleaned my room and give it to my family. The ride to the target was short and daylight began to break as we rode over the mountains. I had never seen Afghanistan from this angle and was amazed at the natural beauty of the country. It was a peaceful moment in what had been a very stressful mission preparation; however, it was the lull before the storm. When we landed it was hot and getting hotter. The 80 plus pounds of body armor, water, bullets, food, explosives etc… did not help much either. Our main assault force (I was apart of this group) used steep and narrow goat trails to travel to the village while two other groups split off to occupy support by fire (SBF) positions on the mountain. From the mountain, the SBF positions would be able to provide cover for the assault force in the village below. A handful of Commandos stayed on the mountain to guard all of the extra bags, water and gear.
In the first house that the assault force searched, we found 400 pounds of HME (an illegal component used to make Improvised Explosive Devices) and four 82 MM mortars (these are also common components to Improvised Explosive Devices). We consolidated these materials to be destroyed and began clearing other houses when it all kicked off. One of our SBF began receiving accurate small arms fire from a PKM machine gun and an AK-47 (we also thought there was possibly a sniper rifle involved). Initially, we had a hard time determining where the fire was coming from, so my teammate in charge of the SBF placed a hat on a stick and raised it above his covered position. The enemy put a bullet through it. For the next 10 hours, during the hottest parts of the day we would be engaged with the enemy in some way shape or form.
Even though we were taking contact, the IED making materials still needed to be destroyed. The incoming team’s engineer and I made our way back up the mountain to grab the explosives that we had dropped off earlier (never separate yourself from your equipment). The hill was a lot harder to go up than it was going down. We leap frogged up the trail, one person moved while the other pulled security for them. We grabbed our bags and made our way back down the hill, set up the IED materials and placed some charges on them. Our time fuse was pre-made to last five minutes, giving us plenty of time to make it to cover and re-join the assault force. After the charge went off, the assault force continued to clear houses.
At this point, the temperature was scorching and our SBF positions were completely exposed to the elements. The SBF positions started to report that they were running out of water and that some people were in danger of heat stroke. While the SBF positions were suffering in the 130-degree heat it was not much better for the assaulters in the village. We strong pointed a building (took over a walled compound and placed machine guns on the walls), set up a command post there and began to clear the surrounding houses. Moving around in this heat was excruciating, it seemed like I could not drink water fast enough. After clearing houses for what seemed like days (only an hour) everyone reconsolidated at the strong pointed building. Then it came over the radio that we needed a medical evacuation, two Americans had succumbed to the heat. At this point, our command had an important call to make, should we stay or request for an emergency pick up. This was supposed to be a two-day mission. Enemy fire continued to pick up and so did the heat. Our command made the decision that we needed to request for an emergency pick up, we already medically evacuated two people and it was only going to get worse. The only problem was that the pick up would not take place for at least another five hours.
One of the best men that I have ever met in my life was running the SBF that was taking the most contact (he is the one that has the hole in his hat). Throughout the day he courageously continued to lead and inspire the Afghan soldiers despite the terrible conditions. He continuously drew fire to his position to try and determine where it was coming from. He also provided cover for the assault force with machine gun fire and mortars. He refused to leave his post no matter how bad the elements or enemy fire was. He continued to give reports over the radio, but gradually throughout the day his voice began to fade and trail off during radio transmissions. It got so bad that my teammate Johnny Mac (my former senior medic and future contributor to this site) and I made the decision that we needed to move to our teammates position. I grabbed my bag and all the empty water bottles that I could find and ran to the nearest well about 50 yards away. The enemy was ready for me and a few rounds landed at my feet as I ran to the well and back.
Johnny and I went around the back of the strong pointed building and up the backside of the mountain. The incline was so steep that we had to stop a few times to catch our breath. Travelling up the backside shielded us from the onslaught of bullets coming from the village. As soon as Johnny and I arrived at the top, the Afghan Commandos told us to “get down.” I was so tired I ignored them but found out quickly why they told me to get down. As soon as I stood up bullets ripped past my head. I took the Commandos advice and got down.
The SBF position was located in a pre-existing circular trench that had a large mound of earth in the middle. Johnny and I were located at the back of the mound and my teammate was at the front of the mound facing the village. I started to call my teammate’s name but he did not respond so I decided to go to him. I ran counter-clockwise through the knee-deep trench and could hear the crack of bullets whizzing by me. I dived for cover as soon as I reached my teammate. His eyes were rolling in the back of his head; he could barely talk or lift his head up. He needed water and medical care right now. Unfortunately, I left my backpack full of water behind the mound. I mentally pumped myself up to once again expose myself to enemy fire. This time, I swear I could feel the bullets going past me. It was like a movie scene; machine gun fire trailed my movement and kicked clouds of dirt as I literally ran for my life. When I turned the corner I could see the look of terror/fear/amazement, in Johnny’s face. When I took cover, Johnny, a 12-year veteran of Ranger Battalion and Special Forces (Johnny is no longer in the Army and is OK with me using his name) grabbed me and started punching me and screamed, “you better start low-crawling you fucking motherfucker!” After my counseling session, we made a plan. I would take the backpack full of water back to our teammate and give him some water while Johnny prepped his medical equipment. Our teammate would move to Johnny to start receiving treatment and I would assume command of the SBF. I pumped myself up again and started to low-crawl around the circle. I found this to be to slow and I decided to get up and run. I liked the idea of being exposed for a much shorter period of time. I gave our teammate some of the well water and told him what was going on, he was starting to become un-responsive. I asked my teammate if he needed any help and like the true warrior that he is, he said no. He mustered up what was left of his strength and ran back to Johnny, collapsing as soon as he got there. Johnny pulled him to cover and immediately began to treat our teammate. They received sporadic gunfire throughout the entire treatment.
I was located in the middle of two Commando machine-guns, each one about 15 feet from me. After Johnny administered an IV and other medical aid, Johnny, our teammate, and some of the Commandos, were going to move back to the Casualty Collection Point (CCP). However, due disorientation, my teammate left his gun in my position and would not go to the CCP until he once again had it in his possession. I grabbed his gun and ran the gauntlet another time. Once the gun was back in my teammates possession, Johnny and our teammate left for the CCP. I was now in charge of the SBF with six commandos.
We now had to wait for another couple of hours to be picked up. This is when my mind started to wonder. I now had my first chance to think rather than react. I asked myself, “how could I possibly keep coming so close to getting shot only to escape un-harmed; one of these times I am going to get hit.” I started to think that if a bullet did not hit me then the elements would take me down, my position was running out water. We had been fighting all day, we were exhausted and this was not our turf, I started to get worried that the fighting would continue into the night. I feared that a fresh enemy could easily overrun are haggard force. I was convinced that I was experiencing my last day on earth and that it was only a matter of time before I died. I begged God to let me survive the day. I pleaded with God and said things like “my wife can not live without me,” and “I don’t want to die right now, I am not ready.”
People say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes, this was not true for me. I started to think about all of the things that I would not do in this life. I felt sad that I would never see my wife again, never be able to kiss her, hold her or tell her how much I loved her. I would never have the chance to be a father. My two younger brothers are my best friends and I would never see them again on this earth. I would not have the chance to tell my parents how thankful I was for the upbringing and love they provided me with. I thought that I had so much more that I needed to do on this earth; I was only 26. I asked myself if I lived life with the zeal that I wished I had and started to question if I was a good person or not. Was I a good husband, son, brother, friend? Ultimately, I wondered; “Am I going to go to Heaven or Hell?” Next week I will release part two of this series and talk about the rest of the day and the lessons that I learned from this incident.