"Taylor! Get your ass up. We're Oscar Mike," Sergeant Alvarez said.
"Yes, Master Sergeant," I said, sliding off the hood of the vehicle I was lying on and looking around, blinking.
I had pulled the boonie cap off my face when I got up, and was practically blinded by the sun. It was bright as hell.
It was also hot. Of course, it was the desert, in the middle of summer, and I had been lying on the hood of a metal Humvee for almost an hour; so, 'hot' was kind of a given. Even with my sunglasses on and my eyes closed, it felt like I could still see the sun, blaring down on me.
Everyone was starting to mount up. I headed to the second of my team's three Humvees, and slid in behind Malcolm Reeves, one of our two 18Cs specializing in engineering and demolitions.
In Army Special Forces there are five specialties that team members focus on, plus our field command team. I was one of the two weapons sergeants, also known as 18Bs. Besides knowing how to operate a wide range of weapons, both from the US and from allied and foreign nationalities, we were trained in the maintenance and repair of weapons as well. We also helped out maintaining vehicles, and assisting guys like Reeves, since there was some crossover in mechanical ability between the two specialties. Besides Reeves, our Humvee also carried our team Sergeant, who had just yelled at me to get moving, and one of our medics.
It took a few minutes for the guys in the trucks ahead of us to start up and pull out. There were about fifteen vehicles in total, counting our three Humvees in the center, and one Humvee at the front and one at the rear of the convoy. The remaining vehicles were the ubiquitous two and a half ton trucks that carried all of the military supplies.
The convoy we had been waiting on to form up, all morning, finally looked about ready to go. It had been decided, higher up the food chain, that it would be best to hold our Operational Detachment Alpha, also called an ODA, and have us travel with a supply convoy back to Camp Blessing, the Forward Operating Base in the Pech district.
I guess I could see their reasoning. The Taliban had made huge inroads in the region, pouring back in from Pakistan. The roads back, and the area itself, were dangerous with numerous ambushes and IED attacks on our convoys in the last several months. Knowing all this didn't really help with my impatience, however. After Camp Blessing, we were set to rotate back to Bagram Airbase for some down time. It was something to look forward to, after almost a month of working in 'the valley'.
We had come out for a hearts and minds mission, to work with some local village leaders, with the hope that we could cut off some of the growing Taliban influence. It hadn't gone particularly well. Half of the villages were hostile, and wanted nothing to do with us. The rest of the villages we contacted were terrified of reprisals from Taliban forces as soon as we were out of sight.
Sadly, that was all too frequent an occurrence. We usually had to pull back to a secure base at night, for security reasons, while the Taliban lived among these people twenty-four seven.
So, we were headed back with little to show for our effort. It sounds bad, but it didn't really bother me one way or the other. It was just another day on the job. That sounds callous, but that's the way things were. Captain Evers, however, was annoyed. This was his last rotation, and from what I had heard he wasn't looking to re-up. He had spent a lot of years in the Army, and he wanted something to cap off his career. Helping push the Taliban out of the Pech valley would have done just that. But, you win some, you lose some.
The trucks themselves were empty or lightly loaded for the most part. They had rolled into the camp early in the morning dropping off food, bottled water and ammo for the combat outpost. While there were only about fifty Americans and a hundred Afghan soldiers stationed at the base at any given time to support and supply patrols and missions into the valley, the Army kept these supply runs irregular, but large enough to keep the camp going for a month. The hope was it would keep the insurgents from guessing a pattern in our shipments or getting too many bites at the apple.
The return trip was always the more dangerous leg of the journey, however. It was a certainty that the Taliban had people watching the roads, and knew that a convoy was coming in. They probably had people watching the base as well from one of the higher mountains. That was the issue with mountain operations. It was next to impossible to maintain the high ground and even more difficult to hide your activity from the enemy.
But, it wasn't like we could stay there all day.
We pulled out of the small walled compound in a column that stretched almost half a mile. While there weren't a lot of vehicles, we kept a loose formation. Mostly to limit the effectiveness of IEDs, which were the go-to for insurgents in the region. The downside of this formation is that it is possible to cut off parts of the column with a concentrated ambush. Since either was a possibility, all we could do was choose one and hope for the best.
Even spread out like we were, the dust kicked up by the trucks on these dry mountain roads was horrendous. Visibility ahead of us was down to about fifteen feet and we had to keep our speeds fairly low to keep from dropping off the side of a cliff that we couldn't see. You could see out the sides pretty well, and since we were on a cliff we kept most of our mounted weapons focused out to the right, not that we would see much in the case of an ambush. Unless they are moving a lot, it's hard to pick out gunmen from the small shrubs and large rocks that littered the hillsides.
"Sarge, Claire sent me an email this morning. She said you never RSVP'd for the wedding," I hollered up to Alvarez.
Claire was my fiancée back home. We met five years before, when I was signing up for a semester of school at the University of North Carolina. I had already been in the military for eight years by that point, and was taking distance learning classes to earn a Criminal Justice degree. It seemed a waste to let my GI Bill money go to waste; and besides, the military was hard on the body. I couldn't do it for the rest of my life and needed a fall back plan.
She was just starting a doctorate of pharmacology. Most of the people who we knew found us to be an odd pair. Here I was, twenty-eight years old, at the time we met, and active duty military, with big dreams of becoming a local cop somewhere when I got out, and she was simply brilliant. She had rocketed through her undergrad degree in three years, and had been accepted into a very competitive program at UNC. There was also the age difference. She was turning twenty-one, and just starting her life.
But, we hit it off instantly. It was like those loves stories you read about in fairy tales. Love at first sight, or at least strong attraction. I've never been accused of being all warm and friendly and was generally pretty stand-offish with most people, but I asked her out right there in the registrar's office.
Our early romance was a whirlwind.
I had been on loan from the 10th Special Forces Command, to the Special Warfare Center, to act as an instructor and trainer at Fort Bragg. This was my first stable posting, with all my previous deployments bouncing me between the US and bases in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I had decided to take advantage of the situation, and at least get school started. This was a common degree program for serving military, and there was a system in place to allow for distance education that was tailored to our ... nomadic lifestyle.
What that also meant, was for the first time in my adult life I had enough stability to actually build a relationship. Driving up to Chapel Hill every weekend I had off, and any other chance I could manufacture, to visit her. She took any breaks she had from school, and stayed in a motel in the tiny town of Spring Lake, which was located just outside the base.
It was an amazing seven months. But a training slot only lasts so long. They don't want us to get rusty, and they want to keep people with fresh experience rotating through. We were also deep in the war in Iraq, and they were doing a large increase in the number of troops, in country. They called it 'The Surge'. The Army pulled me out of the Special Warfare Center and assigned me to a new team in the field.
"Is that still on?" Reeves asked.
"We worked things out on my last leave," I told him.
When my orders came down sending me back into the field, I had thought for sure that would be the end of the relationship, but she said she wanted to give long distance a try. So we emailed and called, as often as possible. She sent letters and packages. Things were heating up, operationally, so there weren't a lot of chances to come back.
It got tough for a while, especially just before my last leave. Up to then, she had been working hard on her doctorate and was pretty busy on her own, which helped. But as time passed, and we continued the long distance thing, she had started becoming more dissatisfied with the arrangement. Honestly, I was surprised we had made it work with so little problems that long. Well, really, she made it work.
On my last leave, I asked her to marry me, figuring if I was going to keep her, which was very much the plan, I needed to step up my game.
"I got invitation, but from what you said before you went on leave, I wasn't sure if it was for real or not. Tell her I'll go," Alverez said. "You had said she was pretty pissed. How did you convince her to say 'yes'?"
"We made a compromise," I told him. "She said she didn't want to be an army wife and she hated me being out on deployment. She's reaching the last year of her grad program and she made it clear when she finished, she wants to start a family. She knew my plan was to stay in for a while longer, so she agreed we could re-enlist one more time, and then I had to get out."
"I thought you were bucking to make it to Master Sergeant so you could take my job," Alverez said.
It was a back and forth we'd had going for a while. He knew my ambitions, and I always said I was going to take over for him when he got too old to be team sergeant, with plenty of hints that he wasn't that far from that point.
"That was the plan, but it was her or the Army. And as much as my job meant to me, she meant so much more. So we compromised. It still gives me some time. Once I re-up, I'll have four years and five months to try and boot you out and take your job."
"Ha," he said with a laugh, "in your dreams."
"We'll see," I retorted. "Besides, with the current retention policies, odds are they will keep me deployed through the last two years, while I'm still in reserve status."
"Unless we beat all the insurgents, knock down the Taliban, and get the locals up to speed to defend themselves," he said in a doubtful tone.
"That's what I gotta work on during my last tour. After that, I'm out. I'll go find a job on a police department somewhere, and let her bring home the big bucks."
"Jesus, Dude," Reeves said from the front seat, "you are totally whipped."
"Reeves, how many girlfriends have you had in the last three years?" Alvarez asked.
"I don't know, like twelve," he answered.
"And how long do they normally last?" Alvarez asked.
"Yeah, I know," Reeves said.
We regularly busted his balls about how often he changed girlfriends. It had become a running joke by this point.
"Speaking from fifteen years of marriage, Taylor's got it right. You gotta pick your priorities and do what you have to do to make the relationship work. This is why you'll always be single Reeves."
"Thanks, Sarg..." I started to say.
My sentence was totally cut off by an explosion. There was a smoky trail from off to the right a second before yellow flame exploded under the truck ahead of the Humvee in front of us. The explosion was strong enough to flip the truck over, but not strong enough to knock it off the road entirely. A second explosion rocketed skywards as the gas tank on the truck erupted moments after the first impact.
Our vehicle slammed to a stop to avoid hitting the Humvee we were trailing. The flaming body of the truck blocked the narrow road we were on, which was almost certainly the reason this spot was picked. This was one of the more narrow sections and the ambush was well planned.
"Out! Out!" Alvarez shouted, crawling out the driver's side of the Humvee, Reeves already having bailed out.
I was halfway out my door when I heard the pop, pop, pop sounds of a M4A1 fired in close quarters. Turning, I found Perl in the rear side passenger seat taking shots out of the window.
Grabbing the back of his harness and giving it a yank I said, "Get your ass out of the vehicle. These things are bullet magnets."
To emphasize my statement we could hear the ting, ting, ting sound moving across the Humvee's skin, faster and closer every second. I gave him one last tug and slid out of the door, keeping my body low and positioning myself near the rear section of the vehicle. Perl slid out behind me and took cover near the hood, next to Alvarez.
I could hear the gun truck on the other side of the burning truck opening up and a trail of dust kicking up on the hillside in a line as he laid down general suppressive fire. Poking my head up and tried to eye where the fire was coming from. Muzzle flashes were visible all across the hillside and my first estimate was dozens of combatants, and that was probably on the low end. The 40mm launcher at the other end of the convoy also opened up, racking up explosions on the hillside.
The truck drivers and our team started adding to the barrage. The drivers were laying down a fairly sustained fire while our guys were being more deliberate. Looking through the scope on my carbine, I began taking quick shots at targets. Some missed or were meant to just keep a guy's head down, but three times I saw a gunman running from one piece of cover to another and dropped him mid run. Dead or just wounded was hard to say, and didn't really matter. I was just trying to take as many barrels out of the fight as possible.
Things started taking a turn when a smoky streak headed for the back of our convoy, followed by an explosion and then several more in rapid successions. The grenades from the launcher had stopped falling so that was probably the ammo cooking off. Another two streaks came off the hillside, one going over us high, the other impacting into the ground in front of one of the trucks to the rear of us but causing no damage.
The damn things started to rain down on us, with three more plowing into the ground around the vehicles. Again, they were doing little damage, but with the volume of the RPG rounds pouring down on us, it was only a matter of time. My only real hope was their supply of rockets was limited. Small arms fire we could semi-protect ourselves from, by using the vehicles. But those same vehicles were a danger when it came to the rockets.
I looked across and saw the Captain leaning close to one of our communication guys, who was speaking into a handset. The Captain looked over and gave the sign for incoming air support in four minutes. That was also the last I saw of the Captain. One of the rockets finally found its target, slamming into the side of their vehicle, rolling it over onto the three of the men crouched behind it and sending it cartwheeling over the roadside embankment and down the other side. Either they had been crushed by the car or ripped apart by the explosion.
Tom Hoffman, the fourth guy who had been behind the car, had managed to dive out of the way of the rolling vehicle. Unfortunately for him, he was on the other side of where it had been from us, closer to the wrecked truck ahead of them. He picked himself off the ground and began a mad dash to where we were taking cover. He made it about two thirds of the way with dust kicking up all around his feet as gunman on the hill opened up on a suddenly exposed target. Finally one caught him in the leg and another impacted his body armor, sending him sprawling into the gravel that made up the road.
Alvarez wasted no time, dashing out and grabbing his web harness, dragging him back to cover. Perl was one of our team medics and moved around Alvarez, crouching next to Hoffman, who was holding his bleeding leg. He grabbed a bag hanging off his harness and pulled it around in front of him, pulling out some bandages and whatever else he needed to temporarily patch up the wounded soldier.
I was only half watching this, continuing to pick out targets as fast as possible. I'd already dropped a good number of them, or at least that's how it seemed to me, but it didn't seem to make a difference in the volume of fire.
The trail of dust stitching along the hillside stopped as the forty fell silent. Then things took a turn for the worse. The insurgents began pouring down the hillside, and my earlier count was low. Very low.
"Sergeant," I yelled over to Alvarez who was speaking into the vehicle radio that he had stretched out the door. He looked up and then out the passenger window, seeing the wave of men headed to us. He dropped the handset and tapped Reeves on the shoulder, who also stood in a crouch, lifting his weapon. Both men added their guns to the fight and we all increased the rate of fire, picking off men coming down the slope. That was not going to be enough, judging by the number of people headed towards us.
As they began reaching the bottom of the hill and nearing the roadside, I let my gun fall back, hanging off the strap around me, and reached for my combat harness. I slipped a grenade off the harness, pulled the pin, counted, and tossed it at the group closest to me. Ducking down, I didn't wait to see what happened but pulled another one, counted, stood, and threw again. I did this a third time, and reached for my weapon again.
There were several bodies littering the edge of the road, so I knew it had been at least somewhat effective. I started picking off more targets when I saw an RPG arching towards us, closer to the front end of the vehicle. There wasn't time to do anything but react. I turned and made a diving leap out of the way ... and almost made it.
I couldn't see what happened, but a concussive force followed by a wave of heat stopped my downward trajectory and lifted me up in the air, sailing over the lip of the roadway. I bounced against the side once, arced in the air again smacking onto my shoulder, bounced up again, and came down with my head against a rock.
After that, I didn't see the sun anymore.