Watching the sun rise over the mountains in Afghanistan is normally a thing of joy, because it meant two things: you had survived the night, and you had time to appreciate the beauty of the scene. This probably was more important to those of us grunts who were from the West, but even the Easterners could see our point when we mentioned it.
I was the squad leader in a mortar squad, usually one of the choicer assignments in the Army when we were on deployment. It did have some bad points, like when we had to hump the heavy damn thing around by sheer manpower. Otherwise, it's not so bad. We're part of an M252 81mm mortar platoon operating out of a part of Afghanistan you never heard of, and I'm beginning to wish that I hadn't heard of it, either.
In this case, we were detached from the rest of the platoon to provide support for a special forces bunch who were going after some Al Qaeda goons holed up in a series of ravines and caves. We couldn't do much about the caves, but Old Betsy was perfect for hitting those ravines. By the way, Old Betsy was named for a waitress in a bar just out of Fort Sill—the name was perfect because neither one of them ever let a man down!
This particular Afghan dawn found us perched on the side of a hill a bit more exposed than I was comfortable with, but what's a guy to do? Most of Afghanistan was made up of bad locations of one sort or another. Anyway, there was going to be an assault on a cave as soon as we silenced the riflemen in the ravine guarding the mouth of the cave. At least, we had plenty of ammunition. A supply drop had been made the day before, so we had plenty of HE (High Explosive) rounds with the Multioption Fuze (M734). I just hoped we didn't have to use all of the options.
Just as the sun came up, we got orders to drop an HE round with the contact fuze setting into the middle of the ravine. Several ragheads (you could tell where we came from) were lined up at the lip of the ravine ready to fire their AK-47s as soon as our men showed. The HE round was hoped to shake them loose from their comfortable niches. If we were lucky, they could fall the 15-20 feet down the ravine wall from the shock of the explosion. If we were less lucky, at least the shock of the explosion would mess up their aim. Either way, we might save a few of our men from getting plinked.
We were supposed to walk the rounds up and down the ravine as fast as we could load and fire. That many rounds, falling at the rate of one every 8-10 seconds, might fool the enemy into thinking that more than one mortar was firing at them. The captain hoped so, and I hoped that he was right.
The enemy started shooting as soon as the first round landed. They couldn't see us, so I have no idea what they thought they were shooting at. Maybe they were just firing out of fright. Who knows? Maybe they didn't even know. Being shot at can make you do some weird things.
After about 10 rounds had been fired by us, the shooting from the ravine stopped. I didn't know what that meant, but we were told to cease fire while our men went in. Suddenly, a whole flock of men rose from the ground and rushed the ravine. They had been so well concealed that I didn't even know that they were there, and we were on the same side!
There was a hell of a lot of shooting when the grunts got to the ravine. We couldn't see what was going on, but it sure sounded like somebody was catching hell. Our weapons don't have the same sound as the AK-47s, so you can get a fair idea of how a battle is going without being able to see the fighting just from the sound of the shots. In this case, most of the noise was coming from our side.
The heavy shooting lasted for about 10 minutes and then died down. We could hear shouted orders, but we couldn't make out the words. However, we did know when the assault on the cave began because of the change in the nature of the noise. For one thing, there were more echos of shots coming from inside a hole, so we figured that had to be coming from the inside of the cave.
We listened to that for a while as we relaxed as much as one can in a combat zone. We lay back against the hill we were on and dozed, except for Shorty Johnson, who was providing security. Suddenly, Shorty yelled, "Ragheads above us!" and started firing his M-4. We grabbed up our carbines and began shooting in the same direction he was aiming at. We couldn't see who we were shooting at, but, hell, if Shorty was shooting, then it must be something worth shooting at.
The plan was to throw enough slugs that way so that the enemy would keep his head down. If his head was down, he probably was not shooting. QED: we kept firing until I could think of something else for us to do.
Suddenly, a grenade came rolling down the hill in our general direction. Billy screamed "GRENADE!" and we all looked for a hole to crawl into. Unfortunately, in our arrogance, we had not bothered to dig any in this ground that was mostly limestone with a thin layer of dirt over it. We got real damned lucky and the grenade rolled beyond us before it went off. Eddy still got a scratch on his thigh from a fragment, but that was it. I wondered who that raghead had stolen that grenade from, since the Al Qaedas normally didn't have access to grenades. Maybe it was a souvenir from a visit to Pakistan? We sure as hell were close enough for that to happen easily. I just hoped that he didn't have anymore of the damned things!
Eddy said to me, "Hey, Sarge, do you think we could lob a round up there? It might scare them off."
"Let me look at the map, again." I pulled out my map and tried to find some indication of the topography higher up on this particular hill. Oh, shit, just as I had expected. My map didn't have enough detail to tell us the answer to that, so we were going to have to find out the hard way.
"The map doesn't have any detail on this hill. If all of you guys want to try, we can give it a shot."
A chorus of agreement rang out, so I got to thinking about the best way to handle the situation. It seemed to me that we could keep Shorty firing up the hill to make sure nobody took pot shots at us while the rest of us worked the mortar. I told Shorty to keep their heads down while we reset the mortar to fire about 100° to our right. When that was done, we set for 82° firing angle and dropped an HE round down the cannon's throat.
The round landed up a little higher on the hill than I expected, so we changed to 83° and tried again. Aha! This time the round landed where we wanted it, so we put in two more rounds with the same settings. Oops, that was a mistake! Some of the hill slid down toward us, but stopped before it got as far down as we were. Hell, if it had come all the way, it might have pushed us clear off the hill. That definitely would have been embarrassing!
Things were real quiet up there, so we just waited to see what would happen. Half and hour later, there was still no action, so I sent Shorty and Billy up to take a look. It was a tough climb in places, but they made it eventually. After a few minutes of looking around, they came down with the comment that they had found some blood smears, but no bodies. There was a trail of sorts up there, and that was probably what the insurgents had used to move in on us.
We resumed our places of repose, but we were not nearly so relaxed this time. The captain showed up about 90 minutes later to say that we were moving. The cave had proved to be an ammo dump and preparations were now in process to blow it up. A few minutes later, there was a tremendous explosion that damned near shook our hill down around us. We had to jump right lively to save the M252 from the rocks that slid down the hill.
The captain laughed at our antics and waved us on to follow him. I carried some of the men's personal gear as they struggled with the mortar over that very rough ground. We only moved a few hundred meters before we were told to set up again. I asked the captain if we could move up to that trail we had found earlier. The relatively level ground would let us set the mortar more solidly in place and would keep us from having to to worry about the ragheads shooting down on us again.