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Jeff's Afghan Diary: The Firefight
July 24, 2007

      The Mission

      This is the title of one of my very favorite movies (one based on history, with its own battle scenes), but here in Afghanistan, the term “mission” is of course related to taking on a given military task, and hopefully completing it without casualties or mishaps.  I suppose I can say we accomplished our mission, but this mission has left us all exhausted, and a similar mission is still ahead.  As I write this, I now have been shot at twice by Taliban rifles and RPGs (a hand-held missile, created by the Soviets for use against US tanks – very explosive, not always accurate, but effective as a Taliban weapon).  Loud noises now attract my attention anywhere here.

      Our mission was created right after our first attack by the Taliban: find the enemy where they hide (somewhere in the vicinity of their ambush on us), engage them, and destroy them.  Sounds simple enough on paper, but it took two weeks before we were able to accomplish any part of this.

      Unfortunately, I cannot divulge too many details here about the operation, but suffice it to say there were many, many changes to the plan along the way.  We had tried to get to the village where we took fire over a week prior to this mission, but half our convoy of HMMWV’s broke.  One of the trucks actually had part of the suspension frame break, something neither myself nor our mechanic had ever seen before.  We had to scrub the mission then and go back to Do China, with three vehicles towing three other vehicles.

      That mission was a debacle, created in large part by a sudden rainstorm, which came complete with hail.  If you have ever heard that there are flash floods at times in desert environments, I can testify it’s a true fact – we had one.  We tried to drive through what was originally an almost dry riverbed (one with banks steep enough to wreck havoc on three of our trucks), only to see it filled to its brink within less than 30 minutes.  We were stranded on the opposite side, unable to return to our base until the following morning (alas!  Another night spent trying to sleep in a HMMWV!  For my part, the best place to sleep, if there is such a thing for a HMMWV, is on the hood, but it gets pretty hot there if the engine is running).

      After we limped back to the FOB and spent a week fixing trucks, it was time to plan the Big Event: go back to the village where we took fire, climb to the top of the ridge where they were shooting at us, then move into the valley on the opposite side and search for Taliban positions.  The ABP were to take the lead in this, which of course put us, their ETT, in the front with them.  I was a bit uncomfortable with this; I was concerned about the safety of the ABP.      
      So the first objective was to take the hill.  If there are any readers out there who have seen war movies about “taking the hill,” you know this is dangerous, and that whoever owns the hilltop has a huge advantage.  However, the US plan wasn’t to allow the ABP to get slaughtered; the ABP’s primary mission was to draw enemy fire, so the US could return fire.  Our trump card was to call in CAS (close-air support: Army-speak for helicopters coming in and blowing the enemy to kingdom come). 

      For the foot soldier, CAS is a godsend.  It gives them an arsenal of destruction that the Infantry cannot carry with them, and provides the battlefield superiority they crave.  The problem with CAS at times is getting the “birds” in quickly enough.  In a firefight, that time may allow the enemy to get away and hide.  Anyway, the plan was to send in the ABP, followed closely by US troops with heavy weapons, with CAS in case things got real nasty.

      Following the assault on the hilltop, we were to proceed with Phase Two: having the ABP search the villages in the valley on the other side of the mountain while the US advanced along the ridgeline, providing overwatch support (i.e., “eyes on” the ABP to counterattack anyone that shot at the ABP while we advanced through the valley).

      My team was the intermediary and link between the US and the ABP throughout this mission: we were the ABP mentors, advising the ABP’s leadership, while simultaneously acting as the communications link to the US troops.  We had an interpreter, radios for ourselves and the ABP, and a good number of ABP Soldiers to accomplish our task.  The ABP themselves were actually pretty excited at the prospect of leading the charge, finding the Taliban, engaging them and having the US destroy them (at least, this is how they viewed their mission, and in fact it wasn’t too far from how the US saw their mission, too).

      The infantry platoon residing in Do China with our ETT and the ABP were to be the lead unit.  Two other platoons from Charlie Company were providing support from other directions.  Third Platoon were the ones going up the mountain behind the ABP, taking the ridge towards where we had reports the Taliban had more fortified position.

      Let me digress here with a sidenote on Army Infantry Soldiers: they are a different breed.  They see the world from only one point of view – Army green.  They do things their own way.  There may be better ways, but if it’s not the Infantry way (i.e., their way), it cannot possibly be a better way.  They can be stubborn (it’s a trait born of having to doggedly attain military objectives inch by determined inch), and they can sometimes appear to be stupid.  But they are among the most disciplined creatures on this planet, and they never complain (at least, not to anyone above or below their own rank, and never, never to anyone outside the Army).  They will endure amazing hardships without a whimper.  They will live with pain and discomfort for long periods of time before they ask for any help.  In fact, they rarely ask for help, and they would almost rather die than ask for help from anyone outside their own beloved Infantry.

      These are the men I live with now here in Do China (all men; in fact, they have a hand-painted sign by the main gate: “Fort Do China. No Girls Allowed.”)  Even the youngest ones here, young men in their late teens and early ‘20’s, have developed the same attitude – “I’m better than anyone else, because I’m Army Infantry!”  In many respects, it’s an attitude well earned and deserved.  In other respects, it can make for some short-sighted decisions at times.  But certainly, they are good people to have on your side, and even better to have by you side.

      So while the ABP were itching for a fight, the US Infantry was even more.  This was the reason they joined the Army: to fight the enemy.  Above any other Army specialty, Infantry exists solely for the purpose of engaging the enemy and killing them.  It’s what pretty much every Infantry Soldier over here wants.  Every day.  In fact, to many of them, a day without fighting the enemy is a bad day.  Unfortunately for them, around Do China, the enemy has been pretty sparse, so life has been a bit boring for them.  Now, they had a chance to actually see some action and use the months and months of training and practice that had been drilled into them, a chance to do what they enlisted to do.

      Or so they hoped.  Of course, having seen missions get sidelined due to broken vehicles, these US Soldiers knew not to get their hopes up too much.  They also knew how dangerous such a mission could be.  But there was no fear in any of them, only anticipation.

      For my part, I had reason for concern – the ABP is not a military force, it is more like a paramilitary unit.  I have often said over here that trying to lead the ABP is like trying to herd cats.  So I had some trepidation about the prospects of getting these undisciplined Soldiers to achieve such an important objective.

      The Platoon Sergeant from 3rd Platoon took me aside some time before the mission, and told me to stay close to the other US troops.  His concern was that the ABP would react poorly in a firefight, and he knew that our mission required us to be close to the ABP, so he was “watching my six” (i.e., my “six o’clock” or my rear, twelve o’clock being the area directly to the front, three o’clock being to the right side, nine o’clock being to the left side).  He didn’t want to see me or my team get hurt.  I appreciated his concern, and told him I would stay to the rear of the ABP (while it is true that leaders “lead from the front,” as the famous Army NCO war cry, “Follow Me!” bears out, the generals are usually found in the rear, because they are important to the mission: if the leadership is killed, Soldiers lack direction, so leaders are protected as valuable assets.)

      Still, even staying to the rear of the ABP would still put us with the forward element, and would mean I would be an eyewitness to whatever carnage the ABP might sustain, a thought that unsettled me.  Still, I had my orders, and this was my mission – helping lead and mentor the ABP.  There was not turning away, no turning back, no quitting.  We were as ready as we were going to be.

      The Army teaches its leaders, “You don’t fight with the army you wish for, you fight with the army you have.”  This means that while most Army leaders strive to get all the resources they feel they need for a mission, those same leaders know that much of what they request will be denied, but the mission will still remain the same, and they are still expected to accomplish it with whatever resources they have.

      Finally the big day arrived.  We headed north towards the village where we were ambushed, with several HMMWV’s and some trucks full of ABP Soldiers.  We had our plans laid out, the ABP understood their role and looked forward to it, and the US troops were looking forward to their part as well.  On the ETT side, I was the senior member, as both of our officers were away from Do China (one was on leave back home, and another had to go to Bagram for emergency dental work).  This was now my team, and I was responsible for everyone on it, as well as all the ABP.  I felt some weight on me from knowing this.

      We left at dawn.  An hour after we left, one of our HMMWV’s lost the rear transmission, and the rear wheels locked up.  Another truck broke a half-shaft at the same time, while trying to get through some wet sand.  (Up-armored HMMWV’s were never designed for the terrain and road conditions we face here.)  So part of our convoy was taken out of battle before we got near our starting point.  3rd Platoon’s mechanic repaired the half-shaft as best he could, and the decision was made to tow the vehicle with the broken transmission back to Do China with the truck with the broken half-shaft.  This was certainly a bad start.

After losing two trucks full of Soldiers, we traveled on to our starting point: the village where we were attacked.  We linked up with the other platoons, and rolled into place near the bottom of the hill where we had been attacked.  We waited for an attack.  Nothing happened.
      We dismounted out of our trucks and headed for the bottom of the hill.  Still no gunfire towards us – so far, so good!  With no sign of any enemy, we started up the hill.

      In Afghanistan, hills are not small.  The hill in front of us went up about 900 feet.  We were all carrying backpacks full of water, food (MRE’s), spare ammo and other items.  I carried some spare radio batteries, extra magazines full of ammo, some M203 HE rounds (an M203 is a grenade launcher, and HE stands for High Explosive) for our 203 gunner, “Sgt Rock” (he carried extra rounds of his own in his own pack), night vision goggles, and six half-liter bottles of water.  My pack weighed about 40 pounds.  I also wore my body armor, which carried more magazines of 5.56 M4 ammo (M4 is our automatic rifle), a personal first-aid kit, and two large hand-held radios, one for communicating with US forces, and the other for communicating with the ABP via our interpreter, who also carried a radio (the ABP commander had a radio as well).  On my belt I had a holster holding my 9mm pistol, along with a 5-inch Kabar fixed-blade knife. A Kevlar helmet housed my head.  In my pockets I carried some tuna, packages of energy drink mix, a couple small packets of toilet paper, some matches, a small notebook and pen, and a handful of Jolly Rancher candies for energy.  I estimate all this added an extra hundred pounds I was carrying with me up the hill.

      It was slow going, to say the least.  Every Soldier was loaded down with gear: weapons, radios, food, water and ammo.

      The ETT from Do China consisted of myself leading our group, followed by “Sgt Rock” (who had been promoted once by now), two relatively new younger team members, and a medic, “Doc” (every Army combat medic is automatically called Doc by everyone else in the Army).  I went up the mountain with Sgt Rock and Doc; the two others stayed behind with our truck, one as the driver and the other as the machine gunner (the vehicles had to have security as well – it wouldn’t do to have them defenseless while we went off to fight the bad guys).

      It took us over three hours to get to the top of the mountain.  I was breathing hard much of the way, as if I was working out at the gym.  By the time we reached the top, I was exhausted – my legs were in a lot of pain by the time I got halfway to the top.  We would trudge up a hundred feet or so, then we had to take a break.  The ABP, on the other hand, reached the top long before any of us did, and seemed not to mind the hike at all.

      By the time everyone reached the top, we were completely soaked from sweat.  From the knees up, my uniform was drenched – only my arms and legs were dry.  It was sundown when we set up our base, and there was a refreshing strong breeze which cooled us.  After the sun set, the breeze went from refreshing to cold, and our sweat-soaked uniforms became bone-chilling.

      We set up rotating guard watches through the night.  Everyone took their turn with guard duty, including me and my small team.  We didn’t get much sleep – it seemed that as soon as I dropped off to sleep, I was awakened for another round of guard watch.  I think perhaps I got four hours of sleep that night.

      Many got less – the wind was bitter cold to us, chasing away whatever sleep we might have had.  I had brought a poncho liner, which serves as a lightweight blanket, but even when I wrapped myself in it, I was cold.  Most the Soldiers hadn’t brought a blanket, so they tried to find whatever windbreak was available to fight to get some sleep, shivering in the cold.  There were a few trees, and I could see Soldiers huddling under these.  We all slept on the hard ground in our body armor and helmets – I didn’t even bother to take my eyeglasses off.  I kept my night vision goggles on my helmet as well.  I found a spot of dirt next to a pine tree to lay on when I wasn’t on watch, and laid down, hoping there wasn’t any animal excrement under me (Sgt Rock wasn’t so lucky – he slept on some goat crap through the night).

      We woke up before dawn.  (The Taliban are known to attack at daybreak and dusk, so we woke up before daybreak to be ready for them, in case they had tried to sneak up on us over the night.)  I ate my tuna and drank a bottle of instant tea – I wasn’t very hungry, for some reason.  We were still sore from the previous day’s hike up the mountain, but we had a mission to complete, so we prepared for another day of hiking.

      The ABP were tasked with going down into the valley on the other side of the hill, opposite the side we had climbed and where our trucks were waiting for our return.  At 6:00 AM, we headed off with the ABP to hike along the valley and search any buildings or houses we found.

      Almost immediately after we headed into the valley, we lost radio contact with the supporting US troops.  Our radios were FM line-of-sight, so when we went into the deep ravine which winded and twisted along the valley, we lost contact.  I grew more frustrated as we walked along the river bed, looking up both sides of the canyon, without any contact with our US support.  It reminded me of a line in Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Into the valley of death, rode the six hundred.”  I chose to remember the 23rd Psalm instead: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for God is with me.”  Oddly, I was unafraid – whatever happened, would happen.  I have to admit, though, I was just frustrated to be in that situation.

      About an hour later, we came to a small group of mud houses up above the river.  The ABP commander led his team to the houses, and the elder of the hamlet came out to greet us with some of the men of his family (in Afghan culture, sons will live with their fathers, even after marriage – sometimes they will build a new house next to the father’s, or at other times they will simply add on another room to the existing mud structure).  We were treated to tea and flatbread for breakfast.

      We talked to the elder, who spoke to me and the ABP commander in hushed tones while our interpreter translated to me: the Taliban regularly came into their village, demanding food and water.  Armed groups of five to ten men would come and go.  The villagers did not want to support the Taliban, but were unequipped to resist.  In fact, a group of Taliban had been there only a couple days ago, and had headed down the valley along the ridge opposite the one the US were traversing.

      I saw a village reduced to servitude by terror.  I could see the fear and loathing in the man’s eyes, and I could hear it in his voice, even though I could not understand most of what he said.  He was frightened enough that he took us aside to speak to us.

      After a while we finished talking, and the ABP finished their breakfast.  I tried to call our US counterparts on the radio in vain to give an update.  I saw a high knoll about 300 feet above the village and decided to climb it to establish some radio contact and give a report.  I asked the ABP commander to give me three or four ABP Soldiers to accompany me up the hill for security.  Shortly later, five of us climbed up the hill.  I left my pack with Sgt Rock and Doc in the village, where they stayed with the rest of the ABP, but I wore my IBA (Individual Body Armor and helmet) and took my M4.  The climb drained my already weakened body, but I was able to establish contact with the commander of 3rd Platoon, and gave him our location and an update on Taliban: there was going to be a wedding for two Taliban men in a village to the south of us that very day.

     Right after the five of us came down the hill, we took off up the valley, continuing our mission, ABP and ETT.  The stream at the bottom of the canyon we traveled was not large, but we saw minnows and tadpoles in it.  The water looked clean and refreshing, but we knew it might make us sick if we drank it.  We agreed we would only drink water from the stream if we ran out of bottled water and were at risk of dehydration (a serious risk in this environment, especially for US troops wearing IBA).  We saw corn planted beside the stream, a rarity in this part of Afghanistan.  Along the way, we saw water coming out of the rocks beside the stream, flowing into the stream itself.  I took one of my empty water bottles and filled it with the artesian run-off – I knew this would be the cleanest water we would find, and if we had to drink local water, the cleaner, the better.

      As we continued along, we began running low on our supply of water.  We were getting dehydrated, and we knew it.  But we had to try to save our water as long as possible.  My legs started cramping, and Doc said it was because I was running out of electrolytes (salts and minerals the body needs).  I found an energy drink mix in my pocket and ate it – I didn’t want to waste water by mixing it into my last bottle.  The leg cramps disappeared soon afterward.

      By this time, our ETT was continually falling behind the ABP, who did not wear IBA or carry heavy packs.  Some ABP Soldiers offered to carry our packs – mine, Sgt Rock’s, and Doc’s medical pack, which also weighed about 35 pounds.  So we had some relief from our burden, but still wore our heavy IBA.  We were also still weakened by yesterday’s climb, and still felt its effects in our legs and backs.  We were again drenched with sweat, even in the relative cool of the morning, from the IBA.  Sweat poured down my front and back in little streams into my pants, soaking them down to my thighs.  My hips were groaning from the prolonged effort, but we pressed on down the river, looking for Taliban.

      The river lay about 200 to 300 feet below ridges along either side, in a canyon.  It was picturesque, and we talked about the beauty there in front of us along the way.  We had to stop frequently from fatigue.  The ABP would often be waiting for us around a bend in the canyon, sitting patiently.  At one point, a local villager brought tea down to all of us, which surprised me.  We sat enjoying a tea break for several minutes before we continued our trek.  There was still no sight of Taliban, and down in the river canyon, we still had no radio contact with US forces at the time.
     The ABP commander decided to go up onto the ridge beside the canyon, out from the bottom where the stream flowed.  There were some buildings on the side closest to our US counterparts, and we hiked up the canyon wall to the ridgeline.  We took a break at the top, partly to rest, partly to try to contact US forces from a higher position, and partly to find where we were on a map.  We found we had only traveled about five kilometers since we left, despite feeling it must have been a much farther distance.  Our terminal objective was a small village north of us along the river canyon, another five kilometers away.  I was able to contact 3rd Platoon’s commander and give him our current location, and then we started north along the canyon, up on the ridge.

      As we walked, I heard the sound of an RPG go off.  ABP Soldiers started shooting, and I heard rifle shots from the far ridge across the river canyon opposite our position.  Another ambush!  I got behind a large boulder and tried to assess the situation and contact 3rd Platoon on the radio.

      We were in a bad position – part of the ABP element had gone north of us, up on a hilltop, and we had no way of contacting them, as they had no radios.  My own radio suddenly lost contact with 3rd Platoon or any other US element.  I went in search of the ABP commander and our interpreter, who was ahead of us when the shooting started.

      Sgt Rock yelled at me to get down, and I quickly saw the wisdom of his suggestion and complied, ducking down as I went toward the ABP commander.  We were being fired upon by two different positions about 800 meters across the river canyon from us, from the other side.  I looked for enemy positions, but couldn’t see any.  It was a bright afternoon, and I couldn’t see muzzle fire.  I shot back in the direction from which I heard shots on the opposite side, hoping my bullets would at least scare some Taliban into giving up the fight.  I didn’t believe I would hit one of them, but suppressive fire isn’t just about hitting the enemy, it’s about stopping them from shooting at you, and this was my hope.  Meanwhile, Sgt Rock had begun firing M203 grenades in their direction.  Unfortunately, this drew fire in his direction, so he followed his own advice and ducked.

     The ABP were busy spending their precious ammo at unseen targets, so we started yelling at our interpreter to yell at them to save their ammo and only shoot when they saw a target.  This slowed down the stream of bullets from their AK’s, but they had already expended a lot of their ammo already.  I tried to reach 3rd Platoon again, and was successful, but only briefly.  I had enough time to provide our current location and an estimated enemy location for a fire mission (a fire mission is an identified enemy location to fire upon with mortars or other heavy weapons).  Right afterwards, we lost radio contact.  It would be hours until I talked to 3rd Platoon via radio again.

      The firefight went on for about 25 minutes.  We convinced the ABP to stop shooting, as we no longer heard gunfire from the opposite ridge.  Shortly after this, an Air Force F-14 zoomed by and dropped flares.  Minutes later, two Apache helicopters appeared.  I could talk to the pilots from my radio, ironically enough, and told them where the enemy’s position was.  They went along the ridgeline several times, but found no one – the enemy had slipped away, possibly into caves or huts on the other side.  After they searched for several minutes, they went on their way.
We were left on a ridge, without water or communications, out in the open, spread out from each other.  We decided we had to consolidate and leave the area before any Taliban reinforcements decided to attack us again.  I knew our US counterparts had been pushing north with us, and should be somewhere in the vicinity of our immediate west, perhaps on the mountain ridge two clicks (kilometers) away.  I told everyone this is where we needed to go.

      Not everyone agreed.  The ABP commander thought we should go to a village to our north.  Sgt Rock also thought we should head north, but not for the same reason – he saw this as being our terminal objective, and thought this was where we should head.  I saw it as being too far away, and we desperately needed water.  We had been out in the sun for most of the day, including the time of our firefight, and we had gone from being thirsty to being in jeopardy of becoming heat casualties from dehydration.  Wherever water was closest to be found, we needed to get there soon.  We started hiking westward.

      I decided that, although the ABP needed water, too, we needed it more, because our IBA made us sweat much, much more.  Besides, I was responsible for the health and safety of my team first, and the ABP second.  I asked Doc how many saline IV’s he had in his medical bag, and he told me six.  (Saline is usually the first thing a medic will put intravenously into a combat casualty; they also carry a solution that artificially elevates the blood pressure of a patient, but this isn’t used unless there is a lot of blood loss.)  I suggested we drink three of the saline bags, one for each of us.  Sgt Rock and Doc agreed that this was a good idea, so we sat in the shade of a small tree, out of the view of the ABP so they wouldn’t ask us for some, and drank the saline fluid.  It didn’t taste good, but right then I wasn’t too worried about taste.  We each drained one into our mouths.
The helicopters later reappeared in the area, and flew directly above us overhead.  The pilots called us on the FM channel for Charlie Company.  They were obviously British, and relayed radio traffic to Charlie Company for us.  We told them we needed water right away, and we were told we would get some when we linked up with US forces at the grid coordinates the pilots gave us from the US company commander.  I looked at the map to find we were being directed to pretty much the same location I had chosen before.  I also told the pilot to relay that we had no casualties – no one was hurt, thank God.  While I was talking to the pilot, Sgt Rock came up to me and interrupted – the ABP had found water.
This was to be the second time I would drink water which we were told was unsafe for us to drink.  The first one was the bottle I had filled earlier from the rocks beside the river – I had drained that bottle hours ago.  Now the ABP brought water from almost half a mile away.  I was glad they found water for themselves, since we had solved some of our dehydration problem with the saline.  The ABP commander offered me his canteen, full of this water from some unknown local source.  I drank a few swallows, grateful to have something other than saltwater to drink.  We all had some – we agreed it was better to possibly get diarrhea from the water than get dehydrated from lack of it.
We headed off for the ridge to our west, which now lay in front of us about 500 meters away, rising about 300 feet above us.  The ABP walked easily along, refreshed by the water and still exhilarated at confronting the Taliban and living to tell about it.  They would become heroes in their local communities for this feat.  My team, though, was exhausted, and we trudged wearily along in silence, speaking only either to joke about our good fortune or to talk about the next step.  I was still beside myself with frustration at not having any real means to communicate with our US counterparts, but I was too tired to feel much of anything.

      We made the ridge in less than an hour, our team far behind the ABP.  Even the 300 feet seemed like a huge climb, and when we all finally reached the top, we were greeted with a cool breeze.  It hit our soaking wet uniforms with a cooling power greater than any air conditioner, and we sat on the boulders on the top of the ridge, feeling much better.  We were on our way back home – we would meet up somewhere close with the US troops, and hopefully head back soon.  I radioed for anyone from Charlie Company, and ended up talking to the company commander.  He told me to take my team and the ABP to the road at the bottom of the mountain, where 3rd Platoon would pick us up.

      The bottom of the mountain was over 800 feet down.  Where we were it was almost a shear drop.  These were not the kind of orders we were hoping to hear, but they made sense – there was no way anything other than a camel would be able to reach us up there.  We had to make our way down.  We headed off, looking for anything that looked like a trail or path that led down to the bottom.  Even a goat path would do.  The ABP led off, wandering along the ridgeline, finally finding a small, narrow path that led down the mountain.

     Going down was easier than going up, but that’s not to say it was easy.  It took us almost two hours to reach the bottom.  There were many places where the path was only as wide as our feet, with a steep drop-off and hundreds of feet below… And Doc was afraid of heights.  As we slowly traced our path down, there were spots where we looked off into oblivion below, and Doc had to muster all his courage to continue.  We were exhausted, and it took all our strength to slowly make our way - each step drained us more.  Sgt Rock and Doc had blistered feet from all our hiking.  My legs had cramped again, and my joints felt like they were arthritic.  Every step felt heavy.  Doc looked like he would fall asleep from fatigue.

      We made it to the bottom just after the sun set.  We could see our vehicles sitting off to the distance a bit from the base of the mountain as we worked our way down.  As we neared the bottom, I called on the radio (we were in easy range then) and asked if they would come pick us up.  Unfortunately, there was no way for them to get to the mountain base – there were huge rocks jutting up all along the base of the mountain, making it impassable.  We trudged towards the HMMWVs.

      At the base of the mountain, there was a small stream of fast-moving water.  The ABP took water bottles and canteens and filled them.  We each took a bottle and guzzled it down, then took another.  If we were going to get sick, it might as well be for good reason.  The water was cool, and tasted better than almost any water I had ever had before.  Perhaps it was just because we were thirsty.  After we had drunk our fill, we headed towards the HMMWVs a mile away.

      The ABP had brought their Ford Ranger trucks as far as they could drive them towards the mountain; they collected their Soldiers and gave us a lift the rest of the way to our HMMWVs.  It felt good not to have to walk.

      We rejoined the two members of our ETT team who had been left behind with the vehicle – they had spent the previous night trying to sleep in the HMMWV, taking turns staying awake behind the machine gun. We dumped ourselves into the HMMWVs in the dusk, bone weary, grateful to sit on something with a cushion on it.  We left at nightfall; thankfully, we were given the OK to travel with “white lights” (i.e., driving with regular headlights instead of having to use night vision goggles).  On our way home, we would get stuck in a riverbed one last time, just for fun.

      We stopped at a link-up point, dropping the ABP off who were not from Do China, and I was briefly greeted by the Charlie Company commander.  After he asked how things went, I tried to answer, but was too tired to say much more than a cursory “OK.”  He said things would have been much better if we had our comms working.

      I couldn’t have agreed more.
      I must add a postscript to this – Sgt Rock and I discussed how fortunate we had been to have walked out of the valley and onto the ridge just before we were ambushed; if we had remained down in the valley when the Taliban attacked us with RPGs, it may have been a slaughter.  We would have been like fish in a barrel being shot.

      We were also fortunate to have found water each time it became critical for us.  We agreed that our guardian angels must have been working overtime for us today.

      Just before we headed out on our mission, I told the lieutenant that commands 3rd Platoon that I had prayed for us on our mission.  He asked if I had prayed for him as well, and I assured him that I had.  He thanked me.  It seems my prayers (along with many, many others) had been answered.

-- Jeff Courter

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.