Many of you are aware of the movie out now with Mark Wahlberg staring as a courageous Navy Seal who with a little help defied some serious odds. The movie relates to events that took place in July of 2005 in and around the Korengal Valley in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. Well, I was also involved in both Operation Red Wings and Red Wings II, but my story is no where near as harrowing or amazing as the story of the Navy Seals. I suppose that is why they won't be portraying me in the movie. Darn!
I was not a member of a Tier 1 asset, not a Navy Seal, or part of team brown, not a special ops guy, or anything like that. I wasn't even an Army Ranger, just a paratrooper who is ranger qualified (meaning I graduated from Ranger School). In reality, I was just a prior-Marine grunt turned National Guard dude. That's right, the US Army National Guard.
I think my Redwings story is interesting in another way though, because it tells a little bit about our nation's bogus efforts to form, train, and turn over operations to the Afghan National Army.
This is me in the Kunar province of Afghanistan toward the end of my tour, which occurred between December of 2004 and March of 2006. Incidentally, the land on the opposite side of the river behind me is part of Pakistan.
Oh, there are a few decent National Guard units out there (Green Berets and Paratroopers even) and you can find several motivated individuals in the ranks, but there are also a lot personnel that I can only describe as uniformed welfare recipients. People who sign up for mobilizations so they can collect a pay check, and have no intention of doing anything related to military operations. Many of them try to get active duty assignments in the US, like being instructors at mobilization stations for other National Guard units preparing to go to overseas. You can imagine the level of training these guys/gals provide ("check the block, you're all good. Time for me to go home. Good luck on your tour."), but that is another story altogether.
Of course the active duty people in charge know this about the National Guard, it's not exactly a secret. Yet, for some reason they chose to put the National Guard in charge of training, mentoring, and advising the Afghan National Army. That's right, one of the most important missions (if you care about nation building anyway) of Operation Enduring Freedom, handed over to one of the least competent military organizations. I don't mean just training up some National Guardsmen to supplement a regular Army effort, I mean all facets of the operation handled by the National Guard. Hmmmm
To give you an example of just how much of a woefully bad idea it is to put the National Guard in charge of anything, consider the fact that our intelligence briefing before leaving the United States was on Iraq. Seriously! When we told the instructor (a Major) we were going to Afghanistan, he shrugged it off and just kept going.
Our group was organized into Embedded Training Teams (ETT), where roughly 10-15 National Guardsmen were assigned to a Battalion of Afghan Soldiers. Two advisors, an officer and an NCO, to each company, and then several more to the Battalion HQ.
As a group, we were quite a mixed bag, people pulled together from National Guard units all over the United States. In Afghanistan, we were dispersed to all of the provinces. Amongst us, nearly every Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was represented. People were assigned to their duties merely by rank, with no consideration at all for their specialization or even their civilian skill set. It was a stupid decision that turned ugly. Finance, engineering, and communication officers and NCOs, people who had never spent one day in the field, expected to advise infantry companies in combat operations in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. On top of that, many of these people were not physically fit enough to handle the job.
I was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the 201st Corps of the Afghan National Army. Our barracks in Kabul and some of the ANA NCOs that I was assigned to train and advise are pictured below.
Along with a captain (CPT O from now on), who also had active duty experience (thank god!), I was placed on a small base near Asadabad, and ordered to support US Marines and other forces who were based nearby.
As an ETT team, we were desperately understaffed and under equipped. We went downrange with 7 US personnel (4 infantrymen) to cover the activities of the entire Battalion. We also did not have any heavy weapons (machine guns), and we were very light on ammunition and radios. Myself and CPT O had one TACSAT (ANPRC 117) radio with a broken antenna that only worked in the SAT mode (no FM comms). We had a white Ford Ranger pickup truck and a crappy old style HUMMV that had been partially up armored (bullet proof doors and windows added).
The ANA company we advised had no field radios at all. So we bought them some ICOMS (local hand held radios), which were supplemented by a bunch of hand held Motorolas my uncle (a Vietnam Veteran) sent me, and that is what I distributed to the ANA to use. Our incompetent National Guard HQ in Kabul kept promising they were going to distribute radios and equipment, but we didn't get ANYTHING until a new command came in toward the end of my tour.
The Marines ran a very high OPTEMPO, and we were instantly incorporated into their scheme. This meant that we were constantly busy. I would come in from a mission, take a shower, eat something, and get called by the Marines for a briefing and be headed back out a few hours later.
Although I was tired, we accompanied Marines on most of the missions and could rely on their communications and heavy weapons. Contacts were light, and the biggest threats were IEDs in the road. One of our most common missions consisted of patrolling the roads late at night to disrupt IED planters.
In the first couple of months, we settled into a routine, it was busy, but we got used to it. In that time, I got to work with Civil Affairs, USAID, the UN, the FBI, and Special Operations Forces on extremely diverse operations. Because of our tactical situation, we also had a lot of freedom, and weren't subject to the annoying rules that the poor regular grunts got harassed with. I was actually enjoying it somewhat and learning a lot.
Operation Redwings changed that.
From the moment it was conceived, Operation Redwings was an ambitious undertaking, involving many moving parts. Because there just weren't that many US personnel in Afghanistan at the time, units were spread very thin. The Marine battalion was broken up at the Platoon and Squad level. Small groups of ANA soldiers were attached to them.
In Late June, the Marines began upping their OPTEMPO in what I think was meant to be a diversionary tactic to get the ACM used to heightened activity in the target area. I was not privy to planning decisions, so that's just a guess, but all of the sudden there were lots of strange missions taking place in a bunch of areas surrounding the Korengal Valley.
A troubling part of this change was the fact that we (CPT O and I) started being tasked to missions without any Marines or other US forces, meaning were going without radios or heavy weapons. The Marine HQ viewed the ANA as mission ready as their Marine companies, and we could not convince them otherwise. They just could not understand that an ANA platoon consisted of about 20 poorly trained guys (we had terrible rates of desertion and AWOL) with AK 47s, hand held radios, and an RPG with only 3 rounds. Nowhere near the firepower and capability of a Marine Platoon.
A few days before Operation Redwings officially started, we were tasked with one of our ANA platoons to a mission in the Pesh River Valley near a town named Matin. On the way, one of our transport trucks broke down, so I had to hire a truck to transport our ANA troops. It was a big blue dump truck, and the troops were loaded in the bed. So, our convoy consisted of one ANA Ford Ranger (like the one pictured below), one crappy US HUMMV, and a big blue dump truck. Those were exactly the words I had relayed to the aircraft who was trying to locate us after we were ambushed. The Marines in the TOC were stunned, because they did not leave the FOB without at least three up armored HUMMVs, ten US personnel, three radios, and two heavy weapons. They were also surprised that our FM did not work, and we could not directly communicate with the aircraft, but had to relay messages through the TOC.
The ambush really pissed me off. We were being shot at by an anti-aircraft machine gun that we estimated was at a range between 1500 and 2000 meters away on top of a ridge line. We had no way of shooting back. All we could do was call for help and run. It is purely because the ACM firing the weapon had set it up improperly and apparently did not know how to aim, that we got out of the kill zone without casualties. The experience made me frustrated with my National Guard command for not getting us the equipment we needed.
A few days later, we were tasked with another solo mission. During the intelligence briefing, we were told that intercepted radio messages suggested ACM were offering the ANA money to turn over their ETTs as captives. These briefings turned out to be total bullshit, and I eventually stopped going to them, but at the time I accepted the info and became nervous about working alone with the ANA. Unfortunately, that bogus intel came right before a curious event that shook me up pretty good, serving to exacerbate my anxiety.
We were tasked to set up a patrol base a little northwest of Watapor with two ANA platoons and conduct some presence patrols in the neighboring villages. "Intelligence" reported a Taliban flag flying in one of them. It was supposed to last 24-48 hours, but we ended up spending nearly three weeks in the area. The picture below shows me with the two Afghan platoon leaders (the one on my left was severely wounded in action and never returned to duty, the one my right deserted shortly after Redwings). Notice the ICOM and Motorola radios. Do I look stressed?
The following day, while a massive man hunt was on for the missing seal and the bodies of his comrades, our patrol base was expanded as the rest of our ANA Kandak moved into the Pesh Valley to occupy several Traffic Control Points. We were basically told to set up a TCP and conduct daily patrols on the surrounding ridges.
We were about 7 or 8 days into this, when one of the ANA Lieutenants started arguing with the ANA Captain. The argument went on for hours. I left on a short patrol and returned about three hours later to find they were still arguing. I tried several times to get our interpreter to tell us what was going on, but he wouldn't. He said it was personal and embarrassing. I knew some Dari, but they were speaking Pashto and I had no idea what they were fighting about. My interpreter continued to say he wouldn't tell us.
It was just a little before sunset and things had seemed to calm down. The two ANA officers were still visibly upset, but they were no longer arguing. I was standing in the center of the PB looking over the Map with CPT O and the Interpreter, when all of a sudden rounds began whipping over our heads. I could actually hear the rounds cut the air. We all dropped down as low as possible, and I saw a few tracers rip by. Then, it was silent. Someone had emptied two magazines from their AK 47 right into the middle of the PB. No one was hurt, but I knew these shots had not come from outside of our perimeter. In fact they came from one of several firing positions I had set in a low ridge just above us.
OK, so picture this. Before the mission, intelligence tells us that the ACM are offering money to the ANA to turn us over. There was a heated argument between two of the officers and the interpreter would not tell me why they were fighting. Then, one of our own soldiers shoots two magazines on full auto at us. I was freaked. I didn't know what to do. I had no idea what was going on.
I looked at the interpreter and said something like "you better start talking now!" He looked stressed too, after all, he was standing with us. He then admitted that the two officers were fighting over a relationship they both had with one of the other soldiers, but he had no idea about the shooting.
At first the ANA NCOs tried to claim that the shots came from outside the perimeter, but after they saw we weren't buying it, they admitted it was an ANA soldier. Apparently, he purposefully shot over our heads as a warning to get the two officers to stop fighting. Yeah, I was skeptical too.
I did not get a wink of sleep in that PB for the remaining ten days. Over that time, my stress and fear turned into anger and frustration at my National Guard command for putting me in this position. We didn't have enough personnel. We didn't have enough equipment. We had no support. It was as if our command dropped us off in Kunar and said "good luck, schmucks" The Marines and other forces we worked with didn't see us as partners, but as tools. It wasn't their fault though, it was my command's fault for not giving a shit about us. I was tired and angry--writing this brings those emotions back.
Meanwhile in Baghram or Kabul, one could see high ranking officers and NCOs at the Dairy Queen, Cafe, and massage parlors. Others spent their day walking around making sure soldiers did not violate uniform standards. Toby Keith played concerts there and they even had a dance hall. KBR contractors living on Baghram were getting paid three times the money I was getting to build these amenities. It all made me sick.
At the very end of Operation Redwings, I was called in by my commander and our whole Kandak was put on a rest period. The ETT team all met at our HQ in Jalalabad. It was at that time, that my commander informed me that I had to see the Command Sergeant Major (CSM) for a psychological evaluation.
When I reported to the CSM he seemed somewhat perplexed. He started off by saying, and I am paraphrasing here
"Everyone around here that I've talked to speaks very highly of you, but HQ in Kabul has deemed you a potential threat for a dangerous psychological breakdown"
He then went on to ask me what the problem was. Without thinking, I laid into him. I actually raised my voice and threw all kinds of nasty words about our situation and what I thought of the assholes in Kabul. I was stressed, angry, and very fortunate that the CSM was a good man. He listened to me and then said that I had valid points and anyone would be stressed under those conditions. He said he had some of the same frustrations. He also told me that I may have to go before some officers, so I better get control of my bearing. That's when I realized I had just yelled at a CSM--yikes. In any case, he recommended that our ETT in general needed a break, and he made arrangements to sent myself and another "stressed" NCO on a 4-day pass to Qatar together.
Then, at the end of our conversation, he mentioned off the cuff. From now on, think before you send anybody any emails. I said "Email? What email?" Then he read an email I had sent to a close friend of mine in Kabul (an officer). It was in the height of my frustration, and it was just a personal message detailing all of the shit we were dealing with. I used some very harsh language, but I had known him for years. I wrote it one day during Red Wings on a supply run to the FOB in Asadabad. I had forgot I sent it.
In any case, my friend, who was genuinely concerned about us, forwarded my message to a high ranking NCO in HQ, who had also been a good friend of mine. The officer thought that maybe if some of the people in HQ saw the message, they would start doing their jobs and get the people downrange their needed supplies. It was well known throughout Afghanistan that the ETTs were poorly supported by the HQ in Kabul.
Well, the NCO (in my NCO support chain), in an effort to protect his leadership and gain favor with them, decided to declare that I had a severe case of PTSD and that I was dangerous. He told people I knew that "I lost it" He wanted to have me taken into custody, but no one in Kunar or Jalalabad would allow that. All of the people I worked with stood up for me. The CSM said it was a ridiculous idea.
The damage was done though. Someone I had walked on 20 mile road marches with. Had crossed rope bridges in freezing weather with. A fellow paratrooper and ranger had totally turned his back on me and other soldiers in his trust. I believed in the band of brothers bullshit, but here was one of my brothers not only refusing to help us, but actually trying to get me in trouble for asking. It broke my heart in a way that I can't really explain.
These events and how my chain of support responded brought about a fundamental change in the way I think and who I am. In the following months, things only got worse for me and my ETT team.
My experience in Afghanistan changed who I am. Not because of all the combat I experienced (although I had my fair share of that), but because of how betrayed I felt by the entire experience. How our chain of command just completely abandoned us. I have dealt with extreme anxiety and depression since.
So, that is my Redwings story. As I said above, no where near as deadly or harrowing as that courageous Navy Seal's story, but a good snap shot into how the HQ felt about our mission.
I am sorry, but I won't be around much tonight to talk about this, but I will try to respond later. Thanks for reading.
Sun Feb 09, 2014 at 5:10 AM PT: Thanks to the rescuer, MsGrin, who put this diary in the Community Spotlight.