Usually there are only twelve men in a patrol. It depends. When possible, there are three more. These extra guys are what the Army calls “redundant.” I don’t think it’s the correct word in ordinary English, but in Army lingo it means that the jobs these three men do can be done by one of the other members of the patrol. In plain talk one out of every four soldiers has a back-up if he gets hit -- or falls down and breaks a knee cap or whatever. It sounds good in the training manual.
A really important thing in patrolling in Afghanistan is to have extra ammo available. This can come about by detailing one or several of the guys to carry extra rounds. Or preferably, some sort of vehicle -- we call it a “gun truck.” It’s just an up-armored Humvee with a swivel mount 50 cal. on top. Nobody wants to hang around too close to it when we’re on the move because it’s a prime IED target. But we have to stay close enough so somebody can be sent back to grab the extra ammo as needed. The gun truck is also useful as an emergency ambulance if the Medevac choppers can’t get in. Well, that’s at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Sometimes we keep extra water and rations in the truck if there’s room, though we’re not supposed to.
I was surprised to find that a lot of Afghanistan – at least the part I saw – was pretty flat. Most of the time people talk about the mountains, but in RC-South, which is south of Kandahar -- where by the way most of the opium comes from -- it’s sort of rolling and flat. Sometimes there are clumps of trees, mulberry I was told, and some sort of local orchards. But mostly it’s flat fields with some narrow water canals in this part of the country. Definitely exposed. Little mud-walled villages that look like they’ve been there for centuries are sprinkled around the countryside. Ordinary people, mostly unsmiling, try to ignore us. The smiley ones are a little spooky. They’re all scared to death of the Taliban, but some are Taliban themselves. You just can’t tell.
Hot as hell in the summer and always dusty, very dusty. In the winter it’s the same, only very cold. Kids pop up out of nowhere and generally scare the crap out of you if you’re not used to their being around. Replacements always have to be warned about them. Later when you’ve been there for a while you just keep an eye open for them. You want to be on the ball to see if they seem to be acting as message carriers or otherwise alerting local Taliban that your patrol is taking this or that direction. Frankly, it gets on your nerves, but you get used to it.
Usually the intel is pretty good in finding large concentrations of what our Lt. says we should call “insurgents,” but sort of iffy when it comes to just a few. As long as you are expecting to be in one of those hostile locations, all you need is some unusual movement in the distance to alert you – or, of course, a few rounds of incoming small arms fire.. For the most part the Taliban are damned smart about exposing themselves, but not always. They make mistakes and so do we. But when we can’t handle them we usually have ISR assets (air cover) to call in -- Apaches, Kiowas, F-16s, whatever. Sometimes, though, we do get hung out to dry and that’s when you’ve got to suck it up and use whatever you’ve got -- and get the hell out. They know we’ll be back.
That air support stuff doesn’t work too well on dispersed targets or if you’re caught in a small village ambush. Obviously you avoid getting hung up in a village. The close-in work can get hairy. By the way, that’s where having those three extra guys comes in handy. A regular medic along with a couple of guys lugging ammo is damn useful when the mud chips start flying off the walls you’re ducking behind. Suppressing fire from behind cover holding your weapon over the top while ducked behind the crumbling mud plaster may not seem too hard core, but it can get the job done if your rifle is pointed in the right general direction of the incoming.
The .50 cal’ M2 set on top of our gun truck can do a lot of damage if it can get into position. That is one awesome piece of artillery if it’s got a well-defended hard point to shoot at. I’ve seen one shoot right through house walls. The problem with the gun truck is that even with it being more heavily armored, it really is a prime Taliban target. The Taliban love to use their RPGs on them if they’re in range. The Taliban haven’t been much for night ops, but when they have the urge, they can crawl in close enough for some RPG kill rounds. Somebody said they’ve picked up some of our night vision stuff and might be able to use that.
One of our guys got himself a Bronze Star with a V decoration. I think he was embarrassed. All the guys thought it was a good medal. He didn’t get scratched or anything, though he must have been pretty close to the frag when the bad guys (sorry, insurgents) tried to overrun his squad’s position. He still can’t hear too well, but otherwise he’s okay.
One of the guys said he would like to come back here someday when the whole deal quiets down. Not me. I haven’t seen anything I want to see again. They’re just going to keep shooting at each other for some new reason anyhow.
Don’t forget to say hello to President Obama, if you see him. Ask him when he’s going to come over and see us! Armed Forces Radio says he does travel around a lot.
Mr. Wittman is a proud former enlisted man in the United States Army.