MISSION TO KABUL |
January 12, 2007
MISSION TO KABUL
Name: 1SG Troy Steward
Posting date: 1/12/2007
Stationed in: Sharana, Afghanistan
Hometown: Amherst, NY
Milblog url: www.bouhammer.com
The other day we had a mission to Kabul and our Task Force HQ, a short mission that would only have us from our home FOB for a few days. We had to take a lot of guys up there to drop them off for leave and pass, and take care of some administrative business while we were there. We have done this mission many times, and except for the snow that we expected on some of the dirt roads, it should not have been any different than normal.
Little did we know that the main ring-road, which is all paved and in some places even has lines painted on it, is not maintained. No plows, no salt-trucks, no anything. The only way that road gets cleared is by natural melting, the wearing down of the snow and ice by the tires of the jingle trucks and cars until ruts are made down to the pavement, and by the exhaust pipes melting the snow as cars and trucks sit in traffic jams.
The average speed was about 25 mph -- and many times it was 0 mph. Since the snow is cleared by the truck tires, the entire surface of the road does not get cleared. And the crappy and non-maintained jingle trucks will routinely break down on a hill, or start to slip and need to put on chains, or worse yet slide off the road and turn over. This stops traffic in both directions. Nobody here is considerate or cares about helping anyone else out, so the traffic that is in the back of the line on both sides of the road tries to push around. Pretty soon you end up with two vehicles nose to nose and both drivers arguing about which should move. When drivers see a car pass them they jump in behind and move into the on-coming lane too. It does not take long for both lanes of a two-lane road to be completely filled -- two lanes of vehicles facing one direction, two lanes facing the other.
This is why our trip took so long and why yours truly, at one point, thought about why it would suck to die upside down suffocating or freezing to death.
We ran into a number of large traffic jams, each of which held us up for 30 minutes to 90 minutes. It's bad enough you have all these people jammed up trying to get by one another, but throw in a convoy of US Humvees with large machine guns, not really fond of being stuck in traffic and made a target of, and you have a situation. We don't sit in traffic and wait for it to work itself out. We have guns, lots of them, so we make ourselves priority one. That may not be touchy-feely and some might slam us for it, but they are not here and we are. Many people who have been stuck in a US traffic jam would have given their first-born to have a armored Humvee with a machine gun on top with which to push their way through.
We do have that, and we do push through. At every jam-up we would have soldiers dismount with terps on their hips to start clearing people out of the way. It was not always fast and immediate, but we always moved forward and pushed people back, and off the road if we needed to. The last thing we want to be is a static target for a car bomb, ambush or something else.
Near one traffic jam there was a gas station, so we took advantage of this detour route to get around several large trucks so we could continue working our way forward. I was in the lead Humvee of the convoy, and as with any lead dog breaking trail there is always a risk you will be the first to happen upon hazards. As I came out of the gas station and back onto the road, there was a van in my way that was trying to duck in between cars and move so I could get my extra-wide beast of a truck through. Apparently the shoulder of the road dropped away, and as I inched farther away from the gas station exit, I felt my front end drop about two feet, and that in turn caused my back end to slip out and it dropped.
I quickly threw the truck into reverse to try and back out of what I knew was a bad situation before I got stuck too deep. But it was too late, and I was definitely stuck. Face was my TC, but was already on the ground trying to get us through the traffic jam. He struggled to pull his very heavy armored door open to ask what the situation was. The truck had a good list to it towards the left, but not enough to roll over. Not yet. My gunner stayed inside while I pushed my door open.
Normally my door would fly open due to its weight and the angle, but not with snow outside of it. I knew it had to be bad if the snow was higher than my door. I stepped out into the snow only to find it was over my waist -- I had punched through the snow that deep and still not hit ground. This was way too deep for my truck to get out of. I got back in and kept her running.
We had the gunner get down and take down the machine gun. Mouse had pulled his truck up to pull me out so we did not want anyone up top. As my gunner got settled in, Mouse and Puss hooked up the tow strap. When it was set, I gave them the thumbs up and Mouse put it into gear and gave it gas. Basic physics will tell you that when one object tries to pull another object of similar weight, and the object being pulled has resistance, then it won't work. This is exactly what happened. Because of the angle he was pulling from and the way my truck was facing, it just swung his back end around and moved me a little -- into a worse position.
Due to the weight of my truck it pulled me deeper into the snow and caused the tires on the right side of my truck to come off the ground. My truck kicked up another 15-20 degrees in angle and we all knew this was now a very dangerous situation. The snow was just outside my window and I had to look up in order to see out the other side. The only thing holding my truck from rolling over was the snow the left side was pushed into.
It took two guys pulling from the outside and my gunner pushing from the inside to get his door open so he could get out. Since I was the driver and the senior person in the truck it was my responsibility to stay in there. The old captain-goes-down-with-the-ship scenario. Someone had to stay behind the wheel in case we found a way to pull her out. As I sat in the truck by myself I decided it was time to call higher and let them know of our situation and that we may need some bigger recovery vehicles in case we could not do this ourselves.
After that was done, old Chuck Norris (who decided to ride this one out with me) and I started looking around and noticing that we needed to secure things that could go flying. I left him in the windshield, as he was secure and assured me he could hold on. Being that he is Chuck Norris, who was I to doubt him? I started storing away radio batteries. I-pods, sunglasses, and anything else I could find which might become a flying threat if my truck started rolling down the hill.
I was talking to Face on the radio as he had a portable with him. I was trying to find out what was going on outside the truck. Listening to the radio it was apparent that the situation was as bad as I thought, and everyone was convinced that unless they tried something exactly perfect I was going to start a long and dangerous roll, and not on my wheels.
As I looked out the window I could see a collage of terps, trucks, locals, and soldiers all mixed in together. The locals knew they were not going anywhere until we resolved this, so they were trying to help. That made for a very dangerous situation as there was no space between the 60-70 of them and the few soldiers we had on the ground. Lucky for us, nobody tried anything. Later Face told me he almost fired a few warning shots in the air to push them back, because they were not listening.
After getting everything I could reach (without moving too much) trapped down, I called Mouse, who was still sitting in his truck waiting for the decision on where to move it. I told him "No matter what, get me out of this truck if I roll." I knew this snow was deep, but had no idea how I would end up if I went upside down. The truck is armored all the way around. If the hatch was buried and the doors could not be opened then I would be in a bad spot.
I have been shot at, rocketed, blown up and everything else. But in fluid and adrenaline-driven moments like that you don't think about dying, the ramifications, or anything else like that. Not when it is happening. At least I never have. But when you are allowed to think about it, sitting there staring, and talking to a Chuck Norris figure, it is sobering. I thought about what it would be like to suffocate upside down. How much air I had in there if they could not get to me. If I would get knocked out by something, or if I would be okay enough to try to get out while they tried to rescue me.
Pretty soon I saw a jingle truck pull up and then I heard Face call me to tell me that they were going to have the big jingle truck try to pull me out. I figured it was worth a shot, besides a truck that big might keep me from rolling over multiple times even if I did flip upside down. I didn't think my vehicle would have enough weight to pull a truck almost the size of an 18 -wheeler down the hill with it. While they were backing it up into position, I called and told them to hook up Mouse's truck to the front of the jingle truck. It couldn't hurt, and could only help to have that much more power pull on me.
They decided they should shovel out the snow in front of my left tire, and one of the Air Force guys with us started doing it by hand. I called to Mouse and told him to get the shovels out of the back of the trucks, but before anyone could, a local came up with his own shovel and started shoveling. He did all the shoveling and cleared the snow in front of the tire.
After getting everyone back, and a lot of cross talk about everyone being ready and the tightening of the tow ropes, I looked up to see one of the guys from another Humvee look over the top of my hood and give me a thumbs-up. I gave him one back, told Chuck to hold on, gripped the steering wheel and put my foot on the gas.
The Humvee started pulling the jingle, and the jingle started pulling me, and out I came. The locals had literally picked up and moved a small car that had been in what I knew would be my path of extraction. I had told Face several times to get that car to move, otherwise I would roll over its hood and crush the front end, because I knew there was nowhere else to go and I was not going to stop. Luckily for the car's owner, I missed it by an inch or more.
I was flat and on the road again, and everyone clapped, yelled and celebrated -- US Soldiers, terps, and local Afghans. We'd all worked together side by side towrds one common goal and got the truck out. Granted, the motivations may have varied: The locals did not want to be stuck there until we got out, and we did not want to be stuck there with a flipped truck, or waiting surrounded by Afghans for a US wrecker to show up.
I got out of the truck and several of the locals walked up and shook my hand. I made a point of walking to the truck driver and giving him 1000 Afghani (about $20 US). At first he refused, which I was surprised by, but I insisted. I then found the guy with the shovel and handed him a $10 bill from my wallet. I would do that in the States, so I would sure do it here as well.
Once we collected ourselves and got everyone loaded and weapons mounted, we were on the road again. A few minutes later Puss called on the radio and asked in a joking manner if I could try and keep my truck on the road this time. With a nervous and happy laugh I kept driving. About three minutes later (according to what Face told me later) I started calling out on the intercom system "Oh Sh**, Oh, SH**, OH SH**!!!, and the truck was going sideways. I had hit black ice. My multi-ton Humvee spun completely sideways and slid in one of those slow, uncontrollable glides. I did what I was trained to do, and had done many times while driving on ice-covered roads in Alaska, tapping the brakes and turning into the slide. With black ice though, it does not matter much, and you are left to the dynamics of physics and the grace of God to see how it turns out. After 150 meters my front wheels stuck in the snow and stopped me.
I put it in reverse and backed out of the snow. Once I had it turned straight and we were once again moving in the right direction, Puss called on the radio to remind me what he had asked me earlier and if I "COULD PLEASE" keep it on the road this time. I told him I would do my best. Face and I agreed there was no way we would make Kabul before nightfall, so we might as well take it slow.
A few miles down the road, we hit our next roadblock. Except this one only had traffic stopped in the direction heading towards us, not in our lane. There were about 8-10 trucks stopped, and what looked like ANP (police) on the road. The civilians literally stood in front of my truck to stop it (not a smart thing given the condition of the road). I stopped, and Face and Jawed the terp got out to see what was going on.
It did not take long to realize it was not a good situation (which was already evident from civilians stopping us). It seems that the ANP were running a shakedown stop, where the crooked ANP stop trucks and force them to pay a toll to drive on the road. It's a very old racket that used to happen back in our country during the gangster days of the 20s and 30s.
The truck drivers were very upset and complaining to Face. I could see him yelling at the ANP, literally in their faces. They were screaming back and I did not like him being that close to them. Then we saw the bayonet mounted to one of their AK-47s. It was game time, so I was out of the trruck as fast as I could. It was faster to grab Betsy than my M4, and since there was only two of them Betsy had a barrel of double-O buck for each. It would only take one barrel for each, dead-center of the chest, to end the threat from them.
As I got out, the gunner saw what was happening and that I had Betsy leveled off, and knowing he could not get the M240 MG low enough in elevation at that close of range, he raised his M4 and put his sights on the closest ANP in front of Face. Face was cussing him out for being crooked -- they'd admitted to doing the shake-down -- and then he told the civilians to drive on. They would not be bullied by these guys, at least not this time. As the civilians left to get in their trucks, they yelled and cussed the ANP, telling them (according to our terp) that they were bad men, saying "Look, the Americans help us, while you, our own brothers, try to steal from us. Why can't you protect us like the Americans do?" Once all the truck drivers left and Face had delivered a few last verbal lashings, through the terp, we were back in the truck and on the road.
The rest of the journey was very stressful, not because of sliding but because of some paint-trading between our Humvees and some oversized trucks. Many of these drivers run only parking lights or one headlight, but when they see Humvees coming they want to let us know they are there and they flash their high-beams -- or just turn them on. Well, that blinds us, especially with the snow reflecting the light. There were many times I was pretty much blind as I drove by vehicles, with no idea how wide they were or where the edge of the road was. That was some nerve-wracking, white-knuckle driving. I already had a few scrapes on the side of my truck, and did not want to hit anyone so hard it threw me off the road. Eventually we made it to Kabul, and after a few backtracks (because terps who live in a city their whole lives can apparently get lost in the dark), we made it to our destination.
It was a long, stressful, cold, and tiring day. I was so glad to have made it there alive and well. We had all our people and all four trucks. Needless to say, I slept very, very well that night.