GETTING SHOT AT |
February 09, 2007
GETTING SHOT AT
Posting date: 2/9/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
From an email I sent home:
I'm still at Firebase Snake, which is a cool-sounding name for a small group of ramshackle brick buildings and a Hesco wall tucked in a river valley somewhere in Uruzgan province. I can't talk specifics, but there aren't a whole lot of Americans here, and our only link to friendly forces is by air, due to the bad roads and worse people who control them. I'm working on month eight of this deployment, and I've been on plenty of patrols, but getting shot at is a relatively new experience for me. Since this is an experience most of you will never have (and I'm thankful for that), I'll do my best to describe the sights, sounds, and feelings of a gunfight for you.
Usually we have some kind of heads-up that the bad guys are around, so things haven't started in a surprise fashion for me, but even when you know it's coming the first shots are startling. The most prominent thing about a battle is the noise -- it is ungodly loud. Think of the loudest war movie sequence you've ever seen, and multiply that until it would make your ears bleed. Literally. One of our interpreter's ears were bleeding after this last one -- he wasn't wearing ear protection. I wear a radio headset that also acts as hearing protection, and without it I'd be stone deaf right now.
Guns make a distinctly different sound when they are pointed at you -- sharper and higher pitched. Bullets make a zip noise that's tough to describe, but it isn't like the movies either. You can sort of judge how close they get by the sound and intensity of that noise. Recently, as I was in the open rear-facing seat of a humvee, fighting started up at the front of the convoy. We were towards the back and couldn't see the engagement in front of us, and weren't taking any fire from the left, where it started from. Within a short time, I start hearing zzziip, zzziip. I look around in confusion, because I didn't hear any shots. The zips continue, and I still don't hear anything, so I yell to the guy up front, "Hey Larry, I think someone's shooting at me." It sounded so ridiculous I still want to laugh about it, but I didn't at the time because we figured out where it was coming from when the truck behind us got raked down its right side. So everyone swings right and lets loose on some mud compounds and trees just across the river. I never saw the guy or guys, and that's often the case, but the shooting stopped and we moved on.
Everyone's least favorite noise is that lovable RPG sound. Rocket-propelled grenades suck -- there's a whooshing sound and then a terrific BOOM when they hit. Thank God that the Taliban can't shoot worth a damn. Artillery, on the other hand, is such a beautiful noise, since we know it's ours. Of course, I'm partial to it by profession, but it makes a pleasing jet sound or low whistle when it goes over your head, depending on the angle, fuse, etc. etc. etc., and then a satisfying "crump" when it hits. Explosiony goodness and hot metal action for the bad guys. It must be terrifying for them, but I don't care.
Aerial bombs are incredibly loud -- the noise is a lot sharper than an artillery round, and more intense, but it's short. There isn't some multi-syllabic "kaboom," it's just every pot and pan in your kitchen hitting the floor simultaneously, and then stopping. The gun from an A-10 is really cool -- you hear dozens of almost simultaneous little booms when the rounds hit, and then a few seconds later you actually hear the gun fire with a low-pitched "brrrrrrrrrrrp." There's lots of yelling and radio traffic too. So, mash all of that stuff together and mix it in with the occasional bout of eerie quiet, and you have the soundtrack to a bad time.
The sights are captured a little better by movies such as Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. There aren't huge fireballs from weapon muzzles; it's just a little bit of smoke and dust in the daytime. People in the distance are just little black dots with legs running, or peeking over a ledge at you. Bomb and artillery explosions are mostly dust and smoke as well, and they kick up a haze that lingers in the air with smoke from the inevitable fires. Mud houses don't really burn, but there are hay piles and other flammables aplenty. Airburst munitions provide a little more of a flash, but it's muted in comparison to some TV-show imagining.
You see some crazy things sometimes, like an idiot civilian woman with a herd of kids walking them right across the valley where the enemy is trading fire with us. They're lucky someone took the time to notice they weren't combatants, and we placed ourselves at greater risk by not shooting in their direction despite the enemy. There is the ubiquitous livestock presence too. I feel bad for those animals; they're tied up and can't run away, and some are inevitably hurt. Somehow this brown cow managed to make it through the crossfire untouched. It was amazing. I wanted to ask it, "How now?"
The feelings involved: I can't speak for anyone else, but mine are usually stark fear, adrenaline, and excitement. Fear is very uncomfortable, like you had lead pancakes for breakfast. Four-letter expressions are quite common. Oddly, there's a good bit of laughter and joking too, often after a near miss, along the lines of "Oh shit, that was close. Hahaha." Gotta break the tension, I suppose. When it's over and done (and we're all in one piece), elation: "I am still here, and he is not." Then, bone-weariness and an urgent need to pee. I looked at my watch, and six hours had passed in what seemed like the longest five minutes of my life. I was a little woozy from 3,000 rounds of .50 cal being fired next to my head, but otherwise fine.
I debated not mentioning this topic at all, to keep you guys from worrying, but I think you're better served by knowing what goes on and what it feels like, and how truly terrible it is. Hawkish behavior is the realm of people who haven't done this before.