The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


October 11, 2011

Name: J.P. Raab
Returned from: Afghanistan
Returning to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Milblog: With a Bible in My Ruck

Being a sergeant means trusting your Soldiers.

That does not mean that you renounce your responsibility to keep a close eye on them. In fact, watching them closely, offering them suggestions, and mentoring them at every step of the way is expected of NCOs everywhere. But once you have been working with them and given them a mission, you have to step back and let them work. Micromanagement is the albatross around our military's neck.

2nd Squad's enlisted Soldiers worked. And they worked well. In the chaos of the Fight Lane's room-clearing portions, our Soldiers were aggressive, careful, and communicative. When we hit the building that was home to the first sniper, we lost fire team integrity. Myself, the Bravo team leader, and SGT H, our squad leader, were scattered throughout the building, leading and directing small groups of our Soldiers (plus a few attachments) to clear rooms. Although in the chaos of the notional battle – in the dark, the heat, the confusion – our Soldiers were dispersed, they performed their jobs admirably, adapting to unfamiliar terrain (uncleared rooms) and took out what enemy forces (actors in manjammies) they found inside.

Although I was expecting 2nd Squad to have a lot of hiccups and indecision once inside the target building, each of the Soldiers surprised me by showing poise and a willingness to obey orders and adapt without question. I was impressed.

In real life, a handful of men with rifles could hold off or kill a squad of US Soldiers who had committed to assaulting an unfamiliar building. In training, the OCs were more forgiving in who they ruled as wounded or dead. Again, they wanted to see our men display aggression and decisiveness. With a little guidance from the squad NCOs, the men met those expectations.

Clearing a room is a nightmare. Often, Soldiers enter a house or compound blind. When we cleared Kulats (mini fortresses, typically home to an extended family) in Afghanistan, we often did not have maps – or if we did, we did not have much prep time. On a handful of missions I worked with some Special Forces teams that seemed to know where they were going – but that was probably due more to their superhuman abilities than to any real military intelligence preparation. The average grunt goes into the dark confused, disoriented, and scared.

Here is a practical exercise. Stand up. Look around the room in which you are standing. Count the doors – including closets – and windows. Multiply that number by, say, three. Now, add that number to the amount of blind spots in the room (spaces behind couches, under beds, spaces behind you or doors). Then multiply that number by the number of rooms in the house or building. You now have a conservative estimate as to how many angles the enemy may come from to kill you. If you're still feeling frisky, factor in the possibility of booby traps, multiple bad guys, darkness, and smoke. Oh, and exhaustion. And you don't have the element of surprise. Now you are beginning to have an understanding of the difficulties faced by our military in an urban combat space.

The key in training, as often in Afghanistan, is decisiveness. OCs like to see NCOs hollering out orders and Soldiers executing battle drills; the Taliban does not like to see a unit that moves quickly and with a purpose.

2nd Squad wasn't perfect, but we did our jobs. When I plunged into the target building, I linked up with the rest of the squad and helped channel the effort of force that the men were already driving. Within a few minutes, our squad occupied and cleared two floors, and eliminated the sniper and his buddy.

As the other team leader and I consolidated our hold on the building and checked our guys for water, ammunition, wounds, and their equipment, SGT H “called up” (spoke to the OC) our squad's status to higher headquarters. With his report finished, the OCs told us to reconsolidate back out in the street and prepare to move out to our next objective.

We were hot, breathing hard, and tired from the assault. But the lane was not over.

SGT H ordered us into a modified wedge formation, which put us in a dispersement allowing our firepower and our men to be distributed out at optimum angles. The lead OC – wearing a 75th Ranger Regiment Scroll on his assault pack and probably wanting to live up to the claim that implied – led us off into the woods at a brisk pace.

We plunged into the treeline, slapping branches out of our faces and barreling through thorn bushes. The mud sucked at our boots, and still pools of water soaked us up to our thighs. Stealth is the friend of the infantryman, but maneuvering through a swamp often eliminates noise discipline. It didn't help that the sounds of us tromping through the terrain were accompanied by frequent cursing.

We trudged on, trying to keep track of the OC ahead of us and one another around us. It would not be difficult for us to become separated in such thick vegetation. One of my priorities as an NCO is to enforce accountability for all personnel in an element. A rather painful experience from my last deployment is my motivation for keeping tabs on everyone. I have seen leaders make mistakes that allowed good Soldiers go to their deaths, and I have no intention of repeating them.

The sharp whistle of an artillery simulator echoed out from somewhere behind us.

“Incoming!” we screamed, getting down and taking cover. In real life, if a mortar, rocket, or artillery shell lands nearby, you're probably dead – unless you can get some cover between you and it.

I have great affection for compacted dirt walls and HESCO barriers.

The simulator popped off with a tepid explosion, and SGT H hollered out a direction and distance for us to run. Tactical considerations went out the window; we had to get out of the indirect fire kill zone. We ran. Which was difficult, considering the downed trees, thick brush, and oceans of black water in our path.

After reacting to a few more incoming rounds, we reconsolidated and began to move out in our wedge formation again.

Almost immediately we took contact. My point man dove down, scrambling along his knees and elbows to find cover.

I saw a burst of fire from up ahead and to my right. As the lead team leader, I now had two responsibilities: one, set up a somewhat-linear base of fire and manage the employment of my Soldiers' weapons systems, and two, provide my squad leader with the enemy's formation, weapons capabilities, distance, and direction.

This looked like me screaming to my 203 gunner and SAW gunner to bound up while the point man and I provided covering fire. I tried to direct my men into advantageous positions where they could provide deadly fires but still maintain their own security; simultaneously I hollered out “One o'clock, one hundred fifty meters, enemy machine gun team!” not sure of the distance or the weapon system but erring on the side of they have a big gun that can kill all of us very quickly.

Again, the Soldiers performed their jobs well, selecting good cover and controlling their rates of fire. I ordered them to pick up the rate as SGT H and Bravo Team maneuvered around to our right in a flanking action. Once I could see that they were in place, I called out the “shift fire” then “lift fire” commands as SGT H fired off signal flares and led the assault through the enemy positions. I heard the crack of rounds, and then there was only the voices of the NCOs leading the assault.

Once they cleared through across the objective, I ordered my fire team up to assault through. We moved over the “dead” bodies of the enemy fire team, then cleared through to reconsolidate our squad on the objective.

At this point, there are a dozen other tasks to perform – like searching for weapons, taking care of the wounded, caring for prisoners – but the OCs hurriedly formed us back up into a squad wedge column. There were a lot more obstacles – and a lot more fighting – in the kilometers ahead.

As we moved out, the lead OC began to scream at us if we did not move fast enough for his liking. I have never been to Ranger School, but I understand that there is a constant pressure there to move faster, faster, faster. This seems to me, in my admittedly limited experience, to be a technique employed by instructors to effect greater stress on Soldiers. In Afghanistan, moving faster, faster, faster is usually encouraged by someone who does not understand the threat of IEDs, booby traps, mines, or ambushes.

At one point, the OC, with whom we could barely keep up (we had full kit and moved in tactical formation, he had a light vest and assault pack) stopped my point man.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“What are you doing?” the OC asked again. “Look around.”

I moved up to them.

“What's up, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Where are we right now?” he asked.

“We're in a linear danger area,” my point man said. He was right. I looked to the right and left, and there was cleared space in either direction. The corridor was probably used for utilities access.

“And you just walked right through it? Is that what you're going to do?” the OC asked.

“Sergeant, you told us to hurry up –” I started, but then stopped. I looked back and saw the rest of the squad taking a knee, some in the space, some within the treeline.

“You train to just move through a linear danger area, huh? That's what you train to do?” he asked.

Here was another situation where we were in a no-win. Technically, yes, the OC was right. We should have taken tactical precautions while crossing the linear danger area. We didn't because he had screamed at us to hurry up and follow him – abandoning most pretenses of tactical movement.

We were damned if we did, damned if we didn't.

Our position was already compromised, so I ran back to SGT H and explained the situation.

“Well, fuck, he told us to hurry the fuck up and run after him at full speed, and now he wants to gig us for following him?” SGT H asked. “Fuck it, just go. Just go, push through, have the guys pull security off to the sides while they cross. But just get us through it. Go.”

This will be my last post for about a month. My unit is attending the National Training Center for the next month or so. NTC is the best unit-wide training that the Army offers – Active, Reserve, or Guard. It looks to be a difficult but worthwhile experience, as it is tailored to our needs in the upcoming counterinsurgency fight. No Army training is ever perfect, but if anything is going to help us prepare for war, these next few weeks will.

See you on the other side.


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