BADAKHSHAN VI: SUCCESS! |
July 10, 2012
The average day of the 5th Zone ABP Mentor Team (the SFAT, or Security Force Assistance Team) is comprised of making our way to the 5th Zone Headquarters, near Mazar-e Sharif (MeS), and working to make slow, incremental changes to the way that the staff there works. But sometimes we get to do some pretty cool missions that take us far afield. My post on the unsuccessful mission to Badakhshan was an example of what we call a “non-standard” mission. Non-standard missions are the most interesting, and the most fun. We don’t plan them because they are fun, though. They serve a purpose -- they just happen to be fun and interesting as well.
The mission to Khwahan, Badakhshan, had been planned for weeks and the purpose was two-fold. First, we were attempting to have a KLE (Key Leader Engagement) with the leadership of the 5th Zone ABP’s 6th Kandak (battalion). The second purpose, and most pressing to the men of the 6th Kandak, was to drop much-needed supplies to them. They had been out of rations for weeks. Khwahan is only accessible by road for a few months a year. Once snow begins falling on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, the village becomes practically cut-off from the outside world. Numerous attempts had been made to reach Khwahan by air; most had fizzled on the launch pad. One, the mission referenced above, made it almost all the way there. That mission died at the refueling stop at Faizabad, the capitol of Badakhshan Province. On March 21st, 2012, we attempted the mission again.
Marmal, the largest Coalition base in the RC North, sits a little southeast of MeS, and has a civilian air terminal as well as all the military fixed- and rotary-wing military air units that occupy the airfield. The 1st ACB (Air Cavalry Brigade) was headquartered at Marmal at the time and provided the rotary-wing lift capability for units in the RC North. Several times, air assets had been diverted to other missions, causing our mission to Khwahan to be rescheduled. These do not even count as attempts. By late March, the weather had started to change from the bitter cold, rain and snow in Balkh Province. But the elevation in Balkh is not nearly as high as in Badakhshan; this makes a real difference in the weather. Badakhshan was still in the throes of late winter, while Balkh, our launching point, was emerging into early spring. Simply, the weather where we left was not necessarily the weather at our destination.
Once again, tons of palleted supplies would be loaded on two Chinook helicopters and one Blackhawk in preparation for the long trip to Badakhshan in hopes of being deposited for use by the men of the 6th Kandak. Once again, members of the 5th Zone ABP SFAT would load up to secure the LZ and hopefully conduct a Key Leader Engagement with the leadership of the 5th Zone’s 6th Kandak. The morning air was still chilly as we drove around the end of the airfield and offloaded our gear, positioning near the aircraft. Each man wanted to be hydrated, but not too hydrated, as there are no “facilities” on a Chinook, and we had a long flight ahead of us. Gear was checked and re-checked. We joked in a relaxed state of anticipation, half-expecting the mission to be called off -- again -- at any moment. Finally, the call came; the mission was still a go.
Pessimistic jokes were made as we strapped on body armor, helmets and rucksacks to load up on the helicopters whose blades were beginning to turn already. The loud roar as we approached the aircraft became an incredibly loud, high-pitched whine as we neared the yawning tail ramp. We loaded in behind the pallets of supplies and took our seats near the ramp, spread on each side of the fuselage facing in. I shoved the earphones of my iPod into my ear canals and powered up the music as the aircraft vibrated under me. Alice in Chains filled my ears: heavy metal music just seems appropriate for a chopper ride to a destination high in the Hindu Kush that I’ve never been to before. The helicopter taxied forward, turned and rolled towards the taxiway near the main runway and lifted off the ground.
Chinooks always seem to hover forever before a mission actually launches. Lots of systems are checked by the aircrew as the bird hovers in position fifteen to twenty feet off the ground. We could look out the bubble-shaped windows and see the other Chinook hovering nearby, the same ritual being followed within. Finally, a push was felt and the scenery outside began to turn and fall away. We were climbing and turning. Another helicopter slid through our view out the back of the big helicopter as the ground receded and the sound of the rotor blades indicated they were chopping and grabbing big chunks of air.
We climbed to altitude as the temperature dropped. Each man made himself comfortable with whatever gear he had brought along for the purpose. I prefer the local desmah, often called a shemagh. I wrapped my head and face and settled in as Alice in Chains beat away at my ears, the whines and roar of the helicopter’s engines, blades and hydraulics muted in the background behind the music. The views are limited when you are facing inwards along the sides of an aircraft, and the tail ramp was raised for part of the mission. Still, what views we could steal from the aircraft of the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush were beautiful.
Trying to avoid too much fluids, each of us munched on such things as granola bars, power bars and beef sticks. The idea was not to fill up, but to make sure that the energy was there in case things got active. Having never actually seen our destination, we had no idea what to expect of the local security situation.
Again, we landed at Faizabad for refueling. Again there was the wait while the AWT (Air Weapons Team) performed route reconnaissance to determine if the weather would allow us safe passage. This time the word was “Go.” We loaded up quickly and flew towards Khwahan. This leg was much shorter, and soon the Chinook began to descend and bank -- a hint that we were nearing our objective. My specific job on this mission was to take a machine gun crew and secure a portion of the LZ (Landing Zone) while the choppers were on the ground. I scanned out the bubble windows and the now-open tail to orient myself to the LZ as we swooped around the village. The first bird went straight in, but our bird orbited for a few minutes before making the approach.
The Chinook flared, the view out the back ramp limited to the rotor wash-beaten ground. The aircraft began to level as the rear landing gear made contact, the nose pivoting gently down until the aircraft settled and sat on its gear. The tail ramp lowered until it made contact with the ground and out we went. Oriented, I led the machine gun crew with the M-240B machine gun towards my chosen spot. ABP soldiers of the 6th Kandak were already forming a perimeter, and after finding the gun crew a spot with good visibility and slight cover, I touched base with the ABP in Dari. Their smiles at hearing me speak to them in their own language brightened the businesslike mood of the moment. The roar of the choppers was not nearly so loud from there.
The valley was stunningly beautiful. Snow-clad mountains ringed our view, the river that ran through the valley the actual border with Tajikistan. The fields looked manicured, the teeth of sheep and goats trimming the vegetation, no doubt. The village lay nestled at the foot of a mountain, a mud parapet aside the LZ still carried an ancient ZPU-23 anti-aircraft gun next the hulk of a BTR-60; testaments to an earlier conflict, a reminder that history has neither stopped nor forgotten Khwahan.
While maintaining observation I glanced back to where the pallets of supplies were being offloaded. The helicopters raised their noses off the ground and rolled a few yards forward as the pallets slid out the back and flopped onto the ground. Efficient. We remained in place for only ten or fifteen minutes before the call came over the radio to pick up the gun and make our way back to the Chinooks. We loaded up as villagers gathered at the end of the LZ for the biggest circus they had seen all year, watching as the two big Chinooks and the Blackhawk lifted off and we made our way homeward.
For the flight home we had more people on our chopper. The Blackhawk was going to land at Kunduz to that COL Mollosser and the SGM (Sergeant Major) could stay overnight there and link up with our mobile team. They would return the next day to Marmal. The flight back to Marmal seemed to go quickly. We landed to the view of the setting sun and taxied to where the big Chinooks would once again rest silent. We gathered our gear, filed off and set about returning to our camp to break down our loads, clean our weapons and equipment and prepare for another, much more mundane, day of normal operations.