IN THE TRUCK COMMANDER'S SEAT TO CHEMTAL : PART ONE |
April 09, 2013
Public Affairs support had been requested for a mission to an area in the Chemtal District in central Regional Command North. As I had for many other missions before, I reported to the staging area in the morning and began my usual routine of double-checking my gear, packing extra water bottles, and using the Port-a-John, always returning to the front of the trucks to patiently wait for our convoy brief. The mission had been pre-briefed the night before with the team, but the briefing immediately preceding the actual mission would reiterate the information and give us the latest intelligence.
Master Sergeant Mellohn, on his third deployment in five years to Afghanistan and our CC (convoy commander) that day, began by sounding off the roll call.
Where your name fell in order for each truck called determined your role within that truck. He started with his own truck -- himself, his driver, his gunner, a young joint fires observer (JFO), and his Afghan interpreter.
The list for the second truck began with my name, then our driver, our gunner, our medic, and an E-5 JFO. The JFO in the first truck was a young one who had no real-time experience and had never been outside the wire, so the E-5 JFO in my truck, who had gone on a couple of missions previously, was working in a mentoring capacity to the junior JFO.
Since my name had been called first I was the TC (truck commander). The order of march would be the convoy commander’s truck, an ABP (Afghan Border Police) pick-up truck, my truck, and then another ABP pick-up.
He followed the roll call with the intelligence report that had been gathered for us. To begin, the area we were headed to had an incident just four days before. A Norwegian unit’s convoy had hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and one of their troops was critically injured and had lost his leg. Additionally, there were known enemy still in the area. Also, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a large city that we had to venture though to get to Chemtal, there had been reports of IEDs placed in trees aimed at our gunners.
The briefing continued as more details of the mission were heard for the next several minutes.
“Any questions?” he asked. No one said a word. “On the trucks, rolling in 15.”
I grabbed my assault pack and body armor and headed to where my truck was parked. All four heavy doors of the up-armored vehicle were open, and my team was diligently getting their gear up in the truck and moving things around in order to leave. I stepped up on the metal side rail, threw my assault pack on the floor in the TC’s seat and jumped back down. The medic was securing his gear behind the driver’s seat and the senior ranked JFO was messing with his gadgets in attempts to “talk to higher” on his radio to confirm our coordinates.
My gunner, Sergeant Anise, a buck sergeant with an SF (Special Forces) wanna-be mentality, a bad attitude, and the thought that he was the ultimate, superior being of Soldiers, was working on getting his weapon mounted in the turret. He was a unique character who had actually been removed from the Q-course (SF school) because of disciplinary reasons, so I think hanging onto the SF look made him feel better about himself. He had let his hair grow out to the point where it probably pushed the limits of regulations and, because of a supposed shaving profile (a temporary medical excuse for why he didn’t have to shave -- dermatology issues or whatever), had more than just overnight scruff on his face. He was the tall, skinny type that worked out daily yet still had the scrawniest of chicken legs to support his upper torso. That didn’t stop him from puffing out his chest, though, adding to his arrogant behavior.
I stepped slightly away from my truck and began to put on my plated body armor. I could hear a muffled conversation but it wasn’t directed at me so I didn’t pay it much attention. Because I was fairly ready to go but couldn’t mount the truck (TCs ground-guided the trucks off post), I spoke to a couple of other guys on the mission as they were ready to go as well.
After just a minute or two of idle chitter-chatter, I walked back over to my truck to ensure that my team was “up." On the way, however, my gunner approached me and asked if I knew anything about the blue force tracker (BFT). I, not knowing the magnitude of problem this statement would cause, jovially and slightly sarcastically spouted off something along the lines of “enough to be dangerous," a statement that this Soldier did not see as funny or sarcastic and took to heart. He looked blankly at me, said nothing, turned and walked away.
Returning to my truck, I jumped back on the side rail and leaned over my seat to check my radio and the BFT. My JFO, SGT Hanover, a sergeant whom I had known since we went through the Warrior Leader Course (non-commissioned officer training) together the previous summer, was standing next to my door.
Climbing back down from the truck, I asked him what was up. He told me that my gunner had told him that he was TC-ing, not me. He seemed as perplexed about that information as I was, so I told him I’d check into it. As he went back to getting ready, I made my way over to the convoy commander to explain what had just been told to me.
I approached MSG Mellohn and asked if there had been any last-minute changes to assignments, explaining to him that SGT Anise had just told SGT Hanover that he was the TC. Without hesitation, MSG Mellohn crossed in front of me and walked to the door of my truck. I promptly followed him. He stood with SGT Anise to his left and me to his right as if he was a boxing referee about to lay out the “have a clean fight” rules.
“You are the TC,” he stated firmly as he looked to his right at me. Without moving his feet, he shifted to his left and said, “SGT Anise, I expect you to be helpful.”
“Rrrrroger that,” I slowly replied in a slightly confused tone with the thought of ‘Why was there some confusion?’ but I said nothing else. The master sergeant turned swiftly and footed his way back to where he had stood before our dialogue. I didn’t dwell on my thought for long. I gave myself a mental shoulder shrug then climbed back up on the truck to see where the rest of my crew was.
I knew MSG Mellohn from previous trainings back home and other missions in Afghanistan. He had thirty-one years in the military, taught counterinsurgency in Afghanistan for fifteen months, and had an impeccable reputation. I had no reason to question what was going on. He outranked me and told me what to do. Enough said.
Moments later, MSG Mellohn gave the command that we were ready so I grabbed my helmet and shut my door. With all the men in their respective positions, I put on my helmet, goggles, and gloves, and walked to the front of my truck so the driver could see me. As I turned my body toward the gate, I gave an overhand signal letting my driver know to move out. Slowly, we followed the lead truck to the gate where we paused so both TCs, the master sergeant and I, could get in and get strapped into our harnesses.
We began the routine radio calls to and from members in the truck and then back and forth from one truck to the other. We were “REDCON 1″ and rolling out.
Now, I had not ever TC’d in Afghanistan before but I had TC’d in training back in the U.S. and I had been on dozens of convoys before going on this one, especially with this team. Through my headset, I had listened to every word said by every Soldier in my truck as well as the chatter between the convoy TCs before. I knew the commands and when to call things up. Through my training, I knew what I needed to be looking out for and what to do if something bad, heaven forbid, should actually happen. I just had not yet been a truck commander while in country.
MSG Mellohn’s decision to put me in the TC seat was fairly straightforward. A medic should not be a TC because if all s*** hits the fan, you’re going to need him to patch people up. The JFO, if the same problem occurs, is going to be busy on the radios calling up for air support. The second JFO with us had never been on a convoy nor had he ever worked with this team so he wasn’t a good choice. Obviously, the drivers were no-gos. The gunners are not usually best used as a TC and a gunner at the same time, though it can be done. True, they have great eye advantage but they are going to be the busiest guys around if we take contact. They won’t be able to call up the reports or tell their teams what to do because, obviously, they will be shooting back. My gunner had experience in both seats. I had not been in either seat overseas thus far but, apparently, my demeanor under pressure also played into MSG Mellohn’s decision (he told me this later). So, given the choice based on who was on this mission in whatever assignment, I was going to either TC or gun the truck.
The master sergeant had made his decision and had pre-briefed his command the night before and they concurred that I would be in the TC seat for this mission.
So there we were, rolling along dirty, dusty roads headed out to the 5th Zone, the Afghan Border Police post, to link up with the ABP that were going on this mission with us. The little bit of chatter in my truck was between the medic and driver who were good friends. I called up turns and checkpoints to the CC as I needed to and, occasionally, I could hear the JFO checking in with ’higher’ and the other JFO from the seat behind me. The gunner quietly listened in on his headset and scanned the area for potential threats.
Once we arrived at the 5th Zone, MSG Mellohn left me with the trucks and the men and headed off to meet up with our joint-adventuring ABP soldiers. The sun was bright and it was probably around 85° F (30°C) already. The young Soldiers stood around in a semi-circle near truck one as it sat parked in the dirt and stone parking lot. The loud dull hum of the trucks made it hard to hear anything more than just that. Unlike what my gunner misunderstood about my earlier comment, I was busy working with the BFT. We realized en route that the convoy commander had not been receiving all of the incoming messages so I was forwarding those messages them. The BFT messages were about current intel that had been received about the area we were headed into. Very pertinent information.
It wasn’t long before MSG Mellohn reappeared and signaled for us to rally up. We were heading out!
As we made our way through the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, I continued to call up checkpoints. Every Soldier in the truck was looking out a window in case they saw indicators of trouble. We passed down one road and on to the next. I had taken these roads many times before but, because of the intel we received and the level of responsibility for the position I was in, I was on even higher alert.
My eyes, like those of the other Soldiers in my truck, frenziedly darted about as I quickly scanned the vehicles coming toward me and those approaching from the side streets. White Toyota Corollas and station wagons over-stuffed with Afghans zoomed past us. Motorcycles, ridden by one, two, and sometimes three people, zig-zagged in and out of traffic. Faded and dirty jingle trucks traveled slowly down the paved roadway, blocking cars from passing.
Gazing out the up-armored vehicle windows, we attentively focused on the details of the people we were passing, the roof tops of buildings, and the leaves in the trees. The busyness of the city began to lessen as we rode away from the packed paved city streets. The cramped side-by-side buildings of the city dwindled to only an occasional mud home alongside our route. The masses of people diminished to a few children playing here and there in the dirt and fields near their homes. We traveled out of the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif into the country in the direction of Chemtal.
The sun was warm and directly overhead as I followed the ABP truck in front of me. The sky was clear and blue. There was a beautiful range of mountains to the south of our route and the land nearest us was patched with plush green fields and arid lots of dirt. Small rows of thin trees lined an occasional creek bed. For a brief moment, and aside from the plated body armor and the massive vehicle, one could think we were on a Sunday outing.
The guys in my vehicle had decided that the low dull roar of the engine was too mundane for them, so they asked to plug in an iPod. I, being a music lover, agreed that our journey needed a soundtrack. SGT Anise, despite his earlier demeanor, quickly offered up his music repertoire and, with a couple of quick plug-ins, we were rumbling along to the sounds of Breaking Benjamin and Limp Bizkit.
I had not been to the Chemtal District before so I was excited to be in a new area, although much of it looked like other areas of Afghanistan I had seen. Something new in my sights, though, was camels. Until now I had only seen camels in pictures and at the zoo. Never had I seen them free roaming or carrying people and their belongings. Seeing them was just enough of a reminder that I was far from home.
We had traveled nearly 45 minutes away from Mazar-e-Sharif when MSG Mellohn came across the radio indicating he was turning. The turn was a sharp hair-pin to the right and then an immediate left. I saw his truck make the turn and then disappear behind a building. The ABP pickup in front of me followed suit. My driver slowed and maneuvered our vehicle along the same path as I called up our completion of the turn.
We were now on a smaller paved road in a small village with mud homes to both my left and right. Not that we hadn’t been continuously scanning for threats, but once again we were on a slightly more heightened alert as we rolled through the village. There was simply more to scan than in the country.
As he continued to scan for threats, my gunner radioed to me that, as we had passed a group of three Afghan men, all three began to dial on their cell phones. Although it could honestly be coincidence that all three chose to dial their phones in the same time, my training taught me this action was an indicator of a possible threat. I asked SGT Anise to clarify what he had seen in terms of description and direction. He reiterated exactly what he told me before and I proceeded to radio up the information to the convoy commander. The information I spoke of was now being broadcast through the headset of every Soldier on that convoy.
The seasoned convoy commander calmly acknowledged my transmission. The best we could do was to continue to be vigilant and aware of our surroundings. The reality was this: if something negative was going to happen, it was going to happen. There was going to be only so much we could do to prevent it. Unless we actually saw a weapon or an IED before we got hit with it, we were stuck in a wait-and-see game. My pulse raced as I continued to look out the windows and we continued on our way out of the small village area.
The music continued to play although none of us was really listening to it anymore. Occasionally, MSG Mellohn would radio back to my truck to check in to make sure everything was okay and, of course, it was.
We drove for a little while longer and passed a large cement building that had been painted a light color yellow. Around the building were rows of Hescos serving as a security border. White box-shaped buildings stood as towers high above the Concertina wire-lined Hesco wall. I was unsure of what the building was, but it looked to be important.
Once past the building, the paved road ended abruptly and we found ourselves continuing on a dirt road.
A dozen kilometers or so later we rolled to a halt, positioning ourselves tactically to be looking up and down the road we had just been on. The area was bare with the exception of a compound that stood next to the dirt road. The mud walls were probably twelve or so feet high and the entrance way was nothing more than an opening -- no gate, no door.
I took off my headset, gathered my gear, and checked with the men in my truck to ensure they were ready to exit. We waited for the signal from the master sergeant to dismount our vehicles. Seeing him climb out of his truck, I looked out the window so see what was around me. Seeing no immediate threat, I gripped the inside handle of my large, heavy door and forcefully shoved the door open. I looked directly down at the ground below me and continued to sweep my gaze outward to the left and right of my next step.
Too many times I had seen videos of Soldiers blown up as they stepped out of their vehicles. I slowly lowered myself down the metal steps and stepped down on the firm dirt. I grabbed my assault pack and camera then turned around to look at the vast, flat area beside me.
The moment was brief and I walked out from behind my truck headed toward MSG Mellohn’s truck. He had already walked with his interpreter to link up with the ABP and had a brief discussion about the events that were about to ensue. As I turned the corner of my vehicle, I looked at the small group that had gathered between our trucks and the doorway. The master sergeant, his SECFOR (security force), and his interpreter had their backs to me but the eyes of other men standing there took turns looking over at me. What was their fascination? I wondered.
The brief meeting concluded and the trio walked toward me. MSG Mellohn explained to me that the ABP wanted to extend an invitation of lunch to some of the members of our group. His decision was that SGT Anise might benefit from some Afghan hospitality to counter his negative personality of late. SGT Anise would therefore relinquish his gunner’s position for our brief stop at the post and would work as SECFOR for our team. Additionally, MSG Mellohn felt that a JFO should go in the compound as well so he chose for SGT Hanover to go in with us. The remainder of the group would stay with the truck but food would be brought out to them.
MSG Mellohn and I moved back to our trucks to get the proper personnel in the correct position then our little group of five moved toward the doorway, as I removed my helmet and wrapped my head with a shamaugh. I had learned from dealing with the ABP on other missions that I was respected and taken more seriously when I wore a head scarf instead of my helmet. It was seen as a sigh of respect for their culture.
We were greeted by ABP soldiers and led inside through the arch into the compound’s main area. The compound area was slightly cluttered with trash, housing a couple of broken down vehicles and some rusted equipment. The dirt was uneven and a few clumps of dried out weeds sprang up here and there. There was also a rusted water pump close to the front door. There were no tents, no trash receptacle, no storage facilities.
ABP soldiers milled around near the door, inquisitive about their new-arrived guests. The ABP general, walking out of the doorway to the left of us, reached for MSG Mellohn’s hand and gave it a solid handshake. The pleasantries of a welcome were shared between the two. The master sergeant knew enough Dari to carry on small conversations with his Afghan counterparts. The general motioned for us to come in, to a room that we could sit down for lunch. As we each walked past the general and into the room, MSG Mellohn introduced each of us to him. SGT Anise and SGT Hanover each shook his hand and gave the quick greeting “Salaam,” meaning "Hello." When my introduction came, I simply nodded in acknowledgement and avoided looking him in the eyes, then moved into the room.
Traditional Afghan culture dictates that Afghan men do not speak to women and Afghan women do not speak to men aside from their husband and family. The same culture lends that women do not look men directly in the eyes nor do they shake hands with them. Women and men are not seen as equal.
Very few Afghans have worked closely with U.S. Soldiers and even fewer have interacted with a female Soldier. The ABP there knew MSG Mellohn’s team was coming but they were not aware that a photojournalist was coming nor did they know that there was a female on the mission. Those looks I was getting earlier? Those were because those ABP soldiers had never seen a female American Soldier -- and I got out of the truck commander’s (TC’s) seat, which meant I had some rank and some authority on this mission. Simply put: they didn’t know what to think of me or how to, if they even should, interact with me...
(to be continued)