If there was one thing U.S. Army Rangers were good at—other than killing terrorists who needed killing—it was walking long distances with obscene weight on our backs. Busting balls, in soldier jargon. At altitudes of 10,000 feet, 65 pounds of kit was murder, but necessary gear for modern, safe warfare—Kevlar helmet, “bulletproof” jacket with Kevlar plates, weapons, desert boots, ammo, radio, NODs (night optical devices), MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat; chow)—and you were toting some real weight.
Nothing could bust balls like the Hindu Kush Mountains along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just ask the Russians who had been here. It was Taliban country. A hardy breed, the Taliban were, just as cunning at fighting in the mountains as the Apaches had been in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico. They fought lightweight, too. Give a Taliban a rifle, a baggy pair of shepherd’s trousers, a handful of dried mutton and another of cartridges, and he was ready to run through these mountains like a goat. Up here, the Taliban claimed the advantage. After all, Afghans had been defending this land for generations. In these mountains, you were always behind enemy lines.
For the past two months, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th U.S. Army Ranger Regiment had been beating these mountains for enemy training camps and HVTs. An HVT was a “high-value target,” usually someone in a leadership position with the Taliban or al Qaeda whose only purpose in life was to kill Americans. By that definition, every mother’s son south and east of FOB (forward operating base) Salerno was an HVT. Our job was to kill them first. When we could find them.
Intel advised of an enemy training camp up here, protected in some almost-inaccessible nook or cranny. Alpha Company had two platoons out looking for it in movement to contact. My platoon, the 1st, had been humping hard in the dark for the past four hours, wending our way upward toward the summit of the Khost-Gardez Pass, better known from ancient times as “the Death Pass” for reasons best left unconsidered.
It was cool at this altitude, but I was damp from the skin out from sweating as the platoon gained elevation, climbing immense verticals, banging against boulders, squeezing through holes barely big enough for a rabbit, and worming through spine-twisting avalanche slag as we sucked for oxygen in the thin air.
“How does he do it?” I overheard one of the new privates whisper wearily during a take-five. “My ass is dragging and he just keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny. Well, you know, what with everything…”
“Sergeant Kap is hardcore,” came the response. “Don’t let him hear you talking about it.”
As far as I was concerned, I, Staff Sergeant Joe Kapacziewski, Third Squad Leader, 1st Platoon, was an Army Ranger like any other ball-busting grunt in this man’s outfit.
A fogbank silver in the wan moonlight slithered through the valley below K-G Pass as 1st Platoon approached the top. I thought it a spectacular sight. Moonlight glinted off mountain peaks while sheening opaque off the fog in the valley. Then the moon ducked back out of sight in the higher clouds, and it was as dark again as your crotch at midnight. We would have been blind in the dark save for NODs providing a liquid, greenish view.
In the valley below, beneath the fog, Alpha Two maintained radio contact in order to parallel Alpha One on the high ground. In this terrain, there was no way we could support each other if one of the platoons ran into a shit storm.
My 1st Platoon moved in two elements, the rearmost overwatching the point element ahead as we cautiously approached a ridgeline that dropped steeply off on the other side from Gardez Province into Khost Province. First Squad leader Joe Edwards, a country boy from Georgia and an implant from the regular army, led the first element. He was one of my best team leaders at one point, now he was one of the best Squad Leaders in A Company. Second Squad trailed behind him with the CP (command post) element and attachments. I and my boys in Third Squad brought up the tail of the formation.
Infantry tactics had changed little in more than a century. Even in an age of unmanned drones in the sky and robots in the field, what war came down to was still opposing bands of soldiers on the ground shooting at each other. Only the geography changed. Sergeant First Class Soroken insisted that wars starting from World War II were actually one continuous war with occasional breaks to rearm and bury the dead.
This was prime geography for an ambush.
That thought passed through my mind like some kind of primal instinct. Like you had this feeling something was about to happen—and then it did.
* * *
The ridgeline directly ahead suddenly lit up with a twinkling of muzzle flashes and the fierce crackle of rifle fire as Edwards’s lead element triggered the ambush waiting for us. Green tracer rounds streaked into our front like supersonic fireflies. Edwards and his boys immediately opened up to establish fire superiority, the protocol for a near ambush. The deep-throated cracking of enemy AK-47s counterpointed the thinner, more spiteful popping of M-4s and grenades exploding. PL (platoon leader) Captain Charlie Felker, a huge officer from St. Louis, got on the radio and started calling for fire.
The ambushers were dug in at the ridge, looking right down our throats. My squad hit the dirt with the first sound of guns. In a situation like this, the lead element kept the bad guys busy while the trail element maneuvered. Unfortunately, we had little maneuver room. The terrain was nasty: rock ledges, loose shale, and stunted brush.
Sergeant Soroken moved forward and offset to get a clear shot at the ambush past the PL and his element. I yelled at my squad. We scrambled even farther to the right flank and took cover behind a low ledge. Damn! All that safe soldier gear exhausted your ass with its weight when you had to rush around to get to higher ground.
We possessed NODs. The Taliban didn’t. Their night vision might have been better than ours, but no naked eyes were keen enough to hold a good, accurate firefight in the dark. We held the advantage there. Although bright muzzle flashes flared through the devices, almost blindingly so, the goggles still provided greenish shadows of movement on the ridge less than 200 meters away. We tapped off a few rounds every time we spotted movement. Slinging lead.
I heard Sergeant Soroken on the radio with PacMan One-Three, the call sign for either a patroling aircraft or a Predator drone appointed as an angel in the sky to overlook ground pounders. Wes was trying to get the aircraft to “sparkle” targets with his infrared (IR) marking laser, lighting them up for the IR sensors in our NODs to detect. PacMan kept sparkling us instead. A sharp exchange ensued.
“PacMan, you’re getting us…”
“That’s negative, Alpha One…”
“It’s on us again…”
“You’re moving, Alpha One…”
Other things were starting to happen.
“We got a couple of squirters headed down back of the ridge,” the platoon sergeant radioed, as calm as if he were back at Fort Benning buying a round of beers for the boys at Coach’s Corner. One cool dude under pressure. “They might be trying to flank us.”
I volunteered to take care of them. I tapped Smith, Housner, Timmy Bowman, and a new private from my squad. All hard chargers.
The incline was about 45 degrees. NODs helped us avoid most of the bad shit as we scrambled down the other side of the ridge. Firing ceased at the ambush site. It would pick up again if the other side got a machine gun placed farther down the ridge with which to rake our flank.
I dropped on my belly at the military crest and crawled up to look over the top, my Rangers with me. It was pitch black looking down the other side. Even with NODs, I barely made out more rock ledges and some stunted brush. I heard movement down there somewhere in the dark, scuffing sounds of soft-soled shoes or sandals on shale and rock. Even Apaches made some noise in this kind of country.
Sergeant Soroken was still on the radio with PacMan, who insisted he had his sparkle on the bad guys and not on us. I realized he was right. He was on the bad guys, but they were so near that we were part of his target.
I spotted shadows flitting fast through the brush and rocks, climbing in an oblique run toward the crest farther down. I jumped up and led the way paralleling the squirters, hoping to cut them off and get a shot.
Loose shale unexpectedly gave way beneath my boots. My feet flew out from under me, and my ass hit the ground hard. Next thing I knew I was the centerpiece of a miniavalanche blasting downhill at about Mach 1. Everything I grabbed at to stop my rapid descent ripped free and became part of the slide. I pictured myself hurtling over a precipice into the fog of the valley a few thousand feet down.
I spotted a small tree clinging to the side of the mountain about 25 feet ahead. I tried to wrench myself toward it, clutching my rifle in one hand and reaching for the tree with the other. Loose rock pelted the tree like a hailstorm.
Next to the tree crouched one of the Talibs. All I could tell about him through NODs was that he was garbed in black and was armed with an assault rifle. I doubted he had seen me yet; he was too busy ducking and dodging the shower of rock and shale I had loosed on him. We were going to get real close, real soon.
I caught the tree with my extended left foot and checked my momentum. I could have reached out with the muzzle of my M-4 and shoved it down the Talib’s throat. Imagine his surprise when he realized that I wasn’t a boulder. Talk about shock and awe.
I recovered first and tapped off a couple of 5.56 rounds into the guy at point-blank range. His body masked my muzzle flash. I smelled singed cloth and the sudden effusion of pink blood cloud in the air. The guy screamed, muffled-like, before he dropped facedown at my feet next to the tree. The avalanche rumbled over him, piled up around his body, and stopped. I knew he was dead, taking a dirt nap.
From somewhere farther down, but very near, a second squirter began yelling the war cry made notorious by a generation of global terrorists.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”
I hustled frantically back uphill on my boot toes and one free hand, my rifle in the other. I was done for if he got my range. From the ridge crest, Timmy Bowman, Smitty, Housner, and the new private laid down a base of cover fire. The exchange between them was one-sided; my guys knew how to turn on the lead faucet. I was panting like a steam engine trying to reach the safety of the ridge before the Talib nailed me.
Things went from bad to worse. The stump of my right leg where it had been amputated below the knee slipped out of its prosthesis cuff and dumped me on the ground. My heart almost stopped beating when I heard my artificial leg bouncing off rock and sliding back downhill toward the enemy. This guy was in for some shock and awe of his own when my steel-and-carbon-fiber leg with the boot still attached landed in his lap.
The only one-legged Ranger in combat with the U.S. Army wasn’t going to be walking, running, or fighting without that hunk of metal, carbon fiber, and gears strapped to his stump. Maybe Ranger Regiment had been right all along: War was no place for an amputee.
Copyright © 2013 by Sgt. Joseph Kapacziewski and Charles W. Sasser