Archive for June, 2010

S.N.A.F.U.

Posted: June 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

Situation Normal, All Fucked Up…

God is not on the side of the battalions, but on the side that shoots best.

Rangers preparing for an offensive...


12231993
Time: 0600H
Location: Southern Mindanao

“Anbody have any cigarettes?” Sarge asked.

“I’m out.” Roy replied after what seemed like a long time. His cheeks were sunken, eyes deep in their sockets. So was everyone else’s. We’d been constantly fighting on the move for three days straight now, with around an hour’s sleep total out of two of those days. One hour out of 48. Your mind sort of goes blank from time to time, and it’s an effort to shake it off.

“Hey, Castillo. Check that guy for cigarettes. Maybe he’s got some.” Sarge said to me.

I turned to my right. The dude was leaning against the wall right next to me, his neck covered by a checkered black-and-white scarf, with his head drooping over his chest. I pulled on his vest to set him up straight, but he was already stiff. Rigor mortis had already set in. He had two bullet holes in the left cheek and chin. The back of his head was gone.

He looked familiar. Oh yeah. Ellis shot him as we were coming into the town, but it was dark and I had only seen his face clearly for a split second in Ellis’ weapon’s muzzleflash. Probably a lone sentry, or just an opportunist looking for a house to loot. I leaned towards the latter.

He had come out of nowhere, and Ellis ended up shooting him in the face from less than 4 feet away. It’s like taking someone’s picture… only they die. I checked his pockets, and found a pack of Marlboro’s. I threw it to the sarge.

I noticed he had a backpack on. I couldn’t get the straps around his arms because they were already stiff from rigor. So I took out my combat knife and started sawing through the straps. I was almost done with the second strap when I heard someone from behind me say, “What are you doing?”

As I turned, I saw that it was the photographer who had been assigned to the 67th Battalion. They were the reinforcements we’d been waiting for. When they arrived yesterday this guy was with them. A freelancer named Eddie-something. He was looking down at me, wearing his bulletproof-vest with with the word “PRESS” in big white letters printed across his chest. And a Kevlar helmet that looked one size too large for him. Note to self: do not stand next to this shitbrain while he’s taking pictures. Sniper bait. The face of the girl I shot three days ago suddenly flashed in my head. But only for a fleeting moment. It’s nothing.

Being one of two senior enlisted men in the platoon, our sergeant tasked me with watching over this guy. Like a fuckin’ babysitter. Which makes him my resonsibility. Great.

A platoon of soldiers from the 67th was also with us, but these were all cherries. Around thirty FNG’s (Fucking New Guys). The only people with combat experience amongst them were the sergeants. Even the lieutenant was new, a reservist. I felt sorry for the two sergeants.

Along with them was our own FNG. Some guy named Reuben, just out of Ranger training. He was Alex’s replacement.

“What do you mean what am I doing? This? Oh, I’m looking for anything that might be of ‘intelligence value’.” I replied. He didn’t look too convinced. Like I cared. Judgemental fuck. If he takes a picture of me while I’m doing this, I’m gonna take him into the woods and “disappear” his ass. I’m just kidding of course.

“Come here.” I said to him. “Help me with this. I poured out the contents of the dead guy’s pack. He squatted on the ground next to me. I spread them out on the ground. There were some pieces of paper and some envelopes as well.

“I want you to look through every piece of paper. If you find anything interesting, just tell me.” As he was doing that I proceeded to look over the rest of the guy’s stuff. Canned sardines, three pieces. I put those in my own pack. Again, Eddie gave me a look. Damn civilians.

“Hey,” I said, “does he look like he’s gonna be eating any time soon?” I motioned my head towards the corpse. He went back to the pieces of paper. I didn’t think so. Boxes of ammunition, maybe 300 rounds. Nice, these were a premium for me. Into my pack they went. 3 grenades, another pack of unopened Marlboro’s, a weapon-cleaning kit, some socks, a blanket, some chewing gum, some shirts, and the best prize so far, an original red-and-white shemagh (Made of 100% cotton, it’s those headscarves you see terrorists wearing in the movies. The one the dead tango was wearing was a fake, locally made. This one was Middle-Eastern. I still use it to this day, at the office when it gets too cold.) Fuck, I thought. I’m rich.

Again, don’t judge me. Soldiers have been doing this ever since armies were formed. It’s perfectly acceptable, though it might not be to you. Take comfort in the fact that at least I’m not taking his ears and tongue, or cutting his head off, or cutting off his nuts and shoving them down his throat, like these guys do to dead Rangers and Marines. If I were to die, I’d be offended if the guy that killed me didn’t even bother scavenging my belongings. That would mean I wasn’t even worth the effort of killing. Seriously. It’s a way of paying homage to a dead enemy. It means he was at least a worthy adversary. And this one was. He almost successfully snuck up on us as we were entering this ville. Almost.

“It’s all letters. From some woman named Fatima.” Eddie said. He was done sorting through the pieces of paper. He handed them over to me.

Must be the wife or girlfriend, I thought. You never want to think of them that way. As people with actual lives outside of all this. So when you kill, you try not to dwell on it. Easier said than done, but that’s what your training’s for. All that psychological conditioning was for moments like this. I was getting the hang of it myself, the ability to push those thoughts aside. But I needed more practice…

I finished putting away the stuff I’d taken into my pack and turned to ask Eddie something when I noticed he wasn’t beside me anymore. He was standing in the middle of the street, taking a picture of something to the right. Somehow I felt that something was wrong. I don’t know, call it a sixth sense of some sort. You develop that in combat. I can’t really explain it, but it’s there. I stood up, walked about five feet, then called to him.

“Hey, Ed!” He turned to look at me and as he did, I heard a loud crack. Then a “thock!” and down he went. The next second was when I heard the actual shot, and it sounded far off. The first sound was the sonic boom of the incoming bullet that had passed less than ten feet from my head. The second sound was the bullet impacting on his helmet. Then the rifle shot.

“SNIPER!” I yelled, then Nilo and I ran towards his crumpled form fifteen feet away. It was pure instinct. I was exposing myself to the sniper, but that wasn’t in my head at the time.

At the back of the neck on every combat vest and bulletproof vest is a canvass handle called a “drag-strap”. It’s there so that when a man is down, you grab it and use it to drag him to the safety of cover. I grabbed it, and as I did I heard another “zip” as a bullet passed near me. I didn’t mind it. I had no idea if the sniper was trying to get me or was shooting someone else. Nilo grabbed his legs.

We dragged him all the way back to the wall, thinking he was dead. When I looked him over he was awake but dazed. The bullet had grazed the left side of the helmet. The sniper was probably aiming right for his forehead while he was taking a picture and waited for him to put the camera down so he could plant a bullet right between his eyes. But I had called to him and he shifted his head to the right to look at me. That’s what saved his life. The bullet had carved a deep crater about 4 inches long and a quarter of an inch deep on the side of the helmet. He was gonna have one helluva headache.

He looked up at me, still disoriented and asked, “What was that? What happened?”

“You got shot in the head, you sonofabitch.” Nilo replied.

“What? Am I bleeding? Oh my God, I’m gonna die!” He was totally out of it, and losing it more every passing second. Jesus.

“You’re not gonna die, Ed. The helmet stopped it.” I pulled him up to a sitting position next to the wall.

“Next time, you don’t go walking around anywhere without telling me first. Those white letters on your vest won’t save you. Around here, they don’t mean shit, understand?” He nodded weakly. I banged him on the side of the helmet with the palm of my hand. Hard.

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!” I yelled into his ear. I was pissed. I had thought he was a goner. My sergeant would have my ass if he bought it, that’s what I was really concerned about. His life meant no more than gum stuck to the bottom of my boot, as far as I was concerned.

“Yes, sir. I understand! Owww…” That must’ve hurt. Better hurt than dead. I wasn’t trying to be nasty. I had to make sure he understood what I was saying. I was teaching him the value of listening. If he doesn’t get the message loud and clear, he’ll be dead next time.

“Good. You’ll be alright. Have some water. And don’t call me sir, goddamn it, I’m just a Corporal.” I glanced over to the other side of the road where the newbie platoon was, and saw that their medic was working on a soldier lying on the ground. The sniper got someone else after all.

The lieutenant and Sarge were right beside me before I knew it. LT put his hand on my shoulder as I was prepping my weapon.

“Where’d it come from?”, he asked me.

“Well, sir I heard the crack of the bullet first. Then Eddie went down, and there was I think a one-second delay before I heard the actual shot. That puts the shooter at about 300 meters or so. Minimum.” I replied.

“Okay. We’re moving up the street. Some of the soldiers on the other side of town are taking casualties from snipers. Maybe this guy’s our shooter or one of them. We’re clearing it house to house, intersection by intersection. Find me that sniper and kill him. Gear up, we’re moving out!”

“All right, people.” said Sarge, “Let’s go. Nobody dies today. Castillo, take the new guy with you, okay? Break him in. Move, move, move!”

Break him in. That meant I was to ensure that the new guy gets his first kill today. Not something I relished, but there’s a point to it. If you have a newbie on the team, you need to find out right away if he has the balls to kill. If you can count on him not to hesitate. Because it might mean the difference between life and death for everyone. Can he take out a tango who’s about to throw a grenade at your team as you’re moving down the street? Things like that matter.

Shit. This was my first action in an urban terrain, and I was not eager for it, to be honest. I prefer the cover and concealment the jungle had to offer. Out here we’re practically naked. It might as well be a football field, with all these wide open spaces. But it’s not like I can decline, right? Snafu. I turned to Eddie and grabbed him by the arm.

“Listen, we’re moving. You stay on my ass, okay? Move when I move, or when I tell you to. You DO NOT go off on your own, understood? When you hear me yell ‘Down!’, don’t think, don’t hesitate. Just hit the deck like your life depends on it, because it does. If I put my hand up like this, it means ‘stop’. When I point to the ground like that it means you get down on your stomach, we might need to crawl in some places. Got it?” Some color had returned to his face, and he seemed to have recovered somewhat from the shock of his near-death experience. He nodded, and gave me a thumbs-up. Good enough.

MILF trooper with rocket-propelled grenade launcher...

So off down the street we went. Ellis had point, followed by Roy, me and Eddie. Nilo, with his SAW was behind him followed by the lieutenant then Reuben, our new radioman, Sarge and Randy for rear security, also known as the “Tail-End-Charlie” spot.

The first three or four houses were quickly cleared. Doors were open and you could tell the occupants had fled in a panic. Clothing, kitchenware, appliances were strewn about as they probably tried carrying as much as they could. Realizing it was impossible to bring everything, they started picking what was most valuable and left everything else in a heap. It reminded me eerily of those stories my Grandma used to tell me when they were evacuating as the Japanese were moving in on Manila.

It was at the fourth or fifth house that we became alert. Ellis signalled that the door was locked. Which might mean someone was inside. Who locks their doors in an evacuation around here anyway? It’s pointless. The question was: were they civilians or tangos? Just because it was secured from the inside doesn’t necessarily mean it was the owners who did it. Never assume, or you’ll get your head blown off.

Ellis had a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with solid slugs instead of buckshot (for destroying door locks). He crossed to the other side of the door and fired, blowing away the doorknob. Roy kicked the door in and rushed inside, with me close behind. He went left, I went right and Ellis followed taking the middle of the room. Nilo stayed at the door watching the next corner down the street for any incoming. The rest of the team also started piling in, with the exception of Eddie since we had to clear the house first before we could let him in. So he stayed with Nilo outside.

It was a small place. The kitchen was right there too, fully visible from what I assumed was the living room area. There was a narrow stairway leading up. I whistled to Roy and pointed up. He nodded and came in right behind me.

I started going up and about halfway it started creaking from our weight. We still had our packs on. How silly if I was gonna break a leg now if the damn thing collapsed. As I got to the top, I tested the door. Locked, too. Damn it. I signalled to Roy I was going to break it down. I didn’t want to shoot through it because there might be a kid or something on the other side. He nodded.

Putting all my weight on my right shoulder, I threw myself at the door. I heard the wood splinter. One more. I heaved again, and it gave and I went careening forward into the room, and smashed my right knee on a heavy, low table. Fuck!

The first thing I saw was the bed. On the opposite side was a bedside table – and a man kneeling in front of it. I couldn’t see his hands, which is never a good way to meet someone for the first time. I aimed my rifle directly at his head. So did Roy. Even Ellis had come up, shotgun aimed as well. So he now had three weapons in the hands of three highly agitated Rangers, all aimed at his head. This could end bad.

“Let me see your hands!” I yelled. He just froze there. Can’t really blame him, being confronted with three men in black fatigues and faces smeared in camouflage paint. Then I saw the Qu’ran on the night table.

“Your hands! Show me! NOW!” I was screaming now. Slowly he raised his hands. He was holding a .45 caliber pistol in one, and a magazine in the other. This was getting iffier by the moment. And the throbbing pain in my knee wasn’t helping, except to piss me off even more.

“Put the gun on the bed! What’s your name?” He placed the weapon on the bed, then raised his hands before answering.

“Ali.” Now THAT is the wrong name to have right now, at a time like this. He may be living here, but he could be a sympathizer. Seeing the Qu’ran had set me on edge. I wasn’t normally like this, but it’s the small details that you ignore that can get you killed.

“You live here?” He nodded.

“Yes, sir. I’m CAFGU.” (Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit, a civilian militia unit)

“Then show me some ID.” I wasn’t going to take any chances. If he was what he said he was, then it’s all good. If not… Well, I hadn’t gone that far yet.

“My wallet is in the closet. I have to get it.” He made a movement towards the the closet which nearly made all of us light him up. You just don’t do that kinda thing around us. Roy grabbed him by the neck and one arm and tackled him to the floor while Ellis approached the closet and opened it, expecting to find another weapon.

Imagine our surprise when  we found a woman and a little girl sitting inside. They looked absolutely terrified. Ellis saw the wallet on top of some shirts and checked for the guy’s ID. He found it.

“Ali ______. CAFGU identification card. Looks like he is who he says he is.” Ellis said. He helped the woman and child out.

It seemed that when the fighting started, the woman and child were home but Ali wasn’t. He was at the next town over, a couple of klicks away and came back around morning. He had just gotten back when we were clearing the street. We didn’t see him because he came in through a back window. He was getting his weapon when we barged in and was planning to get his family out.

I gave him back his pistol and instructed him to go down the street, the direction we had come from so he wouldn’t run into any insurgents. His ID was returned to him. He was going to need it. He didn’t even bother bringing any belongings, just his wife and kid and some clothes and food. Smart man. He was about a quarter-ounce trigger-pull away from getting killed. And if we had killed him by mistake, well… combat’s like that. It’s just the nature of the beast.

“Alright,” Sarge said. “we’re clear here. Let’s move on down the street, and watch for that sniper.”

I told him that I figured the sniper to be somewhere to the northeast because that’s where Eddie was facing when he got shot. Maybe a rooftop.

We started moving down the street again, to the next intersection. From there, we might be able to get a good view of any high structures that could be the sniper’s nest. The last two houses were clear, and Ellis took a peek around the corner leading to a T-junction on the street.

He took a few seconds with his head poked around the corner and I remember that I was getting nervous about that. I half-expected to see his head explode from a sniper’s bullet. Come on, come on…

He turned to me. “There’s a van in the middle of the street. Looks like it got ambushed. There’s a body on the ground next to it.” I pulled him back, then took a peek.

Yeah, there it was. White delivery van-type vehicle. The front end was facing us and was on top of the curb, the hood and windshield looked like Swiss cheese, riddled with bullets. And the body was leaning against the left front wheel. I told Sarge about it, and he signalled us to move forward.

Nilo stayed at the corner with his machinegun, ready to give us suppressing fire if we needed it. The first to cross the street had the greatest chance of survival, so I had Eddie run across first (or maybe I was using him as bait?). I told him to take refuge in an open doorway right across from us. Ellis went next, then Roy, then me. The rest of the team stayed behind Nilo, waiting for our All Clear signal. No use putting everyone on the street at once only to get mowed down if there was a secondary ambush.

As we got closer, I realized that the van was owned by someone we knew. The guy owned a bakery which was one of our hangouts whenever we passed by this way. He made the best bread in these parts. When I got to where the body was I recognized the body. The owner’s driver.

The top of his head from the eyebrows upwards was just gone. His wounds and the blood spatter told the story: the van was ambushed, shot all to shit. The driver was still alive, tried to get out or got dragged out, and fell to the ground. He had about three bullets in his upper torso. Someone then stood over him and fired a single round from a high-powered rifle right into the top of his skull. The shell casing was about ten feet away from him. 7.62x39mm – an AK-47.

“Oh my God.” It was Ellis. The van had windows on its sides, and he was looking in one of them. It was only then that I noticed that the van’s aluminum sides were also perforated with dozens of bullet holes. And then I noted the smell.

“What?” I asked. He didn’t answer but I could tell it was bad from the way his face looked. I approached him, knowing this was something I really did not want to see. Please don’t let it be what I think it is… I looked in.

Shit. Bodies. I recognized the owner. Or what was left of him, his wife, their two children whom I also knew, and two other people I couldn’t recognize – mainly because their faces were blown away. There was no blood outside the van, except that which had trickled from inside. So whoever did this had stood outside, then poured machinegun fire at the van from the side.

The bodies had hack marks, mostly the heads. Someone had gone into the van and made sure everyone was dead by using a machete or some other heavy bladed weapon. The sons of bitches.

This was the evil, twisted face of random violence. And I saw it first-hand. I’d heard stories from older veterans, but this was the first time I was actually confronted by it. I was so furious, I forgot to get sick. There was neither rhyme nor reason for this kind of viciousness. They were doing it just so they could show us that they could.

These motherfuckers had to die. You try not to hate, because emotions have no place on the battlefield. You make mistakes that way, when you allow your feelings to creep in. And then you see something like this. If there is a God, He sure as shit wasn’t there that day.

These thoughts were still in my head when the lieutenant put his hand on my shoulder. I hadn’t noticed that the rest of the squad had broken cover and cleared the other side of the street.

“Sonofabitch hadjis,” he said, looking at the dead bodies. “We just got a call from the 67th on the other side of the town. The sniper just bagged an officer and a sergeant. Both KIA. We gotta find him quick, Corporal.”

“Copy that,” I replied. “Well, we’re near the center of town. Hey, Roy! Let’s check out this house here. It’s got a second floor.” We needed to get as high as we could and as near as possible to the center of the town if we were to have any hope of finding that hadji sniper. (We called them hadjis, a dervivative of “jihadist”. It’s not a racial slur or derogatory term or anything like that. They did consider this a jihad, after all, didn’t they?)

We broke into a second floor room. I approached the window with my spotting scope and slowly came around the edge. I immediately saw the one structure where the sniper might be nesting. I knew it instinctively, because that’s where I would be too, if I were in his shoes.

It would later turn out to be the town’s public market. High roof, almost 40 meters. It was the highest structure. GI sheet rooftop, with this big top-like ventilator spinning around. Then I saw him. Just underneath the ventilator. He had a green poncho over his uniform, which helped break his outline. He was in a sitting shooting position, elbow propped against one knee. His rifle was the exact model as mine, an M21. About 350 to 375 meters. Just from way he held his weapon, the hunch of the shoulders, even the placement of his legs, I could already tell: this guy knew his shit.

Sniper on the roof: that's not a soldier. He's an MILF sniper. A few minutes after this pic was taken, he was killed by a Scout Ranger "counter-sniper" team.

We could easily take him from here, but there was a problem. The window was too high, and had steel bars set too closely together. The window sill was almost up to my nose. Some houses in Mindanao are built like that. A precaution against stray bullets, especially when there are children in the household. Actually, the room we were in looked to be a kid’s room. Kids’ clothes strewn on the floor. Toys. Schoolbooks and notebooks. It was in stark contrast to the men currently occupying it and the reason for their being there: the hunting of other men.

The wall was made of 3/4 inch yakal, a very sturdy wood. It’s the same kind of wood used as “escrima” fighting sticks. It’s a bitch to saw through. Not that we had a saw, but… Then I had an idea. I keyed my mike.

“Viking 3, Viking 1. Randy get up here, double time.”

Randy was our explosives expert. I showed him the wall.

“You think you can blow a hole through this? Two feet by three feet.” I asked him. Then I outlined what I needed, and how I needed it done.

“Yeah, sure.” And he started taking out stuff from his pack: some C4, pencil detonators, det cord and plunger. He then proceeded forming the clay-like explosive into pencil-thin strips to form a 2×3 “window” for me and Roy.

This was how it was going to play out. He was going to blow a hole in the wall so we could shoot the sniper on the roof. The catch was, we were going to be less than 10 feet from the blast, so it had to be a controlled one. Good thing we had Randy on our side. He was a beast with explosives. Me, I’ll just stick to grenades, thank you.

We had to be ready in front of the hole he was yet to make because every second counts. The enemy sniper might see the explosion. So once we had the hole, we had to be ready to fire in seconds. Randy started preparing the charge, sticking it to the wall and forming a 2×3 ft. rectangle.

“Hey, bro,” he said. “Who’s gonna pay for the damage?” he asked.

“I never think that far ahead.” was my reply. “Let’s do it.”

There were two matresses on the floor. I placed one right in front of where Randy had placed the charge. Roy placed his backpack on top of it, to use as his firing platform once the hole was made. The other, thicker mattress we placed on top of ourselves to protect us from the concussion and splinters. Randy was done. I called our sergeant over the radio.

“6-Alpha, Viking 1. Viking 3’s about to blow a hole in the wall up here, okay? Fire in the hole.”

“What? Why? What for?” Shoot. I forgot to tell him beforehand. My bad. Well, they want that MILF sniper dead, this was the price. I’ll be damned if I was gonna go back out on the street with a competent enemy sniper on the hunt for us. This was the moment. This was the place. Never hesitate.

“Tell you later, chief. Stand by.”

“Son of a…alright, I trust you know what you’re doing. DO IT, Viking 1.” You gotta love a sergeant like that. Randy had rigged the charge to the detonator and started backing out of the room. I had to wonder, if it was safe for us to be near it, why the hell was he getting out of the room? Hmmm. Only one way to find out.

“Ready, Ace?”, he yelled from outside.

“READY!” I shouted back. I put my hands over my ears, and Roy did the same. I held my breath (though I’m not really sure why I did that).

“Okay! FIRE IN THE HOLE!”

The C4 exploded with a loud bang, but not as loud as I expected. You could however, feel the concussion in your chest, and it felt like as if my heart had stopped beating for a moment. There was this thin, white smoke that permeated in the room and a tangy taste left in my mouth as I started breathing again. I threw the mattress off, and instantly, Roy had his rifle propped over his rucksack. I had my M21 ready as well. As I acquired him in my scope, I could see that the enemy sniper was slowly panning towards his right. Towards us. For some reason, he had taken off the poncho. Probably the heat.

In my mind, I imagined being in his place. Panning right, seeing the houses in the sector where we were. There’s no way he could have heard the explosion. We were too far away for that. A rifle report was louder than the bang of Randy’s C4.

“Got him?” I asked Roy.

“Yes.”

The sniper was almost at the house we were in. His eye is attracted to the smoke that was already dissipating in the mild wind.

“Fire when ready.” I heard him take a breath and exhale, then he held it in mid-breath. Then a two-second pause.

He notices the hole in the side of the house. If he had scanned this area before, he might have remembered not seeing it there earlier. He was probably thinking, “What the…”, then he sees what seems like two marksmen with scoped rifles pointed directly at him…

Roy’s rifle roared, kicking up dust and debris from the floor and the muzzle blast actually felt like it made the whole room shake.

In my scope, I saw the hadji sniper get thrown on his back as the bullet took him in the sternum. You never really see the bullet hit. There’s no ridiculously large bullet hole that magically appears on the target’s chest like in the movies. Usually they just crumple, or get heaved as if they’d been kicked by a mule.

Headshots are a different matter though. Sometimes, there’s something beautiful about seeing a crimson mist form like a halo around someone’s head when you deliver a headshot. Anyway, I digress…

I put my crosshair on his chest, just in case he was still alive and required an “insurance” shot. But he wasn’t movin’. Dead as a nail. I heard our lieutenant’s voice over the radio.

“Viking 1, Viking 6. What’s your status?”

“Viking 6, Tango is X-ray, Tango is X-ray. Mission complete.”

“Good. Now get back down here. Let’s get some breakfast while we still can. Good job.”

Only then did it occur to me: we just killed a man before even having breakfast.

That’s the shit…

I am used to being thought a monster, to be struggled against. That doesn’t bother me. I am a soldier. When one is a soldier one needs to accept the idea of bestowing death and receiving it. To kill or be killed is the simplest thing in the world.

Roy, about to take a shot as an Army private looks on...

Ever had to do something distasteful? Something you know you would never do under normal circumstances, or even not-so-normal ones? Something you thought you would never be capable of doing? We’ve all had days like that, I guess.

We usually do things based on three reasons: we want to (the most common), we feel it’s the right thing to do, and we feel that there is no other choice. The first and second are easy. The second, because it’s based on what you percieve as “morally correct”. The third is usually the hardest. Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong. It just needs to be done.

Like, say for example, you have your weapon trained on a pregnant female terrorist holding a grenade, and she’s got her arm already cocked backwards to throw it at your team. Shooting a woman is traumatizing enough, but what about a pregnant one? What would you do? You’d be taking two lives instead of one, and the other one will be an innocent. Is it right? Is it wrong?  A debilitating shot to the arm is not an option. You might miss. And in any case, if you do hit her arm, she’ll drop the grenade and still die anyway. You might as well go for the killshot. You get my point?

Soldiers deal with it using what I call “The Other Guy”. Think of it as an alter ego. Or an Evil Twin. There’s a dark side in all of us. You probably just don’t know it or you’ve never had the chance to explore it. Ever been so angry that you wanted to kill? Told yourself, “God, I wanna kill this guy.”? That’s it, actually. That’s always the first manifestation. Most people never follow-through, though. But usually you don’t really mean it, right? Just your way of venting a little angst? Suppressed rage?

The difference between that and what soldiers do, is that a soldier needs to be able to summon The Other Guy “at will.” When you know there’s killing to be done, The Other Guy of yours has to be ready in your mindset.

Ambushed Army truck. Note the blood. Never a good sign...

I have no problem shooting someone, really. It’s easy. Killing doesn’t require much thought, especially with firearms. You train with it day in and day out, it becomes instinctive. You just need to get past your first kill. After that, it gets easier. You reach the point where you know you can just walk up to anyone and put one in his head.

It’s sparing someone’s life that’s harder. Because you’re thinking. It’s not muscle memory, like shooting. You’d better have a damn good reason for sparing someone’s life. Imagine sparing some scumbag’s life, and he ends up murdering three innocent people. That’s happened to me. By doing what I thought was “the right thing”, I allowed a murderer to walk and kill some more. That’s tough shit to live with, man. Mister Fucking Murphy strikes like a thief in the night. Killing doesn’t need a reason. You can kill by accident, but you can’t spare someone’s life by accident.

Specially when you know they deserve it.

One of the questions people ask of me is have I ever killed anyone with a knife (and for some reason, most are women which is kinda creepy). It’s a nicer way of asking, “have you ever stabbed someone to death?”.

I’ve always said no, because for me it’s too personal. And it is. It’s an entirely foreign discipline from sniping or close quarters combat.

It takes a different kind of animal to plunge a knife into someone’s chest, then work the blade in to cut an aorta. Or to drive it into the back of someone’s skull or side of the neck to sever the spinal cord. That’s why you need The Other Guy. He can do it. So, I lied when I answered that question. I just didn’t do it in the conventional manner.

Back in ’93, my platoon along with another one got assigned to what we call a “search and destroy” type of operation. One of our platoons consists of about 16 men, compared to about 30 for a regular Army one. We split a platoon into 2 eight-man “hunter-killer” teams.

We  got assigned to the back-end of a town at a roadside. The other squad was to our northeast about 200 meters away, guarding another one. It was simple, really. A company (100+) of regular Army troops was chasing a group of insurgents and the battle led to this town. So they were going through the place, rooting the rebels out house-to-house. We were to stay where we were and eliminate any stragglers trying to escape, or ambush any reinforcements trying to get in. We had even booby-trapped that intersection with about four Claymore mines just to be on the safe side.

Soldiers engaged in house-to-house fighting with insurgents...

But not all the civilians had evacuated. Whether they didn’t want to leave their homes or they felt that there was just nowhere to run and decided to wait it out, is beyond me. So we couldn’t just open fire on anything that moved. I was glad we were outside and not in the town proper itself. It’s a nightmare scenario: moving through an area where enemy and non-combatants were mixed together. At least here it was easier to tell. We would be waiting at a road rather than moving house-to-house, street by street, and clearing every single one.

So there we were, hidden amongst the bushes or behind trees, on our stomachs, and we could hear the sporadic rattle of gunfire in the distance. There’s no way of telling which was friendly and which was not, except when occasionally you could tell the loud, distinctive bark of an AK-47 assault rifle, which was standard-issue for some of the MILF’s more “elite” troops. We were there since about 5 a.m. It was now quarter to 9 or 10, I forget.

They're called "collateral damage"...

My radio crackled in my earpiece. “Viking-6, Viking 11. I’m seeing some movement here. Three Tangos and a possible female Charlie. They crossed the street in front of me. I think they’re headed your way. “ Three armed “targets” and a female “civilian”. Viking 11 was the 2nd Squad sniper.

“Copy 11,” Replied our lieutenant. He turned to our sergeant next to him and gave some whispered instructions. Sarge then turned to me.

“Castillo, take three men and go to our right flank, about a hundred meters. You can see the other road leading into the town better from there. See what those Tangos are up to. Go.”

“Alright,” I said, then I toggled my mike. “Roy, Ellis, Randy. On me.” I then got up slowly and moved back a few feet so I wouldn’t be spotted from the road. I turned right, followed by the other three. We had just gotten to where we could see the road when I spotted them.

Just as Viking 11 said, three armed Tangos and what looked like a young civilian girl. I dropped immediately because they were only about 50 meters away. The men were wearing mismatched upper and lower military fatigues, and one of them was even wearing a black “Megadeath” t-shirt. They were not at all like the usual MILF or BIAF troops we’ve encountered in the past. Those guys always wore uniforms just like soldiers do. These, however, were grungy-looking sonsofbitches. Which led me to the only logical conclusion about who they were: militia.

They were civilians given the most rudimentary training. Basically, just how to load a weapon and where to point the thing. They were cannon fodder. If their leadership needed a specific objective done, they let their best troops do it. But if they just wanted to saturate an area with roving bands of armed men, these were the guys they used. Nothing but bandits and riff-raff. Some of them were even Christians.

I didn’t understand what the girl was doing with them, though. That is, until they got closer.

I saw that one of them held a length of rope in his hand, and the girl was at the other end of it, tied to her neck. Like a dog. And as they got to just within 10 meters of where we lay, I could see her face clearly. Or what used to be her face.

Her features were bloated and bloodied from a severe beating. Her lip was split in two places and she had a gash above one of her eyes, which had caused blood to cascade down her face. Clearly her nose was broken, too. Her shirt was in tatters, so was her skirt, and she was barefooted. And she was bleeding. You could see the blood trickling down her legs. That left no doubt whatsoever on all of our minds as to what had happened to her.

They crossed the road and passed just 10 feet or so from where we were hidden in the bush. I held my breath and thought: what if they discovered us? The girl would most likely die in the crossfire. But they passed us by without incident. When i felt that they were far away enough so as not to hear us, I instructed Ellis to bring Randy along and trail them, then I keyed my radio mike.

“Viking-6, Viking-1. We found them. Three Tangos and a female Charlie. She’s all beat up and uh… well, they did something to her boss. You know what I mean? They’re taking her into the woods. It doesn’t look good. I sent Viking-4 and 3 off to track them. What do you want us to do, sir?” There was a silence of maybe 5 or 7 seconds.

“Viking-1, go after them. They’re gonna kill her. If you can, get those Tangos alive, understood? Tell me when you’re done. Go.”

Jeezus. I called Ellis over the radio and asked for his location.

“Remember the way they went? Just go straight 50 meters. Better hurry up,” was all he said.

So Roy and I started hustling as fast but as silently as we could through the undergrowth, until we got to where the others were. Ellis and Randy were crouched behind two trees looking at the three Tangos and the girl. I got behind Ellis.

“What’s up?” I whispered.

“They’re takin’ a piss break. I heard the LT. How do you wanna do this?” Ellis asked.

I looked at the men in front of us. No sense of security, whatsoever. All facing away from us in one direction. If they were trained better, they’d have the girl in the middle, with one man looking back and the other to their direction of travel while the other one took a piss. Definitely militia. I was losing respect for them by the second. But you mustn’t underestimate your enemy, no matter how badly they were performing. As Sarge was fond of saying, “It’s easy to predict professionals, the amateurs are the dangerous ones.” Hopefully, we could take them easily.It’s easy to predict profe

I had to think fast. The girl was sitting, eyes glued to the ground, totally subdued. She was still in shock. If we have to shoot, at least she’s not gonna jump up and get in the way. They were about 10 meters away from us. That’s 30 feet.

“Okay. We rush them. Nothing fancy. Let’s go. Now now now!” Very rarely do we ever do anything this rash, but goddamnit, there was no time. It had to be done while the other one was takin’ a piss and we had the numerical advantage. We normally had to fight against greater odds, so for us this was a first. So four of us abreast, 5 feet apart, came out of the underbrush with weapons trained on the the three Tangos.

“HANDS UP! DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND HANDS UP, OR WE’LL KILL YOU!” was pretty much what we were all screaming at them. The girl stayed deathly still, it was creeping me out. Her hair was covering her face and years later, when I saw the movie “The Ring”, Sadako (or Samara) pretty much reminded me of this girl in the woods.

They were taken compeletely by surprise, and didn’t resist. They dropped their rifles and raised their hands over their heads. The man who seemed to be their leader (because he seemed to be the oldest, mid-thirties) had the rope tied to his wrist. He was the one pulling the girl along like a dog. In my fury, I walked up to him and smashed him in the mouth with my rifle butt. His head snapped back violently in an explosion of blood, and I think he may have swallowed some of his own teeth in the process. Good.

I was disarming him when it happened. One of them drew a pistol from a low-ride holster and fired a wild shot at us. I didn’t hear the shot, really. But one moment I was standing there in front of their leader, and the next, I was looking up at the trees and the sky.

I saw Roy standing over me firing his weapon, but I wasn’t hearing the shots. It was almost like a dream. Someone dragged me to one side, and I saw Ellis’ face hovering over me, saying something I couldn’t understand. I think at some point he was running his hands over my chest and abdomen.

Only then did I come to realize it: I’d been shot.

“You’ve been shot!” I finally heard Ellis yell in a semi-panic. Tell me about it. Well what do you know, the sonofabitch loves me. I started to get up. I wasn’t feeling any pain, probably from the adrenalin rush, but my right arm was a bit stiff.

As Ellis helped me up, I saw that the guy who’d shot me had been taken down by Roy. He’d been shot in the right leg, was facedown on the ground and was now disarmed and had Roy standing over him.

I started checking myself out. No wounds. Then I looked at my rifle, and found out what exactly had happened. When he fired, the bullet had hit the metal part of the retractable stock. It now had a big dent in it where the bullet had impacted. I had been carrying my rifle slung across my chest, with the stock right where my shoulder was.

I had placed it in that position when I was disarming the leader, and that’s when the other one did the Lito Lapid quick-draw and fired. Had I not done that, the bullet would definitely have gone into my shoulder. I was pissed. He ruined my stock. Now I couldn’t detract the damn thing because of the dent. Son of a bitch.

We tied them up with their own rope. We bound their elbows together, and the knots were so tight it brought tears to their eyes. And we gagged them. With their own socks shoved into their mouths.

I radioed the lieutenant and in two minutes he was there, alone. He had left the three others at our ambush point. He took one look at the girl, who had not spoken at all throughout the whole thing. She was still far gone into shock for any of this to matter to her. We had the prisoners kneeling in the dirt.

“Are you alright? I heard you got shot,” he said to me. After a quick explanation, he now turned his attention to our “prisoners”.

This was a dilemma. Taking prisoners wasn’t a part of what we did, really. When they say that we are a “take no prisoners” kind of unit, that’s actually literal. Because each prisoner requires two men to watch him. One to secure him at all times, and another to back the first guy up. So we actually preferred it when they fought to the death. Not because we wanted to, that’s just how we do things. Now, we had three. Which means six guys to watch them. Six out of the eight men in our team. The lieutenant called me over to one side, out of earshot from everyone.

“Corporal, I need your opinion on something. We don’t have time for screwing around with prisoners. It’s pretty obvious what these sons of bitches have done, can we agree on that?”

“Well, yes sir. I mean… look at the girl. She’s been beaten to the limit, LT.” He took a long look at her. She still hadn’t moved, it was totally unnerving. I could see the rage in his eyes. Shit, we all felt the same way. But we had a mission here, and this “event” was interfering with it. A compromise had to be reached.

“Okay,” the lieutenant said. “here’s how we’re gonna deal with this. Play along.”

Oh, shit, I thought. You won’t like it when an officer says, “Play along.” Being the senior enlisted man, I was expected to go with whatever my platoon leader deemed best in handling this situation. And if I go along, the others would follow suit. That was just the natural order of things. It’s referred to as “small unit integrity”. I was essentially playing the role of a sergeant now. Crap, I wished Sarge was here. But he was back at the ambush point with the other half of the team.

He passed by the prisoners, glaring at them with that hard-set look that said, “You’re fucked.” I then remembered that the lieutenant supposedly had a four-year-old daughter. This was probably harder for him than any of us. Almost all of us were single at this time.

He went up to the girl, knelt beside her and took out his canteen to give her some water. One of her eyes was bloated and almost shut. She couldn’t reach for the canteen because both her wrists were broken. Two of them probably stepped on her wrists as one raped her. That’s the only way I could think of that that could have happened. The LT had to put the canteen to her lips and tilt it just so she could drink, and he seemed to be talking to her in a hushed, soothing tone.

Sunlight glinted off the pendant of her necklace. Even from ten feet away, I could tell it was a crescent and star. She was a Moslem.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a rape victim before, but it burrows into your soul. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t believe in that kind of thing.

I mean here we were, in a clearing in the woods, a girl surrounded by five men hardened by combat. Professional killers trained to take lives with hands, knife, pistol, rifle and explosives, and skilled in shooting someone in the face in close quarters combat or putting a bullet in a human head from long range.

But in the presence of this girl, we were humbled.

This was something we were not trained for. No manual prepares you for this. What do you say to make her feel safe? Nothing makes this alright. And when a soldier doesn’t know what to do, his default reaction is silence. But as soldiers, there was only one thing we could do for her… After all, vengeance is every soldier’s constant companion.

We didn’t speak a single word as we watched the lieutenant carefully put the canteen to her lips. She couldn’t even part them. They were split in both upper and lower lip. That’s what happens when someone smashes the butt of a rifle into your face. Her jaw was also broken. It’s hard to fathom how three fully-grown men could do something this horrendous to such a frail girl. She couldn’t have been more than 15.

I made up my mind. Whatever the lieutenant had in store for these three fuckers, I was all for it. All the way.

Ellis had done a quick interrogation of one of the men (with the aid of a sharp knife.) He went up to the lieutenant, and confirmed what I thought all along. They were militia attached to an MILF unit. But that wasn’t all: two of them were Christians. Their “team leader” was Moslem, the one I’d butt-stroked in the mouth. He committed this act on one of his own, the ones he was supposedly fighting for. That made the crime even more disgusting. He even reminded me of this actor, Bomber Moran, who always played the bad guy in the movies.

I never liked the fat fuck.

The lieutenant now stood in front of the prisoners. Ellis and Randy were behind them, and Roy was standing next to the girl. LT seemed to be deep in thought for a few seconds, probably thinking of what he was going to say next. Then, seeming to have made up his mind, he took a deep breath before he spoke. He turned to me.

“Corporal, we’re at war, aren’t we? That’s what all of this is about. That’s the reason why we’re here, is it not?”

The question took me by surprise. Was this really a war? It all seemed to be just a long series of battles to me, with no end in sight. All of a sudden, I felt old. I thought about that for a moment. I was trying to gauge where this was going. I decided to tell him what he wanted to hear.

“Yes, sir. It’s a war.” He looked over at Roy, Ellis and Randy. Roy nodded. Ellis did his “Yeah, whatever.” shrug. Randy answered with a “Yes, sir.” as well.

He then turned to the Fat Guy. “What about you? Do you believe we’re in a war?”

The man gave the lieutenant a defiant look for about 10 seconds, and since he was gagged, nodded slowly. Gutsy, I’ll give him that. LT didn’t bother asking the other two. In the military world, once a leader confirms anything, it’s a given that his men are with him. And as a leader, Fat Guy was responsible for the lives and actions of his men.

“Good,” LT said. “Because under the Articles of War and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, rape is a crime punishable by death. Sentence to be carried out immediately.”

Nice. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought we were just going to pop them, throw them in a ditch, and be done with it. This gave it some legal weight. What we call a “righteous kill”. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. From a soldier’s point of view, anyway. Even if there is no death penalty in the Constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice is international, and governs crimes committed during times of “war”.

The three men seemed just as surprised, specially the two younger ones. They were now confronted with their own mortality. They weren’t expecting to get sentenced on the spot, I guess. Well, boo-fuckin’-hoo.

You could see the panic in their eyes.

Unknown to the rest of us, while he was giving the girl some water, he had asked her “Yes or No” questions that could be answered with a nod or shake of the head, since she couldn’t speak because of her broken jaw. So that’s what the hushed talking was all about. This was the final confirmation he needed that a crime other than serious physical injury had taken place.

The next thing he did was put me in charge. “Do your duty, Corporal. Carry out the sentence. Show them the Slow Road To Hell.” Murphy.

The Slow Road To Hell. Don’t bother Googling it, friend. It’s not military jargon and you won’t find it in any Army manual. It’s just something we called it.

I would have preferred shooting them, but I was on the spot now. And as a senior, I had to go first. I picked “Bomber Moran” and assigned the other two to Ellis and Roy. In retrospect, I could have just asked Randy to do the fat guy for me but that wouldn’t be right. You never ask a friend to do something like this in your place. If I can’t do this, then we might as well forget about it.

So I stood behind Fat Bastard, and drew my combat knife. I dreaded this. It was the one thing I always told myself I would avoid doing. Kill someone with a knife.

As I stood there, absently tapping my leg with the knife, I was thinking of the least bloody way to do it. There were 5 different ways I could think of off the top of my head, but every one of them included slicing and dicing. Then I remembered a sixth one. Yeah… That would have to do.

I grabbed a handful of greasy hair and pulled his head all the way back until I was looking down into his eyes. His pupils were dilated. Fear. He knows it’s coming.

This is the point where one’s resolve might break. It’s not easy when you look them in the eye before you do it. But The Other Guy was here now. And in my head he was telling me, “Only the weak have mercy. And pity is for sick dogs.  Just take a look at the girl. What does that? A monster. What if it was your sister?. Go ahead. This one’s  righteous.” It was time to kill.

But I felt that something needed to be said. Simply dispatching him out of hand didn’t seem enough. Tears started coming out of his eyes, and what was a defiant look earlier had now turned into one that was pleading for mercy. It was too late for him in any case. The Other Guy was fully in control now. So, I offered him the only words of consolation that I could from one enemy to another. Not that I really gave a flying fuck, but it was somehow appropriate.

“Masha’Allah.”

I was holding the knife in the standard manner: blade over thumb, known as an overhand grip. I flipped it over, catching it in an underhand or “stabbing” grip, with the steel pommel over the thumb. I was on auto-pilot mode now; pure muscle memory.

I swung downward with all my strength, and struck him in the larynx with the pommel. I heard the “crack!” and I knew I’d done it right. His body went rigid and his eyes crossed, then closed shut. It’s the body’s natural reaction to the pain.

When you crack the larynx, it swells. When it swells, it blocks the trachea or windpipe. It becomes impossible to breathe, and it won’t matter whether you breathe through the nose or mouth because the trachea connects both.

His face started to turn blue within 30 secconds or so. When it started taking on a purplish hue, I knew he was totally done for. I let go of his hair, allowing his body to just crumple like a rag doll to the ground, where he started convulsing violently as he continued to asphyxiate. It’s gonna take about 2 minutes.

I turned just in time to see Ellis stab the one in the Megadeath shirt in the throat. Roy dispatched the one who shot me by bayoneting him in the chest, puncturing the man’s lung. Like me, they let them drop to the ground. The sounds of wheezing and gurgling filled the clearing like boiling teapots, as the three men died slowly from asphyxia or drowned in their own blood.

And that my friend… is the Slow Road To Hell. A slow and agonizing death.

We waited for the convulsions to stop. Ellis was standing beside me cleaning off his knife with water from his canteen.

“That thing you said before you did him. ‘Mashallah’. What does it mean?” He asked.

“‘Masha’Allah. It’s Arabic. It means ‘God has willed it’.” I replied.

“I see… How many virgins again?” He asked me out of the blue. I looked at him with an arched eyebrow.

“What?” I asked. He gets like this sometimes, like he’s in a distracted state after a kill.

“How many virgins do they get for killing one of us non-believer, infidel dogs?”

“Seventy-two. Plus every Christian they’ve ever killed in jihad becomes their slave in the afterlife, but I’m not too sure about that one.”

“Wow. We’re fighting on the wrong side, Ace.” Then he laughed this laugh of his that I can’t really describe, but it’s infectious and I couldn’t help myself and laughed along with him.

There we were, laughin’ like fuckin’ giddy schoolboys. With three dead men at our feet. It was insane. I guess it was just our minds’ way of getting around the stress of ending another human being’s existence. The lieutenant though,  brought us back to reality.

“Quit horsing around, goddamn it! Let’s go. We’ll call for some medics to fetch the girl.”

And so we left the bodies where they lay. We took nothing from them, not even their ammunition or weapons. It was bad juju. We did however, field strip their guns and scattered the parts by throwing each piece as far as we could into the jungle. Then we left with the girl.

It seems like a lifetime ago. Jesus, it was a lifetime ago. Seventeen friggin’ years ago.

If you’re wondering how things turned out, I can tell you that she made it out okay. When we went out on our next few patrols, we managed to find out where she lived and even got to know the family and became friends with them. Yeah, a Moslem family. We never had anything against them as a people. We never did. All this bullshit around us was never about religion. None of us believed that even for a minute. Not even her family.  It turned out that the men had snatched her as she was rushing home when the fighting started.

In 2001, she got married and all five of us were invited. Unfortunately, only LT (who had by then been promoted to Major and eventually became a Battalion Commander) and me were able to attend. Roy and Ellis were both already dead (killed in action), and Randy had left the service after losing a leg in combat.

When I got recalled into the service back in ’05,  I looked her up. She was already in the UK working as a Chemical Engineer for some pharmaceutical company or something like that. And she had four kids.

When I think back to that time, I almost find it unbelieveable that she came out of it alright. We never really thought of ourselves as her rescuers. We were just at the right place at the right time. It was one of those rare moments that we deviated from our “Mission First” creed, and because of it, someone’s life was changed forever. She’s the true warrior in this story. We were just the “extras”.

It is said that the first casualty of war is innocence. She lost hers that day. The last casualty of war is hope. That, she didn’t lose. The ones who lost all hope were those three men we executed.

It’s almost like seeing your own kid grow up and do well in life. If I were to pinpoint a single, defining moment in my life as a soldier, that would have been it.

Have you seen Saving Private Ryan? That scene where Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) was dying, when with his dying breath, he said to Private James Ryan (Matt Damon): “EARN THIS. EARN IT.” I’d say it was that kind of a moment. She definitely earned it.

Someone I once knew who knew about that story once commented to me that what we had done was murder. Fucking human rights advocate.

I told her, “If you mean saving some civilian female from the clutches of animals who raped her and were about to kill her in the woods, then killing them in cold blood for what they did is murder, then I agree. But tell me that when it happens to you, and the only ones around to help are men like me. You know. Murderers. Hopefully, if any happen to be around, they won’t hesitate to ‘murder’ your attackers.” Pissed me off. Somehow, I felt that her comment dishonored the memories of men like Roy, Ellis and Randy, who did not hesitate to back me up. Or when it came to doing what needed to be done. She never spoke to me again. Not my loss. Bitch.

My sergeant once said: “We will never see heaven. We do the bad things good men don’t have the stomach for, but God needs done. We’re the bastard kids He hides in the basement when guests are around. We’re God’s assassins. That is the soldier’s lot.” I believe that, and it’s okay. Would I do it again?

I saw the answer to that on a t-shirt once: Hell, Yeah. And soon.