Archive for August, 2010

T.A.R.F.U.

Posted: August 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

08232010
1930H

Things Are Really Fucked Up

I just got out of the shower and turned the t.v. on. It’s a ritual. I was getting ready for work. And the first thing I saw was a police officer in body armor, carrying a 20-pound ballistic shield in one hand, and trying to swing a 10- to 15-pound sledgehammer in the other. He was apparently trying to break down the door of a tour bus. And the first words that came into my head were, “What the fuck?”

I was asleep the whole day, and had no idea that this thing was happening. My baby girl started making noises behind me, trying to get my attention, so I picked her up and sat on the bed to watch this drama unfolding on the screen.

The next thing that occurred to me was “Where’s his back-up? Why is he doing this alone?” The camera angle changes, and I see the other members of his “S.W.A.T.” platoon all bunched-up at the front end of the bus. Okay. Now I get it. His “back-up” is at the front, not the back. Cluster-fuck.

Now I’m only being critical because I served only four years or so as a Ranger and only about seven as a SWAT officer myself, so forgive me. But if my commanding officer handed me a ballistic shield and a sledgehammer and told me to break down the door on that bus? My answer would have been, “Go fuck yourself, sideways. Sir.” I’ll risk the insubordination charges. Suicide is not part of the mission.

It was pathetic, watching him go at it. But I understand why he was doing it. He was following orders as they say, “like a good soldier”. I shook my head and looked at Baby Girl. She cooed at me, and I said, “Baby Girl, those hostages are fucking dead.” She laughed. My sentiments exactly.

I can’t blame those men for trying. They had their orders. Their officers though, are a different matter. They were putting their men in harm’s way and unnecessarily risking their lives. And for what? Media coverage? Accolades? Armchair-quarterbacking, ass-kissing motherfuckers. (I’m glad my daughter didn’t hear that) One of the reasons too, why I left. I’ve had my share of those types. I won’t hesitate to say that sometimes, I preferred putting the bullet in THEIR heads instead.

So let’s do a little tactical analysis here. I’ll keep it as simple as possible.

Scenario: a sacked police officer takes a tour bus full of hostages. The fact that he’s ex-P.D., means he knows basic assault tactics to some extent. Why do you think he positioned the bus that way in the middle of a long road that way? Answer: it provides him a 360-degree view of all approaches, and he now has what we call a “kill zone”. Open ground on which an assault team would have to negotiate before getting to him. To negate this, your only option is to make the assault at night. That’s why it took that long for the whole thing to play out. They waited for the cover of darkness. That part, the police got right. And that is where my praise ends.

The rest of the facts I learned about at the office later on, but if you ask me, what triggered the whole thing to escalate to that Point Of No Return as we call it, is when they arrested his brother on national t.v. Some idiot upstairs decided to make him an accessory. So now, they took out of the equation possibly the one person who could have helped them talk him down. They did this because because they wanted to show the public that they were “doing something” about the situation.

It disgusts me that it never occurred to anyone that on every tour bus there’s a television, and he was bound to see that. One of your best weapons in a hostage situation is to deny information to your tango.

Then you have the fuckin’ reporters asking each other over the air things like: “Where will the assault team come from? Where are the police officers right now?” and complete with video, showing exactly where everyone was.

Years ago, I found myself in a situation like that. With reporters from the local news doing the exact same thing. I had to put a gun to a cameraman’s head to make him stop filming. He was showing the exact spot where we were assembling. What makes these fucks think that their rights to free speech and shit supercedes my right to live? The media is sometimes given too much leeway, if you ask me. But that’s just me being me.

Okay, let’s assume they were smart enough not to arrest the brother. And let’s say he was still a threat regardless. The “green light” has been given. As a SWAT operative, you need to know what kind of tango you’re up against. So, here’s a man who’s been in the service around two decades of his life. He’s had an accomplished career, with the medals and commendations to prove it. A man of pride. Now, all of that has been taken away from him.

It’s not your place as a SWAT officer to decide whether he’s guilty of what he’s been accused of or not. You should only concern yourself with one thing: is he the type who will choose to go down in a blaze of glory? My answer? Definitely.

He was asking to be reinstated, but that’s just a man expressing wishful thinking. He knows damn well that’s not going to happen. The man has been in the service too long to know that. He’s a guy who’s just trying to salvage what’s left of his honor, as it were, but he’s no longer thinking rationally.  In my personal and “professional” opinion, this whole thing was “suicide by cop” from the get-go. There are two kinds of men of pride: there’s one who can put a gun in his mouth and blow his brains out. And there’s one who prefers to go down in a blaze of gunfire. He’s the second kind.

So why, of all things, did he choose a bus full of Chinese tourists? Probably because he couldn’t think of doing something like this to his own. Because they were foreigners and spoke a different language and all that, it would be easier to do them harm. Or maybe he just hated the Chinese. Who knows? Alright, now you know your target. Now, let’s dissect the tactics.

It’s called Dynamic Entry. The art of entering a “limited access” target area, which always involves a locked door. You may also refer to it as a “surprise attack”. (The other kind, Stealth Entry, is when you enter the target area by silent infiltration. Going though a window, picking the lock, etc.)

There are three types of Dynamic Entry: Mechanical, Ballistic and Explosive Entry. Mechanical means using a battering ram, a crowbar, chains and hooks (for pulling down gates, usually with a vehicle) or in the other day’s fiasco, a sledgehammer. Ballistic is the use of a firearm to destroy the door. The preferred weapon is a shotgun loaded with Slugs, solid rounds for destroying door hinges. Explosive is when you use breaching charges or C4.

Next, consider the target. A tourist bus. They used a sledgehammer on a door that is air-locked, which means it uses hydraulics. You’ve seen those hip-hop MTV’s where they have these cars with their front ends jumpin’ up and down? That’s hydraulics. That’s the kind of power we’re talking about. It can lift a 2-ton car. And you’re going to open a door powered by THAT with a sledgehammer? You’re fuckin’ nuts.

So, how would I have done it? I wouldn’t use Explosive, that’s for sure. Too much glass and steel that can turn into deadly shrapnel.

I would use a combination of Mechanical and Ballistic. Since it’s a door that can’t be broken down by sheer human strength, I’ll use a vehicle, too.

The “breacher” or “doorman” as he’s called, will have a shotgun (an auto-loader like a Benelli would be nice. He won’t have to manually pull the choke pump to load the next round). He would have a couple of flashbang grenades on him, too. Then finally, a long chain with a steel hook at the end. The opposite end of that chain would be attached to the back-end of Humvee or truck. They could have commandeered a tow truck, actually. What were they doing the first ten hours of the siege? The towing cable is made of wound steel, and won’t snap like the pathetic rope they tried using.

Next is the assault team. So, how many assaulters will it require to take down a hostage-taker in a bus? You’re gonna laugh. It takes only two. Three, max. You don’t need a whole platoon swarming into it.

We did something similar back in Mindanao. Drug addict trying to rob the passengers on a bus. It went fuck-ways, and he ended up with three female hostages. Me and another guy did the assault. They all got out. Even the hostage-taker lived. Minus a liver and about three inches of lower intestine, but the point is, he got out alive, too. Zero casualties. But that’s a story for another time.

So now, we have a breacher, a Humvee or truck, and an assault team of three. Let’s put the pieces together and see how it might have faired.

Scenario: Green Light is given. On the radio, everyone hears. “Strike, strike, strike.”

Step 1: The breacher approaches the bus from it’s blind side. That’ll be the darkened area in front of the bus, he’ll make his way from the left front corner and end up behind the folding door. The 3-man assault team stays behind, in the dark under complete “noise and light discipline” (meaning nobody talks, and nobody lights a fucking cigarette, goddamnit).

Step 2: Breacher fires two shotgun rounds at the door’s glass panels. There are two because the door folds, and it has a steel divider in between the two glass panels. Now he’s got two holes where he can push the steel hook through and secure the door. He presses the mike on his radio and gives the go-code, “GO GO GO!”

Once those words are out, THREE things MUST happen simultaneously.

Step 3: The driver of the truck/Humvee floors the gas (that’s one). The 3-man assault team moves in at a run (that’s two). The breacher prepares his first flashbang grenade, un-pinning it (that’s three). The door may be able to resist a sledgehammer, but not a 4-ton vehicle. The door is wrenched off it’s hinges – BAM!

Step 4: Breacher moves in the instant that door is gone, throws a flashbang in. This is to buy time for the assaulters to get to the door before the gunman can take out hostages. BANG! A jackhammer gives off 25 decibels. A flashbang generates a loud bang that measures 170-180 decibels. This causes the tango (and hostages) to lose their hearing. You lose your hearing, you lose equilibrium. Peoples’ knees tend to buckle after a bang like that.

Plus, it gives off a flash equivalent to 1 million candlepower. That’s like looking at the sun. From four inches away. It disrupts the retinas, rods and cones in your eye, causing blindness and attacks the central nervous system, which keeps you from raising a weapon or even pulling a trigger.

By this time, the assaulters are just a few feet away. Breacher throws in another one for good measure, then gets out of the way. BANG! By the second bang, the first assaulter (known as The Number One Man) is in the door, followed closely by Number Two, and Three taking up the rear.

Step 5: The aisle in the center will most likely be cluttered with hostages disabled by the flashbangs. The trick now is finding the tango right away. A flashbang’s effect takes about seven seconds.

The most likely spot will be the rear of the bus. A hostage-taker will generally keep hostages to the middle or front of the bus, to act as a buffer between them and the SWAT team trying to get in. And also so he can control them, by telling them to keep their eyes to the front, and no talking.

The assault team should be armed with pistols only, not rifles. They’re more wieldy in this cramped environment. Laser sights in this low-light condition would be a plus.

They spot their tango near the rear, and both One and Two take him out with double-taps to the chest. The objective after all, is no longer to take him alive. He has an automatic weapon. Shoot To Kill will be the order of the day.

Step 6: With the tango down, they clear the bus of all hostages.

Mission Complete.

It would have been that simple. Nothing fancy, like the way they did it for the media cameras. They forgot the number one rule in tactical planning.

K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple. SHITHEADS.

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We once had this sign over our barracks door that said “Life-takers and Heartbreakers”. During a joint exercise with us, an American Navy SEAL asked what it meant. In the States it would have declared us as “killers and womanizers”. So he asked us if it meant the same thing over here. Our lieutenant was the one who answered for all of us.

“The Life-takers part, you got that one right.” He told the SEAL.

“But ‘Heartbreakers’ here doesn’t mean the same. It means we turn wives into widows and children into orphans.”

Sarge (Viking-6 Alpha), on point, with Arnel (Viking-8, 2nd Squad machine-gunner) backing him up...

11151994
Location: Davao del Sur
Time: around 0900H

We proceeded down the right side of the street, heading west. Ellis on point, me, then Ben taking up the rear. Whenever we passed a building or house, Ellis and I would either look through windows or bust through doors while Ben watched our backs. We were clearing the ones on the right side only. Not enough manpower. That’s life. It’s nerve-wracking work.

We kept doing this for one whole block, about one hundred meters worth of buildings and houses, and it felt like it was taking forever. Along with walking up to the door came a new adrenaline rush, and it takes a heavy toll on you psychologically, sapping your energy. Our three-man team was doing something that normally a whole squad or platoon should be doing.

BIAF troops attacking an Army position...

You’re at your most vulnerable when going through a door or up a flight of stairs. At the door, they might have weapons trained on it, just waiting for you to step in the line of fire. Or just shoot through it. Going up a flight of stairs is worse. Someone could just drop a hand grenade on your head.

Each time you walk up to the next structure, that voice in your head that warns you of imminent danger is in hyper-drive. There’s that panicky moment where I expected to find myself coming face-to-face with an enemy lying in wait. And with a rifle in my face. I’ve always imagined that it would be a brilliant muzzle flash, then lights out for one Corporal Ace Castillo.

We were almost at the first intersection. Two more houses. I called for a halt. Just two minutes, to catch our breaths and re-compose ourselves. I was covering the houses on the left side of the street with my rifle, checking windows and open doorways. I felt a tap on my shoulder. Ellis.

“Hey, you hear that?” he asked. I listened for a moment. Nothing.

“Hear what? I don’t hear anything.” I said.

“Voices. Sounds like it’s coming from one of these last two houses.” He pointed towards them. Now, I trust his judgment. He’s not our best scout for nothing.

“Alright, let’s check it out then.”

A few feet away was a parked jeepney, facing us. It was almost directly in front of the first house. I decided to make the approach from the opposite side of it in case this was going to turn into a firefight. At least we would have its body, chassis and engine block to hide behind. I had Ben position himself in front of it so he’d have the engine block as cover.

So Ellis and I stepped off the curb, and got on its left side, in a low crouch. I could hear the voices he was talking about now, but they weren’t clear enough for me to make out what they were saying. I waited for a few seconds, trying to figure out how many they were, but it sounded like only two. I gave Ellis the signal, and we both got up slowly, rifles ready.

First thing I saw was the window right next to the front door. Then I saw the guy standing there. Wearing fatigues, just like ours (we weren’t wearing our traditional black ones, just regular Army camouflage). Like a lot of the houses around here, this one had no glass.

The tango turned to face the window. Ellis and I froze in place. He didn’t see us. He seemed to be talking to someone who wasn’t in our line of sight, nodding his head. I stopped Ellis from firing with a hand to his shoulder. We could only see one. If we take them, we need to take them both simultaneously. Then he disappeared. I waited a few seconds, then gave Ellis the signal to move in.

We came out from behind the vehicle all the way up to the door. We stood there for a moment to see if we could hear anything. Nada. I signaled Ben to fall in behind me. Going in.

I tested the doorknob and found it unlocked. Slowly, I turned it then gently pushed the door, and braced myself to fire. But the house was empty. At least, the living room was. Ellis went in first, followed by me, then Ben. We went into a narrow hallway that led to the back. We followed it, cleared what was the only bedroom in the house, then continued to the rear and ended up in the kitchen. Again, empty. This was getting creepy. Ellis started whistling the soundtrack music from the t.v. series “Twilight Zone”. Damn it.

Ellis pointed to a backdoor. I nodded. Let’s go. He opened it slowly and as he did, we heard two men having a conversation. Not Tagalog nor Visayan. They were somewhere outside and to the left. Ellis looked back to me for his cue. I nodded again (this was getting tiring). Okay, this was the real shit now. I switched my weapon’s selector to full-auto. Blood and adrenalin pumping hard, pulsating in my temples.

As one, all three of us stepped out. Ellis on my right. Ben on my left, shoulder-to-shoulder almost. It’s that slow-mo, crystal-clear moment again. I was looking at the doorway’s edge and as we moved, what was beyond it was slowly revealed. One tango. Two. I raised my rifle to my shoulder. Three, oh shit. Four, what the fuck? Five. Oh, no.

And there we were out in the open. Eight tangos right in front of us. We were in an alley, with a wall behind us. Nowhere to run.

Fuck you, Mr. Murphy. Fuck you, very much.

RPG (Ruchnoy Protivotankovy Granatomet)

The very first thing that caught my attention was two them who were holding RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launchers. One had a rocket loaded already, the other didn’t. Bingo. We had stumbled upon two RPG teams (two men each) and their back-ups. With a group this size, most likely a diversionary attack. They had patches on their sleeves; the dreaded kris sword on a red field. BIAF. Hard-core.

Then that most primal of instincts born the day Cain slew Abel took over.

Kill.

I focused on the one directly in front of me. I don’t remember his face now, but I recall he had a cigarette in his mouth. Then he blurted out, “Pintados!” as I pointed my M4 right at him.

We weren’t wearing our standard black berets. Instead, we had on floppy hats just like regular soldiers. But we had sown the Scout Ranger patch right in the middle, above the forehead where it would be clearly seen. “So our enemies will have the honor of knowing who is killing them.” as Sarge had put it.

We lit them up with fully-automatic fire from a range of less than a dozen feet.

Goddamn, if there was ever an award for Noisiest Assault Rifle in the World, the AK-47 would win it every single year. I thought my left eardrum was going to explode as Ben cut loose with his AK. That thing just went BA-BA-BA-BAAAM! and I felt hot shell casings hitting the left side of my head and neck. But I didn’t stop firing.

They were massed together in a way that it wasn’t really about picking out individual targets anymore. It was just ONE big target. I didn’t care who I hit. You could just discern individuals falling, then you’d just move on to the next one. We methodically mowed them down.

For years, in my sleep, I would hear their screams.

Your typical assault rifle can eat through a magazine of thirty bullets in just about four seconds. Ellis and I had thirty rounds each. The AK carries thirty as well. So that means we unleashed ninety rounds on eight men packed in an alley no more than eight feet across, in about four seconds. That’s how fast it was. They had the numbers on their side, but we had maximum surprise plus maximum violence on ours. There’s just no escaping that kind of deadly firepower.

I remember one guy on the left that Ben shot. His bullets hit the rebel’s magazine pouches, and the rounds started cooking off. Some of the bullets flew flew past our heads, hissing and trailing white smoke. Tracer rounds.

None of them even got a shot off, for we had total surprise, except for one who fired his weapon when death reflex caused his trigger-finger to tighten. The ones in the back tried to run, but as soon as the ones in front fell, we just shot them all in the back. We don’t fight fair. The principle is: Always cheat, always win. The only fair fight is the one where you lose.

Then my rifle stopped firing. Empty. Without lowering it, I reached for a fresh magazine with my left hand. I then pressed the mag release on my M4 and watched the smoking mag eject and clatter to the ground. I slammed in the new one and pulled back the charging handle, reloading my weapon.

“Loading!” Ellis yelled, as he too reloaded. I covered him as he did so. Ben was also fumbling for a new mag. The insurgents were lying in a heap. The sun’s rays came down on that alley at a high angle, and you could see smoke and steam rising from the mangled bodies. It was from the hot bullets embedded in their flesh and the hot gases from ruptured intestines, stomachs and chests rising in the cool air. I slowly lowered my rifle as my brain interpreted the carnage before me. The human carnage that I was responsible for. Then, as always, my brain fell back on training, and was already shutting out the bad images. You need to forget about that one, soldier.

I looked over at Ellis, and he was looking at me too with his dilated pupils. Then he gave out a loud “Wheeew! Sonofabitch! I can’t believe that happened!”

Well neither could I. I just exhaled out loud and leaned against a wall to steady myself and calm my nerves. That was just too fuckin’ close.

Ellis and Ben moved forward to check for survivors. When checking for enemy survivors, never reach out with your hand to check the carotid artery on the neck for a pulse. That’s the kind of bullshit you see them do in the movies. If he’s playing dead and you reach out your hand to his neck, he can pull on it and come up with his other hand with a knife and stab you in the gut. Or grab your belt buckle and slash your femoral artery in the thigh. There was an incident we knew of once where a dying insurgent pulled the soldier to him and detonated a hand grenade, killing them both. That’s the reality of combat.

So, how do you check? You kick them in the head with your boot. You attach your bayonet to your rifle and “probe” them with it, or stick it in a wound. You press the barrel of your rifle into an eye. All these are guaranteed to get a reaction. Ellis was using the second method right now, while Reuben was employing the first one. I was watching them when my comms came on.

“Viking-1, Viking-6. Come in!” Wearily, I pressed my mike button.

“Six, this is One.”

“We heard heavy fire coming from your direction? Was that you?” I acknowledged, then gave him a quick run-down of what happened. My brain was on auto-pilot now, and I didn’t even pause when I saw Ellis stick his bayonet into a survivor’s neck, all the way to the hilt.

“Is everyone okay? Any survivors?” were his next questions. When I pressed the mike to answer, I heard some loud moaning and got distracted. Absently keeping my thumb on the button, I watched Ben raise the AK and fire one resounding shot into the man’s chest. Shit, I hope LT wasn’t asking that because he wanted a fuckin’ prisoner. I’m sure he heard that shot over the radio.

“Not anymore, sir. We’re all okay.” I replied.

“All right, then. Two RPG teams, huh? Good. Continue on mission. The Army troopers are making that final push. Good job, Corporal. Viking-6, out.”

Good job. I reflected on that for a moment. For about eight thousand bucks a month (plus 100 pesos a day if you’re in a combat zone: hazard pay.), this was what I get to do. Massacre men in alley. Fuck.

Ellis and Ben were done making sure everyone was dead. I instructed them to disable the RPGs. It’s done by simply taking your bayonet and prying the holding pin that connects the trigger mechanism, firing pin and pistol-grip to the RPG tube. And it becomes completely useless. They threw the parts into an open drain.

I made sure we were all locked and loaded first, mags reloaded and everyone had a drink of water. Just half a block to go. I checked my watch. It was almost 1100H. We followed the alley then made a right. I could see the last street, already. All we had to do was cross that, find May’s (my ex) house, and make sure everyone was okay. Then we get to go back the way we came and do this shit all over again.

Same shit, different day.

"when other people veer away from gunfire, we go towards it. like moth to a flame."

When we got to the final intersection, it was just in time to see an armored personnel carrier break through from the north, followed by a platoon of dismounted infantry. I could see civilians also, a bunch of them, maybe thirty or so. There was an exchange of gunfire again, really close but I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from. With all these structures around us, it seemed to come from everywhere.

I saw a man about to cross the street with a little girl in tow. I recognized him. And the girl. He was May’s uncle, brother of her mom. And the girl was May’s niece, Anna, daughter of her mom’s sister.

He shouldn’t be crossing here, he should just stay with those soldiers. As a matter of fact, there was one soldier right behind him already, trying to get his attention. I don’t know what the fuck he was thinking, but I couldn’t believe it when he stepped out into that open street. The soldier came running after him. It happened so fast.

I held my breath. He took a couple of steps and actually got halfway. The stupid son of a bitch just might make it, I thought. It was when the soldier showed up right behind him that things went crazy. Suddenly there was intense automatic fire coming from our right.

The street was paved using asphalt and tar instead of concrete, so you could actually see the bullets rip that asphalt up around the two men, and there was nothing I could do but watch in horror as they were machine-gunned to death just a few feet away from me. They disappeared for a few seconds in a maelstrom of debris and dust. But all I could think about was little Anna, and what those bullets can do to a frail little girl. I looked away.

M240 General Purpose Machine-Gun

The weapon sounded like an M240 machine-gun. It makes a sound that’s a cross between ripping canvass and a buzz-saw. If you love World War 2 Movies, I’m sure you know what a German-made MG42 is. That’s what it sounds like. And it’s bite is worse than it’s bark. When the firing stopped, it was followed by deafening silence. Slowly, I forced myself to look back at where the bodies were.

Both men were down. I think if that soldier hadn’t run after them, they would have made it. This is what LT meant when he said “No Hero Bullshit”. It gets civilians killed.

“My God.” said Reuben as he crossed himself. “They even shot the little girl, the sons of bitches.” We just watched a little girl murdered right before our eyes. Motherfuckers.

Words can’t describe our surprise when we heard a little voice from in front of us. It was Anna, crying. The hairs on the back of my neck and my arms stood on end when I heard that. Unfuckingbelievable.

But there she was, getting up in a sitting position, her shoulders shaking violently from fear and the shock of what had just happened. A shot rang out and I saw the round hit the asphalt a few feet to her left. Fucking animals! I wanted to kill them all right there and then.

A voice somewhere to our right shouted “Kef!” (Stop!), someone probably reprimanding the shooter. We called out to her, telling her to get up and run to us. It wasn’t working. Nothing was registering in her mind right now, she was in shock. She just sat there crying hysterically. Even the soldiers on the other side could do nothing but look on. The most hardened of us would tell you that listening to her was heart-wrenching.They were using her as bait. From the tactical standpoint, she was dead either way. The only option is to try and get her.

The only to do that is to grab her under cover of suppressing fire. And since she’s my ex’s niece, who else was going to do it right? Certainly not a civilian.

I hand signaled to the soldiers opposites us to give me suppressing fire and shouted, “On my mark!”. Their leader, a sergeant, gave a thumbs-up. I laid my rifle against the wall we were hiding behind.

“You’re crazy. You’re gonna get yourself killed.” Ellis said.

Now, I don’t know why, but I wasn’t scared anymore. Or maybe I just didn’t give a shit. Or maybe I was temporarily insane. That’s the kind of mind-fuck combat does to you. Sometimes, you don’t know yourself, or what you’re capable of anymore.

I didn’t know what my reply was to Ellis, but both he and Ben would later tell me that I had actually said, “I know. Just give me suppressing fire, goddamnit!” I don’t remember ever saying that. Things were happening too fast. Or maybe my brain just decided on its own to suppress certain thoughts; like the prospect of death and mutilation.

Then I backed up a few feet to get a good running start. I gave the countdown using my fingers as everyone looked at me: the soldiers opposite, and my guys.

Three. Two. One.

I don’t remember starting my run, either. What I recall was just being on the street, reaching down, grabbing Anna by the arm and just heaving her up and tucking her into my left side, to cover her from the enemy guns which were on my right. I saw the troopers in front of me start pouring out suppressing fire just around the corner of the house they were hiding behind. No doubt Ellis and Ben were doing the same.

At some point, I realized that I had not taken my backpack off. Too late, now. So I had thirty-fuckin’-plus pounds of pack and a sixty or seventy pound girl, and I was running across fifteen feet of open space. And yeah, the bastards were definitely using her as bait. They started shooting when I picked her up.

It’s like getting chased by a swarm of bees. I could hear the rounds zip-zip-zipping all around me. A couple of times I heard the sonic crack! of a bullet as it passed less than five feet from my head. It seemed like forever getting to the other side, but there was no fear. If I get hit, I get hit.

At the last stretch, just a few feet away from the curb, one of the soldiers came out, arms outstretched. I don’t know where I got the strength to do it, but I heaved Anna one-handed towards him. I didn’t get to see him catch her, though.

Because I got hit.

It’s like some giant hand came out of nowhere and smacked me aside. Once I released the girl, I suddenly spun around 180-degrees and landed heavily on my back and hit my head hard on the pavement. It knocked the wind out of me. My vision went white, and I started choking on smoke and dust. Bullets were pinging ang zinging all around me. I thought to myself: “Get me the hell out of here, or just kill me. Make up your fucking mind!” I’m not sure who I was addressing. Maybe God. If he existed. Just in case.

Someone dragged me by my bandoleer or backpack straps out of the line of fire, then I started hearing voices.

“He’s hit, sarge!”

“Where’s our Medic? Get over here, this Ranger’s wounded!”

There was no pain. Actually, I was feeling okay. Maybe this is what dying is like. I could just lie here like this and go to sleep.

“He’s bleeding somewhere, there’s this wet spot here. Wait…it’s not blood. Does that smell like tomato sauce? Turn him on his side. His canteen’s hit too. No blood. Hey, Ranger! Can you sit up? Come on, help me get him up!”

They pulled me up into a sitting position and helped me out of my backpack straps. It was the Army sergeant and the medic. My hip started to hurt. They opened my pack and poured my stuff out. Shit. I had three cans of sardines wrapped in one pair of socks each (so the wouldn’t clink against each other when I was moving around and make noise). I think one bullet went through all three cans. Great. I just lost my lunch, dinner and breakfast for the next day.

Another bullet had hit the aluminum canteen on my right hip and actually tore the spout off. Other than an ugly bruise on my hip, I was practically untouched. They couldn’t believe it. Imagine how I felt. I had good juju on my side. The Old Man must have been looking out for me that day. I was after all, one of his Assassins.

“Where’s the little girl?” I asked. The medic turned around and pointed.

“There. I think that’s her mother.”

When I turned to walk in that direction, only then did I feel this sharp pain in my left foot. A soldier pointed out that I was bleeding. Turns out later I had taken a bit of shrapnel in my left ankle. About the size of the tip of my pinkie finger. After all that, that was all I had to show for it. I didn’t know if I should feel lucky or embarrassed.

I looked and saw Anna in the arms of her mother. And beside her was… May. She was wearing a head scarf (known as a hijab) to cover her head and hair. Traditional wear for Muslim women, for modesty. Oh yeah, you weren’t expecting that huh? I know.

whenever we saw them, as much as possible we gave them a wide berth. "never mess with a lioness..."

First time I’ve ever mentioned this part of my life to anyone. Aside from you, the only others that knew were the fifteen other men of my platoon. And only four of us are alive today. The other one isn’t even an original member. Long story short, her parents really didn’t like me. So, she decided to be the dutiful daughter and end it. Digression endeth.

She was standing there, four months pregnant, wearing this long shawl. Around her neck I could see an olive-drab strap and I knew that under that shawl she was carrying her father’s M11 carbine. Her father taught her to use a .45, but I had taught her how to fire an M11. And she’s the type that will use it, too. Pregnant, armed, and ready to kill to protect her own. Now that is a woman. Anyone else is just “some girl”. Then she made eye contact with me.

She was with the other members of her family and I saw soldiers starting to escort them out of the combat zone. One of her uncles saw us looking at each other. He was one of those that disapproved of me. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she she swatted it viciously aside and cursed him. Yup, that’s her alright. I couldn’t hear what she said, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she called him a goat-turd or perhaps son-of-a-one-breasted-cross-eyed-whore. In any case, he backed off.

I didn’t want to make any trouble for her. So I stood there, about thirty feet away, not really knowing what to say. And it’s always moments like that when someone fucking calls you on the radio.

“Viking-1, Viking-6.” I acknowledged it without taking my eyes off her.

“Go ahead, sir.” She was still standing there.

“Have you linked up with the forward elements? They’ve broken through. If you’re done with that other matter, make your way back to the CP (command post). Copy?”

“Yes, sir. On the way.”

I looked at her one more time. She took a few steps forward and simply said to me, “Stay alive.” It was something she always told me. My reply was the same one I’ve always given her when we were together.

“Insh’allah”

If God wills it.

Post-Mortem:

And that was the last time I ever saw her. Four years later, she was killed in a vehicular accident while evacuating from another war zone in Lanao del Sur. She had named our son Azeem, which means “Defender” in Arabic.  I met him back in 2005 when I got recalled into the Army. Her parents had finally allowed me to see him. He was eleven at the time. He has his mother’s looks. Thank God. Thankfully, he held no animosity towards me. And that is the most important thing. Nothing else matters.

As for little Anna? She found me last year through Friendster. Imagine that. She got married this year. She’s now twenty-four years old, and I believe pregnant with their first child.

Ellis, Reuben and I were recommended by our LT for the Distinguished Service Cross for our actions that day. It would have been my second. It stated, “With total disregard for personal safety in performing their duties while under intense enemy fire, these three Rangers eliminated a superior force of eight heavily armed insurgents and assisted in the safe evacuation of civilian refugees…” and so on and so forth.

Which we firmly but respectfully declined.

Pintados: Recon

Posted: August 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

"Vikings" in skirmish formation...

Once Roy and I determined that this was going to be our observation post, I advised Viking-6 over the radio so the rest of the platoon could move in to their positions. I then went downstairs and got a folding table that I had seen earlier, and brought it back up with me.

The room we were in was a bedroom and from the looks of it, shared by a family of four. There were clothes for two kids, a boy and a girl. Roy shoved the bed on its side and leaned it against the wall, and I set up the table about six feet away from the window. I took my M20 and spotting scope out of my gunbag, then placed my backpack on the table. We now had a firing platform.

The first two hours or so were spent just watching that street. There was nothing else to see. So it was just the repeated process of scanning rooftops, windows, doorways and side-streets. In the distance we could hear the occasional burst of gunfire. Sometimes the crescendo would build up as both sides exchanged fire, but it would quickly taper off again. It was a sign that both the Army and rebels had dug in, and were probing each others’ defenses. As for us, well we had this little corner of the battlefield to ourselves. For now.

From my point of view the town looked like those pictures I used to see in TIME magazine of downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Through the spotting scope, I could see debris scattered on the road such as discarded bags, clothing, a dead dog, and what looked like a dead human body at the very end but I couldn’t make out whether it was male or female, soldier or rebel.

During briefing, prepping for a fight...

It was on the third hour, around 0830H that things started to pick up. Over the radio, Viking-6 advised us that the soldiers were making a push from the west (our left) and force the rebels to vacate the real estate they’d occupied, and make them head eastwards. The objective was to make them leave the town through the east and engage them out in the open. Which was why our platoon of sixteen was the only one in this sector. Basic Sun Tzu tactic. Always leave the enemy a way out. Because a cornered enemy is a desperate enemy, and will tend to fight to the death.

We could now see a couple of the insurgents crossing the street in two’s or three’s. Army forces from the north and west were putting the pressure on.

To pass the time as we were looking through our scopes, we played a mind-game I invented called “Assassins”. We would take turns giving each other scenarios involving anyone we wanted. It could be someone you hate, a famous person, a government official, whatever…then we would assassinate them in the most creative manner possible.

It was my turn to give the scenario for the day, and Roy was in the middle of garroting Saddam Hussein with a shoe-lace (Which was ominous since Hussein was hanged. Scary.), when a movement in one of the windows about 380-390 meters away caught my attention in the spotting scope. I wasn’t sure first, but I thought it was a head that bobbed up for a second, then went out of sight.

“Hey, Roy.” I said. “See that house just two houses before the second intersection? I thought I saw something in the window. Take a look.”

I didn’t bother telling him what I saw, and he didn’t bother asking. There’s a reason for that. The best way to confirm a sighting is when he doesn’t know what exactly it was. So when he does see it, and tells me what it is and we come up with the same conclusion, we’ll know it’s for real and not just some hallucination produced by a stressed-out mind. The finer points of spotting and sniping.

It took about two minutes, which in battlefield time might as well be an eternity. But it happened again.

“Yes, I see him. Just his head. Is that what you saw?” He asked. I answered in the affirmative.

And the way the guy did it, was not the way a civilian would. A civilian would stand right at the window. This one was peeking from a spot a few feet away from the window. The same way we would have done it, except he was doing it too often, which was what got my attention. He wasn’t interested in what was directly in front of him. He was interested in what was up ahead, a long way off. Us.

Bastard’s an enemy spotter.

“It’s a tango. You have him?” I asked.

“Solid.” Roy replied. I keyed my radio.

“Viking-6, Viking-1. Possible enemy spotter, about 400 meters.” I said.

“Copy. You’re weapons-free. Verify that, then you are green light.” Lt said.

I got back on the scope. I was saying, “We’re good to go, Roy. 390 meters, 2 kilometer-wind north-to-south, shouldn’t be a problem – ” when he interrupted me.

“Look! There’s two of them.” I looked over at the window and sure enough, there was another individual who was further inside the room they were in. I could see his silhouette in the back, in stark contrast to the white wall behind him. And he was definitely holding a rifle, I was one hundred positive on that. Targets verified. They’re hostile.

“We’re going to have to take them out simultaneously.” I told him. I picked up my M20 and propped it on top of my pack. The image was blurry, so I adjusted the knob and I could see him vividly in my 10x power scope. He had a rifle slung across his chest, alright. Barrel pointing up at port arms, as if he were on parade.

My rifle was zeroed for 500 meters. He was at 390-400. Which means if I put the cross-hair on his sternum, the bullet will hit him in the neck or face.

“We fire on your mark.” I said to Roy. He had the smaller, more challenging target, a head. Mine was easier, upper torso. We were going to shoot in tandem, so I would have to shoot when he was ready, not the other way around.

I placed the cross-hair on the guy’s chest, then waited. The other one did the quick-peek maneuver again, at the same spot, but it was too fast for Roy.

One more. One more, motherfucker, come on. Show us some skin…

And he did. He popped his head out, and Roy was ready for him, having anticipated where he was going to show his head. His cardinal sin was that he became predictable. Predictable gets you dead. Roy gave the go-signal.

“FIRE.”

Our rifles fired as one. My M20 kicked up and when I recovered, I couldn’t see my target anymore. I did however, see a big, dark stain on the wall. There was no sign of Roy’s target, either.

“I got mine. You?” I asked.

“His head exploded like in ‘Scanners’.” Roy said, making reference to that movie where… well, heads exploded. I got on the radio again.

“Viking-6, One. Two down. Say again, two confirmed.”

“Good.” he replied. “By the way, I need you here at my location. Leave Viking-2 there, I’ll send someone to replace you. RFN.”

“Roger.” RFN. Right Fucking Now. I wonder what he wants.

“Hey, LT needs me for something. He’ll send someone over here to replace me. Be good.” I said to Roy.

“Yes, Mama.” was all he said, without taking his eye off the scope. I ran downstairs and met Viking-7 (Nilo) at the door. I warned him about the blasting cap booby-trap at the stairs, then went to the house across the street where Viking-6 had set up his command post. I found him in the kitchen.

“Sit down.” he said. It always makes me nervous when an officer says that. Don’t know why. I felt like a grade-schooler caught doing something naughty.

“I need you for a mission. I can’t spare our sergeants, I’ll need them here if things go bad. You’re gonna lead a 3-man recon west of us. Which leaves you as the only other senior man that I CAN spare. Think you can handle it?”

Could I handle it? Jesus. I’ve never led a recon before. It’s one thing doing it as part of a sniper team, on a hilltop or even moving street to street. But to actually LEAD one? Now I REALLY wanted to shit my pants. I felt my feet go cold. It would have sounded silly if I said, “Maybe.” or “I think so.” If there’s one thing they never taught us in Basic or in Ranger training, it was how to back down from a mission. So, my only choice really was to answer in the military-prescribed, acceptable manner.

“Yes, sir.” I replied, trying my best not to choke on the lump in my throat.

“Good man. Now, there’s another matter I want to address, on a more personal note. Sarge tells me you’ve got a girl here in this town?” he asked, turning away from me.

Oh, crap. “Actually, she’s an ex-girlfriend, sir.” He turned right back when I said that.

“What? But Sarge said she’s pregnant?!” Indignant tone. Oh, shit. Here it comes. Crap, I’d just killed a man a few minutes ago, and here I was about to get dressed down by my commanding officer. How fucked-up is that?

“Uh, yes sir, she is.” I braced myself. The LT was a married man, and was something of a Puritan. Even though he cursed a lot.

Strangely, the dress-down never came. Instead, the man just gave a sigh. Almost like a disappointed father. At least, I think so. I never had a father to get disappointed with me to begin with. The next thing he said to me, he said in English. He did that when he was pissed.

LT: “All right, Corporal” he said after a few seconds. “We’ll address that matter at the proper time. Sarge said she lives nearby. How near?”

ME: “About a block from here, sir.”

LT: “Okay. I’m going to give you a unique opportunity, Corporal. I want you to do a recon on our west flank. I’m going to let you pass by your…ex-girlfriend’s house and see to it that she and her family are okay. That is not something I should be allowing you to do, but I will make this one exception. Having said that, let’s get into your mission specs (specifics).”

Apparently the Army troopers were having some “difficulties”. They had APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) and Humvees to assist them in pushing back the insurgents. The problem was though, the rebels had several Soviet-made RPG-7 (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) launchers. Our Humvees are not armored. The Army’s APCs have 1/4-inch armor plating. So far, one APC had been damaged, with the driver and commander killed. One Humvee was destroyed, with six soldiers killed. About a dozen soldiers were already wounded.

An RPG rocket’s shape-charged warhead can penetrate 12 inches of armor. You get the picture, right?

Soviet-made RPG-7 with rocket

So LT wanted us to look for these RPG teams (two men, a gunner and assistant gunner) and either kill them, or spot their locations so the soldiers could wipe them out and the APCs and Humvess could safely enter the town.

If we were to encounter these teams out in the open, we engage and kill. If they’re in a building or have support, I was to go on Channel Two on our radio and call the Army company commander (callsign: Razor-6), give him the location, and he would direct one of his platoons to it. The plan was as simple as can be. K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Shithead.

LT: “Now, let’s get one thing straight: the mission comes first. No Hero bullshit out there. Okay? The only heroes I know are all dead. You’re no good to me dead. So, go to her place, make your peace, get out and continue on-mission, understood?”

Me: “Yes, sir. In and out.”

LT: “Okay. Pick two men. Viking-2 stays, I need a sniper. Seven (Nilo) stays too, I need his SAW. You can take anyone else you want.”

I gave that some thought. If it was gonna be hunter-killer slash recon, then I’m gonna take along the best scout and most prolific killer in the platoon. Viking-4 (Ellis). And Viking-5 (Reuben). He’s been with us for almost a year now, and had turned out to be a pretty reliable operator. I gave him my choice picks.

LT: “Good choices. We’ll make a team leader out of you yet, Castillo.”

Me: “Fuck that. Sir.” (I’m kidding. I just said that in my head.)

He called up Ellis and Reuben and they were in there in under two minutes. LT left me to brief them on the mission (While he looked on, over my shoulder. Fuck!) When I was done, LT picked something off the floor and handed it to me.

“For added firepower, Corporal. You earned it. Got it off that three-man recon team you spotted earlier.”

It was an AK-47S (S Model). The one with a folding-stock. I remembered the one who looked directly at me in the dark. This was his rifle. Of course, now that he’s dead he wouldn’t be needing it. LT included a satchel. In it were 4 clips and a drum magazine that held about 100 rounds.

Soviet-made AK-47S

“Good luck, Corporal.” LT said, and then he went back to his command post on the second floor, leaving me, Ellis and Reuben.

Ellis being Ellis, he just had to rub it in. “Wow. Team leader…

“Fuck you,” I said.

“Whoa, what’s this? No more than five minutes as Team Leader, and the power’s already getting to your head.” Motherfucking Smart-ass Ellis. That’s him. I handed the AK to Reuben. He would serve as my “heavy gunner”.

I stepped out in to the street. Suddenly, everything seemed much clearer. Much more pronounced, somewhat. I looked up at the sky, and the clouds seemed more sharply defined. You know, like looking at a digitally-enhanced picture. Only back then, I didn’t know what “digitally-enhanced” meant, harhar. I closed my eyes and  took a deep breath of the cold morning air to calm myself.

It was a mix of burning fuel, and a little post-New Year-like smell of expended gunpowder. The street was littered with trash, discarded personal belongings and brass shell casings. It was like being on the set of Black Hawk Down. Except that movie wasn’t made yet. The word “Apocalypse” seemed appropriate right about then.  My feet were still cold. My hands were clammy and I was having pin-prick like sensations on my fingertips. But most of all, I felt like I wanted to puke.

My reverie was broken by a sharp tug on my arm. Ellis. Who the fuck else, right?

“Hey, ‘boss‘ ” he said with that malicious (nay, evil) grin of his. “Are you, okay?”

“Yeah, of course. So… are you ready… ‘men‘?” I asked, putting in a little of my own brand of sarcasm. The two fucks just grinned at me.

“Hoo-wah, good to go.” said Reuben.

“All right, then. Let’s go. Ellis, take point.”

“Roger. Let’s go kill something.” I was right behind him, with Rueben in the Tail-End Charlie spot. And off we marched.

Into the unknown…

Pintados

Posted: August 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

While invisible I see and destroy…

This was taken summer of '94...

I found this picture among the dozens I had set aside at my grandma’s place in Davao. I had my brother scan and e-mail them to me. This particular one brings back a flood of memories from 1994. The one on the left is Roy. That’s me on the right, face smeared in black and green camouflage grease. We’re both wearing Ghillie suits.

Pintados. Translated, it means “The Painted Ones”. The Men With Painted Faces. That’s what they called us. Our enemies, that is. Even in their radio transmissions, they used it. And that word was always met with one of two things: dread, or hatred. They would either retreat or fight harder.

This is about a day when they fought harder.

11151994
Location: Davao del Sur
Time: Unknown (My way of saying, “I can’t fuckin’ remember.”)

We were already in place before dawn. It was an operation in support of a company of Army soldiers pursuing a group of 80 insurgents that had just killed a priest and 5 soldiers, and 3 civilians in a neighboring town about ten kilometers away. This was one of those so-called “Lost Command” types.

The MILF leadership would regularly claim that one of their “platoons” was no longer under their control. And they seem to always make these proclamations after one of their groups has just gone on a rampage through the countryside, killing civilians.  Never before. It’s happened so many times, you know it’s bullshit from the get-go. It was just an excuse for them to unleash their men so they can wreak havoc, and kill some soldiers in the process. Typical guerrilla warfare.

Roy and I were on over-watch position on a knoll about 200 meters on the south side of the town. We were clad in Ghillie suits. Our faces, necks and hands smeared with camouflage paint.

The town had a population of about 2,000. The rest of the platoon moved in from the east side and our job was to make sure the houses south were clear of enemy forces, using the thermal scope we had with us. So far, we could only detect civilian movement in our sector.

Two platoons of Army troopers were moving in from the north, and another from the west. We had them boxed in. The only problem now were the civilians caught in the middle of all this.

Hundreds of them had already fled ever since the insurgents came in the middle of the night, but many more had stayed, paralyzed by the fear of going out into the streets and getting indiscriminately shot down by the rebels. There was already a report of around 10 dead.

A few dozen of them even passed by right where we were, almost stepping on us a couple of times. We didn’t show ourselves, of course. Evacuating them was not our mission. They could do that on their own. Besides, mingling with them would only put them in more danger because the rebels would fire upon us even with civilians around.

All through the wee hours of the morning we listened to gunfire from the north and west as Army troops and the rebels skirmished in the dark.

About a half hour before dawn’s early light, LT called over the radio that they were in position. Roy and I were to move in and infiltrate our side of the town, find an empty house, and cover their advance. I put my rifle in a gunbag attached to my backpack and switched to my M4 assault rifle with an underslung M-203 grenade launcher. I moved out on point with Roy close behind, through the hip-high cogon grass, in a low crouch. There was a light breeze (we were near the sea) and it was deathly cold.

When we reached a point about 15 meters from the nearest house, I signaled a stop with my left fist in the air, then got down on one knee. Time to assess the terrain before continuing.

I moved just my eyes as I looked at the houses in front of us. When doing recon this close to your target location with hostiles nearby, you never move your head. Just your eyes. You’re using your peripheral vision, not direct vision to detect movement (Recon 101, maggot). I did this for about two minutes. All clear. I gave the all-clear signal to Roy and started to get up. That’s when Mister Fucking Murphy made his ugly presence known.

Movement. 10 o’clock. I froze, knees bent and just my luck that all my body weight plus the weight of my forty-pound pack were on my left leg. Shit.

They came from around the corner of one of the houses on my left. One. Two.Three. Crap. A three-man Tango recon team. They were doing the exact same thing we were doing. Finding a place to cover their troops’ advance. Told you they were trained the same way we were.

Slowly, I moved my thumb to my M4’s selector and switched it to full-auto. It was dark. No taking chances with single shots on this one. If we get spotted, we rock and roll. They were taking their sweet time, peeking into windows, then moving on to the next house. My leg was starting to shake. One of them, the middle one, seemed to turn in our direction then stopped. Even in this low light, I could tell from his silhouette that he was armed with an AK-47 Kalashnikov. I do not wanna mess with THAT.

AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle in the hands of a seasoned MILF fighter...

He was looking directly at me. He had seen something, but wasn’t quite sure.

Like we were trained to do, I slowly lowered my eyes from his face and focused on his chest. Why? Because in combat situations, all your senses are heightened due to the high-stress environment. You may find this hard to believe, but there exists this form of extra-sensory perception that warns you of hostile intent. And it always manifests itself when someone is staring directly at you. No bullshit. You can ask any combat veteran in the world, and they will tell you the exact same thing.

This was now “the blade of grass” moment that I’ve described to some of my friends. It’s a mantra that I play in my head. It calms me down, and also enforces my will to continue the mission.

“I’m but a blade of grass, swaying in the breeze. You do not see me. I am invisible.” Seems silly right? Well it works for me, and if it works there’s no harm in it. I was having doubts though, because the bastard was still staring right at me.

I thought I could see him raising his rifle up to his hip, and it took all of my willpower to keep from raising mine and blowing him away. My main concern was they might be just three guys here, and we could take them. But what’s to say there weren’t twenty more on the other side of these houses? We had no way of knowing that.

And just when I thought that, he lowered his rifle. He took one last 3-second look at me, then moved on. I felt like I wanted to piss my pants. I got on the radio right away.

“Viking 6, Viking 1. 3-man recon team headed your way. Not sure if they have backup.”

“Copy, Viking 1. Stand by.” Followed by about a minute or two of silence. Then that silence was shattered by a long volley of fully-automatic machinegun fire. Nilo’s SAW.

“Viking 1, Viking 6.”

“Sir?”

“They had no backup. Move into position.” I acknowledged, then Roy and I quickly moved into the comforting shadow of the house in front of us. I placed my hand against the wall and felt the cool concrete. This would do. We were looking for a house that could withstand gunfire. Just in case. A lot of the houses here were still made from lumber. A concrete one would be nice on one’s peace of mind.

We cleared it first, it’s bad for PR to occupy a house in a combat zone while civilians were still in it. Then we made our way upstairs. Once we found a room with a window overlooking the intersection in front of the house, I proceeded to booby-trap the bottom of the stairs with a blasting cap. It’s used for detonating C4 or TNT. On it’s own it’s ALMOST harmless, and just makes a loud bang. This was our early-warning device in case someone tried to creep up on our observation post.

The sun was starting to rise. So far, so good. We had now established a good observation post and had a clear view down the main street from one end of the town to the other. I was on first watch so Roy could at least get some 30-minute shuteye. I was anxious about this mission itself. Because it wasn’t just a mission for me. There was something at stake in it on a personal level.

Little did we know that this was going to be one of the worst fights we would ever find ourselves in…