Archive for September, 2010

Ambush at Hamlet 24

Posted: September 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

Army troopers conducting an assault...

“Thanks, bro.” he said, after bumming a cigarette from Nilo. And those were the last words I ever heard from him. His name was Al. Short for Alejandro. 1st Platoon RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) for Razor 1-6 (Not to be confused with “sixteen”. 1 means First Platoon, 6 means Platoon Leader.) You may remember them from “Pintados: Bad Juju“, the guys who saved our asses from imminent annihilation  two months ago. For the life of me, I can’t remember his last name, only that it started with a D.

We had gotten pretty close to their unit, given that we did some of their recon work.

Well, now I was down on the ground, with my left cheek pressed to the dirt and inhaling dust. Twenty feet or so to my right was Al, lying on his side, taking his last gasps of air on this earth.

It was a joint op between their battalion and our company. We were on the hunt for elements of the al-Harakat al-Islamiyya (a.k.a. Abu Sayyaf) that were said to be hiding in our AO (Area of Operations). This was a “direct action” mission, and we had specific instructions to “obtain at least one or two prisoners for interrogation”. So for the past week, we had been moving from hamlet to hamlet, hunting for them. With no success.

Our AO was divided into four quadrants, assigned to different units. This was about the ninth or tenth village we were approaching, designated Hamlet 24 (So that if anyone was listening to our transmissions, they wouldn’t know which one was about to get hit. We didn’t have encrypted, burst-transmission comms like the Americans, so we had to adapt and improvise.) The higher the numerical designation, the deeper into enemy territory the location. So, as you can imagine, 24’s pretty deep.

We were resting before going in, when Al had come up to us to bum a cigarette. Their platoon had gained some experience along the way and had not taken any serious casualties, so far. Until now.

It couldn’t have been more than seven minutes after he approached us. He was back with his platoon leader, Razor 1-6, both men were lying prone on the ground. The rest of their platoon was deployed in a skirmish line. Us Rangers were on their left flank, and I was the first element on our right. Al was two soldiers away from me. The village was about two hundred fifty meters to our front, and we were given the signal to move.

As I was getting up I heard the shot, and a loud “whop!“, like someone hitting a slab of meat with an open hand. I immediately hit the dirt again and as I did, saw Al reeling backwards, as if he was trying to regain his balance. Their lieutenant was still holding on to the radio-telephone when he was hit, and the cord extended until it just snapped off. He hit the ground hard, and  was clutching his chest.

Other shots followed, but no one else got hit. Yet. The shooter was probably gunning for the lieutenant but got Al instead. That first one must have been just a lucky shot. At 250 meters, you don’t miss man-size targets. An amateur. Which made him all the more dangerous.

Elmer, their medic (all medics are referred to as “Doc”) was already by his side. The same one who had taken care of Reuben when he got hit two months ago. He grabbed Al by his webbing and started dragging him off behind a tree as bullets whizzed past. He wasn’t moving fast enough. That “sniper” was just firing at the medic now, but wasn’t hitting him.

I was glad Doc wasn’t getting hit, but by the third missed shot my professional sensibilities were getting offended, and overrode my instinct for self-preservation. And he calls himself a sniper. He was just banging away like he was in a carnival shooting gallery.

Abu Sayyaf terrorists moving through the countryside...

I knew it was a stupid thing to do, but what the hell. Everyone’s gotta die some day, right? I stood up and ran towards Doc, grabbed Al by one of the straps on his pack and helped Doc drag him behind a tree. Two more rounds went flying past, wide off the mark (which I think were for me, this time).

I turned at the last moment, and looked at the village. I hope you have a scope, asshole, but I doubt it. Because I want you to see this. I gave the dirty finger in the shooter’s general direction. Eat that, bitch. You missed. Then I hit the dirt beside Doc. I know. Juvenile right? Screw it. I die on my own terms, not his.

Al was still strapped to his radio. I took it off him, and found that the bullet had exited his back and penetrated the radio, rendering it useless. The exit wound was about the size of a tangerine, right on the spinal cord in the middle of his back. Which explains why when he fell, his legs didn’t thrash about as most people do when they get shot: he was paralyzed before he even hit the ground.

His complexion had already gone grey, and from experience I knew he wasn’t going to make it, but I’ll be damned if I was going to tell Doc that. This was his buddy. As far as I know, this would be the first death in his platoon. He was going to have to deal with this, if he was going to continue to function as a soldier and a medic.

Randy (Viking-3) and Razor 1-6 were suddenly beside me. Randy was our explosives expert, and ironically, designated medic as well. He took one look at Al, then looked at me and shook his head. He knew it, too.

We watched as Doc frantically worked on Al, neither of us having the guts to tell him it was pointless. He realized it on his own after about two minutes. Private First Class Alejandro D. Dead at 21. What a fuckin’ waste.

Doc had this dejected look on his face. It’s that feeling that he had failed was what he was going through his head right now, and he had to get past that. The day was just starting.

His lieutenant placed a hand on his shoulder and said something to him. Randy began preparing the body for evac later. He took Al’s dogtags. One, he gave to the lieutenant. Then he opened Al’s mouth and placed the other one under the tongue. That was for the Graves Registration people who were going to prepare the body once we get back to base, then he covered the body with a poncho. There was nothing else we could do here, so Randy and I went back to our positions. Feeling that he had to say something, Randy turned to the lieutenant.

“We’ll make sure Al didn’t die for nothing, lieutenant.” The officer looked at us, and the rage was obvious on his face.

“Kill that son of a bitch. If you get him alive, bring him to me. I’ll consider that as a personal favor. You hear me?”

“Roger, sir.” Randy replied.

When we got back to the platoon, LT started laying out his plan of attack. He split up our platoon into assault teams. So, for our squad of eight (1st Squad) was divided into Red Team made up of LT, Nilo, Randy and Nick, (Reuben’s replacement) and Blue Team was Sarge, Ellis and me. We would make our ingress from the north. Our job was to terminate the sniper, snatch at least one prisoner, and flush out the rest of the tangos (we now knew there were at least a dozen, from one of the fleeing civilians.) The other half of our platoon would work their way from the southern edge of the village.

Roy was to stay at our staging area to provide sniper cover as we advanced.

Razor 1-6 would stay right where he was with a 15-man squad. The balance of his platoon was already on the eastern side directly opposite from us, and they enter from there. 1-6’s squad would be the “kill team”, which means they would wait for any terrorists we flush out of the village and just… well, kill them.

There was an additional dilemma. Roy and I figured that Al had been shot from directly the front. There were only two possible places. There was a two-floor house that was in front of our position. And then there was a mosque right beside it. The shots came from only one of those. We told the LT.

“Well, I don’t think we have any other course of action here. They made the choice to turn that mosque into a fortress. If indeed, they are in there. Just treat it as any other objective, people. We go in there and kill them. Just remember, our orders are ‘to take at least one prisoner’. Once we achieve that, don’t take any unnecessary risks to take anyone else alive. I’ll take the heat if it comes to that. I prefer no prisoners to a wounded or dead Ranger any day. And you all know the drill: no heroes, and nobody dies today. Clear?”

There’s just something profoundly wrong about this. Even someone like me felt uncomfortable about fighting in what was for all intents and purposes, a place of worship. But the LT was right. They made that choice.

This village was actually small, no more than fifty families and predominantly Muslim. There was no real concern about the residents being sympathetic to the other side, but they had no militia to fend off insurgents and terrorists. They were far from the nearest Army garrison, which made them vulnerable to intimidation and the insurgents could pretty much come and go as they wished.

We took a circuitous route around the village that lasted a good ten minutes, and ended up in the treeline less than a hundred meters from the northern end. We split up and Red Team headed for the center. Our team headed for the westernmost edge. The plan was to clear houses and converge on the mosque, but that was to be our Team’s priority.

With Ellis leading the way, we snaked our way in and around peoples’ houses (mostly huts and bungalows). There were still some civilians left and we had to make them leave, pointing them northwards. That’s all we could do for them.

We were only one more house away from the two-floor house that we suspected as the sniper’s hide (it was the only two-floor structure in the whole village, aside from the mosque) when it happened. A loud, solitary shot. From the sound, I knew right away it was Roy. It was immediately followed by a sudden barrage of fully-automatic small-arms fire, coming from nearby. Roy’s voice came over the radio.

“Viking-6, Viking-6, VIking-2! We’re taking fire from the mosque! Say again, taking fire from the mosque! I saw at least two tangos on the roof, and took a shot. One down.”

“Copy, Viking 2. Viking 6-Alpha, Viking 1. Status?” LT said. Sarge whispered into his mike.

“1, 6-Alpha. We’re at the house next to the – ” He got cut off as a man came out of the front door of our target house, armed with a rifle. I instinctively stepped up beside Ellis, so we could bring two weapons to bear on him. We fired simultaneous double-taps, and he got kicked back through the door.

We had just finished an urban close-quarters combat course with American Special Forces operators the month before. Back then it was simply “Urban Assault, Small Unit Tactics”, which later evolved into what is now more well-known as MOUT (Military Operations, Urban Terrain). We were employing it now.

There are three requirements for a successful assault: Maximum Surprise, Maximum Speed, and Maximum Violence of Action. When you encounter a tango right outside the target location and shots are fired: don’t stop. Press the attack, while you still have maximum surprise. If you hesitate, it gives the bad guys time to think, regroup, or counterattack. And once you’re in, there should be no quarter asked nor given.

Maximum speed. Ellis went for the door, did a quick-poke with his head through the door and was greeted by a burst of automatic fire that would have taken his head off had he been slower.

Maximum violence of action. I took a grenade out, pulled the pin and passed it to him. He held it for what seemed an awfully long time, which made me nervous, but he finally chucked it in. I heard a scream of, “Granada!”, followed by a loud, ground-shaking explosion that almost made my knees buckle. Then Ellis was through the door, with me and Sarge close behind, stepping over (and on) the body of the first tango we took out.

As we went in through the arid smoke, I saw one more body; he’d taken the brunt of the blast, and looked like hamburger with tattered clothes on. Shut that image out. The next one I saw was still alive, in a kneeling position with his hands over his ears. Ellis and I covered him with our M4s as Sarge watched the rear. The tango came upright, blood seeping from his ears and eyes. The rest of the blood (lots of it) that was on him seemed to belong to his dead friend. His weapon was on the floor, but he had a pistol tucked in his belt.

“DON’T MOVE! GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!” Ellis and I were screaming at him. I don’t really think he could hear us, given his eardrums must have been blown out. We had ourselves a prisoner. But his hand went for his belt. Guess not. Ellis double-tapped him in the chest and his body fell backwards at a grotesque angle over his bent knees. Shit.

“Clear the second floor now, hurry!” Sarge growled.

This time, I went first, up the stairs then I paused at the door and tried the door knob. Locked. I raised my rifle and fired three shots above the knob, blowing the whole thing off, then kicked the door in. Ellis went right in, and I immediately heard him squeeze off just one shot, then heard a woman scream.

As I stepped in I saw another tango lying on the floor. Ellis had shot him in the left shoulder. As he came up to the fallen enemy, he raised his rifle and brought the butt down on the guy’s temple, knocking him out.

The woman I heard was in a corner, hugging two small children. Only then did I notice a second body, lying in front of her. Her husband. We found out from her that the terrorist Ellis had shot and killed the husband when they came in here. I instructed her to stay put and not to go outside until the fighting was over. I took a blanket from the bed and covered the body, then Ellis and I went back downstairs with our prisoner. Ellis had tied his elbows and feet together in a hog-tie that was all but impossible to get out of. He looked like a tethered pig. He was still bleeding from the shoulder wound but we decided it wasn’t fatal. It wasn’t arterial. Not that we cared. The only reason he was still alive was because we needed a prisoner. We then secured him by tethering him yet again to the kitchen sink. We would come back for him later.

“Mosque, next!” Sarge said. Ellis started to step out the door, looked up at the mosque then darted right back in, cursing, as someone fired a burst, kicking up dust right at his feet.

“Mosque, second floor window!” he yelled. Sarge ran over to a window facing the mosque.

“I’ll give you some covering fire. Get over there, then throw a grenade in, Castillo!”

I was really not comfortable with the idea of throwing a grenade into a mosque, but what the hell. I don’t see a choice coming over the horizon on this one. Sarge leaned out and started firing at the window, then Ellis and I made a run for it, over ten meters of open space until we got to the mosque’s wall, with our back against it. I took a grenade out, and pulled the pin.

“Cover me, Killer.” (I had recently dubbed him “Serial Killer” Ellis, which he liked.)

“Go!” he said, turning around and pointing his rifle up at the window. I cocked my arm back in preparation for releasing the safety lever, when something held me back. To to this day, I’m not sure what kept me from throwing that grenade in through the window. I wasn’t sure if it was something I heard, or just instinct, but I just couldn’t do it. Sarge’s gruff voice came over the radio.

“Corporal, what are you waiting for?” Sarge asked impatiently.

“Something’s off, Sarge. Something’s not right. Can’t do it.” I replied. He was not going to like that.

“What do you mean you can’t do it? Boy, you are going to get us killed, goddamnit!”

“Sarge, it’s not because I don’t want to, there’s just something wrong, I’m telling you!” LT heard our exchange and butted in.

“Viking-1, you had better have a good reason for defying a direct order, Ranger. We’re across from you. I can see the front door. Everyone converge on it. NOW!” Sarge came running from the house we just vacated, glaring at me like he wanted to skin me alive. I put the pin back in, and my hands were shaking. I had a hard time putting it back in the pin-hole. I avoided eye contact with Sarge. Shit, I just managed to piss off my Platoon Leader AND Squad Leader at the same time. I could see myself getting busted back down to Private First Class at day’s end. Fuck.

We went around to the front, just in time to see Red Team crossing the street across the way. We converged on the mosque’s main double-door. Naturally, it was locked. Now, another aspect of our urban training came into play: dynamic entry.

Randy (Viking-3) went up to the double-door and took out four  globs of C4 slightly smaller than ping-pong balls. He squashed one in the space where the lock was, then three more on the left side of the doorway right where the door hinges would be. This is what’s called a breaching charge. They were all inter-connected by detonating cord. He then spooled out the cord from a roller he carried, and the other end of the wire was attached to a plunger-type detonator. We all moved back about six or seven feet away from the doors, Red Team on the right and Blue Team on the left, to avoid getting hit by shrapnel. Randy took the detonator off “safe”. I placed my hands over my ears and braced myself. I hate explosives.

“FIRE IN THE HOLE!” he warned, then squeezed the plunger on the firing device. The explosion was so loud I thought the whole structure was going to collapse on top of us. It blew the doors right off, and Nilo and Ellis each pitched one grenade inside.

After both grenades exploded, someone yelled, “GO GO GO!” and everyone started piling in. I felt like taking a piss right about then, specially when I started hearing all the screaming, the chaotic exchange of fully automatic fire and double-taps as the first ones in encountered whoever survived the grenades. Good thing it wasn’t my job to get mixed up in that. I was to clear the second floor with Sarge.

Immediately to my right was a staircase, with a door at the end of it. I started making my way up when the door swung open and a tango holding a rifle stood there, backlit against the sunlight coming from the window behind him. Perfect target. Sarge fired two shots from behind me before I did, and the tango went down. In that confined space, it was deafening. I reached the top and found myself in a room. The same room I was about ordered to throw a grenade in earlier, but hesitated. What I saw chilled me to the bone.

I found myself looking into the terrified faces of two women. And more than half a dozen children, all boys. There was also an Imam (sort of like a spiritual leader). I felt my knees go weak. Had I thrown that grenade in… For the first time ever, I blasphemed out loud.

“Jesus Christ…” I said. I looked over at Sarge. I had never seen him turn pale, until now. His jaw had dropped, too, and he gave me this funny look. I guess that demotion wasn’t coming in any time soon.

I noticed that there was someone behind the Imam. Looking down, I could see the Imam’s sandaled feet. Behind them were combat boots. Shit. Tango. I raised my rifle and yelled a warning to Sarge, who also raised his weapon. The Imam raised his hands in a pleading gesture, but did not get out of the way. He was using his own body to shield whoever it was behind him.

Bapa (father), get out of the way.” I said to him.

“Don’t shoot! Please, he wants to surrender!” the Imam said. I got a glimpse of the tango’s face. It was a kid, maybe just sixteen. Or barely.

“Alright, Bapa. We’ll take him prisoner, but we have to search him, understand?” Sarge said. He lowered his rifle and so did I. The old man turned to the boy, and said something in a soothing tone that I didn’t understand. Then he held the boy by the shoulders and presented him to us. I proceeded to pat him down. I saw his rifle leaning against a wall. He was unarmed, with only the magazines in the webbing and pouches he was wearing, which I stripped off in short order. I tied his elbows behind him with strips of his own t-shirt which I had him take off. We then went downstairs, with the Imam following right behind us.

The ground floor was a slaughterhouse. Three terrorists lay dead on the floor, either riddled with bullets, or shrapnel, or both. I flashed back for a moment to that time when Sarge introduced me to my first kill (Blog entry, That First Kill). It seemed like a decade ago. But there was a certain element here that I had never seen before or ever since: the three men had chained themselves together, securing the chain with padlocks on their waists. So none of them could run away. A suicide pact. I didn’t want the old man to see it, so once he was behind me I guided him out the door right away, leaving the prisoner with Sarge.

When we got outside we found Razor 1-6’s Second Squad with another prisoner, bringing our tally to three prisoners, and about nine dead, including the sniper. Someone handed the sniper’s rifle (an M1 Garand) to Razor 1-6. He had his vengeance. Ranger-style.

Ranger sniper on top of mosque, searching for enemy stragglers. The one on left is searching for hidden weapons...

After a quick “battlefield interrogation” using “probing” questions (Involving our LT asking questions and Ellis “probing” the questionee with his very sharp knife. But you didn’t get that from me.), we found that a local resident was a collaborator, and his hut was nearby, and there was supposedly a stash of weapons in it. He was a Christian, whom we’ll call “Raul”.

LT picked me, Ellis, and Nilo and Nick to go along with him. We took one of the prisoners along as a guide, the one the Army troopers caught. It was only a two-minute walk from the mosque.

The moment we showed up on the road in front of his hut, we started taking fire. They were wild shots, not even close. We still dove for cover, though. Now the LT was really pissed. I don’t know why the idiot didn’t run during the fighting. Maybe he thought his Abu Sayyaf buddies were going to run and get away. He was about to pay for that.

The problem now was how to assault the hut. It was a real hut in every sense of the word. A classic nipa hut, coconut tree leaves and bamboo and all that. The guy was actually firing at us THROUGH it, not from the window. Any approach we tried would surely mean someone getting hit or killed. There was no way anyone was taking that kind of chance. We were almost “mission complete” for that kind of shit. So I felt relieved at the LT’s next order.

“Okay, no fancy stuff. We’re just gonna blow that hut to pieces. Fire when I fire!” But there was one question though that needed to be asked. And I asked it.

“But, boss what if he’s got some other civilian in there with him?” I was afraid there might be a wife or girlfriend or some other unknowing relative with him. The LT thought about that. Then, he drew his .45 caliber sidearm and pressed it to the prisoner’s head.

“Lie to me and I’ll kill you. Does he have anyone else in there with him. His family, maybe?” The man shook his head and said “Raul” lived alone. That was all we needed to hear. He pulled the prisoner face-down on the ground, then raised his rifle. Everyone followed suit.

“Open fire!” and we all opened up on the small house on fully automatic for around four seconds, until our mags ran dry. We practically obliterated it. Along with “Raul”. When we checked inside, he was… everywhere. A quick search revealed a trapdoor under his bed. There was a pit about three feet deep. A weapons cache. Half a dozen assault rifles, some pistols, an RPG launcher (but no RPGs for it), hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a case of hand grenades. We took all of that outside. Razor 1-6 would handle transporting it back to base. When we were ready to go, LT gave me a final order.

“Torch it.” he said. He wanted me to burn the hut down. I got anxious. I grew up watching Vietnam war movies. So, I won’t lie to you. I’ve always wanted to do shit like this. I just had one problem with it, though. There was a dead person inside.

“What about the body, sir?” I asked LT.

“Everything burns, Corporal. A traitor deserves a traitor’s death. An example needs to be set. Burn it.”

Well, an order’s an order, right? So I took out my Zippo. Then I set the roof alight. In a few seconds, I had an angry fire going. Everyone started pulling out of the area, and only Ellis and I were left in front of the burning hut.

“Hey,” Ellis said to me. “this reminds me of that song.”

“What song?” I asked.

“You know that one that used to be so popular.” Ellis started humming it. I laughed, remembering it. He didn’t know the lyrics, so I added them, and before we knew it, we were singing as if we were back in high school, kicking it.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!
We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn
Burn motherfucker…

BURN.

Pintados: Bad Juju

Posted: September 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

Rangers on reconnaissance patrol...

11151994
Location: Davao del Sur
Time: around 1130H

I got up and tested my left foot by putting my weight on it. The medic had bandaged it and laced my boot up real tight. It wasn’t too bad. Just a throbbing pain, but not enough to keep me from walking. I refused the morphine.

Now we had to make our way back to Viking-6 and the rest of our platoon. I chose not to go back the way we came for obvious reasons. We got lucky there. It would be bad juju to test that luck a second time. Soldiers are superstitious that way, forgive us.

Ellis and Reuben had managed to get across the same way I did, under covering fire from the platoon that we had linked up with. Their lieutenant was nice enough to suggest that we stay with his platoon as they fought their way into the town, but with a large group, the pace is always slower, never faster. Besides, as far as Ellis, Ben and I were concerned, they were “untested” troops. We had never fought beside them before, and therefore had no knowledge of how well they and their lieutenant operated under combat conditions. They may be Army and all, but each unit has a distinct way of fighting. Were they passive? Aggressive? Too aggressive? These are factors you need to consider when fighting as part of a “mixed” unit. We may all know the basic priciples of tactics, but differ in the employment of them. Rangers, for example, like most special operations units, tended to be more aggressive than regular units. We had to be, because we operated in small groups. But we knew when we needed to fall back (If you ask me, that’s more important than knowing when to attack). I politely refused the lieutenant’s offer. But since his platoon technically saved our asses, I made him an offer.

Army platoon moving towards the front line...

I had chosen the eastern-most flank as our route back to our platoon. I told him we would go ahead and scout it for him, spot fixed enemy fighting positions and RPG teams, and relay their locations so they knew which areas to avoid or attack so their Humvees and APCs would not be turned into sardine cans or paper clips. He liked that. It’s nice to be appreciated.

The first ten minutes was uneventful as we went down the street. It was a dirt road, actually. Farmers used this route to bring their produce to the market. It was used more by their beasts of burden, the water buffaloes, as they pulled their carts loaded with poultry or fresh produce. Tractors used this road as well. We gave the houses only a cursory glance inside instead of actually clearing it like we did earlier. The objective was to get back to the platoon ASAFP (You know. As Soon As Fucking Possible?).

Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) preparing for an assault...

There was more debris and rubble here because early that morning there was an assault by Army troops that got repelled when an APC and Humvee were hit by RPGs. We came upon the APC now. It was in the middle of the road, and was hit just as it was crossing over to the right side.

It was still smoldering. I could clearly see the hole in the side made by the enemy rocket. It’s not as big as one would expect. About 80mm in diameter or more, significantly larger than one of my M-203 grenades. When an RPG hits, there’s actually two explosions. The first is what we call the “shaped” charge. It creates a very high velocity jet of copper that hydro-dynamically penetrates through the armor. Once inside, there’s a secondary explosion, and that peppers the troops and crew inside with shrapnel. But it’s not the shrapnel that kills. It’s the over-pressure that fills the compartment with hot gases measuring thousands of degrees, expanding at a speed faster than sound. Sometimes the dead won’t even have a mark on them. The autopsy though, would reveal that their insides have been turned into mush.

The driver’s hatch on the left, the one at the rear and the commander’s hatch on top had all been blown outwards. This was the APC whose commander and driver had been killed and some soldiers were wounded. They say that when the RPG exploded, it blew the commander and driver right out of their hatches. The gunner survived, but lost both his legs. The other troopers inside were luckier. Their sergeant had just unlocked the rear hatch and they were in the process of dismounting when they were hit. Had it been locked, they would all have been killed for sure. It had the smell of death on it.

Bloody bandages on the ground just outside the driver’s compartment were a testament to their medic’s valiant but futile effort to save their lives. Just looking at the smoking behemoth felt like an ugly premonition. Bad juju.

I was beginning to have this nagging, uneasy feeling I usually get before something bad happens. I instructed Ellis to switch his radio to Channel Two, the frequency the Army troops were using. Just in case we ran into anything heavy.

I hate it when I’m right.

After checking out the APC, Ellis came around the front end of it so we could resume our trek. I was right behind him. As we were about to come out from the right-front, he suddenly pulled back, bumping into me. Then I heard the burst of automatic gunfire from our front. Bullets started pinging against the armor as I heard about two or three weapons firing all at once.

“10 o’clock, two or three of them!” he yelled. Shots were still being fired at us. Time to think fast.

Problem: the APC’s chassis has a clearance underneath of about a foot or so. Why’s that a problem? Because in a few seconds, one of those assholes is gonna figure out that he can shoot at our legs from underneath it.

“Give me your rifle!” I yelled to Ellis.

“What? What for?” he asked, over the deafening sound of gunfire.

“Just do it! Let’s swap! Then get behind the rear wheel. Ben, come over here!” Mine’s got an M-203 grenade launcher under the barrel. His doesn’t. Mine’s not too good for shooting in the prone with a clearance of about a foot only. Then I wanted Ben with the AK up front for suppressing fire in case we had to charge. So Ellis and I swapped, and I dropped to my stomach, right next to the big right front tire.

I extended the M4’s retractable stock so the butt would seat comfortably in my shoulder pocket. I saw the corner where they were shooting from. I saw a right leg and foot. I aimed, and just as I had the leg acquired in my sight, the bastard dropped to his stomach too, with the same idea in mind as I did. I knew it. I love it when I’m right. As he did, he raised his weapon. And found himself looking directly into my face from under the APC.

He who acquires and shoots first, wins. His head fit perfectly into my sight picture, as if it was destined to be there all along. Life’s funny that way. And cruel. I found myself looking into the eyes of a boy, no more than seventeen or eighteen. Too bad. It was him or me.

I fired twice, and saw his head drop to the ground. I broke some mother’s heart that day.

Someone behind him dragged his body back, out of the line of fire. Then I saw a hand come out the corner, holding something. I instinctively knew what it was, and fired at it, but I missed. It jerked forward and the dark orb it held bounced and rolled on the ground towards us, ending up about ten feet from the APC’s front.

“GRENADE!” I screamed out, rolling over to my right behind the APC’s front wheel. It exploded with a sharp, deafening crack. At this close proximity, you feel it in your chest, almost like a physical blow. Your vision goes white for a moment and you feel this numbness that starts from your feet, moving rapidly to your upper extremities. It’s followed by sudden deafness, then that ringing in your head that slowly dissipates as you recover from the shock.

I heard Ben curse violently and as I looked up, found him kneeling by the wheel. He had pulled out the pin on his own grenade, went up front and was about to throw it when the enemy grenade blew up just in front of him. He reeled back, releasing his grip on the safety lever, and it flew off as it was ejected by the spring that held it in place.

It dropped to his feet, less than a meter from my face. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, shit. I don’t know where he got it from, but somehow he found the strength to reach down, grab the grenade again, then he flung it in a high arc towards the corner where the tangos were and it exploded in mid-air, with barely a second to spare. He was working on pure instinct and muscle memory now, doing it without thinking. It caught them in an “air-burst”, sending deadly shrapnel spearing downwards, right on top of them. I could hear the screaming of wounded men as they got shredded by hot steel. Merry Christmas.

“I’m hit, Corp. Son of a bitch, I’m hit…” Reuben said, as he slid down to the ground beside me.

“Where?” I started checking him out. He seemed to be bleeding from everywhere. I found that he’d taken shrapnel in his face, chest, right thigh and hip. The thigh wound was a jagged gash about the length of half my thumb. It was smoking. The hot shrapnel was cooking his flesh.

I’m no medic, but I’d say none of the wounds were mortal except maybe for the chest wounds. No blood from the mouth or nose, which meant the lungs weren’t hit. But the shrapnel may have cut an aorta, and he could be bleeding internally.

Ellis came up behind me when he saw me attending to Ben and started firing his AK right above my head. I couldn’t hear myself think, and I had to think fast on this one. In urban combat, never stay in one place for more than a few minutes. That’s the easiest way to get killed. Keep moving. Find cover. This APC’s a bullet and RPG magnet.

I remembered seeing a ditch behind us, about 50 meters away from the rear end of the APC. Out here on the road, we’re dead. We needed to put distance between us and them.

“Ellis, I’ll cover you. Run to that ditch, and when you get there, cover us! GO!” then I peeked around the front and blasted away on fully automatic as he ran until my mag went dry. I reloaded and started to pick Ben up off the ground. He grabbed my sleeve.

“Corp, tell my mother…” I cut him off.

“Shut up! Tell her yourself. Now get up.” I had a feeling the bastard was actually giving up. I borrowed a line from Sarge: “Nobody dies today, Ben. Not without permission!” I shouted. He still wasn’t moving fast enough to my liking.

“Get up, Private. I swear to God, if you die on me, I’ll go over to your house and fuck your sister.” That got him riled up. He started cursing me. He was very protective of his sister. He hated the day he showed the squad her picture. She was very pretty. I mean REALLY. But she was under 18.

I was being an asshole, wasn’t I? Well, if that’s what it took to get his ass out of here, then sure. I’m an asshole. Every bad guy needs a story right? Oh, wait. Sorry. I meant every story needs a bad guy right? Fine. I’ll be that bad guy, then.

They call it “the burden of command”. Shit, if this is the burden a mere Corporal has to bear, then I don’t want it. Reuben had an older brother in the Marines who was killed in action two years ago. No freakin’ way am I gonna be the one to tell his mom and sister that another son and brother had been killed in action.

I dragged him over to the rear, and looked at Ellis. He was ready, and had reloaded the AK with the drum magazine that had about a hundred rounds. Fantastic.

“Run when I start shooting!” he yelled. I gave a nod, then he started firing away. Running through gunfire on your own is bad enough. Carrying a limping, wounded buddy is ten times worse. I was expecting to get hit, even with the impressive suppressing fire Ellis was giving us, and the overriding thought in my mind was, “Great. I’m gonna die on a road riddled with carabao dung.” Shit.

It was taking forever to get to the ditch. Ben was heavier than I expected, and my left foot was now beginning to kill me. I fet the bandage snap loose inside, and my wound was scraping against the abrasive side of my boot. The pain burned through the adrenalin rush. We were now both limping.

“Hurry up, goddamnit! Come on!” Ellis screamed as he paused for a second, then continued blasting away in the enemy’s direction. I could hear a few enemy rounds whizzing past us. Unaimed shots as the bad guys poked their rifles around the corner and fired blindly.

“Come on, bro, just a few more feet!” I pleaded to Ben. It seemed like the nearer we got, the more he limped.

We finally got to the edge, and I threw him down the ditch. It was about three to four feet deep. (Don’t worry. After all that, he’ll live.) Then I jumped in after him, and just as luck would have it, landed right on top of him, too. He howled in pain. Bad fuckin’ juju, Ben. Sorry.

We had bandage kits attached to suspenders on our web gear. I ripped off the one on his, then proceeded to wrap it around his punctured chest. As for his leg wound, but I was positive his femoral artery wasn’t hit. It was just a flesh wound, and you just had to staunch the bleeding. The one on his hip was a graze. Not a “movie graze” which they always show as a thin, clean red gash but an ugly rip in the flesh as big as my whole thumb. I used the bandages I had on me for those two wounds. All the while Ellis was discouraging the insurgents with suppressing fire.

None of us had any morphine. Unfortunately, our medic (Randy, Viking-3) had all of that. Just as well. You don’t want to be morphined in a situation like this. The pain helps. It reminds you you’re still alive, and it pisses you off. Pissed off is good. Pain is therefore, your friend.

Behind me, Ellis had stopped firing, he’d eaten up the whole hundred-round drum magazine by this time. He threw the AK beside me and switched to my M4/M203. As he swung back up to fire, he paused then looked at me.

“GET DOWN!” he hollered as he threw himself bodily over Ben and me. A tango had come out of the corner with an RPG-7 launcher and fired a snapshot at us (meaning, he just pointed it in our general direction and squeezed off a shot without aiming). It doesn’t leave a vapor or smoke trail. You won’t see it coming. You will however, FEEL it.

There was that sudden change in the atmosphere as it flew over our heads. It’s like a blast of hot wind. The warhead exploded about twenty meters behind us, and I felt the ground shake. This was the first time I’d ever had someone actually fire one of theses at me personally with intent to kill. That pissed me off more. I was determined not to get blown to bits and be buried in a shoebox. Fuck that. I swapped weapons with Ellis and loaded a “red” round (high explosive) in my M-203 launcher.

“Ellis, cover!” He came up firing, and I followed, ready to do a snapshot of my own. I saw two of them standing there, then I pulled the trigger on the M-203. It fired with a loud “thoomp”, and I went back down without bothering to check out my handiwork. Explosion. More shouting and screaming.

I did a quick-peek and saw a rifle being stuck out of the corner, firing again. There was smoke where my 40mm grenade had impacted in front of where I had seen the two men. No bodies. I must’ve missed them. Shit. I felt like I was fighting against zombies. I was beginning to worry about how many we were really up against.

Only then did Ellis notice that Viking-6 was on Channel Two (the Army Battalion frequency), screaming for the Army platoon in this sector to back us up, and that his men were getting killed. All that shooting and exploding had almost deafened him.

What we didn’t know was that the whole time we were engaging, the mike button on my radio had gotten stuck. I must have lain down heavily on the mike, and it was on permanent send for a few minutes. The whole platoon had heard the fight from when the hand grenade was thrown at us, to the time I was dragging Ben to the ditch, to the moment we got fired upon with the RPG. They actually thought we were getting killed.

Viking-6 was on the Battalion net, screaming for back up. I went on our net and hailed him.

“Viking-6, Viking-1. Sir, we’re okay!”

He proceeded to harangue me about how he almost had a coronary listening to what he thought was his men being slaughtered. Ellis must have seen the embarrassed look on my face, because he switched back to Channel 1 and listened in while looking out over the top. Ben  looked ashen and worn, lying with his back against the side of the ditch. The tangos weren’t showing themselves. Yet.

I was just waiting for Viking-6 to finish his transmission, when suddenly there was this horrendous racket coming from our front and right. Heavy weapons and small-arms fire mixed together. Sounded like a .50-caliber machine-gun. The Army troopers were making a push, and that .50-cal must be the one mounted on their other APC. Even Viking-6 stopped talking, I’m sure he could hear it too. We were only about 400 meters away from the CP.

Army troopers dismounting their 6x6 truck prior to conducting an assault

That’s when we started taking fire from our right. I didn’t notice it until I heard the bullets flying over my head. It was a long burst from  an M-60. (Each weapon has a distinctive noise signature. You get to know them well, especially when they’ve been fired at you. That’s true.)

Now, the enemy was to our front (west). The right was where we had come from (north). Which leads to only one conclusion: this was friendly fire.

After all the shit we had been through, mostly through luck rather than skill, we now held the dubious honor of being in a crossfire between fanatical insurgents and kill-hungry Army troopers hell-bent on avenging their fallen. Bad juju.

Even Ellis and Ben realized this.

“We’re getting shot at by our own! Corp, we’re gonna die here!” Ben shouted weakly to me. I could hear the same fear and frustration I was feeling, in his voice.

“No, we’re not. We don’t have LT’s permission. And I doubt he’ll give it.” said Ellis in a tight voice, expressing the same sentiment I had earlier, as he fought back against that feeling of panic.

They were having that little conversation as bullets whizzed by overhead. Pretty soon, some idiot’s gonna throw a grenade, and that will be the end of us. The only question would be whose grenade? The enemy’s or friendlies? I switched my radio over to Channel Two without advising Viking-6.

“Razor-6, Viking-1. Cease fire on the eastern road! You’re firing on friendly forces. We are three Rangers in a ditch on the left of the road and one of your machine-guns is firing on us, over!” A voice answered immediately.

“Viking-1, Razor 2-6 (2nd Platoon, Platoon Leader). That’s you we’re shooting at? Hold on. (In the background I could hear him cursing and giving the cease-fire order, and immediately the firing stopped from our right.) Stay put, Ranger we’re coming to you. Are you okay?”

“Negative. We’re two wounded, not your fault. We have tangos right in front of us sir, with an RPG.”

“Copy. Stand by. We’ll take care of it.”

I never thought I’d be as happy as I was at seeing regular troops. The three of us just lay back in that ditch and let them have their fun. We didn’t even bother watching as they conducted their assault. All we cared about was that we were safe at last. Fuck the rest of the world.

In a few minutes I felt someone standing over my head. I looked up to find some Private with a backpack radio, and another soldier beside him, looking down on us. I addressed the one on the right.

“You must be Razor 2-6?” You can always tell the platoon leader. He’ll be the one right next to the radioman. He smiled.

“Yes. You’re Viking-1?” I nodded.

“Sir, you’d better get down here. Not safe up there.” I was thinking: some sniper’s gonna get you, fool.

He looked around casually, as if he were in some damn park instead of a warzone. “Nah, we’re secure. But I’ll take your advice, anyway. Brought you a medic, too.” And he slid down next to me. Gutsy. I admire that. And indeed, a third man showed up, their medic. I directed him to Reuben.

The lieutenant extended his hand over his shoulder and the radio handset appeared as if by magic as his radioman placed it in his hand.

“Viking-6, Razor 2-6.”

“2-6, Viking-6, go ahead, bro.”

“Bro, I’ve got three of your men here.”

“Are they still alive?”

“Roger.”

“Do they look like they’ve been to hell and got spat back out?” Razor 2-6 laughed at that one.

“Yeah. Then fell in a blender and broke all the blades. We’ll bring them to you, out.” He gave the handset back to his RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), then took out a pack of smokes. He handed one  each to me and Ellis. Ben wasn’t a smoker and besides, it looked like the Doc had already morphined him. It wouldn’t have mattered. He even lit our cigarettes with his Zippo.

Now this last part just has to be expressed in Tagalog. It doesn’t do justice to what every soldier and Ranger felt that day.

The lieutenant took a long drag, blew the smoke out, and said it.

“Puuuutaaaang ina…” To which I replied.

“Sinabi mo pa.”

MediVac (Medical Evacuation) of wounded troops...

Post-Mortem:

We  learned later that three of the six soldiers killed in the RPG attack on the Humvee were friends of ours. Fellow Rangers from a different platoon.  They were Corporal Manuel Ingente, Private Vicencio Alcazar, and Private Roberto Arcangel.  Roy, Nilo and I had gone through Ranger training with Alcazar and Arcangel.

Private First Class Reuben Inocencio survived his wounds. He had a total of seven. I told you, I’m no medic. He received the Wounded Personnel Medal. He figured since he had so many wounds in just one encounter, he would enjoy showing off this one. But like me and Ellis, he declined the Distinguished Service Cross. He would return to our unit after almost six months of recuperation and physical therapy.