Pintados: Bad Juju

Posted: September 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

Rangers on reconnaissance patrol...

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?”


“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...


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.

  1. argento says:

    sir. RPG are anti-tank weapons, right? it’s really sad when soldiers dies in battle like the july 2007 ambush were 14 marines KIA . 10 of them were beheaded and equipments failed. i hope AFP will be modernized asap. so separatists will not stand a chance.

    • vikingone says:

      yes, it’s an anti-tank weapon. designed to penetrate 6 to 12 inches of armor plating, depending on the warhead. and to think or APC’s have armor that’s only about 2 or so inches thick…well, you can only imagine what kind of damage an RPG can do. an RPG costs about $300 in the black markets in the middle east, then smuggled here. if it can knock out a multi-million dollar american tank, then ours don’t stand a chance. truly sad, specially when you lose buddies.

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