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“Whenever a warrior decides to do something he must go all the way, but he must take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them. In a world where death is the hunter, there is no time for regrets or doubts.”

A friend of mine brought an interesting topic to my attention the other day. It was about “Killology”. It’s something I’ve come across in the past but never really paid much attention to at first. It’s a term that was coined by one Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman (I think he’s a retired Colonel now), head of the Killology Research Group which was founded in the mid-90’s. It was established in order to study or define the psychological and physiological effects of combat on humans. Lt. Col. Grossman was a U.S. Army Ranger before he became a psychology professor.

Killology is the study of the psychology of killing.

Normally, I don’t really pay much attention to articles about that subject matter because they’re mostly written by psychologists who’ve never seen combat. Most have never experienced picking up a weapon, looking another human being in the eye, then ending that person’s existence in a most abrupt and violent manner. Am I supposed to believe what someone like that says about the subject of killing? I think not.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman


No matter what your profession may be, would you take seriously the opinion of someone who does not have the same background you do? They only know what they observe or learn from others, not from personal experience. Then I found out about Grossman.

He was a sergeant in the US 82nd Airborne Division (Rangers), became a platoon leader (lieutenant), a general staff officer, a company commander in the 7th (Light) Infantry Division as well as a parachute infantryman (paratrooper), a US Army Ranger and finally a teacher of psychology at West Point.

Given that he started off as a non-commissioned officer and worked his way up through the ranks, yeah, I figured he knows combat well. “Been there, done that”, so to speak. Though I couldn’t say the same for the psychologists I talked to way back during my Army days. Most held the rank of Captain and strangely, a majority of them were women.

From time to time, we were required to undergo psychological evaluations to see if we were still fit for combat duty. I hated those sessions. Sitting in some office and answering questions from a female psychologist is probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had. Give me combat any day. It’s not because they were women. I felt the same way even with the male ones. It was because I knew they had never been through the shit. You’ve heard the phrase, “it’s in the eyes”? That’s real for a combat veteran. That’s because you get to see it in the people closest to you, like your buddies, your sergeant, your platoon leader. And you see it in the eyes of the bad guys you encounter. Talking to a complete stranger who’s never been through it is different from when we talked about it amongst ourselves.

Under normal circumstances, most people have this phobia-like revulsion for violence. Most will resist the idea of killing (or even just hurting) another human being. And since that is so, soldiers and law enforcement officers need to be “specifically trained to kill”. And not everyone is cut out for it.

Military training is used to override these inhibitions through various means. During mine, not once did I ever see any bulls-eye targets at the firing range. We always used man-shaped “silhouettes” instead. Bulls-eyes are for competitive shooting, when you’re trying to earn points. On the battlefield, the only points that matter will be the enemy body count. The silhouette conditions your mind and develops your muscle memory to engage threats without hesitating. Because in combat, hesitation will get your buddies, if not yourself, dead.

All it takes is the space of one heartbeat to kill or be killed.

In advanced training sessions like Close Quarters Combat, targets with faces are used, to add realism and to accustom us to the fact that we will come face-to-face with live people someday.

And after you’ve had actual experience, other techniques are used to reinforce it, the most common of which was dispersing responsibility for the killing throughout the group.

After missions where a firefight has taken place, there’s a procedure we go through called “debriefing”. The squad or platoon would be assembled and we would conduct a “walk-through”, with each man talking about everything he did before, during and after the firefight. It’s a way of learning what mistakes were made so they can be avoided next time.

But more importantly, it’s the beginning of what you may call the healing process. It’s important that you come to terms with what you’ve done, and walk away with a clear conscience.

During the time of Moses, when the Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years in search of a place where they could settle, they came upon the land of Canaan. And Moses decided they would make it their own. During their conquest, Joshua, who was the general of Moses’ growing “army”, (and incidentally, considered in some services as the unofficial patron saint of spies and intelligence officers) attacked the cities of Canaan one by one. And almost every single time, after defeating the enemy, they would slaughter all the citizens. Men, women, children, and in some cases even the livestock.

Now, the Israelites had a certain ritual after every battle. Their fighters would pick a place outside of their encampment and stay there for seven days. It was a cleansing ritual, a time for meditation wherein each man would search his soul and make peace with the fact that he had taken part in the killings. This was the earliest documented form of treatment for what today is called PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The second most common process is the displacing of responsibility for the killing onto an authority figure, like the commanding officer and the military higher command.

Usually we weren’t encouraged to take prisoners. Being in a small unit, our Battalion CO and team leader always emphasized that during an assault we stop for nothing. If you find yourself confronted with a tango, just take him (or her) out immediately because you can’t stop for prisoners. It requires you to frisk them for weapons, tie them up, and bring them along with you. You cannot do that during a firefight. In a gun-battle, when you stop, you die.

Even when coming to the aid of a wounded comrade, there was a certain procedure for it. When you see a buddy go down and it just so happens there are wounded enemy personnel in his immediate vicinity, before you attend to him you have to make sure the enemy around him are no longer “just wounded”.

Brutally speaking, you finish them off. This is not of your own accord, really. You’re just following orders.

Now, I cannot speak for the other branches of the military and other special forces units, but that was how we operated most of the time. You can call it what you want. It is what it is.

All these things are done with the understanding that the act of killing is psychologically traumatic for the killer, even more than the constant exposure to danger or witnessing the death of others.

The reality is, that the brains of human beings – with the exception of psychopaths – are hardwired not to kill other humans.

That fact however, poses an “occupational hazard” to some – mainly soldiers and law enforcement officers, who have to make life-and-death decisions. Hence, the importance of emphasizing on the act of killing during training. Civilians frown upon it because they don’t understand, specially the peace-niks. I mean, I get it. It’s easy to say “there’s always a choice” when it comes to matters of life and death. Which is true. You do have a choice.

But hey, when the day comes that you find yourself looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov in the hands of a teen-age “freedom fighter”, feel free to tell me about it. If you survive. Sure, you can talk him down, I guess. But would you bet your life on it? Or worse, the lives of those you care about? In the end, that will be what counts.

I, myself am guilty of hesitation. The very first time I had a man in my sights, there was that part of me that didn’t want to do it. I saw him, and he saw me. A moment of of panic and dread. Then I fired high, missing him deliberately. My sergeant, unfortunately, caught me doing that more than once (three times, I think) and gave me hell for it every time.

That’s what led to that incident in my entry (That First Kill), where he had me personally finish off that kid who got all fucked up by our grenades. I won’t lie about it, or cover it up with false bravado, but I puked my guts out after. It couldn’t be stopped. The act itself, plus the smell in that house of all the spilled guts and blood, it was just too much.

And my sergeant, in a rare moment of sympathy, patted me on the back and said, “It’s okay, kid. Let it all out, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Just don’t get any of that puke on my boots, or I’ll kill you.” Swell guy, my sergeant.

Eventually, once you’ve “crossed over”, it does become somewhat easier because now, its fully supplemented by your training. And I have the perfect example of it.

Mid-1994. It started off as a recon patrol, and we were on a trail that was known to be used by communist rebels as a resupply route. As we were conducting our mission, a battle erupted about two kilometers behind us between a platoon of Army soldiers and another force of rebels that outnumbered them. We heard their platoon leader (lieutenant) calling out a contact report over the radio. We could hear the chatter of machine-gun and small-arms fire over the comms, and after a two-second delay or so, the gunfire echoed in the distance as well.

The trail we were watching led to one of their camps, and as we lay there, we saw armed men forming themselves in platoon formation, the same way soldiers would before moving out. Enemy reinforcements. We were about half a kilometer away. Roy and I, using binoculars and the sniper scope on his rifle, counted around forty-strong. We were a platoon of only sixteen Rangers. Our TL (team leader) now had a to make a quick and crucial decision with only minutes to spare. If he made the wrong one, those soldiers behind us would die.

Or we would.

So the word was passed down the line: Mike-Charlie. Mission Change. From Reconnaissance, it was now  Direct Action.

So LT decided to leave Roy and me behind, right where we were, and he would take the rest of the platoon and make a run for it in the general direction of the firefight. But he wasn’t going to it to reinforce those soldiers. They were going to have to get themselves un-fucked on their own. Instead, the plan was to ambush these reinforcements and kill or wound as many of them as we could, to keep them from getting to the battle site. Therefore, our mission was to make sure they did not accomplish theirs.

About half a klik from where we were, there was a creek about thirty feet wide, almost waist-deep. And the rebels would have to cross it. LT would take the platoon across it, then set up a hasty “V” ambush on the other side. Randy, our explosives man, would set up two Claymore mines on each side of the creek in a square pattern.

Claymore mine


It’s called a “kill box”. Imagine a square. At each corner of that square would be a Claymore mine, each one oriented 45° inwards towards the center of the square. A Claymore is an anti-personnel (people-killer) type of ordinance. Command-detonated and directional, meaning it is fired by remote-control, shooting a pattern of seven-hundred, 1/8 inch steel balls into the kill zone in a 60° arc like a shotgun. Anything in that kill box would be turned into hamburger.

Roy and I would initially act as “forward observers”. The enemy platoon was heading our way, and would soon pass in front of us. Roy would radio LT once the forward elements had passed our position (I had no radio at this time, it was damaged on our last mission). We would then stalk them, following their progress when their tail-end man or “trailer” passed by us.

Once they got to the creek, half of them would be allowed to cross. Then Randy would blow the Claymores, initiating the ambush. A V-ambush is exactly what it is: a line of men on two sides, forming a V. The open part of the V faces the enemy, like a pair of jaws. Once initiated, both lines would open fire, catching anyone in the kill zone in deadly, inter-locking fields of fire. Since about a third of them would be in the water, and most shredded by the Claymores, anyone left standing would have to contend with a barrage of fourteen weapons on fully-automatic firing at them. And that doesn’t even include the grenades yet.


Rangers running to set up a hasty ambush...

In my mind, I already knew it was going to be a slaughter. I dreaded it, because like any normal person, the thought of killing or maiming that many people is not something to look forward to. It’s a heavy, grinding feeling that begins at the pit of your stomach, and makes your fingers and feet go cold, leaving that prickly feeling. Like electricity flowing in your veins. But in scenarios like this, I always attribute the necessity for violence to what I call The Greater Good. It helps a bit to think that way. This was just something that needed to be done.

Our job would be twofold; first, to give LT early warning of the approaching enemy, and second, when the ambush is initiated, to prevent any enemies from escaping.

We were wearing the top part of our Ghillie suits for better camouflage, but only Roy had brought along his sniper rifle (although he also brought along his M4 assault rifle). I left my M20 behind, opting instead for a CAR-15. I preferred it over the M4 because it was more compact, and this one had an M-203 40mm grenade launcher slung underneath it.

So there we were, lying in the underbrush with our faces in the dirt, as the rebel platoon passed no more than twenty feet away from us, in a staggered column formation. They were so close you could hear exactly what they were talking about. I could smell that strong scent of tobacco and body odor, the all-too-familiar mixed aroma of pre-combat fear. Of course they were afraid. And anxious. They were after all, heading towards a firefight. I also noted that most of them seemed to be in the age range of 18-24. You could tell the new guys apart from the veterans. The new ones tended to bunch up. It’s that herd mentality of “safety in numbers”,  which is okay if you’re a gazelle, but not if you’re heading into a fight. We were trained to keep our intervals during a march, usually five to ten feet apart so two or three guys wouldn’t get cut down in one burst of gunfire. About a fourth of these guys were doing the exact opposite.

Human nature would get them killed.

Part of what we also had to do was spot HVTs or high value targets, so we paid close attention to them as they passed. In order according to priority: radio operators, command elements or team leader/assistant team leader types, and heavy weapons guys like machine-gunners or RPG shooters. We noted that they had with them a 3-man machinegun crew lugging a Browning M1919 machine-gun.


M1919 Browning .30 caliber machine-gun...

Then we saw something unnerving. Roy and I looked at each other.

A boy. About twelve or thirteen years of age. Wearing a blue bandanna over his head and a load-bearing vest laden with  magazine pouches, it seemed to be three sizes too big for him. He was armed with a CAR-15 just like mine, minus the 40mm launcher. Compact as it was, it still looked like he was carrying a bazooka. He was that thin and small. It was plain to see that the kid was scared, pale as he was. But he tried masking it with the kind of false bravado you see in boys his age when they get into that first fistfight in the schoolyard. Especially now, when he was surrounded by older, armed men whom he probably idolized. It’s not uncommon for boys his age to fantasize about guns and gunfights, thanks to action movies. Except for him, it was about to become frighteningly real.

I was tempted to ask Roy to tell LT about it, but at the last moment I decided not to. It wouldn’t have made a difference. He wasn’t going to hold off an ambush for some kid who was armed and on the enemy’s side, I knew him too well. The boy made that choice. Whoever was responsible for him should have thought twice before putting an assault rifle in the kid’s hands. Roy, however, gave voice to his own thoughts.

“You think we should tell LT about this? He’s just a kid.” he asked in a very low whisper, as the rear elements of the enemy column were passing us. I knew what he was thinking. His younger brother was just about this kid’s age.

“No. Pointless.” was all I said, and that was that. Just then the last man in the formation passed me. Mister Tail-End Charlie. He wasn’t good. Didn’t even bother watching their six, by walking backwards. Probably confident, since this was their territory. He didn’t count on Rangers being on the prowl in his own backyard. Big mistake.


NPA guerillas. Child soldier on the left...

I reached for one of my 40mm high explosive rounds, slid the launcher tube under my rifle forward to open the breech, then slipped the grenade in and pulled back on the tube to close it. I then raised the flip-sight above the barrel. Locked and loaded. All we had to do now was wait for LT to initiate the ambush. About 200 meters from us, the trail made a turn to the left, ran down a slope about a dozen meters before ending at the edge of the creek. The forward elements were now making that turn. Any moment now…

Seconds later, we heard them: two sets of dual explosions. Boom-boom! Boom-boom! Randy had fired off the Claymores. It was instantly  followed by Nilo’s SAW and Abner’s M-60 machine-guns and every rifle in our platoon firing into that mass of men. In front of us, we could still see about fifteen of them. Some reacted the right way, by throwing themselves on the ground and behind cover. Others froze like deer caught in the headlights.

I stepped out onto the trail, with Roy covering me and raised the rifle to my shoulder. Using the flip-sight, I aimed it right at the last man in the column who still hadn’t turned around to check the rear. Stupid. He was almost a hundred meters away. I raised my aim above his head so the round would go over him and into the massed men behind. That was when he looked, but it was too late. I pulled the trigger and the launcher gave off a loud pop, sending the HE round flying. He was looking right at me, standing in the middle of the trail when the grenade went off. There was a sharp bang, and the concussion blew him down to the ground, and this big dust-and-smoke plume went up, sending debris (and what I think were body parts) up about twenty feet in the air. Then Roy started firing controlled bursts into the rebels as I reloaded my M-203 for a second shot. The trailer had recovered by this time, and tried crawling off to the side but the movement caught Roy’s attention and he fired a long burst in his direction. You could see the ground bursts as bullets started impacting all around him, until finally he just lay still, dead. By the time I fired off my second grenade, Roy was already reloading his weapon. It was time to break contact. We were cut off from the rest of the platoon, and staying on this side with tangos in front and their base camp behind us was not a good place to be.

It was time to bug out and make our way back to the platoon. Roy was already on the radio, advising Viking-6 that we were breaking contact.

“Roy, move out!” I yelled, and it was my turn to cover him as he relocated. We started a fire-and-maneuver tactic known as leap-frogging (but nowadays it’s called something fancy: bounding overwatch). The idea is to keep the enemy under fire as you withdraw from the fight. I covered Roy as he made a rush to our left, back into the treeline, for the nearest cover (a tree), then we switched roles. He covered me as I made my own dash past him to a new position. The rule is, as long as the enemy is in your line of sight, you keep firing: if you can see them, they can see you. I hit him with my hand as I passed, so he would know I was in the clear.

I was in the middle of that leapfrog dash when I heard a sound which almost made me freeze in my tracks. The rapid-fire chatter of a crew-served weapon. The air-rending rip-saw noise said it all: you can’t mistake the sound of of a Browning M1919 machine-gun for anything else. Each type of weapon has a unique sound signature, most specially when it comes to machine-guns. Even with the chaotic exchange of gunfire and explosions up ahead, the Browning’s piercing reports seemed to drown them all out.

As training and common sense dictated, I hit the deck behind a tree, and stayed down. I lost visual on Roy, but I knew that he was doing the exact same thing. In situations like this, you always have one of two impulses: hug the earth for dear life, or have the urge to raise your head above cover to spot the enemy gun crew’s position. The former is always the wiser choice.

As I lay face-down sideways on the ground, I immediately started concentrating on tuning out all the other sounds of the ongoing gun-battle, focusing on the Browning’s instead. My immediate concern was if  Roy and I were the focus of the gunner’s attention. Apparently not, because there was no tell-tale zipping of bullets overhead or the unnerving crack! which was the sonic boom a round makes when it passes by your head at less than five feet. We hadn’t been spotted yet. I hoped.

Somehow, through a combination of good combat discipline and dumb-fucking luck, this gun crew had managed to set up their weapon (tripod and gun were carried separately, with a combined weight of more than 30 pounds), and return fire at our platoon mates on the other side of the creek. That’s the mark of experience and good situational awareness, specially on the gunner’s part since he was essentially the gun crew’s team leader. Even then, I just had to grudgingly admire the son of a bitch’s skill and coolness under fire. Then my next immediate thought was: how do we kill him? If the gunner was this good, I wondered about the rest of his crew. Typically, it’s a 3 or 4-man team (Gunner, Assistant Gunner, and Ammo Bearer). The assistant gunner would be right next to the shooter, ready to load the next ammunition belt or take over the weapon should the gunner be taken out. The ammo bearer would have laid down the boxes of ammo he’d been carrying around and reverted to his secondary role: providing rear security (over-watch) for the crew.

Much as I hated the thought, we had to take that gun crew out.

I tried to twist my body and head around to locate Roy. We needed to coordinate an attack plan. Fast. At the same time, I was running the specs of the Browning M1919 in my head. Belt-fed, with a cyclic rate of fire of 400–600 rounds per minute. A single belt of ammunition carried two-hundred fifty full-metal jacket rounds (copper bullets encased in steel, in either .30 caliber or NATO 7.62mm), with an effective range of 1,370 meters (maximum effective range). It’s an old-school weapon system (M1919 stands for Model 1919, which stands for the year it went into production), but was still a very efficient man-killer that it’s still in use today. Okay, enough of the nostalgic trivia bullshit.

I heard a low-pitched whistle on my left. It was Roy. From his last position, he had done a fast low-crawl over 10 meters (30 feet) of open ground, using the knee-high grass to mask his movements. He found cover behind another tree, about 5 feet left of me. Suddenly, the Browning stopped firing. Based on sound, I had a pretty good idea about its location now, and I oriented myself facing that way. After a three-to-four second pause, the MG started blasting away again. Damn, that was a fast reload!

I noted a difference in his firing pattern now. It was no longer the prolonged, Rambo-style shooting. He’d done that initially as a psychological deterrent, to make our guys stop firing at his guys. Make the enemy put his head down, that’s the strategy.

Now he was using a pattern of controlled two or three-second bursts, spreading them evenly. Left, middle, right, then back again; that’s how it was done. I didn’t have to see it to know. This one knew his business. He was laying out some suppressive fire to either cover their withdrawal, or provide a base of fire for a counterattack.

We had been on the ground for less than two minutes, but those were the thoughts going through my mind. (From the moment I hit the dirt, up to this point, how long did it take you to read? Time always seems to slow down during a firefight.)

Roy was on the radio now, pressing the earpiece with his left hand so he could hear over the gunfire. He acknowledged whatever it was that LT said to him, then turned to me.

“LT wants us to locate the machine-gun and see if we can kill it!” he yelled. I know, right?

Crunch time. We could try, but it would mean going head-to-head with a much larger force. With just the two of us. I was guessing we were outnumbered by about 5-to-1, depending on how many I had managed to take out with my two 40mm grenades earlier. If you’re wondering why LT would ask just two of his men to take it out in the face of a superior enemy force, remember: he did say “if” we could do it. We had a better view of the situation; from their end, the platoon couldn’t see the MG because it was inside the treeline.

The enemy’s rearmost elements that survived unscathed will have regained their senses by now, and their next move would have to be to clear the way for their escape route. And Roy and I were in their way.

Reaching down for the 40mm pouches on my vest I took one out and loaded it into my launcher. Then I turned to Roy.

“I’m taking a look and see if I can hit the MG! Cover me!” I yelled. He nodded, then got ready to get up and give me covering fire. When I gave the signal, we both came up on one knee. I went up on the left side of the tree, rifle up and ready to fire. I saw the gun crew. About 80 meters to my front, the gunner was still firing and I could see the bursts of gun-smoke from the barrel. Lining them up in my sight, I pulled the trigger on the launcher. It popped and I waited for the explosion that would signal it’s destruction. Instead, there was a poof! and I saw grey-white smoke just a few feet short of their position. In my haste, I had picked the wrong pouch and loaded a smoke grenade instead of HE. Crap. Mister Murphy just reminded me of my own mortality.

Roy fired a burst. I saw movement to my right. I switched to the right of the tree and saw two tangos on the trail. They had heard the launcher go off and were running to engage us. I double-tapped the first one and saw him go down, then the one behind him dropped to the ground out of my line of fire. There were three more coming down the trail. I was about to fire at them too, when I heard the familiar swish-swish sound of bullets cutting through vegetation. Rounds were impacting the tree I was using for cover. The machine-gunner was firing at us. He had no visual, but was shooting through the smoke blindly. It was the first dumb move I had see him do so far. He could hit one of his own guys. Then I had an idea that could turn my mistake into an advantage: the platoon could see the smoke. I fired a long burst down the trail to make them keep their heads down then I turned to Roy.

“Tell them to shoot to the left of the smoke! About five feet to the left! Do it, before they think to relocate!” I said to Roy. He was right on it, hailing LT over the comms. A few seconds later, there was an intensified barrage of gunfire from the platoon, followed by about half a dozen explosions as everyone who had and M-203 on their rifles (three others had them) fired off round after round of HE, walking them in. The gun went silent. For some reason, even the tangos coming at us had stopped firing. It was just that eerie silence, as if someone just decided to press the Mute button. Roy and I just looked at each other, wondering what the hell was going on.

Then I heard something. My ears were only still recovering from the deafening sounds of gunfire. The enemy, one can assume, was going through the same thing. Someone was moving through the grass, towards us. I guess since he too was still recovering from temporary deafness, he misjudged the amount of noise he was making. You know when you’re wearing a headset listening to blaring rock music, and trying to talk to someone at the same time? You tend to raise your voice without knowing it. Moving around is the same. You forget about masking your footfalls.

I saw someone through the grass in front of me. Enough to know it was a person, but not enough to determine which way he was really going or how many they were. Roy saw something too, because he raised his M4. I switched my CAR-15 to fully-automatic then we both let rip with long bursts right into the grass in front of us, sweeping back and forth in a “Z” pattern (gives you a better chance of scoring a hit on targets hiding in the brush or at night).

I felt as much as heard bodies falling to the ground, then something went crashing down in front of me. One of the enemy. He lay on his side, and the way his legs were splayed I knew they were broken. Still alive, he looked right at me, no more than 5 feet away, his M16 lying next to him. He was a few years older than me (I was 22). The guy was clutching an abdominal wound, and I could see the big gash in his gut where my bullets had ripped him apart. He was trying to keep his insides from falling out. I don’t know how many seconds we stared at each other, but it was something that has stayed with with me till this very day. It was a moment that only two warriors get to share with no one else. The victorious and the vanquished. He was dying and he knew it. He was so close, I could see that his pupils were dilated, unfocused. I’m not even sure if I was still registering in his brain. Roy was still firing, but it seemed like he was far away.

He told me later that as he was reloading, he thought I was hit because I had stopped shooting and that he had seen me and the dying rebel just staring at each other. He was calling out to me and got no reaction. My enemy and I were locked in our own world for those few seconds. I think it was his moan of pain that brought me back. Then things were registering much clearer. Firing had resumed. Men shouting back and forth to each other. Screams of pain, the sounds of men dying. I looked to my left and saw Roy throwing a grenade, screaming “Son of a bitch, you missed!”

I was back. Looking back at my fallen enemy, I saw that he was gasping in quick shallow breaths now, like he was trying to get the most of his last moments. I pulled back the charging handle on my CAR-15 halfway, looked into the open breech to make sure I still had a round in. I did. I closed it and looked back at him one last time. I decided I would give him the honor of a warrior’s death. By now, we had an understanding that was beyond words.

“You know what I have to do, right?” I said, but not directly to him. Just in my head. Even in his near-death haze, he must’ve known. It’s an unwritten rule: as long as an enemy has the ability to pull a trigger, never leave one alive behind you. I raised my weapon, pointing it at his chest. I focused my mind on blurring him out. He moved back a bit, as if making himself a bigger target. Yeah. He understood. Now, there’s a Warrior. I fired off a burst, then it went click. I turned away from the body and started to reload. The Browning, I noticed, was no longer firing. Mission complete.

“Reloading! Roy, time to go!” I yelled, slamming a new mag in. He came up to give me suppressing fire. As I got up to run, there was movement up ahead, in the direction I was heading. I raised my rifle, ready to fire.

“Ranger! Ranger! Don’t shoot!” I recognized the voice. Randy. He came out from behind some trees, followed by Nilo with his machinegun.

“We thought you were dead, so LT sent us over to have a look. You weren’t responding on the radio!” I looked over at Roy. He just raised his hand. In it, was his radio. Shot to pieces. Well, that explains it. Nilo started laying down some heavy fire. Randy saw the body, then looked at me.

“Wow. It was that close?” I shrugged in reply. He reached down for the dead man’s M16. “Let’s leave them a little surprise.” Then he reached into one of his pouches and took out a grenade with red electric tape wrapped around the safety lever. I knew what it was: one of his “Booby-trap Specials”. He would take a grenade and unscrew the top off (of course, we always kept a minimum distance of ffity feet from him when he did this, unless we happened to be intoxicated and foolish), then he’d cut the fuse down to a one-second delay. He marked them with red tape so no one would use them by mistake, except for booby-trapping enemy equipment. With one hand, he dug a shallow hole in the soft dirt, and un-taped the grenade. He placed it in the hole, with the safety lever facing up, then slowly laid the M16 on top of it to keep it from flying off. If anyone picks it up, he would have exactly one second to make amends with the Good Lord and that grenade would be his last living memory. Randy’s the Devil when it came to these kind of things.

“Okay, let’s go. Nilo, Randy, cover us! Move, move, move!” We proceeded to do the same tactic Roy and I employed earlier, only this time we did it by two’s. And we had Nilo’s machine-gun for added firepower. Using fire-and-maneuver, we were able to make our way to the creek. I got there first.

And that’s when I saw the bodies.

The current wasn’t strong, there had been no rain for the past few days so the water was only knee-high. So most of the dead were caught on the rocks. Two were floating right where I was about to cross, riddled with bullets and steel ball bearings from the Claymores. One had no head, and the other, no legs.  When I got halfway across, there was another one just on the edge of the water. It was the blue bandanna that got my attention. The boy’s eyes were open, and I couldn’t see any obvious wounds that caused his death. But then again he was lying in water that was red with blood. He looked like he was just lying there, taking a rest. I felt someone behind me. It was Roy. He looked down on the body, his jaws clenched tightly.

“The sons of bitches. Letting a boy do a man’s job. And their boss living comfortably in the Netherlands, why doesn’t he come down here and fight? Coward son of a bitch.” I had to agree.

When you see boys getting killed in combat when they should be home or going to school or playing with friends, you ask yourself: where’s the big-shot motherfucker who sends them to their deaths? I’d love to put him in my cross-hairs. Those who can, lead. Those who can’t, sneak off to the Netherlands and hide behind a non-extradition treaty. Bastard.

To top it all off, when we rejoined the platoon, we found out that we had lost one man. Private First Class Adrian Celestino (Viking 1-4, 2nd Squad Rifleman). He was one of the original Vikings, ahead of me by a year. He was taking up a position to fire on the machinegun I had marked with smoke, but when he raised his head, he got hit in the face by a stray round. I struggled with that for quite a while. Had I not made a mistake, and fired off the right grenade instead of smoke, I had to wonder if he would still be alive today. It was Sarge who eventually helped me let that one go, but it took almost two years. “We all make mistakes, Castillo.” he said. “All you can do is try and make less of them than the normal person. And when you do make one, move on. It is what it is. Just another mistake.”

The enemy lost their taste for combat and withdrew. We didn’t even have to evade, they just gave up. It’s a perfect example of how a numerically inferior force can beat a superior one through better tactics and using Maximum Violence of Action. LT decided to let them go back to their camp and lick their wounds. “There’s no honor in it. It’ll just be a massacre.” he said. He had no idea what a relief it was for all of us. No one wanted to go after them and hunt them down like animals. No sense kicking a defeated enemy. We already left them with around fifteen dead and more than a dozen wounded. The dead were the ones at the kill zone itself, and didn’t include the ones Roy and I took out, which probably numbered six or more. But none of them had the same impact on any of us seeing that dead kid.

It was one of those days that left a bad taste in your mouth.


Then, in the distance, we heard a solitary BOOM! Someone picked up the M16.

Randy and I shared a look. Fuck you, bitches. Once in a while, it had moments like this that made you feel good. Insert evil grin here.


Black Ops: Operation Zombie

Posted: October 9, 2010 in Uncategorized


Sniper team, moving into position....


A phrase you might find useful someday: “I have no recollection of the event, date or place in question.”

Roy and I walked into the room. It was spartan, just one long table and a couple of chairs. Whiteboard on the wall, with a grid map on it. This was used as a briefing room by officers. This was the first time we had ever been asked to enter it. (After officers are briefed about a mission, they brief their platoons either in their barracks or out in the open areas. You know, the old take-a-stick-and-draw-on-the-ground routine.)

Our LT was there. So was Sarge. There were two other sergeants from S-2 (Military Intelligence). But we were surprised to find that present also were our Company (Captain) and Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel) Commanders. Roy and I were the only enlisted men in the room. When you see that kind of brass in a room along with Corporals or Privates like us, you know something monumental was about to take place.

Whatever this was about, it was important enough that it had to be done in the presence of a Company and a Battalion Commander. It was going to be one of those “life-changing moments”.

As Roy and I took our seats, one last man came into the room. His insignia marked him as a Captain, but the patch on his left arm was nothing I had ever seen before: Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

Of course, the Scout Rangers, just like Special Forces, were under SOCOM (unofficially, though, during this time), it’s just that Roy and I had never seen one of these guys up close and personal before.

He had a some brown folders in his hands, and gave one to each of the other officers, LT included. The last one, the captain laid in front of us enlisted men. There was nothing unique about it. No markings. Action movie freak that I was, I was disappointed that it didn’t have Classified stamped in red letters on it. Not even the Armed Forces logo. That would have been something.

It’s called a target package. Our very first.

All specialized units in the world are familiar with a strategy called  “selective elimination”. Anyone trained in unconventional warfare knows it well. During a battle, the unconventional warrior will actively select and eliminate certain HVTs (High Value Targets) such as enemy commanders, radiomen, snipers, machine-gunners, artillery crews. Hence, the term “selective elimination”. In combat, it’s just tactics.

Outside of actual or direct combat, some would call it murder.

So what our instructors once told us, (“What we are going to teach you here will be that grey area between justifiable homicide and cold-blooded, premeditated murder…”) was about to be put to the test.

I opened the folder. And looked into the eyes of pure evil. A black and white photo of a man. They use black-and-whites because images and facial features are sharper. And it gives you that feeling that you are not looking at a human being, but just a target. That’s how I felt.

So there he was. Unsmiling. No emotion in the eyes or corners of the mouth. Broad forehead and high hairline. Flat nose. Nothing prominent about his features at all. Reminded me of a professor I once had. You would have passed him in a crowd and not actually “see” him. Not a head-turner, this one.

But when I studied the face, I kept going back to his eyes. Something about them, and I couldn’t put my finger on it for a couple of moments. Then it hit me. He had Ellis’ eyes. “Serial Killer” Ellis eyes. That’s what I called Ellis as a joke. Anyway, this guy had the same kind of eyes, with an almost reptilian quality to them. The same look Ellis had when he was about to dispatch someone with his knife. Calm. But behind them, a raging storm. But Ellis was not an evil man. This one was.

And so the two sergeants and the Colonel from SOCOM briefed us on him. Classic HVT. Code-named, Beria. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific.  Let’s just leave it at that.

From time to time, the communist leadership conducts purges within its ranks. Similar to the kind Lenin and Stalin did with their own people. Those suspected of being disloyal, of sympathizing with or worse, spying for the government are killed. Sometimes entire families are wiped out. No questions asked, no trials. The methods vary: assassinations, public execution, or in most cases, people just “disappear”.

If you know a bit about the history of communism, you’ve probably heard of a man by the name of  Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria. He was the chief of Soviet internal security and the secret police apparatus under Stalin. He became the head of what was known as the NKVD, which evolved into the more well-known KGB later on.

The communist insurgency has regional commanders, called Supremos. Our target was the Supremo’s Beria. Get it? He was responsible for a lot of these purges. They even have a name for this type of operation: Zombie. If you think Ampatuan was bad, this one was a whole lot worse. He wasn’t doing it for money or power. It was fanatical zeal that drove him.

A Zombie Operation is like a Godfather-style mob hit. You’ve seen “The Godfather” trilogy right? Where the Corleones assassinated their enemies simultaneously? That, my friend, is a Zombie operation.

A recent casualty of one of these purges was an S-2 sergeant, a colleague of these men briefing us. A former Ranger. Whatever the nature of the operation he was running as an intelligence officer, we were never told. All we knew was that he was gunned down in front of his wife and kids by Sparrows (NPA assassins). One of them then blew his face off with a sawed-off shotgun as a finishing touch. So his casket wouldn’t be open for viewing at the funeral.

It was a “statement killing”, meant to send a message.

Then the Battalion CO stood up, and leaned on the table right across from me.

“Your job,” he said, addressing Roy and I directly in English, “is to send that message right back at them. No one will ever know about this. But they will. And you will send that message with all the lethality that Rangers are known for. You two will be the tip of the spear in this operation. And you will drive that spear deep. Do you boys understand?”

He looked at us with hard eyes, measuring us. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable. But I wanted this mission. So did Roy. I did a mental gulp before we answered.

“Yes, sir.”

The SOCOM captain then stood up. He had a couple of decorations on him. Distinguished Conduct Star(3 repeats. That’s impressive. Usually by two, you should be dead.), Wounded Personnel Medal (2 repeats. Equivalent to a Purple Heart), and he also had the jump wings of a paratrooper, and the Marksmanship Badge. A fellow sniper. Yeah. I must say, I was officially impressed.

“Actually, we had a choice between you and another sniper team from Marine Force Recon. But we chose you because of proximity to the target location, and you’re one of the most experienced teams in this area. Plus the fact that one of the Marine snipers was wounded in an ambush a few days ago. And considering that this man’s responsible for the death of one of your own, your Battalion Commander wants you to get payback.” he said.

Only then did it truly dawn on me and on Roy that this was going to be a revenge hit. We’ve done things like that before, but never on so personal a level. Never against just one,  specific individual. It was about us giving the enemy a taste of their own medicine. We didn’t know the dead sergeant personally. We didn’t need to. He was a fellow Ranger. That’s all we needed to know.

One of the things other than combat that a Ranger is good at is exacting vengeance on his enemies with extreme prejudice. And we have long memories.

This was not going to be some chance encounter on a remote jungle trail. Not some random tango picked out during the chaos of a gunfight or some nameless face in your scope. This time, we would be specifically targeting someone who’s name we knew.

After almost three years hunting for him, they finally pinned him to one location. And they knew when he would be there. Again, there were no details as to how that information was obtained, but there only two ways they could’ve gotten it, really: either a traitor, or what we call a DPA (Deep Penetration Agent). A DPA is an “asset” who has managed to infiltrate the organization to a high enough level to acquire that kind of intelligence.

So now we had a “who”, and a “when”. The “where” and “how” was pretty straight-forward stuff. It was the SOCOM captain who briefed us on that, moving to the map taped to the whiteboard in front of us.

In two days, he said, our tango was going to be no more than fifty kliks(kilometers) from where we were sitting, visiting the house of one of his girlfriends. He always came in the dead of the night, but as far as when he leaves, that was unpredictable.

Half a klik to the east, was a hill. It was an ideal spot, for the sun would be behind us.

Roy and I were to position ourselves just below the crest, while the other six squad members would split into two-man teams and set up a defensive perimeter on both of our flanks and the rear. Sarge would be leading the squad. LT was not going with us. Instead, he was going to be leading 2nd Squad on a separate mission which we later found out was in conjunction with ours. At the time we had no need to know, so we were not briefed on it.

Then the SOCOM captain told us to keep the details to ourselves, even from the members of our own squad. They were not to be given any information, other than it was high-priority. Only LT, Sarge, Roy and I would know the exact nature of the operation. As far as the other members of the platoon knew, it was just another recon patrol.

The captain, along with a four-man Special Forces team, would set up a command post in the jungle no more than five kliks away from where we were going to be.

Once we were in position and had spotted our target, we were to report it to him (call-sign: Voodoo 6) through a different operational frequency. He also told us not to take the shot until we received the kill order or green light. Later, we would find out why.

But initially, I thought that if they really wanted this guy dead, why make us wait? Why not just give us the “weapons-free” authorization, so we could take the shot the moment we had one? Naturally, we didn’t ask. I had a feeling there was a Bigger Picture involved here. And all Roy and I had was a dinky little 1×1 ID photo compared to it. That’s the way things are in Spec Ops, I figured. Besides, if they wanted us to know, they would have told us. In military black ops, you have to believe that there’s a reason for everything.

In any case, once it was “mission complete”, we were to extract and rendezvous with the captain and his SF team, and head for our extraction point 2 kliks from where his command post was. We would then evac via two Huey gunships. The plan was that K.I.S.S.-simple.

Once the briefing was over, we were reminded not to discuss any details with our platoon-mates. We were also not allowed to leave the perimeter of the camp, for security reasons.

One and a half days later…

The Stalk…


I was the third man in the column formation. Ellis, on point, signaled for a stop with Sarge right behind him. We all came to a halt, then sat on our haunches and each man covered his designated sector.

It was highly unlikely that we would encounter an NPA patrol out here. They didn’t like messing with Rangers in the dark because when it came to fighting in low-light conditions, they knew we owned the night. Sarge came up to me in the darkness.

“Castillo,” he whispered, then pointed, “there’s your hill.”

Silhouetted against the setting moon, I could see it in front of us, about 300 meters away. I gave him a nod, then turned to Roy who was next in the formation. I signaled him by tapping the top of my head with my right open palm. “On me.” He acknowledged this with a nod, then we peeled off, separating ourselves from the squad.

I was the one with the NVGs (night-vision goggles), so I took point. People make a big deal out of these things, but they do have disadvantages. First of all, there’s no depth perception. Everything looks fuckin’ flat, like a greenish 2-D cartoon.

And since it relies on ambient light and magnifies it, when you fire your weapon, you can get blinded by your own muzzle-flash. And it can’t in any way, help you out when looking for booby-traps.

The one good thing I like about it though, is that if someone’s out there and looking at you, you’ll see their eyes. Like dogs’ or cats’ eyes caught in your headlights when you’re driving at night. The enemy can’t hide those. You can use those two points of eerie green light as reference when shooting at tangos in the dark. Guaranteed head-shots. Insert evil grin here.


Waiting to take the shot...

The Hide…


We finally got to the base of the hill and made our upwards trek. We had to find a nice spot for our nest before sun-up. From time to time I’d remove the NVGs so I could reference the hill against the moon and get my bearings. It took a while, but I finally found the right elevation and started walking along an invisible line just below the crest.

I looked westwards and saw lights from the soon-to-awaken town. There was a nice depression on a ridge that was heavily overgrown with vegetation. When the sun came up, it would be nice cover that would minimize the chances of sunlight glinting off the barrels and scopes of our rifles. Perfect. This was the spot. This was our hide site.

We geared-up in our Ghillie suits as quickly but quietly as we could. Roy first, while I stood watch, then it was my turn. We buried ourselves in the underbrush near the ridge’s edge. Just in time too, as the sun started to peek over the horizon. It was almost 0530H.

And we stayed hidden there for the next five hours.

The Waiting Game…


When you’ve spent hours stalking a target, it gives you a lot of idle time to think. I never fully realized that till now. Before, we got to do this only during combat, looking for HVTs to take out. A foolish enemy commander who decides at the wrong moment to show his head around a tree, or over a wall. A machine-gunner blasting away at our troops from a window. An enemy sniper on a rooftop or up in a tree. Targets of Opportunity was what they were called.

In a battle things happen fast. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve shot someone until you actually see them writhing in the dust, clutching a chest wound or dropping lifeless to the ground after taking a shot to the head. That’s because there’s no time to think, only to react. This was different. This was our first long wait. And it made me look back on some of the things we were taught in Sniper School. The things I didn’t pay much attention to, or hoped I never had to do.

Like the time Staff Sergeant Romero told me, “The day will come when the man you see in your scope will not be some random target, but someone who’s name you actually know. It won’t be easy. You’ll see him in a way you’ve never seen others before. You’ll witness those unguarded moments. They might be smiling, laughing, or even crying. Everything that makes them human. That will be the moment when you will hesitate. DO NOT ALLOW THAT TO HAPPEN.”

He had taught us the art of superimposing. At close quarters, you have this mind-set where every tango is like a silhouette on the firing range. You see them as paper targets or falling plates. Not the same when you’re looking through a scope, specially in a situation like this. So what you do is you think of someone else. Someone you despise, maybe, and superimpose that person on your target. In my case, it was my stepfather. And that was the mind-set I brought with me that day. That I was gonna kill the prick.

S/Sgt. Romero was also the one who constantly reminded us that “The reason why people sleep at night without having to worry that armed men might kick down their doors, drag them out of their beds, and execute them, is because there are men like you. Men who are willing to do violence in their name. So, always, ALWAYS… remember your duty.”

Roy and I both wanted to do this. To us, this was a real mission. By our definition, a mission is something that would have an actual impact on the enemy. We were all tired of being sent somewhere to take real estate from them, only to pull back and have them retake it. Then get sent back in all over again and the vicious cycle would be repeated. To us, it made a mockery of our friends who had lost their lives. It was getting old.

Normally, Roy would have been the shooter on this one. But since I wanted to do it too, we settled it in the military-prescribed, fair-and-square manner: we tossed a coin for it. And tails won. It was rather fitting that Beria‘s  fate was to be decided that way.

By the third hour, we were already feeling the strain of the wait. Shoulder muscles were starting to knot up, eye muscles ached, and your head starts to throb as the sun got higher and higher in the sky.

We took turns looking through the scope. Thirty minutes is the absolute max you should spend looking through it, or you risked impeding your eyesight. By the fifth hour, you’re ready to kill something. Anything.

Though we were rarely more than five feet away from each other, Roy and I almost never talked on a stalk or during what we call The Waiting Game. There was no need. Everything you need to talk about, you talk about before leaving base.

Other than thinking about the job, you kept your mind free of everything else. Never think about loved ones. Not when you’re about to kill someone. That road leads nowhere. It was right before or right after 1000H that things came to a head. It was Roy’s turn on watch.

“Heads up. Movement.” Though he said it in a low voice, he might as well have shouted it in my ear because it caught me off-guard, and almost made me jump. My blood was up instantly and I felt the adrenalin surging through me. I picked up my rifle and instinctively held the scope about three inches away from my eye. Initially, the cross-hair bobbed up and down as I reoriented myself to acquire the target house.

And sure enough, there he was. Beria. My stepfather (In my head, that is. Superimpose, remember?). He stepped out from the backdoor and into the backyard. White shirt, brown shorts. I wasn’t sure it was him at first, until he turned towards me, stretched, and yawned. He looked like he just woke up.

“He must have had one hell of a night.” Roy commented. He looked like it. Who wakes up at ten in the morning around here, anyway?

“Yeah. Maybe. Call it in.” I said. And he was instantly on the radio.

“Voodoo-6, Viking-2. We have eyes on the tango. Repeat, eyes on the tango.” The reply came in about five seconds later.

“Viking-2, Voodoo-6. Is that verified?” Roy and I looked at each other. He was kidding, right? What did he think we were? Amateurs? Naturally, we let that one slide. Roy just shook his head.

“10-4, Voodoo-6. That’s one hundred percent verified. It’s Beria, sir.”

Just as he said that, our tango turned around and walked back in. Shit. He would’ve been dead by now if we were weapons-free. Whatever it was that Voodoo-6 needed to sort out before giving the order, he’d better get it done or I might not have another chance.

“Okay, Viking-2. Stand by. Wait for green light.” Roy acknowledged, then put the mike down. He was looking through the ranging scope the whole time and I could tell that he too was frustrated by that missed chance.

“I hate this waiting game. Let’s just go kill something.” He was saying it more to himself than to me.

It was another excruciating ten minutes before Beria stepped out again. He had a newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. In the backyard was a small gazebo. Big enough to hold maybe up to four people. You don’t get to see a lot of those around here. There was a table and four chairs. As luck would have it, he chose the one facing me. Roy went on auto-pilot, calculating distance, elevation and wind.

“Four-two-five meters. Two-kilo west-bound wind. You’ll have to compensate for drop. I’d say two mils.” There was no need to make any adjustments on my scope. I had it zeroed for five-hundred meters. The bullet would hit him slightly above my aim point, but I would still compensate for the slight drop since I was on an elevated position with the wind behind me.

And so he sat there for the next few minutes, sipping his coffee and reading his paper. Not knowing that more than 400 meters away, a sniper’s rifle was pointed at him, with its cross-hair planted squarely on his chest. I observed him doing his thing and at some point, he put the paper down and took a sip. At this range, I could clearly see this far-away look he had on his face. He was looking directly at me. Then he smiled. Shit. My blood went cold, and I remembered thinking: what the fuck was that? I knew it was impossible for him to have seen me, of course, but that didn’t make the experience any less eerie. I wonder what he was thinking about? If there was a “time-out” on this thing, I’d probably go down there and ask, what the hell.

As if that weren’t enough, the backdoor opened again, and out stepped his girlfriend. With a little boy in tow. Double-shit. He was a cute little thing, probably older than my own boy, whom I’d never seen. He would be about a year old by now. This one looked like he had just woken up too, hair all frazzled and disheveled. Fuck me sideways.

This was exactly the kind of thing I was warned about. No one said he had a kid with this woman. Just that she was a mistress or something. FUBAR. To make it even worse the little one ran to him in that cute way only kids can. You know, when they teeter forward and it seems like they’re gonna fall? He took the boy in his arms and sat him on his lap. The kid’s head ended up right in my cross-hair where I had my rifle aimed at his father’s chest. Oh, man. This was messed up.

“Kid’s in my line of fire. Shit.” I said distractedly.

I tried my best to close my mind to it. I could feel that even Roy was distressed by this, and he expressed it.

“Goddamn, bro. I’m glad I’m not you, right now.” he whispered. This, coming from a man who once shot dead six insurgents from 500 meters, in under fifteen minutes during one engagement. That’s how screwed up it was.

A “Fuck you” was all I could muster in reply. When your skills are put to the test in the most unexpected way, you fall back on your training.

One of our instructors taught us to use what he called “The God Complex”. It’s a bit more extreme. Imagine yourself a god bestowing punishment on a lesser being. Pretend that that person is deserving of Death and that only you have the power to “smite” him. Pretty powerful stuff. It was the kind of thing someone like me appreciates. I’m not religious, but if I was, I’d be an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye kind of guy. So that was my next approach to the dilemma.

Out here, I am God.

The Messenger....

The Shot…


The next fifteen to twenty minutes were tense. After a few minutes, he put the kid down. Then, the boy ran around the gazebo and came out the other side riding one of those little three-wheeled bikes. And he did that for about ten minutes. My concern was, what if  Voodoo-6 came back on the net and gave the kill order? What then? Was I supposed to murder a father in front of his son? Because, make no mistake about it, that was what I was about to do. Kill a defenseless man in cold blood. It is what it is. And knowing what I knew about the target, this had to be done. In a rare moment of frustration, I turned to Roy.

“Get on the radio with Voodoo-6. Tell him the situation. Ask him if I still have to wait for green light, or if I can take the shot the moment the boy leaves the scene. Any thing can happen the moment he finishes his coffee or his paper. He might go inside, or he might leave. And we don’t have an angle from the front of the house.” I said.

“Okay. But he was very specific about – “ I cut him off.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But do it anyway. Roy, I am not gonna shoot this guy in front of his kid. Make that clear to him. Do it.” This guy ordered his Sparrows to kill that Ranger sergeant in front of his wife and kids. If I did the same, then that made me no better than him.

Roy had no choice. I ripped my earpiece out as he hailed Voodoo-6 on the comms. I didn’t need the distraction. I looked through my scope once more.

The kid was still there, going around in circles on his frickin’ trike. Roy caught my attention.

“Voodoo-6 says LT is almost mission complete. Until he is, stand down. But if Beria seems like he’s about to leave your line of sight, take him out. With or without the kid present. Final word.”

Crap. Well, at least I tried. If there’s such a thing as Judgment Day, then let me be judged based on that. That was my only consolation. I replaced my earpiece.

I never took my eye off the scope as Roy relayed this information to me. And the kid was still there.

It was to my great relief when I saw the backdoor open. The girlfriend stood there, calling and gesturing to the boy.

Come on, kid. Go to mommy. And as an afterthought: I have to kill Daddy. I know that’s horrible, and it is as bad as it sounds, but that was what I thought at the time. I can’t deny that. And I wasn’t joking.

The kid stumbled off his bike, got up, then ran to his father again, just as he was taking another sip from his cup. He ran into his father’s knee, causing his arm to jerk upwards as he tried to get the hot cup out of the way, and he spilled some of the coffee on his own shirt.

At 10X magnification, I saw all of that in crystal clarity. I could even see the coffee stain on his shirt. He just laughed, then picked up his son, and gave him a final kiss before sending him off with his mother. But the kid seemed to want to stay a bit longer. He gestured to his woman to give them a few moments.

Well, at least he got to kiss his kid goodbye. The Ranger sergeant didn’t have that luxury, I reminded myself. It changes nothing.

He still had to die.

I saw him reach into his pocket and take out a pack of smokes, took one out, and lit it. You just had to be me to understand the morbid irony in all of this.

Not only does he get to kiss his son for the last time, but he gets to smoke a last cigarette as well. He was doing exactly the things a condemned man would normally ask for: say a final goodbye to a loved one, and a last smoke.

God must be laughing his ass off right about now.

He wasn’t halfway done when our comms came to life.

“Viking-2 or Viking-1, Voodoo-6.”

“Voodoo-6, Viking-2. Go ahead. Viking-1 has the tango. We’re clear.” Roy said, indicating that the boy was out of the picture.

“Copy, Viking-1 has the tango. Be advised,  Viking-6 is mission complete. Terminate your tango. You are Green Light.”

Welcome to the world of Black Ops.


As if on cue, mother and son walked hand-in-hand, back into the house. I felt a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go away.

This was it. The Point of No Return.

With my rifle placed on top of my rucksack (serving as my firing platform), I planted my cheek firmly on the wooden stock, I placed the cross-hair in the center of his chest. Then I moved it slightly to the left and held it there. This was going to be in compliance with the final instruction we were given before we left camp: he was not to die quickly. The captain’s exact words were: “We want him to know that he’s dying and that nothing is going to save him. How you do that, I leave to your discretion.”

“Send a message”, they said. So be it. I’m the messenger, and my message is Death in a 7.62mmx51mm NATO round.

So, here we are. Men like you deserve men like me, Mr. Beria.

He had the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and he opened up the newspaper, blocking my view of his torso. No matter. It’s not like it can deflect a .308 Winchester round flying at 2,800 feet per second.

I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then halfway through it I stopped and held it.

I was in my own bubble, now. I placed the ball of my index finger on the trigger and slowly pulled back on the slack. My target hadn’t moved.

Then I applied that final pressure, almost a caress.

You don’t really hear the shot. Or it’s like coming from somewhere in the back of your mind. It’s like that when you’re “in the zone”. You just feel the rifle buck, pushing into your shoulder pocket. Just take it. Brace too hard, and you’ll end up with a sore shoulder.

Then you hear the shot’s echo, as the sound travels away from you and into the valley below.

I reacquired my target, but all I could see at first was a wild flurry of paper. He had flung the newspaper upwards as he took the hollow-point slug in the chest. The impact threw him back, toppling the chair as he flew head-over-heels and ended face down on the ground.

The next thing I remember was the backdoor flying open, and the girlfriend was standing there. She probably didn’t hear the shot, just the sound of him being thrown violently to the ground.

She just stood there for a few seconds, stunned. Then she ran to his side and cradled his head in her arms. At that point, another man ran out of the house, pistol in hand. He ran to her, eyes and head moving around, scanning for threats. And he was doing it in a professional, trained manner. Could be a bodyguard, he was said to sometimes travel with one or two. Roy was suddenly alert, letting go of the spotting scope and switching to his rifle.

“Stand down. He could still be a civilian.” My instinct said differently, but I didn’t want to make a mistake now that we had accomplished what we came to do. As far as I was concerned, one death was enough. “Call it in.”

“Voodoo-6, Viking-2. Tango is X-ray. Repeat, Tango is X-ray. Mission complete.” I heard Roy say over the net.

“Roger, Viking-2. Verify that, then extract and proceed to my 20 (location).” Roy acknowledged it, then turned to me.

“Is he dead?” he asked.

I didn’t answer right away. I was still looking through the scope. Looking at her. It could have been just my imagination, but I swear I could hear her screams all the way up here. She still had him cradled in her arms. She probably knew enough that he wasn’t going to make it. I had shot him through the right lung. If I could see a coffee stain at this distance, there was no mistaking the blood that had all but soaked his white shirt now. The way his body was convulsing, I could tell he was choking on his own blood. I waited for the convulsions to stop. It took about two minutes.

“Now, he is.” I finally replied. “Let’s move out.”


One week after returning to our barracks, Roy and I were once more summoned to the briefing room. The same one where all of this started and was planned. We were instructed to remove our name tags from our battledress uniforms, which were Velcro-strapped above our right breast pockets. We did so before we entered.

Inside, we found the SOCOM captain. We stood at attention by the door. He had with him a woman and three sad-looking children ranging in ages from about two to eight. He said something to her, and then walked up to us.

“Someone wants to meet you.” he said. “She doesn’t know your names, and she never has to. You will say nothing, is that understood?” We nodded, not really understanding what this was all about, and replied with the cursory “Yes, sir”, then he gestured us towards her.

Roy and I had barely taken a few steps, when the woman herself came up to us and gave each of us a hug and said “Thank you”, then hesitantly moved back to sit with her kids. That was it.

I didn’t know what to make of it, until the captain told us that she was the wife of the sergeant we had just avenged.

Then our Battalion CO walked in. He talked to the woman for a few moments, then he and the SOCOM captain stepped outside, leaving us with her and the children.

“You know”, Roy whispered. “He said ‘say nothing’, but he didn’t say ‘give nothing’, right?”

“Your point, being?” I asked. He put his left hand in his pants pocket, took something out and showed it to me. I smiled. That will do. I reached into my pocket as well, taking out a similar item. Roy gave me what he had in his hand, then we walked over to her.

“Ma’am”, I said, giving her what I had in her hand. I then reached over to my left shoulder, and ripped off my Scout Ranger patch which was Velcro-ed to the sleeve. Roy did the same, and we left both patches on the table, in front of her.

I remembered there was something I’ve been carrying around ever since we got back, and took it out, placing it on the table as well.

Then we both gave her a salute, did a smart about-face, and left the room.

What I had placed in her hand were two name tags. One said “Castillo” and the other “Cristobal”. And beside the two Ranger patches we left was a shiny brass shell casing. I imagined when she picked it up, and turned it over, she would have seen “.308 Winchester” stamped underneath it. It was the casing from the bullet I’d put in her husband’s killer.

She would never know the full story, and that would leave her with more questions. But at least she would know that his brothers took care of business.

For the wife of a fallen Ranger, sometimes that’s all you have to offer: the fact that though he may be gone, he was not forgotten.

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…


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.


Posted: August 24, 2010 in Uncategorized


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.

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...

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.


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.


If God wills it.


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.


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…