Monday, April 26, 2010

Decorah Time Trials aka Suck Fest 2010

In my continued quest to keep at least some of the "action" in Former Action Guy I try to participate in at least one competitive sporting event per month. Mostly this involves running, and I have competed in races from 5k to Marathon. I have also participated in one sprint distance triathlon but find it hard to train for those with no convenient place to swim. The last couple of years however I have been mixing my running with mountain biking as a way to cross train and to give the knee that I had surgery on a rest from the continual pounding. I enjoy mountain biking and their are some really nice trails literally yards from my house. So this led me to get a wild hair and I decided to enter a mountain bike race. I looked around the state for a good beginning race and decided on the Decorah Time Trials because it had individual starts as opposed to a mass start. Riders would leave the start line at one minute intervals and negotiate the course at all possible speed. So I sent in my entry fee and marked my calendar for April 25th.

Decorah, Iowa is located in extreme northeastern Iowa about 20 miles south of the Minnesota border. It is beautiful country and the Decorah Parks and Trails systems are located over and around a set of massive bluffs on the northern edge of the town. The Time Trials Website said this about the course:10 miles, 3,189' of climbing, 402' elevation change. It also said " This course is highly technical, use common sense and always stay with in your ability level." If I was a thinking man, I would have started thinking right after reading this, however being a former action guy I pretty much discounted this description as so much editorial fluff. I ride my bike at least once a week, what could be so technical?

My first indication it was going to be a long day was that I had inadvertently scheduled myself to be on call at the ambulance service I volunteer at the night prior to the race. Being an out of town member I am required to stay at the ambulance garage while on call. I usually don't sleep very well at the garage, not sure why that is but I usually go home tired the next morning. That night while on call we had a page for, you guessed it a bicycle accident. I can't say much because of HIPPA considerations but it was pretty serious in my opinion and I hope the individual is ok. On the way back from the hospital I started day dreaming and hoping this wasn't some kind of bad omen. I had been experiencing some apprehension about the race and this kind of put an exclamation point on it. I think it was mostly nervousness about the unknown, something action guys feel all the time. I had felt it many times myself but not for awhile. But even former action guys shrug this nervousness off, old habits die hard.

The morning of the race dawned gray, rainy and about 50 degrees, I woke up about 0400 after a restless night and packed my stuff to head back to the house. I arrived home about 0500 and woke my oldest girl and youngest boy to accompany me and be my road crew. Jade was to be the official photographer and backup driver in case for some reason I was unable to drive. Jessie was just along because he is cool and still likes to do things with me. We piled into the Escape and headed to Decorah. It was about a 3 hour drive and they slept most of the way, while I switched the radio tuner between NPR and Country music. When we arrived in Decorah we were a little early for check in so we stopped at Mickey D's to grab some chow. Of course I ordered two sausage and egg biscuits and after we drove away I discovered that the mental giant behind the counter had given me two sausage biscuits. I always get screwed at the drive thru.

So we found the check in and I parked along the road and went to grab my packet with tshirt and race number. One of the highlights of my life is the new race tshirt. I savor the designs and the new shirt smell. It is my tradition that I don't get to wear the shirt until I finish the race. One of those bad luck thingies. I have hundreds of them and every few years I have to cull the herd and get rid of them. A few years ago I had the bright idea of making some of them into a quilt as a way to recycle them. A family member who shall remain nameless (M*m) assures me it will be done by this July. As I made my way to the check in tent I couldn't help but notice that most of the people that were there all looked pretty fit and most of them had some kind of biking outfit on, consisting of spandex biking bibs and multi logoed shirts. Pears don't look good in spandex so I was sporting a pair of black baggy shorts and a cotton tshirt advertising the "MWR Balkans Turkey Trot 2002." There was also a multitude of bikes, single speeds, multi speeds, 29 inch tires, clip on pedals, and everything in between. My bike was a 300 dollar model I had bought in Colorado about 7 years ago. I was wearing my running shoes which were clip-less.

Since I had pre-registered I was able to select my start time and wanting to get a head start on what I suspected would be a learning experience I picked the first open start time available. I would start 14 minutes after the first rider which I figured should put me in good shape to finish with light for the drive home. I grabbed my stuff, perused the information sheet in the packet and affixed my race number to my handle bars. A lot of the other riders were warming up by riding up and down the road, never having been big on all that kind of stuff I sat in the car with my kids and Jade showed me pictures and videos off the laptop she had brought. I did however have to get out and use the porto potty about a million times. This is normal for me, it means my adrenaline is kicking in. I used to hate this when I was a parachutist because it is very difficult to piss once your rigged up and I used to have to get pretty inventive to answer natures call.

At 0950ish a guy with called us all to the start line and gave us a pre-race briefing. Everyone seemed to be pretty chummy and there was a lot of cat calling and joking while he was trying to speak. The race started about 1005 and as I waited my turn to start I tried to get some pointers on techniques from the riders ahead of me. Basically it looked like they were just riding all out until they were out of our sight. I decided I would start steady but not too hard I wanted to pace myself. The start itself was my first challenge, when it was my turn I moseyed up to the start line and waited for the countdown. One of the race staff grabbed my seat and told me to go ahead and sit. I guess this was so riders could clip into their pedals prior to the start, as I mentioned before I was clip-less and I was used to starting with one foot on the ground so the start was mildly disconcerting as I felt pretty dorkish.

When the official starter said GO!! I took off at what I hoped was a mannish looking speed, the first 200 meters of the course were on a paved surface and up and over a small hill. Once I crested the hill I could see some race staff pointing to my left into the woods. I took a sharp left and headed up the trail which almost immediate started going up hill. The grade was pretty steep and the trail was muddy and slick. Did I mention it was raining? I slipped out of my pedals, Did I mention I was clip-less? I figured discretion was the better part of valor and I started running up the hill pushing my bike ahead of me. This pattern repeated itself multiple times over the next 2 miles. My tires had so much mud on them I was getting no traction going up hill and eventually I stopped trying and just got off and pushed on all the inclines. I think 2000 feet of that 3000+ feet of climb the website had mentioned was all in the first frickin two miles. The trail kept switch backing up and down the first ridge line, taking us almost to the top and then almost back to the bottom again. My heart rate was redlining as I struggled and gasped for breath. It was during this time the first rider passed me, eventually I would lose count of how many did. Finally the trail dumped us out on the top of the ridge line and it started heading down the other side. It was about this time the GPS I had fastened to my handle bars lost signal and turned off. From that point forward I lost all concept of time and distance in the seemingly endless collection of muddy switchbacks and roots.

I remember thinking somewhere along the way that this would have made an excellent Special Forces Selection and Assessment event. The course continued to take us up and over a set of steep ridges and my legs were starting to get tired. It was about the middle of the course where the"technical" part really started. I took my first spill as I tried to jump a log. My rear wheel hit the log and skidded to the left kicking me into the downside of the hill. I toppled over like a weeble and the only thing that kept me from rolling down the hill was a fortuitously placed bush. Since my head was downhill and my feet where uphill it took some maneuvering and a lot of energy to get myself back on the trail. The impact of the crash had knocked my rear brake cable out of its clip and I discovered I had no rear brakes as I tried to maneuver around a steep hairpin turn a little further down the trail. I managed to stop by using my front brake and leaning way back off the rear of my bike. I scoped out the issue and discovered all I had to do was get the cable back into its housing and back on the clip. This I did with a little cussing. My second crash happened as I tried to negotiate a large rock and root obstacle.My front tire stuck in the root sending me not quite over the handle bars and into a small tree. Once again I fell over rather violently and wasted a lot of energy righting myself. The roots along the trail were constantly causing my rear tire to skid like a drift racer in Tokyo, and I was hoping for a small section of flatness where I could catch my breath.

My third and final crash was the most spectacular. I was negotiating a particularly steep downhill section and over compensated and got too far over my handle bars as I tried to make another steep turn. I went ass over teakettle, bike and all, and ended up under my bike with my left calf stuck in the frame. My calf had this enormous cramp in it and I couldn't get it unstuck from the frame. I also happened to do this right in front of the aid tent that was setup up in the valley between the ridge lines. A large group of boisterous and drunk mountain bikers were cheering on the contestants as we passed by. One of them asked me if I was all right and tried to help me up. I managed to struggle to my feet and mumbled to him that I had a cramp. I tried to hop on my bike and get out of there with what was left of my dignity but low and behold my chain had come off my chain ring. One of the revelers called out" Hey it works better with the chain on!" I grimaced as I got the chain back on the ring and hopped on my bike. As I pedaled by him I grinned and said "Thanks for the advice." He grinned back, raised his beer can and said " No problem. I'm a mechanic."

There was only about .5 miles left in the race when we crossed back over the paved road and headed into a flat final stretch. I actually managed to speed up and change to a higher gear as I crossed the finish line, giving Jade the "Hang Loose" sign as she took my picture. I gingerly got off my bike and handed it and my helmet to Jessie as I tried to walk off the last 2.5 hrs of torture. I was muddy and exhausted but I had finished

I am writing this two days after the race is over and I have several bruises and some road rash but I am mostly good to go. I am starting to remember fondly some of the good things that happened during the race, like the two deer I saw mere yards away as I picked myself up from my second crash, or the huge morrel mushrooms I saw as I was trudging up one of the many uphills. I am already scheming about buying a better bike and maybe training for another race in August. In the interest of full disclosure I would like to say that of all the riders that finished the course I came in dead last with a time of 2 hours 29 minutes. However out of the 102 riders that participated only 87 finished. I was one of those 87, and I did it on a 300 dollar bike and with no skill to speak of. I am a proud of that and I will be wearing this tshirt for a long time.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Catholic Patriots

I make no secret of the fact that I am Catholic, and by Catholic I mean Big "C" ,Pope Catholic. My Catholic faith is a huge part of my life. Everything I am flows from my faith and the Church. I recently became a member of the 4th degree of the Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal men's organization with councils throughout the world. It was founded by Father Michael J. McGiveny in 1882 at New Haven, Ct. The Knights have 4 degrees based on the virtues of Charity, Unity, Fraternity and the highest Patriotism.

After I completed the ceremony I started to think back about the many patriotic Catholic men I had known about or read about. I was taken back to that Sunday in 2003 during my time in Iraq. I had been notified that there was going to be a priest available at the FOB and if I could make my way there Mass would be conducted. I managed to get a ride the 35-40 miles from our patrol base back to the FOB in time for Mass that Sunday Morning. The Priest was an Air Force Chaplain, a Major if I remember correctly. There was about 20 of us there sitting on the iconic Iraqi plastic chairs in a small windowless room on the compound of our Kurdish allies. It speaks to the religious tolerance of the Kurds that we were allowed to have Mass on their facility. We had no missals, no choir, nor an organ. All we had was a Priest and our faith. We came together as Catholic men in a time of war and it didn't matter that no one could sing or that you didn't know all the words, for that hour,that room was part of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. When Mass was completed, Father conducted a group absolution and I left feeling as if no matter what my future held I would be ready for it.

Catholics have contributed mightily to this nation and other Catholic men have come together in time of war. Here are some Catholic Men that earned the Medal Of Honor while serving God and Country.

Captain Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace U.S. Army Special Forces

Captain Joseph T. O'Callahan U.S. Navy Chaplain

Lt. Vincent Robert Capadonno U.S. Navy Chaplain "Grunt Padre"

MA2 Michael Monsoor U.S. Navy Seal
I am very proud to be a Catholic man and Patriotic American.

Vivat Jesus and De Oppresso Liber

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I spent the majority of my time in Special Forces as a Military Freefall (MFF) Parachutist. Military Freefall is also called HALO for High Altitude Low Opening and is a specialty infiltration tactic taught at the Special Warfare Center and School. Some people say “oh you’re a skydiver?” Military Freefall parachuting is not skydiving. Although the concept is the same skydivers have minimal gear and normally jump from altitudes less than 10,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) so there is no need for supplemental oxygen. MFF parachutists routinely jump from higher altitudes up to 25,000 AGL with weapons, supplemental oxygen, 90 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies and generally at night. The military can make anything fun into a chore. Skydiving is also a means to an end whereas MFF is merely an infiltration method and is generally only the beginning of the mission.

I was on three different MFF teams 083, 014, and 074. Additionally I was an instructor at the Military Freefall School for 3 years. I have made over a 1200 MFF jumps most in a tactical scenario of one kind or another. I have made tandem jumps and jumps as a videographer as well and in all that time I had one malfunction. This is statistically very good as I believe the average is 3 malfunctions for every 1000 jumps. But like Clint Eastwood said in “Unforgiven” “I was always lucky in the order of things.” Lucky and as most people will tell you I am pretty anal when it comes to things that effect me. Actually the one and only malfunction I had wasn’t even my fault.

I was attending the MFF Jumpmaster course in 1993 at Ft. Bragg N.C.; this course produces subject matter experts in the art of Military Freefall. Graduates of the MFF Jumpmaster course must pass a rigorous academic and physically demanding program of instruction to earn the Jumpmaster wreath and star. Week one primarily instructs students in the conduct of the Jumpmaster Personnel Inspection (JMPI). The JMPI is how a MFF Jumpmaster ensures that all parachutists are properly rigged and safe to jump. The JMPI consists of hundreds of memorized points of inspection and experienced Jumpmasters seem to be performing a martial arts “kata” as they flow from one point to the next. Students are taught that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” during training as they seek to commit this kata to memory. The culmination of the first week is the JMPI test which consists of the student jumpmaster inspecting three jumpers rigged in different configurations.

The configurations are “Hollywood” or a jumper with a parachute only, combat equipped with a parachute, weapon and rucksack, and finally a jumper rigged with a parachute and supplemental oxygen. The time standards for all three configurations are added together and the jumpmaster candidate has 6 minutes to conduct the inspections without missing any major discrepancies and less than 3 minor discrepancies. Minor discrepancies are defined as incorrect rigging that can cause pain and discomfort to the parachutist whereas major discrepancies could result in death. The stress placed on the students by themselves and the instructors is incredible and less than 30% of students pass the JMPI test. This test and the stress involved weeds out those that cannot function under the pressure and responsibility that is commonplace during MFF Jumpmaster operations.

Week two and three consists of teaching the jumpmaster student how to determine Automatic Activation Device opening altitudes in the case of a jumper malfunction, wind drift calculations, map reading, static spotting exercises and finally live spots out of a variety of military aircraft both prop driven such as a C130 and Casa 212 and jets like the C141 and C5. Spotting is the MFF Jumpmasters bread and butter; this is how jumpmasters maneuver the aircraft to precisely intersect that point on the ground which will result in the parachutists landing safely at the designated drop zone. This is done from thousands of feet above ground level, often at night and due to wind conditions the release point is often miles from the drop zone. Jumpmaster students are required to pass 10 live spots both day and night to graduate from the course.

All this information was necessary to put my malfunction in the proper context. My class or what was left of it was in the back of a C141 aircraft conducting our final round of night spots at the time of the incident. We routinely started our night spots in the early morning hours so as to finish as day was breaking. Jumpmaster students did not land with the aircraft as we were parachutists first and students second so at the end of every block of instruction we jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft. This was done in hours of daylight so as to make it easier to find injured and lost students, the military is very efficient and pragmatic even in training.

I had finished my final spot early and for all intents and purposes I was a graduate, so I spent the rest of the training flight dozing in the front of the aircraft as we did endless racetracks in the sky allowing the other students to finish their assigned spots. As dawn approached the MFF instructor that had been sitting next to me motioned for me to don the rucksack we had been using as a training aid. Great, I thought three freak’n rucksacks and I have to jump one while all the other guys get to jump Hollywood. At the time I had less than 100 MFF jumps and whenever I jumped combat equipment I was on the ragged edge of instability. Jumping combat equipment would certainly turn the pleasant skydive I had anticipated into another onerous chore. The three of us that had “volunteered” were put in the front of our group due to the fact we were heavier and would fall faster than the other students. As I waited on the edge of the ramp looking out and down at the terra firma 12500 feet below I constantly fidgeted and adjusted my equipment like I was Nomar Garciaparra stepping to the plate.

As the Jumpmaster extended his arm in the signal to exit the aircraft the MFF instructor grabbed my chest strap and leapt from the ramp. We formed a two way as we rode the “hill” of transition and leveled out to belly to earth freefall. The instructor released my chest strap and instructed me to do some left and right turns, continuing to instruct and keep my skills sharp even as the course drew to a close. I was ecstatic, I was rock solid in freefall and I knew when I landed I would be an MFF Jumpmaster course graduate. At 6000 feet AGL I looked up, down, left, and right clearing my airspace in preparation to pull my ripcord. At 5000 feet I waved my hands above my head in a jumping jack motion signaling to those parachutists above me that I was about to deploy my canopy. At 4000 feet I firmly grasped my ripcord and pulled vigorously, I saw the MFF instructor seemingly disappear as I decelerated from terminal velocity. My spring loaded pilot chute caught the rushing air and swiftly pulled the rest of my main canopy from its deployment bag. As the rapidly expanding canopy forced my slider down my suspension lines to its position above my head, I grabbed my steering toggles and looked forward. This entire process took approximately 3-5 seconds.

While I was still attempting to gain control of my canopy I saw a brown and green blur flash in front of my eyes, this was followed by a sickening sight. Parachutists are instructed to turn right to avoid collision in the event of a high altitude entanglement unfortunately I had not fully gained control of my canopy and the forward motion of my parachute drove me straight into my classmates blooming canopy. His MC4 parachute main canopy engulfed me, entangling me in his suspension lines and blinding me. In the event that an entanglement occurs, and we were definitely entangled, the higher parachutist should cutaway from the lower parachutist to avoid the possibility of further entanglement. To this day I have no idea who cut away first or who was higher; I was in a frantic struggle against time and altitude as I attempted to clear his canopy from myself and my equipment. Suddenly as clear as a bell I heard someone yell “Cutaway!!!” Looking up I saw my partially inflated canopy surging in and out in obvious distress. Figuring by this point I had nothing to lose I grasped my red cutaway handle with my right hand and my reserve ripcord with my left. “Arch, pull cutaway pillow, pull ripcord, clear burble, check canopy!!”

Once satisfied I had a working canopy again, I checked my altimeter and saw I was below 500 feet and better attempt to turn into the wind for landing. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing which way the wind was blowing as in all the excitement I had totally lost sight of the on ground wind indicator. I desperately flared my canopy and amazingly did a stand up landing in the sand and short, scrubby pine trees on the edge of the drop zone. Cadre members and the drop zone medic rushed to my location asking me if I was ok and if I was hurt. Other than being at a high state of alertness I was fine. As I gathered my wits about me I discovered I had neglected to lower my rucksack for landing and it was still dangling in its original jump configuration between my legs. I also discovered that my classmate’s main canopy was still tangled in the equipment attaching points at my waist. After assisting me in removing my equipment myself and the other student were hustled back to the school administration building to write our statements while they were still fresh in our minds.

After we wrote our statements we were released back to our barracks to await a summons by the school Safety Officer. I was sweating bullets, had I come all this way only to be failed due to a safety violation? I didn’t think I had done anything wrong but my self doubt was increasing with every passing moment. Once I entered the office of the Safety Officer I was subjected to a cross examination, the kind I had imagined was reserved for the most hardened criminal. The Safety Officer, Company Commander and Sergeant Major did everything in their power to put a chink in my story, to trip me up and cause me to make a verbal error.

Finally after what seemed like hours the Sergeant Major looked at me and told me I was dismissed. I said “Dismissed as in failed or dismissed as in free to leave?” He said “You’re free to leave now get the hell out.” As I walked down the hallway towards the exit I saw one of the instructors and asked him what my status was. He told me to shut up and get out, that I would be ok and I best make myself scarce. You didn’t have to tell me twice, well maybe you did but you didn’t have to tell me three times. I later learned the other student was dropped from the course for failure to clear his airspace below and for causing a high altitude entanglement. I was sad that it had to end that way, but in the dog eat dog world of Special Operations mistakes get people killed and he had violated several safety protocols during our incident. Bottom line was, I left Ft. Bragg sporting a brand new shiny MFF Jumpmaster Badge and in the end that is all I cared about.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Former Action Guy

What is a "Former Action Guy?" Well to be a Former Action Guy implies that you were once an "Action Guy." Action Guys are known by many names "Door Kicker", "Snake Eater", or even "An Operator. " I retired from the US military in 2004 after 22 years service, I spent 14 years of that time as a Special Forces soldier or "Green Beret", think John Wayne. I did the typical Action Guy things like move,shoot, and communicate. I hung out with other Action Guys, I studied Action Guy materials and watched Action Guy shows. I was an Action Guy.

Then I retired and suddenly I was a Former Action Guy. I chose to move myself and my family back to the Midwest and I took an office job. I was about as far from being an Action Guy as I could be. Sure I tried to keep up with the Action Guy lifestyle for awhile, I applied for a few law enforcement positions, I toyed with the idea of going back overseas as a contractor but because of family considerations and other things none of this panned out. So there I was stuck in an average everyday guy job still feeling very much like an Action Guy but miserable because it was obvious I was not.

In a society which very much ties a man's job to his sense of self worth, I had went from the top to the bottom. I had been at what many would call the pinnacle of the military experience, I was a member of an elite unit with a rich history then in a day that changed and I was just another guy. Life by necessity moves on but as a guy with a type "A" personality and an admitted over achiever I found it very hard to come to grips with my loss of status.

So I dealt with it, I quit my crappy office job and got a job in the security industry which I enjoy and while not as exciting as what I did before still makes me feel like I am contributing to society in a positive way. I still get my "Action Guy" fix now but in different ways. I joined a running club and run long and short distance races, I have gotten into mountain biking, and back into pistol shooting. I want to try turkey hunting. I am a state registered High School sports official in Football,Wrestling, and Baseball and officiate hundreds of contests a year. I got certified as an Emergency Medical Technician and volunteer at a local ambulance service 90-100 hrs a month. I plan on upgrading to paramedic sometime in the future. I have become involved in veterans affairs and am active in the local Veteran's of Foreign Wars and the Knights of Columbus.

As a Former Action Guy I still get to do some cool things. I helped a newborn baby, born unexpectedly and at home make its way to a hospital. I assisted in the rescue of 8 drunk and hypothermic college kids who may have been fatalities if we hadn't pulled them from that icy creek. I have officiated matches of State Champion wrestlers and acted as Back Judge in a games between top ten Football teams. I took my youngest shooting and taught him how to aim a pistol. I ran for City Council and lost ( I did get 10% of the vote though). So after 6 years I have adjusted to life as a Former Action Guy. This blog is part of that process, I will be posting old war stories mostly so I don't forget them and random thoughts. For my friends these events may or may not resemble what you remember but it is my story and I am sticking to it.

So Ciao and for those that know DAJETFU.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 9th

So their I was hugging the ground like a little bitch trying to see how much of my body I could fit into the 2 ft wide 2 foot deep trench I was sitting in. Meanwhile Iraqi artillery shells were hitting less than 5 meters away raining shrapnel, rocks and dirt down on top of my Ballistic Helmet, Personnel, Ground more commonly known as the “Kevlar”. My Special Forces A Team had been calling devastating air strikes on the Iraqi Division dug in along the Kani Domlon ridgeline in Northern Iraq for about two weeks and I guess we pissed them off. The Iraqis had taken a terrible pounding and I had observed some of them even shedding their uniforms and deserting via a tractor earlier in the day. I had also observed about thirty of them turn into little pink smears on the grass as a B2 bomber unloaded its entire payload on their bunker.
We had been operating out of some fighting positions the Iraqis had abandoned as they retreated before the Kurdish Pershmerga and US Special Forces teams that had infiltrated Northern Iraq. The Iraqi military had consolidated their defense in a loose ring around the strategically oil rich city of Kirkuk. Occupying many concrete bunkers that were spread about five hundred meters apart; the Iraqis had also replicated their tactics of the first Gulf War and set some of the oil wells on fire. Apparently this was done in an attempt to obscure their positions from our aircraft. Earlier as I peered at the enemy positions through my binoculars and worked up coordinates for the next strike, I wondered if I would be permanently affected by breathing in all this oil smoke which covered us like a thick but slightly greasy fog.
However as I was getting more intimate with the Iraqi countryside I was worried about the more permanent problem that seemed to be facing me. It was about 2300 and pitch dark. Prior to nightfall we had seen some artillery fire land about 2000 meters away but didn’t pay it much attention other than to note it for our situation report. But now as half the team was preparing to bed down and the other half was on watch, the artillery started to bracket our position. The enemy observers added and dropped in range until they let a full blown fire for effect loose on our position.
My commo guy was yelling into the satcom radio that we were experiencing contact; meanwhile I was rousting the rest of the team trying to get them under cover. “Here it comes again, boys” I said as we heard the muffled report of the Iraqi artillery that was followed not to long after by another series of earth shattering and ear ringing explosions. The Kurdish Major who was my counterpart on this patrol, grabbed my arm and was trying to yell something about the incoming in my ear. However between his broken English and the noise I could only catch the word “Peshmerga” as he shook his head in a negative fashion. Was he trying to tell me we were not the primary target of this barrage? Was he trying to indicate the primary target was the Peshmerga forces that had been probing the Iraqi positions along the ridgeline?
Primary target or not when under stress soldiers always fall back on their training, every school I had went to from Basic Combat Training to Ranger school had drilled into me that when you are on the receiving end of an artillery attack you un-ass the area as quickly as possible. So this is what we did, I instructed my team members to grab the small amount of gear we had around our position and to load up in the white Land Rover Defender four wheel drives we were traveling in. We piled into our vehicles and clipped our night vision goggles to our helmets. Meanwhile the Kurds loaded up in the one rusty suburban they had for transportation. Except for the red tracers flying down the valley toward and around our position and the artillery flashes surrounding us there was no light. We drove in blackout conditions using our night vision goggles to navigate as the Kurds followed behind in their vehicle. My plan was to try and find another location to set up shop, one that had not been compromised by the Iraqi observers. Everyone was at a high state of alertness as we drove across the Iraqi countryside paralleling the bluff that ending abruptly at the steep valley that it seems Peshmerga forces where advancing up towards the Iraqi positions.
We were approaching a linear danger area (road) when suddenly my driver who was our senior weapons sergeant yelled “Ambush!! We have men and weapons on the road!!” He immediately threw our vehicle in reverse and tried to break contact. Unfortunately he forgot we were the lead element in a line of 4 vehicles. The vehicle immediately behind us managed to stop but was hit in the front fender by my vehicle as it backed up. The third vehicle in line was the Kurdish vehicle which continued the accordion effect and slammed into the spare tire on the back of the vehicle in front of it so hard the front of their vehicle was pushed into the radiator cracking it and busting a headlight. I yelled at him “What the fuck dude, you need to fuckin think before you go hauling ass!!” Meanwhile, whoever he saw on the road had disappeared, if they where even there at all.
So there we were in the middle of no mans land with two smashed up vehicles, one which was barely drivable. I had my team members pull security as I tried to assess the damage by red lens flashlight. We were barely 1000 meters from where we had just experienced the artillery attack and I felt like the leader of the ass clown circus as I tried to explain to the Major I was sorry we had destroyed his truck. I determined our best course of action was to return to base and see if we could repair the Kurdish truck. Our patrol base was in the village of Klawkut which was about 10 kilometers east of our current position. We limped back to base with the Kurdish vehicle in tow, driving thru the countryside of Northern Iraq it took us 4 more hours to move those 10 kilometers and we arrived at out patrol base about 0400 exhausted. After waking up my Team Leader and explaining the situation I told the guys to bed down and figured we would sort things out in the morning.
The next morning we reported what had happened to our company headquarters and we were instructed in no uncertain terms to get our asses back out there and establish a new observation post. So I loaded my team back up in our vehicles, taking only 2 Kurds with us we established a new OP a little farther north of our previous position. Shortly after we arrived we received radio traffic that we were to engage no one west of a particular gridline on the map. Shortly after that we received word that the Iraqi forces had deserted the ridgeline and Peshmerga where streaming hell bent for leather towards Kirkuk. I informed my Team Leader that the Kurds where heading towards Kirkuk and agreed to link up with them at a small village that we had used as a reference point before. As we waited at the linkup for the remainder of our team we saw a regular parade of buses, cars, dump trucks, and pickups filled with Peshmerga streaming south west along the main highway to Kirkuk. What happened when they got there is another story.
I found out later that April 9th was a watershed day for the invasion of Iraq. It was the day the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. It was the day that Baghdad was taken and the Iraqi forces collapsed. Although I will never know for sure I believe the fierce direct and indirect fire we experienced on that evening was the last attempt of the Iraqi forces to cover their withdrawal as they melted before the onslaught of American air power and Kurdish foot soldiers. For me the evening of April 9th will always stick in my mind as the night I had a fender bender in the middle of a firefight.

The Road to Klaw Kut

The road to Klaw Kut was rutted, narrow and peppered with the occasional landmine. This was early in the invasion of Iraq and the Improvised Explosive Device had not become popular as of yet with the citizens as a weapon of choice. The explosive devices we encountered as we drove along were probably left over from the 1980’s when Saddam Hussein had launched a campaign of eradication against the Kurdish people in the north of Iraq. Or possibly they were left over from the constant inner tribal turmoil between the Kurds themselves.
We had been directed by our company command to find a suitable base of operations from which to launch airstrikes and reconnaissance missions against the Iraqi armored units amassed along the “Green Line” northeast of the city of Kirkuk. The Green Line roughly corresponded to the non official border between the Iraqi held territory and the semi autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq. However the Kurds considered Kirkuk as historically part of their territory and were very intent on getting it back. With the help of the good old U.S. of A, they saw their chance.
Within that context my Special Forces team was making its way from the location of our company headquarters or AOB in Taq Taq, Northern Iraq towards the village of Klaw Kut. Accompanying us were about 30-40 Kurdish Pershmerga fighters, we all had the intent of setting up a patrol base from which to harass the Iraqi Army. We really had no idea what to expect in Klaw Kut, we had literally picked it off a map. It was far enough back from the Green Line to provide protection from artillery fire and looked large enough and we hoped friendly enough to sustain ourselves and our Kurdish compadres.
As we crested the ridgeline surrounding Klaw Kut and I got my first view of the village, literally my first thought was of Indiana Jones. This village was right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, not the jungle chasing natives’ part but the windblown dusty desert part. Even though this part of Iraq experienced a modicum of rainfall and was actually quite green this little village was a dustbowl sitting on dirt patch. Klaw Kut was located in a small valley with an unnamed creek running through it. The road we drove in on ran parallel to the creek and had to be forded to get to the main part of the village. All the structures consisted of the mud walls and flat roofs that were common in Iraq. Each family housing unit also had a stable attached directly to the living area, apparently so light-fingered neighbors wouldn’t run off with the family goat or donkey. Livestock is wealth in this part of the world and they take their goats seriously. It was kind of disconcerting to see a donkey poke his head in the window while you were trying to talk but you get used to it.
The only structure not constructed with mud was a small cinderblock building sitting next to the road and adjacent to the creek. This building looked empty and we figured it would do as good as any for our patrol base. The creek would provide a suitable water source and the valley would provide protection and allow us to place observation posts for early warning. As soon as we stopped our little convoy we were surrounded by children trying to all talk at once and grab at our equipment. Through our interpreter we managed to contact the village “headman” and ask for permission to commandeer the building for our use. Apparently this building had been built as a school by some international aid organization but had sat unused for some time. They were happy to let us use it for a price.
After a few hours we had negotiated rent for the building, the procurement of a diesel generator with weekly resupplies of diesel and a once daily hot meal provided by the local women. After some “man hugs” and hand shakes we proceeded to occupy the small two room building. The Pershmerga erected a large tent, similar to a U.S.GP (General Purpose) medium, which to stay in while we laid our sleeping gear in one room of the cinderblock building and put our communication equipment and supplies in the other. One room would be our sleeping room and the other would be our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) /radio room.
We would split our team into two parts. One half of the team would be commanded by the Captain our Team Leader and as the Team Sergeant and senior enlisted member of the team I would command the other half. We would rotate between our patrol base and the Green Line performing reconnaissance and calling in airstrikes on the Iraqi positions along the Kani Domlan ridgeline. Each half would stay out 2-3 days and return while the other manned the TOC.
Eventually we bedded down pulling fifty percent security and planning on sorting out our first mission in the morning. In the morning however we were greeted by the village headman and his wife with a pot of hot chicken and rice. They also provided some flat bread with which to scoop up the food and some tomatoes. While we were eating, the headman mentioned that to officially seal the deal myself and the Team Leader needed to meet with the local village elder who also happened to be the village religious leader. His house was the largest in the village and doubled as the mosque; by largest I meant it had two rooms and a mud wall surrounding his yard. This created a small compound that was shaded by a very large tree that looked to be of the pine family. We agreed to meet him for lunch and the headman and his wife left to take him the news.
Approximately 1200 hours we moseyed down the hill and across the creek then back up the other hill to the elder’s compound. We were accompanied by our interpreter and a few Peshmerga. We stopped briefly at the gate to the compound as our interpreter talked to another Peshmerga soldier who seemed to be guarding the entrance. We entered the compound and were taken around to the back of the hut under that big pine tree. There were a few male individuals sitting around on mats drinking tea and talking to each other. One of the Peshmerga was playing some kind of stringed instrument similar to a ukulele and singing softly to himself. I asked what he was singing and our interpreter told me it was a popular Kurdish folksong, He must have killed on Karaoke night. We were offered hot tea which we accepted. The tea was served in the Middle Eastern style in small glass cups with no handles; it was loaded with sugar and about five thousand degrees. Even though I tried to be careful I burned my tongue and later developed a blister, I neglected to turn myself in for a purple heart however.
Eventually we were called inside the hut, entering through a small doorway and were greeted by a few women who were cooking something in a big pot over an open fire in the center of the room. I started getting nervous when we had to take off our boots and leave our M4 rifles by the door. However the Peshmerga were guarding the door and I decided to quit being so paranoid. We stepped into the other room in the house which had about 20 carpets laid in a crazy patchwork pattern to cover the dirt floor. There were about 5 men surrounding a large carpet laden with food and sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the corner was an old television set on one of those 1960’s TV stands with wheels. There was nowhere to plug in the television and it was more or less a piece of art. We sat down around the carpet and accepted another glass of tea, the elder motioned for us to dig in and we started piling some goat meat, rice and vegetables onto flatbread. The flatbread served as both plate and napkin for the meal. I couldn’t help but think how much this meal reminded me of “Robin Sage” the culmination exercise for the Special Forces Qualification Course. During Robin Sage I had also been a student team sergeant and had to endure a scenario eerily similar to this. Although the country was “Pineland” and the natives were drunken North Carolina rednecks. Never the less I marveled at how the training scenario had actually got it right.
We continued to talk to the village elder through the interpreter and he related how he was very glad to see us because Saddamn was no longer sending aircraft to bomb the village. He also asked if we would be helping the villagers and their relatives reclaim their lost possessions in Kirkuk. He certainly had a long memory as Saddamn had bombed the north in the 1980’s and kicked the Kurds out of Kirkuk during the 1970’s “arabization” of the city.
While my Team Leader engaged the religious leader in conversation I noticed that one of the other men was constantly trying to tune in a radio station on a small transistor radio. He would find something he liked on the dial and listen to it momentarily before he would move on down the dial, he must have had the Kurdish version of ADD. Eventually all the goat was gone and all the stories told, we politely said our goodbyes, put our boots back on, retrieved our weapons and went back to our little hootch. At that point we had no idea how long we would be staying in Klaw Kut but the best I could tell was that we had made a good impression and we would have a solid base from which to rest and recuperate from our patrols against the Iraqis.


My Special Forces A team was sitting on the tarmac waiting to infiltrate Northern Iraq on a MC130 which is the Special Ops version of the C130 cargo plane. This was the third day of the war in Iraq and we had caught a break. We had been told our sortie would be able to over fly Turkey on our planned flight route to Al Sulmeniyah Iraq. The previous two days the teams infiltrating into the north had to fly a route that came to be known as “the Ugly Baby” because it hugged the Syrian and Iraqi border. The anti aircraft fire along this route was so intense that I had seen one of the MC130’s arrive back at our departure airfield with two windows shot out.
As dusk started to settle in our MC130 taxied up and turned to face its tail towards our location. The hot wash of the propellers burned my face as I struggled to get my massive rucksack up on a shoulder. We had packed every square inch of our gear with the tools of war. Along with my rucksack which weighed upwards of 130 pounds I had my load bearing vest crammed with ammunition and fragmentation grenades that caused it to weigh about 60 pounds. I was also carrying an M4 rifle as my primary weapon and an M9 pistol as a secondary weapon. I was the Team Sergeant so I had the privilege of carrying a lot of the extra batteries for our communications gear. All and all though my load was about average, others had heavier stuff than I did. Along with my team there was some kind of hospital triage unit on board, their equipment, and a whole lot of ammunition pallets.
Once we started to load the aircraft I brought up the rear making sure no one had left any gear behind on the small grassy strip we had been sitting on for the last few hours. I got into the aircraft and noticed the majority of the customary red web seating had been removed to allow for max payload. I actually made the whole flight sitting on a box of hand grenades due to the lack of seating. As a seat belt I had a piece of one inch tubular webbing attached to my belt by a snap link with the other end snap linked to a cargo tie down on the aircraft floor. More like a leash really.
We took off and were totally blacked out. Once my eyes got adjusted I stood up to look out the window and could see the lights of towns below. Being a Military Freefall Jumpmaster I was used to identifying things on the map from high altitude but soon I ran out of known area and sat back down to wait out the flight, and as is customary for me on a military aircraft I fell asleep. After an undetermined amount of time the Air Force crew chief woke me up and said we were ten minutes out from Iraqi airspace, I relayed the message to my Team Leader and from then on every one on the aircraft was at a high state of alertness. Not really scared but just generally nervous and jumpy. I for one didn’t know what to expect having never infiltrated an enemy country in the dead of night by Air Force aircraft it was all new to me. I had been told our route would have less Anti-Aircraft fire but it only takes one ya know?
I also hate feeling out of control. Sitting in the back of a dark aircraft waiting for a surface to air missile to come through the ass end can make you feel like that. To try and get oriented I stood up again and looked out the small porthole type window in the side of the plane. We had lost plenty of altitude and we were flying 200-300 feet off the deck, so low I could actually judge our speed and see the lights in the villages as we flew over. In the distance I could see tracer bullets arcing into the sky but could not see what they were being fired at. Maybe the Iraqis were trying to set up some kind of wall of steel in the hopes one of our aircraft would fly though it. I could not see what was in front of us, which was probably a good thing, however our pilot could.
The pilot was doing things with that plane I had never seen a C130 do before, twisting and diving like it was a much smaller plane. I have thousands of flight hours in a C130 but this ride was unlike anything I had ever been on before. Time and time again as he banked and turned I was pulled off my feet and slammed to the deck by the web tether I had attached to the deck. Finally after I had enough I realized the absurdity of wearing a seat belt when we where being shot at. I took the safety line off and wrapped it around my waist. I kept struggling to look out the window catching red and green flashes as they flew in and out of my peripheral vision.
Suddenly we went into an even steeper dive and for a second I thought we had been hit. But when I heard the whine of hydraulics lowering the wheels I realized we were landing, time to put your tray table in the upright and locked position. The landing was surprisingly smooth and was followed immediately by a violent reversal of thrust as the pilot attempted to stop the aircraft and I once again lost my balance and fell down. I was about as ready to get out of this plane as any I had ever been in. At that point I didn’t care who was outside. I gave instructions to my team and told them to pull security in a semi circle as we unloaded the aircraft.
The ramp was lowered and we hauled ass out of the aircraft. Half of us pulled security while the rest started pulling rucksacks and equipment off the tailgate. Once our personal gear was out of the way a small forklift materialized and started pulling pallets of ammunition and the CONEX containing the field hospitals equipment off the plane. As my eyes adjusted to the outside I realized our small internal perimeter was within a much larger perimeter manned by Kurdish Peshmerga. They were ringing the entire airfield about every twenty feet. Our company SGM came up and yelled in my ear to grab our stuff and follow him. As we trudged down the airfield the plane we had come in on took off. It had taken about 5 minutes to unload and they were gone. I didn’t envy them the return trip back along the route we had just come. I gained a lot of respect for the Air Force during that little flight.
In a surreal turn of events we loaded all our gear onto a collection of civilian buses complete with little fuzzy dingle balls in the windows. We had stuff piled everywhere and were standing in the aisles as we took off. After about a fifteen minute drive we pulled into a driveway manned by some Kurdish guards, as they raised the bar that was blocking the road I noticed a sign in Kurdish and English declaring the compound the Headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). We pulled up to a large building and off loaded our gear. The SGM had me follow him inside where he showed me around. Our Company Commander was inside, he looked at me and said “Welcome to Iraq, find a place for your guys to rack out we will be leaving in the morning.” After determining we had no defensive duties for the night we each found a little place to call our own. After consuming an MRE and a bottle of water I ended up crashing out on the tile floor of a hall way.
I wasn’t sure what the morning would bring. I knew we would be getting vehicles and moving farther south into Iraqi controlled territory. At that point I was just happy to be in relative safety and fell asleep wondering where the hell we were at on the map. Welcome to Combat


The War on Terror officially started for me in November 2001 from that month until I retired from the military in 2004 I spent a total of three months at home. Those three months where not contiguous either but interrupted by various deployments and operations. My unit had been watching with great anticipation the military action that had surrounded 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Although certain elements of our unit where involved, in a piecemeal fashion, no large groups had deployed to this conflict. It was the baby of another Special Forces Group and Special Forces types are very turf conscious.
However in early November 2001 my team was alerted to deploy to Uzbekistan under a joint-training anti-terrorism program that had been enacted after 9/11. We were to go to an area of Uzbekistan just north of the Afghanistan border and conduct joint anti-terrorism training with the Uzbek military. In the days directly after 9/11 all a third world country had to do was scream “terrorist!!” and the U.S. military came running. The Uzbeks had been experiencing some difficulties with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This organization had been formed in the late 1990’s by a former Soviet paratrooper and an Islamic hardliner, both ethnic Uzbeks, for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Uzbekistan and instituting Islamic Sharia law.
We conducted our pre-mission training and isolation back at home station and prepared to deploy in late November. Small problem with our plan was, all and I mean all, Air Force aircraft going to that theatre of operations where allocated for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). We were not going to Afghanistan so guess what? That’s right no aircraft for you!!! Our alternate plan was to go by civilian airliner. There was a seventy pound limit on boxes to be loaded on civilian aircraft, so we organized packed and secured our gear in numerous seventy pound footlockers and hard plastic containers. We had to pack enough gear to last for an undetermined amount of time. We also had to deal with the contingency that we may have to self support our operation and furthermore there was a possibility we would roll over to a follow on mission in the immediate vicinity after our initial deployment was complete. Needless to say our hallway was lined with boxes on both sides and up to the ceiling.
On deployment day we loaded all our gear into a couple five ton trucks and then we piled on to the old Bluebird bus to take a ride to the civilian airport in Colorado Springs. Each member of my team got in line to check in with his personal gear, which included a rucksack, duffle bag or kit bag, and at least seven other assorted foot lockers and boxes. We all had orders authorizing us excess baggage. I think my total baggage bill was over five hundred dollars and that was on top of my plane ticket to Uzbekistan. This was just a few short months after 9/11 and security was very high at the airport. When my Senior Weapons Sergeant was asked if he had packed his bags himself and if he had any weapons to declare, he smiled at the counter person and said “Yep, I have 3 boxes of rifles, pistols and a machine gun right over there.” I thought the young lady behind the counter was going to have a cow.
Once we all got through checking in our baggage we moved to the screening area to be searched and scanned prior to boarding. The Senior Weapons Sergeant escorted our weapons to the hold of the plane and when he got back he was “randomly” picked to be searched more thoroughly. I think the airport personnel where having some payback for his little joke. Eventually we boarded the plane and took off for the first leg of our journey which would end in the City of Lights, Paris, France.
It was a twelve hour flight to Paris and I spent most of it sleeping and watching the movie “Kfax”, I think it had Kevin Spacey in it. When we landed in Paris we had an eight hour layover, so we drew straws over who got to guard the weapons and the rest of us took a train into Paris itself. I spent the afternoon touring the Cathedral at Notre Dame, taking pictures of things like the Eiffel Tower and drinking coffee at a café on the Champ Elysees’, being a tourist was relaxing, been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Eventually we wandered back to Charles Degaulle Airport and hung out until we boarded an Uzbekistan Airways plane headed for the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. As we boarded I could see that they hadn’t even bothered to paint over the old Soviet Union Aeroflot airline symbol on the side of the plane. It had only been ten years since the Soviet Union collapsed what was the hurry?
After another twelve hour flight we landed in Tashkent and were picked up by Embassy personnel and taken to the Sheraton in downtown Tashkent. This was a five star hotel and catered to foreigners. It would become our home away from home and our base of operations during our weekends off from the training. The next morning we were introduced to our interpreters and we all loaded our gear into some Range Rovers and some military trucks for the 200 km trip to the military base were we would conduct training. We had three interpreters, one of them didn’t speak very good English and we couldn’t pronounce his name so we called him Chuck. He was a nice guy if a little overwhelmed trying to make sense of all our military jargon and machismo. The other two interpreters were better as far as English abilities, one was named Abram and he was a former school teacher. A really good conversationalist and over our deployment I had numerous chances to talk to him. The third and final interpreter was a young college age guy who claimed to have lived in Detroit for awhile and now was back in Uzbekistan. He spent the entire deployment talking bad about the United States polices in the area while at the same time asking us how he could get back to the States. We joyfully assigned him the crappiest jobs during the deployment. If it was a choice of standing outside in the snow all day at the range or staying inside guess which interpreter got some range time? His attitude also earned him the nickname “Al” as in Al-Qaeda, He never got the joke.
It is hard to describe the crumbling infrastructure in a place like Uzbekistan, a place that was once a feather in the cap of the USSR. The Soviets had allowed a lot of ethnic Russian scientists and engineers to emigrate to Uzbekistan and the country had two official languages Russian and Uzbek. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the country had allowed its highways, power grid, and basic infrastructure to deteriorate to the point it was totally unreliable. Once you got out of the large cities like Tashkent or large military bases it was like going back 300 years, where the main mode of transportation was the donkey and the family goats slept in the same mud hut as the rest of the family. Whenever we traveled between our training base and Tashkent, which we did almost every weekend, we went well armed because of the very real threat of armed bandits and highway robbery.
Finally we arrived at our training base after turning off the highway onto a dirt road and winding our way into the mountains, eventually fording a small river that guarded the entrance to the base, we arrived at the “Spetznaz” camp at Baxmal. It is hard to translate the Cyrillic alphabet into our Latin alphabet but Baxmal was pronounced as “Bakhmal” with the kh sound more guttural and trilling. We were ushered into an empty barracks which had electricity but no running water and intermittent heat. For the rest of the deployment we would take baths out of the sink or a bucket except for the weekends when we luxuriated at the Sheraton. We quickly organized our living area and unpacked our gear as we were to start training the next day. We had developed a training plan back in the United States which consisted of teaching patrolling techniques, marksmanship, close quarters combat, medical training and leadership/human rights training. The United States government was big on emphasizing the unacceptability of human rights abuses in these former Soviet republics.
The next morning I assigned primary instructors and we went out to meet our counter parts. It was determined we would divide into thirds which worked out well as the Uzbeks were already organized into three separate “Spetsnaz” units. The Spetsnaz were supposedly our Russian equivalents and the idea was to exchange ideas and techniques. In reality we conducted all the training and they pretty much did what we said. So for the next few weeks we would alternate between patrolling, range time, class room and physical training. I came to a few conclusions during my time there. First were these soldiers were definitely not “Special Forces” at best they were at the level of a good private in the 82nd Airborne Division. With a few exceptions they had no prior concept of some of the techniques we showed them, and we had deliberately kept the concepts pretty basic to account for the language gap. Second thing I learned was everything in the former Soviet Union was cheaply constructed and poorly made. These guys got really good at making due without the luxury of spare parts and the latest equipment such as we were used to in the United States. I guess that is why we were there to raise their level of professionalism.
This was the first opportunity I had to use my Russian language skills outside the classroom and I really was getting fairly fluent by the end of the deployment, I also ended up getting to know a few of the Uzbek soldiers. Yuri was a former member of the Soviet Spetsnaz and was truly the most professional and technically proficient of all the Uzbeks. He was an ethnic Russian whose parents had been moved to Uzbekistan by the Soviets. He was a lieutenant and spoke only Russian. He refused to speak Uzbek and treated his own guys with a little bit of disgust. I often tried my language skills out on him and we would patrol together sometimes...but more on that later.
Another soldier I got to know although he spoke very little Russian or English was Misha. Misha was the stereotypical class clown always joking around. His favorite joke was to yell at me across some open space the little English he knew. “Hey Mike!! What Misha? F**K YOU! Then he would roar with laughter. He never got tired of that joke and would repeat it several times a day. When I left Uzbekistan he presented me with the ugliest striped dog ceramic piggy bank I have ever seen, I gave him my Gerber knife. I still have that bank.
Myself and Yuri would go on two man patrols around the perimeter of the base some days and he would show me where they patrolled the mountains looking for IMU infiltration routes. Once he pointed out some foot prints in the snow heading towards the base and said “Terrorist” as he pantomimed pulling the trigger on his AK-47. I took his word for it as I really couldn’t tell the difference between these footprints and any others we had seen. Another time a dog crossed our path and Yuri once again pretended to shoot it, then he looked at me and said ”Shaslik.” Shaslik is the Uzbek version of shishkebab and I was pretty sure he had eaten dog before. Actually I was pretty sure I had eaten dog as well, as a few days before I had seen one of the Uzbek soldiers deliver some meat to the back of the kitchen and I swear it had a paw attached. Later that evening we ate stew with mystery meat included. Oh well, when in Rome.... Occasionally Yuri would take us down to the Uzbek canteen which was really just a room in one of the military housing units. This military family made extra money by turning their living room into a small restaurant that served tomato salad, stew, tea and vodka. It was simple food and it was kind of weird eating in someone’s house but after a few shots of vodka things got easier.
Eventually our training cycle ended and it came the day when we were to pack up and leave. We said good by to our Uzbek counterparts had a closing ceremony. We gave the base a plaque to commemorate the joint training and the Uzbeks gave each one of us a curved knife with the word Uzbekistan etched into the blade. We once again loaded on to military trucks but this time we drove south to “K2” or Karshi Kharnabad, the main airfield the United States was using to support operations in Afghanistan. On the way home we finally got to ride in one of Uncle Sam’s aircraft. When we got to K2 we palletized our gear and hung out for about 20 hours waiting on our flight. During this time we got to socialize with a lot of the guys coming back or going into Afghanistan. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t a little professional jealousy present. These guys had been in combat recently and were all sporting Pashtun hats and devil may care attitudes. We felt that somehow we may be left out. Remember this was still late 2001 and no one was sure what would happen next. Little did I know that within eighteen months I would be eating goat and rice in the Iraqi countryside. Eventually we boarded the plane and made our way back to the States, we were already planning our next mission as my company was to go back to Kosovo before much longer.

Kosovo Kamenica

The cow I had my M2 .50 caliber machinegun pointed at continued to chew its cud as if nothing had happened. Satisfying myself that I was safe from any bovine hostility I swung the muzzle of the weapon back towards the two story white plastered building that served as the farmhouse. There had been reports of sniper fire in this area and my team had pulled our two up armored Humvees in a loose perimeter surrounding the farmhouse and the adjacent barn. The farm was something right out of every fairytale you ever read. The house was shuttered with bright red shutters and had an actual thatched roof. Surrounding it and the barn were free range chickens and cows that wandered the property with out the benefit of any barbed wire or enclosure that is so common in the United States. A little farther from the house you could see people cutting hay with scythes and actually constructing some honest to goodness haystacks.
After talking to the Ethnic Albanian family that lived on this property we discovered a 12 year old boy hiding in the barn with a small caliber rifle. Apparently he had decided that it would be fun to take pot shots at the Serbian farmers driving their horse and wagons down the two lane highway that ran adjacent to his family’s property. The farm was located outside an ethnically mixed Albanian and Serbian community in the northeastern corner of Kosovo. The name of the village was Kosovo Kamenica and my Special Forces team had been living in town for the last week attempting to defuse situations just like this. We took down the family’s name and location and through our Albanian interpreter “Sammi” we gave the young man a good chewing out. Not much else we could do as no one had actually seen him shooting at anyone and he had not hit anybody.
My company had deployed out of Stuttgart, Germany to Brindisi, Italy and a mothballed Air Force air station called San Vito. We had spent the time prior to our arrival in Kosovo training and standing by for on call Combat Search and Rescue(CSAR) operations in support of the NATO bombing campaign of the former Yugoslavia. While one team was on “up cell” for CSAR the rest of us trained on weapons, tactics, building entry, military freefall parachuting, communications and medical training. Basically everything the well dressed special operator needs to invade a foreign country.
The rumor mill was rampart with theories about when we would put troops on the ground to engage the Serbian boogie man that our President had decided needed to be taught a lesson. The international community felt that the Serbian ethnic cleansing policy in regards to the Albanian majority in Kosovo was not conducive to good order and stability in the region and had commenced a bombing campaign lead by the United States to encourage them to cease and desist. Some other special operators had linked up with the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army to conduct some CAS (Close Air Support) missions while my unit was doing CSAR. For the most part it was hurry up and wait, something I was used to after 15 years in the military. So this cycle of “up cell” and training went on for weeks and months until suddenly we were told to pack our bags and get ready to move by MC130 to Skopje, Macedonia.
The civilian airport in Skopje had enjoyed the benefit of millions of dollars of upgrades courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer since the NATO air campaign had started. We stayed in a tent city for a few days waiting on some vehicles and equipment to arrive. Once our company received its compliment of vehicles we headed north up the crappy two lane highway on our way to Kosovo. At the border was a massive line of cars and transport trucks. Those heading south were trying to escape the destruction caused by the Serbian forces and those heading north were trying to use the cover of U.S forces to go back to their homes. We bypassed the border crossing on a dirt road that went around the traffic jam and continued up through mountain passes. I was in the turret of the Humvee manning the .50 cal and I kept looking up at the steep mountain slopes to our left and right wondering if all the Serbs got the word that they were supposed to retreat. This road sure looked like a good place for an ambush to me.
Eventually the terrain flattened out and we continued up the highway, occasionally we saw children on the side of the road waving to us and we waved back. After a few hours drive we pulled off on a dirt road and headed up a hill guarded by an M1 Abrams tank that was flying a large American flag. I didn’t know it at the time but I would be back to this plot of land many times over the next 3 years. Eventually I spent 3 deployments and almost 9 months in Kosovo. This particular area would become the main U.S. base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel. But right now it was just a large grassy field with rolling hills. Many units were gathered in a hodgepodge with each one setting up concertina wire and GP Large tents to claim their own Tactical Operations Center (TOC) locations. My Team Sergeant located our company Sergeant Major and found out we would be moving farther north in the am. For the time being we crashed out around our vehicles in the grass. No need for anything more than local security, nobody was going to mess with the tanks we had surrounding us.
The next morning we headed north up the main supply route as it passed through the large city of Gnjilane and snaked its way through the mountains towards our objective the village of Kosovo Kamenica or Kamenica for short. Traveling through a small village we saw many people gathered at a concrete wading pool all trying to beat the heat. They had even brought their goats to cool off. We joked about that and nicknamed the area “the gene pool.” All the people we met were ecstatic to see us and all the kids would chase our vehicles and if we stopped everyone would throw flowers on us and try to shake our hands. All the people that is but the Serbs, they weren’t quite sure what to do seeing as they had just lost out on their status as the preferred minority in this province courtesy of NATO. We could tell the ethnicity of each village almost immediately. Minarets, happy children, flowers, shouts of Naaatoo! Naatoo! equaled ethnic Albanian. Orthodox Church, and sullen downturned faces equaled ethnic Serbian.
Finally we arrived in Kamenica and we scouted out places to set up our patrol base. We decided on an abandoned cement factory that still had glass windows and carpet in the administration building. The entire factory had been looted so we cleared out several offices and took them over as our base of operations. Shortly after setting up shop an entire company of US Marines showed up and asked if they could join us and occupy some of the other buildings. Be my guest Devil Dogs, the more the merrier and we could sure use the extra security. Over the next few days we made the area secure by sandbagging the perimeter, installing concertina wire and basically making it all homey in a military way. Our Senior Medic even devised a kind of shower using buckets and some PVC pipe he tied together. It sure was a big hit with us and the Marines. We gave the Marine private on gate guard duty the additional duty of keeping water boiling in a large vat so we could all take hot showers when required, ahhh the little things make life good!
Daily my team would drive out on mobile patrols in our area of operations and make first contact with villagers in the mountains and along the Serbian border assuring them that NATO was here to help both Serb and Albanian and that we were not there to take sides only to keep the peace and stop the bloodshed. As mentioned before more often than note we were greeted with flowers and offers of hot chai (tea). Eventually even the Serbs in the area warmed up to us and started offering us a little Pivo (beer) for our trouble. I will tell you that down the street from our factory was a Serbian pizza place that made an outstanding pizza pie and the Albanian cafés made a pretty tasty macchiato.
It wasn’t all pizza and cafés however, at night you could practically drive without headlights because of all the burning houses. The Albanians were using this time to take revenge on the Serbs by setting houses on fire and randomly shooting at Serb families. Their defense was that it was merely eye for an eye, I myself came to the conclusion that we had bombed the wrong people. This conclusion was vindicated in my mind many years later when it was reported ethnic Albanians from Kosovo had joined the Jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq and were actively trying to kill U.S. Soldiers. We were investigating the reports of a grenade attack inside the home of an eighty year old Serbian woman one day when the local Kosovo Liberation Army commander informed us she had killed herself playing with the grenade in her living room, I wanted to shot to him right in his slimy face, what a liar.
So the days went by, one patrol after another but I didn’t feel we were making any headway on either side. How were we expected to influence a conflict that had been going on for over 500 years? These people were still pissed at each other over a battle that had happened during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually more US forces arrived in the area and they had us withdraw piecemeal with some of my team leaving and other staying behind. I was one of the first to head back down the highway to Skopje to board that freedom bird back to Germany. Little did I know that I would be back again and staying a lot longer the next time.

Mountain Patrol

The Tennessee Valley Divide known as the TVD sits astride the border between north Georgia and southeast Tennessee. The rounded mountains of the TVD are the terminus of the ancient Appalachian mountain chain that stretches along the Eastern Coast of the United States from New England to Georgia. The TVD is used as a training tool for the United States Army Ranger School with its mountain Ranger camp located in the town of Dahlonega Georgia. The mountain Ranger camp is officially named Camp Frank C. Merrill. Colonel Merrill commanded a unit officially known as the 75th Infantry and unofficially known as Merrill’s Marauders in the Burma-China-India theater of World War II. Merrill’s Marauders harassed the Japanese Army and conducted a jungle guerilla campaign that is legendary in American military history. The current Ranger Regiment or 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger Airborne) traces part of its lineage from this World War II unit.
At the time I attended in 1988, Ranger school was divided into “city week”, Mountain, Florida and Desert Phases. When I arrived at the mountain Ranger camp fresh from the completion of “city week” at Fort Benning Georgia I didn’t know quite what to expect. City week, which was actually ten days in length, had been a shock but it had mostly consisted of physical training, road marches, and classroom instruction. As Ranger students we had yet to experience the graded combat patrols that would decide whether we would receive the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab.
After our chartered passenger buses arrived at the mountain camp we were none to gently instructed to get in formation by platoon and company. I was in third platoon, B Company also known as “B-no” as in “be no food and be no sleep.” We were assigned to six man wooden cabins or “hootches” that had been housing Ranger students since the 1950’s. At the command, move! We rushed from formation to our assigned hootch dragging our gear like a bunch of OD green hobos. Once inside as we choose our bunks we noticed that the walls and ceiling of our hootch was covered with names and dates of past Ranger students. Some of these names dated from the Vietnam era and as I fell asleep in my bunk that first evening I wondered if the men who had their names written the ceiling had made it back alive.
For the next several days we attended outdoor classroom instruction on patrol orders, movement formations, and how to conduct the three combat patrols. Combat patrols are divided into three categories, Reconnaissance, Raids, and Ambushes and all offensive operations in the United States Army no matter how complex can be broken down into these three categories. In the “Mountain” phase of Ranger School the basic unit size was the section which consisted of two 10 man squads. These twenty man units where broken down further as different specialties where assigned to Ranger students on a rotating basis. The important assignments were the graded leadership positions of Patrol Leader Assistant (PL), Patrol Leader (APL) and Squad Leader. These graded positions rotated on a daily basis and were the primary criteria by which Ranger students were evaluated.
Throughout this entire process we continued to conduct daily physical training surviving on one meal a day and 4 hrs of sleep or less. In fact the highlight of the day was our trip to the Mountain Dining Facility and a chance to eat a few of the fabled blueberry pancakes served there. Stories of these pancakes had been passed down from Ranger Student to Ranger student almost since the start of the course in the 1950’s. I believe it wasn’t so much that the pancakes where that good but that the lack of nutrition made their blend of carbohydrates and sugar just what the body needed and the mind followed. This lack of nourishment and sleep was one of several ways that the cadre simulated the stress of combat for the duration of the course. It was not uncommon for Ranger Students to lose twenty to thirty pounds during the course of training. Most Ranger qualified individuals see there weight loss as a badge of honor. I myself lost 23 pounds off a frame at the time that didn’t have much to lose.
Finally the day came when we would conduct our first graded patrol. It was a 10 day patrol across the TVD and we meticulously prepared for it as we had been taught. The student leadership issued the appropriate patrol orders, such as the warning order and operations order. These base orders which where given orally in a stylized fashion would be later modified on a daily basis by fragmentary orders. Much to my delight I was assigned the position of machine gunner and was assigned to carry one of the section’s M60 machineguns. The M60 was the basic infantry automatic weapon at the time and it weighed 23 pounds and was about 3 feet in length.
Prior to the patrol we were required to lay out all are gear for inspection and the packing list was required to be strictly adhered to. Only One Meal Ready to Eat was allowed per day as well as one pack of gum or chewing tobacco per day. Being a dipper of tobacco at the time and always hungry by this point I was glad to have something to put in my mouth to combat the hunger pangs that were almost constant. Once the packing list inspection was complete we shouldered out rucksacks and filed off in patrol order headed up the well groomed trail that headed us toward the TVD.
The pace was leisurely as we adjusted our gear and got comfortable for what we expected to be along overnight walk through the North Georgia forests. It was late afternoon and I watched the sunlight bounce of the leaves of the oaks and mountain laurel. The path we followed closely hugged the banks of a babbling creek that was splashing its way noisily down the valley as we headed in the opposite direction. I remember thinking that up to this point Ranger school was not as bad as I had been led to believe. Things were going to get worse.
As we continued walking in single file up the valley the trail got steeper and the sides of the valley started closing in until they blocked out the sun and we were in semi permanent dusk. Suddenly the man in front of me took a hard left and headed straight up the mountain ridge that had been paralleling our route. I remember thinking” What are we getting off a perfectly good trail for?” After about 100 meters of going up a forty degree slope filled with leaves and underbrush I liked carrying the M60 a lot less than I had previously. After 200 meters I was walking 10 meters and leaning against trees gasping for air as I tried not to fall back down the ridgeline. At 300 meters my thighs were burning likes my pants were on fire and I was very seriously contemplating throwing down my weapon and saying “I quit!” But I had an epiphany as I leaned against a skinny little pine tree trying to force some air in to my lungs. I realized that even if I quit I would have to get to the top of the ridge to get evacuated to the “Gulag” which is where all quitters, failures, and medical holds went on they way to be recycled to another class or kicked out of the school entirely. So I kept trudging upwards until finally I reached the top. Looking to my left and right I saw all the other students lined up in a single ragged rank trying to catch their collective breathes.
Our RI (Ranger Instructor) decided this was a perfect time to check everyone for ticks as Lyme disease was making a big splash in the papers at the time. I just thought it was an excuse to get us all to takes our uniforms off in the by now frigid mountain air, just another way to mess with our exhausted bodies.
So for the next week we walked day and night thru the mountains fighting the dense mountain laurel trees and thick sticky underbrush. The days followed a familiar pattern, conduct a reconnaissance patrol in the daylight then go back and conduct a raid or ambush in the hours of darkness on the target we had done reconnaissance on. Sleep was nonexistent and every time we stopped we had to dig in fighting positions with our entrenching tools and pull security. Any one caught sleeping or eating when they were supposed to be watching the perimeter was severely punished. The most feared punishment was the handing out of a “Major minus” by an Ranger Instructor (RI). These consisting of your name and the words major minus on a slip of paper. Any Ranger who received 2 major minuses during the conduct of any one phase of Ranger school was automatically put in the Gulag and recycled. Some guys screwed up so much that the 58 day Ranger course took them over 6 months to complete. Major plusses were also given out occasionally but not nearly as often as the minuses.
Every morning the RI’s conducted changeover as the old RI’s went home to clean up and eat and the new ones took over conducting the day’s mission. We students of course went nowhere and liked it. Shortly after RI changeover the new RI would bellow the roster numbers of the new student leadership for the day and what our objective would be. One day when I was the assistant patrol leader (Platoon Sergeant) we were crossing a linear danger area (road). My job was to police up the left and right side security details who had been securing the flanks of the crossing site. These details faced down the road providing cover for the rest of the patrol and as long as they were giving us the thumbs up it was good to go to cross. So anyway I was hissing at these guys to go ahead and get moving and follow the rest of the section but I couldn’t get the attention of the guy on the right. Left side security had already hightailed it across the road while myself and the right side security were the last two left on the other side. The patrol was still moving and we were in danger of having a break in contact which was a huge no go and would result in much pain from the Ranger Instructor. So I kept trying to get this guy’s attention, as I moved toward him without yelling and giving our position away. Did I mention we also did all these patrols with hardly a word? We communicated mostly thru a set of hand signals. So as I moved closer I finally realized that this doofus was sound asleep with his thumb up facing down the road. I gave him a kick in the foot and woke him up and as we were rushing to catch up with the rest of the patrol I started laughing to myself about how stupid this was and how tired we all were.
The last day of the patrol I was given the position of Patrol Leader (PL). I was the man, the most important position on the patrol, my decision was the one that counted and all the blame of a failed mission would rest on me. Every Ranger student must pass a patrol in each phase as a PL if they expect to graduate from the course. It was already getting dark and my mission was a simple one, get us from point A to point B to establish a patrol base for the evening. I was the PL for movement one of the easiest PL grades there was and I was psyched to pass and get out of the field. The RI let me study the map for about 10 minutes and memorize my route to our new tentative patrol base about 5 kilometers away. Although I wasn’t allowed to have the map I did have a compass and I memorized the route based on some key terrain. So I briefed my point man and compass man that we would be heading south along a major ridgeline until we got to the crest where the ridge fanned out into three distinct fingers. We would be following the middle finger down and to the west until we hit a major stream, this is where we would establish the patrol base, easy huh?
By the time we started off with me third from the head of the file it was already dark, things went fine until we got to the top of the ridgeline and took what I thought was the appropriate finger heading west. After walking downhill for about 3 hrs I realized we must have taken the wrong finger and I was hopelessly lost, not only me but the entire patrol. It was pitch black and the RI started asking in a loud and disgusted voice “Where are we PL?” What’cha going to do PL?” I was screwed, the best we could do was fumble around in the dark for 5 more hrs trying to find that stream the whole time the RI was on my ass. Finally he told me to have the patrol climb a ridgeline, establish a patrol base and we would figure out where we were in the morning. So I had them climb the ridge and we established a perimeter. After I had filled out a resupply request to be called in over the radio once light broke and we could figure out where we were, I started walking the perimeter kicking people awake and having them pull security. By the time I would make it full circle around the patrol the 1st guys would have fallen asleep again. I did this for what seemed like an eternity but was really probably only 3 hrs or so. When dawn broke the RI found a nearby road and called in our transportation back to the mountain camp. Later that afternoon we were being called one by one to receive our grades for the final patrol and I just knew I would be recycled for getting the entire patrol lost. So anyway he called me up to the picnic table and started off by telling me all the piss poor decisions I had made that had lead up to getting lost. Finally he said “ Ranger, I was going to fail you and recycle your ass but you showed intestinal fortitude by keeping your patrol awake and pulling security when you could have said screw it I failed and went to sleep. So I am giving you a passing grade.” I was ecstatic as I went back towards my hooch, out of the mountains and on to Florida phase, Kick ass!!!!