The Wolves of Helmand: A View From Inside the Den of Modern War by Frank “Gus” Biggio, copyright 2020 by Frank Biggio, published by Forefront Books, LLC. Reprinted with permission, all right reserved.
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.
—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
June 4, 2009
We could only fly in at night. A daytime flight in a CH-53 Sea Stallion was too risky, particularly during its relatively slow hover into a landing zone (LZ), when the semi truck-sized helicopter made an enticing target for an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) or a machine gun. From the relative safety of the airfield at Camp Bastion, the British-run military base in the desert of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, we lumbered onto the “bird” at around 10:00 p.m. I was part of a small advance team headed into the Afghan hinterlands to help prepare for our major operation, which would begin in early July.
The moon rising in a cloudless, starry night provided enough illumination to guide our way onto the helo’s back ramp. Our packs were stuffed with the gear we would need for the next six or seven months. We dumped them on the helicopter’s metal deck, strapped them down with a canvas cargo net, and then buckled ourselves into the fold-down aluminum-frame seats and waited for liftoff. The helicopter’s two pilots and three crew members moved with impatient intensity as they made their final preflight inspection of the cargo and Marines on board. Seeing my rank insignia, the crew chief handed me a helmet with a headset so I could hear and, if required, speak to the pilots and crew. I clipped the chinstrap of my Kevlar helmet to a carabiner on my flak jacket, put on the radio-equipped helmet, did a quick sound check, and flashed the crew chief a thumbs-up to confirm that it was working.
“We’re flying over some hot spots, Captain, so don’t make too much chitchat unless you really need to,” he said.
A few minutes after getting on board, we were airborne, on our way to Patrol Base Jaker, a small post in the heart of the Taliban-led insurgency in Helmand Province. Our flight path would take us due east, then south to the Helmand River that, clearly visible in the moonlight, would guide us to our destination.
The rhythmic thump of the helicopter’s rotors put me in a comfortable but sleepless trance as I stared out its open back ramp, taking in the scenery through the night vision goggles (NVGs) I held up to my eyes and which turned everything I saw into various shades of phosphorescent green.
Thirty minutes into our flight, my reverie was suddenly broken as the helicopter lurched upward and banked to the left, spewing a dozen chaff flares—pyrotechnic countermeasures designed to distract heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. The flares burst apart like fireworks, leaving a brilliant display of explosive light in our wake. The Marine manning the .50-caliber machine gun on the port side of the bird fired a dozen rounds at muzzle flashes he spotted on the ground, then a dozen more, and a dozen more after those. His aim was guided by streaks from the .50 caliber’s tracer rounds that reminded me of laser bolts slicing through the night sky.
I gripped my seat and anchored my feet on the deck, wondering if the belt strapping me in place would hold, briefly musing that the contract for its design and installation had probably gone to the lowest bidder. The cargo strapped down in the middle of the deck shifted heavily into the legs of the Marines sitting on the port side, then lurched back to starboard with a solid thump, volleying back and forth a few more times as the helo evasively weaved its way through the sky. Through my NVGs I saw the bright wide-open eyes of the other Marines on board as they hurriedly craned and pivoted their heads to catch sight of and make sense of what was happening around them. The tail gunner echoed the door gunner’s fire with three rapid bursts, the cracking of the rounds leaving a ringing echo in our heads louder than the constant high-pitched whine coming from the helo’s whirling engines.
Then, as quickly as the chaos had started, it stopped. We leveled off and continued flying toward our objective. The whole episode had probably lasted only ten or twelve seconds.
“You cool, sir?” came the crew chief’s steady voice over my headset.
“Yep, just another day in the sandbox, right?” I said, trying my best to avoid sounding as if I’d just been scared shitless.
“Yes indeed, sir. We’re touching down in five. Let your boys know.”
I held up a hand with all fingers extended, shouting, “Five minutes!” to my fellow passengers, who all gave me a thumbs-up to acknowledge the message. They began shifting in their seats, checking the straps on their gear, charging their rifles to Condition 1—a round in the chamber ready to fire—and putting their hands on their seat belt clips so they could pounce out of the helo once they felt it bump the ground.
Through my radio headset, I could hear a forward air controller (FAC) on the ground talking the pilots into our LZ. The crew began unhooking the straps on the cargo net. We would have about a minute to get our equipment and ourselves off the bird once it touched down. The pilots and crew didn’t want much idle time after landing. The longer the helo was stationary, the more time someone in the tree line near our LZ would have to get into a good firing position. While slowly lifting off the ground and silhouetted by the moon’s rays against the bluish black sky, a helicopter would be an enticing target for an insurgent with an AK-47 or an RPG wanting to make a name for himself.
The descent into the LZ was quick and steep. We hit the ground with a solid thud, and the crew wasted no time shouting us out of the helicopter as we formed a daisy chain to heave our bags and other cargo out the rear. I put my Kevlar helmet back on and took one last look through the bird to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind. The crew chief’s pat on the shoulder was more like a shove out the back ramp than a friendly goodbye. He and his crew were eager to get back in the air, out of range of small arms and rocket fire.
As soon as I stepped out of the helicopter and was on solid footing, the FAC vigorously waved both arms, yelling at me to “Get the fuck down!” The helo started its ascent and the Marines who had just rushed off it hugged the earth in the wake of its rotor wash. As the bird’s blades revved up, dirt and small gravel pelted our exposed skin, covering us in a fine layer of sand and dust that clung to our sweaty uniforms. I squeezed my eyes shut, plugged my ears, and thought how this was like a baptism of sorts, but rather than the purifying waters used in a religious ceremony, we were being anointed with the soil and grime of a war zone.
When the helicopter that dropped us off was safely airborne, we stood up in the suddenly quiet LZ and were greeted by a few of our hosts, soldiers from the British Army and a squad from the Afghan National Army, who had been defending the patrol base for the past several months.
“Gents, welcome to Patrol Base Jaker. Let’s get your kit inside, and then we’ll show you around your new home,” one of the British sergeants said.
There was a spooky, almost mystical ambience about the patrol base, like something out of the movie Apocalypse Now. The main building was a two-story unfinished brick structure about forty by sixty feet. If it had ever seen better days, they were long ago. Its brickwork was exposed, inside and out, and all the walls that faced likely enemy firing points were supported by stacks of sandbags piled on top of old ammunition cans filled with dirt. It had never had a roof, so a makeshift web of two-by-fours supporting corrugated tin sheets with two layers of sandbags on top provided some basic overhead cover. More sandbags served as window frames, and strips of brown and black burlap hung from the glassless openings to obscure the views into the building from curious eyes outside the wire. The floor was made of uneven concrete slabs, chipped and crumbling in many places. Machine guns were posted at each window, their fields of fire drawn on range cards placed next to each gun position. From the second floor, we could see over the wall of large dirt-filled barriers that surrounded the patrol base and its LZ.
There were no outside lights. They would have emitted a glow that insurgents could home in on at night. On the ground floor, some of our British hosts wore red-light headlamps and sat around tables crudely constructed from discarded pallets and other pieces of lumber they had scavenged. Pasted on the surface of the tables were photos of topless ladies clipped from magazines called Nuts and Zoo—roughly the U.K. equivalent of Maxim but with more flesh exposed. Staples and duct tape held down a sheet of clear plastic that had been rolled over the pictures. A few small candles placed around the table gave off just enough light to read or play a game of cards. We spoke in subdued murmurs, always with an ear primed to hear the short conversations interrupting the static hiss and beeps coming from the tactical radios propped against a wall.
Nawa was far from an electrical grid, so the radios and other equipment were powered by half a dozen diesel generators that hummed at all hours. A bug zapper, plugged into a power strip connected to one of those generators, hung in a corner. Its dull blue light sparkled occasionally whenever a fly or mosquito was lured to its crispy death. Several Afghan Army soldiers milled around, some making efforts to communicate with their British counterparts using their limited English or with the help of one of our interpreters, while others sat quietly at a table, staring dreamily at the images of the naked beauties under plastic wrap, perhaps imagining their smiles were meant just for them.
Everyone carried a weapon with a casual sense of confidence. It was either a rifle slung over the shoulder or a pistol holstered at the hip. One of the interpreters, who insisted on being called “John” but whose real name was Mohamed, liked to wear a belt of machine-gun ammunition crisscrossed over his chest, even inside the relative security of the patrol base. He added to his swashbuckler appearance by combing his black hair straight back and constantly molding his beard into a point at the chin.
Two other Marines and I climbed a makeshift wooden ladder and stood behind a machine gun emplacement to look past the patrol base’s outer walls. A sense of fear and marvel swept through me as I contemplated what lay among and beyond the shapes and shadows visible in the scant moonlight. Adjacent to the patrol base’s west side was a large wheat field that had been recently cut, its stalks drying on the ground waiting to be harvested by a family of farmers. One hundred meters beyond that was the first of several rows of trees that straddled the small irrigation ditches adjacent to the fields.
“That’s where we always get hit from,” said one of our British Army hosts who was in the guard post with us, pointing to the tree lines. “Don’t stand around in the open up here during the day, Yanks. You’ll likely catch one in the beaner before you know it.”
We found a niche to place our gear for the night before settling down for a few hours of sleep. My radio operator, Bobby Darhele, on leave from college to serve on this deployment, gazed around with impressed curiosity, then turned to me and said, “Damn, this war’s for real!”
He’s right, I thought, smiling to myself as I reflected on the long path that had led me to this point.