Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series from Special Forces veteran Kevin Flike. These posts originally appeared in the blog Wounded by War and are presented here with the permission of the original author. You can read Part II here.
In northern Afghanistan during the summer time it rarely rains, creating a very dusty environment. No matter how many times you clean your room or equipment, it is perpetually dusty. Most of the time, the dusty conditions are just a nuisance, but sometimes they are dangerous. Landing a helicopter is one of these “dangerous” situations. When we landed on the morning that I was shot, the helicopter rotor blades kicked up dust and created a condition that is called a “brown out.” During a brown out, visibility is limited to a few feet in front of your face and if you are not wearing goggles, you will not be able to see at all. Loading and un-loading a helicopter is a confusing, dangerous and vulnerable time that is made worse due to a brown out.
When the helicopter landed, every member ran off the helicopter and took up a security position. We waited for the helicopter to take off and for the brown out to settle. We had done this hundreds of time and this process was second nature to everyone. My heart sank as soon as the brown out lifted; there was a Bedouin tent 25 meters away. The possibilities of what was in that tent began to run through my head, was there a guy with a machine gun or was it just a Bedouin family? After we searched the tent we continued to move towards the village.
When we planned for a mission, we had a plethora of imagery for the target area. The imagery usually gave us a good idea of the terrain and area that we were going to, however, sometimes the imagery was deceiving. Unfortunately, the imagery deceived me on this mission. When we reached the village and started searching the first set of houses I said to myself, “Fuck, this is going to suck” (I try to refrain from cursing, however, in Afghanistan about 50% of my vocabulary consisted of the word fuck or similar variations. I found that this word could be used as an adjective, adverb, verb, noun, pro-noun, modifier etc…;).
The valley was about 1 KM wide and 5KM long. There were numerous clusters of houses making up a few villages throughout the valley. Each house in each village needed to be searched. A dry riverbed separated the valley. Lush green “jungles” crisscrossed the riverbed. The banks of the riverbed were steep and the mountains on the sides of the valley were steeper. Not only was this place going to be hellacious to clear, it was also an amazing place for insurgents to fight.
The riverbed naturally divided the valley in half, breaking it into east and west. My platoon was responsible for clearing the western part of the village while another platoon was responsible for clearing the eastern side. One squad of Commandos and Americans landed on the western mountainside to provide cover with machine guns and mortars while another squad landed on the eastern mountainside to provide cover with machine guns and sniper rifles. As soon as we reached the first cluster of houses on the west side, I broke my squad off from the platoon and started clearing the riverbed and area around it. The pace was slow going and it started to become hot as the sun crested over the mountaintops.
About one hour into the mission, the pain in my shoulders, neck and upper back started to set in. I tried to re-arrange my body armor, my assault pack and helmet (over 80 pounds of gear), but it did not help. I was faced with the stark reality that for the next 24 hours (it was only 12 hours for me) I was going to have to wear that heavy uncomfortable body armor, assault pack, and helmet and carry my M-4 rifle. While fighting the pain, exhaustion and frustration, I also had to be tactical and make cogent battlefield decisions. Once all of this set in for me I became very angry and short tempered (the usage of the word fuck increased to about 75% of my vocabulary at this time). Some missions, it took a couple of hours to feel like this, sometimes it happened right when I stepped off the helicopter. However, I noticed that lately it was starting to happen sooner and sooner.