When the Dust Blossom Settles
I yelled to my men, ordering them to get down and take cover and orient their weapons eastward, halting our joint patrol with the Afghan National Army. A sniper had been terrorizing our small outpost in the middle of the Zhari district in Kandahar for three weeks. This menace had created a phantom persona, like the Ghost of Christmas Past who had followed us to the deserts of Afghanistan.
My platoon scanned to acquire enemy targets, but all visuals grew opaque with debris from the Afghan soldiers’ hasty and reckless firing of their rocket-propelled grenades and RPKs, Kalashnikov light machine guns. They certainly hadn’t seen anything we missed, but we all knew the general direction of the sniper fire, and the Afghans expended a hefty load of ammunition each day suppressing the advances of that phantom.
This typical ANA reaction to enemy contact is casually called the “Dust Blossom” in military circles. The dust blossom is not only detrimental to command and control of a joint patrol, but it also undermines whatever hope we have of minimizing civilian casualties.
But on that day, this particular dust blossom might have saved our lives.
“Got him!” shouted my company sniper team leader from the outpost, only 100 meters behind us. Through that big cloud of dust, an enemy muzzle flash appeared bright and vivid. There was no doubt this was our guy: “Hey Sir, it’s coming from that tall building with offset windows, 600 meters northeast!”
“Roger, stand by for fire mission.”
I clenched my jaw, grabbed my company net, and called the most passionate fire mission I called during my entire tour in Afghanistan. I wanted that sniper dead. I thought of all the close-call stories my company had accumulated over this nightmare. He had created a dire psychological scar in the minds of the soldiers of 4th Platoon; my boys were edgy and more conservative in their movements.
How much time had we lost, how much less confident were we with this threat looming ahead of us at all times? We may have hated this enemy, but we had no choice but to respect him.
“Shot over; shot out,” I responded to the confirmation over the net that the fire mission had been cleared of collateral damage, and that mortar rounds were on their way. In my excited state I stood up straight, emerging from my cover to signal to the ANA leadership that there would be incoming fire; dangerous, yes, but it could have been a lot worse if an ANA soldier decided to storm the objective at the last second.
“Splash over; splash out!” The rounds detonated with a thunderous applause of military might.
The gray aftermath spiraled into the air before dissipating into the blue Kandahar sky. And then the most beautiful sound of all … silence.
My men and our Afghan counterparts stood up. Our heads swiveled back and forth, wondering if the madness would return. Whether in Dari, Pashto, or English, only one question replayed through our mind: Did we actually get him?
Later that evening on post, the sniper team leader would remark” “I doubt he’s dead. He’s too smart to operate without cover … but he sure ain’t too happy right now!”
Fast forward to seven months later and I am back in the United States. My girlfriend sent me a link to a news article (see here) and a photograph of an American outpost in Afghanistan. She asked, “Is this what your outpost looked like?”
My jaw dropped. “No way, it couldn’t be!” I thought to myself. I showed it to a fellow platoon leader who gave the same reaction. The picture was not of an outpost we had been to, or an outpost we had built. Rather, the compound in the photo housing a platoon of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (our replacement unit) was the same compound that had protected that sniper so long ago. The offset windows, the texture of the ground — the image was identical.
When we were in sector, very little American news media on Afghanistan made it my way, and now that I am inundated with reports, it’s overwhelming to hear so much talk about the shortcomings of our presence in Afghanistan.
It’s overwhelming to the point where it provokes my mind, still vulnerable from a year at war, to continue questioning why I was there and why so many of my friends sacrificed so much. It can genuinely bring tears to my eyes.
But I got a huge smile on my face seeing that picture. Most readers would never know it, but just a few months ago, that compound was an enemy staging point; an enemy sniper hide. And now, it’s an American defensive position. No matter how trivial it may seem in the strategic arenas of debate, knowing that this piece of terrain had been taken warmed my heart.
We are soldiers, and we get assigned the tasks our country wants done, regardless of time or resources allotted. The fact is that progress is slow, but our cumulative efforts are getting there, slowly but surely.