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FUBAR Mountain

by Gretchen Evans

It was mid-March and I remember distinctly the nip in the air that particular spring morning. Snow was still settled on some of the higher peaks but it no longer blanketed them and the valley below. The change in seasons was very much welcomed. It was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, signifying the coming end to our unit’s current deployment to Afghanistan. We were in the home stretch – the last thirty days before unassing the area of operations (AO) and returning to Fort Bragg. I could almost smell the fresh baked apple pie.

Winter’s end and spring’s beginning, at least in calendar terms, had been one of the most brutal thus far for Operation Enduring Freedom. At this time, our unit was in the process of finalizing the details of the battle hand-off with the unit replacing us. It was standard procedure to “right-seat” the incoming unit so that they could learn the specifics of the area and its people from the soldiers previously on the ground. Soldiers from the outgoing unit would usually spend time with their counterpart from the incoming unit. The idea is to “pass the baton” with limited disruption and maximized retention of knowledge prior to the formal Transfer of Authority.

As we assisted the new unit in getting settled, Al Qaeda had established a stronghold near the Pakistani border. They had placed it on the side of a mountain and were using its connected network of caves to move about freely. Within days, the activity in the area reached critical level and the terrorists’ actions were becoming more brazen. They assaulted several local Afghan villages in the area as well as some of our Forward Operating Bases (FOB). This shit had to stop.

The call was made and the command issued to execute an assault of our own on the stronghold. In terms of manpower, we combined three platoons of Alpha Company from our unit and three platoons from a company of the unit replacing us to form a quasi-task force. Both companies would be led by their respective chains of command. In all, we would be putting around 200 troops on the ground, a more than adequate number given the previous evening’s intelligence report: 100 estimated enemies with small arms, mortars, a grenade launcher, and an RPG.

In terms of the plan, since the terrain would not facilitate any vehicles and there was little to no cover or concealment, the task force would be flown in via Chinook helicopters, advance up the mountainside, engage the enemy, clear the caves, and dispose of any and all caches of weapons and ammunition. It was a straightforward plan; success partially riding on how close those Chinooks could get us to where we needed to be. There was no chance that we would have the element of surprise on our side; it was a daytime operation and we would be approaching in five rather larger, rather loud troop transports. But surprise was never the point. We hoped that with a menacing enough show of force, they would choose this day not to fight. Perhaps even allow any civilians in the area time to leave without incident.

As the task force waited at the landing zone for the choppers to arrive, every soldier took a knee. The previous night I had gone over the operations order to ensure I knew all the details of the mission. Then I went over it again, and then again, and then again. I memorized each platoon’s objective, the order of march, the rally points, and the contingencies should alternate plans be needed. All the details that went into a well-developed operations order were covered. We would outnumber and outgun them. I was satisfied that it was a good plan. I went over it again. My concentration broke when a young soldier with a beautiful tenor voice began to sing. It went like this:

Up in the morning, out of the rack
Greeted at dawn with an early attack
First Sergeant rushed me off to chow
But I don’t need it anyhow

Hail o’ hail o’ Infantry
Queen of Battle follow me
An airborne ranger’s life for me
O’ nothing in this world is free

From a big bird in the sky
All will jump and some will die
Off to battle, we will go
To live or die, hell I don’t know

Hail o’ hail o’ Infantry
Queen of Battle follow me
An airborne ranger’s life for me
O’ nothing in this world is free

Early at night it’s drizzling rain
I am hit and feel no pain
But in my heart I have no fear
Because my ranger God is here

Hail o’ hail o’ Infantry
Queen of Battle follow me
An airborne ranger’s life for me
O’ nothing in this world is free

The mortars and artillery
The screaming bursts around me
Jagged shrapnel on the fly
Kills my buddy, makes me cry

Hail o’ hail o’ Infantry
Queen of Battle follow me
An airborne ranger’s life for me
O’ nothing in this world is free

The group softly echoed each of the young soldier’s lines. Solemnity permeated the air. Those of us who had previously seen battle knew this was much more than a song. It was a story, a story that held the truths of days past, present, and future. We were confident, willing, and ready for the chance to do that which we had been trained to do. We were soldiers. We trained to fight. Vowing to protect and defend those who cannot protect and defend themselves and to free the oppressed.

The helicopters approached kicking up all kinds of sand and small rocks. It was go time. I looked around at the soldiers closest to me. I would accompany 1st Platoon, Alpha Company (A1) as we prepared to board, the company commander grabbed each one of his soldiers by the hand, pulled them to their feet, and looked them square in the eye. We all bowed our heads to avoid the swirling debris and walked single file, one foot in front of the other, toward the birds and what destiny might bring that day.

I was on the first Chinook with A1. An interpreter, photographer, and three members of my personal security detachment: SFC Brayden, SSG Adams, and SGT Riccio accompanied us. These guys traveled with me at all times. I was particularly close with SFC Brayden. He had been with me in Afghanistan from day one. SFC Brayden was my Spades partner when a group of us would get together in the evenings and play. We were terrible partners, both great risk-takers, so we seldom won. He was the one that always rode in my vehicle and the first to react to dangerous situations. It was love, but not romantic love. I don’t know a word that properly encapsulates this love. It was neither spoken nor outwardly expressed in any way other than in the acts of our soldierly duties. If what they say about the eyes being the window to the soul is true, then he and I had seen each other’s. SFC Brayden was not my friend, my brother, or lover, but something more than any one of those things and more than all of them combined.

Lots of thoughts go through your mind as you mentally prepare yourself for battle. I am convinced that soldiers have their own rituals and mantras that enable them to have courage. The courage to face what they know might be a fierce battle where friends or perhaps they may die. Some pray. Others laugh and joke. Some carry a good luck charm. Others sit silently. For me, in that moment, I looked around the webbed bench seats of that chopper at the faces of each and every one of my soldiers. I thought to myself that there was no other place I would have rather been. It’s hard to understand, maybe even harder to admit, especially to one’s self, the contentment, but mostly, the pure joy felt of going into battle with your men. It sounds harsh, I know. It makes you wonder what kind of person you really are… that’s not to say I didn’t feel a longing to be home with my daughter and loved ones. There is a balance that must be struck to avoid tearing your soul… justifying your actions, suppressing your guilt… understanding you can’t be in two places at once. But I wasn’t torn that day. I was in Afghanistan fighting a war. I wanted to be with these men.

One of the long held traditions of the 82nd Airborne Corps is that when going into battle, the first feet to touch the ground belong to commander and the command sergeant major. So when the chopper’s skids got close enough, the commander and I jumped, followed by 30-plus well-armed and eager paratroopers. It was A1’s job to lead the task force up the mountain. Alpha Company’s other platoons were charged protecting the rear. The other company’s platoon was to secure the flanks.

Approximately thirty minutes prior to our estimated arrival at the landing zone, our artillery battery had begun peppering the mountain. We were trying to discourage the enemy from hanging around. It became apparent about a third of the way up the steep rocky terrain that even the 155mm shells hadn’t dampened Al Qaeda’s resolve to maintain this stronghold; that’s when we started taking small arms fire.

Bullets seemed to come from all directions. Front. Back. Both sides. This caused the platoon to disperse quickly and irregularly. I felt encircled. We attempted to re-consolidate as much as possible but it was proving impossible with the number of rounds coming our way. Then the worst happened. Nine soldiers, the interpreter, the photographer, my security detail and I were completely separated from the rest of the platoon. A large group of Al Qaeda closed in from behind us and between the other platoons effectively cutting us off from all other friendly forces on the mountainside. We weren’t encircled as previously thought, but the fifteen of us had only one direction we could go – up.

It’s hard to explain what exactly happened to the task force the next few hours. I can only describe the events that unfolded before my own eyes. I had a radio and could hear all the traffic that was being relayed. Time and again, radio operators stepped over each other to broadcast over the net. The messages became mixed. There’s no way to cogently explain what goes on in the midst of a battle that you don’t witness. There are too many variables. No one expects a plan to go exactly the way it’s written and briefed, but there is always hope that a decently calculated and well-executed operation will end in success. This current operation went FUBAR real quick. I didn’t even have time to be pissed off about it. My guys and I were in deep trouble.

We bounded as quickly as possible up the steep terrain. The enemy pursued tenaciously. There was almost no vegetation to use as concealment; however, some of us were lucky enough to reach large boulders scattered across the rugged rock face for cover. The hailstorm of bullets didn’t cease. Within the first ten minutes, three of my guys were hit.

The group stopped to render as much medical aid as the situation would allow. I jettisoned my rucksack knowing full well I wasn’t going to need it that day. It had become quite obvious that I was either getting off the mountain today or not at all. My guys provided suppressive fire while I crawled on my belly to the nearest injured soldier to assess his injuries.

I didn’t know the soldier’s name and he didn’t have a nametape on his flak jacket. He was curled up in the fetal position, pain searing his facial features. I looked him up and down. He had taken several rounds in both legs, one punching a gaping hole through the front of one thigh. And while I wasn’t sure, I sensed from the amount of blood that he had been hit in the back below his body armor as well. I removed a syringe from his first aid pouch and injected him with morphine to subdue the pain. I also hoped it would reduce his heart rate to buy him some time until Second Platoon, who most likely had a medic with them, could give suitable aid. I told him I would come back for him and I meant it when I said it. Although I didn’t know how I would do it while we were on the run from such a dogged pursuit. He thanked me.

I believe in situations like this, when a soldier sustains a mortal wound, the wisest tactical decision is to take the weapon and ammunition to increase our firepower and prevent the enemy from using them against us. But in my mind I couldn’t just leave this man on the side of the mountain without any way to defend what life he had left. I wanted him to die as a soldier dies – fighting to the death and leaving this world with honor.

I scratched and clawed my way over to the other two soldiers. I knew neither. Both were grievously wounded. I administered each the contents of his morphine injector and reassured them we would return as soon as we could. But even then, as much as I wanted to believe those words, I knew in my heart that it was unlikely I would see any of them alive again. Their wounds were very serious, but if at all possible I would keep my word and come back for them. They knew I would too. I shook each one’s hand, lingering and not wanting to let go. These days I’m not much of a hand shaker; I find it to be a more intimate gesture than a hug. I crawled back to the others’ location and gave the order to move on. Turning my back and continuing up the mountain was one of the hardest moments of my life. I dared not look back. The bullets continued to chase us.

In that moment, I wrestled with my decision to leave those men. Could we make a stand here and hold off the enemy until Second Platoon arrived? I had no cover and was short on ammo. What if it was SFC Brayden, SSG Adams, or SGT Riccio on the ground dying? Would I stay and fight? Did I decide to leave these men because they were unknown to me? I don’t know for sure. I will never know. I swore to love all my troops equally, no favorites. The decision I made that day, in that moment still haunts me.

Second Platoon was hot on the enemy’s heels but was also fighting on their flanks as well. The further they pushed the enemy up the mountain, the faster my group had to move to avoid being overrun. Three to four at a time we leapfrogged up the slope. One group would move while the others provide suppressive fire. I knew that we would soon run out of real estate so I started looking for a strategic place to make a last stand.

I radioed headquarters and requested Apache gunship helicopter support. The thought was that they could back off the pursing enemy, but the reality was that friendly and enemy troops were so intermingled on that mountainside that it was too risky to fire into a crowd. It was pure chaos. Smoke accumulated and thickened and the gunfire was so loud I couldn’t hear the soldiers shouting next to me. I was bombarded by noise, yet could hear my own heartbeat. I had to close myself off to the overstimulation for just a second and think.

Then the thought pummeled me as if I was a boxer who had failed to keep her hands up to protect her head. I couldn’t be taken captive on this mountain. As a female, I was lower than dog shit to these people, this enemy. As the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the division… well it didn’t really matter. I was still female and still dog shit. I thought about what I might do should I be grabbed and recalled a conversation my security guys and I had previously. We had come away in agreement that it wasn’t in the US Army’s or my best interests to ever be taken alive.

So here I am in the middle of this heinous carnage going over my options if capture was imminent. Should I take my own life? Should I ask one of my soldiers to kill me? How about a kamikaze action that would most assuredly get me killed? I finally settled on a plan. It may seem morbid, but these kinds of decisions need to be made in advance so that one has the resolve to carry them out. I decided against asking one of my men to kill me since it would put him at risk for a court-martial. No, I would charge the enemy and hope that the ones who had closed on me first could shoot well enough to deliver a fatal hit. If that failed, I would do it myself.

Decision made, I put those thoughts aside and re-focused on the entire situation. It was playing out in front of me like broken VCR. The only button that seemed to work was the fast-forward. I decided the only possible way to salvage this clusterfuck was to order Second Platoon to stop pursuing the enemy up the mountain. In fact, they needed to back off entirely so that the Apaches could fire without hitting any friendly troops. I knew if this didn’t work the situation would be worse than before. Second Platoon would never be able to catch up to the enemy before they overran us.

Directions to fall back were radioed to Second Platoon and we continued our ascent. Within moments of each other, all three of my security detail guys were hit. SFC Brayden was the worst. He had at least three gunshot wounds to his legs. SSG Adams was hit in his right arm and shoulder. And SGT Riccio took a round in his side where there is a gap in the body armor. SFC Brayden and SGT Riccio couldn’t walk without assistance. Of the 15 of us who had been separated, and since the photographer and interpreter didn’t have weapons, I was down to seven soldiers still capable of fighting. Shit.

Second Platoon moved a half kilometer or so down the mountain. Once they radioed headquarters that they were at a safe distance, the Apaches seemed to appear out of nowhere. The scene was ear shattering as the gunships wreaked havoc on the Al Qaeda combatants. Smoke, fire, rocks, dirt, and metal shrapnel flew everywhere. We took cover as best we could, lying as flat as human bodies can possible lay behind the tallest cluster of rocks we could find. When the Apaches ceased fire we started to move again. And while the air support stopped most of the enemy, it didn’t stop them all. We continued taking fire up the mountain… all the way to the top.

The summit had an old lookout point probably left over from the Soviet-Afghan war. When we reached it, I took a moment to assess the situation. I looked over ledge on the downside to which we had climbed. It was extremely steep and there was no way we were getting down it. I also knew that the group didn’t have the strength to drag the wounded much longer. We could go no further. This twenty by twenty-foot concrete pad would bear witness to our last stand. I radioed our position then steadied myself alongside my soldiers and behind the sights of my weapon.

Then, out of nowhere, two Apaches and a Chinook materialized into my periphery. I had been given no heads up – no warning – no inkling, that they were en route. The Apaches ran interference as the Chinook hovered into position and then sat its butt on the pad. The ramp dropped and we loaded the wounded as fast as we could. I stepped off mountain and into the safety of the metal hulking beast. I stared at its tailgate as it closed, too exhausted to sit.

I moved nearer to where SFC Brayden had been placed and took a knee next to him. A medic was attending his wounds. It wasn’t good. He had lost a lot of blood from the badly torn flesh that left gaping holes in his body. I deposited my ass on the chopper floor and took SFC Brayden’s hand in my own. His lips parted, I could tell he wanted to say something. I dipped my head close to his and in a voice that was nothing more than a whisper, he said, “Save his spot at the Spades table, OK.” I said nothing in return. I only shut down. I no longer heard the whirl of the Chinook’s blades or the roar of its engines. I no longer heard the organized prattle of the medics or the flight crew. It was complete, dead silence. I felt my heart slice. It was like a surgeon was dragging a #10 blade across it center mass without an anesthetic. The pain was unbearable. I felt intensely lonely. I felt abandoned. In that moment, I had nothing and I wanted only to lie next to him and die right along with him. All sense of time and space left me. At some point after, we landed.

SFC Brayden, SSG Adams, and SGT Riccio were immediately transferred from the Chinook to a medevac Blackhawk. I followed the crew to the other bird and made sure they my three guys were loaded correctly. I hate those fucking helicopters.

Once the Blackhawk lifted off I walked over to the Chinook pilot to express my appreciation for the rescue. He shocked the hell out of me when he said, “Sergeant Major, we had been listening to the fight all morning on the net. We were pulling for you and your guys to make it to the top. All and all, it was a successful operation. The mission was accomplished.” I looked at him incredulously “You done really good. Everyone else is on their way back too.” I walked away without uttering a word. Mission accomplished, my ass, I thought.

A young soldier caught up with me and relayed the message that I was wanted in the tactical operations center (TOC). Of course I was. I had a brief conversation with my general via satellite phone. I remember the anxiousness in his voice, but I have no idea what I said to him in return. He informed me that my helicopter would pick me up and bring me back to headquarters the next day.

I went to find a quiet space. The same soldier that pointed me in the direction of the TOC followed me and then handed me a MRE. “It’s lunchtime, Sergeant Major,” he said to me. I looked at my watch. Holy shit, it was only noon. I was sure that we had spent days, not hours, on that mountain. Hell, it felt like a lifetime. The soldier began to walk away when I asked him to sit with me. He agreed and I was glad.

I asked the soldier about his background, his Army career thus far. When we finished our conversation over lunch we stood. He extended his hand to me as a thank you for eating with him. I reluctantly took it. It was warm and strong. I looked him in the eyes and saw youth, hope, tenderness, and life. Then I looked at my uniform. Through the tear I saw only dust, dirt, and blood.

The following day I was notified that SFC Brayden died in the night at Bagram Airfield. SSG Adams and SGT Riccio were airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany. They would survive their wounds, and for that I was grateful, but I wasn’t so sure I would survive my broken heart. But I didn’t have long to dwell. The days didn’t stop. The world keeps turning even when you feel like you’ve physically left it. In the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man braves the Wicked Witch of the West because he so desperately wants a heart. He obviously never considered the possibility that one day he would have to feel it breaking.

Later in the week, I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with a “V” device for valor. Valor, what does that mean? According to the dictionary you can substitute every synonym for heroism in the English language. Truth be told, I may have exhibited courage, bravery, gallantry, etc., but what I really had that day was the unwavering desire and duty to get my men off that goddamn mountain. It really was that simple.

Hail o’ hail o’ Infantry
Queen of Battle follow me

Gretchen Evans is a Retired Command Sergeant Major who served twenty-seven years in the United States Army. She writes about her experiences in military from the unique perspective of a high ranking member of the Army and a female. She currently lives with her husband, a twenty-five year veteran of the U.S. Navy; her service dog Aura; and Rough Rider, the favorite family pet.

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