Death Blossom and the Taliban poultry

10Sep12

Death Blossom: A last-ditch defense technique, used by the final remaining friendly fighter spacecraft, to destroy a swarm of attacking enemy fighters. When the Death Blossom was initiated the friendly fighter spun in random patterns while firing every weapon in all directions. From a scene in the 1984 sci-fi movie “The Last Starfighter.”

So no joke, there I was, in a remote, enemy-held valley in northeastern Afghanistan. We were in the worst firefight of my life. Everything had gone wrong, we had taken several casualties and our advance was at a complete halt. Nothing was funny about the situation. Except for the actions of one American lieutenant in the valley.

During this fight, the advancing force wound up spread out in several locations, separated by a few hundred meters. Some of us were on top of a hill in a compound, some in a wooded area near the valley road, some in vehicles. I was in the compound. The lieutenant who I’m going to tell you about was in the wooded area. Taliban were in another compound near me, and across the valley in another wooded area, and down the valley in several compounds, and in the mountains, and in the valley we had come through to get to the target valley. The situation was a total mess.

But anyway, back to this lieutenant. I had been on several missions with him and knew him fairly well. He was a platoon leader from another state. I shouldn’t name him or identify what state he was from, so I’ll just call him “George.”

George was young, flighty, impetuous, and hard-headed. In other words, he was a typical lieutenant. But he stands out in my memory, because of a couple of incidents.

One night I was in the back of George’s armored vehicle on a mission with the Afghan Army. To this day I don’t know what the hell happened, but our column of vehicles travelling down a long valley road wound up separated by miles. We couldn’t see any vehicles ahead or behind us; we were out in badguy territory, by ourselves. The Afghan Army reported they were under fire, but when we tried to figure out who exactly was under fire the Afghans couldn’t give us any more information and didn’t know who had given that report. Then an Afghan soldier was shot in what was probably a friendly fire incident. Vehicles and soldiers on foot were running all over the place, but nobody could figure out if anyone was really in contact with the enemy.

In the back of George’s vehicle I listened to chaos blaring from three radios and tried to make sense of all the conflicting reports. A lot of the chaos came from George himself. Between screams over the radio, George ordered his driver to charge ahead at top speed. That was a bad call. We were on a crappy, half dirt, potholed and possibly mined road. We soldiers in back bounced all over the place, and at least one guy banged his helmet on the vehicle’s ceiling. Our huge armored truck had a high center of gravity, which meant it was likely to roll over if we hit a good enough bump. Our driver had the headlights off and was driving with night vision, so he had no depth perception. The prudent thing to do here was stop, figure out where everyone else was and what was really happening, and link back up with friendly forces. George decided against that and had us flying down the road in darkness toward who knew what.

A young enlisted soldier named “Smith” who I respected tremendously sat in the back of the truck with me. Smith didn’t care much for George. During our wild ride through the valley, George asked this young soldier a couple of questions, and got less than respectful answers.

Lieutenant: “Hey, Smith!”

Smith: “What?” (This was yelled back, with no “sir” at the end.)

Lieutenant: “Where’s the platoon sergeant’s vehicle?”

Smith: “I don’t know! Don’t ask me again!”

Lieutenant: “Uh, okay.”

A few minutes pass. . .

Lieutenant: “Smith!”

Smith: “What?”

Lieutenant: “Get on the radio and call Sergeant Jones for me.”

Smith: “Call him yourself!”

Lieutenant: “Uh. . . okay, I’ll call him.”

After refusing the lieutenant’s order, Smith looked me dead in the eye and said in the most serious southern-accented voice I’ve ever heard, “I hate that man. He is a very bad man.”

So a couple months later, we’re in the enemy-held valley, scattered and pinned down. Friendly and enemy gunfire roared and echoed constantly between the mountains. There was so much fire and so many explosions I tuned out everything that didn’t seem immediately important; if it wasn’t right next to me, it didn’t matter. An Afghan squad kept up a steady rain of fire from a compound courtyard a hundred meters to our right while the vehicle gunners, George and a few others on foot dumped rounds from a position two hundred meters to our left. The fight was pretty intense.

At one point during the battle, someone figured out Taliban were in the compound next to ours, maybe thirty meters away. He calmly ordered a vehicle gunner with a Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher, “I need you to fire grenades into the compound next to ours. But don’t fire over the compound, because friendlies are on the other side.” A few seconds later, a string of blasts rang out as the gunner launched dozens of 40mm grenades into the door and windows of the compound. Sharp crashes split the air as grenades detonated inside. We huddled against cover and hoped Taliban would run screaming from the compound. Instead, chickens fled from the doorway in terror.

From my position, I couldn’t see the chickens, nor could I hear George. But the story that got back to me was that when the chickens escaped the besieged compound, George jumped up, yelled “Chickens!” and mowed them down.

It was a massacre. The chickens didn’t stand a chance. Hundreds of them, or at least five or six, fell mortally wounded from George’s deadly accurate gunfire.

A few days after the fight, some of George’s soldiers told me about the chickens. I found George and asked if that part of the story was true. He acknowledged that it was.

I gave him a blank look and asked, “Why on earth would you shoot the chickens?”

He stammered, “Because. . . uh. . . they were Taliban! . . . I mean. . . uh. . . I was denying the enemy sustenance! . . . Well, actually, uh. . .” He looked away and shook his head. “Man, I don’t know. I have no idea why I shot those chickens.”

If my memory is correct, our hero George carried an M4 with grenade launcher, twelve carbine magazines and thirty rifle grenades into the valley that day. Each magazine held thirty rounds. George dumped every round from every magazine, then got six more magazines from his driver and burned through those as well. He also fired all the grenades he brought into the fight. Thirty grenades and over five hundreds rounds fired.

So how many Taliban did the lieutenant kill? Unfortunately, other than the chickens, George didn’t see a single enemy that day. I doubt he hit anyone, but he sure made a hell of a lot of noise.

In case this point didn’t come across, I like George as a person. Despite his sometime goofiness, he was a brave, dedicated soldier. I’m still in contact with him. I didn’t tell him I was writing this story, so if I ever see him in person I fully expect him to punch me in the stomach and call me a mother*****r before we hit the bar to talk about the good old days. But whenever I think of that fight, one of the images I have is of George spinning in a circle, screaming like a twelve year olf girl and firing his weapons in all directions. So for the rest of our lives, whether he gets out of the Army today or becomes a five star general, he’ll always be Lieutenant Death Blossom to me.

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