“Even God hates us”
No joke, there I was, on a mountain ridge in the middle of a dark night in Afghanistan. Another American soldier and I were attached to a French Marine sniper team, which was part of a company setting overwatch for another French unit. When the sun rose, we would be in place to cover the other unit as they entered a known Taliban village.
When we started the mission, lightning was flashing overhead. We knew at some point we would get soaked, but it was no big deal. Cold, wet nights are part of the infantry experience, and for this mission I was rolling with the infantry. So I resigned myself to another crappy night in the Army.
We started our infiltration into the mountains well after dark. A lieutenant led us into a huge wadi, which is a deep ravine carved by a river. Just a few inches of water stood at the bottom of the wadi, and we barely wet our boots as we crossed. An hours-long climb and hike along multiple peaks followed. As an attachment and not an infantryman, I was lucky to not have a huge load to carry. I wore a plate carrier with four thick ceramic body armor plates, carried a heavy M14 Designated Marksman rifle and combat load of ammo and grenades, along with a light radio, extra water and binoculars. My entire load was only about seventy-five pounds; my French sniper buddy Zed carried about 150 pounds, which was also his body weight. So I had nothing to complain about.
We arrived at our overwatch position, a rocky mountaintop. Riflemen and antitank missile crewmen moved to their positions, and I waited with the snipers while their team leader picked a good vantage point. I watched the organized chaos on the mountaintop as everyone hurried to get in place before the sky began to lighten.
The mountaintop turned bright white as something exploded about 25 meters away from me. I exclaimed “Whoa!” and ducked, then realized it hadn’t been a bomb. It was lightning, closer than I had ever been to it.
As I rose from my reflexive crouch, something cold smacked me in the cheek. I winced and looked around. The first raindrops slapped the mountaintop. As I rubbed the sore spot on my cheek I thought, Damn, that was a fat raindrop. A quiet chuckle rose from the French Marines, the sound of collective resignation. Here it comes, we’re going to get soaked.
Another freezing raindrop slapped my cheek. I jerked back in pain, thinking Why do the raindrops hurt that badly? Another hit me on the arm, and I heard loud, snapping impacts. I looked down and saw small white objects like pebbles reflecting weak moonlight.
Oh, crap. That’s hail.
An instant after I thought that, the sky opened up and tried to kill us. The tiny hailstones I saw on the ground were smashed by hundreds of golfball-sized stones and heavy rain. I heard my sniper friend Zed yell in pain and snapped my head sideways just in time to see him dive to the ground in a fetal ball. Behind him, French Marines scrambled like they were under artillery fire. I felt a dozen spikes of pain as hailstones pounded my arms, legs and shoulders.
My soldier and I rushed around in desperation for cover. We were on top of a wide open mountaintop, with nowhere to hide. A few seconds of searching revealed the obvious: we had to just huddle, cover up and take it.
We sat a few feet from a clump of French Marines. I threw a shamagh over the back of my neck, hunched over and pulled my rifle, hands and feet in tight. My helmet protected my head, my body armor and pack covered my back, and the plate carrier straps covered most of my shoulders. But the tips of my shoulders were still exposed, and I couldn’t get the toes of my boots in close enough. Plus, there was no way to cover my lower back and sides of my legs. Every few seconds I took a hit on an exposed body part, which made me clench my teeth and whimper helplessly.
Freezing rain drenched my entire body. I shivered violently. My soldier, Karl, sat less than two feet from me but the rain and hail was so heavy I could barely see him. Every few minutes I called out, “Karl, you good?” He would answer, “I’m good.” Then I would usually answer, “This sucks.”
About ten minutes in, Karl laughed and exclaimed, “You know, this is a good time for a rousing singalong,” and started singing Frere Jacques. I appreciated the attempt to lighten the mood, but was so cold, wet, in pain and miserable I couldn’t join in the song. I focused on protecting my rifle and tried not to count the seconds until the storm passed.
Finally, twenty five minutes after it started, the hail and rain stopped. Karl and I rose, checked ourselves for damage more severe than bruises, and searched for the sniper team leader so we could continue the mission. Frenchmen emerged from under ponchos or rucksacks and accounted for their soldiers. I found the team leader, who told me “The mission may be cancelled.”
I was surprised. Being caught in the storm had been a bad experience, but I didn’t see why it would ruin the mission. At that point, the entire experience seemed kind of funny. I asked him what the problem was, and he answered, “A Marine has been injured.”
I looked around and didn’t see anyone who seemed to be injured. I wondered, What happened? Did someone take a hailstone in the head, or fall down the mountain? I pressed him for more information, and his answer removed all the humor from the situation. He said, “One of the Marines was hit by lightning. They are performing CPR on him now.”
I was shocked. The lightning strike 25 meters from me had hit someone. I never asked about it, but I suspect the lightning left the Marine unconscious, barely alive and alone during the entire hailstorm. I told my soldier what had happened, and a few minutes later the team leader came back to tell me, “The mission is cancelled. The Marine has died.”
The hours that followed were a constant flow of bad news, misery and frustration. We received orders to climb down from the mountain and go back to the road, where vehicles would pick us up. In the dark we headed down slippery rock faces onto fields that had been transformed to freezing mud. Our long line of drenched soldiers struggled through farmland that looked more like rice paddies. Many of us, including me, fell into mud or frigid brown water several times during the three kilometer hike back.
At one point during the move, French Marines ahead of me passed a message back. When the message got to my friend Zed, he shook his head in frustration, turned around to me and said, “One of the French soldiers in the village was swept away by a flood. They are trying to find him now.”
Jesus Christ, I thought. That soldier was almost certainly dead. First we had a man killed by lightning, then another man missing and probably drowned. The mission almost couldn’t get worse.
Twenty seconds later, it got worse. Another message was passed to Zed. When he turned to me, furious anger was plain on his face. “Another soldier was swept away by the flood. They are both missing.”
We kept moving. Eventually we reached the giant wadi we had crossed at the beginning of the mission. Back then, just a few hours earlier, the wadi’s stream had barely wet our boots. Now, boiling rapids that looked 40 feet deep roared through the narrow ravine.
The company commander stopped us at the wadi. Hushed, tense exchanges sounded over the radio. I couldn’t tell what exactly was going on and didn’t know why we weren’t searching for the missing soldiers ourselves (later I discovered they were swept away in a different place than I thought). The weather was still too dangerous for helicopters to fly, so soldiers near the village were conducting the search themselves. I spent an hour huddled with French officers outside an old man’s compound, straining to hear radio traffic over the constant roar of rushing water. At one point, everyone fell silent as a group of Marines stumbled toward the wadi, awkwardly carrying something on a poncho. It was the body of the Marine who had been killed by lightning.
Just after the Marines and I saw the corpse of their friend, we received new orders: go back up the mountain we had just climbed down from. Inside I cursed and groaned and wondered why someone had given that stupid order. Outwardly I was just another silent, exhausted, freezing soldier in a long line of silent, exhausted, freezing soldiers. In light of the deaths of at least one and probably three soldiers on that mission, my misery meant two things: jack and shit. Nobody cared how I felt, not even me. So I ate my thoughts, stumbled back across the freezing, muddy fields and struggled back up the mountain.
We got to the top about twenty minutes before the sun broke the horizon. Those minutes were some of the coldest of my life. The sniper team leader gave me a good-natured laugh when he saw me lying behind my M14, shivering like crazy as steam rose from my soaked uniform.
When the sun finally lit up the valley, I watched French soldiers in the village search for their two missing men. Since there were no helicopters, we were their overwatch. Eventually, four pairs of helicopters arrived and circled at different heights to search for the two men. The air warmed enough that I stopped shivering. And, of course, we finally received confirmation of what we already suspected. One soldier was found dead. A few minutes later they pulled the second body from the water.
French helicopters airlifted the soldiers, living and dead, from the village. We struggled down the mountain and across the field again, with French attack choppers circling over our heads. I followed the sniper team across a narrow footbridge over the raging flood in the wadi to our waiting vehicles. Climbing into the back of our personnel carrier was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
We returned to our firebase. We had lost three soldiers killed, but not by the Taliban. We hadn’t even seen any of them. It was as if Afghanistan itself had fought us that night.
After the mission, as I lay in my cot recovering from the pain and cold, I remembered what an Albanian interpreter in Kosovo had said one day. It was spring, and I had just returned from the Skopje, Macedonia airport. I mentioned how odd it was that Kosovo was still covered in snow, even though there was none just on the other side of the border in Macedonia. The interpreter had given me a sad smile and said, “Even God hates us.” After returning from that mission, I understood how he felt.
I wasn’t close friends with any of the men we lost on that mission. Two I had never met, one I had spoken to a few times. His nickname was “Ash” and he was strong, intelligent and known to be a fantastic soldier. We had talked about American and French weapons, our military backgrounds, and our experiences in Kosovo. He was always friendly and approachable. After the mission, I found out Ash had jumped into a rushing, flooded wadi in an attempt to save another soldier who had been swept away. Ash was loaded down with armor, weapons and gear, and he was a big guy to begin with. He must have known he was too heavy to swim, that he would probably die in that wadi. But he jumped in anyway, because another soldier needed help. I’m not religious, but I think a biblical quote is in order here.
“Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friend.”
Yann Hertach, Kevin Lemoine and Gabriel Poirier, rest in peace.
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Tags: Afghanistan, army, combat, french army, sniper, war