Blue gonads and guilt, Afghanistan style

22Oct12

I’ve been asked why I was so frustrated when I came home from Afghanistan. After my deployment, I was mad. Not at my family, not exactly at myself, not at what I personally had done, but at some of what I had experienced. I also felt guilt, for a few things. To explain how frustrating and guilt-inducing our current wars can be, I offer you this story from my recent past.

No joke, there I was. . . on top of a mountain with a French Marine sniper team, watching a village beside a supply route. We were there because a French supply convoy was about to head down that road past the village, and the village was an insurgent stronghold. We expected this convoy to get ambushed.

I am NOT a sniper. I’m a Squad Designated Marksman, which means I have a little more marksmanship training than the average soldier. Because of my training I was issued an M-14 with a scope, which was one of the most awesome, beautiful weapons in the world. I was with the sniper team because I made friends with them, so they invited me to go on their missions.

We made a three hour climb into the mountains in the middle of the night and were in place when the sun rose. This was near the end of my deployment, and my company commander had made it clear this would be my last mission in Afghanistan. I expected to retire from the National Guard when I got home, so I expected this to be my last real mission ever. During the previous ten months I had been in several firefights and had fired my weapon a few times, but I don’t know that I hit anyone. Twice in Afghanistan I had Taliban in my scope, in range, and was denied permission to engage. So this was my last chance to kill an enemy.

After the sun rose we watched scattered Taliban fighters with AKs, RPGs and machine guns wander near the road. I put my crosshairs on several different fighters, kept my finger on the safety and hoped for a chance to shoot. The sniper team leader relayed information. We were waiting for more Taliban to gather so we could hit them with several weapons systems at once.

The sniper team was just part of the force on the mountain. We also had machine gunners and two Milan anti-tank missile teams, along with dozens of riflemen. Once we got permission to fire, we would massacre the enemy. All the Taliban had to do was be kind enough to keep standing around in the open.

I aimed in on different Taliban fighters. They were about 950 meters away, at the very edge of my effective range. I could hit at chest-sized target at 900 meters across flat ground, but I didn’t know if I could hit someone at 950 meters firing downhill. The downward trajectory makes a difference. But I had a semi-automatic rifle with a twenty round magazine. I could afford to miss a few times, eventually I’d make the right correction and hit one of them.

The Taliban fighters gathered, probably to discuss attack plans. I aimed at a man in the center of the group. Eleven fighters stood in a tight cluster, with weapons visible, right next to a road our soldiers were about to drive down. These Taliban weren’t just easy, legitimate targets. They were practically begging us to kill them.

To my left and right, French Marines lined up behind their weapons and prepared to fire. I dug into a pouch, pulled out earplugs and forced them in. Two .50 caliber rifles were about to fire, one on each side of me, and those things are LOUD. As soon as they fired, I would fire. And I would have to do it quick, because everyone else on the mountain would open fire as well. My only concern right then was whether or not I could be certain that I personally hit an enemy before hundreds of bullets from dozens of Marines tore them apart.

The team leader, Ben, whispered into the radio. I tightened my shooting position, adjusted my scope and set my crosshairs center mass on my target. My friend Zed, one of the toughest guys I’ve ever known, said in French that he was ready. He had already killed several Taliban over the previous months, and I knew he wouldn’t miss. I pushed the safety off and laid my finger on the trigger guard, waiting for the order to fire. These eleven Taliban were about to go down in flames.

Ben blurted in heavily accented English, “Chris, no shoot!” I lifted my eye from the scope and gave him a what the hell? look. He answered with a resigned shrug. Below us, the Taliban spread out. Zed cursed in French. I put the safety back on and searched through the scope. Individual enemy fighters disappeared from view into heavy foliage. I mumbled, “Come on, hurry the hell up and give us permission to shoot while we still have targets.” No permission came. Eventually only two fighters were just barely visible, standing at the edge of a wooded area.

At this moment, unknown to me, a French convoy started down the road. I was looking over the road into the village and didn’t see the convoy. As I watched the last two Taliban left in view, they ambushed the French vehicles.

Flame exploded from the front and rear of a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Gunfire exploded along the length of the road. The two Talibs I had been watching disappeared into woods an instant after the first round was fired. I lifted my head to look over the scope and saw convoy gunners dumping rounds from machine guns back into the village and woods. Not a single enemy was in sight.

The convoy passed and gunfire died down. I banged my head against my rifle’s stock in frustration. We could have killed eleven enemy, at no cost to ourselves, and protected the convoy like we were supposed to. Instead we gave up the perfect opportunity, and some of our troops in the convoy might have been hit.

The morning dragged on. A single Taliban fighter walked out from the woods, hiding a folding-stock AK under a baggy shawl. I didn’t even hope for permission to shoot this one, it was just one enemy. And I was right, we were waved off immediately.

The lone fighter disappeared. Several minutes later, the group of Taliban fighters reappeared in another part of the village, far out of my range. Word was passed; the Milan team would fire a missile at them. I laid my rifle aside and picked up my binoculars, hopeful that I would at least see them blown away.

A hundred meters to my right, a tremendous explosion split the air as a missile blasted from its launcher. I watched it streak past our position, over the road toward the village. I wished it, willed it to hit the Taliban below us.

Unfortunately, the Milan missile system is old and slow. Watching it fly was like watching a seagull riding a breeze at the beach. I swear the missile moved backwards once as it lumbered through the air.

I found the missile in my binoculars and followed it down. Seconds before it hit, I jerked the binoculars down to where I knew the missile would impact. The Milan was about to land in an open square with a waist-high rock wall on one side. On the other side of the wall was a drop of about eight feet to another open square. One second before the Milan hit the open upper square, the last Taliban in the group vaulted over the wall to the lower square.

The missile detonated in a ball of flame and grey dust. The group of Taliban fled between compounds and disappeared. I laid my head on my rifle and closed my eyes in disgust. We had lost another chance to kill the enemy. Later French Marines had a short firefight in the village, but the enemy was hidden and too far for us to engage. I watched that firefight with a feeling of bitter helplessness.

Eventually the sun set, our troops left the village and the Taliban went home. After darkness fell, we rose from our positions and hiked to an open space on a mountain ridge. In the pitch black, we took a knee, slung our packs over one shoulder and waited. French Special Forces helicopters flew in one at a time to lift us out. My helicopter landed with a deafening roar amid a cloud of swirling dirt. I rose and ran to the helicopter, clambered in and pushed to the back. We lifted off and flew along the curves of the mountains. I flipped down my night vision and watched the mountainsides glide past my window. I swear that if the pilot had made a five foot error, we would have smashed straight into the rocks.

We landed at the firebase. I struggled to drag my pack out of the cramped helicopter, followed the French troops out the door, ducked under the rotor blast and walked off the landing zone into the dark. Helicopters lifted off the LZ behind me and disappeared. One of my primary forces and passions for the previous twenty years of my life went with them. I had just completed my last mission.

A few days later, I stood in the center of the firebase and watched the French roll outside the wire without me. My friend Zed stuck out of the back of the last vehicle, waving and holding his light machine gun. My commander had specifically forbidden me from going on any more missions. Standing there in the dirt as my friends, my brothers, left for a combat mission, was one of the saddest experiences of my life.

A couple of weeks after that mission, midnight on Thanksgiving morning, I was home. Home and happy to be with my wife and children. Home and angry because I had been denied three opportunities to kill the enemy. Home and guilty because I knew those Taliban that we hadn’t killed would kill my brothers in the future.

Just so everyone knows, I have never killed anyone that I know of. One previous night in Afghanistan I may have killed a Taliban, and when I’m feeling optimistic I try to convince myself I did, but I’ll never know for certain. I never shot anyone in Iraq, and I’ve never shot anyone as a cop. A non-military reader might wonder if I had any pangs of conscience about my wish to kill another human being. The truth is, I absolutely did not. I had no doubt then, just as I have no doubt now, that I could shoot an enemy and smile about it later. I have known many people who have killed enemy in combat, and I don’t remember a single one who expressed guilt about it.

I titled this post “blue gonads and guilt” because I think everyone understands what “blue gonads” refers to. Maybe comparing not killing an enemy to sexual frustration indicates a severe psychological impairment on my part. Who knows. All I know about it is this: I wanted the enemy to die before they had a chance to kill my brothers. I wanted to kill the people who attack Americans, French and Afghan soldiers. I wanted to kill the people who spray poison into schools because they think girls who want an education should die. I wanted to kill the people who decapitate Afghans for voting. I’m frustrated that I didn’t kill those people.

And more than anything else, I feel guilty that brothers I never met have died at the hands of enemy fighters I should have killed.



10 Responses to “Blue gonads and guilt, Afghanistan style”

  1. 1 Lilas

    I thought only us, civilians, feel frustrated and helpless with the war in Afganistan or anywhere else. I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of weapon one holds, or how powerful it might be. What matters is the end result. You being there wanting to put things right also matters. A great deal. To your brave brothers and soldier friends, to those illiterate girls and would be decapitated men. It matters.

    • Lilas,

      Thank you for that. Far too often, we feel like it didn’t matter, doesn’t matter. I’ve been so angry at some of our losses, because I felt like they accomplished nothing. Something I’ve reminded myself as often as possible is that even if the missions themselves didn’t matter, the personal motivations of the men we lost did.

  2. Chris – Your writing is spot on – keep up the posts. – talk later. Sheri

  3. 5 Kyle

    Deep…

    • Kyle,

      That’s no compliment, since you also consider pro wrestling to be deep. Remember those dark nights on patrol when you wouldn’t stop talking about Stone Cold Steve Austin’s tights? :)

  4. 7 Annie

    Chris, that’s powerful, and well written. Please keep on writing.


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