The plan was bold and dangerous. The troops were to fly by CH-47 helicopters to the insertion point. There would be no moonlight. Illumination was predicted to be 1%. Flying with night vision goggles and no lights, the pilots were to put wheels down at exactly 0300 in the middle of a field near targeted areas of interest.
The landing zone (LZ) was in a dangerous area with the specific number surrounding enemy fighters unknown. Just a day before, the enemy had fired an RPG at a Kiowa Warrior helicopter near the LZ, but missed. The pilots often can identify an RPG that misses: unlike in the movies, RPGs make no trail. If it misses a target it normally self-destructs. When the RPG explodes in the air, it leaves a small donut shaped cloud, and a small “smoke stick.” The smoke stick is created after the warhead explodes leaving smoke, and the spent rocket motor continues to fly through the smoke, dragging smoke with it. The pilot can look at the smoke stick and guess the firing point. On the other hand, if a pilot sees a smoke trail coming her way, it’s a surface-to-air missile and a bad day is unfolding.
Troops face many dangers at LZ’s, from bombs planted on or around the landing zone to RPGs and machinegun fire from enemy troops lying in wait. Less than a week after this mission, 38 people were killed, including members of SEAL Team 6, in this same sort of helicopter, also at about 0300hrs. Other helicopters have been shot down over the years during this War in Afghanistan, although we don’t like to advertise this for obvious reasons.
Back at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Pasab, while the rotors beat the air and the helicopters roared and blasted us with hot fumes in the darkness, we practiced embarking and disembarking the CH-47s. Unfortunately, during a practice run, my pant leg was inauspiciously ripped open on the muzzle of the ramp-machinegun.
When troops are about to board a helicopter, or embark on a combat mission, they are counted multiple times by multiple people. The Army leaves zero excuse for error on exactly how many people step off into the wild; dead or alive, they want exactly that many bodies to come back.