And then came the insurgents’ knock-out punch.
I heard an eruption of sustained heavy gunfire and explosions. I did not know the number of enemy combatants attacking the vehicles, but it sounded like many – a well-organised ambush. It was a sudden burst of noise we tried to replicate in training often, but this was real, so much more real and my soldiers were on the receiving end.
‘Cobra Zero Alpha (0A), this is Mustang Two Zero Alpha (20A). Contact. Bad casualties. We need a helicopter. I think I’ve lost my leg.’ Guy Disney commanded three light armoured vehicles, a Scimitar, which had been attached to my Company for this operation.
Guy said this calmly though screams of soldiers could be heard in the background. Bad casualties? What does that mean? Shit. How many? Who’s been injured? To what extent? Fuck. No. Please no. Fuck.
‘Mustang 20A, this is Cobra 0A, can you move the vehicles? Do you need a helicopter to come to you or can you get back here?’
‘Cobra 0A, this is Mustang Two Zero Bravo (20B). We can get the vehicles to you!’ shouted the troop second-in-command, Sergeant Lawson.
‘Ok, RV at Grid, Tango Hotel 281, 732, I say again, Tango Hotel 281, 732. Cobra Three Three Alpha (33A) will meet you there.’ 33A was the call sign for my Company Sergeant Major, part of whose job it was to recover casualties and get them evacuated.
‘Send ZAP numbers and nature of casualties. Over,’ said Aaron Browne, from the main Company HQ a couple of miles back. ZAP numbers were the first two letters of an individual’s surname and the last four of their army number, used to identify each soldier. A helicopter medical evacuation (medevac) would not start until the number and nature of casualties was confirmed. Helicopters are limited assets in Afghanistan. Brigade HQ staff need to ensure the casualties are severe enough before tasking an airborne evacuation.
‘We’re working on it. Trust me, we need a helicopter,’ I replied. Guy’s lost his bloody leg. But I knew a helicopter would not be tasked until we had identified the number and type of casualties.
A triage system prioritises casualties – a process of sorting injuries by priority of treatment and evacuation: T1 represents an acute danger to life; T2 is life-threatening; T3 is a minor injury; and T4 means there is no chance of survival.
‘Cobra 0A, this is Mustang 20B, we have a T1, two T2s and a T4.’ Shit…Someone’s died…Fuck.
‘Phil,’ I shouted, ‘I need your guys to secure the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site). Use that field there. We need to be quick but make sure you sweep the place for IEDs.’
I looked at Owen. He was already relaying everything on his artillery radio net.
‘Owen, is that area big enough for the heli?’
‘Phil will secure the HLS; I’ll get Jonny to stay where he is. He can stay in front protecting the south. I’ll get Gem’s lot to come across and close the gap to our front.’
Right, stay calm, you’re doing ok. Decision in action, calmness in crisis. Phil’s got the HLS. Jonny and Gem are covering the front. Get the Tiger Team to cover the back. Owen’s coordinating the medevac and the Apaches. Good. Everything’s covered. Stay calm. Stay calm.
I shouted across to my Company Sergeant Major (CSM) Paul Muckle. ‘Sgt Major. The heli’s inbound in…’
Owen flicked the fingers on his left hand twice.
‘Ten minutes. The chopper’s here in ten minutes.’
‘Ok, Sir. Chopper, ten minutes.’ He repeated.
I watched Paul’s weighty frame jog across to the corner of the field. This had been checked for IEDs already. Our medic, Private Smith, and the rest of the medevac party, Lance Corporal Gilks and Private Knowles, followed Paul.
Paul’s hands started pointing in various directions as soon as he got to where he wanted. In front of me was an open, flat area of slight undergrowth enclosed by trees to my front and right. I watched various Welsh Guards soldiers moving into positions in the tree lines.
The Scimitar’s mechanical rumblings grew louder around the corner of the tree line to my half right. Large black plumes of oily smoke broke the cloudless blue sky in time to the stuttering sounds of a vehicle.
‘Cobra 33A, this is Mustang 20B, we’re nearly there. Where are you? Where are you?’
‘Keep coming forward. I can see you. Just follow the tree line and you’ll come right to us.’
A couple of stretchers were laid on the ground next to Private Smith. She was arranging medical equipment from her bag. Commotion arrived with the Scimitars but was controlled by the calming presence and control of the CSM.
‘Stewart, chopper’s inbound in two minutes,’ said Owen.
Paul Muckle got the message. The sound of the single rotor blades of two Apaches came first: fire support for the evacuation. The reverberations remained in the distance for the majority of time. They did not need to come any closer, as their optics and munitions could work for kilometres.
The discrete ‘woca woca’ sound of the Chinook’s twin rotors grew louder. The echo settled my nerves the closer it came, though I could still not see it. The tree line covered my view.
A smoke grenade was thrown by Paul as far into the field as he could. The orange smoke spirals soon disappeared as the sudden roar of the Chinook flew over, banked to the right and started to drop to the ground, flattening the grass in ever increasing circles. The tail door was open with the rear gunner swirling the 7.62mm machine gun left and right, up and down, looking for enemy.
I saw the dark, angled shape of an Apache confidently sweep past. Fuck, that’s good. I felt exhilarated and juvenile at the sound of this flying protector, yet empty knowing why this Ugly call sign was here and helping us.
I tried hard to avoid looking at the evolving scene. This was not my part of the operation. The CSM had control at the evacuation site. I had to focus on what was to happen next. Today’s fight was not going to stop. The Taliban had a majority say in it, and I had little idea of where they were or what they were doing. I felt safe from any immediate threat, as the Apaches dominated the ground from their airborne platform. They could swipe away any human danger like the hand of Zeus.
I did not consider IEDs a hazard at this moment. Every part of the area had been scoured with metal detectors. We were using well-trodden paths of our own making. Moreover, I had too many other things on my mind.
I glanced at the scene in the field. Additional soldiers from the Immediate Reaction Team (IRT) who had flown in on the Chinook were each on one knee, around the helicopter, their rifles pointing in various directions. The guttural sound of the Chinook filled the air. I could see the gesticulations and facial expressions of the rescue teams shouting but could not hear any words. Rapid commands and questions continued in my earpiece.
I dropped the hand holding my map, lowered my eyes and wiped my perspiring brow as I saw Guy being carried quickly on the stretcher to the Chinook. The men struggled with the weight, determined to embark on the helicopter as harmlessly as they could. The petite Private Smith, only a couple of feet taller than the carried stretcher, held aloft the plastic bag of a medical drip. I could see a ragged shape where Guy’s foot should have been.
Behind him were a few stumbling soldiers being helped up the tail ramp. I saw a covered stretcher being carried onto the Chinook. Fuck. I don’t even know who that is. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I gulped a few times in my dry throat. My stomach seemed bereft, but of food; how strange that I felt ravenous at this moment.
The kneeling soldiers ran back on to the helicopter within seconds. Its rotor speed increased, and the ground became flattened once more in an ever-increasing circle.
My soldiers knelt with their heads bowed, facing away from the downdraft, crouching to stabilise their positions. I thought of a mother, father, family, I did not know of whom, of the soldier under the sheet with no name. In a few hours, a suited officer would be knocking on someone’s door, telling them of the death of their kin.
My last memory of Afghanistan is watching the Chinook fly away to the West, disappearing as the trees took over my sightline.