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Being the Hard Target

written by Rajiv Srinivasan
on November 23, 2010

"Khuda Hafiz, Salaamat busche! Goodbye and be careful!" I smiled and waved goodbye to the soldiers of Weapons Company, 6th Kandak at their traffic checkpoint a few kilometers east of our COP. It was about 11:30 on a Tuesday morning. My platoon had just completed a joint patrol with the ANA, and I needed to take my men back inside the wire for some maintenance and downtime. I bid the ANA squad leader good luck and instructed my soldiers to mount their vehicles.

I grabbed the armored grip on my leader's hatch, and turned my head only to see the ANA checkpoint falling into shambles. Of the 14 ANA soldiers, only four were actually stopping and inspecting vehicles, two were manning heavy caliber machine guns, and the rest were sitting around a tea kettle below a sand dune enjoying their breakfast, helmets off. "Could they possibly look like softer targets?" I asked myself. I suppose it is good that these ANA soldiers can feel relaxed in such a violent district. But there's a fine line between relaxation and complacency.

Since arriving to the Zhari district with the ANA, I had decided my tour in Afghanistan could be a tremendous success if I could leave this country imparting even a few basics of combat leadership to an ANA officer. The list was short.

#1: Break patterns, never do the same patrol at the same time two days in a row.

#2: Hold your NCOs accountable for standards. What gets checked gets done.

Now, it was time to add a third item to the list.

#3: Be the hard target. Never take off your game face in front of the enemy.

I hope they'd remember that one.

As we pulled into the COP, I dismounted the vehicle to find my following of loyal Afghan contractors waiting at the gate, ready to do my bidding. Working with contractors is one of the most frustrating parts of my job, so I wasn't entirely disappointed when automatic gunfire rang out from the west side of the post.

"We got Contact! Small arms fire, 1000m East!" cried Sgt. Espy, my vehicle gunner. "It's from the checkpoint, Sir."

"Of course," I thought, "I left a soft target out in the open."

My vehicle crews stormed out the gate. Blood rushed through my arteries. The grip on my rifle grew slick, dripping with the excess lubricant I sprayed on the bolt of my M4. Fighting my instincts, I put my weapon to the side of my hatch and fixed my hand on my radio switches. It wasn't a time to be a trigger puller; it was time to be a platoon leader.

My vehicle crews took fighting positions around the checkpoint, I kicked out a squad of dismounts to coordinate fires with the ANA.

"Attack 46, this is Shamus 22 on your Company Net," called a Kiowa Air Weapons team hovering a thousand feet above my head. "We've been pushed to support your platoon, requesting a SITREP of the AO and further guidance."

"Shamus 22, Attack 46," I replied back, "We've got an ANA checkpoint taking sporadic small arms fire from 500m south of this position from suspicious compounds on the east."

My Squad Leader on the ground relayed from the ANA via interpreter the exact compound from which they took their RPG fire. The Aircraft dropped a flare to confirm the target. Confirming with the ANA was eating up valuable time, who knew where those enemy had already fled?

I let out a melancholy sigh as I looked at the birds' eye view of this situation. This is going to suck, I thought. I've got two incredibly dangerous rocket bearing helicopters overhead, enemy fighters known only to a crew of rag-tag ANA soldiers who don't speak English, they have no optics, nor any idea what kind of hell we could unleash on these people.

"Attack 46, Shamus 22. Roger, we got eyes on that compound of interest. Right now, we've got a suspicious gathering of fighting aged males heading into an adjacent building. It appears four individuals have come back out with shovels and rakes trying look as if they're farming. We've seen this before. Recommend you clear us for a test fire to see how they react."

"You're cleared," I said without hesitation. After living for nearly two months in this volatile area, I had few reservations about using force to control the chaos of Zhari district. The ripple of .50 caliber rounds from the aircraft was nothing if not soothing to my ears.

"Attack 46, Shamus 22!" I heard frantically from the helicopters, "The four suspicious males have dropped their tools and are moving south at a high rate of speed. We've got one in a brown man-dress, the other in black, both wearing vests. Requesting guidance.

Whew... It was game time. I figured I had about five seconds to make a decision. I relayed to my squad leader to confirm with the ANA the enemy fighters' clothing. Precious seconds flew by, but my insecurity needed the assurance. The squad leader turned to me with a vigorous thumbs up. But did I trust the memory of an ANA soldier? Would I trust him with my career? With the lives of potentially innocent civilians? I took my deep breath... my tactical pause. Time's up.

"Shamus 22, this is Attack 46. I'm authorizing positive identification. You are cleared to engage."

"This is Shamus 22. Roger, we have PID, cleared to engage. We are coming with a gun run northwest to southeast. Stand by."

I could hear the cheers of my excited soldiers yelling from their vehicles, prying out of their hatches to watch the pending fireworks display. ANA soldiers mounted their vehicles with binoculars, throwing their arms in the air with anticipation as the choppers began their bump to engage the ground below. .50 caliber rounds pierced through the air with hellfire rockets scorching the earth in trail. Smoke clouds filled the sky, displaced only by the rotor wash of the choppers skimming the horizon. The ANA soldiers stared in amazement. The looks from their eyes and dropped jaws said, "Wow, I'm glad I'm on their side." The American soldiers smiled and cheered as the helicopters did a final clear of the area to assess the damage.

I stood back and smiled. Months of frustration and anger were eased with the violence inflicted on an enemy who has caused me so many sleepless nights and so much heartache. My heart swelled with pride as one who had conducted battle with terrorists and came out victorious. "This is Attack 46. Cease fire, good work."

Back home, I slammed my body armor on the foot of my cot inside the cement walls of my hooch. I propped my feet up on my desk and began unlacing my boots, basking in the warmth of a rare good day in Afghanistan.

"Hey Sir," called the Company CP guard as he pushed into my area. "We got some locals coming in the gate with severe injuries. I think they're from your engagement. You may want to check it out."

My heart dropped into my stomach as I sprinted out the hooch. I didn't have to look too far ahead to find my way around. There was a trail of blood on the ground leading me directly to the COP's aid station. I peeked inside the hardstand clinic to find two young Afghan men, no older than me, lying naked on emergency operating tables.

"Hey, you forgot to write the tourniquet time on his head! Did you intibate that guy yet? Keep that patient awake!" Our battalion surgeon was shouting orders to his medic staff to keep these local nationals alive. The patient on the right had intense bleeding and shrapnel wounds on his right hip. The patient on the left was young and thin, suffering from a severe concussion and internal bleeding. I stared at the casualties praying they were actually bad guys... not innocent men.

But my mind drifted. I wasn't thinking about the wives or children of these men. Rather, I thought about the pilots who engaged them. There are thousands of fighter pilots, helicopter pilots, artillerymen, and other American service members in Afghanistan who are able to bring hell to nearly every square inch of this country. But how often do those pilots come back to base to see the bodies of the people they've bombed on the operating table? How often does the artilleryman get to see the pool of blood from their explosive fires come into their command post? I'm sure, on occasion, yes. But the maneuver soldier at a stranded COP in the middle of a random district in Kandahar gets to see it every day. I wondered if this exposure made me more insensitive to bloodshed. I wondered if seeing so much suffering over and over again made me numb to the pains of war's bystanders. I stood there quietly, emotionless, a 23-year-old kid in front of two shattered human beings who I ordered to be killed.

"Excuse me, Rajiv Khan," a deep voice called outside the aid station. I poked my head out to find the ANA Battalion commander standing firmly, waiting to speak to me. Lt. Col. Abdul spoke English proficiently enough to communicate without an interpreter. I pranced out the door to meet him.

"Sir, Asalaamu Alaykum," I began as usual, "How can I help you?"

The ANA Battalion commander confirmed from his sources that these were indeed Taliban militants; no civilian casualties were taken from the engagement. I thanked him for the great news, but in monotone. Even knowing that these men were enemy fighters and well deserving of the violence I inflicted on them, I still felt shell shocked.

"Rajiv Khan, I just want to say thank you." The Colonel spoke genuinely. "Your air support did a great job. Thank you for protecting our men."

I gave him my diplomatic smile and handshake and walked back into the aid station, staring at the half dead men lying before me. I felt nothing, absolutely nothing. Having no remorse, sympathy, or even elation at the sight of two severely wounded enemy fighters was frightening to me. Where was the human spirit that defined my personality for so long? For just a moment, I longed for my sensitivity. I longed for my ability to feel emotionally connected to these men. There are more bad days than good ones here in Afghanistan, and the only defense mechanism is... well, to be a hard target — never to take off my game face even in the most severe of circumstances. For now, the fulfillment of the human spirit is a luxury enjoyed by those in a different line of work than my own; for those who can afford to be soft targets.

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Rajiv Srinivasan

1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan

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