on the ground
with us?
war stories

In these excerpts from their interviews with FRONTLINE, U.S. Special Forces soldiers recount their most memorable moments on the ground in Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 595
  ODA 595 fought with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan.

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You said earlier that Dostum thought you had a death ray. What can you tell me about that?

Mark (Capt.):

Due to the altitude that the aircraft was flying with the laser-guided munitions, when it dropped its ordnance the bomb was falling for a minute and half to two minutes. If you timed it just right, as the laser target designator is engaging and [targeting the] enemy position, you let your Northern Alliance commander take a look through the laser target designator. He sees it going, but he doesn't see the bombs fly into the target. He hears that chirping noise from the laser target designator and then the enemy position explodes. They believe that we have the death ray, and this was a myth that we were willing to perpetuate. Every one of us on our rifles carried a smaller laser. We let the Northern Alliance guys look through our night vision goggles. ... I think Will has summed it up best. This whole situation is like the Flintstones meet the Jetsons. And those guys could not fathom that we have some sort of aiming device that would allow us to hit a target at night on the first round.

Will (Sgt.):

I think something that's key in all this is that both Northern Alliance and enemy communications were, for the most part, CB radios. They would be arguing with each other in the heat of battle. The Taliban would be saying, "nanny, nanny, boo, boo" and the Northern Alliance would be saying, "hey, we're coming to get you." They would also tell the Taliban about this death ray. At Kunduz, we were negotiating back and forth to try to get these guys to surrender. They were saying, "We'll surrender, we'll march into your camp, but we want to keep our guns." Dostum finally said, "Put your guns down, take your jackets off, march in here or we're turning the Americans onto you with the death ray." Instantly you could see the guys bend over. They put their guns down, they took their cloaks off and they started marching in, in single file right up into the middle of our perimeter, because they knew that it was over if that death ray was coming out.

Mark Capt.:

This was also perpetuated by the presence of the AC 130 Spectra gunship. They had a female fire support officer that was on the radio. Dostum heard her voice and he brought Mohammed Fazal, who's the former Taliban chief of staff. He's trying to delay this surrender in Kunduz while his forces are attempting to recapture Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum brings Fazal near the radio so that he can hear this female voice. Fazal hears her voice as it's being explained to him, through the translators, that we have the angel of death overhead, from the AC 130 gunship. Dostum explains to him that we have the angel of death overhead and that we possess the death ray. If they don't surrender now all of their troops will burn in hell. Fazal jumped on the radio and his men were surrendering within minutes. ...

. . . .

Will, Sgt.

I had a particularly good, strong, spirited horse one day. And, we had been riding for a few hours, not terribly long. And I had already gone through several ordeals with this horse, being thrown off, and drug for kilometers through the desert, but nothing seemed to tire this horse out.

So, when these guys would come down off of a high mountain pass, they would double back, I guess. I don't know what you would call it, zig-zag down an incredibly steep slope. If you had fallen off the side of this thing, I mean you would fall to your death probably. But these horses would zig-zag down in each others' tracks.

I had zero control of my horse for some reason. And, he's coming down this mountain pass. And right where they're breaking, and going into the zig-zag, happened to actually be General Dostum. When our horses came together, he looked at me a little concerned. And I wasn't sure why. But I think he knew why, being more of a horseman than I was. And my horse turned and faced straight down the hill. And I was thinking, "Hmm, this is going to be a pretty quick zig-zag, I think." And he crouched down like a cat, and just sprung off the side of the mountain.

And, I think about three to five horse lengths later, his front feet hit. And, this guy just took off like lightening down the side of a cliff. The only thing that went through my mind was this 1980s movie, "The Man from Snowy River." And so, I was like, "Okay, the guy from Snowy River, he put his head on the back of the horse, and he put his feet up around his neck."

And so, my feet came up, my head goes back. And I have like horsetail on the back of my head. And this guy just tears down the side of this mountain where at the bottom of it is like a gully about six to 12 feet deep, and about four feet wide.

So, he comes to that thing. And of course, I'm thinking, "Well, we're going to crash because we don't have wings or brakes." And he successfully jumped over that. And, I just pulled back on one side of the reins. Because pulling back on both of them didn't do anything. And we ran around in a pretty tight circle until he stopped.

And I guess about 20 minutes later, the General and some of his entourage had finally caught up. And he had stopped, and looked at me kind of strange again, but a little different this time. And, he said something to me. And he started off again on his horse. And he turned around, and he said something again. And I knew that he was pretty serious about what he was saying. And, then we walked off. And, his translator said, "The General just paid you a great compliment." And I was like, "Wow, that's great. What did he say?" And, he said, "Truly, you are the finest horseman he has ever seen."

And I'm thinking, "Great. Let him think that anyway." And then he had stopped and said, "In addition to this, I was the most daring and brave man he had ever known." So, I guess if you get a good horse, he'll make you famous. A cowboy is nothing without his horse.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 555
  ODA 555 joined Northern Alliance warlord Mohammed Fahim Khan near Kabul.

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Russell (Staff Sgt.):

[The Northern Alliance soldiers] had these little walkie-talkies that worked basically on a repeater system. They had all the same frequencies that the Taliban had. I'm sure that they talked back and forth to each other, and probably cussed each other out on the radio from time to time. But Northern Alliance guys had guys that could speak and probably talked the same slang in Arabic and sound just like a Talibani or an Arab soldier.

They did it, and they were able to talk to them and ask them questions when we would drop a bomb, and it sounded like a fellow Talibani soldier. The Talibani guy possibly sometimes was crying, or all the time they were saying, "That was close. They missed us. Can you give us some help or support? They missed us to our west or whatever by whatever distance." They would translate to us, and tell us, and we would just adjust our fire, based on the information that they gave us.

Then the next thing you know, that guy who was basically saying how far we missed them by -- he would no longer was there. You'd hear people on the other end of the radio complaining or [being] upset about a friend he'd lost on the radio.

Of course, Northern Alliance guys didn't care. They were happy about it. By the end of the conversation, they'd close it, and close it with a good cussing or something. I was just amazed. I couldn't believe that they were able to do that for us; helped us in a very big way. ...

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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In the course of our war, a fellow Special Forces officer who did have direct family connections with New York had given me a strip of metal from one of the towers to use as we saw fit. So [we did] what we thought was appropriate -- we cut it into many small pieces. We gave some of it to the A-teams that were already on the ground. We sent it in to them and just asked them, that when they were in their operational area, to find a place that was appropriate, to bury it and to take a satellite location, a GPS level location, and send it back to us, so that we could keep track of it on our map. This is kind of our way of making that connection between what happened in New York and D.C. and what we are now there to do -- to kind of put paid to what these enemies did to us. It just seemed to be a way of connecting the two events. ...

When we went into Kabul, it seemed very appropriate that one of the [pieces] that we [buried] would be at the American Embassy, which had been abandoned back -- well, not abandoned -- had been forced to be left, I think in 1989, if I remember correctly. Again, [this was] American territory there, and in the heart of the enemy. So it seemed appropriate that we plant a piece there by the flagpole at the American Embassy. So we did that, just as a symbol to say, "Hey, you know we're back, and things are going to be different now." We did that, as well as put up our flag up over the embassy ...

[There was] nothing particularly elaborate about what we did. We just kind of formed up and dug a hole and planted it and went about doing business. But throughout the country, where we came to operate, there is a piece, and that's been captured on a flag on a map. We hope to present that map someday to the police and firemen in New York, so they've got a copy of it, too.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 534
  ODA 534 partnered with warlord Mohammed Atta to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif.

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Jason (Staff Sgt., ODA 534 Medic):

I think it wasn't more than a few days before we started having casualties, and they were all Afghani casualties -- no Americans at that point. We initially got one casualty and we treated him. I believe it was an amputation of his leg, which in and of itself was something that I never thought that I'd wind up doing. We're trained to do it. But as you go through the training, you think, "Boy, when would it ever get this bad that I would amputate a leg on some dirt somewhere in who-knows-where?" Then to do it in the middle of the night with a headlamp on and your weapons guy, I believe it was, assisting you, is pretty phenomenal. I think once that casualty lived, and word got out that there're some guys on the ground here that can do something when you're injured by a land mine or a gunshot -- it was like the floodgates were open after that. We were open for business. It seemed like every time I tried to sleep, somebody pulled up with some degree of injury and they wanted it taken care of.

Where did that amputation take place? What was the setting?

The setting for the first procedure we did, the amputation, was basically what you'd call a courtyard, which was also the cooking area and assembly for the troops; a sleeping area for some. Even some animals ran around there from time to time. So it was definitely not a hospital condition. It was the definition of austere. We did it right there on the ground on what was basically hard-packed mud; tried to lay a blanket down to keep it as clean as possible. I think we did our best to preserve a sterile environment. ...

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