[Two Weeks Ago]
Mongratay Province, Afghanistan
Jeff Kirkham’s adrenaline spiked before he even knew why, his subconscious recognizing the blue-white trail of a rocket propelled grenade as it whistled into his column of trucks.
The low growl of a PKM machine gun and a swarm of AK-47s joined the chorus as the battlefield roared to life.
This had been the wrong place to drop overwatch, and it had been Jeff’s bad call.
He rocked forward, squinting through the filthy windshield, hoping he wasn’t seeing what he was seeing. Some of his best men were in the Corolla, still the lead vehicle, and they were hanging way out in the wind.
Jeff rode in the passenger seat of the command truck toward the back of the column with his shorty AK wedged between his butt and the door. Only the medical truck lagged behind them.
Endless hours of experience and training kicked in, and Jeff launched from his seat, slamming the passenger door forward, pinning it with his boot to keep it from bouncing back. He cleared his rifle and rolled out of the truck, scrambling for cover behind the rear axle. None of their vehicles offered much in the way of cover, and their best play was to fight through the ambush. Getting everyone turned around and moving back the way they had come wasn’t an option.
As soon as Jeff reached the rear of the column, he ran into Wakiel, a tall, sinewy Afghan from the Panshir Valley. They had worked together for years.
In broken Dari, Jeff ordered Wakiel to gather his squad for a flanking maneuver. Wakiel chattered into his radio and, within a few moments, the assault squad piled up behind the medical truck, ready to roll.
Jeff didn’t remember the Dari word for “flank,” so he just stabbed a knife hand up and to the left. His Afghani assaulters knew what to do and they were hot to fight.
The twelve of them, including Jeff, sprinted up the closest ravine, working to gain altitude so they could drop down on the Taliban-infested ridge line.
As he pounded up the hill, Jeff could see the Corolla getting mauled in the middle of the bowl. One glance at the car told Jeff he would have men to mourn when the dust settled.
At forty-three years of age, it almost didn’t matter how fit Jeff was. Running straight up a mountain in body armor at seven thousand feet made him feel like a lung was going to pop out of his mouth. He had been born with the furthest thing from a “runner’s physique.” Between his Irish genes and a thousand hours on the weight bench, Jeff could fight eyeball to eyeball with a silverback gorilla. He had no neck, a foot-thick chest, huge arms, and thighs the size of tree trunks. Like most of the Special Forces operators getting on in age, Jeff didn’t mind a bit of a belly bulge sticking over his waistband. His enormous upper body mass and the belly bulge added up to dead weight, though, when running up a mountain in Afghanistan in the middle of a fire fight.
He wasn’t about to let Wakiel and his guys get away from him, so Jeff drove harder up the sand and moon dust, his boots filling with gravel and debris, his throat burning like he was sucking on a blow torch. They had been pushing up a ravine and, as they crested the hill, Jeff could see they were now above the Taliban force.
“Shift fire. Shift fire.” Jeff coughed into the radio as his assault team reached the top. Jeff knew his men would plow straight into the Taliban positions without considering that their truck column below, with more than a dozen crew-served machine guns, was pounding that area with everything they had.
“Shift fire, copy?” Jeff heaved for air, trying to gulp down oxygen and listen intently at the same time.
“Roger. Shifting fire up and right,” one of the other Green Berets with the column replied, no doubt running up and down the string of trucks trying to get control of sixty adrenaline-crazed Afghani commandos and their belt-fed machine guns.
With his command job done, Jeff launched into the fight himself, hammering rounds from his AK and catching up to his men. They leapfrogged from one piece of cover to the next, driving down on the Taliban positions.
Jeff dove behind a huge boulder and flopped to one side, crabbing around the rock and catching a full view of the battlefield. By climbing high up the hillside, he and his assault team had side-doored the Taliban force and he could see lengthwise into several foxholes filled with enemy.
Jeff pushed his AK around the edge of the boulder and dumped rounds into one open foxhole after another, dropping some men to the ground and forcing others to leap out of their trenches and flee into the open. When they did, the truck column in the valley below cut them to pieces.
There was no stopping the carnage now that the smell of blood was in the air. Jeff leapt from behind the boulder, ran forward and fell hard into a hole, stomping a dead man’s open guts. The mushy footing caused Jeff to tip and slam into the wall of the ditch. The stench of the man’s open bowel hit his face like a slap, making him grimace and turn his head.
The gunfire slowed. Jeff could see four or five surviving Taliban running away over the ridge. The hillside and ridge were littered with bodies. Jeff crawled out of his foxhole and maneuvered over to Wakiel.
“How are the men?” Jeff asked in Dari.
“Is good,” Wakiel panted in broken English, coming down from the rush of the last murderous drive.
“Katar. Danger,” Jeff reminded him.
Jeff had been in hundreds of gunfights and he knew that winning the fight was only the beginning of the work. Policing up the bodies, and figuring out which of them were dead and which were waiting to blow the victors up with a hand grenade, would take hours. There was nothing glamorous about policing a battlefield.
It took three hours for Jeff and his guys to clear the field, and they lined up ten dead Taliban in a row, their AKs, PKMs and RPGs piled beside them. A couple of Jeff’s indigenous “Indij” guys started taking pictures with their trashy cell phones, holding dead guys up by their hair. They needed the pictures to match against the “most wanted” list. Still, the specter made Jeff turn away.
He looked back at his column of trucks. He could see three black body bags lying outside the lead Corolla—the car that had contained his Amniat scouts, some of his best friends and finest warriors. The medics were smoking cigarettes instead of working on his men, which meant Jeff had lost more friends.
Jeff’s body felt drained, like a fist unclenching. He would complete this last mission, and then he would leave Afghanistan and warfighting behind forever.
He had been in command of the column of fifteen trucks for three days, and road dust coated his face and the inside of his nose, dragging on every breath. For hours on end, over the last three days, his binoculars had come up and down searching for an ambush, like genuflecting to the gods of war.
Lift the binos. Scan the horizon. Scan big rocks. Scan all potential hiding places. Lower the binos. Check the position of his trucks. Repeat every ninety seconds, forty-five times an hour, five hundred times a day.
From the center of his head to the marrow of his bones, fatigue dogged him. A fighter could only stay hard for so long. For him, it had been twenty-eight years.
Driving for days had worn him down to a nub. The rocking motion of the truck and the chemical body odor from the men commingled with exhaust fumes, kicking his motion sickness into overdrive. Even so, seventy lives depended on him staying rock solid, and now men had died on his watch.
The distance to the Forward Operating Base wasn’t the problem. They could have made the drive in ninety minutes going balls out, but the province crawled with Taliban and Jeff’s column was anything but low profile: fifteen Toyota Tacomas, painted desert tan, each one of them with a Russian-made belt-fed machine gun bolted to the truck bed.
Jeff had ordered his Amniat scouts in the beat-up Corolla to range out every ten kilometers to reconnoiter the road ahead. Since the scout vehicle looked just like every other piece of junk in this desert, he had hoped the Taliban wouldn’t waste bullets on it. Three of Jeff’s best Indij fighters had been crammed into that little car.
For eight hours, the column had run with two overwatch trucks fanning out to the left and the right, up on the ridge tops, covering the column with their big fifty-caliber belt-fed machine guns. That meant a lot of stop-and-wait inaction as the overwatch trucks maneuvered into new positions. The column would drive a kilometer, wait fifteen minutes for overwatch to set up, then drive a kilometer more. The process yanked on the column like a ball and chain, but it had to be done. Without covering fire, they could find themselves on the death-eating side of an ambush.
War is work, Jeff had been telling himself, manual labor. It wasn’t just physically exhausting. It was the waiting that ground the soul down—constant stress and usually nothing to show for it.
He knew he was an excellent warfighter, a manual laborer of death and destruction with an iron will. He could control the chaos like few men on earth, and it was this unwavering faith in his own competency that powered Jeff through long and tedious missions like this one.
Now, with the ambush sprung, the battle finished and several of his men dead, Jeff was no longer feeling that same bullet-proof self-confidence.
Wakiel walked over to Jeff, smoking a cigarette.
“I guess that was a bad place to get ahead of our security element,” Jeff said in English.
Wakiel knew Jeff well enough to understand and replied, “Khalash, Jeff.” It was Dari for “finished,” but today it meant “farewell.”
After this mission, Jeff headed home forever, back to the other world—the world that didn’t smell like the inside of an Afghan’s lower intestines, the world where he could stay clean, sleep in on a Sunday with his wife, and take in the fresh smell of his sons’ hair first thing in the morning.
The sweet-sour smell of shit wafted past his face, and Jeff searched for the offending stench, noticing a green, chunky glob on his boot. With nowhere to wipe it off, Jeff’s aggravation peaked, his only solace that he was leaving this endless parade of rot and ruin.
Jeff vowed to never again smell the guts of a man, to never again face the buzz of angry bullets, and to never again watch friends die violent deaths. Back in the real world of America, Jeff would put a net around his family and would tie it down tight. The demons of chaos and destruction would forever infest Afghanistan, but they would not follow him home. Whatever affection he had once had for the life of a soldier, it was over. Now he would make damned sure his family lived in peace.
“I am so sick of fighting death every day,” Jeff said, looking at his Afghan friend for the last time.
The Afghan barely understood his English, which was the only reason Jeff allowed himself to put words to his fatigue.
Wakiel nodded and returned to smoking his cigarette.
(Author's note: based on a true story.)