By Jay Kirell
That word, shouted over and over at the top of a soldier’s lungs, is more effective than any alarm clock ever invented.
It signifies nap time is over. Signifies the enemy is attacking. Signifies you better get your ass out of bed, throw on your boots (and pants, if you have enough time) and get to your assigned spot to return fire.
I had been at my outpost for two weeks before we took contact for the first time. Over those two weeks, guys started to become restless. Not shooting at someone makes people who are paid to shoot others for a living pretty irritated.
Keep that part in mind, it’ll be useful later on in this story.
It was early July, dead smack in the middle of the so-called “fighting season” in Afghanistan. The fact that the outpost hadn’t taken any enemy fire in weeks was odd, but I wasn’t complaining. I had just come off a four-hour shift in one of the towers. All I wanted to do was put my head on my pillow and catch as much sleep as possible before I got tasked out for something, or before a clip [supply truck] came and I’d be unloading pallets of bottled water or food.
I think I had my head on the pillow for about 30 minutes before I was jolted awake with the words that began this article being shouted about by multiple soldiers.
Since it was the first time I’d been in this situation before – I had to move slower than everyone else and observe what they were doing to get the idea. Nobody had gone over with me the procedure for what we were supposed to do once the actual enemy attacked us. I’m guessing they figured I’d find out soon enough. But, again, it had been two weeks and I had just started to get used to being a soldier in a war zone for the first time. A soldier in a war zone who had no idea where to go or what my job was once we got attacked.
We had bunk beds and I was on a top. As I awoke to the screaming, I saw my platoon mates flop out of bed, grab their boots and run out into the hallway where our weapons and gear were kept. I threw on my boots and was trying to get my whole uniform on (because it had been drilled into my stupid private head by that point that a correct uniform was the most important thing in the world) when a battle buddy said “fuck your top, just grab your weapon.”
So I did, and I followed him outside. When I got out there I saw soldiers running towards the towers with their M4s and automatic weapons. Our attached scout-sniper platoon was rushing up to the roof with their sniper rifles. Some of the support soldiers were also rushing up to the roof – practically knocking each other over to be the first to get to the Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher (think of that carnival game where you shoot bean bags from a tube into a clown’s mouth, but with less reliable accuracy).
I paused, not sure where I was supposed to go. I figured the roof would be as good as any, but I never got more than a rung up the ladder leading to the roof when a voice screamed through the noise:
“Kirell….goddammit, get in the mortar pit.”
I looked back and my platoon sergeant was glaring at me. Since we were a mortar platoon, our assigned spot in a firefight were the two 120mm mortar canons that were positioned in front of our building.
Now, before I continue, I should point out that nobody who joins the Army joins it with the specific goal of being a mortarman. Anyone who joins the infantry joins up with the expectation of just being a guy who carries a rifle, and somewhere along the way those who join up get split into either an 11B job title (the regular gun-carrying infantry) or 11C (mortars).
Being a mortarman kinda sucked if you wanted to be the guy carrying the cool looking rifles and engaging in constant firefights with the enemy, because for the most part, that’s not what we did. When the outpost was attacked, unless you were a mortarman already in a tower, your job was to sit in the mortar pit, prep rounds and hope you got clearance to fire some.
And for the first month the platoon was in Afghanistan, the outpost had come under fire more than two dozen times. However, because getting clearance to fire 120mm mortars required going up the chain of command to what seemed like the Vice President, my platoon had been in-country for almost two months without receiving any clearance.
So I sat in one of the mortar pits, hunkered down behind a three-foot semi-circular wall of Hesco sandbags. Looking up at the roof, I saw the Mark 19 wizzing out grenades with a “thunk, thunk” and witnessed the snipers carefully aiming and firing and some of the fellas with their M4s just tossing out three-round bursts. I turned to a fellow soldier and asked: “So now what?”
“Now we just wait here. It’ll be over in 10 minutes. Then we get to clean up after everyone.”
Which is how it usually went for our lowly mortar platoon – which sat at the bottom of the infantry hierarchy. We would patiently wait for our turn to participate in the battles, and then when they never came, we were turned into the cleanup crew [picking up brass and shell casings] while the scout-snipers went out to check the area they just fired at to see if there were any dead Taliban or weapons laying around. Spoiler alert – there usually weren’t.
But on this day, things were different.
On this day the battle seemed to last longer than what I had been lead to expect. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then a half hour.
The towers were still firing, radioing for more ammo every few minutes. Runners were dispatched with ammo cans full of .556 and .762 rounds.
Then finally the unexpected happened.
“Fire mission…fire mission…fire mission.” The words every mortarman longs to hear. It was finally our time to shine.
“Get rounds prepped,’ we were ordered. We prepped more than a dozen on each gun system.
The coordinates came in. The sights were adjusted. The specific rounds chosen. All we were waiting on was the green light to start dropping.
I looked over at my platoon sergeant – a no-nonsense former hockey coach from Buffalo, NY – he was practically giddy. This was his sixth year in the Army, his third deployment, and the first time he’d get to fire mortars in combat in his career.
“Fire!” he shouted to the gunner and his assistant, as the ammo bearer handed the round off.
The 120mm mortar slid 3/4ths of the way into the tube. The gunner held it there for a split second. “Firing,” he shouted, and dropped the mortar into the tube, while simultaneously twisting and turning his body away from the blast.
The canon exploded once the firing pin made contact with the round, sending it on a huge high-angle arc over the walls of the outpost and about 600 meters downrange into a treeline the Taliban frequently used as an escape route.
Then we waited. Then the familiar *boom* of the mortar hitting the ground came. We waited some more.
New coordinates came. We dialed them into the sights. Then we fired again.
Then we waited to see if we were on target or not. Apparently this time we were, because we received the “10-round fire for effect” call.
“Fire for effect” basically means shove a certain number of rounds down the tube as fast as possible. It’s the mortar equivalent of basically holding your finger on the trigger and spraying an area full of bullets.
After the tenth round was fired we had to clean the tube to remove the carbon buildup [which can actually cause the round to explode inside the tube]. As half the platoon worked to clean the tubes, the other half worked to prep more rounds.
Just as the tubes were done being cleaned and the next batch of round were prepped, the fire mission was called off. We had won, driving the Taliban back to wherever they came from [mostly likely the next village over].
Everyone in the mortar platoon was psyched. We had finally got to do what we came to Afghanistan to do – shoot mortars at the enemy. After we cleaned the mortar pits [and the brass from the towers – because, hey, we’re still the lowly mortars] and headed back to our room to rest.
As the fellas were undressing, our platoon sergeant walked in, stopped in the center of the room, placed his hands on his hips like Superman and addressed his men.
“Men,” he said, “I just want to let you know I’ve never been more proud as a platoon sergeant than I am right now.”
It looked like he was starting to tear up.
“I’ve waited years to fire mortars in live combat, and today you helped prove why we are an invaluable asset to this battalion. I’m so proud of each and every one of you. Great job.”
He then walked around the room and shook everyone’s hand. It was a surreal moment. Our platoon sergeant wasn’t a particularly mean, ornery type of guy – but he wasn’t the type of show any semblance of real emotion outside of short bursts of anger or disgust. He left the room to dead silence from his awed platoon.
Then as he was safely down the hallway, half the room burst into laughter and high-fives.
I looked at them, confused.
“What are you guys laughing about?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” I was told. But the side looks and half-cocked smiles told me something was up.
Later on I found out what the joke was. I got tasked with bringing food up to the towers, and when I arrived at one I started talking to the guys who were in there – who were the same guys who had been in the tower when the fighting started.
I asked them if they think they got anyone.
They looked at each other, then back at me.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure,” I said. [I totally can’t keep secrets]
“There wasn’t anyone out there.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“Look, it’s fucking boring as hell out here. We ain’t had shit happen for weeks. Yesterday we [a few of the scouts and a few of the mortars] decided that if there wasn’t any contact by 8:00 AM, then we were going to make contact.”
And that’s what they did. At precisely 8:05 AM, the two soldiers in the tower devised a plan. One would start firing his weapon at the treeline while the other called in contact over the radio. Pretty soon everyone in all three towers and on the roof were firing at absolutely nothing.
Now, I have to stop here and explain something to those wondering how an entire outpost worth of soldiers can fire their weapons if they don’t see the enemy. You’re probably picturing war as something out of the movies, where one side lines up and the other lines up and as soon as they see each other they start shooting.
In real life the Taliban would sneak as close to our outpost as they could – which was usually about 300-400 meters away, stay close to the heavily concealed treelines, fire off a few shots and then run away. Oftentimes Taliban fighters would be gone before most of our outpost even knew we had been attacked.
Whenever I was in a tower and we took contact I’d try to wait to see a muzzle flash or something telling me where the fire was coming from. But sometimes you just never saw anything, even if you heard the sounds of their AK47s firing at you.
And when we’d go out to conduct patrols to figure out where we were getting fired at [to examine the exit routes and stuff like that] we’d look back at our outpost from their position – essentially getting a Taliban’s-eye view of what they were looking at when they attacked us. And lo and behold – their firing positions were horrible. They couldn’t see us any more than we could see them, and they had the added burden of trying to loft bullets over the 15-foot sandbag walls and have them project downward into the outpost. Not exactly easy when you’re shooting from behind thick shrubs, waist-deep in small water canals.
Yeah, combat in certain parts of Afghanistan can be kinda weird like that.
But back to the story. So the tower that started the faux firefight was also the one that kept up the ruse that the enemy wasn’t being displaced by our returning fire, which is what precipitated the use of the mortars. They kept this ruse up…for over an hour.
Basically, the guys in the towers just wanted to see what mortars look like when they hit stuff, so they faked an enemy attack to watch a rather crude fireworks display a few hundred yards away.
My platoon sergeant never found out about it, which I’m happy about, because I’d feel bad if he knew his first real combat mission involved him killing nothing more than shrubbery and trees.
But considering most of the time when we actually did really get into contact, the Taliban were so good at concealing themselves it felt like shrubbery and trees were the enemy, in a way, it’s kind of fitting.
I’m just wondering what the Taliban scouts were thinking, watching the Americans pump thousands of rounds and a dozen mortars into an empty treeline.
“Boy, the infidels sure are crazy.”
If they only knew we were just bored.