Ground Zero



Dawn fi­nally broke in Hel­mand Province. Nick Irv­ing sat and waited. For now, at least, the long night was over.

Just then Fin­negan called over qui­etly; he’d just heard from the Marines back at their com­pound. They’d de­cided they didn’t want to wait for yet another morn­ing at­tack. They wanted to take the fight to the en­emy. They were on their way to join the group. All ri­i­ight! was Nick’s first thought. They were go­ing to see some se­ri­ous con­tact.

At the same time, it seemed kind of bizarre that the Marines would make the de­ci­sion to go in on the very same day that Nick and his team were out there, ready to am­bush them. Nick wished they could hang on and wait a bit. He could al­ready see signs of peo­ple in the vil­lage start­ing to pre­pare. He could see the move­ment, feel the en­ergy in the air, that sense of some­thing bad about to hap­pen. He knew that very soon, the mo­ment these guys pre­sented them­selves clearly, he and Pem­ber­ton could do some real dam­age.


The two snipers were perked up and ready. Nick had his spot­ting scope set up right next to where he sat with Dirty Diana, ev­ery­thing clean and good to go.

Okay, the Marines were com­ing. So be it. Nick would sup­port the over­watch. From his high­ground van­tage point, he could see things the Marines couldn’t and was in a good po­si­tion to take out dan­ger be­fore it hap­pened, or call it out if he couldn’t hit it him­self.

Just as the sun began peek­ing up over the hori­zon, giv­ing a gray­ish tint to the scene be­fore him, he heard the ap­proach of a col­umn of Humvees. Then—ssss­nap! Ssss­nap! Some­one was tak­ing spo­radic shots at the Marines.

Nick heard them on the ra­dio ask­ing, “Hey, you guys see where that’s com­ing from?”

The Marines in Humvees couldn’t see it. The Ma­rine snipers in their hide couldn’t see it. Nick couldn’t see it ei­ther. Then the whole area in Nick’s sec­tor started com­ing alive, peo­ple hus­tling, run­ning around, clearly get­ting ready to fight. Nick called over to Pem­ber­ton, “Hey man, get ready to start drop­ping guys.”

But nei­ther of them saw any weapons yet, so nei­ther of them took any shots. So far, it was just a bunch of peo­ple run­ning around.


The Marines were get­ting closer.

Nick no­ticed one guy in his sec­tor who stood out. Some­thing about the way the guy was act­ing struck him as sus­pi­cious. Gun­fire erupted. The Marines’ col­umn was be­ing fired on. Nick heard their .50 cal gun­ners re­turn fire. Their guys were in se­ri­ous con­tact. Just then the guy Nick had been watch­ing ducked be­hind the cor­ner of a small house. A mo­ment later he reap­peared bear­ing an RPG. Nick looked a few de­grees to the right. A

Ma­rine Humvee was ap­proach­ing, clos­ing in on pass­ing the guy at a dis­tance of maybe 50 me­ters, at most. For an RPG, that’s not point­blank range, but it is damn close.

He looked back at the guy. Sure enough, he dropped down to one knee and took aim. He was tucked into the cor­ner pretty well; the Humvee driver didn’t see him. Be­sides, the Humvees were ab­sorbed in their own fire­fight, en­gag­ing tar­gets mainly in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

From his long night of de­tailed cal­cu­la­tions, Nick al­ready had the kneel­ing guy’s range: 743 yards. He quickly di­aled the dis­tance into his scope.

“Watch this guy,” he told Pem­ber­ton. “On ’im.”

Pem­ber­ton was al­ready there. The two didn’t need to talk, at least not in sen­tences. For months they had al­ready been op­er­at­ing to­gether like a sin­gle or­gan­ism, and a word or two was all it took to con­vey the nec­es­sary mean­ing. On ’im. Rog.

Pem­ber­ton’s job was to watch the tar­get and make sure Irv­ing had hit him, and if not, then to see ex­actly where the bul­let went. Irv­ing’s job was to shoot.

BOOM. The shot took the man in his up­per stom­ach area. The guy dropped and folded, like a fold­ing chair col­laps­ing.

Up to this point the en­emy hadn’t suf­fered any ac­tual ca­su­al­ties. Yes, they were mount­ing at­tacks on the Ma­rine camp ev­ery morn­ing, but they were the type of fire­fights where both sides shot at each other but no one re­ally hit any­body. It was just a bunch of bul­lets fly­ing back and forth. (You might be sur­prised at how of­ten this hap­pens in war.)

Now these guys sud­denly saw their friend just drop, DOA. And Dirty Diana was wear­ing her sup­pres­sor, so the shot was quiet, too, and prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble to hear in the midst of the rest of the gun­fire. It freaked the Tal­iban forces out. They started shoot­ing like crazy. One Tali fighter stood up a lit­tle too brazenly— Pem­ber­ton took him out with a sin­gle dev­as­tat­ing ex­plo­sion from the Win Mag.

Now a bar­rage of gun­fire started pour­ing onto the site where Nick and Pem­ber­ton were holed up. Nick and Pem­ber­ton re­turned fire, joined by their recce mate, join­ing in with the Marines.

The bar­rage didn’t last. Af­ter a few min­utes, the Tal­iban col­lected their slain and made a hasty re­treat. Nick later learned that af­ter that dawn skir­mish, that Ma­rine unit never got attacked again for the rest of that de­ploy­ment. The vic­tory came at a cost, though: dur­ing the bar­rage, the Marines had taken one KIA as well.


Just then they got a call from the other recce op­er­a­tors back at the Ma­rine base. Rangers from Sec­ond Pla­toon ev­i­dently had some in­tel on where their HVT was now headed and were on their way to ren­dezvous. Which meant that as soon as Nick and Pem­ber­ton could ex­tract them­selves from their am­bush of the am­bush, they had to get back and plan for the next mis­sion—the real mis­sion, the rea­son they’d gone out there in the first place.

When they got back to the Ma­rine com­pound, they found four truck­loads of men and equip­ment wait­ing for them. Sec­ond Pla­toon had ar­rived. Dress re­hearsal was over. Time to plan and move.

While the pla­toon or­ga­nized them­selves and pre­pared for their night­time de­par­ture, Nick lay down on the ground by a good-sized rock he’d no­ticed. Not much of a pil­low, but it would have to do.

He placed his head on the rock and stretched out his aching limbs. He was hop­ing to grab a few quick Z’s. Aside from a cat­nap snatched here and there, they had now been up four days straight with­out sleep. A very long night. It was about to get a lot longer.

Four truck­loads of men and equip­ment were wait­ing for them. Dress re­hearsal was over. Time to plan and move.

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