It was late afternoon, almost dusk, on a cold Afghan day when we got word that we had good intel and a possible mission that night. Runners were dispatched, and we were told that all personnel needed to assemble in their tactical operations center that evening. That was all we were told, and for reasons of operational security there was little speculation. We knew we would learn more in the TOC.
During our intel briefing, we learned that a high-value target—smugglers in a vehicle coming back from Pakistan—would be moving along a major supply route between Pakistan and Afghanistan that night. This MSR was southeast of Kandahar and was familiar to us.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are somewhat primitive countries—afghanistan much more so than Pakistan—and they don’t have networks of highways like the ones we’re accustomed to in the United States. In most cases there’s one way in and one way out, and you could count all the major highways in Afghanistan on the fingers of one hand. Operationally and tactically, that made our job easier.
Afghanistan basically has an agricultural economy, with a big part of that the growing of opium poppies, which are the raw material for heroin. In addition to opium poppies, Afghanistan is also the largest producer of cannabis (mostly as hashish) in the world. There are few facilities in Afghanistan for turning large amounts of that raw material into the finished product, so the opium poppies and cannabis get trucked to Pakistan to be turned into finished drugs.
In return for this raw material for drugs—which is a major source of income for the Taliban and allows them to buy weapons—the Taliban ships money, manufactured goods and fighters back into Afghanistan. And often the trucks and cars coming back into Afghanistan also carried the piece parts—shaped charges, blast caps, detonators and the like—that the Taliban used to make the IEDS (improvised explosive devices) that were so feared by our troops.
Our intel told us that the vehicle we were going to intercept soon after it crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan was carrying weapons, material and money. Most important, these smugglers were going to deliver their cargo to some Taliban leaders who had shipped the raw material for drugs to Pakistan and were now waiting for their payment. That meant our U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, was also involved in this mission.
The crux of this mission was capturing these smugglers so we could interrogate them and have them lead us to the Taliban bosses, who were the big fish.
Taking out a car full of knuckleheads was easy; a drone strike could do that with the press of a button. We wanted more. We needed a way in the door, to get inside the Taliban’s drug network. Capturing these smugglers could give us the leads we needed to start tearing down the Taliban’s supply chain in Kandahar and the rest of Helmed Province.
Our plan was straightforward, but it had many moving parts. We were going to intercept this passenger vehicle at a truck stop on the MSR just inside the Afghanistan border.
For this mission I was with the Reconnaissance Platoon, and we would be the backup plan to stop the vehicle if it blew Second Platoon’s barricade. Marc and I would also provide overwatch for the main assault force, albeit from over half a mile away. Second Platoon would land close to the truck stop at the precise moment our intel told us this vehicle was going to arrive and would set up positions to capture the truck’s occupants once they stopped for gas.
I was the sniper team leader, and Marc was my spotter.
It might seem that two full platoons of Rangers assigned to take down one vehicle full of smugglers is overkill, but it goes back to our mantra: “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
It was a short ride—about a half hour—to our objective area. After we landed and streamed out of the Chinooks, our platoon leader formed us up and we started moving north at a brisk pace. Even in the green glow of our PVS-13 night vision goggles we were reminded of how desolate most of Afghanistan is.
We were about 2 klicks into a brisk but unhurried trek toward our objective area when our radios came alive. We got updated intel from KAF that the target vehicle was going to get to the truck stop ahead of schedule, and we needed to advance our timeline and get to our overwatch position now.
Things had been pretty methodical up to now, but all of a sudden they got frenetic.
We got to our overwatch position and set up quickly. As we settled into position along the ridgeline, I checked my wrist compass and followed its bearing to the horizon. Sure enough, there were headlights.
READY TO ROLL
I was carrying my bolt-action Mk-13 mod 2, our “big gun.” It fired the .30-caliber cartridge. Because I knew I might have to stop a vehicle quickly, this large cartridge was just the ticket. I also knew that any shots I had could be a half-mile.
Our overwatch position was about 800 meters from the near side of the truck stop, and while we were well concealed, we had a pretty much unobstructed view of the action. The rest of the Recce Platoon was watching our backs to ensure we weren’t ambushed from behind or overrun by Taliban coming out of nowhere. It was “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” on steroids.
Just like that, our plan was falling apart. The target vehicle was moving slowly, and Second Platoon was using its 250-lumen tactical lights to signal the car to stop, but it didn’t. It didn’t stop at the truck stop at all but just kept moving. Time for Plan B, and we were it!
Our Recce Platoon sergeant was on the net with Major Dan trying to get clearance for me to shoot the truck, ideally through the engine compartment, and stop it.
It now seemed like a near-death experience, when time slows to a crawl. Where’s the damn authorization to shoot? I thought. I watched the truck through my scope, and I could see that its headlights would soon fade behind the large rock
outcropping between me and their route through the truck stop. If I waited until I could see them again, Second Platoon would be in my line of fire, and shooting at the truck would present too great a risk of me creating a friendly casualty. I considered—then rejected—the idea of just taking the shot without permission and dealing with the consequences later.
All this was going through my head while I was building and rebuilding my shot and adjusting my math. Marc was looking through his optics and feeding me the minute corrections he saw as the truck continued to travel. And every second I’m thinking, We’re gonna lose this sucker.
As I’m hoping, praying, for the authorization to shoot, I’m breathing in-cycle, timing each inhale and exhale, ensuring that I’m ready to fire at a split-second’s notice when the call comes. Seconds stretched into minutes as I waited for the call. As the truck’s lights began to fade from view like a setting sun, I began to give up hope. It’s too late …
“Shit, lost him,” Marc said under his breath.
He was mirroring my own thoughts.
Suddenly, my earpiece came alive. It was Major Dan.
“Sierra is cleared to engage vehicle,” he said.
My right ear was bare, and I had my right cheek pressed against the stock of my rifle. I was inhaling and exhaling evenly, slow and steady, trying not to disturb my crosshairs focused on the target.
I was looking at a wall of granite, a grainy black-and-green monolith in my night vision scope. I knew the car was there, and I knew how fast it was going. I’ve practiced this shot more times than I can count, but on a stationary target, and one that was only about 400 meters away.
We had started tracking this vehicle at 1,000 meters and now it was rolling, unseen, toward my crosshairs at 840 meters. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale …
I was trying to get the lineup just perfect and focused on a spot on the road behind the
“Sierra, did you just shoot a truck you couldn’t see and stop it with one round?”
mountain. I knew the truck would be the same distance away as the gas station, and I knew from studying the map where the road was behind the mountain, so I pictured exactly where that should be, measured in my scope, and placed my crosshairs there. Marc and I had already calculated vehicle speed, and I could see the point in my mind. If we had calculated correctly, my bullet would meet the target vehicle at 840 meters.
I was dialing in my scope elevation when I heard my platoon sergeant key his mic. I knew what he was going to say—that we no longer had eyes on. I squeezed the trigger before he could utter the words I didn’t want to hear as my own thoughts came to the fore: We didn’t load up two full platoons of Rangers to do nothing.
The recoil of my .30 caliber sent the big rifle back into my shoulder hard, while the scope accelerated toward my eye. But I never lost my sight picture, and I saw my crosshairs fixed on where I knew the target was all the way through the violent recoil. By the time my rifle settled, 190 grains of
copper-jacketed lead should have dipped below the false horizon between us and the target. Never losing my sight picture was an indication I had gotten off a good shot.
I was confident the round had gone where I wanted it to—into the engine block of the target vehicle.
The net cleared, and I simply said, “Sierra, shot, out.”
There was an eerie silence for what seemed like an eternity before I heard a calm voice say, “He’s slowing down.”
Then another voice: “Roger, looks like he’s stopping … break … we have four pax exiting the vehicle.” (Pax means persons.) “Now the hood’s up.”
Another voice broke in on the net. “Must have engine trouble.”
Marc cast me an incredulous look that I could barely see in the dark, but I could read his thoughts: “You did it!”
I could hardly believe it. Sure, we train for it, we’re confident and we do think we’re pretty damn good. But we also calculate first-round-hit probability. Over half a mile, in the blind, on a moving vehicle, and that .30-caliber bullet had to go straight through the aluminum engine block and make the engine seize.
It must have buried in the motor somehow, because a miss or a near-miss would have sent frag into the cab, or else made enough light and noise that the drivers would know they were being shot at.
In all humility, I began to thank my lucky stars, but my platoon sergeant quickly shook me back into reality.
“Sierra, did you just shoot a truck you couldn’t see and stop it with one round?” he asked.
Saying he sounded incredulous would be a gross understatement.
“Yep!” Marc chimed in, quicker than I could think of what to say. “That’s why we call him Balls.”
Marc was right. There were no lucky stars to thank; we were trained to exacting standards by the best instructors in the world at both the U.S. Army Sniper School and the Special Forces Sniper Course. We were in the business of the impossible, and we were expected to be able to make shots like this.
All preparation goes back to our mantra: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. These photos are for illustrative purposes.
From “The Killer Man Comes” by Paul Martinez and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC; us.macmillan.com.