Ground Zero

Firepower - - CONTENTS - TEXT BY PAUL MARTINEZ

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.

IN­TEL BRIEF­ING

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.”

LAST CHECK

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.”

MIS­SION AC­COM­PLISHED

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.

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