Ex army memories : Kashmir diary

Discussion in 'Indian Army' started by ghost, Jan 10, 2014.

  1. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    ******************************* For Whom The Whistle Blows*******************************************************************************************



    31st May.



    Lots of pressure from above. “No kills ! No kills ! What the f*** are you guys doing? C’mon dammit ! Its time you did something to earn your pay ” Damn !! What do I do? Been moving around the Area of Responsibility (AOR) day and night. Overt and covert patrols. Listening to bullshit from scores of so called ’sources’ all through the day. Monitoring militant frequencies. The works. But all to no avail. No luck at all. Jahangir was spotted last night. Gul Dar was spotted in the day. Amir Khan is organising a conference, etc etc etc. The information goes on pouring in. But I don’t want information. I want intelligence. Hard intelligence. Don’t want those m***** f*****’s itineraries, want their bodies. Jeez ! Got to do something. But what??????

    Anyways, forget the despair. Its a pleasant summer morning. Lets go patrolling in W village. Send Man Friday to check if the guys are ready. Affirmative. Lets go boys !

    Walking through the village. Kuldeep is point. I’m behind him. Balbirs close to me with the LMG (Light Machine Gun). The rest of the guys following. Moving on both sides of the road. Fingers on triggers. Eyes constantly searching. But there's nothing unusual. The locals are awake. Moving around with their routine chores. Kids off to school. Another day when I go back and say “NTR (Nothing to Report)” ??

    Whats that??????? I hear a low whistle. Look around. See nothing out of the ordinary. Damn !! Then why the whistle? Whats up?

    I get a hunch that somethings definitely fishy. Move off the road into a little alley. Moving fast. A slow jog. The guys follow. I look at the locals as i cross them. Theres definitely something. The look on their faces shows it.

    The alley goes past a few huts and leads out of the village into the adjoining fields. I see scores of people there. Working. I halt. The guys take up positions. We do a slow, careful scan. Nothing.

    Wait !!! Theres one guy about 300 metres away. Walking away from us through the fields. Tall, well built, wearing a salwar suit. But no weapon in sight. A local headed for his fields? Or somebody else? As I stare at him, he looks back. Can’t see his face at that distance but his pace definitely quickens. I take off. Running after him. Yelling “Stop !! Ruk Jao!!” My AKs at the ready as i run after him. He’s still walking. Doesn’t look back. Damn ! A false alarm?

    I close in. About 50 metres away. Suddenly, i spot the barrel of a rifle coming over his shoulder. Jeez !! He ain’t looking back but he’s going to open fire. Should I shoot? Am I sure its a rifle barrel? Before I can decide, he decides for me. Lets loose a burst and starts running. Firing behind over his shoulder as he runs. I take cover and fire back. No luck. He doesn’t hit me and I return the favour. He’s moving further away now. I get off the ground. Think of my God and chase him. Firing on the move. Closing in.

    Yippeee ! I’ve hit him. He’s limping. I slow down. Look back. My guys are right behind me. I signal to Balbir. He takes to the ground. LMG bipod down. A nice slow burst . Down goes the bad guy. Balbir stops firing. I run to the guy. He’s on the ground. All bloodied, chanting his prayers. Times up buddy !!

    As I get close, i can see his face. Fair, handsome, young. His eyes look into mine as i get close and then he raises his rifle and lets go a burst. Whew !! That was close. Okay pal ! Thats how you want it? I stop, shift the change lever to ‘Single Shot’, look through the sight and knock his head off. Ciao ass**** !

    Abdul Majid. Hizbul Mujahideen. Good bye !!
     
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  3. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Bombing The Bomber



    06 January

    Brrr !! Its freezing. Am operating covert. Holed up the past two weeks in a gujjar (nomadic shepherds) hut in the hills overlooking K village. The gujjars come here from the plains only in the summers so the huts are deserted. I'm here, along with my buddy Karan, because FMs (Foreign Militants) are fond of using these secluded huts for shelter from the vagaries of winter. Hopefully I'll get some of them.

    But so far, there's been no luck and I'm stuck to living in this ramshackle hut with no amenities and having to live with the overpowering smell of goats. Come to think of it, even I'm smelling like a goat and if my mirrors to be believed, looking like one too ' what with my beard deciding to go into totally unkempt mode.

    My radio buzzes. Aha!! What's up? A militant conversation? No. It's the Indian Army frequency. Maybe a call for me. I hold the little Kenwood to my ear.

    "Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid"

    Yup ! It is for me. Charlies a friend of mine. A courageous, young Major from Texas (Haryana for the uninitiated) who I've known for the past few years. He's currently serving with the RR (Rashtriya Rifles) as a company commander and is based pretty close by.

    "Khalid for Charlie, go ahead"

    "Charlie for Khalid, request a meeting Sir"

    "Khalid for Charlie, roger. Whats up?"

    "Charlie for Khalid, talk when we meet"

    I tie up details with him for a meeting and sign off. We meet that night in an apple orchard near K Village. Charlie's looking a trifle low.

    "Whassup Charlie?", I ask of him.

    " Nothing Sir. Lifes good, but I've had no luck ever since I took over this company and my Tiger (Commanding Officer) is breathing down my neck so hard that my butt feels like its got a fan attached to it".

    "Hmmm. Okay ..but you do have some HM (Hizbul Mujahideen) guys floating around your AOR, isn't it? Why doncha knock em off? "

    "I've tried everything I could Sir. Ambushes, CASOs (Cordon and Search Ops), Raids, etc etc etc. But no f****** luck. There's never any hard intelligence"

    I ask Charlie what he wants of me.

    "Sir, come operate with us for a little while. You might help us get a kill".

    I think about it. I've heard about a small HM group operating in and around Charlie's AOR so maybe if we try something different, we could get some kills. In any case, I'm freezing my butt off up in the hills and have sweet f*** all to show for it. Might as well go and help out Charlie. Even if I can't help him, he'll definitely lift up the quality of my life for a while. He he ! So much for selfless soldiering.

    The next day, Karan and I move into Charlie's company base. Aah ! Feels good to sleep in a warm hut and to have a long overdue bath. God ! I still don't look human, but I sure feel it.

    The next day, I sit with Charlie, nursing a tall vodka and review his information, co-relating it with what my sources have been telling me.

    There definitely is a group moving around the area. 3 or 4 HM guys. Identification NK (Not Known) but their leaders a guy called Farooq Ahmed alias Bomber Khan. I've heard of him. A nasty fellow, late 20s, Pak trained, an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) expert (hence the 'Bomber' sobriquet). An ideal candidate for immediate termination if ever there was one.

    But how do we get him? He's been operating for a decade and he's alive. That just about says it all with reference to his being a smart and safe cookie.

    Hmmm ! Conventional ops haven't worked. Neither have the locals reacted to Charlie's bribes, coercion, pampering or torture. Nobody's willing to put the finger on him.

    Sigh !! Will need to do it our own way.

    We dig deeper into the Bomber's life. Find out that he has a girl friend in Village D. That's a promising bit of information. These HM guys can stay away from any and everything barring their sisters, mothers, wives and girl friends NOT in that order of priority.

    Karan and I move out that night to recce (reconnoitre) village D. Its located on the banks of the river. Open all around. Makes it tough to control entry or exit.

    Anyways, I decide that we'll need to go with one plan and hope that it works. I discuss my plan with Charlie.

    There'll be 4 of us. Charlie, his buddy, Karan and I. We'll operate covert, moving out after last light, laying an ambush at the crossing places on the river near village D, and
    getting back into the company base before first light. We'll try this out 7 nights on the trot and then review.

    11 January

    Getting dark. Time to get ready and move for Day 1 of Operation Bomber Khan. Hopefully, well get him today itself. But then counter insurgency / counter terrorism has never been kind to the hopefuls, so my intuition is that we’ll get him, if at all, only by Day 4 or 5.

    I yell across the wall of the hut to Charlie, ” We move at 1730.”

    “Wilco Sir” , he yells back, sounding positively bubbly.

    I send Man Friday to fetch Karan. He turns up soon enough, looking his usual cool, composed self. I ask him “Taiyyar ho Karan? Aaj shikaar milega?”

    “Hamesha taiyar hain Saab, aur shikar ka kya kehna? Uski maut aaj likhi hai toh kaun taalega?”

    Lol. Thats my buddy, one of the finest NCOs (Non Commisioned Officer) it has been my honour to serve with and lead.

    Charlie and his buddy fetch up. Charlie’s buddy is a young Naik (Corporal, an NCO ) , looking a trifle tense. Maybe he’s never operated covert and isn’t too comfortable out of uniform and without his BPJ (Bullet Proof Jacket) and BPP (Bullet Proof Patka, a protective headgear). I ask him that and pat comes his reply, ” Saab, BPJ ho ya na ho, shareer toh faulad ka hai”. God ! I love these guys. Take my word for it people, theres no better soldier in the world than the Indian Army jawan.

    I do a quick brief and at 1740 hours, we slip out of the camp, clad in phirans, salwars and nikes. AKs slung under the phirans. No heavy weapons. I’m the only guy carrying my faithful old dagger strapped to my leg and my 9mm Beretta tucked into my salwar. Otherwise, its just 4 guys with 4 AKs and 96 rounds each. Should be enough for Messrs Bomber Khan and Co though.

    Its pretty dark, though not absolutely night time as yet. We walk along the track leading towards the river from BB (Charlie’s location). A few civilians on the track. We receive a few curious glances but nothing to trouble us. The idea when operating covert is to look like civilians to security forces and like militants to the civilians. Second nature for Karan and me, and Charlie and his buddy appear to be quick learners.

    Brrrr !!! its miserably cold though. A light snowfall and the sky’s overcast. Looks like a very cold night ahead. But nothing can be done about it now. Like we’re fond of saying in the Army, ‘When rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it’.

    An hours walk and we’re near the river line. We can see the lights of Village D to our left. We get off the track and walk through the snow to a little copse along the river. I ask the guys to wait and buzz off for a quick recce. All quiet. I get back and position the team. Charlie and his buddy to cover one little path coming from the river towards the village and Karan and I covering another one. We use our hands to scoop out snow and snuggle in. Its miserably cold, but then, no one invited us to join the Army, did they?

    Keep lying there in the quiet, alert yet relaxed. Using our PNVGs (Passive Night Vision Goggles) to scan respective arcs of observation. The hours pass by. Nothing happening. Alls quiet and the only sound I can hear is the occasional rustle of plastic as one of the guys uses a poly bag to take a leak.

    0130 hours. I hear something. But it's from the direction of the village. Damn ! We're not sited to effectively fire on someone exiting the village. It can be done , but only after shifting positions in situ and while Karan and I can do it with ease, I doubt if Charlie and/or his buddy won't give away his position. Anyways, we just lie doggo and wait. Soon enough I can make out that the sound is of someone approaching. I look through my PNVG. The damn tree line is obstructing my field of view. I wait. The sounds closer now. Sure enough I see someone approaching. It's a man in a phiran. Good. But I'll have to wait till I'm sure I spot a weapon. He gets very close to me. Stops. Squats on the ground, relieves himself and heads back towards the village. Yuk !! False (and smelly) alarm !!!!

    We stay put for another hour or so and at 0300 hours, I decide to call it off. A signal to Charlie. We get up and head back.

    Getting close to Charlie's camp. Walking on the track in single file, Charlie leading. Cold, disappointed and lost in our personal thoughts. I'm looking forward to getting into a warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot tea.

    Shit !!!!!!! A search light on us. We freeze. It passes over us. I whisper to Charlie. "What the f*** was that?"

    "Oh hell Sir, I forgot to factor this in. It's a BSF (Border Security Force) post next to my camp. They use that light at night to pick up movement on this track. I forgot about it"

    I give him a scathing look, which he missed cos of the dark, or else he'd have gone up in flames.

    Anyways, we get off the track and slowly move ahead.

    The lights back, hovers over us and before you can say 'F***', an LMG opens up.

    We crash onto the ground and start crawling away from the track. Another light AND another LMG open up on us. Crawlings too slow and there are too many bullets flying around. I get to my feet and sprint to a nearby grove across a snow covered field. The others follow.

    Whew !! Safe.

    The firing stops after a while. Nobody ventures out from either Charlie's camp or from the BSF post. Thank the good Lord for soldiers who prefer LMGs to CQB (Close Quarter Battle).

    Sigh !! Nothing to do but wait it out in the trees. We hang around and as first light breaks, we head back.

    No further incident. We reach Charlie's company base and head for our beds, but not before I tick Charlie off , well and proper.

    The poor guys crestfallen, but then he's got to learn, isn't it?

    12 January.

    Day 2. After a snooze, Charlie and I get together over a late breakfast. He still appears despondent. I ask him to chill, saying that forgetting about the BSF wasn't THAT bad. It doesn't matter now that we're back , that too without being punctured by those LMG bullets.

    "That's ok Sir, but I don't think we'll get Bomber or his group this way".

    "Why?" I ask, more than a trifle miffed at his sudden lack of confidence in my op planning.

    "Sir, we're restricting ourselves to very few hours. What if he comes just once a week or so? And what if he visits Village D only by day?"

    "Charlie, in this kinda war, don't bother about what ifs. Follow a hunch, plan your op based on that and persevere till you waste him".

    "Roger Sir" , says Charlie with a wry smile. He knows me. Never say die just say 'kill'.

    We however, talk about the previous night and modify the plan a wee bit. We'll move into position a bit earlier. That's to hit Bomber in case he likes getting into the village just after last light. And we'll stick on till just short of first light, cos if he's there, that's the time he'll leave the village. In this kind of weather, a guy would want as many hours in the warm embrace of his girl friend as he can possibly squeeze (pun totally unintended) in. Of course, enhanced hours of lying in the snow on our tummies increase the chances of our dicks turning into icicles and falling off, but then can't be helped, can it?

    The rest of the day passes by. I clean my rifle and pistol, oil my dagger and replace the PNVG batteries. Meet a couple of Ikhwans (members of a counter insurgent group, surrendered militants) and generally try building up my data base of this particular area.

    1700 hours. I'm ready to move. Its still day light and we're going to get spotted on our move up to the river. No sweat. I know the cops in this area. They never step outside of the police station, unless it's to pick up a pack of fags from the shop opposite their gate. Charlie's met the BSF platoon commander and squared him up. So, unless destiny deals us a whammy, tonight we're unlikely to meet up with any security forces/police guys and/or their projectiles. The civilians will look at us and then look away. Their life goes on. Ho hum!!!

    Green on, go! We head out. Will get lucky tonight, insha'allah!

    We walk to the ambush site, get into position and wait. I've modified the positioning this time so as to be able to cover entry and exit to/from the village. 1900 hours. Pitch dark. Nothing. 2100 hours. Pitch dark. Nothing. 2300 hours. Pitch dark. Nothing. 0100 hours. Pitch dark. Nothing. 0300 hours. Pitch dark. Nothing. I just lie in my little snowy fox hole, looking at nothing through my PNVG. Minds drifting. Missing wife and kids. Wonder when I'll get leave. 0500 hours, I shake myself out of my semi domesticated reverie and decide that it's time to head back. Another NTR day.

    Signal to Charlie. All 4 of us get up, brush off the snow and slowly move out of the copse.

    I however decide to change the route we'll take to get back. Don't want to get ambushed by some not so nice bunch of characters that's got onto us. Still pitch dark. A light snowfall and a heavy fog. I'm leading. Karan, Charlie and his buddy following in single file. We walk along a field, on the narrow embankment that generally separates two fields.

    Done a few klicks (kilometers). I suddenly hear something. In fact, more sense than hear. I halt. So do the others. We wait quietly and try to pick up any sounds. Nothing.

    The trudge resumes.

    All of sudden, before I can say "Oops!", I bump into a guy walking on the same embankment from the opposite side. I can vaguely make out at least another person behind him.

    "Who are you? Hands up!" I yell out in Kashmiri, my AK barrel pointed at his belly from under my phiran.

    "I'm from village D", he replies. "Getting back after spending the night in the neighbouring village. We'd gone to attend a function there. Who're you?"

    I can't see any weapon on him. "Hands up!" I repeat nonetheless.

    As he raises his hands, his phiran hikes up a bit and I suddenly spot a glint of metal.

    F*** !!!! I can't be sure, but sure be damned. I let loose a single shot. He falls to the ground, as does the guy behind him. All of a sudden I can't see them.

    Whoops!!!! The buggers are firing at me. Yikes ! I jump off the embankment onto the field. My guys have followed the same train of thought and therefore arrived at the same station. All four of us on our bellies in the snow covered field, off the embankment. At least two guys that we can't see, firing at us .and firing like there's going to be no tomorrow. I did hit the guy I bumped into, but he definitely isn't dead. There's too much fire coming our way for it to be from just one guy.

    Thunk ! Whats that? Jeeeeez !!!!!!!! I can spot a shiny little thingummy fallen next to me. Looks suspiciously like an AK-47 UBGL (Under Barrel Grenade Launcher) grenade, and given our current environs, that's what it is in all probability. I'm all set to kiss my butt goodbye, wishing I could be like those guys in the movies that pick up grenades chucked at them and politely chuck them back. But, the long 'life line' on my palm seems to mean something. The evil little grenade doesn't go off.

    F*** ! This won't do. I slither away from my current position and move up, hugging the embankment. Firings still on, from both sides. Wonder what Charlie and his buddy can see to fire at. I know Karan. Like me, he will never fire unless there's a target to fire at. Anyways, guess Charlie and his buddy believe in deterrence.

    As I crawl forward, I spot what seems to be a guy lying on the embankment. And yes, it IS a guy, cos the flashes coming from him show he's firing towards his front. Thank God, I'm besides him and he ain't looking my way. I stand, point my rifle at the vague outline of his body and let loose a long burst, spraying the bullets top to bottom.

    Silence. He's definitely dead. But what of the other. I sure as hell know there was more than one. I yell out for Charlie. The guys crawl up to me. We confer in whispers and decide to spread out astride the embankment and go looking, just in case the other bad guys still around.

    Karan and I move ahead, along the embankment. A few steps and we get fired at. Jeez!! Whats today? The frigging 4th of July? Karan and I are both too pissed off to take position. We just fire back at the flashes. A couple of bursts each.The guys stopped firing. We edge forward towards where the flashes were. Now we hear him chanting his ‘dying, dying, dead’ prayers. I let loose another burst at him. Walk towards him. Feel with my nikes. Yep ! He's got to be dead cos he's not responding to my playing footsie with his body. Just to be sure, out comes my Zippo. Confirmed. One more dead man. Any more? We wait in situ.

    Its getting to be first light. Now we can see the two bodies. Weapons with both of them, so no chances of us having inflicted any 'collateral damage'.

    Charlie radios his company, giving them our position. In a little while, some guys fetch up, accompanied by a cop from the local police station. Karan and I slink into the background, as we always do when there are cops or civilians around. The hassles of operating covert.

    The cop looks at the guys, mutters some prayers and announces " Bomber Khan!"

    That was it!

    Farooq Ahmed alias Bomber Khan and Basheer Ahmed Dar. Hizbul Mujahideen. Good bye!! And if it's any consolation to you in your after life, you did nick me. A little graze on my right shoulder. Ta da!!
     
  4. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    A Truck Load



    06 August

    Nothing much happening. Loads of information about militant movement but getting no hard intelligence. All my sources are busy with the apple season on. Plucking, packing, transporting. Nobody seems to have time for the games I (AND the militants) play.

    But it doesn't mean the bad guys have vanished. The local militants would've surfaced and joined their families to help in the orchards. But they can't be hit there. Won't recognize them and with everyone in the orchards from kids to adults to ancient folk, their EW (Early Warning) system will be A1. In any case, to hit a militant while he's shed his weapon and is doing some honest work would sure as hell not get us any 'winning hearts and minds' medals.

    So what do I do? Looks like I'd better hunt down some FMs (Foreign Militants, for those of you who've forgotten).

    There is some news that's been traveling around about a group of HUA (Harkat Ul Ansar) baddies that's come into the area. But nothing specific. Might as well try a swipe in the dark. Have to be pro active, cos they're not going to walk into either my sights or the sights of my trusty AK.

    A young friend I have in Village S (a bright young lad aged all of 11) comes to meet me and tells me that a few days ago, he's spotted a group of 3-4 guys, all strangers, near the bus stand in his village. They looked a bit different, much bigger than the average local, and were talking in a language that definitely wasn't Kashmiri.

    FMs? Or a group of traders from another area here for a good bargain in apples?

    I question him more about them, but he won't give. Not till I slip him a couple of 500 buck crispies, and more importantly, two bars of chocolate.

    He tells me that he'd seen them at around 0600 hours. They'd stood around in the area for about 15-20 minutes and then left, walking along the path that runs alongside a minor canal to the neighbouring village (about 8 klicks away). He didn't spot any weapons though he was reasonably sure that they had some suspicious bulges under their pathan salwar suits. Could be true. Could be hyperbole. Generally, you can only trust these Kilos (Kashmiris) as far as you can throw the current Governor of California with one arm.

    Anyways, I lay on the Maska Chaska on the kid and ask him to get me more information.

    11 August

    My young friend is back. Tells me that he saw two of them again. And again, near the bus stand.

    Ok ! I decide to give it a shot. I call Karan and tell him about this bit of news. I make out a plan. The hit has to be by day and theres no suitable ambush site so something different has to be done. We'll get hold of one of the many trucks that's parked all over the place waiting to pick up apples. Drive it before first light to a place from where we can cover the S Village Bus Stand by observation and fire, and wait. If we spot these guys and get a confirmatory make on them, we'll knock them out from within the truck.

    He seems to like the plan, but then he's always had a soft corner for me.

    12 August

    We meet up with a local Ikhwan commander in town and ask him to get us a truck. He obliges (as if he has a choice) and we drive back in the middle of the night, after a nice dinner prepared for us by the Ikhwan's wife. Kababs, gushtava and rice. Yummm!!

    !3 August

    Its 0400 hours and I've parked the truck on a narrow little track adjacent to some orchards. We are about 75 metres from the Bus Stand. We get into the back of the truck and get some shut eye. In any case, that's where we'll have to maintain our vigil from. Too suspicious for us to be seen sitting in the cab of the truck for too long. No trucker does that when his vehicle is stationary for a longish period.

    0500 hours. We get vertical again and look around. Days breaking. But there's no one around. We take turns hopping out and getting the 'essentials' done. Back in the vehicle by 0530. Lets see if our AKs will get some more notches today.

    0600 hours. We're looking out through the slits between the boards that cover the front of the truck, just behind the cab. The rear is boarded up too. We don't want curious eyes peeping in.

    Nothing. A few locals start moving around. But nothing suspicious. No big burly baddies.

    0700, 0800, 0900 and so on, if you get the drift.

    F*** !! Its getting warm inside the truck. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. Its getting to be 1100 hours. Call it off? Can't sit here all day. With so many people moving around the village and the orchards, some one is definitely going to peep in at some point of time.

    Enough. I decide to call it a day. Will go down in my journal as a truck load of disappointment. But then what's new? In any case, this kind of war always has more 'misses' than 'hits'.

    I tell Karan to remove the boards and get ready to drive off before we get recognized. He's not too happy. He really liked the plan and feels we ought to stick on. Reminds me about 'perseverance'.

    I don't want to upset him and yet I know it's no use hanging around here. So I strike a compromise and decide to change locations.

    We drive off along the canal and park near another orchard. Return to looking around from within the truck. Out here, the canal has tracks on both sides. The track we're parked on is essentially to service the orchards. So we're parked along the northern bank of the canal and along the southern bank is the foot track that links Village S and Village D.

    The day passes by. We munch on some chocolate and the paradoxically named namkeen shakkar paras. Generally chilling out cos I for one am sure that it's a wasted day.

    1600 hours. Karans on look out duty while I'm on my back in the truck reflecting generally on why E=MC squared and such like.

    "Saab !" he whispers.

    "Kya hai?"

    "Ek akela aadmi aa raha hai. D Gaon ki taraf se".

    "Koi weapon? Shakki lag raha hai?"

    "Weapon nahi hai, Saab, local lagta hai. Magar bahut dheere chal raha hai aur zaroorat ze zyada dahine baen dekh raha hai"

    I perk up and join him to peer through the slits. Yup ! I can spot the guy. About 70 odd metres away and he definitely is not acting normal.

    "Saab, scout lagta hai" , says Karan and I agree with him.

    We wait. The guy walks up in line with our truck, halts and stares across the canal at us. Seems like a harmless civilian. Definitely no weapons under his salwar suit.

    Its getting suspiciouser and suspiciouser (with apologies to Lewis Caroll) though. Why would a normal local stop and stare at an innocent truck?

    He moves again. Walking towards Village S. I ask Karan to keep an eye on him while I concentrate on the direction he came from. If he's a scout, someone should be following.

    Karan nudges me. The guy has crossed over a foot bridge and is walking towards us. Damn !!

    He closes in on the truck. Looks into the cab. Walks around the truck. Seemingly satisfied, he walks away.

    Wait ! He's crossed the foot bridge again, but instead of proceeding towards Village S, is headed back from where he came.

    Interesting.

    He goes out of sight. Shit! Did he spot us through the boards?

    I'm not too happy with the scenario, but my unhappiness is short lived. A whisper from Karan gets me focused again.

    Wowiee ! What have we here? The local guys vanished, but now trotting up merrily along the path are two other gentlemen. Gentlemen as in, they're guys. Their dusty black salwar suits, unkempt heavy beards and more than that, pouches OVER their kameez' and AKs in their paws kind of belies the gentlemen tag. One guy even has a radio set in the other hand. Talk about power dressing!!!!

    These guys HAVE to be FMs. No local militant would be so stupid as to walk with his entire armoury in sight. I guess these guys feel safe because its getting dark by now and maybe their scout gave them immense confidence.

    We both take a deep breath and gently pry our AK barrels through the boards into fresh air.

    "Baen wala mera" , I tell Karan.

    They're nearly opposite us, on the other side of the canal. 40 metres.

    35 metres. Deep breath.

    30 metres. Bang.

    We both fire off two bursts each. 3 to 4 rounds each burst. First burst in the low midriff region to immobilize. Second burst further north, in the head region to terminate.

    The baddies drop. Nothing moves.

    We jump off the truck and I wade through the canal while Karan covers me.

    I reach them. Look down. Both as dead as -----.

    Abu Kamaal of Pakistan. Abu Hamza of Pakistan. Harkat Ul Ansar. Good bye!! Pity you never even got to know who or what hit you, but then, you chose this path (literally and figuratively speaking).
     
  5. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    The Ghost



    12 February

    Getting bored. The weather is miserably cold and so is the operational scenario. The usual 'gup shup' with locals, cops, Ikhwans loads of hot air forcing its way through my ears, but nothing concrete.

    Think I might as well ask for some leave and go spend some time in civilization. The kids' finals are coming up and a pep talk from Dad in person might be useful.

    I hop across to the HQ (headquarters) that controls my antics in this sector and seek a meeting with the Old Man.

    "Good Morning Sir,"

    "Hello Khalid, how are you? What news? And what's new? "

    I give a wry smile to the Brigadier "Nothings happening Sir".

    "Oh c'mon Khalid ! Am I to understand that militancy in Kashmir is over?"

    "Ah well, Sir ! You know and I know that our end will come before the end of militancy here. But since this sector seems cold right now, I would like you to grant me a spot of leave".

    "Khalid, no body deserves leave more than you do, and no one knows that better than I do", the Brigadiers tone has gone syrupy sweet. I take in the bullshit and wait for more. Looks like I'll have to fight for my leave. But let him finish his spiel.

    "But there's a very major job at hand, and it's got to be done pronto", says the Brig with a very serious look coupled with a very officious tone.

    Sigh! I see my hopes of getting leave and seeing my kids soon, shattering like they'd been strapped to a 100 kilo IED.

    "Roger Sir! What's it?"

    The Brigs now got his well perfected disarming smile on, "You've heard of Asghar Khan?"

    "Sir, he's an ex cop, deserted from the JKP (Jammu and Kashmir Police) in the early 90's, went across and is now a senior guy in the HM", I say after delving deep into the HDD (you netizens surely don't need THAT expanded) fixed between my big ears.

    "Bingo, Khalid. Any idea where he's from?'

    "Negative Sir", I answer, more than a bit sheepishly. I hate these quiz kind of conversations where I'm trailing the field. I've always liked being the shiny bright fella.

    "Well, he's from Village B, in this very sector."

    "Right Sir, but what about him? Is he here?"

    "That's for you to find out. And if he's here, kill him. The information I've got is that he has recently been appointed Divisional Commander, HM, South Kashmir and is now in our area".

    Sigh! In fact, double sigh!!!! I see the beginnings of a rather tenuous wild goose chase staring me in the face.

    I seek more information and learn from the Brig that this guy was so far supposedly operating either from across or in Srinagar. His family resides in Village B and comprises of a set of parents, a brother with wife and kids and Asghar's own wife and kids. Off and on, there have been reports of his visiting home, but no ones ever seen him and there's never been anything concrete about his movement. No recent pictures, no recent identification, no nothing. So to put it in simple Army terms, I have to do a hunt and kill job and I've got sweet f*** all to do it with.

    Anyways, I accept the usual "All the best, keep me informed" platitudes from the Brig and head back to my base.

    I spend the next few days getting in touch with my sources and trying to get some information about Mr Asghar Khan. All I get is zilch. I mean, I get a lot of stories cos Kilos like to talk and to pretend that they know everything, but in the end it's all zilch. I go across to the local Cop House. Meet the SSP. He tells me that Asghar's dad and bro are on their watch list for the past decade and that they've been reporting to their local SHO every week. But there's no information forthcoming from them. However, all my digging does confirm one thing .Asghar Khan IS back in this area. And he IS a big shot in the HM hierarchy.

    I brood over the whole issue. It doesn't look good. I mean, how do you get a kill here? No pattern of move, no known hideouts. And if he's been away a decade and his family is all intact and leading a seemingly normal life, then obviously his shadow doesn't fall on them or if it does, then that's all it is ' a shadow.

    But in the absence of anything else to give me a jump start, I decide to go visit his family. If nothing else, that should make him react in some manner.

    Prior to that, I ask a friend of mine in the JKP, a very enthusiastic Sub Inspector who's the SHO in this area, to let the word out that Khalid is looking for Asghar Khan. Part of the same 'shake up the bad guy' philosophy. After all, word about my interest in him will definitely get to Asghar.

    A few days down the line, I go visiting. A nice big house, the biggest in the village. No poverty here, obviously. Clean too. I go in, Karan by my side, ever alert.

    I get hold of Ma, Pa and Bro and Bro's wife. The senior bahu, Asghar's wife, appears to be missing.

    Ab initio, the bad man's father and brother look like total write offs. But then, reporting to the police every week for the past 10 years, makes it a minimum of 520 'getting knocked about' sessions and that's more than enough to kill a man's spirit. I'm not getting anything out of these two guys. That's for sure.

    I ask for Asghar's wife. I'm told she's gone to her parents place, far away. "When", I ask? " Long, long ago. Ever since he became a militant" answers Asghar's brother. A hard slap followed by a 9 mm barrel in the mouth elicits an immediate correction. "Day before yesterday".

    Aha!!! Routine visit? Or a response to my 'interest'? Gets me wondering. I let it be for the time being and concentrate on what seems to be my only bet there. Asghar Khan's mother..

    I put her through a barrage of questions. Where is he? When did you see him last? Does he visit? Etc etc etc,. My tone alternates from friendly to cordial to businesslike to down right threatening. No go. The old lady doesn't give an inch. Sticks to one line. He left in the early nineties. Went to Pakistan. She's never seen him since then. For all she knows, he's dead.

    But regardless of her saying all this so emphatically, I know she's lying. Her voice and tone and demeanor are not of a woman who thinks her elder son may not be alive.

    Ok! I think I'm not getting anything here. I ask for Mrs Asghar's location. Am given the name of a village in North Kashmir. Would be a fool to take that as a fact. Anyways, enough for the time being. I bid them all a cheery bye bye and an even cheerier 'I'll be back" and move out.

    These visits continue over the next few weeks but I'm as clueless as I was when I started Op Asghar.. In the meantime, I spread around a handful of 500 crispies to get me the whereabouts of his wife and kids.

    Life goes on. Other stuff happens, but for the sake of continuity, I will leave all that for subsequent recounting. The fact of the matter is, I'm getting seriously miffed. Is this guy a ghost? I'm hearing any number of stories about him. He was spotted here. He was spotted there. He held a meeting here. He had gone to Srinagar. So on, so forth. But nothing I can dig my teeth into. My left ears got kind of flattened out, the number of hours I'm keeping my Kenwood glued to it, hoping to get a worthwhile 'intercept' which leads me to the elusive Khan. But I never hear him being mentioned, let alone hear him talking.

    No news forthcoming about Mrs Khan either. Will need to get nasty, I decide. One dark night, I 'lift ' Asghar's brother and 'persuade' him to give me her real whereabouts. Golly gumdrops! She's in the neighbouring village. Time to call on the lady.

    I pay a visit to that village the next evening. Enter the village after dark, get hold of the Muqaddam (village head man), tweak his ears a bit and am led to the house she's in. I send off the Muqaddam and knock on the door. Trusty old Karan's covering me, his finger tight on the trigger of his AK. My AKs cradled in my arms.

    The doors opened by an old lady. I push my way in, as does Karan. There are other people around. Ladies, kids and an old man. I tell the old woman that I'm from the HM and have a message from Asghar for Ruksana (Mrs K's name). She points upstairs. Shows no surprise at all, which is a good sign. Shows that he's in touch with her.

    We move up. The old woman yells out for Ruksana and she emerges from a room. Late 20s, holding an infant in her arms. Behind her, I can see three other kids. Varying shapes and sizes. But what interests me is that her room displays a much higher quality of life than was evident downstairs. So, maybe he visits her here.

    I take her into the room, close the door and get to the point. Where is Asghar? The same old response. Haven't seen him in ages. Don't know if he's alive. Sigh!! I ask her if these kids have a different Pa. Silence. Further questioning gets me nothing.

    Anyways, to cut it short, I leave. But not before telling her that it's time for her to think about getting widowed. Am thoroughly frustrated and mad. But then, what did I expect?

    I get into ‘ambush’ mode. On paths to and from the village his wife is in. Just outside the house she’s living in. A couple of midnight searches. No f****** luck. Seems like he never meets his wife. Or he’s figured out some way to turn invisible. Enough is enough. I call off this course of action. its getting me nothing but blisters on my feet and barnacles on my butt

    The next day I'm back at Asghar's house in Village B. I make it short and snappy. "Tell Asghar to surrender or he dies. And you all die. I'm going to blow up this house, kill his wife and kids and eventually kill him." All I get is stone faced silence.

    Days, weeks, months go by. No news re Asghar Khan except that subsequent to my meeting her, his wife has moved back with the in-laws. So much for my threats.

    I might as well let this go. Am getting nowhere and it's hurting both my ego and my head. But that would mean losing out to some bad assed Kilo militant. Won't do at all.

    Lets try something new.

    That night I get naughty. Karan and I make a trip to Village B, head for Asghar's house and rig up a small IED on a little barn kind of structure they have adjacent to the house, but within the same compound. We retire to just outside the village. A few minutes later, it goes off. We head back.

    Within 24 hours, I get a note delivered to me by a little girl, heading past my base after school. Says it was given to her by an 'uncle' who told her to give it to me. Its in good urdu and is pretty much to the point. Says my time has come, hell awaits me and so on. But what is interesting is ..it's signed by Asghar Khan.

    Suddenly things seem to change over the next few weeks. More radio traffic. More sightings. An increased flurry of militant activity. Accretion to militant strength in the area. Loads of information from various sources that Khalids got a big price on his head. An IED goes off under a culvert just as my gypsy goes past. Whew!!!

    I meet up with the Brig and ask him to go into pro active mode. The rats are getting out of their holes and it's feeding time for the cats.

    A number of operations are launched by the 'regulars', resulting in some kills. But still no Asghar Khan. His house has been deserted. Not a soul there. All gone into thin air. No news at all. Whisked away to God knows where.

    Damn !!! Now what????

    13 June

    Time has gone by. I even manage to go home on a spot of leave and all is well in my world except that I'm not at all happy about not getting Asghar Khan. But in the world I live and operate in, you can't afford to get obsessed with your targets beyond a point.

    Its about 2100 hours and I'm about to wrap myself around my dinner. My radio buzzes. It's the G2 (Operations Staff Officer at the Brig's HQ) informing me that the RR company located close to me is launching an operation later that night, in Village Kn, which is also pretty close to where I am. Just wants me to stay in picture. It's of not much interest to me cos these ops are a dime a dozen and in any case, I'm not involved. However, I do tune in those folk's frequency on my other radio set and get back to my din din. After dinner I talk to the Company Commander and ask him what's happening. A young Captain is officiating at the moment and informs me that he's got some information, not very reliable though, about some militant movement in Village Kn and wants to launch a CASO. I wish him luck and get into bed.

    0100 hours, 14 June. I wake up. It's raining cats, dogs and hordes of other stuff. Not feeling sleepy any longer even though I try to get back to sleep. Switch on the radio for want of anything better to do.

    Shit !!!

    The air's crackling with transmissions. I listen in and get a vague picture. The RR company has made contact. Two or more militants holed up in a house in the target village. Firing is on and sadly, the company has already lost one boy and two more are wounded. Their CO (Commanding Officer) is on his way with more troops but will take time cos he's pretty far away and it's raining crazily. Furthermore Kn Village is not connected by any motorable road. I buzz him and ask if he needs help from me. He asks me to move to the village and provide moral support to the Company Commander, cos he seems a bit out of sorts. I dress up in quick time, grab my rifle and Karan and I set off jogging through the rain and slush for Village Kn.

    As we near the village we can hear the firing and see flames. Obviously, these guys have used their Karl Gustavs RLs (84 mm Rocket Launchers) and the target house is on fire. Good !!

    I get close to the spot and make my way to where the Captains taken up position. His men are all around and are firing at the house with all they have. I can spot fire coming from two windows on the first floor. Parts of the house are burning.

    The Captain gives me a quick brief.

    They'd entered the village at about 2300 hours and instead of a regular CASO, he decided to search houses one by one without alerting the village. This was the fifth house he and his team entered. As they were searching the house, militants within opened up and he lost a boy. The rest rushed out and since then, they've been exchanging fire with the militants trapped inside. The problem is that from their perch on the first floor, the militants have been able to hit two boys of the cordon and are not allowing anyone to get close. His plan is to keep hitting them with the Karl Gustavs till the house burns down and so do the militants.

    An okay plan, except that there's a problem. The civilian occupants of the house are still inside. So is the boy from this company that was shot by the militants during the search. What if he's still alive? Burning the house down won't do. It's better to freeze them out by making them finish their ammo, tightening the cordon around the house so that they can't sneak away and be prepared to storm the house if an opportunity presents itself. After day break it'll get easier for us.

    As I'm discussing this with him, we spot someone jumping out from one of the windows. Before that person can touch the ground, he's hit by more than a 100 bullets with everyone around firing at him. We can make out the body lying there in the rain. Wonder what he was trying? But this action does prove to me that the baddies inside are getting desperate. Maybe they're out of ammo.

    There's a lull in the firing after this. The rain has lessened too. I yell out in Kashmiri asking those guys to surrender. I get a reply informing me that they've got our boy alive and will kill him unless they're granted free passage out.

    I ask them to release the boy and promise that they won't be killed. They refuse. The conversation goes on. I ask them again and again to get the jawan to the window so that I can see he's alive. After that I'll let them go. Nothing happens. I yell at them to go to hell and ask the Captain to tell his guys to resume firing. Its obvious our lad is no longer alive.

    The company lets loose again. Day break is close. Visibility is improving. Firing from the militants end has nearly stopped. Just the occasional short burst and that too, only from one window.

    Suddenly, a white piece of cloth comes out of the window. We stop firing. The guy inside yells " I'll surrender. But only to XXX (the local MLA). Get that person here."
    I yell back that I can't agree to that. He should just give up and come out or he'll die before sun rise. He makes the same demand again. His voice reveals he's in panic. I keep quiet.

    Then he says, " Ok, I'm surrendering. Heres my weapon. Now you can come in and take me." With these words , an AK comes out of the window onto the ground. I ask the Captain and the LMG team to cover me as I dart up to collect the rifle and rush back. The Captain looks at the rifle and says "It's ours Sir. This is my jawan's rifle. The boy inside".

    I tell the militant that his trick hasn't worked and I'm going to disregard his white 'flag'. As I say this, he comes up to the window and shouts "Get the MLA or you'll not get me alive". At that precise moment, Karan lets go a burst and we can see this guy's chest go red.

    No firing after that. I shout out for other guys but no reply is forthcoming.

    The Captain goes in with his team and evacuates the civilians. The body of our jawan is also brought out. Shot in the neck and head, which would have been what he faced right in the beginning. So, he WAS dead all along.

    Then the militants are dragged out into the courtyard. One, the guy that tried to jump out. Three from inside.

    Now that the firings stopped, the villagers come out of their houses and I get the Muqaddam to identify the militants. He knows three of them. Altaf Ahmed, HM. Ramzan Ali, HM. Jahangir Khan, HM. Does not know the fourth guy, the one that Karan hit. None of the other villagers can identify him. But he doesn't look like an FM and his Kashmiri was authentic.

    We wait awhile and shortly the CO lands up as do the cops. The Sub Inspector who's heading the cops takes a look at the dead militants and then gasps. The CO asks him whats wrong and gets the reason as the cop points to the fourth guy and says "Asghar Khan".

    Asghar Khan. Divisional Commander, Hizbul Mujahideen. Good bye!! I didn't get you, but your destiny did.
     
  6. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Gun Fight at the OK Corral (or nearly so)




    Doda Sector, 03 September

    I’ve moved south of the Pir Panjal for the nonce, across the Banihal Pass. Lots of militant activity here and the powers that be have decided to move me here on a hunter killer mission. Tough luck! The weather in the Valley was good and the environs were looking prettier than ever before. Anyways, ours is not to reason why and so on.

    Theres an RR unit close by as also some cronies of mine from the NSG. Nice, active, gung ho crowd and I’m not feeling too lost. The terrain though, is very different from the Valley and my knees are registering incessant complaints about my incessant hill climbing activities. But then, theres only hills here, or mountains, if you want to be precise about detail, and if one’s got to kill, ones got to hunt. And if ones got to hunt, one’s got to climb, climb and climb.

    OK, enough with the intro.

    Its about 0500 hours and my radio is buzzing. Seems like the RR guys have made contact with a group of militants in a bunch of Dhoks (Gujjar huts on the hill side). Doesn’t seem to be going too well though. From what I can make out, we already seem to have lost two boys and a few more are wounded. I can hear the choppers coming in for cas evac. Think I’ll trot along to the area and see if I can make myself useful. Karans on leave but I’ve got Ravi as my buddy. Another tough Special Forces NCO.

    A two hours climb gets us to the area where the actions on. Lots of guys around, firing uphill at a group of Dhoks. I ask an NCO what the situation is and he tells me that they’d launched an operation in the wee hours on information that an LeT (Lashkar-e-Toiba) group had occupied these Dhoks. Somehow, the op went awry and our guys lost surprise. Current situation : We’ve suffered lots of casualties, no news at all about militant casualties and theres heavy firing from the Dhoks. The good part? None.

    I move further up to where the RR company commander is located. He gives me a quick run down, on similar lines. They’d come uphill at night, hoping to achieve surprise, but as they closed in, the militants opened up and our troops have been pinned down. Why he tried an uphill approach rather than rolling down on them from the hill top is beyond me. But this isn’t the time to debate tactics.

    I’m close enough to see the area well. There are four Dhoks, but the militants seem to be firing from only two. The RR boys are deployed in front and to the sides of the Dhoks at a distance of about 100-150 metres from them. This bunch of baddies is using a PIKA (machine gun) and thats effectively keeping our boys at bay.

    Hmmm! We’ll need to get closer and knock out the PIKA first and foremost. But how? The RR fellows are firing RLs at the Dhoks but to no visible effect. The thick wooden logs that make up the Dhoks are strong and are neutralising the rocket warheads.

    I ask the Company Commander to give me a few boys. I plan to skirt round the area, climb up and come down on the Dhoks from the top of the hill. As I see it, most of the fire is being exchanged towards the front and sides. The Company Commander doesn’t like the idea. Firstly, its his operation and secondly, coming in from a rear approach increases chances of getting shot by our own troops. I explain to him that I’m here only to help and that I won’t jeopardise his troops. I just need a few boys to give me intimate fire support as i close in. He agrees, albeit reluctantly.

    He gives me 6 lads under an NCO and Ravi and I take off with these guys. We move away from the area, climp up till the ridge line and get back towards the area of ops. Its nearly 1400 hours now and time is of the essence. We have to get these guys before it gets dark.

    We move cautiously along the ridge and get to about 100 metres from the Dhoks. No militants visible from here. I position the RR boys to cover me with an LMG and RL and Ravi and I start crawling down towards the closest Dhok. 90 metres. 80 metres. 70 metres. 60 metres. Shit ! I’m sweating. Got to keep moving. 50 metres. 40 metres.

    Bang ! Bang ! Bang !

    Oopsy daisy ! We’ve been spotted. Luckily, we haven’t been hit. We take cover behind a couple of boulders and I signal the RR section to let loose. They do so and I spot the militant that was taking pot shots at us go down. Silence again !

    No sense hanging around here. Ravi and I scamper to the Dhok where this nasty fellow was firing at us from. I cover Ravi as he rushes in. I follow. Nothing here barring one dead militant. RIP!

    We move to the front of the Dhok. The other three huts are just below us and from here I can see the RR troops below them as also the sides. The firefight is still on though it appears to have lessened and I can no longer hear the racket made by the PIKA. Out of ammo? I talk to the Company Commander on the radio. He tells me that the firing indicates that theres just one guy left.

    As I’m watching, I spot an RR boy crawling uphill towards the Dhoks with an RL. He’s closing in without drawing fire and I cross my fingers. I wonder though what the RR Company Commander is trying. This is suicidal, even if theres only one militant.

    Bang ! Shit, he’s been hit. Another guy runs up the hill to help him. He’s down too.

    Damn !!

    The firings going on. I seem to be stuck in this Dhok without any ideas. Am feeling miserably angry and saddened after seeing those two brave lads go down. And time is ticking by.

    F*** it ! Enough is enough!!

    I move out of the Dhok I’m in and sprint down to the closest one. Ravi follows in top gear. We enter - shooting. Nothing here.

    Take a deep breath and rush into the next one.

    Whew ! This place is horrible. Part of it is burning and the smell of cordite is overpowering. Through the smoke, we look around. There are three dead militants here.

    Now just one Dhok to go. And thats where the guy is still firing from.

    I crawl up to the rear and try peer through the gaps in the logs. Can’t see a thing.

    Now, how am i supposed to go in? The door is in the front and going in through it puts me in the sights of the militant as well as the RR boys spread all along the front and sides. I seem to have painted myself into a corner, and with my own blood at that.

    I move back a bit and radio the Company Commander to tell his boys to hold fire. He confirms and I begin to crawl towards the front with Ravi just behind. Closing in. Getting there.

    As I turn the corner towards the front of the Dhok, out pops a grenade followed by a short AK burst. I get up and scamper back. Ravi is a trifle slow since he didn’t see it and as the grenade goes off, he gets hit. I drag him back behind the Dhok and check him up. Nothing serious luckily. Seems to have copped a splinter in the thigh. I tie it up with an FFD (First Field Dressing) and tell him to chill.

    So I’m back to where I began from.

    I think and finally decide. It’s getting personal now.

    I move to the other side and find a place to climb onto the roof. Up I go and find that Gods with me. Courtesy the RLs, theres a little gap. I snake along the roof and peer in. Theres one guy by the window. But I don’t have a place to stick my barrel in and take a bead on him.

    Well, just one thing to do. I chuck in a grenade. Boom ! The guy at the window looks up and fires. Nobody else appears to be there. At least not alive.

    As this guy fires at the roof, I jump off and go flying in through the door firing. Whew ! All that training paid off. I get him before he can even look down. Two other guys there don’t need any attention. They’re already beyond repair.

    Haider Ali of Pakistan and six others. LeT. Good bye ! You should have stayed at home.
     
  7. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    The Shylock Story




    September

    Wake up and get down to planning my day. Only hassle is that I can’t seem to find anything to put on the agenda. Sigh ! what a boring life I lead!!! A guy could grow fat this way, lazing around with nothing to do. Might as well go look up my friend the SP (Suprintendent of Police). He’s an interesting character. Young, handsome, articulate. Period. Operationally, he’s Mr Totally Clueless on some days and Mr Hopelessly Lost on the others. Oops ! Am I being bitchy here? No offence meant. He’s a cute guy and fun to be with, long as one doesn’t want to talk about militants and militancy. All in all, a good friend. One good asset he has is his Waaza (cook) and I need to borrow that guy. My birthdays coming up and I might as well celebrate another year of being alive with a hearty Waazwaan (Kashmiri meal), even if I have to eat alone.

    So, off I go to town to his fancy office cum residence. Loads of cops around doing nothing in particular. I exchange hello’s with them and go in to the guy’s office, only to find that he’s missing. Seems he’s upstairs at ‘home’. So, up I go.

    Aha ! He’s in his drawing room, chatting up a young good looking Kashmiri femme. Any day better than sitting in office listening to a bunch of Kilos whining about this, that and the other, isn’t it? I pop him a hi and give the young gal a nod. Introductions are made, as in, she’s introduced to me as Malika of G Village and I’m introduced to her as Khalid from errr…ummm. She gives the SP a knowing look and says “I know Khalid. He’s an Indian Army officer”. So much for covert ops; and so much for trying to hide my ugly mug behind a thick beard and under long hair.

    The SP asks me to hang on while he finishes with her so I sit down with them and listen in. Her information on me obviously doesn’t include the fact that I’m fluent in Kashmiri because she asks him “Its ok to talk, isn’t it? This guy won’t understand in any case”.

    They talk awhile and I quietly sip on my tea pretending not to understand a word. Essentially her problem is that she’s lost her husband recently and since he owed big time money to the Muqaddam of the village, she’s in trouble. She can’t pay up and now the Muqaddam is hassling her to either clear the debt or marry him. He’s twice her age and she’s totally averse to marrying him. That, in a nutshell is the story of her life and she wants the SP to help.

    The SP tells her he can do nothing about it. Its not a police matter. They argue about it, with Malika even offering to sleep with the SP if he helps her. It makes me sad, listening to all this nonsense. But at the end of it all, it’s a no go.

    She then turns to me, switches to Urdu, and asks if I can help her? I ask her to tell me her problem, which she repeats. I also tell her that I can’t do anything about it. She asks me if I’ll kill the Muquddam for her, to which she gets a very vehement no alongwith a lecture on the Indian Army not being murderers and so on.

    Totally crestfallen and with tears in her eyes, she plays her trump card. “Ok”, she says to me, ” if I give you Bashir Waghey, will you help me?”

    I’m dumb struck. Bashir Ahmed Waghey is a hot shot HM militant in the area, supposedly their operational think tank as well as a very good explosives man. He’s essentially been the brains behind a large number of attacks during the Amarnath Yatra. Getting him would be super duper.

    “How can you give me Bashir?” I ask her.

    “He’s my boy friend”.

    Poor old Khalids dumbstruck again. But I retort “Is that so? Then why don’t you ask him to help? He can get rid of the Muqqadam for the love of his life”.

    “I wish he could help me” she says “but sadly, the Muqaddams his uncle and thats why Bashir is keeping out of it.”

    Hmmm. This is either leading to a kill or is a big fairy tale. Need to find out more.

    I exchange some polite conversation with the SP, tell Malika I’ll see what can be done and push off to meet some Ikhwan cronies.

    At the Ikhwan camp, I sit with some senior guys and ask questions about Bashir Ahmed Waghey. They give me a lot of stories, as is their wont, about how he’s a mix of Superman, Batman and Spiderman and how he’s supposedly invisible. Quietly cutting through the crap, I slip in a question about his family. Bingo ! The Muqqadam of G Village IS his uncle. His father’s elder brother. And supposedly, though never proved, his biggest supporter here logistically.

    So far so good. But where does Malika fit in? Is she really his girl friend? And if so, will she betray him? Or, is it a trap?

    I query the Ikhwans about Bashir’s love life but they’ve no information. One guy however says “There are rumours that he meets a girl in G Village. But who, where and when is not known”.

    Hmmm. Not bad. This could be leading somewhere. But where? And to what?



    24 September

    Been thinking about the whole Bashir Waghe thingy. One doubt keeps cropping up time and again in my head. If Malika is Bashir’s girl friend, then why and how is the Muqaddam of G Village hassling her? No one messes with a HM guy’s woman. And that too the HM guy’s uncle? Something sure as hell ain’t right.

    I decide to have another talk with the lady but don’t have her coordinates. Will need to get to her through the SP. And getting the cops involved is always messy. That whole organisation has more holes than a mosquito net and nothing can stay under wraps. But I’ve no choice.

    I contact the SP and he agrees to send word to Malika to be present at his place the next day.

    Thats where I meet her the second time, and without much ado, I cut to the chase and ask her the question thats been vexing me. She gives me some story about the Muqaddam not being scared of Bashir since he (the Muqaddam) is himself a high ranking HM OGW (Over Ground Worker) and that Bashir is actually dependent on him (the Muqaddam, again) for staying alive. It doesn’t quite ring the right peals but I let it be for the moment.

    I then ask her how and when she intends to give me Bashir but she refuses to give details till I can tell her how and when I can eliminate the Muqaddam. Well, since it’s my intention to do no such thing, its easy to give her a yarn about how I’ll pick him up from the Village covertly and dump him into the river after doing the needful. I promise her (with fingers crossed behind my back) that the deed shall be effected within 48 hours of saying good bye to Mr Bashir Waghey. She seems reasonably satisfied and I veer her back to the subject that interests me.

    She tells me that Bashir visits her often in Village G but always at different houses. He sends word to her through one minion or the other once he’s settled in and she hops across to the designated house. He comes in late night and always leaves before day break. Theres no fixed schedule and since the Village has open fields and orchards all around, no specific routes.

    Ok. So an ambush is out. I’ll have to hit him while he’s indoors. But how do I know where he’ll be spending the night? There are nearly 100 houses in that Village and ‘eenie meenie mina mo’ won’t work for sure. I ask Malika if she can give me advance information but thats a negative. She says he only informs her of the RV (rendezvous) once he’s in the village and after that theres no reaction time because the message bearer escorts her to him.

    “Then, how?” I ask her.

    “You give me a radio set” she says ” and as soon as he calls me I’ll tell you where he is. But you need to know each house by the owner’s name.”

    Sounds workable. I know an Ikhwan who belongs to that village and if I keep him with me, he’ll home me on to any house.

    But, its all too pat for my liking, and there still are major grey areas.

    If all goes as per plan and I get Bashir inside a house, then what happens to Malika? She’ll be inside too and is therefore vulnerable during the inevitable firefight. Is it safe to trust her with a radio set? What if all this is a trap? What if she calls me to a place where theres an HM reception hosted in my honour? I’m likely to end up being served as dessert.

    Part of my mind (the rational part) says I should give it up but the other part says I ought to risk it.

    Finally, greed prevails. The thought of getting the elusive Bashir is too tempting. Hence, I decide on ‘green on, go’ , to use a paratrooper term. Rationale is given a rain check.

    25 September

    I’ve got the Ikhwan lad to tag along with me and have given the SP a ‘liberated’ radio set to be given to Malika with my frequency.

    All systems ‘go’. Hope for the best and dream of an important kill.

    28 September

    No news from Malika. Have I lost a radio set? Thats no big deal actually because it originally belonged to the HM in any case. And then, where will she go? I can go pick her up anytime.

    2022 hours. The set buzzes. A female voice, whispering. “Muqaddam ka ghar”. Thats it.

    Muqaddam ka ghar? What the f***? This wasn’t catered for. Why there of all places? Bashir wouldn’t want to jeopardise his uncle. Or is this some trick being played by Malika to get me to blast the Muqaddam’s ghar (and him alongwith it) into oblivion?

    Damn !! Too many questions. I’ve no time to think. Go or not?

    Greed raises it’s ugly head again. We move. Karan, me and the Ikhwan.

    We jog till the outskirts of the village and are there by 2330 hours. In the meantime, I’ve radioed the Brigadier to send in a company column to cordon the village. If Bashir is inside, we don’t want him getting out. The company should be in situ by 0100 hours. We wait in an orchard on the outskirts of the village.

    0040 hours. The company fetches up and marries up with us. I brief the company commander and get the cordon in place.

    0120 hours. Karan, the Ikhwan and I move in, taking a section of ‘regulars’ with us. We head for the Muqaddam’s house.

    We get to it. A typical double storied structure, but definitely the biggest house in the village. I deploy the regulars around the house, with the LMG and RL facing the front.

    The three of us move up to the door. Karan and I stand on either side of the door as the Ikhwan knocks.

    A few minutes of loud knocking and yelling. A light goes on and the door opens. Karan and I are in the shadows.

    “What is it? What do you want?” , it’s the Muqaddam himself.

    “Get everyone out. We want to search the house” says the Ikhwan.

    The Muqaddam looks around and spots us. His eyes go wide open and before you can say ‘Jammu & Kashmir’, he’s slammed the door and scooted in. We kick the door open and rush in.

    A small corridor with a biggish room on either side. Theres just enough light to make out loads of people, all women and children in one room. We yell at them to file out.

    The other room has a couple of mattresses on the floor, but no occupants. I grab the Muqaddam and ask him who’s using that room.

    “No one else. I was sleeping here alone” is his reply

    I grab him by the scruff of the neck and ask him if theres anyone else in the house. “No one” says he.

    “Then why did you run?”

    “I was scared.”

    Hmmm. A wild goose chase? But wheres Malika?

    I put the Muqaddam in front of me and ask him to lead us upstairs and slowly open each door there.

    One room. Nothing.

    Second room. Nothing.

    Third room. I sense a change in the Muqaddam’s body language.

    Get ready. This may be it, my glance tells Karan and the Ikhwan. AKs at the ready.

    The door is opened by the Muqaddam. Someones here.

    It’s Malika.

    “Who’s this?” I ask the Muqaddam.

    “My daughter in law.”

    “Whats she doing here? Why isn’t she downstairs with the rest of the family?Wheres your son?” I ask.

    “My son is in Srinagar and she’s just visiting us. She isn’t well and thats why she was sleeping separately”

    I try to meet Malika’s eyes to find out where Bashir is, but she studiously averts my gaze. Quietly, she walks downstairs.

    So, the situation is that we have an empty house. The family is outside, including Malika. No one here but us and the Muqaddam.

    I go to the window and yell for the regulars to come in and search the house and the outhouse thoroughly.

    In the meantime, we take the Muqaddam to one of the rooms and try a bit of ‘persuasion’. We call the family members up, one by one to be questioned, leaving Malika for the last.

    Nix. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. He sticks to his story. And I cannot contradict the Malika part without exposing her.

    The regulars complete the search. Nothing found.

    Might as well call it a day and head home. Am feeling frustrated and am wondering what the hell this was all about. What did Malika gain? Did she expect me to come in with guns blazing and knock off the Muqaddam?

    Anyways, all that later. I issue orders to the guys to move out and the regulars do so.

    As the three of us are walking down the stairs with the Muqaddam and Malika, she discreetly points to a plank thats come loose on the wall. The ikhwan peers through it and steps back fast.

    “Theres someone there. I think I saw a movement” he says.

    F***! A hide?

    We step back and ask the Muqaddam to remove the plank. He tells us its nothing. Just a plank thats come loose. I give him a whack and ask him to yank it out.

    He does so and before we can react, he reaches into the space within and pulls out a pistol.

    He fires at the Ikhwan before Karan and I can let loose our AKs on him. Both the Ikhwan and the Muqaddam are down.

    We wait.

    Nothing.

    I cover Karan as he pulls off more of the planks.

    It’s a little cubby hole. Nobody inside. But it’s full of stuff.

    6 AK-56 rifles. 18 magazines. 540 rounds 7.62mm. 3 pistols. 90 rounds 9 mm. 24 grenades. 2 Kenwood radio sets. All brand new. As are the currency notes that add up to Rs 1.20 lakhs.

    Bashir Ahmed Waghey. HM. We didn’t get you. But we got Abdul Rashid Waghey, OGW. HM. And we got a good catch of material.

    And Malika got what she wanted.
     
  8. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Solar Strike



    03 March

    An urgent summons from the Brigadier. Wonder what his problem is. He’s forever sending me off on wild goose chases because he likes to believe that he gets great int (intelligence) while the truth is that most of the time he doesn’t know which way north is. Anyways, like I said before, ours is not to reason why…..

    I reach his HQ by around 1200 hours hoping that at least I’ll get a good lunch. Tinned Karelas and Keema are getting on my nerves. And the sight of an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) packet makes me ready to give up food and start thinking about subsisting purely on love and fresh air. But while theres loads of fresh air, theres no love, so I might as well eat whats put in front of me. Packaged, tinned or on hoof. Whatever.

    Oops ! Whats this? The whole HQ is abuzz with activity, like it’s been hit with a bomb. I look around, ask around and sure enough, thats it. It seems they’ve been attacked in the early morning. No serious damage that I can see.

    I’m wrong.

    I meet the Brigadier and realise theres a very major casualty. His ego.

    It emerges that just after day break someone launched a few rockets at his HQ. Ones hit a tree. Ones hit a wall. Ones fallen in the middle of the FOL (Fuel, Oil and Lubricants) dump but refused to go off.

    I soothe his frayed nerves and talk to him about God being kind and there being no damage or loss, etc, etc. As if he cares to listen to me.

    “Khalid, I want the b******* that did this !!!” he thunders “Find out who did this and get them to me alive”.

    Am I f****** Sherlock Holmes or what? I ask him this, though being an upwardly mobile kind of fellow, I couch my query in polite and military language.

    “I don’t care a flying f***, ” is his illuminating response, “just get him, them, whatever. I want their bodies dragged to my office and their heads put up on the fence”.

    I don’t think it’s the right time to remind him that a wee while ago, he wanted them alive. I hold my silence and give him the standard ‘three bags full, Sir’ nod.

    I ask him if there are any leads, any information whatsoever and get a ‘nix, nyet, nada’ shake of the head in return, though he adds, “I’ve asked the JKP (J&K Police) and the Ikhwans to get their butts moving and get me names”.

    I see no invite for lunch coming my way so I decide to go around and have a look see for myself.

    The target area reveals nothing but a few miserable pieces of mangled metal and one UX (unexploded) rocket in the FOL dump. It’s a solar rocket. Interesting.

    Solar rockets have never been used by the HM, so either they’ve got a new consignment or it’s some other tanzeem (militant group). Before I go on, some of you may wonder what the f*** a solar rocket is. Well, it’s a routine small calibre rocket that works on solar energy. In that, you align and place it anywhere you wish at night and leave it alone. As the sun rises, the solar rays energise the rocket’s booster and it takes off in whatever direction it’s facing. Ideal for terrorist use, because you don’t need anyone to fire it. Just place it anytime during hours of darkness, align it generally and go home.

    Ok. So I know what kind of rocket. Now lets go see where they came from. The hits on the tree and wall indicate the direction of origin so off I trot towards there. Hmmm! They’ve come from the roof of one of the shops in the area, across the road. I find three small wooden stands that have been placed there to launch the rockets.

    So now I know where they came from.

    Big deal. All this was known to the Brigadier and his staff even before I left my hidey hole.

    Now I need to earn my daily crumb and find out the perpetrators of this ghastly attack on the Brigadier’s ego, err, HQ.

    I decide to go meet the Ikhwans. They’re always a better source of information than the cops, though you need to carry a bag of salt along. Hyperbole seems to be every Ikhwan’s middle name.

    I reach one of the Ikhwan camps. And strike gold.

    Not in terms of information but I get a good hot lunch.

    Gup shup goes on. They’re all excited about the rocket attack and each of them seems to have his own theory about who, how, why, when.

    Nothing fruitful emerges and after asking the senior Ikhwan commanders to find out whatever they can, I set course for home.

    The next day I visit the JKP set up and meet the SSP (Senior SP), the SP and the SP of the STF (Special Task Force). No khabar forthcoming from them either. Endless cups of tea and innumerable sound bytes later I head home again, getting no closer to achieving my mission than I was on Day 1.

    Days go by and turn into weeks. No news at all on this issue. Normally you would expect some one to be bragging about it. Some radio intercepts. Something. Anything. But all thats forthcoming is….. Nothing.





    27 April

    I’m floating around aimlessly. Dropping in here and there to pick up scraps of information about anything. Long time no kill so might as well set my sights on something, or in this case, somebody. Far as the rocket attack case goes, it’s as cold as a solar rocket’s booster at midnight.

    One of the STF inspectors has just got promoted to DSP (Deputy SP) so I decide to go and congratulate him. Unlike the regular JKP guys, the STF chaps are useful and it pays to keep them on the right side. I walk into the guy’s office and feel happy that he seems genuinely pleased to see me. Again, unlike the regular JKP, the STF by and large, like the Army. Essentially because they’re more professional and more importantly, because they aren’t Kilos. Most of them are from the Jammu region.

    As we sit and yak over a cup of tea, he asks me about the rocket attack case. i tell him that theres been no information at all. His voice suddenly goes down to a whisper as he says ” Saab, Wani saab ki jaanch kariye.” And with these golden words, he changes the subject and gets back to talking routine stuff. I try asking him what information he has but far as that goes, he’s suddenly gone into ‘deaf adder’ mode.

    Not that it surprises me. Bilal Ahmed Wani is the hottest politician in the area. A ruling party guy. A minister to boot. And if all that isn’t enough, one of the richest citizens of the Valley. But this is the first time I’m hearing his name involved in a militant related case. Now, if it was a JKP or Ikhwan guy taking his name, I’d need to drag in my bag of salt cos I’d assume theres some personal axe grinding being tried. But this STF DSP is a Dogra and has nothing at all to do with the denizens of the Valley and/or their politics. So he’s unlikely to have some personal vendetta on the agenda. But having said that, he’s not likely to stick his neck out too much cos the Wani guy is very powerful, not just in the Valley but in state politics too.

    But what do I do? This is too big a name for me to do my usual ‘pick up and persuade’ routine. I decide to approach the Brigadier.

    “Are you nuts?” is his question to me.

    Assuring him that while I’ve got them, same as any guy, I’m not one myself, I ask him how to proceed. In any case we have no other leads and this is our only hope. Unless of course, he wants the attack on his HQ to go unsolved and unavenged.

    Bravo, Khalid!! Thats the right line to take with the Brig. “Look Khalid, this is too sensitive and I don’t want to go upstairs with it. I’m a pure vegetarian and I’d hate to have egg on my face if this blows up the wrong way and theres flak. You work it out yourself”.

    These encouraging words are enough to send me on my way out with my mind asking what it was on my way in, ” What the f*** do i do?”

    I mull over it the next couple of days and then decide to act.

    30 April

    I’m at the Wani’s housing complex with an RR company, dressed up myself as an RR officer. Long hair tucked into a BPP, long beard trimmed, long salwar suit exchanged temporarily for Combat Dress (fatigues).I call it a complex, because unlike most Kilos, the family Wani lives in a walled complex comprising of three houses. All big and swank. I pay my regards to a gentleman that opens the door and ask for the big man himself. I’m told he’s not available and I’m asked what I want and why the Army’s here. I politely tell him that it’s a very important matter and I’d like to talk only with Mr Bilal Ahmed Wani. This guy turns out to be Wani Senior’s junior brother and seeing as theres no future conversing with me, he invites me and the RR Major indoors.

    One tea and two biscuits later, ‘the’ Wani turns up. “Boliye Major saab, kya masla hai?” he asks as he enters.

    I put on my most serious face and inform him that I’ve got hard int that there’s a bomb placed in his house. It’s therefore imperative that the entire complex is evacuated and we are allowed to search for the bomb and defuse it.

    He gives me a very incredulous look and laughs. “Aap mazak kar rahe hain. Hamare ghar mein bomb kaun lagaega?”

    I tell him that the information is A1 grade and solemnly quote to him something I read on some highway about being better safe than sorry.

    Luckily, he decides to humour me and agrees to get a search done. But he insists that since there are lots of valuables around, his people will accompany the RR troops. I inform him that the jawans won’t search. It’ll be done personally by the other Major and me and if two officers can’t be trusted to not have sticky fingers, it’s indeed a sad day for the nation and all that. I sound so seriously offended that he doesn’t seem to be left with a choice.

    To cut it short, the Major and I start searching the houses.

    One, two, three. Big houses. Lots of places to search. But nothing found.

    Then I start off on the outhouses. There are wooden buildings for keeping cattle, poultry and for storage of grain. As well as quarters for the household staff.

    One , two, three. Nothing.

    Four. Nothing.

    Five. A gloomy little hut full of farming implements, bags of fertilisers and stuff. I’m sniffing around and suddenly, it’s bingo !!

    A small wooden box under some empty sacks containing a volt meter and three metal bands.

    I take the box with me and approach Mr Wani. “Bomb mila, Major saab?” he asks of me in a very condescending tone of voice.

    “Nahi Wani saab. Allah ka haath aap aur aapke parivaar par hai. Hamari khabar galat sabit hui hai” is my answer. “Magar, yeh box mila hai. Malum nahi kya cheez hai.”

    He takes a look at the box and it’s contents and gives me a lost look. I can see that he appears genuinely clueless about it. I look around to see the reactions of the rest of his family and staff huddled around us.

    “Ye bomb thodi hai” suddenly pipes up the Wani’s nephew, a young lad in his early 20’s.

    I tell him that even I’m capable of seeing that but I do want to know what it is and whose is it.

    He tells me it’s some junk thats been lying around for ages. And since it’s neither a weapon nor an explosive, I shouldn’t waste time on it.


    I make a note of his wise words and leave it at that.

    Shortly thereafter, we leave, rendering profuse apologies to Mr Wani for disturbing his peace and after carelessly throwing the wooden box back into the hut.

    “Sir, what was in that box?” asks the RR Major, once we’re out of there.

    I smile at him . “The metal bands are clips, used to hold the fins of a rocket in folded position during transit. And every solar rocket has a small electric circuit in it’s booster motor and the continuity of that circuit needs to be checked before it’s deployed for firing.”

    “Oh my God” is his response to my spiel on military technology.

    Ok. So there is a link between the Wanis and the rockets. Now what?





    03 May

    I’ve spent endless hours pondering over this issue. Where do I go from here? Its not as if Mr Bilal Ahmed Wani is a run of the mill Kilo you can pick up and get the truth out of. And what if I’m wrong? What if Wani or his family are not involved? What if it’s someone from the household staff that hid the box in the shed? What if it was someone who jumped the wall and used the isolated shed as a hiding place?

    Damn !! Too many greys here. Its not good for a dumb soldier to be thinking so much.

    But then, as a soldier, I’ve developed a fine sense of intuition and perception, and both those fellows are screeching in my head that the Wani’s are involved.

    But what do I do?

    I decide to follow an old Israeli Army dictum - when in doubt, hit out.

    I spend the next few days covertly tailing young Wani, the nephew and ‘lift’ him one afternoon as he’s walking home from college.

    He’s a young but soft lad and it isn’t long before he’s talking. The story emerges clear as spring water.

    The op was planned by the Srinagar HM. Not one single active HM militant was involved.

    The rockets came in from Srinagar. Transported by Liaquat, a truck owner cum driver from this very area. They came hidden with a consignment of fertiliser meant for the Wani farm. They were stored in the shed by the nephew. They were assembled and checked by Omar, an Ikhwan. They were placed on the shop’s roof by Hassan,a shop keeper of that area.

    It emerges that the decision to not use any of the local baddies was taken to avoid getting compromised.

    And these luminaries?

    Liaquat is a hard core HM OGW, using his truck on a regular basis for HM tasks all over the Valley.

    Omar has turned. And this was his ‘test of loyalty’.

    Hassan did it for hard cash.

    And Wani Junior? How and why did he get involved?

    It appears that he got his girl friend pregnant and then followed it up by getting an abortion done in Srinagar. The HM found out and coerced him into helping, under the threat of exposing him and thereby embarrassing his uncle.

    It’s a crazy story. A bunch of amateurs assigned what was supposedly an important mission.

    But considering the ’special’ circumstances under which young Wani is conversing with me, I know that however bizarre, it is the truth.

    So that was that. The solar strikers were found out. As desired by the Brigadier. But no bodies were dragged and no heads were put up on the fence.

    Liaquat’s truck caught fire one night during a transit halt. Sadly, he was in it.

    Some miscreant tossed a grenade outside Hassan’s shop. The poor fellow lost an arm and the use of his left eye.

    Omar was taken care of by the Ikhwans. RIP.

    Young Wani was brought up before his uncle and after whatever transpired between Wani Senior and the Brig, was moved out of the Valley. I am told he went to Dubai.

    The Brigadier’s ruffled ego got unruffled.

    I got an invite to lunch.
     
  9. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    War In The Wilderness




    21 June

    Am neatly attired for once. Regular fatigues, et al. Not my birthday or anything, but have been called by the General. He normally avoids hob nobbing with me and conveys whatever he needs to say to me through the Brigadier or other minions. But this time it’s an invite for a one on one. I’m a little surprised and more than a little apprehensive. I hate these meetings with the brass. Nothing good ever comes of it. Personally, I like to take the line most of our troops do - avoid placing yourself behind a mule or in front of a senior officer.

    But then ( yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it before) ………. ours is not to reason why….

    I meet the General in his operations room. After the usual preliminaries, he gets down to it.

    Background. Information from the DGP (Director General of Police). Corroborated by RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). A large LeT training camp located in the valley that runs parallel to the Kashmir Valley to the east (we’ll call it Zulu for ease of comprehension). Likely location of the camp is X Village. Estimated strength of militants : 25-30 hard core and 100-150 trainees. Weaponry includes SFSAMs (Shoulder Fired Surface to Air Missiles), PIKAs, RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) in addition to the usual AKs, grenades and stuff.

    Terrain. Narrow valley with a river running through it. High, densely forested features both sides. No roads. Access from present location across the dividing ridge line from north and/or west, on foot, 3 days walk. Access from the south. Drive across the Pir Panjal upto the road head. 2 days. Walk thereafter. 2 days. No access from the east. Ops have never been conducted there earlier and there’s absolutely no information on locals, resources, etc. All that anyone knows is that it’s a God forsaken place. The only time it was heard of was when the foreigners held hostage by the HUA ages ago, were hidden and finally killed there.

    Own Forces in the Area. No Army. No BSF. No CRPF. No JKP. No STF. One Reserve Police post in Y Village, at the southern tip of Zulu Valley. Strength of 1 Sub Inspector and 10 cops, equipped with .303 bolt action rifles.

    Mission. Destroy camp. Eliminate militants.

    Time. By yesterday.

    Plan. That I’m supposed to make. The General’s said his bit. Cushy job he has, isn’t it?

    Anyways, I’ve been staring at the map. The terrain is miserably tough. I make my pitch.

    “Give me three Mi-17s (medium sized transport helicopters) and one SF (Special Forces) assault team and I’ll do it.”

    Negotiations commence.

    “You’re talking rot, Khalid. Choppers are out. The valley is too narrow and they’ve got Stingers (a type of SFSAM, US origin). One SF team is too little. You’ll go across the ridge on foot with four HRM (High Risk Mission) companies of regulars.”

    “No can do, Sir.” I manage to pipe in “Thats too large a force to control. And with so many guys moving over such a large distance, theres absolutely no chance of achieving surprise. And commanding 4 companies from 4 different units will be a nightmare. Give me my own crowd and I’ll do it.”

    “Shut up and do it the way I’m telling you to.” he roars.

    “Yes Sir.” I bleat.

    Negotiations end.

    Remember what I told you people about the ‘when rape is inevitable….. thingy? Well, thats the line I find myself being forced to adopt.

    Sigh ! My knees are already groaning.

    Ok. The plan.

    Four company columns. Thats about 40-50 men each. 3 days walk either way with one day for recce and at least one day of ops implies an outing of 8-10 days. That calls for an extremely large adminstrative load in terms of ammunition and rations. Very unweildy force.

    I decide to insert this force along 4 different routes, marrying up at a pre designated RV by a pre designated time, and then take it from there.

    I study the map, looking for tracks across the imposing ridge line. Find none. No choice but to pick up a marker and let my creativity find freedom. I look at the gradients on the map and draw 4 lines across the ridge, along what will hopefully be easy routes. Easy, in this context of course, is a very relative term.

    I ask for a meeting with the four company commanders. The ops staff officer opens his beak for the first time. “They’re already here. I’ll get them in.”

    So much for my negotiations. Now I understand the term ‘fait accompli’.

    The General leaves me to it after wishing me luck.

    I meet up with the four company commanders and brief them. The routes are discussed and agreed on. Alpha will move in from the north. Its a 4 day walk in his case, so he’ll have to start a day earlier. M minus 1. Bravo and Charlie will move in from the west. M Day. I’ll be with Bravo. Delta will go across the Banihal Pass by MT (motor transport) upto the road head and then hoof it. Move from here on M minus 1.

    Alpha, Bravo and Charlie to link up in the forest just above A village by last light M plus 2. X Village (the target) is located across the river from A Village. Delta will move up to the southern end of the Zulu valley and stay put there at Y Village as reserve till I call them up. First light, M plus 3 is the last time anyone can get in. Any column delayed beyond that will be rendered LOB (Left Out of Battle).

    Executive orders for the op will be issued by me after an ‘on ground’ recce on M plus 3. M plus 4 will be D Day.

    All columns to be self contained for 10 days for ammunition, rations, water.

    Radio silence all through.

    Thats it. There really is nothing else I can tell them at this stage. Tomorrow is M minus 1. So they all scoot off to get their preparations effected. I tell Bravo where I’ll meet up with him tomorrow night. Move from the jump off point will commence the next morning., that is, day after tomorrow.





    22 June

    Spend the morning getting stuff ready for the impending op. Pore over the map. It’s a long walk and I’m not at all happy about moving by day. Maintaining surprise is a prime requisite for this op and movement by day is open to getting spotted. Sadly, the terrain is too tough and the numbers too many to be able to make good time by night. I’m not worried about whats going to happen when we get there. Thats because I’m convinced that the number of militants supposedly there is exxagerated. Kilos talk only in multiples in 10, and therfore any numerical information must immediately be divided by that figure. So, IF there are any militants there, I seriously do not expect more than a total of 15-20. Anyways, first let us reach that darn place.

    In the evening Karan and I hop across to the RR company which is going to be the launch pad for tomorrows padyatra. We reach by 2000 hours. Bravos already there and Karan goes off join the other jawans. The RR Company Commander has a small hut and Bravo , he and I settle down in it. We talk awhile and after an early dinner, knock off.

    23 June - M Day

    Up in the wee hours. Weather looks okay. I’d hate to be walking in the rain. I mean I love doing that, but when I’m in civilisation and don’t have 40 kg on my back.

    Bravo’s lads assemble and after a quick check of weapons, equipment, logistical loads, etc we set off.

    The RR Company Commander has given us a guide for a part of the way. He knows a little foot track that goes upto a Gujjar settlement. The walk is not too bad and we make good time. Around 1400 hours, we reach the Gujjar huts and take a break for lunch. MREs are broken out and I can see guys sprawled all over the place. No human beings in sight. I bid farewell to our guide and after lunch, we set off again.

    The trek is getting tougher now. No specific track now and we are on hit and trial mode. Walk up a spur, then find a very steep gradient, get back a bit, try another approach. Can’t be helped. The walk goes on. I look back at Bravo’s lads and they all seem in fine fettle. No fatigue problems……yet.

    1700 hours. Its started raining. F*** ! Now the climb has got a few more things added to trudge…..slither, slip, slide, etc. No place to halt. We keep moving. Around 1800 hours I decide to call it a day. The rains got heavier, it’s getting dark and we’re in a location that affords some cover. Bravo issues orders to his men accordingly. A few guys are sent out around us as sentries. The boys find places beneath trees, boulders, whatever to bed down. A few little fires start up and in spite of the rain, the place suddenly seems very cosy. Essentially, it’s the tiredness catching up.

    Bravo and I study the map a bit and plan out the next days route. Karan gets me a very welcome cuppa tea. Hot, strong and courtesy condensed milk, very sweet. Just the way I like it.

    Around 2000 hours, we eat dinner and before I can ever think of my God and my kids, I’m fast asleep, snuggled up in my sleeping bag under a tree.

    0100 hours. I wake up with an uneasy feeling. Look around. Bravo’s not in his sleeping bag. I can sense a lot of movement around. I tug my boots on and go looking. Find Bravo in a huddle with a few men.

    “Whats up, Bravo?” I ask.

    “The sentries to the north reported seeing some lights , presumably torches, on the spur to our north Sir.”

    Thats not good. Gujjars don’t move at night and in any case, even if they do for some odd reason, they don’t use torches. But then, neither do militants. And theres no other kind of people here for miles in distance and a few thousand feet in altitude.

    Bravo tells me he’s sent out a small patrol to the north to check.

    Thats not good either. Theres radio silence and the spurs too far away to support from here if the patrol makes any kind of contact. But I hold my silence. He’s made his call and I’ll respect it. In any case, the patrols out and barring keeping my fingers crossed, I can do nothing. Best to wait it out.

    24 June - M plus 1

    First light is approaching. I’m back in my sleeping bag, though half awake. Bravo informs me that the patrols back. NTR.

    I decide to move on. A quick mug of tea and some biscuits and we take off again.

    The climbs getting bad. The gradient is much steeper. Luckily, there no rain. We keep trudging on. I’m thinking about and wondering how my other columns are doing. I hate this concept of being in command of guys that are so far placed from me in time and space. I curse the General in my head and walk on.

    1300 hours. A quick lunch and move on. I want to get to the ridge line before the end of the day. Only then will we able to complete the descent and be in Zulu by last light tomorrow. Walk on.

    The tree line has vanished and we’re out in the open. Scenic splendour at it’s best. Walk on.

    1530 hours. We’re negotiating a tricky part of the feature. A very narrow stretch. The columns spread out in single file.

    Bang! Bang! Bang!

    F***! Whats this?

    No space to even take cover. In any case, there is no cover. I look around. Can’t see a thing. But I can definitely hear firing. Karans behind me. He draws my attention towards our north. Far away, on the spur running parallel to us, I now spot some movement. Binos (binoculars) out. A group of 6 militants, firing at us. With AKs. Crazy jerks. Those bullets can’t reach us from there. Bravo has also spotted them and has by now got an LMG firing at them. Well, even our bullets won’t get to them. I yell out for Bravo and tell him to get an RL HE (High Explosive) airburst onto those guys. A minute later…..Boom!

    I watch through my binos. The HE rocket explodes in the air over those guys. I don’t see or hear them any longer. Walk on.

    No further incident and we reach just short of the ridge line by 1900 hours. It’s dark and cold. But thankfully, dry.

    Tea, dinner, bed. 16000 feet altitude. Aching bones and muscles. A warm sleeping bag. I’m out like a light within a nano-second.In any case, I can sleep easy. No more climbing. Tomorrow, we roll down.





    25 June - M plus 2

    A peaceful albeit very chilly night. I wake up to a hot cuppa tea served by the trusty Karan. 30 minutes to clean self and weapons and I’m ready to move. So are Bravo and his merry men. We take off.

    A short climb till the ridge line. 16530 feet. And it’s beautiful. Flat, bare, a lovely view to our West of the Kashmir Valley and to the east, my first look at the Zulu Valley. Narrow, green and far away.

    And the most fascinating thing. Right next to us on the ridge line, is a little lake. Ok! Ok! Not a lake. A pond.

    Time schedule be damned. I strip and jump in as do a few more courageous and crazy souls. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!! Its miserably cold but tremendously refreshing and when I emerge I feel like an abs new man. Feel ready to walk a 100 miles and take on a 1000 militants.

    0800. A short halt as the scouts move up to try find a route. I switch on my radio to see if anyone’s talking.

    “Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid.”

    Damn!!! What ever happened to radio silence?

    And before I can respond, “Akbar for Khalid, Akbar for Khalid.” Thats the General.

    What the hell is happening? I’m totally zapped.

    “Charlie for Akbar, Khalid not responding. Request advise further action.”

    Further action? Advice? Whats the General involved for now? Has Charlie gone nuts?

    I decide to take the plunge, ” Khalid for Charlie, go ahead.”

    “Charlie for Khalid. We’ve been attacked.”

    Attacked? What the f*** is he talking about?

    “Charlie for Khalid, we’ve been attacked, we’ve been attacked.” The young Majors voice is sounding frantic.

    “Khalid for Charlie, cool down. Are you in contact?”

    “Charlie for Khalid, no, I say again, no. We were fired upon last night. We had halted for the night and they fired PIKAs. I have 8 boys wounded.”

    Shit !!!!!

    Akbar pipes in again. “Akbar for Charlie. Stay put. Choppers coming in for cas evac. Give your position and locate and prepare nearest possible landing site ASAP.”

    Akbar continues, ” Charlie , wait out to you. Akbar for Khalid.”

    “Khalid for Akbar, go ahead.”

    “Akbar for Khalid. Mission aborted. Head back.”

    Aborted?

    What IS happening? Is this some f****** nightmare?

    “Akbar for Khalid, did you copy? I say again, mission aborted. Head back. Charlie has casualties and Alpha is behind schedule. He’s stuck in the hills.”

    I think awhile. I haven’t walked this far for nothing.

    “Akbar for Khalid, did you receive?”

    F*** you General, Sir !!

    “Khalid for Akbar, nothing heard, nothing heard.”

    “Akbar for Khalid, come in dammit!”

    The General goes on and on and finally stops when I switch off my radio set. Everyone be damned.

    I’m worried about Charlie and his casualties, but am confident that the General will organise the needful.

    But what do I do now? Alphas missing somewhere in the hills far to the north. No news of Delta, but even if he is on schedule, he’ll only be on the southern end of the Zulu Valley. Can I go in with just Bravo? What if there really are over a 100 militants?

    I yell out to Bravo, ” Lets get a move on buddy.”

    Thats it. Jo hoga dekha jaega. Let not some m***** f******* militants say they scared us away.

    We head downwards. Walking fast. Downhill is tough on the knees, but I no longer care. Want to get to Zulu and want to kill those jerks there. Period.

    Around 1300 hours, we’re back in the tree line and shortly thereafter, come acros a Gujjar settlement. We halt short and the scouts check it out. No danger. We move up.

    There are about 2-3 Gujjar families. 18-20 people, all sexes, shapes, sizes and ages. 200-300 sheep, all sexes, shapes, sizes and ages. Seem harmless, both these categories.

    But I’m worried. I don’t want them slipping down to the village and giving advance warning of our arrival.

    “Give us that boy” I tell one of the adults, pointing to a young lad, perhaps in his late teens.

    He looks very worried as he asks me why. The lads his son.

    “I want a guide down to the village. I’ll pay him for that.” I inform him.

    “Oh ! Okay,” is his postive, though a wee bit reluctant, response.

    “Fine, we’re off. Your son will be back by evening, unless…”

    “Unless what?” he asks.

    “Unless one of you decides to cut across to the village and talk about us. If that happens, he’ll come back without a head.”

    “Nahi Maalik. We wil not talk about you to anyone.”

    Cool.

    We move on.

    Time passes by and just short of last light, I find myself in a little copse on the lower slopes of the feature. Just below us, 2 klix at best, is A Village.

    The guys spread out and I tell Bravo to get them to relax. But to be watchful. He deploys sentries and everyone chills.

    I can see the village clearly from where Bravo and I are lying under a tree. Theres still some ambient light. No movement can be seen though. Not a soul. If I couldn’t see the lights in the houses, I’d say the village was deserted.

    “What do we do now, Sir?” asks Bravo.

    “What else, Bravo? Lets go explore the village” I tell him.

    “The village? But that will compromise surprise Sir, I mean, so many guys and all.”

    “Relax buddy. Just you and me.” I give him a wicked smile.

    “Wow. Thats fun. Lets go” is his brave reply.

    I whistle up Karan and tell him my intentions. He looks happier than he’s done in the past 3 days.

    We down some tea and shakarparas and after a quick nap, at around 2330 hours, Bravo, Karan and I enter Village A.


    We enter the village from the southern end. Its a small village, 40-50 houses at best. Surrounded by fields. The village is quiet. Everyones indoors and sleeping. Suddenly, Bravo spots a couple of large sheds. Whats this? Villages don’t have these kind of sheds. These are pretty huge with a fence around them. Needs a look see.

    We cautiously approach the sheds. As we get close, Karan nudges me. I look towards where he’s silently indicating. Yup. I spot the glow of a cigarette. We get down and crawl till the fence. Look again and I see one guy sitting with his back against one of the sheds, smoking. No signs of any weapon.

    For the life of me, I cannot make out what this is all about. Are these sheds being used by militants? Is this guy some kind of sentry?

    Might as well find out. I whisper my orders to Karan and while Bravo and I cover him from our present position, he crawls off, gets through the fence and approaches the smoker from behind. He grabs him and pulls him away. We wait.

    3 minutes later, we hear a low whistle and Bravo and I jump across the fence and sprint to where Karan is. The guy Karan nabbed is on his knees, hands on his head.

    “Kya khabar? ” I ask Karan in a whisper.

    “Saab, yeh FCI (Food Corporation of India) godown hai aur yeh aadmi yahan ka chowkidar hai.”

    Gadzooks ! An FCI godown? In this God forsaken place? Wonders will never cease.

    I question the chowkidar. This place holds grain stocks for the winters. Summer is spent transporting the stuff from the south on mule back. Theres a total staff of 6. One clerk kind of guy, 3 storemen and 2 chowkidars. Barring the clerk, they all live within the FCI complex in a small hut. No families. The clerk is a local and lives in the neighbouring village to the north.

    Ok. So thats the background. I ask the guy about militants and get the standard “I don’t know anything ” answer.

    A whack followed by my dagger poking his rib cage has him telling us that there are no militants in this village but he has seen groups of them moving around. He’s seen them on both sides of the river and on the hill sides astride the valley. Thats the extent of his knowledge.

    Another whack on his jaw, a boot in his belly and a deeper poke that draws a bit of blood, extends this extent.

    “Get hold of the Muqaddam.” He tells me “He is with them. Militants often visit his house.”

    This sounds good. I send Karan to get a section of Bravo’s lads. Once they arrive, they take over the hut where the chowkidar’s compatriots are sleeping. They’ll ensure these fellows stay put within.

    Its nearly 0045 hours now. We ‘liberate’ some of the FCI guys’ clothing and change out of our Army fatigues into salwar suits.

    The chowkidar chappie points out the Muqaddam’s house and the three muskeeters head thataways.

    Knock! Knock! Knock!

    The sound of someone moving within, and then the door opens. A guy, mid to late 40s.

    “Are you the Muqaddam?” I ask.

    “Yes. Come in” he answers.

    These guys don’t speak Kashmiri the way I do, the way it’s spoken in the Kashmir Valley. It’s similar, yet different. But I can understand.

    He takes us into a room, lights up a lamp and even before we are settled down on the carpet, a middle aged lady, presumably his wife, is making tea for us.

    Whats surprising me is that he’s not asked who we are and what we want.

    Tea arrives. “You’ve come from across?” he asks me.

    “Across as in? ” I ask back.

    “From the land of Allah, Pakistan.” says the M.

    “Yes” I answer “why?”

    “I can make out that you are not Kashmiris. I saw you and realised that you are our brothers from Pakistan.”

    I give him whats supposed to be a sweet smile, though I’m seething from within.

    “Whats the news here?” I query.

    “News is not good. You should not be here” he says

    I give him a quizzical look.

    “The Kaffir (infidels) army is moving from Kashmir. They’ll be here by tomorrow. The other mujahideen brethren have already moved out.” He continues.

    I ask him how he knows all this and he informs me that word had come across two days prior. Some Army people in Kashmir were hiring civilian mules to carry loads into Zulu and thereafter, the columns have been spotted moving into the hills.

    Mules? Damn!! Alpha or Charlie, or both, must have f***** up. This op was supposed to be pure man pack. Anyways, too late to cry over spilt beer.

    “Where have the Mujahids gone now? Is nobody left? We need to meet up with them.” I tell the M.

    “I sent some mujahids to ambush the Kaffirs. The others have moved into the hills to the east and south. Theres no one left , though there may be some one still at the base in X Village” says he.

    “You sent people to ambush the Army?” I ask, trying to keep the anger out of my voice. It takes all I have to stay in control.

    “Yes” he proudly replies “I control all Mujahid activity here. One of the groups I sent killed 50 Kaffirs to the south yesterday.”

    50, my a** !!!!

    “Which tanzeem are you from?” I ask, changing the subject before I lose my temper and snap his neck.

    He seems surprised at my question. ” You don’t know? I’m from the Lashkar. Didn’t they send you to me?”

    Oops ! Seems like I’ve committed a faux pas. Better cover up fast. “We’re from Al Badr. Some Mujahideen we met on our way told us that you are a true supporter of the cause and will help us.”

    That appears to please him. “Yes. I’m the number one Lashkar man in this area” , is his proud reply.

    I ask him about this ‘base’. “Its a camp we have set up to train young Mujahideen. Instead of sending them all to your country, we are getting some boys from Kashmir and the South and training them here.”

    “I want to see this base” I tell him.

    “We’ll go in the morning. You all sleep here. My wife is making some food.”

    I can’t argue with that. But theres a problem. If the three of us go to the militant camp/base with him, what happens to Bravo’s lads? And what do we do at the base? Covert is okay, but the mask doesn’t stay on for too long. And if the base has a sizeable number of militants, what will the 3 of us be able to achieve on our own? Barring making the ’supreme sacrifice’?

    Jeez ! I can’t think.

    Anyways, food arrives, and we eat.

    “Your men can sleep here. And for you, theres place upstairs” the M informs me, post dinner.

    “Okay.”

    Bravo and Karan are given some smelly quilts and they seemingly settle down while I walk upstairs with the Muqaddam. He takes me to a small room with a bedding laid out on the floor. “You’ll be comfortable here.”

    As I smile at him, he adds “I’ll send my daughter up. You enoy yourself.”

    I snap. And before I can control myself, I’ve hit him with the butt of my rifle. He goes down, head bleeding. I peer down the staircase and yell out for B and K. They come up. Karan kneels, has one look at the M and pronounces him deceased.

    There goes my ‘guide’ to the base. Damn !!!

    I’d intended to kill him, but later. Damn ! Damn ! Damn !

    Anyways, theres nothing to be gained here now. We move out of the house.

    I now decide to prepone things. No time for recce. No time to wait and check if Delta is in location at Village Y.

    I send Karan off to get Bravo’s company to the godowns.

    They arrive shortly. It’s 0430 by now.

    A quick brief and we set off.

    The plan. Cross the river ASAP. A small party led by Karan to move up and ascertain the precise location of the so called ‘base’ as also try get whatever information they can on strength, dipositions, etc. Thereafter, Bravo’s company, less a section, to cordon the base while the section moves in with me to search and destroy.

    Its still dark. We cross the river over a narrow foot bridge and deploy east of the river, about a klik plus from Village X. Karan moves off with his gang.

    0545 hours. Karans back. “Saab, ek location nazar aata hai jo camp lagta hai. Shayad is gaon ka school hai. Par, udhar humne do sentry dekhe. Hathiyar ke saath.”

    He goes on to explain the layout. Three huts. Single story. An open ground in front. Luckily , this complex is on the far edge of the village. Little chances of collateral damage.

    Bravo is listening in and moves off with his men to lay the cordon.

    Karan and I head for the militant camp with 8 of Bravo’s guys.

    It’s daybreak. The village is waking up and as we walk through, the locals gawk at us. No time to lose now. Speed of move and execution is my only hope for success.

    My Kenwood buzzes. Its Bravo . “Bravo for Khalid, in location, out.”

    Cool. Lets go in now, boys.

    A silent prayer and we get into the complex. The LMG guy has already deployed on the ground, and two long bursts at each of those sentries provides them with their final ‘good morning’ kiss. Only, its the kiss of death.

    As we get close to the sheds, firing starts from within two of them. Not too much, though. Still, it’s enough to make us go into creepy crawly mode. I get the RL to address them, which he does with pleasure. Four rockets each and the sheds are down, burning. No more firing from within. As we move up to check out the sheds, I hear firing from the east.

    “Khalid for Bravo, whats up?”

    “Bravo for Khalid. Eastern cordon under fire from the hills. Moving there. Will report situation ASAP.”

    I leave the section to clear out the burning sheds as Karan and I sprint off eastwards. As we get there, I can see gun flashes in the hills. A look through the binos reveals at least 4 guys in the trees.

    I meet up with Bravo. He tells me that he’s spotted the guys and plans to go in from a flank and get them while they’re held by fire from here.

    Good idea. Bravo scoots off with a section pulled in from the cordon and moves off northwards to skirt these bad guys.

    About 45 minutes later, some more firing and then silence.

    “Bravo for Khalid, 5 militants. Dead.”

    “Roger, get back.”

    We hang around the area till noon. Nothing else happens. Guys keep scanning the hills with their binos but nary a movement is spotted.

    I get Delta on the set and since he’s already in Y village, ask him to move here, bringing the cops with him from the Reserve Police Post.

    They arrive by 1500 hours and we hand over the bodies, as well as pointing the cops towards the Muqaddam’s house in Village A. They get his body as well as a nice cache of weapons and ammunition.

    We peel off thereafter, Delta headed back south while Bravo and I move back to the godowns with a group of very happy and satisfied men. A nice cheery evening is spent there, full use being made of the Government of India’s wheat, rice and dal enhanced with a few chickens and two goats set free from the evil clutches of the locals. I’m in no ‘ win hearts and minds ‘ mood.

    A good, well earned night’s sleep and early next morn, we set course for Kashmir.

    Two days of brisk, incident free walking gets us home, safe and sound.

    My band of brave boys got 12 Lashkar militants.

    I got the Muqaddam, a bollocking from the General (followed by a bear hug) and 23 blisters on my feet.
     
  10. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Location:
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    Vantage Point




    14 October

    Gulzar’s come to meet me. Who’s he? Ah, well ! He’s one of my top sources. Around 60 years old. A widower. Ekes out a living by running a small saw mill in his village. He came across me one day when his teen aged son had a close encounter of the nasty kind with the electric saw and nearly lost his arm. Luckily I was around at that time and managed to use my ‘issue type’ morphine coupled with my rudimentary skills at suturing to help save that arm. Ever since, Gulzar became my friend and then progressed to becoming an invaluable source. Not that he doesn’t believe in the free market economy. Takes a lot of money off me, but since most of it is originally HM/HUA/LeT, I don’t mind. Easy come, easy go ! Long as it gets me kills, I’m happy.

    Ayways, so he’s come to meet me. The preliminary exchage of pleasantries and as he settles down on the floor, I ask him what brings him to me here. I generally avoid meeting my sources at ‘home’. For their own good health and longeivity.

    He informs me that he’s got something major up his sleeve, but would like to talk money first. I remind him that the going rates have gone nowhere and the old agreement stands. 10 k for each kill that he facilitates. Payable only ex post facto.

    The evil glint in his eyes tells me that he’s in the mood to bargain. Which either means that he’s very hard up for cash and will try to take me for a ride, or that he’s got something really good.

    Its the latter.

    It emerges that his nephew, a young fellow who generally lives life in the twilight zone, doing odd jobs for the militants, the cops, the Army and himself, has been approached by an OGW to act as a guide for a newly inducted LeT group, all Afghans. This group is currently hiding up in the hills, but needs to come down to civilisation for logistical reasons.

    Gulzar tells me that for a sum of Rs 1 lakh, he’ll home me onto this group when they’re inside a village. He’s discussed it with his nephew and if I’m willing to part with a radio set, the nephew will pass on the name of the village to me once it’s decided.

    I remind Gulzar that Afghan militants are nasty and ruthless characters and are not likely to take kindly to a guide equipped with a radio set. I also tell him that he ought to stop talking rot where the pecuniary aspects are concerned. Theres no way I’m shelling out that kind of money for a couple of filthy militants, Afghan or not.

    Well ! He’s obviously thought it all out. He tells me that the nephew will keep the radio off and well hidden and only use it once, as soon as it’s decided which village they’re moving into. After that, he’ll throw it away to avoid any risk whatsoever. And as far as the money angle goes, a lakh is not asking for too much. Because there are 7 militants, 6 Afghans and a Kashmiri, and that would make it 70 k in any case. And because his nephew’s life is at risk due to chances of being killed along with the militants, he’s asking for an additional 30 k.

    Hmmm. I can’t argue with that.

    This whole show gets on the road tomorrow night. So after giving him a radio set, I rush off to apprise the Brigadier. He immediately sends for the CO (Commanding Officer) of the RR unit in whose AOR this bunch of FMs is moving around and we decide that the RR battalion will stay on alert to move and act, the moment I receive the information from Gulzar’s nephew. Towards this end, I’ll be co located with the RR CO.

    All seems pretty much tickety boo and I go off to sleep looking forward happily to the morrow. Hopefully, this should be a neat and clean, copy book op.

    15 October

    I wake up in a cheery mood and spend the first half of the day cleaning my weapons and generally thinking out all possible contingencies. Can’t think of many. If the nephew delivers the name of the village, a CASO should achieve the needful without any hassles.

    Post lunch, I drive off to the RR battalion’s location. Karan, much against his wishes, is left behind. He’s running a bad fever and in any case, with an entire RR unit to do the job, I do not visualise my getting involved in the nitty gritties of the op.

    The CO and I sit with the Company Commanders over tea and discuss which are the likely villages the militants can come into. We’re all agreed that it’ll be one of the 5-6 villages situated at the base of the hills. Graphical layouts of each of these villages are studied and plans made for each scenario, with specific tasking for each of the companies.

    Time passes by and just after last light, everyone decides to have a quick bite and relax till the news arrives.

    16 October

    0047 hours. The radio’s buzzing. “Khalid saab, Aslam bol raha hoon, over.”

    “Haan Aslam, bolo.” I whisper back.

    “Hum C gaon jaa rahe hain. Out.”

    Move! Move! Move!

    And damn! damn! damn!

    C Village is the largest village in the area. Around 500 houses spread over 4 mohallas (localities). A CASO is going to be tough and time consuming.

    But we’ve catered for it in the planning and the RR CO is not bothered at all. He tells me that his unit has done so many ops there that every man knows the village like the curves of his wife.

    We move out ASAP and by 0430 hours, are on the outskirts of the village. I watch in silence as the CO does his last minute briefing and coordination.

    The company columns move off to their respective objective areas. A, B, C and D to cordon one mohalla each. E to act as reserve.

    I move off with the CO’s party. We spot a double storied, flat roofed house on the periphery of the village and spotting a wooden ladder by the side, climb up and settle down on the roof. It’s a good vantage point. We can see most of the village from here. Communications are set up. Tea is made and served. We are well situated to control ops. Excitement level is high and we sit in cosy comfort, waiting for contact to be established.

    Reports start coming in over the radio. Each company reporting. Cordon in place. Checked personally by the company commander. Each cordon as tight as the proverbial rat’s butt.

    First light. Searches commence in each mohalla. We’re tensed up. Contact should be established any moment. From our vantage point, we can see the locals filing out of their houses and assembling outside the village to facilitate the search within. My ears are straining to hear the sound of firing. Should be any time now.

    0800. Nothing. Search is still on.

    1200. Nothing. All houses have been searched once.

    1600. Nothing. A second search has been effected.

    1800. Nothing.

    It’s getting dark. The CO gives me a very nasty look and orders his unit to pull out. He gets the Brigadier on the radio. “NTR. I’m moving back. The info was abs crap.”

    I resent the bit about the crap, but hold my silence.

    We get back to the Battalion HQ and without further ado, I take my leave and drive back. Wondering all the while what went wrong.

    17 October

    It’s evening. I’m still brooding over the op. What a bloody disappointment. Words with, or rather, from the Brigadier haven’t made things any better.

    Man Friday turns up. “Gulzar aaya hai, saab.”

    Ah ! Just the man I want to meet. And just the man who’s neck I’m going to wring with my bare hands.

    “Saab, kya kar diya aapne? ” he says as he walks in.

    What I said in reply cannot be articulated here due to censors and such like.

    “Arre Saab, sab gadbad kar diya aapne. Haath aaye mujahidden jaane diye.”

    Jaane diye? Haath aaye?

    I grab him by the neck and shake him hard.

    “You f****** let me down Gulzar. There were no militants there.”

    ” Kya baat karte ho Saab. Allah kasam. Wahin par the.”

    “Kahan the? Poore gaon ka search hua. Teen baar.”

    “Saab, jis makan ki chhat par aap aur CO saab baithe the. Uske andar the.”

    F*** !!!!!!!!!!!!

    Gulzar didn’t get any money.

    I didn’t get any militants.

    My ego got a kick on it’s fat butt.
     
    Ankit Purohit and Victor Sierra like this.
  11. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Ramzan




    Ramzan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. The month of fasting. The month in which the first verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).

    But this is not about the holy month. This is not about fasting. This is not about the Holy Quran.

    This is about a militant who called himself Ramzan.

    An absolutely low level militant of the HM whose interests lay more in stealing, womanising and bullying the locals rather than in fighting for any particular cause. He'd never been involved in any ops against us and from whatever we knew of him, it would take a lot of positive thinking to weigh him against the cost of a 7.62 mm bullet.

    Therefore, while one had heard of him, no one ever seriously contemplated mounting a specific op to get him. The general consensus was 'galti se mil gaya toh thok dena, else let the jerk die of old age'.

    I got to hear of him when an acquaintance of mine, HPS, who was doing 2IC (Second in Command) of an RR battalion in the area, came to meet me.

    I was going through an uneventful time and was happy to receive a visitor.

    After the initial exchange of pleasantries, HPS asked me what I knew of Ramzan.

    “Not very much, Sir. I know his name, his village and a bit of his background which is nothing exciting. What's your interest in him? He’s a low life scum. Not even worth being called a militant.” was my reply.

    “Well Khalid, my information is that he’s been made the Battalion Commander in this area.”

    I’ll be damned !!! Ramzan being appointed as a Battalion Commander. Jeez !! The HM really must be scraping the bottom of the barrel with their finger nails. Not that an HM battalion commander is anything big, but nonetheless, in their hierarchy, it means quite a lot.

    I can’t get over it and HPS is not amused.

    “Its not funny, Khalid. We knocked off the last guy with great difficulty and now this jerk takes his place. You know the pressure on us to get rid of their commanders ASAP and this is one guy no one knows anything about. “

    HPS goes on to tell me that his unit has tried putting pressure on Ramzan’ s area, by way of raids, CASOs, visits to his family, etc. But all to no avail. They are totally unable to get a bead on him and now want me to help track him down.

    Well !! (Between my readers and me, it’s a big jolt to my ego to be asked to sniff out a weasel like Ramzan.) “I’ll ask around, Sir and let you know.” is what I tell HPS.

    Having nothing better to do, the next few weeks I ask people about Mr R. The Ikhwans, the cops, locals and my sources. From everywhere, I get the same old story. But I do manage to build up a hazy picture of him. He’s a bully. He’s ruthless and vicious. He’s not a family man. He’s lazy. He’s very cunning. He’s a loner. And he seems to be a bit of a coward. Every time he's run into a security force's patrol, he's scooted without firing a shot.

    No pictures available. Physical description: Tall, slim. Long hair. Beard. Jeez ! That could be any militant or or any local. It could even be me - for that matter.

    Anyways, I make a visit to his village with a few Ikhwans. His house is a ramshackle two storied building in one corner of the village. A set of old parents. Sullen, quiet. A wife. Looks twice her age. Sad, silent, stressed out. Absolute poverty all around. Not what I’d expect of an HM guy’s family. It’s obvious that this guy doesn’t care for his people. The wife refuses to talk but I manage to make the parents sit across me. My questions elicit no answers that can help me get to him. All they keep saying is "He's a bad man. Kill him and we'll be happy." Now, on the face of it, that bit isn't surprising. The parents of most militants say that but don't really mean it. It's just the typical sneaky Kilo way of keeping themselves out of trouble with the security forces. But here, I sense absolute disgust and resignation to fate.

    So, over all I get nothing from his family. Ditto from the villagers. A bit of heavy handed questioning is also tried. Same result - zilch. But I do detect a very strong undercurrent of fear within the entire village.

    Nothing to be gained here, I head back.

    A few days later, I’m sent a militant radio intercept from my controlling HQ with a portion highlighted by the Brigadier.

    "Kal Khalid mere gaon aaya tha. Pooch tach ki. Aap log fikr na karein. Us kutte ko main jald hi khatam kar doonga."

    This perks me up. Maybe the guy does have a spine. I like his spirit.

    The fact that he got irked by my visiting his village means I should go again, and again. Let me rile him up and then maybe he'll emerge from the woodwork.

    A few more visits follow. I make threats all around. I get hold of the entire village and announce to them that Ramzan is a worthless SOB (sorry, this is not being expanded) and that I'm going to behead him personally.

    All this to make him react because I'm sure he won't like being abused, insulted and undermined in his own village.

    Slowly, I start pumping in some funds into the village. Kilos love crispies of the 500 variety and I hope to buy myself some 'sources'.

    One morning, as I'm sunning myself outside my hut, Karan turns up with two men. Ones an MM (Muslim Mujahideen, another counter insurgent group like the Ikhwans) chap and the other guy I have no clue about.

    I'm shortly clued up about his identity by the MM lad. The man is Salim, he's from Ramzan's village and wants to give me information for hard cash. Ah, well !! I have absolutely nothing against a free trade agreement.

    The man's info is that Ramzan visits the village mosque every morning and if I lay an ambush there, I can easily get him. Very nice. Except that the mosque is in the middle of the village and there is no way that an ambush can be laid without getting compromised. I ask the fellow to give me something better. This isn't good enough. He argues with me. Says that I ought to get into the mosque at night and wait inside. Ramzan gets there early in the mornings and I can easily knock him off. The whole concept is fraught with too much of risk and too many intangibles and in any case, there's no way I'm going to be firing guns inside a mosque, so I tell him to buzz off unless he wants to talk sense.

    Seeing as he's getting no richer than he was when he arrived, he gets serious.

    "Uski ek mashooqa (lover) hai, Saab. J gaon mein rehti hai."

    Village J is close to Ramzan's village.

    He goes on to tell me that Ramzan visits his gal often and it'll be easy to knock him off there.

    "Are the lover's tryst's in one house always? Her home or some other?" is my query.

    No, is the answer. "Kabhi yahaan, kabhi wahaan."

    Darn these Kilo militants. Why can't they do up a nice little lover's lair and get comfortable. Would make life (and death) so much easier.

    J again, is a village out in the open. So there are no specific routes for ingress/egress. That cuts out an ambush.

    RV with his lover girl at different locations. No fixed schedule. Cuts out a break-in op.

    All that I can think of at the present moment is a CASO. And that's so unpredictable. The night/day the CASO is effected, he may not be in J Village. It may turn out to be a waste of time and manpower and also, will alert him to our intentions.

    I should try something else.

    I decide to go look up the lady in question and see what I can achieve there.

    The next morning finds me with Karan and two Ikhwans in J Village, settled comfortably on the floor in Ms Nazreen's house. Her parents are around but have no answers. They regret the fact that their daughter has been selected by a militant as his girl friend, but can do nothing about it. They are vehement that he never visits this particular house and therefore, they cannot help me in any manner. A question thrown at them by me asking if they would tell me when and where she leaves home to meet him is answered by silence, though their eyes seem to be saying, "Think we're fools? Think we don't value our lives?"

    Sigh !!!

    The meeting proceeds. Ms Nazreen is on the agenda now. All of 15. A school girl. Unable and unwilling to talk to us about Ramzan, except to admit that he's seeing her. She's far too young for me to get into 'bullying' mode. I leave her to her fate and we leave.

    Something ventured, nothing gained.

    I decide to let it ride for a while. Maybe something will crop up with time.

    And sure enough, that happens.

    Two days down the line, I get a call on my radio from the RR company commander of the area. " Mike 30 for Khalid. Request meet me at XXX location. One of my patrols has found something."

    "Wilco." I rush off with Karan.

    XXX is located on a track going from Ramzan's village to the North. It cuts across a thickish grove, through which a nala (rivulet) flows.

    What I see horrifies me. Near the nala, a headless corpse nailed to a tree. And at the feet, a head. It's Salim.

    "The patrol found this in the dead man's pocket, Sir" says the company commander as he hands me a folded piece of paper.

    ‘ Khalid, yeh tere mukhbair (informant) ka haal kiya hai. Tera haal is se bhi kharab hoga ' Ramzan.’

    I feel sad, disgusted, angry.

    But the battle lines are drawn.

    Over the next few days, all hell breaks loose.

    Day One, Salim’s family comes to me and cries their hearts out. I feel for them, because I know how it feels to lose someone near and dear, but there really is nothing I can do. I give them some money and ask them to bear the loss with fortitude. Salim is not coming back and they’ll have to cope.

    Day Two, I get a delegation from Ramzan’s village. They tell me that the previous evening he got them all together and threatened to set fire to the entire village in case I was allowed to enter it. I tell them to buzz off since I’m going to visit the village whenever I wish to and woe betide any drama done to stop me. I feel for them, because they’re simple folks, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Day Three. Nazreen’s parents turn up. Ramzan has kidnapped her. I feel for them, because I’m a parent myself, but what am I to do here? I assure them I’ll do my best to get her back and thats that.

    Day Four. I’m feeling for myself. Damn ! This Ramzan character has got on my nerves and if I don’t do something fast, he’ll gain a psychologically upper hand.

    I speak to HPS and get a section of RR boys temporarily from him. I task them to carry out relentless patrolling in and around Ramzan’s village. Day, night, good weather, inclement weather, whatever. I want the locals to see us and not him. Let them learn who runs this place.

    Karan and I start moving around a lot ourselves in the area. The village, the orchards, the fields, along the nalas. Searching for Ramzan, searching for any information on him, searching for any damn thing that will get him to us or us to him.

    I keep scanning the HM frequencies, hoping to get a peep out of him.

    I go to Nazreen’s school and meet her classmates, hoping to get some news of her whereabouts from them.

    All adds up to a big zero.

    And then, one afternoon a week or so later, as Karan and I are walking back from town to the village I live in, a little girl from within a bunch of school kids, drops a piece of paper as they cross us.

    I wait till they’re out of sight and then retrieve the paper. Neatly written on it, in english, are the words ‘ Mr Khalid Sir. Nazreen is in Ramzan’s village. He has hidden her there. Please save her. She is my best friend and I want to celebrate Eid with her. Yours faithfully, Tarannum.’

    I can’t stop the tears that spring to my eyes. I think of the child that wrote this and of Nazreen and am suddenly reminded of my own children.

    Eid is two days away and I make a silent vow to get Nazreen back, come what may.

    The next morning, I ask HPS to get the village cordoned by a company and once thats in place, Karan and I move in with the RR section. We carry out a thorough search of every house and are done by late afternoon. NTR.

    Damn ! I just cannot understand where Ramzan could have hidden Nazreen. If she’s here, we should have found her. And I’m not willing to believe that little Tarannum’s information is wrong.

    But I’ve searched every house,out house, barn, toilet. Every damn structure. And I’ve done it myself. What else can I do? I think of my silent vow and feel bad.

    Anyways, moping will not get me anywhere. Its getting dark and I might as well head back, leaving the villagers to prepare for their big day on the morrow - Eid ul Fitr.

    As we are heading out and cross the village mosque, the local maulvi and I exchange greetings. He invites me for Iftaar (the meal taken at the end of the day to break the fast, during Ramzan) and while I’m in no mood to make PC with him, I accept out of courtesy.

    I leave my rifle and magazines outside with Karan and enter the mosque. The maulvi lives just behind it. As we’re walking through the prayer hall, the maulvi draws my attention to a little rug in one corner, telling me how pretty it is. I look at it and wonder whats wrong with him. It’s just a simple, drab rug. But then I guess it’s his mosque and he’s entitled to propreitary pride, however warped it be. I nod my head in agreement to humour him and walk on.

    We get to his place. Some polite chitter chatter about how militants misuse mosques, thereby defiling them, a simple meal and I’m ready to leave. As I’m headed back through the prayer hall, I look at the rug again, wondering what in the name of God the maulvi finds exciting about it.

    Suddenly my two old friends, intuition and perception, are yelling into my head.

    I walk across to the rug and pull it away. Under it is a trap door, snug with the wooden floor.

    Immediately, all the locals inside the mosque rush out.

    I yell out for Karan and he comes charging in.

    I yank the trap door open and before I can take a look, Karan has chucked in a flash bang and jumped in. I follow.

    It’s a cubby hole. Theres a lantern burning and before I can take in anything else, I sense rather than see, someone lunging to a side. It’s a guy reaching for a rifle hanging on the wall.

    Sadly for him, he doesn’t get there. Karan fires and the guy drops, yelling in agony.

    In one corner, I spot young Nazreen sitting on a mattress. Tear streaked face, looking shocked, but happy.

    We got Ramzan.

    The maulvi got his mosque purified.

    Most importantly, Tarannum got to spend Eid with Nazreen.
     
  12. angeldude13

    angeldude13 Lestat De Lioncourt Senior Member

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    Are these real stories?
    I mean they sounds like a Hollywood movie script
     
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  13. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Location:
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    Combing the Capital




    23 February

    "Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid."

    Not the ideal words, voice and tone to be waking up to, but apni apni kismet hai.

    "Khalid for Charlie, go ahead." I mumble, only half awake as I stick a paw out of my warm sleeping bag to grab the little Kenwood.

    "Charlie for Khalid, my company base came under attack last night."

    Whattttttt ???

    F*** !!! This is crazy !! Charlie's company is located in an area where these kinds of things do not happen. What's going on?

    I'm more than fully awake now and I quickly get the details from Charlie. Just after midnight, his camp got fired upon from a hillock that overlooks it from the north. No casualties, barring a jeep that suffered some GSW (gun shot wounds) on its bonnet and two store tents that suddenly found themselves reconfigured with a few neat, circular ventilating vents.

    Charlie's lads fired back with LMGs and RLs and a QRT (Quick Reaction Team) was sent off to out flank the attackers, but by the time they got there, nary a soul was around. They found some fired cases, all AK and spotted some foot prints. But nothing that could lead them anywhere or to anyone. A plain and simple 'fire and f*** off' op or for those who take umbrage to my less than placid language, a 'shoot and scoot' op.

    Charlie goes on to inform me that he'll be working on his neighbourhood to seek out information on this and requests me to also put in my 8 annas bit towards this end.

    "Wilco, out" is my response as I sign off, mulling over this event.

    Like I said, these kind of things don't happen in this area. And then, an attack with just AKs? The hillocks too far away for rifle fire to be effective. If the militants had used PIKAs or rockets, I'd understand. And if this was anyways going to be an ineffective attack, then why launch it? Nothing to gain and there's always the risk of the baddies bumping into a patrol at night.

    Anyways, its too early in the morning to tax my limited grey matter and I yell out for Man Friday to charge my batteries with some tea.

    Later in the morning, I'm out with Karan headed for Charlie's location. He isn't there when we reach but I get to hear the story from some of his jawans. Nothing new.

    I then venture across to the hillock, Karan and I pretending to be Messrs Holmes and Watson, sans the homburg and pipe, but come up with nothing.

    I head back to Charlie's location and find that he's back. He tells me he's asked around but has got no news at all. The poor guy is all low and blue because getting a camp attacked by militants is a big insult. Sadly, I can do nothing to lift his spirits so after advising him to stay on the alert for a few days to avoid a repeat, I head back to my hidey hole.

    The next few days I ask around, but zilch is all I get.

    01 March

    "Charlie for Khalid."

    Sigh !! Another wake up call from Charlie. Now what?

    "Charlie for Khalid, another attack last night."

    Jeez !!!

    Similar attack, from the same location. Same reaction from Charlie's angels. Same result.

    Except ..no jeep and no tents got hit. And ..Charlie's guys have found blood on the hillock, from where the militants fired. The trail leads to a point but then dies. No further leads.

    Now this is really getting crazy. Has some militant or group of militants lost their head? What ARE they trying to achieve?

    I start my snooping around with renewed interest and vigour. Some crispies are handed out. Some locals are pulled in and questioned .some politely and some not so politely. Ikhwans, cops, BSF, other Army units .everyone's asked .but with no luck.

    Leaping Lollipops !!! I'm beginning to believe the ghost of Bomber Khan is at it .trying to extract some kind of revenge.

    04 March

    I'm informed that I'm right, or nearly so.

    My good and trusted source Gulzar turns up with the news that this whole thing has been engineered by the remnants of Bomber's gang along with a new lot of HM jerks who've just inducted into this area. They're being led by an Al Badr (another militant tanzeem) Pakistani and want to 'make their bones' ASAP.

    But what will they achieve by this stand off kind of thingy is my doubt and it gets answered when Gulzar tells me that the plan was for two guys to fire from the hillock, while the rest of the militants laid an ambush for the troops that were sent on an outflank move. The first time they studied the reaction and the second time, they laid the ambush along the route the platoon would take. Sadly for the militants, and happily for our boys, the QRT didn't follow the same route.

    Gulzar goes on to tell me that of the two militants that were on the hillock, ones got splinter injuries from a Karl Gustav rocket. The guy's knee has been badly jacked and he's undergoing treatment in Srinagar. The others have melted into the environment.

    All this Gulzar has got from another Kilo who knows another Kilo who knows another Kilo who knows the Kilo that took the wounded HM chap to Srinagar. And if I want to know more, I need to get to THAT Kilo. Whew !!!

    Financial negotiations get underway and after Gulzar has considerably lightened the little leather pouch I store my crispies in, as well as a few 100 grams of tea leaves that I got from a friend located in the cushy environs of a tea garden in Assam, he leaves. I'm left behind with the name and village of the Kilo that took the militant to Srinagar.

    Time to get to work on this gentleman.



    05 March

    I spend the morning thinking about how to proceed from here. There's no way that I just go meet this particular Kilo and he'll tell me everything. The other option is to 'pick' him up and 'squeeze' him, but what if he's abs innocent? Gulzar's information is 4 times removed and in Kilo Land, that's 4 times too many.

    I decide. I'll need to get some independent corroboration of some kind. But this guy shouldn't get to know that I'm interested in him, else he'll vanish. Need to adopt some other approach.

    Off I head to the Ikhwan camp. Luckily, there's some kind of meeting on and all their 'commanders' are present. I join in and get down to brass tacks, asking for information on the attacks on Charlie's base.

    They all take off, going blah blah blah, but not one of those 'blahs' is worth the while.

    I then ask them if anyone's got info on any wounded militant and one young guy pipes in to say that he's heard about it. Not confirmed, but there are rumours that Jahangir has been wounded. He's from the same village and some relation told him about it during a visit to town.

    Wow !!! Jahangir huh? I know the guy. A veteran militant. HM. Belongs to Village M. I've been after him but with no luck. Pretty smart operator with tremendous clout in his village and the surrounding area. But he wasn't in Bomber's gang. Which means, if it is him, he could now be part of this new Al Badr group. Which is likely, because the Paki's have been trying to merge the HM with the Al Badr or at least get it under Al Badr leadership, even at the grass root level.

    I ask this Ikhwan to come along with me, and bidding adieu to the motley gang, trot off, homewards bound.

    The rest of the day is spent picking the young Ikky's brains about Mr Jahangir.

    I learn that he's lost his parents. Has two unmarried sisters, both of whom teach in the village school. One younger brother, who lives in town and works as a shop assistant. Jahangir leads a reasonably clean life. No bullying, no stealing, no womanizing. Generally hangs around Village M but has a very strong EW network and has never got anywhere near being nabbed. Is much attached to his sisters and vice versa. Other than his sisters, he is close to an uncle, his 'mama', who lives in the neighbouring village. Name is Rashid Mir, Village W.

    Aha !! I don't need to look into my little black book for this one. The name Gulzar gave me was Rashid Mir, resident of Village W.

    I thank the Ikky for his time. Give him a bottle of rum, which he will sell for gold and send him off, but not before telling him to try find out more about Jahangir's current status.

    Early dinner and I knock off, reasonably pleased with myself. I think I now have sufficient cause to 'lift' Mr RM. But before that, I need to do something else.

    06 March

    Post breakfast, I'm off to meet Charlie. I gen him up on all the khabar and my plans for the future. Thereafter, we both push off to Village M, headed for the village school.

    We go meet the principal and Charlie informs him that this school is very high on his company's civic action horizon and that he plans to do something for them. Only, he'd like ideas from the faculty on how the Army can help so that the funds and other resources are optimally utilized.

    The faculty troops in a wee while later, 4 in number, of which only ones a lady. What's this? I thought both of Jahangir's sisters taught here. But there's only one femme, unless the other ones into cross dressing or whatever.

    A discussion commences and goes on for about an hour, with none of the participants realizing that Charlie's talking through his hat (or BPP in this case). Finally, it ends and an agreement is reached that Charlie will build an additional classroom as well as gift some cash for buying books and so on.

    The teachers push off and we're left with the principal. I compliment him on his bright and committed faculty, while expressing my surprise that there's only one lady on the staff. In an emancipated state like J&K, one would expect more. He informs me that there is another lady, in fact the sister of the one we met, but right now she's on a spot of leave.

    Aha !!! The dots seem to be getting joined. Let's see what picture emerges finally.

    Charlie and I return to his camp and after lunch, I apprise him of my plans for the morrow. Thereafter, I head home via the Ikhwan camp where I pick up a battered old civilian jeep as well as my young Ikhwan friend of Village M.

    06 March

    Sunday morning, and I'm up with the lark. Well, an early lark, so to speak. Its 0200 hours and it's time for action.

    Karan and I get into the aforementioned jeep along with the Ikhwan and set course for Village W, reaching the outskirts by 0300 hours. Having alighted, we set off into the village, the young Ikky guiding us to the residence of Rashid Mir, Esq.

    A knock, silence, another knock and the door opens. Happily for us, and sadly for Rashid, the doors opened by him. A quick, silent grab and we head back to the jeep, and thence, drive back to my hidey hole. I've a little guest room of sorts as part of my palace .a little shed that at some point in time housed cattle, and Rashid is dumped there to ponder his fate. Trussed and bound, if that's the correct term.

    The good guys, who include me, go to bed.

    I wake up a few hours later and am informed by Karan that our guest is in good health, though not in good cheer. Not surprising at all.

    After getting ready, I head downstairs to meet him. A normal looking guy in his 50s. I wish him a respectful salaam but instead of a wale-qum-as-salaam, I get a barrage of queries like where is he, who are we, why is he here, what do we want and such like unimportant stuff. I politely remind him that given the circumstances, the script dictates that all questions will be asked by me and his sole job is to provide answers with accuracy, brevity, clarity and honesty.

    He displays belligerence but after a few words and suitable actions, we are both agreed on the fact that he will talk.

    "Where is Jahangir?"

    "I don't know."

    Whack !!

    "In Srinagar".

    "Who took him there?"

    "I don't know."

    Whack !!

    "I did."

    Our discussions go on in this vein till around noon. Thereupon, fearing for his health and well being, I allow him a break for lunch and introspection, after which talks resume.

    By evening, Rashid Mir has given me all that he has and I have a fair idea of what transpired. It took time and I learnt a lesson. The youth think they're immortal and so don't fear death. The aged know they're mortal and so don't fear death. They realise its inevitability.

    Anyways, the story, narrated reluctantly by Rashid Mir, goes like this.

    Jahangir got injured. He went and hid in the orchards. Uncle was sent for. Uncle arrived. Thereafter, Uncle arranged for a car and took Jahangir to Srinagar. Zarina, one of the sisters, went along. Found a room on rent. Then found a surgeon. Got Jahangir checked out. Uncle returned same evening. Learnt from Zarina via telephone two days later that surgery has been conducted successfully. No further news. Last known, Jahangir is recuperating in the rented room with Zarina playing Florence Nightangle.

    Armed with all this information as well as the address of the rented accommodation, I'm all set for progressing the search for Mr J in Srinagar.

    07 March

    I call Charlie over and we discuss and finalise plans.

    2000 hours. We set off for Srinagar. Even Karan and I are in regular uniform. Too many trigger happy security forces guys in the capital, of all hues and types, to take any chances. I leave instructions with Man Friday to take Rashid out at midnight, walk him a couple of klicks, remove his blindfold, untie his hands and grant him freedom.

    Later in the night, we're there. Charlie with 7 jawans, Karan, the Ikhwan and me.

    We park the vehicles near a CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) post and walk into a locality of downtown Srinagar called Habba Kadal.

    Combing the capital commences



    Habba Kadal is a congested locality. Loads of houses/apartments cramped together with narrow alleys running through the area. Essentially, a lower middle class/middle class residential area.

    I ain't very comfortable in these environs. Can get ambushed from anywhere, anytime. But then this isn't Sarajevo. I don't think there are going to be snipers perched on the rooftops waiting to get my head in their cross hairs. Nonetheless, I'll be happy to get out of here.

    The CRPF guide I've picked up from their post leads us to the address I've provided him. After taking us through one narrow alley through another, he deposits us outside a double storied block and makes a hurried retrograde move back to safety.

    The neighbouring blocks are much the same and theres no place at all to deploy the men. I'll just have to leave them out in the alley. In any case, I'm neither expecting an attack on them from anywhere nor do I think Jahangir will be physically in a position to come out with guns blazing.

    Anyways, the idea is to nab him peacefully inside.

    Towards this end, Charlie, Karan, the Ikhwan and I move to the door and address it with a rap of my knuckles. Oops ! I've forgotten. I'm in civilization. There's a switch for a call bell and that gets addressed with a gentle push.

    After a wee while, we hear some movement and the door is opened by a middle aged guy. We barge in before there's any talk and shut the door. We find ourselves in a little hallway with a staircase going up. On one side is a room, but the door is shut. Charlie and Karan check it out and find a living room of sorts. Devoid of any inhabitant. A door from within that leads to another room, a kitchen cum store, and thence to a little courtyard with toilets at one end and a door which I assume, leads out from the back.

    We quickly rush up and get to the first floor. Two doors. I push the master of the house ahead of me and kick open one door. It's a bedroom with a double bed occupied by a very surprised and scared looking lady. This guys wife, I'm informed by him.

    We move to the next room. A boot on the door and it swings open. A sleeping form under a quilt on the floor. As Karan puts the muzzle of his AK to what seems to be a human head under the quilt, the old man yells out, "That's my son, don't kill him."

    I have no intention of doing so is what I tell the fellow unless ..he tells me where Jahangir is hidden.

    "Who Jahangir? What Jahangir? Which Jahangir?"

    While this is going on, the other three move around and come back to me with an NTR.

    NTR? Where IS Jahangir? There has to be another room.

    The lady is up and about now and is yelling blue murder. We calm her down and leaving the Ikhwan to talk to her, we take the father and son duo downstairs.

    But what do I ask them? There's no room that could've been rented out.

    Did Rashid Mir take me for a ride?

    It seems to appear so. I think this has been a classical wild goose chase.

    Anyways, before I go back and re-establish contact with Rashid, I decide to talk to these two guys.

    They both tell me they've no idea what I'm talking about. There has been no tenant or tenants in their house, ever. So on, so forth.

    I realize I'm wasting my time and decide to get out of here.

    Just as I inform Charlie of my decision, the Ikhwan, who was prowling around in the kitchen and courtyard, comes in excitedly, holding something in his hand.

    It's a garbage pail. He informs me that it was outside the kitchen and wants me to take a look.

    Has the guy gone crazy?

    Anyways, I peer in and lo and behold, what do I see?

    Lots of usual household muck.

    And lots of unusual muck like blood stained bandages and cotton swabs, empty vials, disposable syringes.

    Aha !!

    I look questioningly at the old man.

    "I don't know anything."

    Sigh !!

    I ask both the guys who put all this into their garbage pail.

    "It's not ours", says the son.

    "My wife is unwell with some gynae problems and is undergoing treatment", says the father, simultaneously.

    Double sigh !!!

    A few knocks to father and son fail to evict anything out of their mouths.

    I don't have much time. We have to be out of Srinagar before day break. This isn't a city you can mess around in with nonchalance. There are rules and laws and stuff.

    I grab the sons hand, spread it out on the table and pull out my cutlery. "All fingers go if you don't talk fast" is what I tell them, the tip of the dagger drawing a little blood from the back of his hand.

    The two guys look at me and then at each other. I see resignation in their eyes.

    "I'll take you to them" yells out the son.

    I release his hand and he takes us through the courtyard to the door leading out from the back.

    Only, it doesn't lead out. I had merely assumed that. He points to it and says "They are here."

    We got Jahangir .. alive.

    The young man got to keep his fingers intact.
     
    Prasanna kumar likes this.
  14. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Jahangir's Journey





    As we are rushing back from Srinagar, Jahangir and his sister Zarina safely ensconced in the back of Charlie's gypsy, we discuss his future.



    The old man in Srinagar has been politely, albeit very firmly, told to stay dad and keep mum. I'm pretty sure he and his family will do that. In any case, they have no clue about who we are. All they can say is that some faujis came and took away a militant. Big deal !!



    So, in effect, nobody knows where Jahangir is. Therefore, we can either hand him over to the police or kill him. The latter is a no go, because you don't kill a guy just like that. But giving him up to the cops has no use either. They'll dump him in a cell and a year or two down the line; he'll be out. Then, if he decides to go straight, the HM will kill him and if he gets back to his old tricks, we will.



    Sigh ! Wish the guy had fought. We'd have knocked him off and wouldn't have to worry like we're doing now. The hassle essentially is Charlie's. He went way out of line carrying out an op in Srinagar and regardless of the fact that he nabbed a militant, he'll get his b*** chewed up by his CO and the Brigadier.



    Anyways, I tell Charlie that we'll keep Jahangir under wraps for a while. In any case, we need to squeeze information out of him. Hopefully, he'll come clean ASAP. Else, we'll need to make him talk.



    Charlie asks me to keep him since he's worried his CO will find out. But he also wants that he gets to act on all the actionable int that Jahangir spews out.



    That's understandable and acceptable.



    But there's still the biggest hassle : Zarina.



    We can't keep her. And the moment we leave her, she'll raise a hue and cry with the cops and the press and the politicos that her brothers been illegally detained. She knows Charlie and therefore, he'll be in thick s***.



    Damn !!!! The guy did have a pistol on him. Why the f*** didn't he use it when we barged in???????



    Too many problems.



    I make up my mind.



    I ask Charlie to stop the Gypsy. It's about 0330 hours and we're about 40 klix outside Srinagar. An abs desolate stretch of road.



    The vehicle stops. I jump out. Open the tail gate and yank Jahangir out.



    I drag him off the road and getting him on his knees, I put my Beretta against his temple.



    "Noooooooooooooo" yells Zarina.



    I pull the trigger.



    Zarina yells louder, as does Jahangir. I've fired a round into the ground.



    I go back to the vehicle and sit at the back, opposite Zarina.



    I tell her that I'll have to kill her brother because he's too dangerous to be left alive.



    She's a smart gal. I think she understood my predicament. But she isn't sure whether I will kill him or not. It's poker time.



    I lay my cards on the table.



    "Look. He attacked an army camp. Just for that, he cannot be allowed to live. But if he talks and gives me good information, I'll let him live and hand him over to the cops. However, if he doesn't talk, he vanishes."



    Her turn to play.



    "You can't hold him. It's illegal."



    I laugh, hoping like hell that it sounds normal. "As if I care" I tell her "Nobody knows he's with me. And who'll believe you?"



    She keeps quiet.



    Round 1 is a draw. At least I think so.



    We continue our journey and Charlie drops me off near my hidey hole. Zarina struggles to get off with her brother but Charlie drives off with her.



    Karan and the Ikhwan take our guest and show him his lodgings ' my good old cattle shed.



    I'm not happy. I think Zarina is going to talk. I don't have much time to make Mr Jahangir open his beak. Might as well get cracking on it.



    But tea and breakfast first.



    "Charlie for Khalid."



    Now what?



    "Go ahead."



    "Charlie for Khalid, Zulu dropped off near the village. Am heading home."



    "Roger, out."



    The count down has begun.


    A lazy bath and breakfast, a few minutes to ponder over how to deal with Mr J and then I'm all set to open the can of worms or, in this case, his head.



    Easier said than done, it turns out. I spend a better part of the day with him (the proceedings are not being recounted here for obvious reasons), but at the end of the day he's given me sweet f*** all.



    One, he's tough. But then every guy breaks after a while, so that's a non issue.



    Two, he knows that I'm not going to kill him.



    Three, he believes that since I won't kill him and will eventually turn him over to the cops, I won't damage him in any manner that'll show up on his body.



    Four, and essentially the prime reason, his leg still isn't okay and even a heartless, ruthless guy like me can only go to a point when dealing with a wounded guy.



    Anyways, to sum it up, by the end of the day I'm tired but have nothing to show for it.



    A good nights sleep and I wake up having decided to raise the ante and get a bit rougher. Humanitarian feelings be damned.



    Around noon, by which time some progress has been made and Mr J has given out some tit bits, I get a radio call from Charlie.



    He wants to know if anyones come looking for Jahangir, cos surprisingly, nobody has come to him either.



    Very surprising, indeed.



    Anyways, this gives me some more time with the militant. What he's given me so far is okayish but nothing very exciting. Some caches, a few organizational details, names of a couple of OGWs, etc. But now that I have time, I'll let him chill on his own and worry himself to death in solitude and then hit him hard.



    I spend the rest of the day pottering around and after dinner, set off with Karan and Jahangir. We are headed for one of the caches he's told us about. Time for a credibility check in respect of Jahangir Khan, HIzbul Mujahideen.



    A 7 klik walk and we're near Village G. Jahangir leads the way and takes us to a field. At one precise spot, which looks no different from anywhere else in that field, he stops and tells me that this is it.



    Karan hands him a little shovel and asks him to dig. He does so and after about 10 minutes, pulls out a steel box from the hole he's dug. We open it and flash a torch inside.



    One grenade, older than my sainted aunt, rusted beyond recognition. Period.



    Karan speaks up before I can, stating that we should dig the hole a wee bit deeper, longer and wider and dump this jerk in it.



    Exactly my sentiments.



    I don't think Mr Jahangir has got the general idea. So, I make him sit down and I explain.



    I tell him that no one in the whole wide world knows where he is. His sister tried her bit with the support of the villagers but achieved zilch. I also tell him that I've had enough and that I don't want anything from him. We are going back and on the morrow, he dies.



    All my tough talk still doesn't seem to have any effect, so I get a bit artistic, using my shiny dagger to do so (details left out for obvious reasons again). He finally seems to get the 'point' that I'm serious. Starts yelling and crying and pleading. Says he'll give me whatever I want. Militants, high value caches, important OGWs, the works.



    I couldn't care a flying f***.



    We walk back and I leave him for the night, to suffer his wounds and to worry about the coming day.

    Another day dawns. I call Charlie and give him whatever Jahangir has talked so far, asking him to check it out as he deems fit.



    The day progresses. It's afternoon and I'm sitting in my hut, reading Lawrence Sanders and listening to Neil Diamond wax lyrically eloquent about Sweet Caroline. Ah ! The pleasures of a simple, peaceful uncomplicated life.



    Man Friday walks in. "Saab, ek Ladies aayi hai."



    Ek Ladies? I have no idea why, but that's the way our jawans say it. Always in the plural.



    Anyways, be that as it may, let me see who this is and what she wants.



    Aha ! Who else but Zarina?



    "Wheres my brother?" is her opening salvo.



    "How do I know?" is mine.



    'Cut out the crap' is what her ex-pression seems to say. 'I agree' is what my ex-pression replies.



    She sits down, totally composed and collected. Asks me what I intend doing with her brother.



    I tell her that I've decided. to kill him.



    She says I won't. I say I will.



    She wants to meet him. I tell her she's got a hope in hell.



    She asks me what kind of information I would consider important enough to let him live.



    Tell her I'd need him to get me militants, OGWs and caches ' big time.



    She tells me that's not possible. He doesn't know all caches, just the ones he's used. And they won't have much in them. He knows the other militants in the area and can give me names but how would he know where to nab them? They don't live in camps like the army. OGWs. Yeah. He can provide the names of one or two guys, but they're very low level.



    Sigh!! Actually, she's got a point.



    "Fine!" I tell her "You've got a point. He's abs worthless, so I might as well kill him."



    She's not too happy with that and calls me all sorts of names. Ah well ! I never was a ladies man. So I listen to her without feeling bad about it.



    But seriously, I think Jahangir is more of a dead weight rather than being useful. I decide to hand him over to the cops.



    It's almost as if Zarina can read my mind. "No, don't hand him over to the JKP."



    "Why not?" I'm genuinely surprised.



    A bit of silence, a deep breath and I get my answer. "He killed 3 policemen some years ago. They won't let him live."



    Aha ! That accounts for why there's been no hue and cry. Jahangir and his sisters are the ones stuck in a tight spot.



    "So what do you expect of me? I ask Zarina.



    "Allow me to meet with and talk to my brother and then I'll tell you" comes the reply.



    Hmmm !! I might as well see where this goes.



    Karan is hovering in the background and I ask him to arrange the family get together.



    Four hours later, Karan is back.



    "Saab, dono aapse milna chahte hain."



    I roger that, they troop in and lay their cards on the table. All 52 face up.



    "If Jahangir 'turns', works for you and gets you some results, will you let him go and pay him in order to re start a new life in Jammu?".



    Wow !! I didn't expect that at all.



    We talk details. Loads and loads of things to be tied up.



    No one, not even in my organization, to know about him. Just Karan and me.



    He will leave forthwith, before the HM get suspicious and re-establish contact with them, stating that he's back from Srinager, post recovery.



    All communication will be through Zarina. Towards this end, I will give her a radio set. But I also give the same frequency to Jahangir, for direct communication in an emergent situation.



    No face to face meetings.



    All this is ok. But I need a mortgage. What f he vanishes?



    "If I betray you, you can kill my sisters", is his answer.



    Easier said than done, but I really have no choice. It's a gamble, with very exciting possibilities.



    At worst, I'll lose him and a radio set, if Zarina also vanishes.



    If things work, he should provide us with a lot. Kills, caches, OGWs.



    The co-ord carries on and finally, the bro-sis duo leave.



    Time goes by.



    I get to know from Zarina that J is back with his group.



    Fingers and toes crossed, I bide my time.



    9 days later, I get buzzed by Zarina, passing on a message from Jahangir.



    "Kal subah, S gaon ke bahar, kuch mujahideen milenge. Agar aap school mein ambush lagaen to faida ho sakta hai."



    That's it.



    I know S Village. A medium sized village with hills to the north. The school is on the northern edge of the village.



    Does that mean that the bad guys will be coming down the hill? Or going uphill to move across the ridge line? How many will there be? Can Karan and I handle them on our own?



    And other thoughts creep up too? What if it's a trap? An ambush in the school, ready to hit us when we get there?



    Damn ! And I don't have much time. It's nearly noon. Tomorrow morning isn't too far away.



    I buzz Charlie and tell him to get his butt over. Pronto. Along with his QRT .



    He reacts fast, and by 1600 hours, Charlie is in my location with 8 guys.



    I have a rough sketch of S village ready by then. A quick briefing follows.



    The plan is that we all will carry out a seemingly routine patrol through S village at last light. On our way out of the village, we will go by the school, checking it out. However, Charlie, Karan and I will stay back within the school while the rest of the guys move away and go locate themselves about 1-2 klicks away in a suitable desolated spot, ready to come to us at short notice. It'll be dark by then, so no one will be able to count how many guys went into the school and how many emerged. And therefore, the three of us will be securely in place to knock off the bad guys, without anyone knowing we're there.



    If it's a scenario where Jahangir has planned a trap for me inside the school, our getting there early should beat his plans. And even if he/his cronies are there before us, we've got enough numbers and firepower to handle it.



    So, all seems okay and around 1730, we set off for Village S.



    An hour later, just as it's getting dark, we enter the village. A walk through and we're at the school. An L-shaped building, with an office at one end and four class rooms. A play field and a fence all around. That's it.



    We check out the building and finding nothing and nobody, the rest of the guys toodle off, leaving the three of us to settle down in Std II. It has two windows, but it's dark to see anything. We put a couple of desks against the door and settle down on the floor.



    20 minutes later, Charlie is informed by his QRT that they've got into an orchard and are lying doggo there. Good.



    Now to wait it out and see what the morrow has in store for us.



    The night passes by without any incident and we're up at 0530. Soon, it's daylight and slowly, we spot some villagers moving around. The two windows of the classroom give us a clear field of observation and fire right from the edge of the village to the lower slopes of the hills. Just as I'd remembered it from an earlier visit.



    Weapons cleaned and checked. In addition to out AKs, Karan's carrying an LMG and I've got a Dragunov (a sniper rifle).



    God willing, in a little while, we should be able to use them to good effect.



    0800 hours. Nothing of interest so far. Only, the number of villagers floating around keeps increasing.



    0805 hours. F*** !!!!



    A couple of kids has come into the school compound. From what I can spot through the gap in the door, it has all the makings of a cricket match because Std I is opened and two desks pulled out and placed 20 odd metres apart in the playfield.



    Damn !! I hope the match, or whatever, doesn't begin before we finish what we're here for. I don't want kids milling around all over the place.



    0822 hours. A signal from Karan. I look out of the window.



    A man's come and stood under a tree. This is about 400 metres from us, between the hills and the village. Whats he doing there, all by himself? . Seems like a normal Kilo, in a salwar suit and a jacket of sorts. No weapon in sight. And no suspicious bulges under his jacket.



    0850 hours. I observe this guy waving a handkerchief or some kind of cloth towards the hills. I pick up my binos and look in that direction. About a klik away, two persons walking down. Armed. I can clearly see AKs slung over their shoulders.



    Cool.



    Karan pushes a desk against the window, unlocks the LMGs bipod (a two legged foldable stand) and places it on the desk. I hoist the Dragunov onto my shoulder and get the Kilo's head into my telescopic sight in order to work out the exact range and adjust my sight. Charlie keeps an eye out for any trouble from an unexpected direction.



    "I'll fire first. The militant on the right" I inform Karan "You take the other two."



    "Ok saab" is his reassuring whisper.



    800 metres. 700 metres. 600 metres. C'mon lads. Walk fast !!!



    I'm now tracking one of the militants through my sight.



    The two get to the tree. As they are shaking hands I fire.



    One guys lost his head and before the other two can respond, Karans let loose with the LMG. Down they go.





    We rush out. The kids that were outside have scampered off. We can spot people running towards us from the village. Karan moves off to stop them at a distance while Charlie and I go check out the three guys on the ground.



    Checked and found dead. RIP !



    The cops are called and the corpses taken away.



    Ghulam Hassan Mir of Village S, HM. The guy that had come to meet them. He had a pistol on him under his jacket.



    Salamat Khan and Altaf Ahmed of Pakistan. Al Badr.



    A silent prayer to God, a silent thank you to Jahangir, and we head back. Mission accomplished.



    ime ticks on. Things happen ' some of which I've told you about in the days gone by and some, which I will in the days to come.



    I live my life ' XYZee of the Indian Army and Khalid of the twilight zone.



    Jahangir lives his life ' Jahangir of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaanbaaz of Khalid's private army.



    I do my thing and he does his.



    But courtesy Zarina, our paths cross intermittently, though never in person.



    He's a man of his word, whatever be his motivations, and over the next three months, I keep getting information from him off and on.



    Some of it is good and leads to success. Some is dated and leads nowhere. Some is good but I botch up.



    Whatever, it's still turning out to be a very profitable relationship.



    I get three caches, two relatively minor and one which is huge and amazingly includes, under the ground, a second hand Maruti 800 registered in Delhi. Loads of arms, ammunition, explosives, radio sets are also picked up. Money too, some of which I pocket to inject into the local economy.



    Two important OGWs and a few minor ones. One of the big fish, when fried to a crisp brown (not literally, I'm not THAT bad), leads me to a suitcase with Rs 52 lakhs. I get visions of deserting and fulfilling my life long dream of buying a small shack by the sea and becoming a beach bum. But it's all counterfeit and after making the big fish eat some of it, I set the rest aflame.



    But no more kills.



    I pester Zarina but with no luck.



    Then one night, or rather early morn, around 0430 hours, as I recline deep in the arms of Morpheus, my radio buzzes.



    "Jaanbaaz for Shikari." Its Jahangir, communicating directly with me. Wow !!



    "Aaj subah, National Highway par bomb phatega. Milestone 27 ke kareeb." The radio goes quiet.



    F*** !! In fact, double f*** !!!!!! There's very little time to react. Traffic on the NH starts off early and a bomb/IED going off there may cause very major damage.



    I get on the other radio. But the Brigadier is not responding. Neither is his Staff Officer.



    I don't even know whose area that falls in and who's responsible for the ROP (Road Opening Patrol the guys who sanitise and protect the road) in that sector.



    No choice but to rush myself. It's far away and I don't know if I can reach in time. Karan and I take off, running as fast as we can, to the village next to where I live. Luckily, there's a mini bus standing on the road.



    Wowiee!!! It's even got the key in place. My God is surely with me. We zip off, Karan driving. All the while I'm trying to get the Brig on the air but with no luck.



    0515 hours. I'm standing by the passenger's wala door, working my radio. Finally I get through to the Brig. I apprise him of the situation and the fact that I'm en route. I also inform him that I'm basically in Don Quixote mode, because without any bomb disposal thingummies, I can do sweet f*** all even if I get to the site in time and find the explosive device.



    The Brig tells me that he'll handle it and I should just get there ASAP and contact the ROP commander on the spot. In the meantime, he'll organize the sniffer dogs and bomb disposal guys.



    Whew !! I move and sit on the seat in front, just behind and to the right of Karan, who seems to have taken on a Michael Schumacher avatar.



    0417 hours. We're moving as fast as a battered old mini bus possibly can over a lousy dirt track. 30-40 klicks per hour maybe?



    It's a bone jarring ride and I sure will be glad to get onto a road and then finally get off this damn vehicle.



    BANG !!!!!!!!!!!!



    F*** !!! Now I know what bone jarring really is.



    The vehicles careened off the track and come to a grinding halt. Not a burst tire. That's for sure. Because burst tires don't give out the smell of RDX and they don't result in the back of buses, however mini they may be, getting mangled out of shape.



    We've gone over an IED.



    I look at Karan. He's bleeding from the head, having banged it against the windscreen, but appears reasonably okay. My knees are hurting like hell I've slid off and fallen forward .and my knees have made a very violent and totally undesirable contact with the back of what's supposed to be the conductors seat or whatever.



    I help Karan out of the driver's station and push open the door to get out.



    Bang!Bang!Bang!



    Or should it be ratatatatat ???



    I don't know how to articulate the sound here, but what I do know is that what's coming at us is a large number of AK 47 bullets in bursts of 3-4 each.



    We hit the ground hard and hug it as close as we can. Look around. Can't see a thing, but can definitely hear the firing. And it sure is aimed at us, because we can hear the bullets striking the bus.



    Damn !! What do I fire back at? I'd hate to be found dead with four fully loaded magazines on me.



    We crawl around, hoping to see something and fire back. But there's nothing. Even the firings stopped.



    Sudden silence. And if it wasn't for the bus off the road and Karan's bleeding head and my aching bones, I'd think it was all a bad dream.



    Oh f*** !!! What about the IED on the NH?



    I pull out my radio, only to find that it's already well on it's way to the after world and subsequent rebirth as a cell phone or whatever. Smashed beyond any kind of recognition.



    We pick ourselves up gingerly and look around. Spotting and hearing nothing and receiving no missiles of any nature penetrating our skin, we head off towards the next village.



    Sadly, it's 12 klicks away and both Karan and I are not in a position to even jog. We kind of limp our way to it and by the time we get there, it's nearly 0630 hours.



    We commandeer a jeep with a driver and head off for KM stone 27.



    We get onto the NH and I'm happy to see traffic flowing normally. Good !! That means there's been no explosion. Which implies that the IED has been found and defused. Yiipppppeeee !!!



    F*** !! It could also imply that it's there, hasn't been found and hasn't been detonated yet.



    I damn the pessimist within me and tell the driver to get a move on.



    We reach KM 27 and I find it choc a bloc full of army guys, including the Brig who's very keen to know what took me so long.



    I give him the short story in even shorter form and ask him about the IED.



    It emerges that they've searched n re-searched and re-searched every possible inch of the highway from KM 26 to KM 28 and found zilch. So either I got a false alarm or I heard the location wrong or it's someplace else. Anyways, every ROP guy has been asked to be on high alert and the search is continuing all along the highway. The rest is up to God and we can only wait.



    We do so, making use of the time to get a doctor to do the needful with our battered bodies.



    The day goes by and nothing explodes. So, it WAS a false alarm.



    Which means, Mr Jahangir is playing games with me.



    No wonder the mini bus was conveniently parked where it was and no wonder the key was even more conveniently available where it was.



    Time for you to die, buddy.


    I'm livid. More angry with myself than with Jahangir. How did I allow myself to be duped this way? How easily he fed me a few crumbs and snared my neck into a noose. Fine, no gain without pain and all that but to be made a fool of in this manner?



    I get back to my cubby hole and think of ways and means of getting my revenge.



    It's not going to be easy tracking him down. As far as that goes, I'm back to square one. And this time he's not going to be cuddled up in some bed in Srinagar with a screwed up leg.



    But I need to get him ASAP.



    Therefore, I decide to do something I've never done in my 12 years of CT ops in Nagaland, Kashmir, Sri Lanka or with the SAG.



    I decide to pick up his sister(s) and thereby snare his neck into my noose.



    It's a very risky proposition and it can get me into very serious trouble but I'm beyond caring.



    However, I'll need to plan things out very, very carefully. I'm sure his sisters are going to be expecting trouble from me and will be taking prophylactic action. So, I'll have to move fast and move well.



    I call for Karan to brainstorm my plans with him and as we're talking post dinner, working out various contingencies, Man Friday pops his head in and says, "Saab, ladies aayee hain aapse mine."



    F*** ! What's this now? And who's this now? And at this time????



    I step out and find that this time Man F got his grammar right. My visitors are in the plural, as in there are two of them.



    I also find that they are Zarina and Zubeida ' beloved sisters of Mr J.



    Jeez .think of the devil or rather, plan about lifting the devil's sisters and here they are.



    I'm totally nonplussed.



    Before I can compose myself and ask them what they want, they enquire of me as to how I am.



    "I'm alive" I growl "No thanks to that SOB you call a brother."



    "Thanks to him, you mean" pipes in Zubeida.



    Huh ?



    I ask her what she means.



    And thence starts the story.



    It seems, IF they are to be believed, that after my recent successes with the kills and caches and OGWs, the local HM cadre got suspicious and began sniffing around each butts, looking for a leak.



    Finding none, they did a deeper internal audit and found out that Zarina had come to meet me. The finger of suspicion wheeled onto Jahangir but since he refuted it all, Zarina was picked up and tortured by them. She told them she'd come to meet me because I was threatening her and her sister. I had even gone to their school with the regular Army guys. So, she came to tell me not to bother their family.



    Somehow, the HM swallowed it but were still looking a bit askance at Jahangir.



    And therefore, to kill this issue once and for all, Jahangir engineered the plot to 'kill' me.



    "You think if he wanted to kill you today, he couldn't have?" asks Zarina. "The IED could have been detonated under the front of the bus. And you could have been shot while you were lying in the open."



    "Balls" was my response, though in Kashmiri, it comes out as something else.



    "That's the absolute truth" say both the sisters in unison, "And now we want you to keep your side of the bargain and help Jahangir to re-locate outside Kashmir. And we want the money."



    At the risk of sounding like a stuck gramophone record, "Balls" is my response to this too.



    "You've got to believe us and you've got to help us" pleads Zarina.



    I tell her that I do not believe their story and there's no way I'm not going to kill their brother. Being taken for a ride once is all that I can handle.



    Our arguments go on and on. They cry, yell, shriek, rave, rant, plead, beg.



    That deaf adder fellow in the scriptures would have turned green with envy if he could see how oblivious I was to all their drama.



    Realising a while later that this is going nowhere, the sisters reach into their hats and pull out a new deal.



    "You give him 30 days. Within these 30 days, he will give you some mujahideen. You kill them. And after that, you give us the money and help us to move out of here."



    A guy called Janwillem Van De Wettring once said that greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.



    I never knew the guy and never thought much about what he said. But now I realize he's partially right and partially wrong. Greed does have an insatiable tum tum but it doesn't have a small mouth. I can say that out of personal experience cos all 184 centimetres of me slipped through that orifice the moment I heard the proposition from the ladies.



    "What do I have to lose?" I ask myself. "I give the 30 days lease of life and in case I get nothing, I can always put my plan into effect ." after that period."



    "What the f***?" another part of me pops up, " What if they missed you the first time and are setting you up for a confirmed kill now? What if they are buying time to disappear? "



    Jeez ! I hate these little fellows in my head when they're not in consonance with each other.



    Anyways, I go with Little Fellow A.



    "It's a deal." I inform the femmes and they buzz off.



    Time marches on. The 30 day deadline is drawing to a close .and it sure as hell is going to be 'deadtime' for Jahangir. A part of me believes strongly that I was set up by Mr J and his sisters and I'm going to get even. Will make him die real slow. And I'm going to make the ladies squirm too. Enough of being a gentleman.



    Day 24 since the deal was struck. Its late evening and I'm lazing around in my hut. Serious decision making is in progress about whether I should eat a proper dinner or make do with Maggi noodles when suddenly, the radio squawks.



    Its Zarina.



    "Khalid, dhyan se suno"



    "Go ahead " is my response, perking up a bit. Is this gonna be the real Mc Coy or am I going to be taken for a ride?



    " Kal P illaqe mein HM ki meeting hai. Bahut Mujahideen ekattha ho rahe hain. "



    "Roger. Kaunse gaon mein? " I ask, since P illaqa (area) is essentially a plateau ringed by nine villages. Too large an area and I need specifics.



    " Khalid, illaq bata diya hai. Baaki aap kar lo jitni aap ki kabliyat hai aur jitni aap mein himmat hai."



    And d b**** signs off without even a filmi type 'over and out'.



    Damn !!!



    Double damn in fact !!!



    How the hell am I supposed to work this one out? A large area, nine villages, more escape routes than wrinkles on an octogenarian's face and no specific information/intelligence at all.



    Triple damn!!!



    How come and why do I always get stuck with these sticky situations? I really wish I'd worked hard in school and gone on in life to become some fancy executive somewhere on civilian street with a well heeled job, a well stacked secretary and where the only 'kills' were to be effected on Dalal Street , or whatever that alleys called.



    Anyways, no time for day dreaming and regrets of the past. Time to swing into action. Grab the moment by the nose before it grabs you by the tail ..kind of thing.



    I immediately call up the Brig on the radio and give him a run down. Times at a premium and there's lots and lots of coordination involved. And sadly, there's no way we can go the usual route of a detailed meeting/discussion.



    Luckily, the Brig gets the picture fast and for once, gets more into 'listening'mode. I spell out my plan to him.



    Nine villages each to be addressed simultaneously by a company column (40 odd personnel) doing a CASO. He has nine RR companies within operational time and space so that can be done. In addition, two BSF companies, to act as reserves and also to be deployed as 'stops', i.e. to stop egress out of the area, by anyone using the undulating ground in the plateau.



    The Brig agrees and says he will control the op from his HQ. Suits me. Don't want brass up my ass in the fun zone.



    He gets his staff cracking to issue the necessary orders and get the cogs moving, while I sign off .and get into weapon cleaning and checking mode while my little brain tries to think up exactly how the operation will proceed and what are the various contingencies that may arise. Luckily, theres not much time, so I'll just play it all by the fear. Faith in God, my country, the Indian Army, my mind, my muscles and above all in Uncle Kalashnikov's gizmo of the 47 variety should take me through this one.



    I call Karan and go over the whole issue with him. I see his eyes light up as they always do mirroring my own as we talk of the impending ops and the hours that lie ahead. I always trust his instincts and intuition and when he says "Saab, abki baar tagda op hoga, bahut kill milenge" , I'm happy and excited.



    Its 2300 hours by now and I'd better get moving towards Area P. Karan and I don uniforms this time, too many soldiers are going to be around for us to take the risk of being fratricide victims.



    I plan to hang around Village L, which is a smallish place on one edge of the plateau. I really visualize no action personally for Karan and I, so might as well just sit someplace nice and listen in on the radio to the progress of ops. I'm also carrying a second Kenwood for monitoring HM frequencies, because if the information is correct, the jerks are sure gonna get whining once they know the army's squeezing their vitals.



    A walk through the countryside and by around 0100 hours, Karan and I are comfortably plonked in a little orchard near Vill L. Theres radio silence in force so I don't know what the rest of the 'fauj' is doing .though by looking at my watch, I know they all must be getting into place for the respective cordons.



    Yes, I'm right .because within half an hour, I can spot the boys of the company tasked to CASO Village L. We are well outside the village, so no sweat. We ain't getting stuck inside any trigger happy cordon. No thank you, Sir !



    0300 hours. The radio buzzes.



    "Alpha, in position."



    "Bravo, in position."



    "Echo, moving in, another 20 minutes for getting into position."



    "One Nine, stops deployed."



    And so on.



    And the Brigs deep voice going "Roger", every time a company commander gives his report.



    0400 hours. Silence again.



    Which means all cordons and stops are in place and now they'll wait for first light before going in to search the villages.



    I might as well grab some shut eye.



    Its time for the final step in Jahangirs journey and hopefully it shall be a victorious journey .for Jahangir, for Zarina and Zubeida .and for Karan and I. Might as well take that final step as fresh as I can possibly get.



    0605 hours.



    Karan is shaking me awake. There are sounds of gunfire from the North West and the radio is crackling.



    Contact established?



    Good. Which would mean the information was accurate. I just mouth a silent prayer that we suffer no casualties. In this dirty war, because the enemy is a cowardly rat who hides all the time, generally the first casualty is always ours.



    Anyways, I get myself focused and listen in on the radio.



    It's Juliet, one of the nine RR company commanders on the net. He is giving out a sitrep (situation report) to the Brig.



    They cordoned village B with 30 odd men and he entered around 0530 hours along with 8 guys. They moved straight to the Muqaddam's house which is somewhere nearly in the middle of the village. They wanted to talk to him and get the village vacated so that it could be searched.



    The company commander went into the house with his buddy, a young Lance Naik (Lance Corporal) while the rest of his team stayed outside. Inside the house, as they were talking to the Muqaddam, something went askance and they were fired upon from within the house from the first floor. The young soldier's been hit.



    Current situation?



    The officer has rushed out of the house, dragging his buddy with him. He and his group have deployed around the house and are firing at the first floor windows from where they are drawing fire. The casualty is with them alive but bleeding profusely. The officer estimates at least three militants inside.



    The Brig tells him to maintain contact with the militants, ensure no one slips out of the house and to wait till some reinforcements are sent in. He also tells him that he's sending in an ambulance into the village for casevac (casualty evacuation).



    Cool !! It all seems under control and I guess the officer will carry on the op to its logical end. I just hope we shed no more blood and that once the reinforcements arrive, he'll be able to wind it all up fast. I also hope the Muqaddam and his family are not trapped inside the house. Because if they are, this guy will not be able to use RLs or flame throwers and then there's always the 'human shield' option available to the bad fellas.



    I pipe in and ask that of the company commander. He confirms that all the civilians rushed out along with them and have vanished into the village



    Fine!! There's nothing I can do and the Major will handle it till he finally knocks off those three guys inside.



    I wonder what's happening in the other eight villages. No transmissions on the net from them, though I suppose they're all carrying out their respective CASOs and are keeping the net clear for the radio traffic from village B.



    In village B, the firefight is continuing and I hear on the net that an ambulance is headed for casevac. I hope it gets there in time.



    I scan the militant nets on the other radio.



    Yesssss. They're buzzing like bees. A lot of traffic on their frequency. They're talking about being surrounded by the army. One guy is talking about a firefight. He must be one of the jerks in Village B.



    It's obvious from their talk that there are at least 6 or 7 of them. And they're all not in village B.



    Damn !! I hope all the CASOs are done properly and we bag the whole lot.



    I also wonder where Jahangir is. Is he in one these villages? And if so, how will he get out?



    Well, the fact that it's his information, I guess he's smart enough to have kept himself out of this situation.



    "Delta, contact ", goes my radio set. I listen.



    Delta is the company in Village G. Seems that their search party was entering the village when they spotted a guy trying to run towards the west. They are chasing him and their cordon is in place to stop him. Poor sod. His time has come.



    So, that seemingly accounts for 4 out of 6-7. There are three in Village B in the Muqaddam's house and won't get out alive and this guy in Village G won't last another 30 minutes. But then, where are the others?



    Let's see if the other seven RR companies find them.



    I keep monitoring the army and militant nets, trying to piece the situation together.



    "Sheep, approaching Juliet's location", goes the radio set. Fine! That's the ambulance near Village B. A few more minutes and then that young lad should be on his way to a hospital. I heave a sigh of relief. He's been without proper medical help for too long already.



    "Sheep, under fire, under fire!! ". Damn!! I can hear gun shots over the radio as Sheep is frantically yelling. The darn ambulance is drawing fire. What the hell !!!



    There's something really bad happening in Village B. The Brig tells the ambulance guy to drive on and then take cover and to evacuate the casualty ASAP. Juliet is told to get some men from his cordon into the village to cover the casevac.



    I'm not happy. There seem to be more bad guys inside Village B than Juliet can seemingly handle.



    "Khalid, request permission to move to Juliet's location" , I ask of the Brig.



    "Roger Khalid, go ahead" , the Brig acquiesces.



    Karan and I take off for Village B which is about 12 klicks away on the other side of the plateau. I don't like the situation building up there and I move fast with Karan following a few steps behind. We jog through the orchards that abound on the plateau.



    We've covered about 5 klicks or so, when we come across a nala. I jump in and decide to run along it, rather than climb up to the other side. The nala, as per my map, seems to flow from Village B and is nearly dry, so no problems. It'll get us there fast and we'll have cover.



    We jog on the sides of the narrow water channel and have done another couple of klicks, when I get a jolt.



    Bang in front of us, heading our way, are two guys. Militants obviously. They've got AKs in their hands and are in pathan suits and sneakers the ubiquitous militant uniform.



    They spot us the moment we spot them and before I can get my breath back and say Jack, Jane or Jill Robinson, they open fire on the move. Damn and double damn!! My rifles slung over my shoulder and as I try to halt, take cover on the ground and swing the weapon into action, I hear the bullets whizzing past me.



    Suddenly I feel Karan on top of me. As if covering me with his body. I try to push him off so that I can fire but he's like squashed me below him and is firing at those guys.



    I can make out a militants been hit. He crumples and hits the ground, firing into the air and yelling in pain. The other guy has knelt and is firing at us.



    I finally manage to push Karan off and fire at that militant, noting with satisfaction that while a kneeling man makes a smaller target, it ain't THAT small. The jerk whines and groans and rolls over into the water.



    I fire off some more rounds into both those guys just to make sure and then get onto my feet.



    Only to find that Karan hasn't got up.



    He's lying on the ground, where I'd pushed him off me. Dead.



    I can't believe my eyes. I never realized he'd been hit. It's like I'm suddenly in some twilight zone. I feel his pulse, yell at him, shake him.



    Nothing.



    I'm numb. I feel like I'm dead myself.



    One of the finest soldiers I ever had the privilege of serving alongside and one that was with me over years in some of the most hairy situations ever. And he's no more.



    I get my radio out and inform the Brig.



    He tells me that the situation in Village B is under control. Reinforcements have reached and the op will get over soon. I should wait where I am. He'll move some people to my location.



    I'm too numb to think or say or do anything.



    I sit on the ground, Karans head cradled in my lap. Talking to him, like we talked, over endless hours in the craziest of places and situations.



    An officer and a jawan together in that stupid filthy nala. Yet in some manner, the best of friends in the holiest of places.



    I was his superior, by rank. And yet, in the end he proved himself my superior. As an officer, I was supposed to ensure his safety. Instead, he died safeguarding mine.



    I don't know, I don't remember how long I sat there with Karan. But after a while, some troops landed up and things moved on.



    Karan was taken away by two of them and I moved alongside to Village B.



    The op there had ended and the Brig was there.



    I saw the end result of that fateful day.



    Four militants lined up dead. Three from inside the Muqaddam's house and one from Village G.



    They are joined by the two Karan and I knocked off in the nala.



    And then, a distance away, lies Karan. And, the young jawan who'd got shot in the morning. The damn casevac had failed.



    The Brig hugs me. Wipes my tears away, but they don't stop. I can see loads of jawans and officers all around. I can feel the euphoria of victory emanating from them.



    And yet I feel nothing.



    The Brig tells me who all the militants are that've been knocked off. I don't care. I'm not even listening, till one name hits me.



    Hits me like a hard punch in the solar plexus.



    The guy trying to escape out of Village G was Jahangir.



    Bashir Waghey, HM. Abdul Karim, HM. Saifullah, HM. Altaf Mir, HM. Farooq Ahmed, HM



    Good bye, enemies of my country ! You deserved to die.



    Karan, Jahangir and Sunil.



    Good bye my comrades. Heroes of a proud nation. You didn't deserve to die.



    Till today I feel the loss of Karan and I feel the loss of Jahangir too.



    It hurts and I still cry for them.



    But in the end, I remember something my father told me when I was a young boy and he would tell me about the brave comrades he lost while fighting the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971.



    "Do not grieve that such fine, fearless men died. Instead celebrate that such men lived."
     
    Victor Sierra likes this.
  15. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    Location:
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    Jahangir's Journey





    As we are rushing back from Srinagar, Jahangir and his sister Zarina safely ensconced in the back of Charlie's gypsy, we discuss his future.



    The old man in Srinagar has been politely, albeit very firmly, told to stay dad and keep mum. I'm pretty sure he and his family will do that. In any case, they have no clue about who we are. All they can say is that some faujis came and took away a militant. Big deal !!



    So, in effect, nobody knows where Jahangir is. Therefore, we can either hand him over to the police or kill him. The latter is a no go, because you don't kill a guy just like that. But giving him up to the cops has no use either. They'll dump him in a cell and a year or two down the line; he'll be out. Then, if he decides to go straight, the HM will kill him and if he gets back to his old tricks, we will.



    Sigh ! Wish the guy had fought. We'd have knocked him off and wouldn't have to worry like we're doing now. The hassle essentially is Charlie's. He went way out of line carrying out an op in Srinagar and regardless of the fact that he nabbed a militant, he'll get his b*** chewed up by his CO and the Brigadier.



    Anyways, I tell Charlie that we'll keep Jahangir under wraps for a while. In any case, we need to squeeze information out of him. Hopefully, he'll come clean ASAP. Else, we'll need to make him talk.



    Charlie asks me to keep him since he's worried his CO will find out. But he also wants that he gets to act on all the actionable int that Jahangir spews out.



    That's understandable and acceptable.



    But there's still the biggest hassle : Zarina.



    We can't keep her. And the moment we leave her, she'll raise a hue and cry with the cops and the press and the politicos that her brothers been illegally detained. She knows Charlie and therefore, he'll be in thick s***.



    Damn !!!! The guy did have a pistol on him. Why the f*** didn't he use it when we barged in???????



    Too many problems.



    I make up my mind.



    I ask Charlie to stop the Gypsy. It's about 0330 hours and we're about 40 klix outside Srinagar. An abs desolate stretch of road.



    The vehicle stops. I jump out. Open the tail gate and yank Jahangir out.



    I drag him off the road and getting him on his knees, I put my Beretta against his temple.



    "Noooooooooooooo" yells Zarina.



    I pull the trigger.



    Zarina yells louder, as does Jahangir. I've fired a round into the ground.



    I go back to the vehicle and sit at the back, opposite Zarina.



    I tell her that I'll have to kill her brother because he's too dangerous to be left alive.



    She's a smart gal. I think she understood my predicament. But she isn't sure whether I will kill him or not. It's poker time.



    I lay my cards on the table.



    "Look. He attacked an army camp. Just for that, he cannot be allowed to live. But if he talks and gives me good information, I'll let him live and hand him over to the cops. However, if he doesn't talk, he vanishes."



    Her turn to play.



    "You can't hold him. It's illegal."



    I laugh, hoping like hell that it sounds normal. "As if I care" I tell her "Nobody knows he's with me. And who'll believe you?"



    She keeps quiet.



    Round 1 is a draw. At least I think so.



    We continue our journey and Charlie drops me off near my hidey hole. Zarina struggles to get off with her brother but Charlie drives off with her.



    Karan and the Ikhwan take our guest and show him his lodgings ' my good old cattle shed.



    I'm not happy. I think Zarina is going to talk. I don't have much time to make Mr Jahangir open his beak. Might as well get cracking on it.



    But tea and breakfast first.



    "Charlie for Khalid."



    Now what?



    "Go ahead."



    "Charlie for Khalid, Zulu dropped off near the village. Am heading home."



    "Roger, out."



    The count down has begun.


    A lazy bath and breakfast, a few minutes to ponder over how to deal with Mr J and then I'm all set to open the can of worms or, in this case, his head.



    Easier said than done, it turns out. I spend a better part of the day with him (the proceedings are not being recounted here for obvious reasons), but at the end of the day he's given me sweet f*** all.



    One, he's tough. But then every guy breaks after a while, so that's a non issue.



    Two, he knows that I'm not going to kill him.



    Three, he believes that since I won't kill him and will eventually turn him over to the cops, I won't damage him in any manner that'll show up on his body.



    Four, and essentially the prime reason, his leg still isn't okay and even a heartless, ruthless guy like me can only go to a point when dealing with a wounded guy.



    Anyways, to sum it up, by the end of the day I'm tired but have nothing to show for it.



    A good nights sleep and I wake up having decided to raise the ante and get a bit rougher. Humanitarian feelings be damned.



    Around noon, by which time some progress has been made and Mr J has given out some tit bits, I get a radio call from Charlie.



    He wants to know if anyones come looking for Jahangir, cos surprisingly, nobody has come to him either.



    Very surprising, indeed.



    Anyways, this gives me some more time with the militant. What he's given me so far is okayish but nothing very exciting. Some caches, a few organizational details, names of a couple of OGWs, etc. But now that I have time, I'll let him chill on his own and worry himself to death in solitude and then hit him hard.



    I spend the rest of the day pottering around and after dinner, set off with Karan and Jahangir. We are headed for one of the caches he's told us about. Time for a credibility check in respect of Jahangir Khan, HIzbul Mujahideen.



    A 7 klik walk and we're near Village G. Jahangir leads the way and takes us to a field. At one precise spot, which looks no different from anywhere else in that field, he stops and tells me that this is it.



    Karan hands him a little shovel and asks him to dig. He does so and after about 10 minutes, pulls out a steel box from the hole he's dug. We open it and flash a torch inside.



    One grenade, older than my sainted aunt, rusted beyond recognition. Period.



    Karan speaks up before I can, stating that we should dig the hole a wee bit deeper, longer and wider and dump this jerk in it.



    Exactly my sentiments.



    I don't think Mr Jahangir has got the general idea. So, I make him sit down and I explain.



    I tell him that no one in the whole wide world knows where he is. His sister tried her bit with the support of the villagers but achieved zilch. I also tell him that I've had enough and that I don't want anything from him. We are going back and on the morrow, he dies.



    All my tough talk still doesn't seem to have any effect, so I get a bit artistic, using my shiny dagger to do so (details left out for obvious reasons again). He finally seems to get the 'point' that I'm serious. Starts yelling and crying and pleading. Says he'll give me whatever I want. Militants, high value caches, important OGWs, the works.



    I couldn't care a flying f***.



    We walk back and I leave him for the night, to suffer his wounds and to worry about the coming day.

    Another day dawns. I call Charlie and give him whatever Jahangir has talked so far, asking him to check it out as he deems fit.



    The day progresses. It's afternoon and I'm sitting in my hut, reading Lawrence Sanders and listening to Neil Diamond wax lyrically eloquent about Sweet Caroline. Ah ! The pleasures of a simple, peaceful uncomplicated life.



    Man Friday walks in. "Saab, ek Ladies aayi hai."



    Ek Ladies? I have no idea why, but that's the way our jawans say it. Always in the plural.



    Anyways, be that as it may, let me see who this is and what she wants.



    Aha ! Who else but Zarina?



    "Wheres my brother?" is her opening salvo.



    "How do I know?" is mine.



    'Cut out the crap' is what her ex-pression seems to say. 'I agree' is what my ex-pression replies.



    She sits down, totally composed and collected. Asks me what I intend doing with her brother.



    I tell her that I've decided. to kill him.



    She says I won't. I say I will.



    She wants to meet him. I tell her she's got a hope in hell.



    She asks me what kind of information I would consider important enough to let him live.



    Tell her I'd need him to get me militants, OGWs and caches ' big time.



    She tells me that's not possible. He doesn't know all caches, just the ones he's used. And they won't have much in them. He knows the other militants in the area and can give me names but how would he know where to nab them? They don't live in camps like the army. OGWs. Yeah. He can provide the names of one or two guys, but they're very low level.



    Sigh!! Actually, she's got a point.



    "Fine!" I tell her "You've got a point. He's abs worthless, so I might as well kill him."



    She's not too happy with that and calls me all sorts of names. Ah well ! I never was a ladies man. So I listen to her without feeling bad about it.



    But seriously, I think Jahangir is more of a dead weight rather than being useful. I decide to hand him over to the cops.



    It's almost as if Zarina can read my mind. "No, don't hand him over to the JKP."



    "Why not?" I'm genuinely surprised.



    A bit of silence, a deep breath and I get my answer. "He killed 3 policemen some years ago. They won't let him live."



    Aha ! That accounts for why there's been no hue and cry. Jahangir and his sisters are the ones stuck in a tight spot.



    "So what do you expect of me? I ask Zarina.



    "Allow me to meet with and talk to my brother and then I'll tell you" comes the reply.



    Hmmm !! I might as well see where this goes.



    Karan is hovering in the background and I ask him to arrange the family get together.



    Four hours later, Karan is back.



    "Saab, dono aapse milna chahte hain."



    I roger that, they troop in and lay their cards on the table. All 52 face up.



    "If Jahangir 'turns', works for you and gets you some results, will you let him go and pay him in order to re start a new life in Jammu?".



    Wow !! I didn't expect that at all.



    We talk details. Loads and loads of things to be tied up.



    No one, not even in my organization, to know about him. Just Karan and me.



    He will leave forthwith, before the HM get suspicious and re-establish contact with them, stating that he's back from Srinager, post recovery.



    All communication will be through Zarina. Towards this end, I will give her a radio set. But I also give the same frequency to Jahangir, for direct communication in an emergent situation.



    No face to face meetings.



    All this is ok. But I need a mortgage. What f he vanishes?



    "If I betray you, you can kill my sisters", is his answer.



    Easier said than done, but I really have no choice. It's a gamble, with very exciting possibilities.



    At worst, I'll lose him and a radio set, if Zarina also vanishes.



    If things work, he should provide us with a lot. Kills, caches, OGWs.



    The co-ord carries on and finally, the bro-sis duo leave.



    Time goes by.



    I get to know from Zarina that J is back with his group.



    Fingers and toes crossed, I bide my time.



    9 days later, I get buzzed by Zarina, passing on a message from Jahangir.



    "Kal subah, S gaon ke bahar, kuch mujahideen milenge. Agar aap school mein ambush lagaen to faida ho sakta hai."



    That's it.



    I know S Village. A medium sized village with hills to the north. The school is on the northern edge of the village.



    Does that mean that the bad guys will be coming down the hill? Or going uphill to move across the ridge line? How many will there be? Can Karan and I handle them on our own?



    And other thoughts creep up too? What if it's a trap? An ambush in the school, ready to hit us when we get there?



    Damn ! And I don't have much time. It's nearly noon. Tomorrow morning isn't too far away.



    I buzz Charlie and tell him to get his butt over. Pronto. Along with his QRT .



    He reacts fast, and by 1600 hours, Charlie is in my location with 8 guys.



    I have a rough sketch of S village ready by then. A quick briefing follows.



    The plan is that we all will carry out a seemingly routine patrol through S village at last light. On our way out of the village, we will go by the school, checking it out. However, Charlie, Karan and I will stay back within the school while the rest of the guys move away and go locate themselves about 1-2 klicks away in a suitable desolated spot, ready to come to us at short notice. It'll be dark by then, so no one will be able to count how many guys went into the school and how many emerged. And therefore, the three of us will be securely in place to knock off the bad guys, without anyone knowing we're there.



    If it's a scenario where Jahangir has planned a trap for me inside the school, our getting there early should beat his plans. And even if he/his cronies are there before us, we've got enough numbers and firepower to handle it.



    So, all seems okay and around 1730, we set off for Village S.



    An hour later, just as it's getting dark, we enter the village. A walk through and we're at the school. An L-shaped building, with an office at one end and four class rooms. A play field and a fence all around. That's it.



    We check out the building and finding nothing and nobody, the rest of the guys toodle off, leaving the three of us to settle down in Std II. It has two windows, but it's dark to see anything. We put a couple of desks against the door and settle down on the floor.



    20 minutes later, Charlie is informed by his QRT that they've got into an orchard and are lying doggo there. Good.



    Now to wait it out and see what the morrow has in store for us.



    The night passes by without any incident and we're up at 0530. Soon, it's daylight and slowly, we spot some villagers moving around. The two windows of the classroom give us a clear field of observation and fire right from the edge of the village to the lower slopes of the hills. Just as I'd remembered it from an earlier visit.



    Weapons cleaned and checked. In addition to out AKs, Karan's carrying an LMG and I've got a Dragunov (a sniper rifle).



    God willing, in a little while, we should be able to use them to good effect.



    0800 hours. Nothing of interest so far. Only, the number of villagers floating around keeps increasing.



    0805 hours. F*** !!!!



    A couple of kids has come into the school compound. From what I can spot through the gap in the door, it has all the makings of a cricket match because Std I is opened and two desks pulled out and placed 20 odd metres apart in the playfield.



    Damn !! I hope the match, or whatever, doesn't begin before we finish what we're here for. I don't want kids milling around all over the place.



    0822 hours. A signal from Karan. I look out of the window.



    A man's come and stood under a tree. This is about 400 metres from us, between the hills and the village. Whats he doing there, all by himself? . Seems like a normal Kilo, in a salwar suit and a jacket of sorts. No weapon in sight. And no suspicious bulges under his jacket.



    0850 hours. I observe this guy waving a handkerchief or some kind of cloth towards the hills. I pick up my binos and look in that direction. About a klik away, two persons walking down. Armed. I can clearly see AKs slung over their shoulders.



    Cool.



    Karan pushes a desk against the window, unlocks the LMGs bipod (a two legged foldable stand) and places it on the desk. I hoist the Dragunov onto my shoulder and get the Kilo's head into my telescopic sight in order to work out the exact range and adjust my sight. Charlie keeps an eye out for any trouble from an unexpected direction.



    "I'll fire first. The militant on the right" I inform Karan "You take the other two."



    "Ok saab" is his reassuring whisper.



    800 metres. 700 metres. 600 metres. C'mon lads. Walk fast !!!



    I'm now tracking one of the militants through my sight.



    The two get to the tree. As they are shaking hands I fire.



    One guys lost his head and before the other two can respond, Karans let loose with the LMG. Down they go.





    We rush out. The kids that were outside have scampered off. We can spot people running towards us from the village. Karan moves off to stop them at a distance while Charlie and I go check out the three guys on the ground.



    Checked and found dead. RIP !



    The cops are called and the corpses taken away.



    Ghulam Hassan Mir of Village S, HM. The guy that had come to meet them. He had a pistol on him under his jacket.



    Salamat Khan and Altaf Ahmed of Pakistan. Al Badr.



    A silent prayer to God, a silent thank you to Jahangir, and we head back. Mission accomplished.



    ime ticks on. Things happen ' some of which I've told you about in the days gone by and some, which I will in the days to come.



    I live my life ' XYZee of the Indian Army and Khalid of the twilight zone.



    Jahangir lives his life ' Jahangir of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaanbaaz of Khalid's private army.



    I do my thing and he does his.



    But courtesy Zarina, our paths cross intermittently, though never in person.



    He's a man of his word, whatever be his motivations, and over the next three months, I keep getting information from him off and on.



    Some of it is good and leads to success. Some is dated and leads nowhere. Some is good but I botch up.



    Whatever, it's still turning out to be a very profitable relationship.



    I get three caches, two relatively minor and one which is huge and amazingly includes, under the ground, a second hand Maruti 800 registered in Delhi. Loads of arms, ammunition, explosives, radio sets are also picked up. Money too, some of which I pocket to inject into the local economy.



    Two important OGWs and a few minor ones. One of the big fish, when fried to a crisp brown (not literally, I'm not THAT bad), leads me to a suitcase with Rs 52 lakhs. I get visions of deserting and fulfilling my life long dream of buying a small shack by the sea and becoming a beach bum. But it's all counterfeit and after making the big fish eat some of it, I set the rest aflame.



    But no more kills.



    I pester Zarina but with no luck.



    Then one night, or rather early morn, around 0430 hours, as I recline deep in the arms of Morpheus, my radio buzzes.



    "Jaanbaaz for Shikari." Its Jahangir, communicating directly with me. Wow !!



    "Aaj subah, National Highway par bomb phatega. Milestone 27 ke kareeb." The radio goes quiet.



    F*** !! In fact, double f*** !!!!!! There's very little time to react. Traffic on the NH starts off early and a bomb/IED going off there may cause very major damage.



    I get on the other radio. But the Brigadier is not responding. Neither is his Staff Officer.



    I don't even know whose area that falls in and who's responsible for the ROP (Road Opening Patrol the guys who sanitise and protect the road) in that sector.



    No choice but to rush myself. It's far away and I don't know if I can reach in time. Karan and I take off, running as fast as we can, to the village next to where I live. Luckily, there's a mini bus standing on the road.



    Wowiee!!! It's even got the key in place. My God is surely with me. We zip off, Karan driving. All the while I'm trying to get the Brig on the air but with no luck.



    0515 hours. I'm standing by the passenger's wala door, working my radio. Finally I get through to the Brig. I apprise him of the situation and the fact that I'm en route. I also inform him that I'm basically in Don Quixote mode, because without any bomb disposal thingummies, I can do sweet f*** all even if I get to the site in time and find the explosive device.



    The Brig tells me that he'll handle it and I should just get there ASAP and contact the ROP commander on the spot. In the meantime, he'll organize the sniffer dogs and bomb disposal guys.



    Whew !! I move and sit on the seat in front, just behind and to the right of Karan, who seems to have taken on a Michael Schumacher avatar.



    0417 hours. We're moving as fast as a battered old mini bus possibly can over a lousy dirt track. 30-40 klicks per hour maybe?



    It's a bone jarring ride and I sure will be glad to get onto a road and then finally get off this damn vehicle.



    BANG !!!!!!!!!!!!



    F*** !!! Now I know what bone jarring really is.



    The vehicles careened off the track and come to a grinding halt. Not a burst tire. That's for sure. Because burst tires don't give out the smell of RDX and they don't result in the back of buses, however mini they may be, getting mangled out of shape.



    We've gone over an IED.



    I look at Karan. He's bleeding from the head, having banged it against the windscreen, but appears reasonably okay. My knees are hurting like hell I've slid off and fallen forward .and my knees have made a very violent and totally undesirable contact with the back of what's supposed to be the conductors seat or whatever.



    I help Karan out of the driver's station and push open the door to get out.



    Bang!Bang!Bang!



    Or should it be ratatatatat ???



    I don't know how to articulate the sound here, but what I do know is that what's coming at us is a large number of AK 47 bullets in bursts of 3-4 each.



    We hit the ground hard and hug it as close as we can. Look around. Can't see a thing, but can definitely hear the firing. And it sure is aimed at us, because we can hear the bullets striking the bus.



    Damn !! What do I fire back at? I'd hate to be found dead with four fully loaded magazines on me.



    We crawl around, hoping to see something and fire back. But there's nothing. Even the firings stopped.



    Sudden silence. And if it wasn't for the bus off the road and Karan's bleeding head and my aching bones, I'd think it was all a bad dream.



    Oh f*** !!! What about the IED on the NH?



    I pull out my radio, only to find that it's already well on it's way to the after world and subsequent rebirth as a cell phone or whatever. Smashed beyond any kind of recognition.



    We pick ourselves up gingerly and look around. Spotting and hearing nothing and receiving no missiles of any nature penetrating our skin, we head off towards the next village.



    Sadly, it's 12 klicks away and both Karan and I are not in a position to even jog. We kind of limp our way to it and by the time we get there, it's nearly 0630 hours.



    We commandeer a jeep with a driver and head off for KM stone 27.



    We get onto the NH and I'm happy to see traffic flowing normally. Good !! That means there's been no explosion. Which implies that the IED has been found and defused. Yiipppppeeee !!!



    F*** !! It could also imply that it's there, hasn't been found and hasn't been detonated yet.



    I damn the pessimist within me and tell the driver to get a move on.



    We reach KM 27 and I find it choc a bloc full of army guys, including the Brig who's very keen to know what took me so long.



    I give him the short story in even shorter form and ask him about the IED.



    It emerges that they've searched n re-searched and re-searched every possible inch of the highway from KM 26 to KM 28 and found zilch. So either I got a false alarm or I heard the location wrong or it's someplace else. Anyways, every ROP guy has been asked to be on high alert and the search is continuing all along the highway. The rest is up to God and we can only wait.



    We do so, making use of the time to get a doctor to do the needful with our battered bodies.



    The day goes by and nothing explodes. So, it WAS a false alarm.



    Which means, Mr Jahangir is playing games with me.



    No wonder the mini bus was conveniently parked where it was and no wonder the key was even more conveniently available where it was.



    Time for you to die, buddy.


    I'm livid. More angry with myself than with Jahangir. How did I allow myself to be duped this way? How easily he fed me a few crumbs and snared my neck into a noose. Fine, no gain without pain and all that but to be made a fool of in this manner?



    I get back to my cubby hole and think of ways and means of getting my revenge.



    It's not going to be easy tracking him down. As far as that goes, I'm back to square one. And this time he's not going to be cuddled up in some bed in Srinagar with a screwed up leg.



    But I need to get him ASAP.



    Therefore, I decide to do something I've never done in my 12 years of CT ops in Nagaland, Kashmir, Sri Lanka or with the SAG.



    I decide to pick up his sister(s) and thereby snare his neck into my noose.



    It's a very risky proposition and it can get me into very serious trouble but I'm beyond caring.



    However, I'll need to plan things out very, very carefully. I'm sure his sisters are going to be expecting trouble from me and will be taking prophylactic action. So, I'll have to move fast and move well.



    I call for Karan to brainstorm my plans with him and as we're talking post dinner, working out various contingencies, Man Friday pops his head in and says, "Saab, ladies aayee hain aapse mine."



    F*** ! What's this now? And who's this now? And at this time????



    I step out and find that this time Man F got his grammar right. My visitors are in the plural, as in there are two of them.



    I also find that they are Zarina and Zubeida ' beloved sisters of Mr J.



    Jeez .think of the devil or rather, plan about lifting the devil's sisters and here they are.



    I'm totally nonplussed.



    Before I can compose myself and ask them what they want, they enquire of me as to how I am.



    "I'm alive" I growl "No thanks to that SOB you call a brother."



    "Thanks to him, you mean" pipes in Zubeida.



    Huh ?



    I ask her what she means.



    And thence starts the story.



    It seems, IF they are to be believed, that after my recent successes with the kills and caches and OGWs, the local HM cadre got suspicious and began sniffing around each butts, looking for a leak.



    Finding none, they did a deeper internal audit and found out that Zarina had come to meet me. The finger of suspicion wheeled onto Jahangir but since he refuted it all, Zarina was picked up and tortured by them. She told them she'd come to meet me because I was threatening her and her sister. I had even gone to their school with the regular Army guys. So, she came to tell me not to bother their family.



    Somehow, the HM swallowed it but were still looking a bit askance at Jahangir.



    And therefore, to kill this issue once and for all, Jahangir engineered the plot to 'kill' me.



    "You think if he wanted to kill you today, he couldn't have?" asks Zarina. "The IED could have been detonated under the front of the bus. And you could have been shot while you were lying in the open."



    "Balls" was my response, though in Kashmiri, it comes out as something else.



    "That's the absolute truth" say both the sisters in unison, "And now we want you to keep your side of the bargain and help Jahangir to re-locate outside Kashmir. And we want the money."



    At the risk of sounding like a stuck gramophone record, "Balls" is my response to this too.



    "You've got to believe us and you've got to help us" pleads Zarina.



    I tell her that I do not believe their story and there's no way I'm not going to kill their brother. Being taken for a ride once is all that I can handle.



    Our arguments go on and on. They cry, yell, shriek, rave, rant, plead, beg.



    That deaf adder fellow in the scriptures would have turned green with envy if he could see how oblivious I was to all their drama.



    Realising a while later that this is going nowhere, the sisters reach into their hats and pull out a new deal.



    "You give him 30 days. Within these 30 days, he will give you some mujahideen. You kill them. And after that, you give us the money and help us to move out of here."



    A guy called Janwillem Van De Wettring once said that greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.



    I never knew the guy and never thought much about what he said. But now I realize he's partially right and partially wrong. Greed does have an insatiable tum tum but it doesn't have a small mouth. I can say that out of personal experience cos all 184 centimetres of me slipped through that orifice the moment I heard the proposition from the ladies.



    "What do I have to lose?" I ask myself. "I give the 30 days lease of life and in case I get nothing, I can always put my plan into effect ." after that period."



    "What the f***?" another part of me pops up, " What if they missed you the first time and are setting you up for a confirmed kill now? What if they are buying time to disappear? "



    Jeez ! I hate these little fellows in my head when they're not in consonance with each other.



    Anyways, I go with Little Fellow A.



    "It's a deal." I inform the femmes and they buzz off.



    Time marches on. The 30 day deadline is drawing to a close .and it sure as hell is going to be 'deadtime' for Jahangir. A part of me believes strongly that I was set up by Mr J and his sisters and I'm going to get even. Will make him die real slow. And I'm going to make the ladies squirm too. Enough of being a gentleman.



    Day 24 since the deal was struck. Its late evening and I'm lazing around in my hut. Serious decision making is in progress about whether I should eat a proper dinner or make do with Maggi noodles when suddenly, the radio squawks.



    Its Zarina.



    "Khalid, dhyan se suno"



    "Go ahead " is my response, perking up a bit. Is this gonna be the real Mc Coy or am I going to be taken for a ride?



    " Kal P illaqe mein HM ki meeting hai. Bahut Mujahideen ekattha ho rahe hain. "



    "Roger. Kaunse gaon mein? " I ask, since P illaqa (area) is essentially a plateau ringed by nine villages. Too large an area and I need specifics.



    " Khalid, illaq bata diya hai. Baaki aap kar lo jitni aap ki kabliyat hai aur jitni aap mein himmat hai."



    And d b**** signs off without even a filmi type 'over and out'.



    Damn !!!



    Double damn in fact !!!



    How the hell am I supposed to work this one out? A large area, nine villages, more escape routes than wrinkles on an octogenarian's face and no specific information/intelligence at all.



    Triple damn!!!



    How come and why do I always get stuck with these sticky situations? I really wish I'd worked hard in school and gone on in life to become some fancy executive somewhere on civilian street with a well heeled job, a well stacked secretary and where the only 'kills' were to be effected on Dalal Street , or whatever that alleys called.



    Anyways, no time for day dreaming and regrets of the past. Time to swing into action. Grab the moment by the nose before it grabs you by the tail ..kind of thing.



    I immediately call up the Brig on the radio and give him a run down. Times at a premium and there's lots and lots of coordination involved. And sadly, there's no way we can go the usual route of a detailed meeting/discussion.



    Luckily, the Brig gets the picture fast and for once, gets more into 'listening'mode. I spell out my plan to him.



    Nine villages each to be addressed simultaneously by a company column (40 odd personnel) doing a CASO. He has nine RR companies within operational time and space so that can be done. In addition, two BSF companies, to act as reserves and also to be deployed as 'stops', i.e. to stop egress out of the area, by anyone using the undulating ground in the plateau.



    The Brig agrees and says he will control the op from his HQ. Suits me. Don't want brass up my ass in the fun zone.



    He gets his staff cracking to issue the necessary orders and get the cogs moving, while I sign off .and get into weapon cleaning and checking mode while my little brain tries to think up exactly how the operation will proceed and what are the various contingencies that may arise. Luckily, theres not much time, so I'll just play it all by the fear. Faith in God, my country, the Indian Army, my mind, my muscles and above all in Uncle Kalashnikov's gizmo of the 47 variety should take me through this one.



    I call Karan and go over the whole issue with him. I see his eyes light up as they always do mirroring my own as we talk of the impending ops and the hours that lie ahead. I always trust his instincts and intuition and when he says "Saab, abki baar tagda op hoga, bahut kill milenge" , I'm happy and excited.



    Its 2300 hours by now and I'd better get moving towards Area P. Karan and I don uniforms this time, too many soldiers are going to be around for us to take the risk of being fratricide victims.



    I plan to hang around Village L, which is a smallish place on one edge of the plateau. I really visualize no action personally for Karan and I, so might as well just sit someplace nice and listen in on the radio to the progress of ops. I'm also carrying a second Kenwood for monitoring HM frequencies, because if the information is correct, the jerks are sure gonna get whining once they know the army's squeezing their vitals.



    A walk through the countryside and by around 0100 hours, Karan and I are comfortably plonked in a little orchard near Vill L. Theres radio silence in force so I don't know what the rest of the 'fauj' is doing .though by looking at my watch, I know they all must be getting into place for the respective cordons.



    Yes, I'm right .because within half an hour, I can spot the boys of the company tasked to CASO Village L. We are well outside the village, so no sweat. We ain't getting stuck inside any trigger happy cordon. No thank you, Sir !



    0300 hours. The radio buzzes.



    "Alpha, in position."



    "Bravo, in position."



    "Echo, moving in, another 20 minutes for getting into position."



    "One Nine, stops deployed."



    And so on.



    And the Brigs deep voice going "Roger", every time a company commander gives his report.



    0400 hours. Silence again.



    Which means all cordons and stops are in place and now they'll wait for first light before going in to search the villages.



    I might as well grab some shut eye.



    Its time for the final step in Jahangirs journey and hopefully it shall be a victorious journey .for Jahangir, for Zarina and Zubeida .and for Karan and I. Might as well take that final step as fresh as I can possibly get.



    0605 hours.



    Karan is shaking me awake. There are sounds of gunfire from the North West and the radio is crackling.



    Contact established?



    Good. Which would mean the information was accurate. I just mouth a silent prayer that we suffer no casualties. In this dirty war, because the enemy is a cowardly rat who hides all the time, generally the first casualty is always ours.



    Anyways, I get myself focused and listen in on the radio.



    It's Juliet, one of the nine RR company commanders on the net. He is giving out a sitrep (situation report) to the Brig.



    They cordoned village B with 30 odd men and he entered around 0530 hours along with 8 guys. They moved straight to the Muqaddam's house which is somewhere nearly in the middle of the village. They wanted to talk to him and get the village vacated so that it could be searched.



    The company commander went into the house with his buddy, a young Lance Naik (Lance Corporal) while the rest of his team stayed outside. Inside the house, as they were talking to the Muqaddam, something went askance and they were fired upon from within the house from the first floor. The young soldier's been hit.



    Current situation?



    The officer has rushed out of the house, dragging his buddy with him. He and his group have deployed around the house and are firing at the first floor windows from where they are drawing fire. The casualty is with them alive but bleeding profusely. The officer estimates at least three militants inside.



    The Brig tells him to maintain contact with the militants, ensure no one slips out of the house and to wait till some reinforcements are sent in. He also tells him that he's sending in an ambulance into the village for casevac (casualty evacuation).



    Cool !! It all seems under control and I guess the officer will carry on the op to its logical end. I just hope we shed no more blood and that once the reinforcements arrive, he'll be able to wind it all up fast. I also hope the Muqaddam and his family are not trapped inside the house. Because if they are, this guy will not be able to use RLs or flame throwers and then there's always the 'human shield' option available to the bad fellas.



    I pipe in and ask that of the company commander. He confirms that all the civilians rushed out along with them and have vanished into the village



    Fine!! There's nothing I can do and the Major will handle it till he finally knocks off those three guys inside.



    I wonder what's happening in the other eight villages. No transmissions on the net from them, though I suppose they're all carrying out their respective CASOs and are keeping the net clear for the radio traffic from village B.



    In village B, the firefight is continuing and I hear on the net that an ambulance is headed for casevac. I hope it gets there in time.



    I scan the militant nets on the other radio.



    Yesssss. They're buzzing like bees. A lot of traffic on their frequency. They're talking about being surrounded by the army. One guy is talking about a firefight. He must be one of the jerks in Village B.



    It's obvious from their talk that there are at least 6 or 7 of them. And they're all not in village B.



    Damn !! I hope all the CASOs are done properly and we bag the whole lot.



    I also wonder where Jahangir is. Is he in one these villages? And if so, how will he get out?



    Well, the fact that it's his information, I guess he's smart enough to have kept himself out of this situation.



    "Delta, contact ", goes my radio set. I listen.



    Delta is the company in Village G. Seems that their search party was entering the village when they spotted a guy trying to run towards the west. They are chasing him and their cordon is in place to stop him. Poor sod. His time has come.



    So, that seemingly accounts for 4 out of 6-7. There are three in Village B in the Muqaddam's house and won't get out alive and this guy in Village G won't last another 30 minutes. But then, where are the others?



    Let's see if the other seven RR companies find them.



    I keep monitoring the army and militant nets, trying to piece the situation together.



    "Sheep, approaching Juliet's location", goes the radio set. Fine! That's the ambulance near Village B. A few more minutes and then that young lad should be on his way to a hospital. I heave a sigh of relief. He's been without proper medical help for too long already.



    "Sheep, under fire, under fire!! ". Damn!! I can hear gun shots over the radio as Sheep is frantically yelling. The darn ambulance is drawing fire. What the hell !!!



    There's something really bad happening in Village B. The Brig tells the ambulance guy to drive on and then take cover and to evacuate the casualty ASAP. Juliet is told to get some men from his cordon into the village to cover the casevac.



    I'm not happy. There seem to be more bad guys inside Village B than Juliet can seemingly handle.



    "Khalid, request permission to move to Juliet's location" , I ask of the Brig.



    "Roger Khalid, go ahead" , the Brig acquiesces.



    Karan and I take off for Village B which is about 12 klicks away on the other side of the plateau. I don't like the situation building up there and I move fast with Karan following a few steps behind. We jog through the orchards that abound on the plateau.



    We've covered about 5 klicks or so, when we come across a nala. I jump in and decide to run along it, rather than climb up to the other side. The nala, as per my map, seems to flow from Village B and is nearly dry, so no problems. It'll get us there fast and we'll have cover.



    We jog on the sides of the narrow water channel and have done another couple of klicks, when I get a jolt.



    Bang in front of us, heading our way, are two guys. Militants obviously. They've got AKs in their hands and are in pathan suits and sneakers the ubiquitous militant uniform.



    They spot us the moment we spot them and before I can get my breath back and say Jack, Jane or Jill Robinson, they open fire on the move. Damn and double damn!! My rifles slung over my shoulder and as I try to halt, take cover on the ground and swing the weapon into action, I hear the bullets whizzing past me.



    Suddenly I feel Karan on top of me. As if covering me with his body. I try to push him off so that I can fire but he's like squashed me below him and is firing at those guys.



    I can make out a militants been hit. He crumples and hits the ground, firing into the air and yelling in pain. The other guy has knelt and is firing at us.



    I finally manage to push Karan off and fire at that militant, noting with satisfaction that while a kneeling man makes a smaller target, it ain't THAT small. The jerk whines and groans and rolls over into the water.



    I fire off some more rounds into both those guys just to make sure and then get onto my feet.



    Only to find that Karan hasn't got up.



    He's lying on the ground, where I'd pushed him off me. Dead.



    I can't believe my eyes. I never realized he'd been hit. It's like I'm suddenly in some twilight zone. I feel his pulse, yell at him, shake him.



    Nothing.



    I'm numb. I feel like I'm dead myself.



    One of the finest soldiers I ever had the privilege of serving alongside and one that was with me over years in some of the most hairy situations ever. And he's no more.



    I get my radio out and inform the Brig.



    He tells me that the situation in Village B is under control. Reinforcements have reached and the op will get over soon. I should wait where I am. He'll move some people to my location.



    I'm too numb to think or say or do anything.



    I sit on the ground, Karans head cradled in my lap. Talking to him, like we talked, over endless hours in the craziest of places and situations.



    An officer and a jawan together in that stupid filthy nala. Yet in some manner, the best of friends in the holiest of places.



    I was his superior, by rank. And yet, in the end he proved himself my superior. As an officer, I was supposed to ensure his safety. Instead, he died safeguarding mine.



    I don't know, I don't remember how long I sat there with Karan. But after a while, some troops landed up and things moved on.



    Karan was taken away by two of them and I moved alongside to Village B.



    The op there had ended and the Brig was there.



    I saw the end result of that fateful day.



    Four militants lined up dead. Three from inside the Muqaddam's house and one from Village G.



    They are joined by the two Karan and I knocked off in the nala.



    And then, a distance away, lies Karan. And, the young jawan who'd got shot in the morning. The damn casevac had failed.



    The Brig hugs me. Wipes my tears away, but they don't stop. I can see loads of jawans and officers all around. I can feel the euphoria of victory emanating from them.



    And yet I feel nothing.



    The Brig tells me who all the militants are that've been knocked off. I don't care. I'm not even listening, till one name hits me.



    Hits me like a hard punch in the solar plexus.



    The guy trying to escape out of Village G was Jahangir.



    Bashir Waghey, HM. Abdul Karim, HM. Saifullah, HM. Altaf Mir, HM. Farooq Ahmed, HM



    Good bye, enemies of my country ! You deserved to die.



    Karan, Jahangir and Sunil.



    Good bye my comrades. Heroes of a proud nation. You didn't deserve to die.



    Till today I feel the loss of Karan and I feel the loss of Jahangir too.



    It hurts and I still cry for them.



    But in the end, I remember something my father told me when I was a young boy and he would tell me about the brave comrades he lost while fighting the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971.



    "Do not grieve that such fine, fearless men died. Instead celebrate that such men lived."
     
  16. gratewite

    gratewite New Member

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    Good writing skills... Read the whole write up in one session. We normal people rarely get a glimpse on how things work during counter insurgency operations in Kashmir. Please continue...
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2014
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  17. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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  18. gratewite

    gratewite New Member

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    Thanks for the link.... Sitting in the comforts of my house, could have never understood what our army men do in the line of duty to protect our land. Its really true that the freedom and security that we enjoy should not be taken for granted.
     
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  19. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    very true i would provide you with one more true military literature which would amaze you.JUST WAIT FEW MINUTES
     
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  20. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    First let make it clear it's not about indian army but true eyewitness account of the fight in which 8 us navy seal were killed on the same mission.

    I once again apologize as it's not related to indian army but since it's such brave tale of courage ,valour and brotherhood in armed forces i would like it to share it with all of you.

    First i would like to provide some details regarding that fateful operation

    Operation Red Wings
    June 28, 2005

    On June 28, 2005, deep behind enemy lines east of Asadabad in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, a very committed four-man Navy SEAL team was conducting a reconnaissance mission at the unforgiving altitude of approximately 10,000 feet. The SEALs, Lt. Michael Murphy, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class (SEAL) Danny Dietz, Sonar Technician 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew Axelson and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell had a vital task. The four SEALs were scouting Ahmad Shah – a terrorist in his mid-30s who grew up in the adjacent mountains just to the south.

    Under the assumed name Muhammad Ismail, Shah led a guerrilla group known to locals as the "Mountain Tigers" that had aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups close to the Pakistani border. The SEAL mission was compromised when the team was spotted by local nationals, who presumably reported its presence and location to the Taliban.

    A fierce firefight erupted between the four SEALs and a much larger enemy force of more than 50 anti-coalition militia. The enemy had the SEALs outnumbered. They also had terrain advantage. They launched a well-organized, three-sided attack on the SEALs. The firefight continued relentlessly as the overwhelming militia forced the team deeper into a ravine.

    Trying to reach safety, the four men, now each wounded, began bounding down the mountain's steep sides, making leaps of 20 to 30 feet. Approximately 45 minutes into the fight, pinned down by overwhelming forces, Dietz, the communications petty officer, sought open air to place a distress call back to the base. But before he could, he was shot in the hand, the blast shattering his thumb.

    Despite the intensity of the firefight and suffering grave gunshot wounds himself, Murphy is credited with risking his own life to save the lives of his teammates. Murphy, intent on making contact with headquarters, but realizing this would be impossible in the extreme terrain where they were fighting, unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life moved into the open, where he could gain a better position to transmit a call to get help for his men.

    Moving away from the protective mountain rocks, he knowingly exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire. This deliberate and heroic act deprived him of cover and made him a target for the enemy. While continuing to be fired upon, Murphy made contact with the SOF Quick Reaction Force at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance. He calmly provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point he was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in. Severely wounded, Lt. Murphy returned to his cover position with his men and continued the battle.

    An MH-47 Chinook helicopter, with eight additional SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard, was sent is as part of an extraction mission to pull out the four embattled SEALs. The MH-47 was escorted by heavily-armored, Army attack helicopters. Entering a hot combat zone, attack helicopters are used initially to neutralize the enemy and make it safer for the lightly-armored, personnel-transport helicopter to insert.

    The heavy weight of the attack helicopters slowed the formation’s advance prompting the MH-47 to outrun their armored escort. They knew the tremendous risk going into an active enemy area in daylight, without their attack support, and without the cover of night. Risk would, of course, be minimized if they put the helicopter down in a safe zone. But knowing that their warrior brothers were shot, surrounded and severely wounded, the rescue team opted to directly enter the oncoming battle in hopes of landing on brutally hazardous terrain.

    As the Chinook raced to the battle, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter, killing all 16 men aboard.

    On the ground and nearly out of ammunition, the four SEALs, Murphy, Luttrell, Dietz and Axelson, continued the fight. By the end of the two-hour gunfight that careened through the hills and over cliffs, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz had been killed. An estimated 35 Taliban were also dead.

    The fourth SEAL, Luttrell, was blasted over a ridge by a rocket propelled grenade and was knocked unconscious. Regaining consciousness some time later, Luttrell managed to escape – badly injured – and slowly crawl away down the side of a cliff. Dehydrated, with a bullet wound to one leg, shrapnel embedded in both legs, three vertebrae cracked; the situation for Luttrell was grim. Rescue helicopters were sent in, but he was too weak and injured to make contact. Traveling seven miles on foot he evaded the enemy for nearly a day. Gratefully, local nationals came to his aid, carrying him to a nearby village where they kept him for three days. The Taliban came to the village several times demanding that Luttrell be turned over to them. The villagers refused. One of the villagers made his way to a Marine outpost with a note from Luttrell, and U.S. forces launched a massive operation that rescued him from enemy territory on July 2.

    By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit and inspirational devotion to his men in the face of certain death, Lt. Murphy was able to relay the position of his unit, an act that ultimately led to the rescue of Luttrell and the recovery of the remains of the three who were killed in the battle.

    This was the worst single-day U.S. Forces death toll since Operation Enduring Freedom began nearly six years ago. It was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II.

    The Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community will forever remember June 28, 2005 and the heroic efforts and sacrifices of our special operators. We hold with reverence the ultimate sacrifice that they made while engaged in that fierce fire fight on the front lines of the global war on terrorism (GWOT).

    -NSW-

    OPERATION REDWING KIAs- On June 28, 2005, three of four SEALS on the ground (Murphy, Dietz, Axelson) were killed during combat operations in support of Operation Red Wing. ON the same say, a QRF of eight Navy SEALs and 8 Army Night Stalkers were also killed when the MH-47 helicopter that they were aboard was shot down by enemy fire in the vicinity of Asadabad, Afghanistan in Kumar Province.

    Navy SEALs
    SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    Lt. (SEAL) Michael P. Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y.
    Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson, 29, of Cupertino, Calif.
    Machinist Mate 2nd Class (SEAL) Eric S. Patton, 22, of Boulder City, Nev.
    Senior Chief Information Systems Technician (SEAL) Daniel R. Healy, 36, of Exeter, N.H.
    Quartermaster 2nd Class (SEAL) James Suh, 28, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.

    SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2, Virginia Beach, Va.

    Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class (SEAL) Danny P. Dietz, 25, of Littleton, Colo.

    SEAL Team 10, Virginia Beach, Va.

    Chief Fire Controlman (SEAL) Jacques J. Fontan, 36, of New Orleans, La.
    Lt. Cmdr. (SEAL) Erik S. Kristensen, 33, of San Diego, Calif.
    Electronics Technician 1st Class (SEAL) Jeffery A. Lucas, 33, of Corbett, Ore.
    Lt. (SEAL) Michael M. McGreevy Jr., 30, of Portville, N.Y.
    Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (SEAL) Jeffrey S. Taylor, 30, of Midway, W.Va.

    Army Night Stalkers
    3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Hunter Army Air Field, Ga.

    Staff Sgt. Shamus O. Goare, 29, of Danville, Ohio.
    Chief Warrant Officer Corey J. Goodnature, 35, of Clarks Grove, Minn.
    Sgt. Kip A. Jacoby, 21, of Pompano Beach, Fla.
    Sgt. 1st Class Marcus V. Muralles, 33, of Shelbyville, Ind.
    Maj. Stephen C. Reich, 34, of Washington Depot, Conn.
    Sgt. 1st Class Michael L. Russell, 31, of Stafford, Va.
    Chief Warrant Officer Chris J. Scherkenbach, 40, of Jacksonville, Fla.

    HQ Company, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Ky.

    Master Sgt. James W. Ponder III, 36, of Franklin, Tenn.



    PHOTO OF THE SEAL KILLED IN THAT OPERATION

    [​IMG]

    In order to get detail and more photos and map regarding this map i "highly" recommend to visit these links

    Operation Red Wings, Operation Whalers, and the book VICTORY POINT in which they are comprehensively documented / Ed Darack

    Sawtalo Sar - The Untold Story of Operation Red Wings (mis referenced as Operation Redwing) and Operation Whalers by Ed Darack

    Operation Red Wings II: Lone Survivor Recovery (Part II) | SOFREP

    Lt. Michael Murphy USN Medal of Honor

    HERE IN THIS LINK YOU WOULD SEE THE ACTUAL COMBAT FOOTAGE SHOT BY TALIBAN YOU CAN SEE SEAL DEAD BODY AND THEIR WEAPON CAPTURED BY TALIBAN

    LiveLeak.com - The War Of the Oppressed People new with uncut footage

    operation red wing map




    here again taliban showing capture weapon

    [video]javascript://[/video]

    LiveLeak.com - seal recon ambushed by taliban,in kunar province and spoils (comments)


    this was the introduction now in my next post i would provide you with the actual eyewitness account of marcus luttrell who was the only seal who survived the fire fight and live to tell.
    [​IMG]

    THE ONE WEARING HELMET IS MARCUS LUTTRELL

    I "HIGHLY" RECOMMEND THAT YOU READ IT AS IT WILL PROVIDE YOU AN INSIDE ACCOUNT ON ALL ABOUT US "NAVY SEAL":thumb:

    AND ONE MORE THING A MOVIE HAS BEEN MADE BASED ON IT AGAIN HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    TRAILER OF MOVIE
     
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  21. ghost

    ghost Regular Member

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    THIS IS THE TRUE EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT OF MARCUS LUTTRELL

    Prologue

    Would this ever become easier? House to house, freeway to freeway, state to state?
    Not so far. And here I was again, behind the wheel of a hired SUV, driving along
    another Main Street, past the shops and the gas station, this time in a windswept
    little town on Long Island, New York, South Shore, down by the long Atlantic
    beaches. Winter was coming. The skies were platinum. The whitecaps rolled in
    beneath dark, lowering clouds. So utterly appropriate, because this time was going
    to be worse than the others. A whole lot worse.
    I found my landmark, the local post office, pulled in behind the building, and
    parked. We all stepped out of the vehicle, into a chill November day, the remains of
    the fall leaves swirling around our feet. No one wanted to lead the way, none of the
    five guys who accompanied me, and for a few moments we just stood there, like a
    group of mailmen on their break.
    I knew where to go. The house was just a few yards down the street. And in a
    sense, I'd been there before -- in Southern California, northern California, and
    Nevada. In the next few days, I still had to visit Washington and Virginia Beach.
    And so many things would always be precisely the same.
    There would be the familiar devastated sadness, the kind of pain that wells up
    when young men are cut down in their prime. The same hollow feeling in each of
    the homes. The same uncontrollable tears. The same feeling of desolation, of brave
    people trying to be brave, lives which had uniformly been shot to pieces.
    Inconsolable. Sorrowful.
    As before, I was the bearer of the terrible news, as if no one knew the truth until I
    arrived, so many weeks and months after so many funerals. And for me, this small
    gathering in Patchogue, Long Island, was going to be the worst.
    I tried to get a hold of myself. But again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible
    scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams,
    night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor.
    "Help me, Marcus! Please help me!"
    It was a desperate appeal in the mountains of a foreign land. It was a scream cried
    out in the echoing high canyons of one of the loneliest places on earth. It was the
    nearly unrecognizable cry of a mortally wounded creature. And it was a plea I
    could not answer. I can't forget it. Because it was made by one of the finest people
    I ever met, a man who happened to be my best friend.
    All the visits had been bad. Dan's sister and wife, propping each other up; Eric's
    father, an admiral, alone with his grief; James's fiancée and father; Axe's wife and
    family friends; Shane's shattered mother in Las Vegas. They were all terrible. But
    this one would be worse.
    I finally led the way through the blowing leaves, out into the cold, strange street,
    and along to the little house with its tiny garden, the grass uncut these days. But the
    lights of an illuminated American flag were still right there in the front window.
    They were the lights of a patriot, and they still shone defiantly, just as if he were
    still here. Mikey would have liked that.
    We all stopped for a few moments, and then we climbed the little flight of steps
    and knocked on the door. She was pretty, the lady who answered the door, long
    dark hair, her eyes already brimming with tears. His mother.
    She knew I had been the last person to see him alive. And she stared up at me with
    a look of such profound sadness it damn near broke me in half and said, quietly,
    "Thank you for coming."
    I somehow replied, "It's because of your son that I am standing here."
    As we all walked inside, I looked straight at the hall table and on it was a large

    framed photograph of a man looking straight at me, half grinning. There was
    Mikey, all over again, and I could hear his mom saying, "He didn't suffer, did he?
    Please tell me he didn't suffer."

    I had to wipe the sleeve of my jacket across my eyes before I answered that. But I
    did answer. "No, Maureen. He didn't. He died instantly."
    I had told her what she'd asked me to tell her. That kind of tactical response was
    turning out to be essential equipment for the lone survivor.
    I tried to tell her of her son's unbending courage, his will, his iron control. And as
    I'd come to expect, she seemed as if she had not yet accepted anything. Not until I
    related it. I was the essential bearer of the final bad news.
    In the course of the next hour we tried to talk like adults. But it was too difficult.
    There was so much that could have been said, and so much that would never be
    said. And no amount of backup from my three buddies, plus the New York City
    fireman and policeman who accompanied us, made much difference.
    But this was a journey I had to complete. I had promised myself I would do it, no
    matter what it took, because I knew what it would mean to each and every one of
    them. The sharing of personal anguish with someone who was there. House to
    house, grief to grief.
    I considered it my sworn duty. But that did not make it any easier. Maureen hugged
    us all as we left. I nodded formally to the photograph of my best friend, and we
    walked down that sad little path to the street.
    Tonight it would be just as bad, because we were going to see Heather, Mikey's
    fiancée, in her downtown New York City apartment. It wasn't fair. They would
    have been married by now. And the day after this, I had to go to Arlington National
    Cemetery to visit the graves of two more absent friends.
    By any standards it was an expensive, long, and melancholy journey across the
    United States of America, paid for by the organization for which I work. Like me,
    like all of us, they understand. And as with many big corporations which have a
    dedicated workforce, you can tell a lot about them by their corporate philosophy,
    their written constitution, if you like.
    It's the piece of writing which defines their employees and their standards. I have
    for several years tried to base my life on the opening paragraph:
    "In times of uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our
    Nation's call; a common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by
    adversity, he stands alongside America's finest special operations forces to serve
    his country and the American people, and to protect their way of life. I am that
    man."
    My name is Marcus. Marcus Luttrell. I'm a United States Navy SEAL, Team
    Leader, SDV Team 1, Alfa Platoon. Like every other SEAL, I'm trained in
    weapons, demolition, and unarmed combat. I'm a sniper, and I'm the platoon
    medic. But most of all, I'm an American. And when the bell sounds, I will come
    out fighting for my country and for my teammates. If necessary, to the death.
    And that's not just because the SEALs trained me to do so; it's because I'm willing
    to do so. I'm a patriot, and I fight with the Lone Star of Texas on my right arm and
    another Texas flag over my heart. For me, defeat is unthinkable.
    Mikey died in the summer of 2005, fighting shoulder to shoulder with me in the
    high country of northeast Afghanistan. He was the best officer I ever knew, an iron-
    souled warrior of colossal, almost unbelievable courage in the face of the enemy.
    Two who would believe it were my other buddies who also fought and died up
    there. That's Danny and Axe: two American heroes, two towering figures in a
    fighting force where valor is a common virtue. Their lives stand as a testimony to
    the central paragraph of the philosophy of the U.S. Navy SEALs:
    "I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be

    physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will
    get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to
    protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight."
    As I mentioned, my name is Marcus. And I'm writing this book because of my

    three buddies Mikey, Danny, and Axe. If I don't write it, no one will ever
    understand the indomitable courage under fire of those three Americans. And that
    would be the biggest tragedy of all.
    1
    To Afghanistan...in a Flying Warehouse

    This was payback time for the World Trade Center. We were coming after the guys
    who did it. If not the actual guys, then their blood brothers, the lunatics who still
    wished us dead and might try it again.

    Good-byes tend to be curt among Navy SEALs. A quick backslap, a friendly bear
    hug, no one uttering what we're all thinking: Here we go again, guys, going to war,
    to another trouble spot, another half-assed enemy willing to try their luck against
    us...they must be out of their minds.
    It's a SEAL thing, our unspoken invincibility, the silent code of the elite warriors
    of the U.S. Armed Forces. Big, fast, highly trained guys, armed to the teeth, expert
    in unarmed combat, so stealthy no one ever hears us coming. SEALs are masters of
    strategy, professional marksmen with rifles, artists with machine guns, and, if

    necessary, pretty handy with knives. In general terms, we believe there are very
    few of the world's problems we could not solve with high explosive or a well-
    aimed bullet.
    We operate on sea, air, and land. That's where we got our name. U.S. Navy SEALs,
    underwater, on the water, or out of the water. Man, we can do it all. And where we
    were going, it was likely to be strictly out of the water. Way out of the water. Ten
    thousand feet up some treeless moonscape of a mountain range in one of the
    loneliest and sometimes most lawless places in the world. Afghanistan.
    " 'Bye, Marcus." "Good luck, Mikey." "Take it easy, Matt." "See you later, guys."
    I remember it like it was yesterday, someone pulling open the door to our barracks
    room, the light spilling out into the warm, dark night of Bahrain, this strange desert
    kingdom, which is joined to Saudi Arabia by the two-mile-long King Fahd
    Causeway.
    The six of us, dressed in our light combat gear -- flat desert khakis with Oakley
    assault boots -- stepped outside into a light, warm breeze. It was March 2005, not
    yet hotter than hell, like it is in summer. But still unusually warm for a group of
    Americans in springtime, even for a Texan like me. Bahrain stands on the 26° north
    line of latitude. That's more than four hundred miles to the south of Baghdad, and
    that's hot.

    Our particular unit was situated on the south side of the capital city of Manama,
    way up in the northeast corner of the island. This meant we had to be transported
    right through the middle of town to the U.S. air base on Muharraq Island for all
    flights to and from Bahrain. We didn't mind this, but we didn't love it either.
    That little journey, maybe five miles, took us through a city that felt much as we
    did. The locals didn't love us either. There was a kind of sullen look to them, as if
    they were sick to death of having the American military around them. In fact, there
    were districts in Manama known as black flag areas, where tradesmen,

    shopkeepers, and private citizens hung black flags outside their properties to
    signify Americans are not welcome.
    I guess it wasn't quite as vicious as Juden Verboten was in Hitler's Germany. But
    there are undercurrents of hatred all over the Arab world, and we knew there were
    many sympathizers with the Muslim extremist fanatics of the Taliban and al
    Qaeda. The black flags worked. We stayed well clear of those places.
    Nonetheless we had to drive through the city in an unprotected vehicle over
    another causeway, the Sheik Hamad, named for the emir. They're big on
    causeways, and I guess they will build more, since there are thirty-two other much
    smaller islands forming the low-lying Bahrainian archipelago, right off the Saudi
    western shore, in the Gulf of Iran.
    Anyway, we drove on through Manama out to Muharraq, where the U.S. air base
    lies to the south of the main Bahrain International Airport. Awaiting us was the
    huge C-130 Hercules, a giant turbo-prop freighter. It's one of the noisiest aircraft in
    the stratosphere, a big, echoing, steel cave specifically designed to carry heavy-
    duty freight -- not sensitive, delicate, poetic conversationalists such as ourselves.
    We loaded and stowed our essential equipment: heavy weaps (machine guns), M4
    rifles, SIG-Sauer 9mm pistols, pigstickers (combat knives), ammunition belts,
    grenades, medical and communication gear. A couple of the guys slung up
    hammocks made of thick netting. The rest of us settled back into seats that were
    also made of netting. Business class this wasn't. But frogs don't travel light, and
    they don't expect comfort. That's frogmen, by the way, which we all were.
    Stuck here in this flying warehouse, this utterly primitive form of passenger
    transportation, there was a certain amount of cheerful griping and moaning. But if
    the six of us were inserted into some hellhole of a battleground, soaking wet,
    freezing cold, wounded, trapped, outnumbered, fighting for our lives, you would
    not hear one solitary word of complaint. That's the way of our brotherhood. It's a
    strictly American brotherhood, mostly forged in blood. Hard-won, unbreakable.
    Built on a shared patriotism, shared courage, and shared trust in one another. There
    is no fighting force in the world quite like us.
    The flight crew checked we were all strapped in, and then those thunderous Boeing
    engines roared. Jesus, the noise was unbelievable. I might just as well have been
    sitting in the gearbox. The whole aircraft shook and rumbled as we charged down
    the runway, taking off to the southwest, directly into the desert wind which gusted
    out of the mainland Arabian peninsula. There were no other passengers on board,
    just the flight crew and, in the rear, us, headed out to do God's work on behalf of
    the U.S. government and our commander in chief, President George W. Bush. In a
    sense, we were all alone. As usual.
    We banked out over the Gulf of Bahrain and made a long, left-hand swing onto our
    easterly course. It would have been a whole hell of a lot quicker to head directly
    northeast across the gulf. But that would have taken us over the dubious southern
    uplands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we do not do that.
    Instead we stayed south, flying high over the friendly coastal deserts of the United
    Arab Emirates, north of the burning sands of the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter.
    Astern of us lay the fevered cauldrons of loathing in Iraq and nearby Kuwait,

    places where I had previously served. Below us were the more friendly,
    enlightened desert kingdoms of the world's coming natural-gas capital, Qatar; the
    oil-sodden emirate of Abu Dhabi; the gleaming modern high-rises of Dubai; and
    then, farther east, the craggy coastline of Oman.
    None of us were especially sad to leave Bahrain, which was the first place in the
    Middle East where oil was discovered. It had its history, and we often had fun in
    the local markets bargaining with local merchants for everything. But we never felt
    at home there, and somehow as we climbed into the dark skies, we felt we were
    leaving behind all that was god-awful in the northern reaches of the gulf and

    embarking on a brand-new mission, one that we understood.
    In Baghdad we were up against an enemy we often could not see and were obliged
    to get out there and find. And when we found him, we scarcely knew who he was
    -- al Qaeda or Taliban, Shiite or Sunni, Iraqi or foreign, a freedom fighter for
    Saddam or an insurgent fighting for some kind of a different god from our own, a
    god who somehow sanctioned murder of innocent civilians, a god who'd
    effectively booted the Ten Commandments over the touchline and out of play.
    They were ever present, ever dangerous, giving us a clear pattern of total
    confusion, if you know what I mean. Somehow, shifting positions in the big
    Hercules freighter, we were leaving behind a place which was systematically
    tearing itself apart and heading for a place full of wild mountain men who were
    hell-bent on tearing us apart.
    Afghanistan. This was very different. Those mountains up in the northeast, the
    western end of the mighty range of the Hindu Kush, were the very same mountains
    where the Taliban had sheltered the lunatics of al Qaeda, shielded the crazed
    followers of Osama bin Laden while they plotted the attacks on the World Trade
    Center in New York on 9/11.
    This was where bin Laden's fighters found a home training base. Let's face it, al
    Qaeda means "the base," and in return for the Saudi fanatic bin Laden's money,
    the Taliban made it all possible. Right now these very same guys, the remnants of
    the Taliban and the last few tribal warriors of al Qaeda, were preparing to start
    over, trying to fight their way through the mountain passes, intent on setting up
    new training camps and military headquarters and, eventually, their own
    government in place of the democratically elected one.
    They may not have been the precise same guys who planned 9/11. But they were
    most certainly their descendants, their heirs, their followers. They were part of the
    same crowd who knocked down the North and South towers in the Big Apple on
    the infamous Tuesday morning in 2001. And our coming task was to stop them,
    right there in those mountains, by whatever means necessary.
    Thus far, those mountain men had been kicking some serious ass in their
    skirmishes with our military. Which was more or less why the brass had sent for
    us. When things get very rough, they usually send for us. That's why the navy
    spends years training SEAL teams in Coronado, California, and Virginia Beach.
    Especially for times like these, when Uncle Sam's velvet glove makes way for the
    iron fist of SPECWARCOM (that's Special Forces Command).
    And that was why all of us were here. Our mission may have been strategic, it may
    have been secret. However, one point was crystalline clear, at least to the six
    SEALs in that rumbling Hercules high above the Arabian desert. This was payback
    time for the World Trade Center. We were coming after the guys who did it. If not
    the actual guys, then their blood brothers, the lunatics who still wished us dead and
    might try it again. Same thing, right?
    We knew what we were coming for. And we knew where we were going: right up
    there to the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, those same mountains where bin Laden
    might still be and where his new bands of disciples were still hiding. Somewhere.

    The pure clarity of purpose was inspirational to us. Gone were the treacherous,
    dusty backstreets of Baghdad, where even children of three and four were taught to
    hate us. Dead ahead, in Afghanistan, awaited an ancient battleground where we
    could match our enemy, strength for strength, stealth for stealth, steel for steel.
    This might be, perhaps, a little daunting for regular soldiers. But not for SEALs.
    And I can state with absolute certainty that all six of us were excited by the
    prospect, looking forward to doing our job out there in the open, confident of our
    ultimate success, sure of our training, experience, and judgment. You see, we're
    invincible. That's what they taught us. That's what we believe.
    It's written right there in black and white in the official philosophy of the U.S.


    Navy SEAL, the last two paragraphs of which read:
    We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of
    combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by
    my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required,
    yet guided by the very principles I serve to defend.
    Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation
    that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates
    steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.

    Each one of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters. It
    was important for us to appear nonmilitary, to not stand out in a crowd. Despite
    this, I can guarantee you that if three SEALs were put into a crowded airport, I
    would spot them all, just by their bearing, their confidence, their obvious
    discipline, the way they walk. I'm not saying anyone else could recognize them.
    But I most certainly could.
    The guys who traveled from Bahrain with me were remarkably diverse, even by
    SEAL standards. There was SGT2 Matthew Gene Axelson, not yet thirty, a petty
    officer from California, married to Cindy, devoted to her and to his parents, Cordell
    and Donna, and to his brother, Jeff.
    I always called him Axe, and I knew him well. My twin brother, Morgan, was his
    best friend. He'd been to our home in Texas, and he and I had been together for a
    long time in SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1, Alfa Platoon. He and Morgan were
    swim buddies together in SEAL training, went through Sniper School together.
    Axe was a quiet man, six foot four, with piercing blue eyes and curly hair. He was
    smart and the best Trivial Pursuit player I ever saw. I loved talking to him because
    of how much he knew. He would come out with answers that would have defied

    the learning of a Harvard professor. Places, countries, their populations, principal
    industries.
    In the teams, he was always professional. I never once saw him upset, and he
    always knew precisely what he was doing. He was just one of those guys. What
    was difficult and confusing for others was usually a piece of cake for him. In
    combat he was a supreme athlete, swift, violent, brutal if necessary. His family
    never knew that side of him. They saw only the calm, cheerful navy man who
    could undoubtedly have been a professional golfer, a guy who loved a laugh and a
    cold beer.
    You could hardly meet a better person. He was an incredible man.
    Then there was my best friend, Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy, also not yet
    thirty, an honors graduate from Penn State, a hockey player, accepted by several
    law schools before he turned the rudder hard over and changed course for the
    United States Navy. Mikey was an inveterate reader. His favorite book was Steven

    Pressfield's Gates of Fire, the story of the immortal stand of the Spartans at
    Thermopylae.
    He was vastly experienced in the Middle East, having served in Jordan, Qatar, and
    Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. We started our careers as SEALs at the same time,
    and we were probably flung together by a shared devotion to the smart-ass remark.
    Also, neither of us could sleep if we were under the slightest pressure. Our
    insomnia was shared like our humor. We used to hang out together half the night,
    and I can truthfully say no one ever made me laugh like that.
    I was always razzing him about being dirty. We'd sometimes go out on patrol every
    day for weeks, and there seems to be no time to shower and no point in showering
    when you're likely to be up to your armpits in swamp water a few hours later.
    Here's a typical exchange between us, petty officer team leader to commissioned
    SEAL officer:


    "Mikey, you smell like shit, for Christ's sake. Why the hell don't you take a
    shower?"
    "Right away, Marcus. Remind me to do that tomorrow, willya?"
    "Roger that, sir!"
    For his nearest and dearest, he used a particularly large gift shop, otherwise known
    as the U.S. highway system. I remember him giving his very beautiful girlfriend
    Heather a gift-wrapped traffic cone for her birthday. For Christmas, he gave her
    one of those flashing red lights which fit on top of those cones at night. Giftwrapped,
    of course. He once gave me a stop sign for my birthday.
    And you should have seen his traveling bag. It was enormous, a big, cavernous
    hockey duffel bag, the kind carried by his favorite team, the New York Rangers.
    The single heaviest piece of luggage in the entire navy. But it didn't sport the
    Rangers logo. On its top were two simple words: Piss off.
    There was no situation for which he could not summon a really smart-ass remark.
    Mikey was once involved in a terrible and almost fatal accident, and one of the
    guys asked him to explain what happened.
    "C'mon," said the New York lieutenant, as if it were a subject of which he was
    profoundly weary. "You're always bringing up that old shit. Fuggeddaboutit."
    The actual accident had happened just two days earlier.
    He was also the finest officer I ever met, a natural leader, a really terrific SEAL
    who never, ever bossed anyone around. It was always Please. Always Would you
    mind? Never Do that, do this. And he simply would not tolerate any other high-
    ranking officer, commissioned or noncommissioned, reaming out one of his guys.
    He insisted the buck stopped with him. He always took the hit himself. If a
    reprimand was due, he accepted the blame. But don't even try to go around him
    and bawl out one of his guys, because he could be a formidable adversary when
    riled. And that riled him.
    He was excellent underwater, and a powerful swimmer. Trouble was, he was a bit
    slow, and that was truly his only flaw. One time, he and I were on a two-mile
    training swim, and when I finally hit the beach I couldn't find him. Finally I saw
    him splashing through the water about four hundred yards offshore. Christ, he's in
    trouble -- that was my first thought.
    So I charged back into the freezing sea and set out to rescue him. I'm not a real fast
    runner, but I'm quick through the water, and I reached him with no trouble. I
    should have known better.
    "Get away from me, Marcus!" he yelled. "I'm a race car in the red, highest revs on
    the TAC. Don't mess with me, Marcus, not now. You're dealing with a race car
    here."
    Only Mike Murphy. If I told that story to any SEAL in our platoon, withheld the
    name, and then asked who said it, everyone would guess Mikey.

    Sitting opposite me in the Hercules was Senior Chief Daniel Richard Healy,
    another awesome Navy SEAL, six foot three, thirty-seven, married to Norminda,
    father of seven children. He was born in New Hampshire and joined the navy in
    1990, advancing to serve in the SEAL teams and learning near-fluent Russian.
    Danny and I served in the same team, SDV Team 1, for three years. He was a little
    older than most of us and referred to us as his kids -- as if he didn't have enough.
    And he loved us all with equal passion, both big families, his wife and children,
    sisters, brothers, and parents, and the even bigger one hitherto based on the island
    of Bahrain. Dan was worse than Mikey in his defense of his SEALs. No one ever
    dared yell at any of us while he was around.
    He guarded his flock assiduously, researched every mission with complete
    thoroughness, gathered the intel, checked the maps, charts, photographs, all
    reconnaissance. Also, he paid attention to the upcoming missions and made sure
    his kids were always in the front line. That's the place we were trained for, the

    place we liked to go.
    In many ways Dan was tough on everyone. There were times when he and I did not
    see eye to eye. He was unfailingly certain that his way was the best way, mostly
    the only way. But his heart was in the right place at all times. Dan Healy was one
    hell of a Navy SEAL, a role model for everything a senior chief should be, an iron
    man who became a strategist and who knew his job from A to Z. I talked face to
    face with big Dan almost every day of my life.
    Somewhere up above us, swinging in his hammock, headset on, listening to rockand-
    roll music, was Petty Officer Second Class Shane Patton, twenty-two-year-old
    surfer and skateboarder originally from Las Vegas, Nevada. My protégé. As the
    primary communications operator, I had Shane as my number two. Like a much
    younger Mike Murphy, he too was a virtuoso at the smart-ass remark and, as you
    would expect, an outstanding frogman.
    It was hard for me to identify with Shane because he was so different. I once
    walked into the comms center, and he was trying to order a leopard-skin coat on
    the Internet.
    "What the hell do you want that for?" I asked.
    "It's just so cool, man," he replied, terminating further discussion.
    A big, robust guy with blond hair and a relatively insolent grin, Shane was
    supersmart. I never had to tell him anything. He knew what to do at all times. At
    first, this slightly irritated me; you know, telling a much junior guy what you want
    done, and it turns out he's already done it. Every time. Took me a while to get used
    to the fact I had an assistant who was damn near as sharp as Matt Axelson. And
    that's as sharp as it gets.
    Shane, like a lot of those beach gods, was hugely laid back. His buddies would
    probably call it supercool or some such word. But in a comms operator, that quality
    is damn near priceless. If there's a firefight going on, and Shane's back at HQ
    manning the radio, you're listening to one ultracalm, very measured SEAL
    communicator. Sorry, I meant dude. That was an all-purpose word for Shane. Even
    I was a dude, according to him. Even the president of the United States was a dude,
    according to him. Actually he accorded President Bush the highest accolade, the
    gold-plated Congressional Medal of Honor awarded by the surf gods: He's a real
    dude, man, a real dude.
    He was the son of a Navy SEAL, and his quiet, rarely uttered ambition was to be
    just like his dad, James J. Patton. He wanted to be a member of the navy jump
    team, as his father had once been. He completed basic airborne training at Fort
    Benning, Georgia, before he passed his SEAL qualification exams and accepted
    orders to SDV Team 1, Alfa Platoon. Five months later he joined us on the flight to
    Afghanistan.

    Everything Shane did, all through his short life, was outstanding. In high school he
    was the star pitcher and the best outfielder. He could play the guitar really well, ran
    a band called True Story, the quality of which remains a bit of a mystery. He was a
    super photographer and a skilled mechanic and engineer; he'd single-handedly
    restored and customized two old Volks-wagen Bugs. He had acquired another one
    that he told me would become "the ultimate customized Bug, dude. That's what
    I'm all about."
    Shane was as good on a computer as anyone at the base. He spent hours on it, some
    Web site called MySpace, always keeping in touch with his friends: Hey, dude,
    howya been?
    The sixth member of our group was James Suh, a twenty-eight-year-old native of
    Chicago who was raised in south Florida. James had been with SDV Team 1 for
    three years before we left for Afghanistan, and during that time he became one of
    the best-liked guys on the base. He had only one sibling, an older sister, but he had
    about three hundred cousins, every one of whom he was sworn to protect.

    James, like his close buddy Shane, was another inordinately tough SEAL, a petty
    officer second class. Like Shane, he'd gone through basic airborne training at Fort
    Benning and gone forward to join Alfa Platoon.
    His early ambition had been to become a veterinarian, a dog specialist. But James
    was born to be a SEAL and was passionately proud of his membership in one of
    the most elite combat outfits in the world and in his ability to defy the limits of
    physical and mental endurance.
    Like Shane, he was a star high school athlete, outstanding on both the swim and
    tennis teams. Academically, he was constantly in the gifted and advanced classes.
    In our platoon, James was right up there with Axe and Shane as a SEAL of high
    intelligence and supreme reliability under fire. I never met one person with a bad
    word to say about him.
    It took us almost three hours to reach the Gulf of Oman. We'd cut south of the
    Strait of Hormuz, staying well away from the superhighway of world oil and gas
    tankers moving to and from the massive loading docks of the Gulf of Iran. The
    Iranian navy does its exercises down there, operating out of their main base at
    Bandar Abbas and also farther down the coast, at their increasingly active
    submarine base.
    Not that we imagined some trigger-happy Iranian missile director might take a pop
    at us with some fast heat-seeking weapon. But caution was usually advisable
    around there, despite the fact we had a very tough man in the White House who'd
    made clear his policy of harsh retaliation at the merest suggestion of an attack on

    U.S. air traffic, civilian or military.
    You had to serve out here in the Middle East to understand fully the feeling of
    danger, even threat, that was never far away, even in countries generally regarded
    as friendly to America. Like Bahrain.
    The rugged part of the Omani coast I mentioned earlier is around the point of land
    at Ras Musandam, with its deep fjords. This most northerly rocky shelf which juts
    out into the Gulf of Hormuz is the closest foreign point to the Iranian base at
    Bandar Abbas. The stretch of coastline running south from that point is much
    flatter, sloping down from the ancient Al Hajar Mountains. We began our long
    ocean crossing somewhere down there, north of Muscat, close to the Tropic of
    Cancer.
    And as we crossed that coastline heading out toward the open ocean, it really was
    good-bye, from me at least, to the Arabian Peninsula and the seething Islamic
    states at the north end of the gulf, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, that had dominated

    my life and thoughts for the past couple of years. Especially Iraq.
    I had first arrived there to join Team 5 back on April 14, 2003, coming into the


    U.S. air base fifteen minutes out of Baghdad with twelve other SEALs from
    Kuwait in an aircraft just like this C-130. It was one week after the U.S. forces
    launched their opening bombardment against the city, trying to nail Saddam before
    the war really started. The Brits had just taken Basra.
    On the same day I arrived, U.S. Marines took Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and a
    few hours later the Pentagon announced that major combat had concluded. None of
    which had the slightest bearing on our mission, which was to help root out and if
    necessary destroy what little opposition was left and then help with the search for
    weapons of mass destruction.
    I had been in Baghdad just one day when President Bush declared Saddam Hussein
    and his Ba'ath Party had fallen, and my colleagues swiftly captured, that same day,
    Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Front, which attacked the Italian
    cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985.
    Forty-eight hours later, on April 17, U.S. forces captured Saddam's half brother the
    infamous Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. That was the kind of stuff I was instantly
    involved in. I was one of 146,000 American and coalition troops in there, under the
    command of General Tommy Franks. It was my first experience of close-quarter
    combat. It was the place where I learned the finer points of my trade.
    It was also the first inkling we had of the rise from the ashes of Osama bin Laden's
    followers. Sure, we knew they were still around, still trying to regroup after the
    United States had just about flattened them in Afghanistan. But it was not long
    before we began to hear of an outfit called al Qaeda in Iraq, a malicious terrorist
    group trying to cause mayhem at every conceivable opportunity, led by the
    deranged Jordanian killer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now deceased).
    Our missions in the city were sometimes interrupted by intense searches for
    whatever or whoever happened to be missing. On my first day, four of us went out
    to some huge Iraqi lake area looking for a missing F-18 Super Hornet fighter
    bomber and its U.S. pilot. You probably remember the incident. I'll never forget it.
    We came in low over the lake in our MH-47 Chinook heli-copter and suddenly we
    spotted the tail of an aircraft jutting out of the water. Right after that, we found the
    body of the pilot washed up on the shore.
    I remember feeling very sad, and it would not be for the last time. I'd been in the
    country for less than twenty-four hours. Attached to Team 5, we were known as
    straphangers, extra muscle drafted in for particularly dangerous situations. Our
    primary mission was special surveillance and reconnaissance, photographing hot
    spots and danger areas using unbelievable photographic lenses.
    We carried out everything under the cover of darkness, waiting patiently for many
    hours, watching our backs, keeping our eyes on the target, firing computerized
    pictures back to base from virtually inside the jaws of the enemy.
    We worked usually in a very small unit of four SEALs. Out on our own. This kind
    of close-quarter recon is the most dangerous job of all. It's lonely and often dull,
    and fraught with peril should we be discovered. Sometimes, with a particularly
    valuable terrorist leader, we might go in and get him, trying to yank him out of
    there alive. Brutal, no mercy. Generally speaking, the Navy SEALs train the best
    recon units in the world.
    It always makes me laugh when I read about "the proud freedom fighters in Iraq."
    They're not proud. They'd sell their own mothers for fifty bucks. We'd go into
    some house, grab the guy we believed was the ringleader, and march him outside
    into the street. First thing he'd say was "Hey, hey, not me. You want those guys in
    that house down the street." Or "You give me dollars, I tell you what you want to
    know."

    They would, and did. And what they told us was very often extremely valuable.
    Most of those big military coups, like the elimination of Saddam's sons and the
    capture of Saddam himself, were the result of military intel. Somebody, someone
    from their own side, shopped them, as they had shopped hundreds of others.
    Anything for a buck, right? Pride? Those guys couldn't even spell it.
    And that grade of intelligence is often hard-won. We'd go in fast, driving into the
    most dangerous districts in the city, screaming through the streets in Humvees, or
    even fast-roping in from helicopters if necessary. We'd advance, city block by city
    block, moving carefully through the dark, ready for someone to open fire on us
    from a window, a building, somewhere on the opposite side of the street, even a
    tower. It happened all the time. Sometimes we returned fire, always to much more
    deadly effect than our enemy could manage.
    And when we reached our objective, we'd either go in with sledgehammers and a
    hooley -- that's a kind of a crowbar that will rip a door right off its hinges -- or
    we'd wrap the demo around the lock and blast that sucker straight in. We always
    made certain the blast was aimed inward, just in case someone was waiting behind
    the door with an AK-47. It's hard to survive when a door comes straight at you at
    one hundred miles an hour from point-blank range.

    Occasionally, if we had an element of doubt about the strength of the opposition
    behind that door, we would throw in a few flash-crashes, which do not explode and
    knock down walls or anything but do unleash a series of very loud, almost
    deafening bangs accompanied by searing white flashes. Very disorienting for our
    enemy.
    Right then our lead man would head the charge inside the building, which was
    always a shock for the residents. Even if we had not used the flash-crashes, they'd
    wake up real quick to face a group of big masked men, their machine guns leveled,
    shouting, daring anyone to make a move. Although these city houses were mostly
    two-story, Iraqis tend to sleep downstairs, all of them crowded together in the
    living room.
    There might be someone upstairs trying to fire down on us, which could be a
    massive pain in the ass. We usually solved that with a well-aimed hand grenade.
    That may sound callous, but your teammates are absolutely relying on the
    colleague with the grenade, because the guy upstairs might also have one, and that
    danger must be taken out. For your teammates. In the SEALs, it's always your
    teammates. No exceptions.
    However, in the room downstairs, where the Iraqis were by now in surrender
    mode, we'd look for the ringleader, the guy who knew where the explosives were
    stored, the guy who had access to the bomb-making kit or the weapons that would
    be aimed straight at American soldiers. He was usually not that difficult to find.
    We'd get some light in there and march him directly to the window so the guys
    outside with the intel could compare his face with photographs.
    Often the photographs had been taken by the team I worked in, and identification
    was swift. And while this process happened, the SEAL team secured the property,
    which means, broadly, making darned sure the Iraqis under this sudden house
    arrest had no access to any form of weaponry whatsoever.
    Right then what the SEALs call A-guys usually showed up, very professional, very
    steely, steadfast in their requirements and the necessary outcome of the
    interrogation. They cared, above all, about the quality of the informant's
    information, the priceless data which might save dozens of American lives. Outside
    we usually had three or four SEALs patrolling wide, to keep the inevitable
    gathering crowd at bay. When this was under control, with the A-guidance, we
    would question the ringleader, demanding he inform us where his terrorist cell was
    operating.

    Sometimes we would get an address. Sometimes names of other ringleaders. Other
    times a man might inform us about arms dumps, but this usually required money. If
    the guy we'd arrested was especially stubborn, we'd cuff him and send him back to
    base for a more professional interrogation.
    But usually he came up with something. That's the way we gathered the
    intelligence we needed in order to locate and take out those who would still fight
    for Saddam Hussein, even if his government had fallen, even if his troops had
    surrendered and the country was temporarily under American and British control.
    These were dangerous days at the conclusion of the formal conflict.
    Fired on from the rooftops, watching for car bombs, we learned to fight like
    terrorists, night after night, moving like wild animals through the streets and
    villages. There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he
    will surely kill you. That's why we went in so hard, taking houses and buildings by
    storm, blowing the doors in, charging forward, operating strictly by the SEAL
    teams' tried-and-trusted methods, ingrained in us by years of training.
    Because in the end, your enemy must ultimately fear you, understand your
    supremacy. That's what we were taught, out there in the absolute front line of U.S.
    military might. And that's probably why we never lost one Navy SEAL in all my
    long months in Iraq. Because we played it by the book. No mistakes.

    At least nothing major. Although I admit in my first week in Iraq we were subject
    to...well...a minor lapse in judgment after we found an Iraqi insurgent ammunition
    dump during a patrol along a river as sporadic shots were fired at us from the other
    side. There are those military officers who might have considered merely capturing
    the dump and confiscating the explosive.
    SEALs react somewhat differently and generally look for a faster solution. It's not
    quite, Hey, hey, hey...this lot's gotta go. But that will do for broad guidelines. We
    planted our own explosives in the building and then deferred to our EOD guy
    (explosive ordnance disposal). He positioned us a ways back, but a couple of us
    did wonder if it was quite far enough.
    "No problem. Stay right where you are." He was confident.
    Well, that pile of bombs, grenades, and other explosives went up like a nuclear
    bomb. At first there was just dust and small bits of concrete flying around. But the
    blasts grew bigger and the lumps of concrete from the building started to rain down
    on us.
    Guys were diving everywhere, into trucks, under trucks, anywhere to get out of the
    way. One of our guys jumped into the Tigris! We could hear these rocks and lumps
    of hard mud walls raining down on us, hitting the trucks. It was amazing no one
    was killed or hurt out there.
    Eventually it all went quiet, and I crawled out, unscathed. The EOD maestro was
    standing right next to me. "Beautiful," I said. "That went really well, didn't it?" I
    wished Mike Murphy had been there. He'd have come up with something better.
    We worked for almost three months with SEAL Team 5 out in the Baghdad
    suburbs. That was really where we were blooded for battle, combing those urban
    streets, flushing out insurgents wherever they hid. We needed all our skill, moving
    up to the corner blocks, opening fire out there in the night as we rounded these
    strange, dark, foreign street junctions.
    The trouble was, the places often looked normal. But up close you realized there
    were holes straight through the buildings. Some of them just had their front façade,
    the entire rear area having been blown out by U.S. bombs as the troops fought to
    run down the murderous Saddam Hussein.
    Thus we often found ourselves in what looked like respectable streets but which
    were in fact piles of rubble, perfect hiding places for insurgents or even Sunni
    Muslim terrorists still fighting for their erstwhile leader.

    On one such night I was almost killed. I had moved out onto the sidewalk, my rifle
    raised, as I fired to provide cover for my teammates. I remember it vividly. I was
    standing astride a bomb, directly over it, and I never even saw it.
    One of the guys yelled, "Marcus! Move it!" and he came straight toward me, hit
    me with the full force of his body, and the pair of us rolled into the middle of the
    street. He was first up, literally dragging me away. Moments later, our EOD guys
    blew it up. Thankfully we were both now out of range, since it was only a small
    improvised explosive made in someone's kitchen. Nevertheless, it would have
    killed me, or at the very least inflicted serious damage on my wedding tackle.
    It was just another example of how amazingly sharp you need to be in order to
    wear the SEAL Trident. Over and over during training, we were told never to be
    complacent, reminded constantly of the sheer cunning and unpredictability of our
    terrorist enemy, of the necessity for total vigilance at all times, of the endless need
    to watch out for our teammates. Every night before our mission, one of the senior
    petty officers would say, "C'mon now, guys. Get your game faces on. This is for
    real. Stay on your toes. Concentrate. That way you'll live."
    I learned a lot about myself out there with Team 5, moving through the dark,
    zigzagging across the ground, never doing anything the same way twice. That's
    what the army does, everything the same way. We operate differently, because we
    are a much smaller force. Even with a major city operation we never travel in

    groups of more than twenty, and the recon units consist of only four men.
    It all causes your senses to go up tenfold, as you move quietly, stealthily through
    the shadows, using the dead space, the areas into which your enemy cannot see.
    Someone described us as the shadow warriors. He was right. That's what we are.
    And we always have a very clear objective, usually just one guy, one person who is
    responsible for making the problem: the terrorist leader or strategist.
    And there's a whole code of conduct to remember when you finally catch up with
    him. First of all, make him drop his gun and get his ass on the ground. He'll
    usually do that without much protest. Should he decide against this, we help him
    get on the ground, quickly. But we never, never, turn around, even for a split
    second. We never give these guys one inch of latitude. Because he'll pick that rifle
    up and shoot you at point-blank range, straight in the back. He might even cut your
    throat if he had a chance. No one can hate quite like a terrorist. Until you've
    encountered one of these guys, you don't understand the meaning of the
    word hate.
    We found half-trained terrorists all over the world, mostly unfit to handle a lethal
    weapon of any kind, especially those Russian-made Kalashnikovs they use. First of
    all, the damn thing is inaccurate, and in the hands of an hysteric, which most of
    them are, the guns spray bullets all over the place. When these guys go after an
    American, they usually fire blindly around a corner, aiming at nothing in particular,
    and end up killing three passing Iraqi civilians. Only by pure chance do they hit the
    American soldier they wanted.
    On May 1, 2003, President Bush announced the military phase of the war was over.
    Four days later it was revealed Saddam and his son had heisted $1 billion in cash
    from the Central Bank. Around that time, with the search for weapons of mass
    destruction still under way, we were detailed to the gigantic Lake Buhayrat ath
    Tharthar, where supposedly a large cache had been hidden by Saddam.
    This was a major stretch of water, nearly fifty miles long and in some places thirty
    miles wide, set on a flat, verdant plain between the Euphrates and the Tigris, south
    of Tikrit. There's a huge dam at one end, and we were stationed just to the south at
    a place named Hit. Seemed fitting. So we jocked up and combed the deep, clear
    waters of that lake for about a week, every inch of it. We were operating out of
    Zodiacs and found nothing except for a bicycle tire and an old ladder.

    As the weeks went by the weather grew hotter, sometimes hitting 115°F. We kept
    going, working away through the nights. There were times when it all seemed to
    grow calmer, and then on July 4, a taped voice, which al-Jazeera television said
    was Saddam, urged everyone to join the resistance and fight the U.S. occupation to
    the death.
    We thought that was kind of stupid, because we weren't trying to occupy anything.
    We were just trying to stop these crazy pricks from blowing up and wiping out the
    civilian population of the country we had just liberated from one of the biggest
    bastards in history.
    Didn't much matter what we thought. The very next day a serious bomb went off at
    a graduation ceremony for the new Iraqi police class, trained by the United States.
    Seven new cops were killed and seventy more were wounded. God alone
    understood those to whom that made sense.
    We continued our operations, looking for the key insurgents, forcing or bribing the
    information out of them. But it already seemed their recruiting numbers were
    limitless. No matter how many we ran to ground, there were always more. It was
    around this time we first heard of the rise of this sinister group who called
    themselves al Qaeda in Iraq. It was an undisguised terrorist operation, dedicated to
    mayhem and murder, especially of us.
    However, the whole movement received a severe blow to its morale on July 22,
    when Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, who were at least as evil as their dad, were

    finally nailed at a house in Mosul. I'm not allowed to speak of this highly
    classified operation, save to mention the pair of them were killed when U.S.
    Special Forces flattened the entire building. Their deaths were entirely due to the
    fact that a couple of their devoted, loyal comrades, full of pride in their fight for
    freedom, betrayed them. For money. Just as they would later betray Abu Musab al-
    Zarqawi.
    Despite all our efforts, the suicide bombers just continued, young Iraqis convinced
    by the teachings of the extremist ayatollahs that the murder of their perceived
    enemies would open the gateway to paradise for them -- that the three trumpets
    would sound and they would cross the bridge into the arms of Allah and
    everlasting happiness.
    So they just went right back at it. A bomb killed a U.S. soldier on August 26, which
    meant there had now been more U.S. lives lost since the conflict ended than during
    the battle. On August 29, a massive car bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in
    Najaf and killed eighty people, including the revered and greatly loved Shiite
    leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakin.
    In our opinion, this was rapidly getting out of hand. It seemed no matter what we
    did, no matter how many of these nuts we rounded up, how much explosive,
    bombs, or weapons we located, there was always more. And always more young
    men quite happy to take that shortcut to the trumpets, get right over that bridge and
    plug into some quality happiness.
    By now, late August, the question of the missing WMDs was growing more urgent.
    Hans Blix, the United Nations' chief weapons inspector, had retired from public
    life, and the U.S. Armed Forces were now keeping a careful watch. In our view, the
    question of whether Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons was
    answered. Of course he did. He used them in Halabja, right?
    I guess by now the issue in the minds of the American public was, Did he have a
    nuclear weapon, an atom bomb? But, of course, that is not the most significant
    question. The one that counts is, Did he have a nuclear program?
    Because that would mean he was trying to produce weapons-grade uranium-235.
    You get that from using a centrifuge to spin uranium-238, thus driving the heavy
    neutrons outward, like water off the lettuce in a salad spinner. It's a hell of a

    process and takes up to seven years, at which time, if you've had a trouble-free
    run, you cut off the outside edges of the uranium and there you have a large hunk
    of heavy-molecule uranium-235. Cut that in half and then slam the two pieces
    together by high explosive in a confined steel space, like a rocket or a bomb, and
    right there it's Hiroshima all over again.
    And that's the issue: Was Saddam spinning for uranium-235, and if so, where did
    he get the uranium in the first place? And where was he conducting his program?
    Remember, there is no other reason on this earth to want uranium-235 except to
    make an atom bomb.
    We knew the American intelligence agencies believed he had such a program, that
    somewhere in this vast country -- it's bigger than Germany, nearly as big as Texas
    -- there were centrifuges trying to manufacture the world's most dangerous
    substance.
    That was all the information we had. But we knew what to look for, and we would
    most certainly have recognized it if we had found it. Did Saddam actually own the
    completed article, a finely tuned atomic bomb or missile? Probably not. No one
    ever thought he did. But as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once
    remarked, "What do you want to do? Leave him there till he does?"
    You may remember the CIA believed they had uncovered critical evidence from
    the satellite pictures of those enormous government trucks rolling along Iraq's
    highways: four of them, usually in convoy, and all big enough to house two
    centrifuges. The accepted opinion was that Saddam had a mobile spinning program

    which could not easily be found, and in fact could be either lost and buried in the
    desert or alternatively driven across the border into Syria or even Jordan.
    Well, we found those trucks, hidden in the desert, parked together. But the inside of
    each one had been roughly gutted. There was nothing left. We saw the trucks, and
    in my opinion someone had removed whatever they had contained, and in a very
    great hurry.
    I also saw the al Qaeda training camp north of Baghdad. That had been abandoned,
    but it was stark evidence of the strong links between the Iraqi dictator and Osama
    bin Laden's would-be warriors. Traces of the camp's military purpose were all
    around. Some of the guys who had been in Afghanistan said it was just about a
    direct replica of the camp the United States destroyed after 9/11.
    There were many times when we really were chasing shadows out there in that
    burning hot, sandy wilderness. Especially in our coastal searches. Out there, often
    in uncharted desert wasteland near the water, we'd see rocket launchers in the
    distance and drive right onto them, only to find they were just decoys, huge fake
    missile containers pointing at the sky, made out of scrap metal and old iron bars.
    After a two-day drive over rough country in unbelievable heat, that counted as a
    very grave inconvenience. If our team had ultimately found Saddam in his hideyhole,
    we'd probably have shot him dead for a lot of reasons but especially on the
    strength of those wasted desert runs. (Just joking.)
    I'll say one thing. That Iraqi president was one wily devil, ducking and diving
    between his thirteen palaces, evading capture, making tape recordings, urging the
    dregs of his armed forces to keep killing us, encouraging the insurgents to continue
    the war against the great Satan (that's us).
    It was tough out there. But in many ways I'm grateful for the experience. I learned
    precisely how seditious and cunning an enemy could be. I learned never to
    underestimate him. And I learned to stay right on top of my game all of the time in
    order to deal with it. No complacency.
    Looking back, during our long journey in the C-130 to Afghanistan, I was more
    acutely aware of a growing problem which faces U.S. forces on active duty in
    theaters of war all over the world. For me, it began in Iraq, the first murmurings

    from the liberal part of the U.S.A. that we were somehow in the wrong, brutal
    killers, bullying other countries; that we who put our lives on the line for our
    nation at the behest of our government should somehow be charged with murder
    for shooting our enemy.
    It's been an insidious progression, the criticisms of the U.S. Armed Forces from
    politicians and from the liberal media, which knows nothing of combat, nothing of
    our training, and nothing of the mortal dangers we face out there on the front line.
    Each of the six of us in that aircraft en route to Afghanistan had constantly in the
    back of our minds the ever-intrusive rules of engagement.
    These are drawn up for us to follow by some politician sitting in some distant
    committee room in Washington, D.C. And that's a very long way from the
    battlefield, where a sniper's bullet can blast your head, where the slightest mistake
    can cost your life, where you need to kill your enemy before he kills you.
    And those ROE are very specific: we may not open fire until we are fired upon or
    have positively identified our enemy and have proof of his intentions. Now, that's
    all very gallant. But how about a group of U.S. soldiers who have been on patrol
    for several days; have been fired upon; have dodged rocket-propelled grenades and
    homemade bombs; have sustained casualties; and who are very nearly exhausted
    and maybe slightly scared?
    How about when a bunch of guys wearing colored towels around their heads and
    brandishing AK-47s come charging over the horizon straight toward you? Do you
    wait for them to start killing your team, or do you mow the bastards down before
    they get a chance to do so?

    That situation might look simple in Washington, where the human rights of
    terrorists are often given high priority. And I am certain liberal politicians would
    defend their position to the death. Because everyone knows liberals have never
    been wrong about anything. You can ask them. Anytime.
    However, from the standpoint of the U.S. combat soldier, Ranger, SEAL, Green
    Beret, or whatever, those ROE represent a very serious conundrum. We understand
    we must obey them because they happen to come under the laws of the country we
    are sworn to serve. But they represent a danger to us; they undermine our
    confidence on the battlefield in the fight against world terror. Worse yet, they make
    us concerned, disheartened, and sometimes hesitant.
    I can say from firsthand experience that those rules of engagement cost the lives of
    three of the finest U.S. Navy SEALs who have ever served. I'm not saying that,
    given the serious situation, those elite American warriors might not have died a
    little later, but they would not have died right then, and in my view would almost
    certainly have been alive today.
    I am hopeful that one day soon, the U.S. government will learn that we can be
    trusted. We know about bad guys, what they do, and, often, who they are. The
    politicians have chosen to send us into battle, and that's our trade. We do what's
    necessary. And in my view, once those politicians have elected to send us out to do
    what 99.9 percent of the country would be terrified to undertake, they should get
    the hell out of the way and stay there.
    This entire business of modern war crimes, as identified by the liberal wings of
    politics and the media, began in Iraq and has been running downhill ever since.
    Everyone's got to have his little hands in it, blathering on about the public's right
    to know.
    Well, in the view of most Navy SEALs, the public does not have that right to
    know, not if it means placing our lives in unnecessary peril because someone in
    Washington is driving himself mad worrying about the human rights of some coldhearted
    terrorist fanatic who would kill us as soon as look at us, as well as any
    other American at whom he could point that wonky old AK of his.

    If the public insists it has the right to know, which I very much doubt, perhaps the
    people should go and face for themselves armed terrorists hell-bent on killing
    every single American they can.
    I promise you, every insurgent, freedom fighter, and stray gunman in Iraq who we
    arrested knew the ropes, knew that the way out was to announce he had been
    tortured by the Americans, ill treated, or prevented from reading the Koran or
    eating his breakfast or watching the television. They all knew al-Jazeera, the Arab
    broadcasters, would pick it up, and it would be relayed to the U.S.A., where the
    liberal media would joyfully accuse all of us of being murderers or barbarians or
    something. Those terrorist organizations laugh at the U.S. media, and they know
    exactly how to use the system against us.
    I realize I am not being specific, and I have no intention of being so. But these
    broad brushstrokes are designed to show that the rules of engagement are a clear
    and present danger, frightening young soldiers, who have been placed in harm's
    way by their government, into believing they may be charged with murder if they
    defend themselves too vigorously.
    I am not a political person, and as a Navy SEAL I am sworn to defend my country
    and carry out the wishes of my commander in chief, the president of the United
    States, whoever he may be, Republican or Democrat. I am a patriot; I fight for the

    U.S.A. and for my home state of Texas. I simply do not want to see some of the
    best young men in the country hesitating to join the elite branches of the U.S.
    Armed Services because they're afraid they might be accused of war crimes by
    their own side, just for attacking the enemy.
    And I know one thing for certain. If I ever rounded a mountainside in Afghanistan
    and came face to face with Osama bin Laden, the man who masterminded the
    vicious, unprovoked attack on my country, killing 2,752 innocent American
    civilians in New York on 9/11, I'd shoot him dead, in cold blood.
    At which point, urged on by an outraged American media, the military would
    probably incarcerate me under the jail, never mind in it. And then I'd be charged
    with murder.
    Tell you what. I'd still shoot the sonofabitch.
    2
    Baby Seals...and Big Ole Gators

    I wrestled with one once and was pretty glad when that sucker decided he'd had
    enough and took off for calmer waters. But to this day my brother loves to wrestle
    alligators, just for fun.

    We flew on, high over the southern reaches of the Gulf of Oman. We headed east-
    northeast for four hundred miles, forty-five thousand feet above the Arabian Sea.
    We crossed the sixty-first line of longitude in the small hours of the morning. That


    put us due south of the Iranian border seaport of Gavater, where the Pakistan
    frontier runs down to the ocean.

    Chief Healy snored quietly. Axe did a New York Times crossword. And the miracle
    was that Shane's headset didn't explode, as loud as his rock-and-roll music was
    playing.
    "Do you really need to play that shit at that volume, kiddo?"
    "It's cool, man...dude, chill."
    "Jesus Christ."
    The C-130 roared on, heading slightly more northerly now, up toward the coast of
    Baluchistan, which stretches 470 miles along the northern shoreline of the Arabian
    Sea and commands, strategically, the inward and outward oil lanes to the Persian
    Gulf. Despite a lot of very angry tribal chiefs, Baluchistan is part of Pakistan and
    has been since the partition with India in 1947. But that doesn't make the chiefs
    any happier with the arrangement.
    And it's probably worth remembering that no nation, not the Turks, the Tatars, the
    Persians, the Arabs, the Hindus, or the Brits has ever completely conquered
    Baluchistan. Those tribesmen even held off Genghis Khan, and his guys were the
    Navy SEALs of the thirteenth century.
    They never tell us, or anyone else, the precise route of U.S. Special Forces into any
    country. But there's a big American base in the Baluchistan coastal town of Pasni. I
    guess we made our landfall somewhere along there, long before first light, and then
    flew on over four mountain ranges for 250 miles up to another U.S. military base
    near the city of Dalbandin.
    We never stopped, but Dalbandin lies only fifty miles south of the Afghan border,
    and the airspace is safe around there. At least, it's as safe as anything can be in this
    strange, wild country, which is kind of jammed into a triangle among Iran,
    Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
    Baluchistan, its endless mountains a safe haven for so many fleeing al Qaeda
    recruits and exiled Taliban fighters, currently provides shelter for up to six
    thousand of these potential terrorists. And even though Chief Healy, me, and the
    guys were nine miles above this vast, underpopulated, and secretive land, it still
    gave me the creeps, and I was pleased when the aircrew finally told us we were in
    Afghanistan airspace, running north for another four hundred miles, up toward
    Kabul.
    I fell asleep somewhere over the Regestan Desert, east of one of Afghanistan's
    greatest waterways, the 750-mile-long Hel-mand River, which flows and irrigates
    most of the southern farmlands.
    I cannot remember my dreams, but I expect they were of home. They usually are
    when I'm serving overseas. Home for us is a small ranch out in the piney woods of
    East Texas, near Sam Houston National Forest. We live down a long, red dirt road
    in a lonely part of the country, close by another two or three ranches, one of which,
    our adjoining neighbor, is about four thousand times bigger than ours and
    sometimes makes us seem a whole lot bigger than we are. I have a similar effect on
    my identical twin brother, Morgan.
    He's about seven minutes older than I am, and around the same size (six feet five
    inches, 230 pounds). Somehow I've always been regarded as the baby of the
    family. You wouldn't believe seven minutes could do that to a guy, would you?
    Well, it did, and Morgan is unflagging in his status as senior man.
    He's a Navy SEAL as well, a little behind me in rank, because I joined first. But he
    still assumes a loose command whenever we're together. And that's pretty often,
    since we share a house in Coronado, California, hard by the SEAL teams.
    Anyway, there's two or three houses on our Texas property, the main one being a
    single-story stone ranch surrounded by a large country garden, which contains one

    little plantation for corn and another couple for vegetables. All around us, just
    about as far as you can see in any direction, there's pasture, studded with huge oak
    trees and grazing animals. It's a peaceful place for a God-fearing family.

    Right from kids, Morgan and I were brought up to believe in the Lord. We weren't
    compelled to go to church or anything, and to this day the family are not
    churchgoers. In fact, I'm the only one who does go to church on a somewhat
    regular basis. On Sunday mornings when I'm home, I drive over to the Catholic
    church, where people know me. I was not baptized a Catholic, but it suits me, its
    beliefs and doctrines sit easily with me. Since I was young, I have always been
    able to recite the Twenty-third Psalm and several others from beginning to end.
    Also, I thought the late Pope John Paul was the holiest man in the world, an
    uncompromising Vicar of Christ, a man whose guidelines were unshakable. Tough
    old guy, John Paul. A lot too tough for the Russians. I've always thought if he
    hadn't been a vicar, he'd have made a good Navy SEAL.
    Down home, in our quiet backwoods area, it looks like an untroubled life. There
    are a few minor irritants, most of those being snakes. However, Dad taught us how
    to deal with them long ago, especially the coral snakes and those copperhead
    vipers. There's also rattlesnakes, eastern diamondbacks, and king snakes, which eat
    the others. In the local lake you can find the occasional water moccasin, and he is
    one mean little sonofabitch. He'll chase you, and while I don't much like 'em, I'm
    not scared of them. Morgan goes after them as a sport, likes to hustle 'em up, keep
    'em alert.
    A mile or so up the road from us, there's a mighty herd of Texas longhorns.
    Beyond the house there's a half dozen paddocks for my mom's horses, some of
    them belonging to her, others boarders from other people.
    People send horses to her for her near-mystical power to bring sick or weak
    animals back to full fighting form. No one knows how she does it. She's plainly a
    horse whisperer. But she has some special ways of feeding them, including, for a
    certain type of ailing racehorse, some kind of a seaweed concoction she swears to
    God can turn a cow pony into Secretariat. Sorry, Mom. Didn't mean that. Just
    joking.
    Seriously, Holly Luttrell is a brilliant horsewoman. And she does turn horses that
    seem very poorly into gleaming, healthy runners again. I guess that's why those
    horses keep on coming. She can only cope with about ten at a time, and she's out
    there in the barn at five every morning looking after them. If you take the time, you
    can see the effect she has on them, the very obvious results of her very obvious
    skills.
    My mom's a seventh-generation Texan, although she did once immigrate to New
    York City. Around here, that's like moving to Shanghai, but Mom has always been
    a rather glamorous blonde and she wanted to make a career as an air stewardess.
    Didn't last long, though. She was back in the big country of East Texas real quick,
    raising horses. Like all of us, she feels Texas is a part of her spirit. It's in mine, in
    Dad's, and it sure as hell is the very essence of Morgan.
    None of us would live anywhere else. We're right at home down here, with people
    we have known and trusted for many years. There's no one like Texans for a spirit
    of expansiveness, optimism, friendship, and decency. I realize that might not be
    acceptable to everyone, but that's how it seems to us. We're out of place anywhere
    else. It's no good pretending otherwise.
    That might mean we just get real homesick quicker than other people. But I will
    come back to live here when I'm finished in the military. And I intend, sometime,
    to die here. Hardly a day goes by, wherever I am in the world, when I don't think
    of our little ranch and my huge circle of family and friends, of having a beer on the
    front porch and telling tall stories full of facts, some of 'em true, all of 'em funny.

    So while I'm on the subject I'll explain how a farm boy from the backwoods of
    East Texas came to be made a petty officer first class and a team leader in the U.S.
    Navy SEALs.
    The short explanation is probably talent, but I don't have any more of that than the


    next guy. In fact, my natural-born assets are very average. I'm pretty big, which
    was an accident of birth. I'm pretty strong, because a lot of other people took a lot
    of trouble training me, and I'm unbelievably determined, because when you're as
    naturally ungifted as I am, you have to keep driving forward, right?
    I'll outwork anyone. I'll just go on and on until the dust clears. Then I'm usually
    the only one left standing. As an athlete, I'm not very fast, but I'm kind of sharp. I
    know where to be, I'm good at anticipating things, and I guess that's why I was a
    halfway decent sportsman.
    Give me a golf ball and I can hit that sucker a country mile. That's because golf is
    a game that requires practice, practice, and more practice. That's my brand of
    doggedness. I can do that. I play to a reasonable handicap, although I wasn't born a
    Ben Hogan or anything. But Ben came from Texas like me. We were born about
    ninety-four miles apart, and in my country that's the equivalent of a sand wedge.
    Ben, of course, was known to practice more than any other golfer who had ever
    lived. Must be something in the water.
    I was born in Houston but raised up near the Oklahoma border. My parents, David
    and Holly Luttrell, owned a fair-sized horse farm, about 1,200 acres at one time.
    We had 125 head up there, mostly Thoroughbreds and quarter horses. My mom ran
    the breeding programs, and Dad took charge of the racing and sales operation.
    Morgan and I were brought up with horses, feeding, watering, cleaning out the
    barns, riding. Most every weekend we'd go in the horse van to the races. We were
    just kids at the time, and both our parents were excellent riders, especially Mom.
    That's how we learned. We worked the ranch, mended fences, swinging
    sledgehammers when we were about nine years old. We loaded the bales into the
    loft, worked like adults from a young age. Dad insisted on that. And for a lot of
    years, the operation did very well.
    At the time, Texas itself was in a boom-time hog heaven. Out in West Texas, where
    the oil drillers and everyone surrounding them were becoming multimillionaires,
    the price of oil went up 800 percent between 1973 and 1981. I was born in 1975,
    before that wave even started to crest, and I have to say the Luttrell family was
    riding high.
    It was nothing for my dad to breed a good-looking horse from a $5,000 stallion and
    sell the yearling for $40,000. He did it all the time. And my mom was a pure
    genius at improving a horse, buying it cheap and devoting months of tender loving
    care and brilliant feeding to produce a young runner worth eight times what she
    paid.
    And breeding horses was precisely the right line to be in. Horses were right up
    there with Rolex watches, Rolls-Royces, Learjets, Gulfstream 1s, palaces rather
    than regular houses, and boats, damn great boats. Office space was at a premium
    all over the state, and massive new high-rise blocks were under construction. Retail
    spending was at an all-time high. Racehorses, beautiful. Give me six. Six fast ones,
    Mr. Luttrell. That way I'll win some races.
    That oil money just washed right off, and people were making fortunes in anything
    that smacked of luxury, anything to feed the egos of the oil guys, who were
    spending and borrowing money at a rate never seen before or since.
    It wasn't anything for banks to make loans of more than $100 million to oil
    explorers and producers. At one time there were 4,500 oil rigs running in the
    U.S.A., most of them in Texas. Credit? That was easy. Banks would lend you a
    million bucks without batting an eye.

    Listen, I was only a kid at the time, but my family and I lived through the trauma
    to come, and, boy, I've done some serious reading about it since. And in a way, I'm
    glad I lived through it, because it taught me to be careful, to earn my money and
    invest it, get it somewhere secure.
    And it taught me to think very carefully about the element of luck, when it's

    running, and how to keep your life under control. I have long since worked out that
    when the crash came in Texas, its effects were magnified a thousandfold, because
    the guys in the oil industry sincerely believed money had nothing to do with luck.
    They thought their prosperity came from their own sheer brilliance.
    No one gave much consideration to the world oil market being controlled in the
    Middle East by Muslims. Everything that happened had its roots in Arabia, assisted
    by President Carter's energy policy and the fact that when I was five years old the
    price per barrel of crude was $40.
    The crash, when it came, was caused by the oil embargo and the Iranian revolution,
    when the ayatollah took over from the shah. The key to it was geopolitical. And
    Texas could only stand and watch helplessly as the oil glut manifested itself and
    the price per barrel began to slide downward to an ultimate low of around $9.
    That was in 1986, when I was not quite ten. In the meantime, the giant First
    National Bank of Midland, Texas, collapsed, judged insolvent by government
    financial inspectors. That was one huge bank to go belly-up, and the ripple effect
    was statewide. An era of reckless spending and investing was over. Guys building
    palaces were forced to sell at a loss. You couldn't give away a luxury boat, and
    Rolls-Royce dealers darned near went out of business.
    Along with the commercial giants felled by the oil crash went the horse farm of
    David and Holly Luttrell. Hard-running colts and mares, which Dad had valued at
    $35,000 to $40,000, were suddenly worth $5,000, less than they cost to raise. My
    family lost everything, including our house.
    But my dad's a resilient man, tough and determined. And he fought back, with a
    smaller ranch and the tried-and-trusted techniques of horse raising he and Mom
    had always practiced. But it all went wrong again. The family wound up living
    with my grandfather, Morgan sleeping on the floor.
    My dad, who had always kept one foot in the petrochemical business ever since he
    came back from Vietnam, went back to work, and in a very short time he was on
    his feet, with a couple of huge deals. We moved out of Grandfather's place into a
    grand four-story house, and the good times seemed to be back.
    Then some giant deal went south and we somehow lost it all again, moved back
    out to a kind of rural skid row. You see, my dad, though born over the border in
    Oklahoma, is a Texan in his soul. He was as brave as a lion when he was a navy
    gunner in Vietnam. And in Texas, real men don't sit on their money. They get back
    out there, take risks, and when they hit it big, they just want to hit it bigger. My
    dad's a real man.
    You could tell a lot about him just by the names he gave the ranches, big or small
    -- Lone Star Farms, North Fork Ranch, Shootin' Star. Like he always said, "I'd
    rather shoot for a star and hit a stump than shoot for a stump and miss."
    I cannot describe how poor we were during the time Morgan and I were trying to
    get through college. I had four jobs to pay tuition and board and make my truck
    payment. I was the lifeguard in the college pool and I worked with Morgan on
    construction, landscaping, cutting grass, and yard work. In the evening I was a
    bouncer in a rough local bar full of redneck cowboys. And I was still starving,
    trying to feed myself on about twenty dollars a week.
    One time, I guess we were around twenty-one, Morgan snapped his leg playing
    baseball, sliding into second. When they got him to the hospital Morgan just told
    them we didn't have any money. Eventually the surgeon agreed to operate and set

    the leg on some kind of long-term credit. But the anaesthetist would not administer
    anything to Morgan without payment.
    No one's tougher than my brother. And he eventually said, "Fine. I don't need
    anaesthetic. Set the leg without it. I can take the pain." The surgeon was aghast and
    told Morgan he could not possibly have such an operation without anaesthesia. But
    Morgan stuck to his guns. "Doc, I don't have any money. Fix my leg and I'll

    handle the pain."
    No one was crazy about that, especially the surgeon. But then Jason Miller, a
    college buddy of Morgan's, turned up, saw that he was in absolute agony, and gave
    him every last dollar of his savings to pay the anaesthetist. At which point they put
    Morgan back together.
    But I'm getting ahead of myself. When we were young, working the horses, my
    dad was very, very tough on us. He considered that good grades were everything,
    bad ones were simply unacceptable. I once got a C in conduct, and he beat me with
    a saddle girth. I know he was doing it for our own good, trying to instill discipline
    in his sons, which would serve them well in later life.
    But he ruled our lives with an iron fist. He would tell us: "One day I'm not gonna
    be here. Then it's gonna be you two, by yourselves, and I want you to understand
    how rough and unfair this world is. I want you both prepared for whatever the hell
    might come your way."
    He tolerated nothing. Disobedience was out of the question. Rudeness was damn
    near a hanging offense. There was no leeway. He insisted on politeness and hard
    work. And he didn't let up even when we were all broke. Dad was the son of an
    Arkansas woodsman, another amazingly tough character, and he brought that
    stand-on-your-own-feet ruggedness into our lives at the earliest opportunity.
    We were always out in the woods, in rough country in the East Texas pines, the red
    oaks, and the sweet gum trees. Dad taught us to shoot straight at the age of seven,
    bought us a .22 rifle, a Nylon 66. We could hit a moving Miller High Life beer can
    from 150 yards. Now that's redneck stuff, right? Redneck kids in redneck country,
    learning life's skills.
    He taught us how to survive out there. What you could eat and what you couldn't.
    He showed us how to build a shelter, taught us how to fish. He even taught us how
    to rope and kill a wild boar: drop a couple of long loops around his neck and pull,
    then hope to hell he doesn't charge straight at you! I still know how to butcher and
    roast one.
    At home, on any of the ranches, Dad showed us how to plant and grow corn and
    potatoes, vegetables and carrots. A lot of times when we were really poor we just
    about lived on that. Looking back, it was important training for a couple of farm
    boys.
    But perhaps most important of all, he taught us to swim. Dad himself was an all-
    American swimmer and this really mattered to him. He was superb in the water
    and he made me that good. In almost everything, Morgan is naturally better than I
    am. He's very gifted as a runner, a fighter, a marksman, a navigator on land or
    water. He always sails through his exams, whereas I have to slog it out, studying,
    practicing, trying to be first man in and last man out. Morgan does not have to
    strive.
    He was honor man after his SEAL BUD/S class, voted for by his peers. I knew he
    would be before he even started. There's only one discipline at which he can't beat
    me. I'm faster in the water, and I have the edge underwater. He knows it, though he
    might not admit it.
    There was a huge lake near where we lived, and that's where Dad trained us. All
    through the long Texas summers we were out there, swimming, racing, diving,
    practicing. We were just like fish, the way Dad wanted it.

    He spent months teaching us to dive, deep, first on our own, then with our scuba
    gear on. We were good, and people would pay us to try and retrieve keys and
    valuables thrown into deep water. Of course, Dad considered this might be too
    easy, and he stipulated we only got paid if we found the correct object.
    During this time we had the occasional brush with passing alligators, but one of my
    great Texas friends, Tray Baker, showed us how to deal with them. I wrestled with
    one once and was pretty glad when that sucker decided he'd had enough and took

    off for calmer waters. But to this day my brother loves to wrestle alligators, just for
    fun. He is, of course, crazy. But we sometimes take an old flat-bottomed boat
    fishing in the lake, and one of those big ole gators will come sliding up alongside
    the boat.
    Morgan makes a quick assessment -- Nostrils about eight or nine inches from his
    eyes, so he's eight or nine feet long. Morgan executes a ramrod-straight low-angled
    dive right on top of the gator, clamping its jaws shut with his fists, then he twists it
    and turns it, gets on its back, all the while holding those huge jaws tight shut and
    laughing at the panic-stricken beast of the deep.
    After a few minutes they both get fed up with it, and Morgan lets it go. I always
    think this is the most dangerous part. But I never saw a gator who felt like having
    another go at Morgan. They always just turn around and swim away from the area.
    He only misjudged it once, and his hand bears a line of alligator-teeth scars.
    You know, I think Dad always wanted us to be Navy SEALs. He was forever
    telling us about those elite warriors, the stuff they did and what they stood for. In
    his opinion they were all that is best in the American male -- courage, patriotism,
    strength, determination, refusal to accept defeat, brains, expertise in all that they
    did. All through our young lives he told us about those guys. And over the years, it
    sunk in, I suppose. Morgan and I both made it.
    I was about twelve when I realized beyond doubt that I was going to become a
    Navy SEAL. And I knew a lot more about it than most kids of my age. I
    understood the brutality of the training, the level of fitness required, and the need
    for super skills in the water. I thought I would be able to handle that. Dad had told
    us of the importance of marksmanship, and I knew I could do that.
    SEALs need to be at home in rough country, able to survive, live in the jungle if
    necessary. We were already good at that. By the age of twelve, Morgan and I were
    like a couple of wild animals, at home in the great outdoors, at home with a fishing
    pole and gun, easily able to live off the land.
    But deep down I knew there was something more required to make it into the
    world's top combat teams. And that was a level of fitness and strength that could
    only be attained by those who actively sought it. Nothing just happens. You always
    have to strive.
    In our part of East Texas, there are a lot of past and present special forces guys,
    quiet, understated iron men, most of them unsung heroes except among their
    families. But they don't serve in the U.S. Armed Forces for personal recognition or
    glory.
    They do it because deep in their granite souls they feel a slight shiver when they
    see Old Glory fluttering above them on the parade square. The hairs on the backs
    of their necks stand up when these men hear the national anthem of the United
    States. When the president walks out to the strains of a U.S. military band's "Hail
    to the Chief," there's a moment of solemnity for each and every one of them -- for
    our president, our country, and what our country has meant to the world and the
    many people who never had a chance without America.
    These men of the special forces have had other options in their lives, other paths,
    easier paths they could have taken. But they took the hardest path, that narrow
    causeway that is not for the sunshine patriot. They took the one for the supreme

    patriot, the one that may require them to lay down their lives for the United States
    of America. The one that is suitable only for those who want to serve their country
    so bad, nothing else matters.
    That's probably not fashionable in our celebrity-obsessed modern world. But
    special forces guys don't give a damn about that either. I guess you have to know
    them to understand them. And even then it's not easy, because most of them are
    shy, rather than taciturn, and getting any of them to say anything self-
    congratulatory is close to impossible. They are of course aware of a higher calling,

    because they are sworn to defend this country and to fight its battles. And when the
    drum sounds, they're going to come out fighting.
    And when it does sound, the hearts of a thousand loved ones miss a beat, and the
    guys know this as well as anyone. But for them, duty and commitment are stronger
    than anyone's aching heart. And those highly trained warriors automatically pick
    up their rifles and ammunition and go forward to obey the wishes of their
    commander in chief.
    General Douglas MacArthur once warned the cadets of West Point that if they
    should become the first to allow the Long Gray Line to fail, "a million ghosts in
    olive drab, brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses
    thundering those magic words, Duty, Honor, and Country." No need for ghosts in
    the U.S. Navy SEALs. Those words are engraved upon our hearts.
    And many such men way down there in East Texas were willing to give up their
    time for absolutely no reward to show kids what it takes to become a SEAL, a
    Ranger, or a Green Beret. The one we all knew about was a former Green Beret
    sergeant who lived close by. His name was Billy Shelton, and if he ever sees this,
    he'll probably die of embarrassment, seeing his name in print on the subject of
    valor.
    Billy had a glittering army career in combat with the Green Berets in Vietnam and,
    later, serving on a government SWAT team. He was one of the toughest men I ever
    met, and one afternoon just before my fifteenth birthday, I plucked up my courage
    and went to his house to ask if he could train me to become a Navy SEAL. He was
    eating his lunch at the time, came to the door still chewing. He was a bull of a man,
    rippling muscles, fair skin, not carrying one ounce of fat. To my eyes he looked
    like he could have choke slammed a rhino.
    I made my hesitant request. And he just looked me up and down and said, "Right
    here. Four, tomorrow afternoon." Then he shut the door in my face. I was a bit
    young at the time, but the phrase I was groping for was No bullshit, right?
    Now, everyone in the area knew that Billy trained kids for the special forces. And
    when he had a group of us running down the street, cars driving by would blow
    their horns and cheer us on.
    He always ignored that, and he showed us no mercy. Our program included
    running with heavy concrete blocks on our shoulders. When Billy thought we were
    strong enough, we stepped up the pace, running with rubber tires, which felt like
    they'd just come off the space shuttle or at least that big ole tractor out back.
    Billy did not hold an exercise class; he operated a full pre-SEAL training program
    for teenagers. Over the years he had us in the gym pumping iron, hauling the
    torture machine, the ergometer, pounding the roads, driving our bodies, sweating
    and straining.
    Morgan and I were terrified of him. I used to have nightmares when we were due
    to report to him the next morning, because he drove us without mercy, never mind
    our extreme youth. We were in a class of maybe a dozen guys, all midteens.
    "I'm gonna break you down, mentally and physically," he yelled at us. "Break you
    down, hear me? Then I'm gonna build you right back up, as one fighting unit -- so
    your mind and body are one. Understand me? I'm gonna put you through more

    pain than you've ever been in."
    Right about then, half the class ran for their lives rather than face this bulldog, this
    exTexas
    Tech tailback who could run like a Mack truck going downhill. He had
    the support of a local high school, which allowed him to use their gym free of
    charge to train future special forces from our part of the world.
    "I'm not your friend," he'd shout. "Not right here in this gym. I'm here to get you
    right -- fit, trained, and ready for the SEALs, or the Berets, or the Rangers. I'm not
    getting one dime from anyone to do this. And that's why you're gonna do it right,
    just so you don't waste my time.

    "Because if any one of you fails to make the grade in the special forces, it will not
    be because you were too weak. Because that would mean I'd failed, and I'm gonna
    make sure that cannot happen, because right here, failure's not an option. I'm
    gonna get you right. All of you. Understand?"
    He'd take us on twelve-mile runs, hauling the concrete blocks till we nearly
    collapsed. Guys would have blood on the backs of their heads from the chafing.
    And he never took his eyes off us, never tolerated idleness or lack of concentration.
    He just made us grind it out, taking it to the limit. Every time.
    That's what built my strength, gave me my basis. That's how I learned the fitness
    creed of the SEALs. Billy was extremely proud of that; proud to pass on his
    knowledge.
    And he asked only for undying devotion to the cause, the discipline of a samurai
    warrior, and lungs like a pair of bagpipes. He was absolutely relentless, and he
    really loved Morgan and me, two of only six survivors in the class.
    Once, when I came back from a tour of duty in Iraq, I went to see him after a
    couple of weeks' easy living and Mom's cooking, and he threw me out of the gym!
    "You're a goddamned fat, pitiful excuse for a SEAL, and I can't stand to look at
    you!" he yelled. "Get out of my sight!" Holy shit! I was out of there, ran down the
    stairs, and didn't dare go back until I'd dropped eight pounds. No one around here
    argues with Billy Shelton.
    The other skill I needed was still to come. No Navy SEAL can operate without a
    high level of expertise in unarmed combat. Billy told me I'd need to take martial-
    arts classes as soon as possible. And so I found a teacher to work with. All through
    my grade school and college career, I studied and learned that strange, rather
    mystical Asian skill. I worked at it for many years instead of becoming involved in
    other sports. And I attained all of my goals.
    Morgan says the real truth is I don't know my own strength and should be avoided
    at all times.
    By any standards, I had a head start in becoming a Navy SEAL. I was made aware
    of the task at a young age, and I had two strong engines driving me forward: my
    dad and Billy Shelton. Everything I learned beyond the schoolroom, down from
    my early years, seems to have directed me to Coronado. At least, looking back now
    it seems that way.
    Everyone understands why there's a huge rate of dropouts among applicants for the
    SEALs. And when I think of what I went through in the years before I got there, I
    can't even imagine what it must be like for guys who try out with no prior training.
    Morgan and I were groomed to be SEALs, but it was never easy. The work is
    brutally hard, the fitness regimes are as harsh and uncompromising as any program
    in the free world. The examinations are searching and difficult. Nothing but the
    highest possible standard is acceptable in the SEAL teams.
    And perhaps above all, your character is under a microscope at all times;
    instructors, teachers, senior chiefs, and officers are always watching for the
    character flaw, the weakness which may one day lead to the compromise of your
    teammates. We can't stand that. We can stand damn near anything, except that.

    When someone tells you he is in the SEAL teams, it means he has passed every
    test, been accepted by some of the hardest taskmasters in the military. And a short
    nod of respect is in order, because it's harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to
    get into Harvard Law School. Different, but harder.
    When someone tells you he's in a SEAL team, you know you are in the presence of
    a very special cat. Myself, I was just born lucky, somehow fluked my way in with a
    work ethic bequeathed to me by my dad. The rest of those guys are the gods of the

    U.S. Armed Forces. And in faraway foreign fields, they serve their nation as
    required, on demand, and mostly without any recognition whatsoever.
    They would have it no other way, because they understand no other way.
    Accolades just wash off them, they shy away from the spotlight, but in the end they
    have one precious reward -- when their days of combat are over, they know
    precisely who they are and what they stand for. That's rare. And no one can buy it.
    Back in the C-130, crossing into the southern wastes of the Regestan Desert, the
    gods of the U.S. Armed Forces with whom I traveled were asleep, except for the
    beach god Shane, who was still rockin'.
    Somewhere out in the darkness, to our starboard side, was the Pakistani city of
    Quetta, which used to be quite important when the Brits ran the place. They had a
    big army staff college down there, and for three years in the mid-1930s, Field
    Marshal Viscount Montgomery, later the victor of the Battle of Ala-mein, taught
    there. Which proves, I suppose, that I'm as much addicted to military trivia as I am
    to the smart-ass remark.
    However, we stayed on the left-hand, Afghanistan side of the border, I think, and
    continued on above the high western slopes of the great range of the Hindu Kush
    mountains. The most southerly peak, the one nearest the desert, is 11,000 feet high.
    After that it gets pretty steep, and it was to those mountains we were headed.
    Way below us was the important city of Kandahar, which a few weeks later, on
    June 1, 2005, was the scene of one of the most terrible Taliban attacks of the year.
    One of their suicide bombers killed twenty people in Kandahar's principal mosque.
    In that central-city disaster, they killed the security chief of Kabul, who was
    attending the funeral of an anti-Taliban cleric who had been killed three days
    earlier by a couple of guys on a motorbike.
    I think that Chief Healy and myself, in particular, were well aware of the dangers
    in this strife-torn country. And we realized the importance of our coming missions,
    to halt the ever-burgeoning influx of Taliban recruits streaming in over the high
    peaks of the Hindu Kush and to capture their leaders for interrogation.

    The seven-hour journey from Bahrain seemed endless, and we were still an hour or
    more south of Kabul, crawling north high above the treacherous border that leads
    directly to the old Khyber Pass and then to the colossal peaks and canyons of the
    northern Hindu Kush. After that, the mountains swerve into Tajikstan and China,
    later becoming the western end of the Himalayas.
    I was reading my guidebook, processing and digesting facts like an Agatha Christie
    detective. Chaman, Zhob, key entry points for the Taliban and for bin Laden's al
    Qaeda as they fled the American bombs and ground troops. These tribesmen drove
    their way over sixteen-thousand-foot mountains, seeking help from the disgruntled
    Baluchistan chiefs, who were now bored sideways by Pakistan and Afghanistan,
    Great Britain, Iran, the U.S.A., Russia, and anyone else who tried to tell them what
    to do.
    Our area of operations would be well north of there, and I spent the final hours of
    the journey trying to glean some data. But it was hard to come by. Trouble is,
    there's not much happening in those mountains, not many small towns and very

    few villages. Funny, really. Not much was happening, and yet, in another way,
    every damn thing in the world was happening: plots, plans, villainy, terrorism,
    countless schemes to attack the West, especially the United States.
    There were cells of Taliban warriors just waiting for their chance to strike against
    the government. There were bands of al Qaeda swarming around a leader hardly
    anyone had seen for several years. The Taliban wanted power in Afghanistan again;
    bin Laden's mob wanted death and destruction of U.S. citizens, uniformed or not.
    One way or another, they were all a goddamned nightmare, and one that was
    growing progressively worse. Which was why they sent for us.
    In the weeks before our arrival, there had been widespread incidents of violence,
    confirming everyone's dread that the generally hated Taliban was once more on the
    rise and a serious threat to the new government of Afghanistan. Even with the


    support of thirty thousand U.S. and NATO troops, President Hamid Karzai
    struggled to control the country anywhere outside of Kabul.
    A few weeks earlier, in February, the Taliban flatly announced they were increasing
    their attacks on the government as soon as the weather improved. And from then
    on they launched a series of drive-by shootings and bombings, usually directed at
    local officials and pro-government clergy. In the south and over to the east, they
    started ambushing American soldiers.
    It's a strange word, Taliban. Everyone's heard it, like insurgent, Sunni,
    ayatollah, or Taiwan. But what does Taliban really stand for? I've suffered with
    them, what you might describe as close encounters of the most god-awful type.
    And I've done a lot of reading. The facts fit the reality. Those guys are evil,
    murderous religious fanatics, each one of them with an AK-47 and a bloodlust. You
    can trust me on that one.
    The Taliban have been in prominence since 1994. Their original leader was a
    village clergyman named Mullah Mohammad Omar, a tough guy who lost his right
    eye fighting the occupying forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. By the
    mid-'90s, the Taliban's prime targets in Afghanistan -- before I showed up -were
    the feuding warlords who (a) formed the mujahideen and (b) threw the
    Soviets out of the country.
    The Taliban made two major promises which they would carry out once in power:
    to restore peace and security, and to enforce sharia, or Islamic law. Afghans, weary
    of the mujahideens' excesses and infighting, welcomed the Taliban, which enjoyed
    much early success, stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness, and making the
    roads safe for commerce to flourish. This applied to all areas that came under their
    control.
    They began their operation in the southwestern city of Kandahar and moved
    quickly into other parts of the country. They captured the province of Herat, which
    borders Iran, in September 1995. And one year later, their armies took the Afghan
    capital of Kabul, overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and
    his defense minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud. By 1998, they were in control of
    almost 90 percent of the country.
    Once in power, however, the Taliban showed their true colors. They set up one of
    the most authoritarian administrations on earth, one that tolerated no opposition to
    their hard-line policies. Ancient Islamic punishments, like public executions for
    convicted murderers and amputations at the wrist for those charged with theft,
    were immediately introduced. I cannot even think about the penalty a rapist or an
    adulterer might anticipate.
    Television, music, sports, and cinema were banned, judged by the Taliban leaders
    to be frivolities. Girls age ten and above were forbidden to go to school; working
    women were ordered to stay at home. Men were required to grow beards, women
    had to wear the burka. These religious policies earned universal notoriety as the

    Taliban strived to restore the Middle Ages in a nation longing to join the twenty-
    first century. Their policies concerning human rights were outrageous and brought
    them into direct conflict with the international community.
    But there was another issue, which would bring about their destruction. And that
    was their role in playing host to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda movement. In
    August 1998 Islamic fanatics bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,
    killing more than 225 people. Washington immediately presented the Taliban
    leaders with a difficult choice -- either expel bin Laden, who was held responsible
    for the bombings by the U.S. government, or face the consequences.
    The Taliban flatly refused to hand over their Saudi-born guest, who was providing
    them with heavy funding. President Bill Clinton ordered a missile attack on the
    main bin Laden training camp in southern Afghanistan, which failed to kill its
    leader. Then in 1999 the United States persuaded the U.N. Security Council to

    impose sanctions on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Two years later, even harsher
    sanctions were put in place in another attempt to force the Taliban to hand over bin
    Laden.
    Nothing worked. Not sanctions nor the denial of Afghanistan's U.N. seat. The
    Taliban were still in power, and they were still hiding Osama bin Laden, but their
    isolation, political and diplomatic, was becoming total.
    But the Taliban would not budge. They took their isolation as a badge of honor and
    decided to go whole hog with an even more fundamentalist regime. The poor
    Afghan people realized too late what they had done: handed over the entire country
    to a group of bearded lunatics who were trying to inflict upon them nothing but
    stark human misery and who controlled every move they made under their brutal,
    repressive, draconian rule. The Taliban were so busy trying to enslave the citizens,
    they forgot about the necessity for food, and there was mass starvation. One
    million Afghans fled the country as refugees.
    All of this was understood by the West. Almost. But it took horrific shock,
    delivered in March 2001, to cause genuine inter-national outrage. That was when
    the Taliban blasted sky-high the two monumental sixth-century statues of the
    Bamiyan Buddhas, one of them 180 feet high, the other 120 feet, carved out of a
    mountain in central Afghanistan, 143 miles northwest of Kabul. This was
    tantamount to blowing up the Pyramids of Giza.
    The statues were hewn directly from sandstone cliffs right in Bamiyan, which is
    situated on the ancient Silk Road, the caravan route which linked the markets of
    China and central Asia with those of Europe, the Middle East, and south Asia. It
    was also one of the revered Buddhist religious sites, dating back to the second
    century and once home to hundreds of monks and many monasteries. The two
    statues were the largest standing Buddha carvings on earth.
    And their summary destruction by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan caused
    museum directors and curators all over the world to have about four hemorrhages
    apiece. The Taliban effectively told the whole lot of them to shove it. Whose
    statues were they, anyway? Besides, they were planning to destroy all the statues in
    Afghanistan, on the grounds they were un-Islamic.
    The Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in accordance with sharia law. Only Allah
    the Almighty deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else.Wraps that up
    then, right? Praise Allah and pass the high explosive.
    The blasting of the Buddhas firmed up world opinion that something had to be
    done about Afghanistan's rulers. But it took another explosion to provoke savage
    action against them. That took place on September 11, the same year, and was the
    beginning of the end for the Taliban and bin Laden's al Qaeda.
    Before the dust had settled on lower Manhattan, the United States demanded the
    Taliban hand over bin Laden for masterminding the attack on U.S. soil. Again the

    Taliban refused, perhaps not realizing that the new(ish) U.S. president, George W.
    Bush, was a very different character from Bill Clinton.
    Less than one month later, on October 7, the Americans, leading a small coalition
    force, unleashed an onslaught against Afghanistan that shook that area of the world
    to its foundations. U.S. military intelligence located all of the al Qaeda camps in
    the mountains of the northeast part of the country, and the military let fly with one
    of the biggest aerial bombardments in modern warfare.
    It began with fifty cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships and Royal Navy
    submarines. At the same time, long after dark in Afghanistan, twenty-five carrier-
    based aircraft and fifteen land-based bombers took off and destroyed Taliban air
    defenses, communications infrastructure, and the airports at Kabul, Jalalabad,
    Kandahar, and Herat. The U.S. bombs blasted the big radar installations and
    obliterated the control tower in Kandahar. This was the city where Mullah Omar
    lived, and a navy bomber managed to drop one dead in the middle of his backyard.

    That one-eyed ole bastard escaped, though.
    The Taliban, its military headquarters now on fire, did own a somewhat
    insignificant air-strike capacity, just a few aircraft and helicopters, and the U.S. Air
    Force wiped that right out with smart bombs as a matter of routine.
    Navy bombers taking off from the carriers targeted the Taliban's other military
    hardware, heavy vehicles, tanks, and fuel dumps. Land-based B-1, B-2, and B-52
    bombers were also in the air, the B-52s dropping dozens of five-hundred-pound
    gravity bombs on al Qaeda terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan, way up
    in the border mountains where we would soon be visiting.
    One of the prime U.S. objectives was the small inventory of surface-to-air missiles
    and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, stolen from either the Russians or the old
    mujahideen. These were hard to locate, and various caches were removed by the
    tribesmen and hidden in the mountains. Hidden, sadly, for use another day.
    One hour after that nighttime bombardment began, the Northern Alliance opened
    fire with a battery of rockets from an air base twenty-five miles north of Kabul.
    They aimed them straight at Taliban forces in the city. There were five thunderous
    explosions and all electric power was knocked out throughout the capital.
    But the United States never took its eye off the ball. The true objective was the
    total destruction of al Qaeda and the leader who had engineered the infamous
    attack on the Twin Towers -- "the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century," as the
    president described it. And that meant a massive strike on the sinister network of
    caves and underground tunnels up in the mountains, where bin Laden made his
    headquarters.
    The cruise missiles had softened up the area, but that was only the start. The real
    heavyweight punch from the world's only superpower would come in the form of a
    gigantic bomb -- the BLU-82B/C-130, known as Commando Vault in Vietnam and
    now nicknamed Daisy Cutter. This is a high-altitude, fifteen-thousand-pound
    conventional bomb that needs to be delivered from the huge MC-130 aircraft
    because it is far too heavy for the bomb racks on any other attack aircraft.
    This thing is awesome. It was originally designed to create instant clearings for
    helicopter landings in the jungle. Its purpose in Afghanistan was as an
    antipersonnel weapon up in those caves. Its lethal radius is colossal, probably nine
    hundred feet. Its flash and sound is obvious from literally miles away. The BLU82B
    is the largest conventional bomb ever built and, of course, leaves no nuclear
    fallout. (For the record, the Hiroshima atom bomb was a thousand times more
    powerful.)
    On the upside, the Daisy Cutter is extremely reliable, no problems with wind speed
    or thermal gradient. Its conventional explosive technique incorporates both agent
    and oxidizer. It is not fuel-air explosive, like the old FAE systems used for much,

    much smaller bombs. It's nearly twelve feet long and more than four feet wide.
    The BLU-82B depends on precise positioning of the delivery aircraft, coordinates
    gotten from fixed ground radar or onboard navigation equipment. The aircraft must
    be perfectly positioned prior to final countdown and release. The navigator needs
    to make dead-accurate ballistic and wind computations.
    The massive blast effect of the bomb means it cannot be released below an altitude
    of 6,000 feet. Its warhead, containing 12,600 pounds of low-cost GSX slurry
    (ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene), is detonated by a 38-inch
    fuse extender a few feet above ground level, so it won't dig a crater. The entire
    blast blows outward, producing overpressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch.
    Hence the nickname Daisy Cutter.
    The United States has never specified how many of these things were dropped on
    the Tora Bora area of the White Mountains, where the al Qaeda camps were
    located. But there were at least four, maybe seven. The first one, according to a
    public announcement by the Pentagon, was dropped after a reported sighting of bin

    Laden. We can only imagine the crushing effect such a blast would have inside the
    caves where the al Qaeda high command and senior leadership operated. Wouldn't
    have been too good even if you were standing in the middle of a field -- but a
    cave! Jesus, that's brutal. That thing wiped out hundreds of the enemy at a time.
    The United States really did a number on the Taliban, flattened their stronghold in
    Kunduz in the north, shelled them out of the Shomali Plains north of Kabul, carpet
    bombed them anywhere they could be located around the Bagram air base, where,
    four years later, we were headed in the C-130.
    In the fall of 2001, the Taliban and al Qaeda were mostly fleeing the U.S. offensive
    or surrendering. In the subsequent years, they drifted together on the other side of
    the Pakistani border, reformed, and began their counteroffensive to retake
    Afghanistan.
    Somehow these hickory-tough tribesmen not only survived the onslaught of
    American bombing and escaped from the advancing Northern Alliance, but they
    also evaded one of the biggest manhunts in the history of warfare as an
    increasingly frustrated United States moved heaven and earth to capture bin Laden,
    Mullah Omar, and the rest. I guess their propensity to run like hell from strong
    opposition and their rapid exit into the Pakistani mountains on the other side of the
    border allowed them to limit their human and material resources.
    It also bought them time. And while they undoubtedly lost many of their followers
    after a front-row view of what the American military could and would do, they also
    had many months to begin recruiting and training a brand-new generation of
    supporters. And now they were back as an effective fighting army, launching
    guerrilla operations against the U.S.-led coalition forces only four years after
    they'd lost power, been driven into exile, and had nearly been annihilated.
    As we prepared for our final approach to the great, sprawling U.S. base at Bagram,
    the Taliban were once again out there, killing aid workers and kidnapping foreign
    construction workers. Parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan have been
    officially designated unsafe due to increasingly daring Taliban attacks. There was
    evidence they were extending their area of influence, working closely again with
    bin Laden's al Qaeda, forging new alliances with other rebel groups and antigovernment
    warlords. Same way they'd grabbed power last time, right? Back in
    1996.
    Only this time they had one principal ambition before seizing power, and that was
    to destabilize the U.S.-led coalition forces and eventually drive them out of
    Afghanistan forever.
    I ought to mention the Pashtuns, the world's oldest living tribal group; there are
    about forty-two million of them. Twenty-eight million live in Pakistan, and 12.5

    million of them live in Afghanistan; that's 42 percent of the entire population.
    There are about 88,000 living in Britain and 44,000 in the U.S.A.
    In Afghanistan, they live primarily in the mountains of the northeast, and they also
    have heavily populated areas in the east and south. They are a proud people who
    adhere to Islam and live by a strict code of honor and culture, observing rules and
    laws known as Pashtunwalai, which has kept them straight for two thousand years.
    They are also the quintessential supporters of the Taliban. Their warriors form the
    backbone of the Taliban forces, and their families grant those forces shelter in high
    mountain villages, protecting them and providing refuge in places that would
    appear almost inaccessible to the Western eye. That, by the way, does not include

    U.S. Navy SEALs, who do have Western eyes but who don't do inaccessible. We
    can get in anywhere.
    It's easy to see why the Pashtuns and the Taliban get along just fine. The Pashtuns
    were the tribe who refused to buckle under to the army of the Soviet Union. They
    just kept fighting. In the nineteenth century, they fought the British to the verge of
    surrender and then drove them back into Pakistan. Three hundred years before that,
    they wiped out the army of Akbar the Great, the most fearsome of India's Mogul
    rulers.
    Those Pashtuns are proud of their stern military heritage, and it's worth
    remembering that in all the centuries of bitter, savage warfare in Baluchistan,
    during which time they were never subdued, half the population was always
    Pashtun.
    The concept of tribal heritage is very rigid. It involves bloodlines, amazing
    lineages that stretch back through the centuries, generation after generation. You
    can't join a tribe in the way you can become an American citizen. Tribes don't
    hand out green cards or passports. You either are, or you aren't.
    Language, traditions, customs, and culture play a part, but, I repeat, you can't join
    the Pashtuns. And that gives them all a steel rod of dignity and self-esteem. Their
    villages may not be straightforward military strongholds as the Taliban desire, but
    the Pashtuns are not easily intimidated.
    The people are organized strictly by relationships; male relationships, that is. The
    tribal lineage descends from the father's side, the male ancestors. I understand they
    don't give a damn for Mom and her ancestors. Inheritances are strictly for the boys,
    and land rights go directly to sons.
    They have a proverb that says a lot: I against my brothers; my brothers and I
    against my cousins; my brothers, my cousins, and I against the world. That's how
    they do it. The tight military formation has, again and again, allowed them to
    knock eight bells out of more sophisticated invaders.
    The tribal code, Pashtunwalai, has heavy demands: hospitality, generosity, and the
    duty to avenge even the slightest insult. Life among the Pashtuns is demanding -it
    depends on the respect of your peers, relatives, and allies. And that can be
    dangerous. Only the tribe's principles of honor stand in the way of anarchy. A
    tribesman will fight or even kill in order to avoid dishonor to himself and his
    family.
    And killing throws the whole system into confusion, because death must be
    avenged; killers and their families are under permanent threat. Which puts a big air
    brake on violence. According to the learned Charles Lindhorn, a professor of
    anthropology at Boston University, homicide rates among the Pashtun tribes are
    way lower than homicide rates in urban areas of the United States. I am grateful to
    the professor for his teachings on this subject.
    The Taliban creed comes right out of the Pashtun handbook: women are the wombs
    of patrilineage, the fountainheads of tribal honor and continuity. Their security and
    chaste way of life is the only guarantee of the purity of the lineage. This seclusion

    of women is known as purdah, and it is designed to keep women concealed,
    maintaining the household, and it gives them a high sense of honor.
    Purdah represents the status of belonging. A woman's husband can go fight the
    invaders while she controls the household, enjoying the love and respect of her
    sons, expecting one day to rule as matriarch over her daughters-in-law and their
    children. That's the basis of the Taliban view of women. And I guess it works fine
    up in the Hindu Kush, but it might not go over too well in downtown Houston.
    Anyway, there's been a lot of terrible fighting on the Pashtuns' lands, mostly by
    outsiders. But the ole Pashtunwalai has kept them intact. Their tradition of
    generous hospitality, perhaps their finest virtue, includes the concept of lokhay
    warkawal. It means "giving of a pot." It implies protection for an individual,
    particularly in a situation where the tribe might be weaker than its enemies. When
    a tribe accepts lokhay, it undertakes to safeguard and protect that individual from
    an enemy at all costs.
    I, perhaps above all other Western visitors, have reason to be eternally grateful for
    it.

    We were on our final approach to the enormous U.S. base at Bagram. Everyone
    was awake now, seven hours after we left Bahrain. It was daylight, and down
    below we could see at last the mountains we had heard so much about and among
    which we would be operational in the coming weeks.
    There was still snow on the high peaks, glittering white in the rising sun. And
    below the snow line, the escarpments looked very steep. We were too high to pick
    up villages on the middle slopes, but we knew they were there, and that's where we
    were probably going in the not too distant future.
    The huge runway at Bagram runs right down the side of the complex, past
    hundreds and hundreds of bee huts, lines and lines of them. On the ground we
    could see parked aircraft and a whole lot of Chinook helicopters. We didn't worry
    about whom we'd have to share with. SEALs are always billeted together, separate
    from anyone else, thus avoiding loose talk about highly classified missions. All of
    our missions are, of course, highly classified, and we do not talk loosely, but other
    branches of the services are not so stringently trained as we are, and no one takes
    any chances.
    Here we were at last, in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a country the size of
    Texas, landlocked on all sides, protected by the granite walls of mountains, war
    torn for years and years and still at it. Just like always, warlords were trying to
    drive out the usurpers. Us. And we weren't even usurping, just trying to stop
    another bloody tribal upheaval and another regime change from the elected to the
    dictators.
    Boy. It seemed like a hell of a task. But we were excited. This was what we joined
    for. In truth, we could hardly wait to get down there and get on with it. And in a
    sense, it was pretty simple. We somehow had to get out into those infamous
    mountain passes and put a stop to this clandestine infiltration of faceless tribal
    warriors making their way across the border, doggedly, silently, prepared to fight at
    the drop of a turban.
    We knew their track record, and we knew they could move around the mountains
    very quickly. They had dominated those slopes, caves, and hideouts for centuries,
    turning them into impregnable military strongholds against all comers.
    And they had already faced the SEALs in open combat up there, because the
    SEALs had been first in. They would be prepared, we knew that. But like all SEAL
    operational teams, we believed we were better than everyone else, so the
    goddamned Taliban had better watch it.
    Danny, Shane, James, Axe, Mikey, and I. We were here on business, trained to the
    minute, armed to the teeth, all set to drive the armies of the Taliban and al Qaeda

    right back to where they came from, seize the leaders, and get rid of anyone too
    dangerous to live. And restore order to the mountains.
    I was eight thousand miles from home, but I could e-mail my family and loved
    ones. I was a bit light on home comforts, but I had in my rucksack a DVD player
    and a DVD of my favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, from the novel by
    Alexandre Dumas père. It's always an inspiration to me, always raises my spirits to
    watch one brave, innocent man's lonely fight against overpowering forces of evil
    in an unforgiving world.
    That's my kind of stuff. Backs to the wall. Never give in. Courage, risks, daring
    beyond compare. I never thought my own problems would very shortly mirror,
    albeit briefly, those of Edmond Dantès and the hopelessness of his years in the
    grim island fortress of Chateau d'If.
    And I never thought those unforgettable words he carved with flintstones, into the
    granite walls of the cruelest of jails, would also provide me with hope; a forlorn
    hope, but hope nonetheless. During the peril of my own darkest hours, I thought of
    those words over and over, more times than I care to admit: God will give me
    justice.
    3

    A School for Warriors

    It was pitch dark, and he was wearing sunglasses, wraparound, shiny black..."Most
    of you aren't going to be here in a couple of months," said Instructor Reno..."If
    you guys don't start pulling together as a team, none of you will be here."

    The six SEALs from Bahrain landed in Bagram, in northeast Afghanistan, shortly
    after first light. I realize I have just spent two entire chapters essentially pointing
    out what a momentous event that was, our arrival to work with the elite mountain
    troops of the U.S. Army. It has occurred to me that you might be wondering why
    we thought we were so goddamned superior to everyone else, why we felt entitled
    to our own private brand of arrogance.
    Not wishing to be haunted by anyone's doubts about me and my teammates, I
    propose to explain right now, before we get moving, precisely why we felt this way
    about the world. It's not some form of premature triumph, and it would be absurd
    to call it mere confidence. That would be like calling the Pacific wet.
    It's a higher form of consciousness, and I do not mean that to be pretentious. It's
    been said that only the very rich understand the difference between themselves and

    the poor, and only the truly brilliant understand the difference between themselves
    and the relatively dumb.
    Well, only men who have gone through what we went through can understand the
    difference between us and the rest. In the military, even the rest understand what it
    takes to scale the heights of combat excellence. And in my case, it started
    inauspiciously. Way down on the ranch, with Mom in tears, refusing to leave the
    house to see me go. March 7, 1999. I was twenty-three.
    To say that I was not making amazing headway in my hometown would be an
    understatement. The reputation Morgan and I had was not assisting either of us.

    There were always guys showing up wondering how tough we really were. I guess
    my dad considered it a matter of time before one of us was faced with a low-flying
    pugilist and either hurt someone badly or got badly hurt himself. And so I decided
    to get out of town and join the U.S. Navy SEALs. Morgan thought it was a great
    idea, and he introduced me to a recruiting officer in a nearby town, Petty Officer
    First Class Beau Walsh. He steered me down to the military enlistment processing
    station in Houston; that's navy recruitment.
    Naturally, I told them immediately there was no need for me to attend boot camp. I
    was already way too advanced for that. Yessir, I'll go straight to Coronado, where
    the big dogs eat. That's what I'm all about, I'm a half-trained SEAL already.
    They sent me directly to boot camp. I signed the papers and prepared to report for
    duty in a few days. As I left the ranch, it was not a real ceremony of departure, but
    everyone was there, including Beau Walsh and Billy Shelton. As previously stated,
    Mom caved in and retreated to the house, unable to witness the departure of her
    baby. That was me.
    My destination was more than a thousand miles to the north, Navy Recruit
    Training Command (RTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois. And I can truthfully say, it was
    where I spent the most miserable eight weeks of my entire life. I had never even

    seen snow, and I arrived in the middle of the worst blizzard that boot camp had
    seen in eleven years. It was like sending a Zulu to the North Pole.
    That wind and snow came howling in across Lake Michigan, blasting its way onto
    the western shore where we were situated, thirty-five miles north of Chicago. Right
    on the water. I could not believe the sheer misery of that freezing weather. The
    camp was a gigantic place, with hundreds of recruits trying to make that
    miraculous transformation from civilian to U.S. Navy sailor. It was a drastic
    metamorphosis, both mental and physical, and it would have been difficult enough
    in fine weather. But in that ice, snow, and wind, Jesus. Words fail me.
    I'd never needed winter clothes, and I had none. I remember being extremely
    pleased when the navy issued everyone the right gear -- thick socks, boots, dark
    blue trousers, shirts, sweaters, and coats. They told us how to fold and store
    everything, showed us how to make our bunks every morning. Without missing a
    beat, they put us straight into physical training, running, working out, marching,
    drilling, and many classes.
    I didn't have much trouble, and I excelled in the swimming pool. The requirements
    were to enter the water feetfirst from a minimum height of five feet, remain afloat
    for five minutes, and then swim fifty yards using any stroke. I could have done that
    in my sleep, especially without having to worry about the occasional alligator or
    water moccasin.
    The running would not have been that bad in decent weather, but the campus was
    absolutely frigid, and the wind off the lake was cutting. A penguin would have had
    trouble out there. We ran through snow, marched through snow, and made our way
    to classes through snow.
    In that first week, while we were trying to avoid freezing to death, they instilled in
    us three words which have been with me ever since. Honor, Courage,
    Commitment, the motto of the United States Navy, the core values that
    immediately became the ideals we all lived by. I can remember to this day an
    instructor telling us, "What you make of this experience here at Great Lakes is
    what will make you as a person." He was right. I hope.
    In the second week, they put us through the Confidence Course. This is designed to
    simulate emergency conditions in a U.S. Navy warship. They taught us to be sharp,
    self-reliant, and, above all, to make key decisions on which our lives and those of
    our shipmates might depend. That word: teamwork. It dominates and infiltrates
    every single aspect of life in the navy. In boot camp, they don't just tell you, they

    indoctrinate you. Teamwork. It was the new driving force in all of our lives.
    Week three, they put us on board a landbound training ship. Everything was hands-
    on training. We learned the name of nearly every working part of that ship. They
    taught us first aid techniques, signaling ship to ship with flags (semaphore). We
    spent a lot of time in the classroom, where we focused on navy customs and
    courtesies, the laws of armed conflict, shipboard communication, ship and aircraft
    identification, and basic seamanship.
    All this was interspersed with physical training tests, sit-ups, sit-reaches, and pushups.
    I was fine with all of those, but the one-and-a-half-mile run in that weather
    would have tested the stamina of a polar bear. They told us anyone who failed
    could come back and take it again. I decided I would rather run barefoot across the
    Arctic than take it again. Gave it my all. Passed, thank God.
    During week four, we got our hands on some weaponry for the first time -- the
    M16 rifle. I was pretty quick with that part of the course, especially on the live-fire
    range. After that, the navy concentrated on which path through the service
    everyone wanted to take. That was also easy for me. Navy SEALs. No bullshit,
    right?
    The firefighting and shipboard damage-control course came next. And we all
    learned how to extinguish fires, escape smoke-filled compartments, open and close

    watertight doors, operate the oxygen breathing apparatus, and move fire hoses
    around. The last part was the worst -- the Confidence Chamber. You get in there
    with your class and put on a gas mask. Then someone unleashes a tear-gas tablet,
    and you have to take off your mask, throw it in a trash can, and recite your full
    name and Social Security number.
    Every single recruit who joins the navy has to endure that exercise. At the end, the
    instructors make it clear: you have what it takes. There's a place in the navy for
    you.
    The final task is called battle stations. Teams are presented with twelve situations,
    all of which have been addressed during the previous weeks. This is where they
    grade the recruits, individually and as teams. When you've completed this, the
    trainers present you with a U.S. Navy ball cap, and that tells the world you are now
    a sailor. You have proved you belong, proved you have the right stuff.
    The following week, I graduated, in my brand-new dress uniform. I remember
    passing the mirror and hardly recognizing myself. Standing tall, right there. There's
    something about graduating from boot camp; I guess it's mostly pride in yourself.
    But you also know a lot of people couldn't have done it. Makes you feel pretty
    good. Especially someone like me, whose major accomplishment thus far had
    involved hurling some half-drunk cowboy out of an East Texas bar and into the
    street on his ear.
    After I graduated, I flew immediately to San Diego, headed to Coronado Island and
    the navy amphibious base. I made my way there alone, a couple of weeks early,
    and spent my time organizing my uniforms, gear, and rooms, and trying to get into
    some sort of shape.
    Most of us had lost a lot of condition at boot camp because the weather was so bad.
    You couldn't just jog outside and go for a run because of the blizzards and the deep
    snow. Perhaps you remember that very brave guy who made the journey to the
    South Pole with the Royal Navy officer, Robert Falcon Scott, in 1912. He believed
    he was hindering the entire team because of his frostbite. Captain Oates was his
    name, and he crawled out into a raging blizzard one night with the immortal words,
    "I am going outside now. I may be gone for some time."
    They never found his body, and I have never forgotten reading his words. Guts-
    ball, right? Well, going outside at Great Lakes would have been a bit like that, and
    almost as brave. Unlike the gallant captain, we stayed by the heater.

    And now we were going for runs along the beach, trying to get in shape for the
    first week of Indoctrination. That's the two-week course known as Indoc, where
    the SEALs prepare you for the fabled BUD/S course (Basic Underwater
    Demolition/-SEALs). That one lasts for seven months and is a lot harder than
    Indoc. But if you can't get through the initial pretraining endurance test, then you
    ought not to be in Coronado, and they don't want you anyway.
    The official navy literature about the reason for Indoc reads: "To physically,
    mentally and environmentally prepare qualified SEAL candidates to begin BUD/S
    training." Generally speaking, the instructors do not turn on the pressure during
    Indoc. You're only revving up for the upcoming trial by fire.
    But they still make it very tough for everyone, officers and enlisted men alike. The
    SEAL programs make no distinction between commissioned officers coming in
    from the fleet and the rest of us. We're all in it together, and the first thing they
    instill in you at Indoc is that you will live and train as a class, as a team. Sorry. Did
    I say instill in you? I meant, ram home with a jack-hammer. Teamwork. They slam
    that word at you every other minute. Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork.
    This is also where you first understand the concept of a swim buddy, which in
    SEAL ethos is an absolutely gigantic deal. You work with your buddy as a team.
    You never separate, not even to go to the john. In IBS (that stands for "inflatable
    boat, small") training, if one of you falls over the side into the freezing ocean, the

    other joins him. Immediately. In the pool, you are never more than an arm's length
    away. Later on, in the BUD/S course proper, you can be failed out of hand, thrown
    out, for not staying close enough to your swim buddy.
    This all comes back to that ironclad SEAL folklore -- we never leave a man
    behind on the battlefield, dead or alive. No man is ever alone. Whatever the risk to
    the living, however deadly the opposing fire, SEALs will fight through the jaws of
    death to recover the remains of a fallen comrade. It's a maxim that has survived
    since the SEALs were first formed in 1962, and it still applies today.
    It's a strange thing really, but it's not designed to help widows and parents of lost
    men. It's designed for the SEALs who actually do the fighting. There's something
    about coming home, and we all want to achieve that, preferably alive. But there is
    a certain private horror about being killed and then left behind in a foreign land, no
    grave at home, no loved ones to visit your final resting place.
    I know that sounds kind of nuts, but nonetheless, it's true. Every one of us
    treasures that knowledge: No matter what, I will not be left behind, I will be taken
    home. We are all prepared to give everything. And in the end it does not seem too
    much to ask in return, since we fight, almost without exception, on the enemy's
    ground, not our own.
    That World War I English poet and serving soldier Rupert Brooke understood the
    Brits do not traditionally bring home their war dead. And he expressed it right: "If I
    should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field /
    That is forever England." There's not a Navy SEAL anywhere in the world who
    does not understand those lines and why Brooke wrote them.
    It's a sacred promise to us from our high command. That's why it gets drummed
    into us from the very first day in Coro-nado -- you are not going to be alone. Ever.
    And you're not going to leave your swim buddy alone.
    I suffered a minor setback in the early part of that summer when I was in Class
    226. I managed to fall from about fifty feet up a climbing rope and really hurt my
    thigh. The instructor rushed up to me and demanded, "You want to quit?"
    "Negative," I responded.
    "Then get right back up there," he said. I climbed again, fell again, but somehow I
    kept going. The leg hurt like hell, but I kept training for another couple of weeks
    before the medics diagnosed a cracked femur! I was immediately on crutches but

    still hobbling along the beach and into the surf with the rest of them. Battle
    conditions, right?
    Eventually, when the leg healed, I was put back and then joined BUD/S Class 228
    in December for phase two. We lived in a small barracks right behind the BUD/S
    grinder. That's the blacktop square where a succession of SEAL instructors have
    laid waste to thousands of hopes and dreams and driven men to within an inch of
    their lives.
    Those instructors have watched men drop, watched them fail, watched them quit,
    and watched them quietly, with ice-cold, expressionless faces. That's not heartless;
    it's because they were only interested in the others, the ones who did not crack or
    quit. The ones who would rather die than quit. The ones with no quit in them.
    It was only the first day of Indoc, and my little room was positioned right next to
    the showers. Showers, by the way, is a word so polite it's damn near a euphemism.
    They were showers, okay, but not in the accepted, civilized sense. They were a
    whole lot closer to a goddamn car wash and were known as the decontamination
    unit. Someone cranked 'em up at around 0400, and the howl of compressed air and
    freezing cold pressurized water forcing its way through those pipes sounded like
    someone was trying to strangle a steam engine.
    Jesus. First time I heard it, I thought we were under attack.
    But I knew the drill: get into my canvas UDT swim trunks and then get under those
    ice-cold water jets. The shock was unbelievable, and to a man we hated it, and we

    hated it for as long as we were forced through it. The damn thing was actually
    designed to power wash our sand-covered gear when we returned from the beach.
    The shock was reduced somewhat then because everyone had just been in the
    Pacific Ocean. But right out of bed at four o'clock in the morning! Wow! That was
    beyond reason, and I can still hear the sound of those screaming, hissing water
    pipes.
    Freezing cold and wet, we reported to the training pool to roll and stow the covers.
    Then, shortly before 0500, in the pitch dark, we lined up on the grinder and sat in
    rows, chest to back, very close, to conserve body heat. There were supposed to be
    180 of us, but for various reasons there were only 164 of us assigned.
    We had a class leader by now, Lieutenant David Ismay, a Naval Academy man and
    former Rhodes Scholar who'd had two years at sea and was now a qualified
    surface warfare officer. David was desperate to achieve his lifelong dream of
    becoming a SEAL. He had to do this right. Officers only got one shot at BUD/S.
    They were supposed to know better than to waste anyone's time if they weren't up
    to it.
    The man we all awaited was our proctor. That's the instructor assigned to guide us,
    teach us, torture us, observe us, and get rid of us, if necessary. He was Instructor
    Reno Alberto, a five-foot-six man-mountain of fitness, discipline, and intelligence.
    He was a ruthless, cruel, unrelenting taskmaster. And we all grew to love him for
    two reasons. He was scrupulously fair, and he wanted the best for us. You put out
    for Instructor Reno, he was just a super guy. You failed to give him your absolute
    best, he'd have you out of there and back to the fleet before you could say, "Aye,
    aye, sir."
    He arrived at 0500 sharp. And we'd have a ritual which was never broken. This
    was how it went:
    "Feet!" shouted the class leader.
    "Feet!" An echoing roar ripped into the still night air as nearly 164 of us
    responded and jumped to our feet, attempting to move into ranks.
    "Instructor Ree-no!" called the class leader.
    "Hooyah, Instructor Ree-no!" we bellowed as one voice.
    Get used to that: hooyah. We don't say yes, or right away, or thanks a lot, or

    understand and will comply. We say hooyah. It's a BUD/S thing, and its origins are
    lost in antiquity. There's so many explanations, I won't even go there. Just so you
    know, that's how students respond to an instructor, in greeting or command
    acceptance. Hooyah.
    For some reason, Instructor Reno was the only one who was unfailingly addressed
    by his first name. All the others were Instructor Peterson or Matthews or
    Henderson. Only Reno Alberto insisted on being called by his first name. I always
    thought it was good they didn't call him Fred or Spike. Reno sounded good on
    him.
    When he walked onto the grinder that morning, we could tell we were in the
    presence of a major man. As I mentioned, it was pitch dark and he was wearing
    sunglasses, wraparound, shiny black. It seemed he never took them off, night or
    day. Actually, one time I did catch him without them, and as soon as he saw me, he
    reached into his pocket and immediately put 'em on again.
    I think it was because he never wanted us to see the expression in his eyes. Beneath
    that stern, relentless exterior, he was a superintelligent man -- and he could not
    have failed to be amused at the daily Attila the Hun act he put on for us. But he
    never wanted us to see the amusement in his eyes, and that was why he never
    showed them.
    On this dark, slightly misty morning he stood with his arms folded and gazed at the
    training pool. Then he turned back to us and stared hard.
    We had no idea what to expect. And Instructor Reno said without expression,

    "Drop."
    "Drop!" we roared back. And we all struggled down to the concrete and assumed a
    position for push-ups, arms extended, bodies outstretched, rigid.
    "Push 'em out," said Reno.
    "Push-ups," snapped the class leader.
    "Push-ups," we responded.
    "Down."
    "One."
    "Down."
    "Two."
    We counted out every one of the twenty push-ups in the set then returned to the rest
    position, arms outstretched. The class leader called out, "Instructor Ree-no."
    "Hooyah, Instructor Ree-no," we roared.
    He ignored us. Then said quietly, "Push 'em out." As he did twice more, at which
    point he left us with muscles on fire in the straight-arm, outstretched rest position.
    He actually left us there for almost five minutes, and everyone's arms were
    throbbing. Eighty push-ups and now this new kind of agony, which ended only
    when he said, very slowly, very quietly, "Recover."
    We all yelled, "Feet!" in response, and somehow we stood up without falling over.
    Then David Ismay called out the wrong number of men present. Not his fault.
    Someone had simply vanished. Reno was onto young Dave in a flash. I don't quite
    remember what he said, but his phrase contained the loud pronunciation of the
    word wrong.
    And he ordered Lieutenant Ismay and our leading petty officer student, "Drop, and
    push 'em out." I remember that first day like it happened this week. We sat and
    watched Dave complete his push-ups. And when they'd done it, damn near
    exhausted, they called out, "Hooyah, Instructor Reno!"
    "Push 'em out," said Reno softly. And, somehow, they set off on twenty more
    repetitions of this killer discipline. Finally they finished, doubtless wondering, like
    the rest of us, what the hell they had let themselves in for. But I bet they never
    called out the wrong number of men present ever again.

    I now understand that SEAL ethos -- every officer, commissioned or
    noncommissioned, must know the whereabouts of every single one of his men. No
    mistakes. At that early stage in our training, our class leader, David Ismay, did not
    know. Reno, who'd only been with us for about fifteen minutes, did.
    Again, he surveyed his kingdom and then spoke flatly. "Most of you aren't going
    to be here in a couple of months," said Instructor Reno. And, as if blaming each
    and every one of us individually for the wrong head count, he added, "If you guys
    don't start pulling together as a team, none of you will be here."
    He then told us we were again about to take the basic BUD/S screening test. I
    graphically recall him reminding us we'd all passed it once in order to make it this
    far. "If you can't pass it again this morning," he added, "you'll be back in the fleet
    as soon as we can ship you out."
    At this stage, no one was feeling...well...wanted. In fact, we were beginning to feel
    abandoned in this world-renowned military coliseum -- a coliseum where
    someone was about to bring on the lions. Before us was the five-point screening
    test:

    1. A 500-yard swim, breaststroke or sidestroke, in 12 minutes, 30 seconds
    2. A minimum of 42 push-ups in 2 minutes
    3. A minimum of 50 sit-ups in 2 minutes
    4. A minimum of 6 dead-hang pull-ups
    5. A 1.5-mile run in 11 minutes, 30 seconds, done while wearing boots and long
    pants
    Only one guy failed to complete. In fact, most of us did markedly better than we
    had the first time. I recall I managed close to eighty push-ups and a hundred sit-
    ups. I guess the apparition of Billy Shelton was standing hard by my shoulder,
    trying to frighten the life out of me and ready to throw me out of the navy if I blew
    it.
    More important, Instructor Reno was watching us with eyes like a fighter jet's
    radar. He told me several months later he knew I was putting out for him. Made up
    his mind about me right then and there. Told me he'd never changed it either. Good
    decision. I give it everything. On time. Every time. Might not always be good
    enough, but it's always my very best shot.
    Looking back, I'm not sure that early test showed very much. There were a lot of
    heavily muscled, bodybuilding types who looked pretty ferocious. I remember they
    were among the very first to go, because they just couldn't hack it. Their legs and
    upper bodies were just too heavy.
    The SEALs do place a premium on brute strength, but there's an even bigger
    premium on speed. That's speed through the water, speed over the ground, and
    speed of thought. There's no prizes for a gleaming set of well-oiled muscles in
    Coronado. Bulk just makes you slow, especially in soft sand, and that's what we
    had to tackle every day of our lives, mile after mile.
    On this first morning of Class 226, we immediately learned another value peculiar
    to BUD/S. We don't stroll, walk, or even jog. We run. We actually run like hell.
    Everywhere. All day. Remember that great Tom Hanks line in A League of Their
    Own, "There's no crying in baseball"? Well, we have a line in Coronado: There's
    no walking in BUD/S.
    Our first encounter with this cruel and heartless rule came when it was time for
    breakfast. The chow hall was a mile away, so we had to run two miles -- there and
    back -- for a plate of toast, eggs, and bacon. Same for lunch. Same for dinner. For
    anyone mathematically challenged, that's six miles every day just to find
    something to eat, nothing to do with our regular daily training runs, which often

    added up to another eight miles.
    That morning we ran in formation all the way across the naval amphibious base to
    the Special Warfare Center. And there Instructor Reno, after about a thousand
    push-ups and God knows what else, finally had us seated and paying attention in a
    manner which satisfied him. This was not easy, because he had eyes like a sea
    eagle and some kind of a high-flying business degree from USC. He knew
    precisely what was required, and he missed nothing.
    And right here I needed to remember a lesson drummed into me from an early age
    by Billy Shelton: when a special forces commander makes even a slight reference
    to an issue that may be helpful, listen and then do it. Even if it was an aside, not a
    proper command, maybe even starting with I think it might be a good idea . . .
    Always pay attention and then carry out the task, no matter how minor it may
    seem. Billy's point was that these SF instructors were looking for the best, and it
    might be only small things that separate guys who are very good from guys who
    are absolutely excellent, outstanding. "Listen, Marcus," Billy told me, "always
    listen, and always jump all over anything your instructor tells you. Get out in front.
    Fast. Then make sure you stay there."
    Well, that morning, Instructor Reno pulled himself up to his full height of about
    fifteen feet, in my eyes, and told us he wanted to talk to us briefly, and we better
    pay attention. "Better yet, take notes."
    I was into my zipper bag instantly, getting hold of a dry notebook and a couple of
    pencils, the lesson of Billy Shelton ringing in my ears: even an aside, even a
    suggestion, do it.
    I looked around the room, and a few others were doing the same as I was, but not

    everyone, by no means everyone. Some of them just sat there gazing at Instructor
    Reno, who suddenly said, mildly, "How many of you have pencil and paper?"
    I stuck my hand up, along with the other guys who had them. And suddenly there
    was a look like a storm cloud on Reno's face.
    "Drop! All of you!" he bellowed. And there was an unbelievable commotion as
    chairs were scraped back and we all hit the floor in the straight-arm rest
    position."Push 'em out!" he snapped. And we made the twenty then were left in
    the rest position.
    He stared at us and said, "Listen. You were told to have a pencil and paper with
    you at all times. So why don't you? Why the hell don't you!"
    The room went stone silent. Reno glared. And since I was not able to write while I
    was prostrate on the floor supporting myself with the palms of my hands, I can't
    say verbatim the exact words he said, but I bet I can come damn close.
    "This is a school for warriors, understand? This is the most serious business there
    is. And if you don't want to do it, then get the hell out right now."
    Christ. He was not joking, and I just hoped to hell he knew who had pencil and
    paper and who didn't. Months later I reminded him of that day and asked him. "Of
    course I knew," he said, adjusting his sunglasses. "It was your first test. I had the
    names of the guys who paid attention written down before you'd done your first
    twenty. And I still remember you were on that list."
    Anyway, that first morning, we did another couple of sets of push-ups and
    somehow gasped out a loud Hooyah, Instructor Reno! And then he let us sit down
    again.
    What followed was probably the most stern lecture in SEAL ethos and ethics I've
    ever attended. I did take notes, and I recall everything he told us, and I'll try to
    relate it as I believe Reno would wish.
    "This is high-risk training. And we define that as anywhere there is potential for
    serious injury or loss of life. Any of you see anything unsafe, or any situation
    where you may be in unnecessary danger, speak up immediately. We do not like

    mistakes, understand me?"
    "Hooyah!"
    "Always remember your own accountability, to yourselves, your superiors, and
    your teammates. The chain of command is sacred. Use it. Keep your boat-crew
    leaders and your class leaders informed of any digression from the normal. And
    stay with your swim buddy. I don't care if you're going to the head, you stay right
    with him. Understood?"
    "Hooyah!"
    "Respect. I expect you to show complete respect for the instructor staff, the class
    officers, and the senior petty officers. You are in the military. You will be courteous
    at all times. Understood?"
    "Hooyah!"
    "Integrity, gentlemen. You don't lie, cheat, or steal. Ever. You lose an item of gear,
    you put in a chit and report it. You do not take someone else's gear. I won't pretend
    that has not happened here in the past. Because it has. But those guys were
    instantly finished. Their feet never touched the ground. They were gone. That day.
    You will respect your classmate. And his gear. You do not take what is not yours.
    Understood?"
    "Hooyah!"
    "I'm your class proctor for the next two weeks. And I'll help you, if you need help,
    over matters of pay, family, and personal concerns. If you get injured, go to
    medical and get it fixed and get back into training. I'm your proctor. Not your
    mother. I'm here to teach you. You stay in the box, I'll help you. You get outside
    the box, I'll hammer you. Understood?"
    "Hooyah!"


    "Finally, reputation. And your reputation begins right here. And so does the
    reputation of Class Two-two-six. And that's a reflection on me. It's a responsibility
    I take very personally. Because reputation is everything. In life, and especially
    right here in Coronado. So stay focused. Keep your head right in the game. Put out
    a hundred percent at all times, because we'll know if you don't. And never, ever,
    leave your swim buddy. Any questions?"
    "Negative!"
    Who could ever forget that? Not me. I can still hear in my mind the sharp crack as
    Instructor Reno snapped shut his notebook. It sounded to me like Moses,
    hammering together the granite slabs which held the 10 Commandments. That
    Reno was a five-foot-six-inch giant. He was some presence in our lives.
    That day we bailed out of the classroom and went for a four-mile run along the
    beach. Three times he stopped us and told us to get in the surf and "get wet and
    sandy."
    Our boots were waterlogged and each passing mile was murder. We never could
    get the sand out of our shorts. Our skin was chafing, and Reno didn't give a damn.
    At the end of the run, he ordered us to drop and start pushing 'em out. He gave us
    two sets of twenty, and right toward the end of the first set, I noticed he was doing
    the exercise with us. Except he was using only one arm, and he didn't even look
    like he was breathing hard.
    That guy could have arm wrestled a half-ton gorilla. And just the sight of him
    cruising through the push-ups alongside us gave us a fair idea of the standard of
    fitness and strength required for us to make it through BUD/S.
    As we prepared to make the mile run to the chow hall around noon, Reno told us
    calmly, "Remember, there's just a few of you here who we'd probably have to kill
    before you'd quit. We know that, and I've already identified some of you. That's
    what I am here to find out. Which of you can take the pain and the cold and the
    misery. We're here to find out who wants it most. Nothing more. Some of you

    won't, some of you can't and never will. No hard feelings. Just don't waste our
    time any longer than necessary."
    Thanks a bunch, Reno. Just can't understand why you have to sugarcoat
    everything. Why not just tell it like it is? I didn't say that, of course. Four hours
    with the pocket battleship of Coronado had slammed a very hefty lid on my
    personal well of smart-ass remarks. Besides, he'd probably have broken my pelvis,
    since he couldn't possibly have reached my chin.
    We had a new instructor for the pool, and we were all driven through the ice-cold
    jets of the decontamination unit to get rid of the sand on our skin. That damn thing
    would have blasted the scales off a fresh haddock. After that, we piled into the
    water, split into teams, and began swimming the first of about ten million lengths
    we would complete before our years of service to the navy were complete.
    They concentrated on buoyancy control and surface swimming for the first few
    days, made us stretch our bodies, made us longer in the water, timing us, stressing
    the golden rule for all young SEALs -- you must be good in the water, no matter
    what. And right here the attrition began. One guy couldn't swim at all! Another
    swore to God he had been told by physicians that he should not put his head
    underwater under any circumstances whatsoever!
    That was two down. They made us swim without putting our heads up, taught us to
    roll our heads smoothly in the water and breathe that way, keeping the surface
    calm, instead of sticking our mouths up for a gulp of air. They showed us the
    standard SEAL swim method, a kind of sidestroke that is ultra-efficient with
    flippers. They taught us the technique of kick, stroke, and glide, the beginning of
    the fantastic SEAL underwater system that enables us to gauge distances and swim
    beneath the surface with astounding accuracy.
    They taught us to swim like fish, not humans, and they made us swim laps of the

    pool using our feet only. They kept telling us that for other branches of the military,
    water is a pain in the ass. For us, it's a haven. They were relentless about times,
    always trying to make us faster, hitting the stopwatches a few seconds sooner every
    day. They insisted brute strength was never the answer. The only way to find speed
    was technique, and then more technique. Nothing else would work. And that was
    just the first week.
    In the second, they switched us to training almost entirely underwater throughout
    the rest of the course. Nothing serious. They just bound our ankles together and
    then bound our wrists together behind our backs and shoved us into the deep end.
    This caused a certain amount of panic, but our instructions were clear: Take a huge
    gulp of air and drop to the bottom of the pool in the standing position. Hold it there
    for at least a minute, bob up for new air, then drop back down for another minute,
    or more if you could.
    The instructors swam alongside us wearing fins and masks, looking like porpoises,
    kind of friendly, in the end, but at first glance a lot like sharks. The issue was
    panic. If a man was prone to losing it under the water when he was bound hand and
    foot, then he was probably never going to be a frogman; the fear is too deeply
    instilled.
    This was a huge advantage for me. I'd been operating underwater with Morgan
    since I was about ten years old. I'd always been able to swim on or below the
    surface. And I'd been taught to hold my breath for two minutes, minimum. I
    worked hard, gave it all I could, and never strayed more than about a foot from my
    swim buddy. Unless it was a race, when he remained on shore.
    I was leader in the fifty-yard underwater swim without fins. I already knew the
    secret to underwater swimming: get real deep, real early. You can't get paid for
    finding the car keys if you can't get down there and stay down. At the end, they
    graded us underwater. I was up there.

    Throughout this week we took ropes with us underwater. There was a series of
    naval knots that had to be completed deep below the surface. I can't actually
    remember how many guys we lost during that drownproofing part of the Indoc
    training, but it was several.
    That second week was very hard for a lot of guys, and my memory is clear: the
    instructors preached competence in all techniques and exercises. Because the next
    week, when phase one of the BUD/S course began, we were expected to carry it all
    out. The BUD/S instructors would assume we could accomplish everything from
    Indoc with ease. Anyone who couldn't was gone. The Indoc chiefs would not be
    thanked for sending up substandard guys for the toughest military training in the
    world.
    And while we were jumping in and out of the pool and the Pacific, we were also
    subjected to a stringent regime of physical training, high-pressure calisthenics. Not
    for us the relatively smooth surface of the grinder, the blacktop square in the
    middle of the BUD/S compound. The Indoc boys, not yet qualified even to join the
    hallowed ranks of the BUD/S students, were banished to the beach out behind the
    compound.
    And there Instructor Reno and his men did their level best to level us. Oh, for the
    good old days of twenty arm-tearing push-ups. Not anymore. Out here it was
    usually fifty at a time, all interspersed with exercises designed to balance and hone
    various muscle groups, especially arms and abs. The instructors were consumed
    with abdominal strength, the reasons for which are now obvious: the abdomen is
    the bedrock of a warrior's strength for climbing rocks and ropes, rowing, lifting,
    swimming, fighting, and running.
    Back there in Indoc, we did not really get that. All we knew was the SEAL
    instructors were putting us through hell on a daily basis. My personal hell was the
    flutter kick: lie on your back, legs dead straight and six inches off the sand, point
    your toes, and then kick as if you were doing the backstroke in the pool. And don't
    even consider putting your legs down, because there were instructors walking past
    at all times, like they were members of a firing squad under the orders of the Prince
    of Darkness.
    One time early on, the pain in the nerves and tendons behind my thighs and back
    was so intense, I let my feet drop. Actually, I dropped them three times, and you'd
    have thought I'd committed murder. The first time, there was a roar of anguish
    from an instructor; the second time, someone called me a faggot; and the third
    time, there was a roar of anguish and someone else called me a faggot. Each time, I
    was ordered to go straight into the ice-cold Pacific then come out and roll in the
    sand.
    It wasn't until the third time I realized that nearly everyone was in the Pacific and
    then rolling in the sand. We all looked like creatures from the Black Lagoon. And
    still they drove us forward, making us complete those exercises. It was funny
    really, but within four or five days, those flutter kicks were no problem at all. And
    we were all a whole lot fitter for them. All? Well, most. Two or three guys just
    could not take it and fluttered their way right out of there with smiles on their
    faces.
    Me? I hung in there, calling out the exercise count, doing the best I could, cursing
    the hell out of Billy Shelton for getting me into this nuthouse in the first place,
    even though it was plainly not his fault.
    I completed the exercises with obvious motivation, not because I was trying to
    make a favorable impression but because I would do nearly anything to avoid
    running into the freezing ocean and then rolling in the sand. And that was the
    consequence of not trying. Those instructors never missed a slacker. Every couple
    of minutes some poor bastard was told, "Get wet and sandy."

    Wasn't that bad, though. Right after we finished the PT class and staggered to our

    feet, Instructor Reno, god of all the mercies, would send us on a four-mile run
    through the soft sand, running alongside us at half speed (for him), exhorting us to
    greater effort, barking instructions, harassing, cajoling. Those runs were
    unbelievably hard, especially for me, and I labored in the second half of the field
    trying to force my long legs to go faster.
    Reno knew damn well I was trying my best, but in those early days he'd call out
    my name and tell me to get going. Then he'd tell me to get wet and sandy, and I'd
    run into the ocean, boots and all. Then I'd have to try and catch up with boots full
    of water. I guess he knew I could take it, but I cannot believe he was not laughing
    his ass off behind those black sunglasses.
    Still, eventually it would be lunchtime, and it was only another mile to get
    something to eat. And all the time they were telling us about diet, what to eat, what
    never to eat, how often to eat. Jesus. It was a miracle any of us ever made it to the
    chow hall, never mind study our diets.
    There was also the obstacle course, known to us as the O-course, and a place of
    such barbaric intensity that real live SEALs, veteran combat warriors from the
    teams, came over to supplement their training, often preparing for overseas
    deployment to a theater of war: jungle, mountain, ocean, or desert.
    The Coronado O-course was world famous. And if it tested the blooded warriors of
    the teams, imagine what it was like for us, ten-day wonders, fresh out of boot
    camp, soft as babies compared to these guys.
    I stared at the O-course, first day we went there. We were shown around, the rope
    climbs, the sixty-foot cargo net, the walls, the vaults, the parallel bars, the barbed
    wire, the rope bridges, the Weaver, the Burma Bridge.
    For the first time I wished to hell I'd been a foot shorter. It was obvious to me this
    was a game for little guys. Instructor Reno gave a couple of demonstrations. It was
    like he'd been born on the rope bridge. It would be more difficult for me. All
    climbing is, because, in the end, I have to haul 230 pounds upward. Which is why
    all the world's great climbers are tiny guys with nicknames like the Fly, or the Flea,
    or Spider, all of them 118 pounds soaking wet.
    I assessed rightly this would be a major test for me. But there were a lot of very big
    SEALs, and they'd all done it. That meant I could do it. Anyway, my mindset was
    the same old, same old. I'm either going to do this right, or I'll die trying. That last
    part was closer to the reality.
    There were fifteen separate sections of the course, and you needed to go through,
    past, over, or under all of them. Naturally they timed us right from the get-go,
    when guys were tripping up, falling off, falling down, getting stuck, or generally
    screwing up. As I suspected, the bigger guys were instantly in the most trouble,
    because the key elements were balance and agility. Those Olympic gymnasts are
    mostly four feet tall. And when did you last see a six-foot-five, 230-pound ice
    dancer?
    It was the climbing which put the big guys at the most disadvantage. One of our
    tests was called slide for life, a thick eighty-foot nylon rope attached to a tower and
    looped down to a vertical pole about ten feet high. You had to climb up the tower
    hanging on to the rope then slide all the way back down or pull yourself,
    whichever was easier.
    For the record, on the subject of Instructor Reno, when we had to climb various
    ropes, he would amuse himself by climbing to the same height as us while
    using tworopes, one in each hand, never losing his grip and never letting go of
    either one. To this day, I believe that was impossible and that Reno was some kind
    of a mirage in sunglasses on the sand.
    I struggled through the rope loop, making the top and sliding down, but one guy

    lost his grip and fell down, straight onto the sand, and broke his arm and, I think,
    his leg. He was a pretty big guy, and there was another one gone. The other

    discipline that sticks in my memory was that cargo net. You know the type of
    thing, heavy-duty rope knotted together in squares, the kind of stuff that has come
    straight from a shipyard. It was plainly imperative we all got damn good at this,
    since SEALs use such nets to board and disembark submarines and ships and to get
    in and out of inflatable boats.
    But it was hard for me. It seemed when I shoved my boot in and reached upward,
    the foothold slipped downward, and my intended handhold got higher. Obviously,
    if I'd weighed 118 pounds soaking wet, this would not have been the case. First
    time I climbed the net, ramming my feet into the holes, I got kind of stuck about
    forty-five feet off the ground, arms and legs spreadeagled. I guess I looked like
    Captain Ahab trapped in the harpoon lines after a trip to the ocean floor with Moby
    Dick.
    But like all the rest of our exercises, this one was completely about technique. And
    Instructor Reno was there to put me straight. Four days later, I could zip up that net
    like a circus acrobat. Well...okay, more like an orangutan. Then I'd grab the huge
    log at the top, clear that, and climb down the other side like Spider-Man. Okay,
    okay...like an orangutan.
    I had similar struggles on the rope bridge, which seemed always to be out of kilter
    for me, swinging too far left or too far right. But Instructor Reno was always there,
    personally, to help me regain my equilibrium by sending me on a quick rush into
    the ocean, which was so cold it almost stopped my heart. This was followed by a
    roll in the sand, just to make the rest of the day an absolute itching, chafing hell
    until I hit the decontamination unit to get power washed down, same way you deal
    with a mud-caked tractor.
    Naturally, the newly clean tractor had it all over us because no one then dumps it
    into the deep end of a swimming pool and more or less leaves it there until it starts
    to sprout fins. It was just another happy day in the life of a fledgling student going
    through Indoc. Understandably, Class 226 shrank daily, and we had not even
    started BUD/S.
    And you think it was a great relief finally to get through the day and retire to our
    rooms for peace and perhaps sleep? Dream on. There's no such thing as peace in
    Coronado. The place is a living, breathing testimony to that Roman strategist who
    first told the world, "Let him who desires peace prepare for war" (that's translated
    from the Latin Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum -- Flavius Vegetius
    Renatus, fourth century). Or, as a SEAL might say, You want things to remain cool,
    pal? Better get your ass in gear. I knew I was close.
    That old Roman knew a thing or two. His military treatise De Rei Militari was the
    bible of European warfare for more than 1,200 years, and it still applies in
    Coronado, stressing constant drilling, training, and severe discipline. He advised
    the Roman commanders to gather intelligence assiduously, use the terrain, and then
    drive the legionnaires forward to encircle their objective. That's more or less how
    we operate in overseas deployment against terrorists today. Hooyah, Flavius
    Vegetius.
    Coronado, like New York, is a city that never sleeps. Those instructors are out there
    patrolling the corridors of our barracks by night into the small hours. One of them
    once came into my room after I'd hot mopped it and high polished the floor till you
    could almost see your face in it. He dropped a trickle of sand onto the floor and
    chewed me out for living in a dust bowl! Then he sent me down to the Pacific, in
    the company of my swim buddy and of course himself, to "get wet and sandy."
    Then we had to go through the decontamination unit, and the shrieking of those
    cold hydraulic pipes and the ferocious jets of water awakened half the barracks and

    nearly sent us into shock. Never mind the fact that it was 0200 and we were due
    back under those showers again in another couple of hours.
    I think it was that time. I can't be absolutely sure. But my roommate quit that

    night. He went weak at the knees just watching what was happening to me. I don't
    know how the hell he thought I felt.
    One time during Indoc while we were out on night run, one of the instructors
    actually climbed up the outside of a building, came through an open window, and
    absolutely trashed a guy's room, threw everything everywhere, emptied detergent
    over his bed gear. He went back out the way he'd come in, waited for everyone to
    return, and then tapped on the poor guy's door and demanded a room inspection.
    The guy couldn't work out whether to be furious or heartbroken, but he spent most
    of the night cleaning up and still had to be in the showers at 0430 with the rest of
    us.
    I asked Reno about this weeks later, and he told me, "Marcus, the body can take
    damn near anything. It's the mind that needs training. The question that guy was
    being asked involved mental strength. Can you handle such injustice? Can you
    cope with that kind of unfairness, that much of a setback? And still come back with
    your jaw set, still determined, swearing to God you will never quit? That's what
    we're looking for."
    As ever, I do not claim to quote Instructor Reno word for word. But I do know
    what he said, and how I remember it. No one talks to him and comes away
    bemused. Trust me.
    Thus far I've only dealt with that first two weeks of training on the land and in the
    pool, and I may not have explained how much emphasis the instructors put on the
    correct balanced diet for everyone. They ran classes on this, drilling into us how
    much fruit and vegetables we needed, the necessity for tons of carbohydrates and
    water.
    The mantra was simple -- you take care of your body like the rest of your gear.
    Keep it well fed and watered, between one and two gallons a day. Start no
    discipline without a full canteen. That way your body will take care of you when
    you begin to ask serious questions of it. Because there's no doubt in the coming
    months you will be asking those questions.
    This was an area, I remember, where there were a lot of questions, because even
    after those first few days here, guys were feeling the effects: muscle soreness,
    aches and pains in shoulders, thighs, and backs where there had been none before.
    The instructor who dealt with this part of our training warned us against very
    strong drugs like Tylenol, except for a fever, but he understood we would need
    ibuprofen. He conceded it was difficult to get through the coming Hell Week
    without ibuprofen, and he told us the medical department would make sure we
    received a sufficient amount to ease the pain, though not too much of it.
    I remember he said flatly, "You're going to hurt while you're here. That's our job,
    to induce pain; not permanent injury, of course, but we need to make you hurt.
    That's a big part of becoming a SEAL. We need proof you can take the
    punishment. And the way out of that is mental, in your mind. Don't buckle under to
    the hurt, rev up your spirit and your motivation, attack the courses. Tell yourself
    precisely how much you want to be here."
    The final part of Indoc involved boats -- the fabled IBS (inflatable boat, small) or,
    colloquially, itty-bitty ship. These boats are thirteen feet long and weigh a little
    under 180 pounds. They are unwieldy and cumbersome, and for generations the
    craft has been used to teach BUD/S students to pull a paddle as a tight-knit crew,
    blast their way through the incoming surf, rig properly, and drag the thing into
    place in a regimented line for inspection on the sandy beach about every seven
    minutes. At least that's how it seemed to us.

    At that point we lined up in full life jackets right next to our boats. Inside the boat,
    the paddles were stowed with geometric precision, bow and stern lines coiled
    carefully on the rubber floor. Inch perfect.
    We started with a series of races. But before that, each of our teams had a crew


    leader, selected from the most experienced navy personnel among us. And they
    lined up with their paddles at the military slope-arms position, the paddles resting
    on their shoulders. Then they saluted the instructors and announced their boat was
    correctly rigged and the crew was ready for the sea.
    Meanwhile, other instructors were checking each boat. If a paddle was incorrectly
    stowed, an instructor seized it and hurled it down the beach. That happened on my
    first day, and one of the guys standing very near to me raced off after it, anxious to
    retrieve it and make amends. Unhappily, his swim buddy forgot to go with him,
    and the instructor was furious.
    "Drop!" he yelled. And every one of us hit the sand and began to execute the
    worst kind of push-up, our feet up on the rubber gunwales of the boats, pushing
    'em out in our life jackets. The distant words of Reno sung in my ears: "Someone
    screws it up, the consequences affect everyone."
    We raced each other in the boats out beyond the surf. We raced until our arms felt
    as if they might fall off. We pulled, each crew against the rest, hauling our
    grotesquely unstreamlined little boats along. And this was not Yale versus Harvard
    on the Thames River in Connecticut, all pulling together. This was the closest thing
    to a floating nuthouse you've ever seen. But it was my kind of stuff.
    Boat drill is a game for big, strong guys who can pull. Pull like hell. It's also a
    game for heavy lifters who can haul that boat up and run with their team.
    Let me take you through one of these races. First, we got the boat balanced in the
    shallows and watched the surf roll in toward us. The crew leader had issued a one-
    minute briefing, and we all watched the pattern of those five- to six-foot breakers.
    This part is called surf passage, and on the command, we were watching for our
    chance. Plainly, we didn't want to charge into the biggest incoming wave, but we
    didn't have much time.
    The water was only a fraction above sixty degrees. We all knew we had to take that
    first wave bow on, but we didn't want the biggest, so we waited. Then the crew
    leader spotted a slacker one, and he bellowed, "Now! Now! Now!" We charged
    forward, praying to God we wouldn't get swept sideways and capsize. One by one
    we scrambled aboard, digging deep, trying to get through the overhanging crest,
    which was being whipped by an offshore breeze.
    "Dig! Dig! Dig!" he roared as we headed for two more incoming walls of water.
    This was the Pacific Ocean, not some Texas lake. Close to us, one of the nine boats
    capsized, and there were paddles and students all in the water. You could hear
    nothing except the crash of the surf and shouts of "Dig! Stroke!
    Portside...starboard...straighten up! Let's go! Go! Go!"
    I pulled that paddle until I thought my lungs would burst, until we had driven out
    beyond the breakers. And then our class leader yelled, "Dump the boat!" The bow-
    side men slipped overboard, the others (including me) grabbed the strap handles
    fixed on the rubber hull, stood up, and jumped over the same side, dragging the
    boat over on top of us.
    As the boat hit the water, three of us grabbed the same handles and climbed back
    on the upturned hull of the boat. I was first up, I remember. Weightless in the
    water, right? Just give me a chance.
    We backed to the other side of the hull and pulled, dragging the IBS upright,
    flipping it back on its lines. Everyone was aware that the tide was sweeping us
    back into the breakers. Feeling something between panic and frenzy, we battled
    back, grabbed our paddles and hauled out into flatter water and took a bead on the

    finish line. We paddled like hell, racing toward the mark, some tower on the beach.
    Then we dumped the boat again, grabbed the handles, carried it through the
    shallows onto the beach, and hauled it into a head carry.
    We ran up the dunes around some truck, still with the boat on our heads, and then,
    as fast as we could, back along the beach to the point where we had started, and the


    instructors awaited us, logging the positions we finished and the times we clocked.
    They thoughtfully gave the winning crew a break to sit down and recover. The
    losers were told to push 'em out. It was not unusual to complete six of these races
    in one afternoon. By the end of Indoc week two, we had lost twenty-five guys.
    The rest of us, somehow, had managed to show Instructor Reno and his colleagues
    we were indeed fit and qualified enough to attempt BUD/S training. Which would
    begin the next week. There would be just one final briefing from Reno before we
    attacked BUD/S first phase.
    I saw him outside the classroom, and, still with his sunglasses on, he offered his
    hand and smiled quietly. "Nice job, Marcus," said Reno. He had a grip like a crane.
    His hand might have been bolted onto blue twisted steel, but I shook it as hard as I
    could, and I replied, "Thank you, sir."
    We all knew he'd changed us drastically in those two weeks in Indoc. He'd showed
    us the depth of what we must achieve, guided us to the brink of the forthcoming
    unknown abyss of BUD/S. He'd knocked away whatever cocksure edges we might
    still have possessed.
    We were a lot tougher now, and I still towered over him. None-theless, Reno
    Alberto still seemed fifteen feet tall to me. And he always will.
    4

    Welcome to Hell, Gentlemen

    Battlefield whistle drills were conducted in the midst of high-pressure water jets,
    total chaos, deafening explosions, and shouting instructors..."Crawl to the whistle,
    men! Crawl to the whistle! And keep your goddamned heads down!"
    We assembled in the classroom soon after 1300 that last afternoon of Indoc.
    Instructor Reno made his entry like a Roman caesar, head held high, and
    immediately ordered us to push 'em out. As ever, chairs scraped back and we hit
    the floor, counting out the push-ups.
    At twenty, Reno left us in the rest position and then said crisply, "Recover."
    "Hooyah, Instructor Ree-no!"
    "Give me a muster, Mr. Ismay."
    "One hundred and thirteen men assigned, Instructor Reno. All present except two
    men at medical."
    "Close, Mr. Ismay. Two men quit a few minutes ago."
    All of us wondered who they were. My boat's crew members? Heads whipped
    around. I had no idea who had crashed at the final hurdle.
    "Not your fault, Mr. Ismay. You were in the classroom when they quit. Two-twosix
    will class up in BUD/S first phase with a hundred and eleven men."
    Hooyah!



    I realized we had been losing guys fairly steadily. But according to these numbers,
    Class 226 had had 164 men assigned on the first day, and we'd lost more than fifty
    of them. I know a few never showed up at all, mostly through sheer intimidation.
    But the rest had somehow vanished into the void. I never saw any of them leave,
    not even my roommate.

    And I still cannot work out quite how it happened. I guess they just reached some
    type of breaking point, or maybe they anguished for days over their own inability
    to cut the mustard. But gone is gone in this man's navy. I did not entirely
    comprehend it at the time, but me and my 110 cohorts were witnessing the ruthless
    elimination process of a U.S. fighting force that cannot tolerate a suspect
    component.
    Instructor Reno now spoke formally. "You're on your way to first phase BUD/S.
    And I want each and every one of you to make me proud. Those of you who
    survive Hell Week will still have to face the pool competency test -- that's in
    second phase -- and then the weapons practicals in third phase. But I want to be at
    your graduation. And right there I want to shake your hand. I want to think of you
    as one of Reno's warriors."
    The Hooyah, Instructor Ree-no! with our clenched fists in the air could have lifted
    the roof off the classroom. We loved him, all of us, because we all sensed he truly
    wanted the best for us. There was not a shred of malice in the guy. Neither was
    there a shred of weakness.
    He repeated the orders he had been giving us for two weeks. "Stay alert. Be on
    time. And be accountable for your actions at all times, in and out of uniform.
    Remember, your reputation is everything. And you all have a chance to build on
    that reputation, beginning right here on Monday morning, zero five hundred. First
    phase.
    "For those of you who make the teams, remember you're joining a brotherhood.
    You'll be closer to those guys than you ever were to friends in school or college.
    You'll live with them...and, in combat, some of you may die with them. Your
    family must always come first, but the brotherhood is a privileged place. And I
    don't want you ever to forget it."
    And with that, he left us, walked away and slipped out of a back entrance, leaving
    behind a very long shadow: a bunch of guys who were revved up, gung ho, and
    ready to give everything to pass the challenging tests ahead. Just the way Reno
    wanted it.
    Enter Instructor Sean Mruk (pronounced MUR-rock), ex-SEAL from Team 2,
    veteran of three overseas deployments, native of Ohio, a cheerful-looking character
    we had not encountered during Indoc. He was assistant to our new proctor. We
    heard him before we saw him, his quiet command, "Drop and push 'em out,"
    before he had even made his way to the front of the classroom.
    In the following few minutes he ran through the myriad of tasks we must complete
    after hours in first phase. Stuff like preparing the boats and vehicles, making sure
    we had the right supplies. He told us he expected 100 percent at all times, because
    if we did not put out, we'd surely pay for it.
    He made sure we had all moved from our Indoc barracks, behind the grinder, over
    to the naval special warfare barracks a couple of hundred yards north of the center.
    Prime real estate on the sandy beach, and it's all yours -- just as long as you can
    stay on the BUD/S bandwagon and remain in Class 226, the numbers of which will
    shortly be blocked in stark white on either side of your new green phase one
    helmet. Those numbers stay with you as long as you serve in the Navy SEALs. My
    class's three white-painted numbers would one day become the sweetest sounds I
    ever heard.
    Instructor Mruk nodded agreeably and told us he would be over to the new

    barracks at 1000 Sunday to make sure we knew how to get our rooms ready for
    inspection. He gave us one last warning: "You're an official class now. First phase
    owns you."
    And so to the cloudless Monday morning of June 18, all of us assembled outside
    the barracks two hours before sunrise. It was 0500 and the temperature not much
    above fifty degrees. Our new instructor, a stranger, stood there silently. Lieutenant

    Ismay reported, formally, "Class Two-two-six is formed, Chief. Ninety-eight men
    present."
    David Ismay saluted. Chief Stephen Schulz returned the salute without so much as
    a "Good morning" or "How y'doing?" Instead, he just snapped, "Hit the surf, sir.
    All of you. Then get into the classroom."
    Here we went again. Class 226 charged out of the compound and across the beach
    to the ocean. We floundered into the ice-cold water, got wet, and then squelched
    our way back to the classroom, freezing, dripping, already full of apprehension.
    "Drop!" ordered the instructor. Then again. Then again. Finally, Ensign Joe Burns,
    a grim-looking SEAL commander, took his place in front of us and informed us he
    was the first phase officer. A few of us flinched. Burns's reputation as a hard man
    had preceded him. He later proved to be one of the toughest men I ever met.
    "I understand you all want to be frogmen?"
    Hooyah!
    "I guess we'll see about that," said Ensign Burns. "Find out how bad you really
    want it. This is my phase, and these are my staff instructors."
    Each of the fourteen introduced himself to us by name. And then Chief Schulz,
    presumably terrified we'd all go soft on him after an entire two minutes of talk,
    commanded, "Drop and push 'em out." And again. And again.
    Then he ordered us out to the grinder for physical training. "Move! Move! Move!"
    And finally we formed up, for the first time, on the most notorious square of black
    tarmac in the entire United States Armed Forces. It was 0515, and our places were
    marked by little frog flippers painted on the ground. It was hardly worth the visit.
    "Hit the surf. Get wet and sandy!" yelled Schulz. "Fast!"
    Our adrenaline pumped, our legs pumped, our arms pumped, our hearts pumped.
    Every goddamn thing there was pumped as we thundered off the blacktop, still
    dressed in our squelching boots and fatigue pants, went back down to the beach,
    and hurled ourselves into the surf.
    Jesus, it was cold. The waves broke over me as I struggled back into the shallows,
    flung myself onto the sand, rolled over a couple of times, and came up looking like
    Mr. Sandman, except I wasn't bringing anyone a dream. I could hear the others all
    around me, but I'd heard Schulz's last word. Fast. And I remembered what Billy
    Shelton had taught: pay attention to even the merest suggestion...and I ran for my
    goddamned life straight back to the grinder, right up with the leaders.
    "Too slow!" bellowed Schulz. "Much too slow...drop!"
    Schulz's instructors roamed among us, berating us, yelling, harassing us as we
    sweated and strained to make the push-ups..."Like a goddamned fairy." "Get a
    grip on yourself." "For Christ's sake, look as if you mean it." "C'mon, let's go!
    Go! Go!" "You sure you wanna be here? You wanna quit right now?"
    I learned in the next few minutes there was a sharp difference between "get wet
    and sandy" and just plain "get wet." Parked at the side of the grinder were two of
    the inflatable boats, laden to the gunwales with ice and water. "Get wet" meant
    plunge over the bow, under the water, under the rubber seat struts, and out to the
    other side. Five seconds, in the dark, in the ice, under the water. A killer whale
    would have begged for mercy.
    Now, I'd been cold before, in the freakin' Pacific, right? But the water in that little
    boat would have frozen the balls off a brass monkey. I came out of there almost

    blue with the cold, ice in my hair, and blundered my way to my little frogman's
    marker. At least I'd gotten rid of the sand, and so had everyone else. Two
    instructors were going down the lines with freezing cold power hoses, spraying
    everyone from the head down.
    By 0600 I had counted out more than 450 push-ups. And there were more, I just
    couldn't count anymore. I'd also done more than fifty sit-ups. We were ordered
    from one exercise to another. Guys who were judged to be slacking were ordered

    to throw in a set of flutter kicks.
    The result of this was pure chaos. Some guys couldn't keep up, others were doing
    push-ups when they'd been ordered to do sit-ups, men were falling, hitting the
    ground facedown. In the end, half of us didn't know where the hell we were or
    what we were supposed to be doing. I just kept going, doing my absolute best,
    through the roars of abuse and the flying spray of the power hoses: push-ups, sit-
    ups, screwups. It was now all the same to me. Every muscle in my body ached to
    hell, especially those in my stomach and arms.
    And finally Schulz offered us mercy and a quiet drink. "Hydrate!" he yelled with
    that Old World charm that came so naturally to him, and we all reached for our
    canteens and chugged away.
    "Canteens down!" bellowed Schulz, a tone of pained outrage in his voice. "Now
    push 'em out!"
    Oh, yes. Of course. I'd forgotten all about that. I'd just had a nine-second break.
    Down we all dropped again and went back to work with the last remnants of our
    strength, counting the push-ups. We only did twenty that time. Schulz must have
    been seized by an attack of conscience.
    "Get in the surf!" he bawled. "Right now!"
    We floundered to the beach and darn near fell into the surf. We were now so hot,
    the cold didn't even matter. Much. And when we splashed back to the beach, Chief
    Schulz was there, ranting and yelling for us to form up and run the mile to the
    chow hall.
    "Get moving," he added. "We don't have much time."
    When we arrived, I was just about dead on my feet. I didn't think I had the energy
    to chew a soft-boiled egg. We walked into that chow hall like Napoleon's army on
    the retreat from Moscow, wet, bedraggled, exhausted, out of breath, too hungry to
    eat, too battered to care.
    It was, of course, all by design. This was not some kind of crazed Chinese fire drill
    arranged by the instructors. This was a deadly serious assessment of their charges,
    a method used to find out, in the hardest possible way, who really wanted to do
    this, who really cared enough to go through with it, who could face the next four
    weeks before Hell Week, when things got seriously tough.
    It was designed to compel us to reassess our commitment. Could we really take
    this punishment? Ninety-eight of us had formed up on the grinder two hours
    earlier. Only sixty-six of us made it through breakfast.
    And when that ended, we were still soaked, boots, long pants, and T-shirts. And
    once more we set off for the beach, accompanied by an instructor who showed up
    from nowhere, running alongside us, shouting for us to get moving. We had been
    told what awaited us. A four-mile run along the beach, going south, two down and
    two back. Thirty-two minutes on the stopwatch was allowed, and God help anyone
    who could not run eight-minute miles through the sand.
    I was afraid of this, because I knew I was not a real fast runner, and I psyched
    myself up for a maximum effort. I seem to have spent my whole life doing that.
    And when we arrived at the beach, I knew I would need that effort. There could not
    have been a worse time to make the run. The tide was almost full, still running in,
    so there was no appreciable width of drying hard sand. This meant running in

    either shallow water or very soft sand, both of which were a complete nuisance to a
    runner.
    Our instructor Chief Ken Taylor lined us up and warned us darkly of the horrors to
    come if thirty-two minutes proved to be beyond some of us. And sent us away,
    with the sun now climbing out of the Pacific to our right. I picked the line I would
    run, right along the high point of the tide, where the waters first receded and left a
    slim strip of hard sand. This meant I'd be splashing some of the time, but only in
    the shallowest surf foam, and that was a whole lot better than the deep sand that

    stretched to my left.
    Trouble was, I had to stick to this line, because my boots would be permanently
    wet and if I strayed up the beach, I'd have half a pound of sand stuck to each one. I
    did not think I could lay up with the leaders, but I thought I could hang in there in
    the group right behind them. So I put my head down, watched the tide line
    stretching in front of me, and pounded my way forward, staying right on the
    hardest wet sand.
    The first two miles were not that awful. I was up there in the first half of the class,
    and I was not feeling too bad. On the way back, though, I was flagging. I glanced
    around and I could see everyone else was also looking really tired. And right then I
    decided to hit it. I turned up the gas and thumped my way forward.
    The tide had turned during the first twenty minutes and there was just a slight
    width of wet sand that was no longer being washed by the ocean. I hit this with
    every stride, running until I thought I'd drop. Every time I caught a guy, I treated it
    as a personal challenge and pulled past him, finally clocking a time well inside
    thirty minutes, which wasn't half bad for a packhorse.
    I forget who the winner was, probably some hickory-tough farm boy petty officer,
    but he was a couple of minutes better than I was. Anyway, the guys who made the
    time were sent up into the soft sand to rest and recover.
    There were about eighteen guys outside thirty-two minutes, and one by one they
    were told, "Drop!" Then start pushing 'em out. Most of them were on their knees
    with exhaustion, and that kinda saved them a step in the next evolution, which was
    a bear crawl straight into the Pacific, directly into the incoming surf. Instructor
    Taylor had them go in deep, until the freezing cold water was up to their necks.
    They were kept there for twenty minutes, very carefully timed, I now know, to
    make sure no one developed hypothermia. Taylor and his men even had a pinpoint-
    accurate chart that showed precisely how long a man could stand that degree of
    cold. And one by one they were called out and given the most stupendous hard
    time for failing to achieve the thirty-two-minute deadline.
    I understand some of them may have just given up, and others just could not go
    any faster. But those instructors had a fair idea of what was going on, and on this,
    the first day of BUD/S training, they were ruthless.
    As those poor guys came out of the surf, the rest of us were now doing regular
    push-ups, and since this was now second nature to me, I looked up to see the fate
    of the slow guys. Chief Taylor, the Genghis Khan of the beach gods, ordered these
    half-dead, half-drowned, half-frozen guys to lie on their backs, their heads and
    shoulders in and under the water with the rhythm of the waves. And he made them
    do flutter kicks. There were guys choking and spluttering and coughing and
    kicking and God knows what else.
    And then, only then, did Chief Taylor release them, and I remember, vividly, him
    yelling out to them that we, dry and doing our push-ups up the beach, were
    winners, whereas they, the slowpokes, were losers! Then he told them they better
    start taking this seriously or they would be out of here. "Those guys up there,
    taking it easy, they paid the full price," he yelled. "Right up front. You did not. You
    failed. And for guys like you there's a bigger price to pay, understand me?"

    He knew this was shockingly unfair, because some of them had been doing their
    genuine best. But he had to find out for certain. Who believed they could improve?
    Who was determined to stay? And who was halfway out the door already?
    Next evolution: log PT, brand-new to all of us. We lined up wearing fatigues and
    soft hats, seven-man boat crews, standing right by our logs, each of which was
    eight feet long and a foot in diameter. I can't remember the weight, but it equaled
    that of a small guy, say 150 to 160 pounds. Heavy, right? I was just moving into
    packhorse mode when the instructor called out, "Go get wet and sandy." All in our
    nice dry clothes, we charged once more toward the surf, up and over a sand dune,

    and down into the water. We rushed out of the waves and back up the sand dune,
    rolled down the other side, then stood up like the lost company from the U.S.
    Navy's Sandcastle Platoon.
    Then he told us to get our logs wet and sandy. So we heaved them up, waist high,
    and hauled them up the sand dune. We ran down the other side, dumped the
    goddamned log in the ocean, pulled it out, went back up the sand dune, and rolled
    it down the other side.
    The crew next to us somehow managed to drop their log on the downward slope.
    "You ever, ever drop one of my logs again," the instructor bellowed, "I can't even
    describe what will happen to you. All of you!" He used the enraged, vengeance-
    seeking tone of voice that might have been specially reserved for "You guys ever,
    ever gang-rape my mother again . . ." Rather than just dropping the stupid log.
    We all stood there in a line, holding our logs straight-arm, above our heads. They
    try to make the teams a uniform height, but my six foot five inches means I'll
    always be carrying at least my fair share of the burden.
    More and more guys were accused of slacking, and more and more of them were
    on the ground doing push-ups while me and a couple of other big guys on the far
    end were bearing the weight. We must have looked like the three pillars of
    Coronado, sandstone towers holding up the temple, eyes peering grittily out at a
    sandscape full of weird, sandy, burrowing creatures fighting for breath.
    Right after this they taught us all the physical training moves we would need:
    squats, tossing the log overhead, and a whole lot of others. Then, still in formation,
    we were told, "Fall in on your logs," and we charged forward.
    "Slow! Too slow! Get wet and sandy!"
    Back down to the surf, into the waves, into the sand. By this time, guys really were
    on their last legs, and the instructors knew it. They didn't really want anyone to
    collapse, and they spent a while teaching us the finer points of log teamwork. To
    our total amazement, they concluded the morning by telling us we'd done a damn
    nice job, made a great start, and to head off now for chow.
    A lot of us thought this was encouraging. Seven of our number, however, were not
    to be consoled by these sudden, calming words uttered by guys who should have
    been riding with Satan's cavalry in Lord of the Rings. They went straight back to
    the grinder, rang the hanging bell outside the first phase office, and handed in their
    helmets, placing them in a line outside the CO's door. That's the way it's done in
    first phase: the exit ritual. There were now a dozen helmets signifying resignation,
    and we hadn't even had lunch on day one.
    Most of us thought they were a bit hasty, because we knew a certain part of the
    afternoon was taken up by the weekly room inspection. Most of us had spent all
    day Sunday getting into order, cleaning the floor with a mop and then high
    polishing it. Somehow I had found myself way down the waiting list to use one of
    the two electric buffers.
    I had had to wait my turn and did not get finished before about 0200. But the time
    had not been wasted. I'd fixed my bed gear, pressed my starched fatigues, and spit-
    shined my boots. I looked better, not like some darned sand-encrusted

    beachcomber, the way I had most of the day.
    The instructors arrived. I cannot remember which of them walked into my room.
    But he gazed upon it, this picture of military order and precision, and at me with an
    expression of undiluted disgust. Carefully he opened my chest of drawers and
    hurled everything all over the room. He heaved the mattress off the bed and cast it
    aside. He emptied the contents of my locker into a pile and informed me that he
    was unused to meeting trainees who were happy to live in a garbage dump.
    Actually, his words were a bit more colorful than that, more...well...earthy.
    Beyond the confines of my room, there was absolute bedlam; stuff was hurled all
    over the place in room after room. I just stood there gaping as the entire barracks

    was ransacked by our own instructors. Outside in the corridor, I could hear
    someone bawling out Lieutenant David Ismay, the class leader. The soft, dulcet
    tones of Chief Schulz were unmistakable.
    "What kind of rathole are you running here, Mr. Ismay? I've never seen rooms like
    these in my life. Your uniforms are a disgrace. Hit the surf...all of you!"
    There were, by my count, thirty rooms. Only three of them had passed muster. And
    even those guys were not exempt from our first ocean plunge of the afternoon. In
    our shiny boots and pressed fatigues, we pounded back down to the beach, leaving
    a scene of total chaos behind us.
    We raced into the water, deep, right into the waves. Then we turned and floundered
    back to the beach, formed up, and headed back to the BUD/S area. Chief Taylor
    was back in our lives with a major rush, obviously preparing for the last evolution
    of the day, on the beach or in the water. We did not know which.
    All day long we had been wondering precisely who he was, but our inquiries had
    yielded little save that the chief was a true veteran of the teams who had seen
    combat in overseas deployment four times, including the Gulf War. He was a
    medium-sized man but immensely muscular; he looked like he could walk straight
    through a wall without breaking stride. But you could see he had a sense of humor,
    and he was not averse to telling us we were doing okay. Sweet of him, right? Half
    of us were hanging in there by willpower alone.
    And we needed all the willpower we had, because in a few moments we were
    preparing to take the boats into the water again. I have never forgotten that surf
    drill on that first day because Chief Taylor made us paddle the boats out backward,
    facing aft. When we returned through the surf to the beach, we faced aft again, but
    now we were paddling forward.
    When we first started, the journey out beyond the breakers seemed impossible to
    do while facing the beach and holding the oar so awkwardly, but we got better. And
    somehow we got it done. But not before all kinds of chaos had broken out. We
    capsized, flipped over, crashed backward trying to drive head-on into a big wave.
    And there was a lot of spluttering and coughing when we attempted Chief Taylor's
    finale, which was to dump boat, right it again, stow the oars correctly, and then
    swim the boat back in through the surf and onto the beach.
    Before we left, we were taken through an exercise called surf observation, in which
    two-man teams observe the condition of the sea and make a report. I paid strict
    attention to this, which was good, since from now on, every morning at 0430, two
    of our number would go down to the water's edge and come back to make that
    report. Chief Taylor, smiling, as he was prone to do, dismissed us with the words
    "And don't screw up that report. I want no discrepancies about sea conditions, or
    there'll be hell to pay."
    We sharpened up our rooms that evening, and on day two were under way with the
    normal morning grind of push-ups, running, and getting wet and sandy. Our first
    classroom involved meeting our leading petty officer instructor, Chief Bob
    Nielsen, another Gulf War veteran of several overseas deployments. He was tall,

    slim for a SEAL, and, I thought, a bit sardonic. His words to us were packed with
    meaning, edged with menace, but nonetheless optimistic.
    He introduced himself and told us what he expected. As if we didn't know.
    Everything, right? Or die in the attempt. He gave us a slide presentation of every
    aspect of first phase. Before the first picture had been taken off the screen, he told
    us to forget all about trying to put one over on the instructors.
    "Guys," he said, "we've seen it all. You can try it on, if you like, but it won't do
    anyone any good. We'll catch you, and when we do, watch out!"
    I think everyone in the room made a mental note not to "try it on." We all listened
    carefully while Chief Nielsen ran quickly through the first four weeks and what we
    could expect -- more running, log PT boats, and swimming, the full catastrophe.

    Purely to find out how tough we really were.
    "Conditioning," he said. "Conditioning and a whole lot of cold water. Get used to
    it. The next month represents a hard kick in the crotch. Because we're going to
    hammer you." I still have my notes of Bob Nielsen's speech.
    "You fail to meet those standards, you're out. Of course most of you will end up
    being dropped. And most of you will not be back. You must make that four-mile
    thirty-two-minute run, and you must make the two-mile swims in an hour and a
    half. You'll get a tough written test. There's pool standards, there's drownproofing.
    With and without the fins -- kick, stroke, and glide.
    "You may be thinking, What does it take? What must I do to make it through? The
    cold truth is, two-thirds of you sitting right here will quit."
    I remember him standing next to my row and saying, "There's seven rows of you
    sitting here. Only two rows will succeed." He seemed to look straight at me when
    he said, "The rest of you will be gonzo, history, back to the fleet. That's the way it
    is. The way it's always been. So try your best to prove me wrong."
    He issued one further warning. "This training does not suit everyone. We get a lot
    of very good guys through here who just decide this is not for them. And that's
    their right. But they will walk away from here with dignity, understand? We catch
    one of you laughing or making fun of a man who has requested DOR, we'll
    hammer you without mercy. Big time. You will regret those moments of ridicule
    for a long time. I advise you not even to consider it."
    He closed by telling us the real battle is won in the mind. It's won by guys who
    understand their areas of weakness, who sit and think about it, plotting and
    planning to improve. Attending to the detail. Work on their weaknesses and
    overcome them. Because they can.
    "Your reputation is built right here in first phase. And you don't want people to
    think you're a guy who does just enough to scrape through. You want people to
    understand you always try to excel, to be better, to be completely reliable, always
    giving it your best shot. That's the way we do business here.
    "And remember this one last thing. There's only one guy here in this room who
    knows whether you're going to make it, or fail. And that's you. Go to it,
    gentlemen. And always give it everything."
    Chief Nielsen left, and five minutes later we stood by for the commanding officer's
    report. Six instructors filed into the room, surrounding a navy captain. And we all
    knew who he was. This was Captain Joe Maguire, the near-legendary Brooklyn-
    born Honor Man of Class 93 and onetime commanding officer of SEAL Team 2.
    He was also the future Rear Admiral Ma-guire, Commander, SPECWARCOM, a
    supreme SEAL warrior. He had served all over the world and was beloved
    throughout Coronado, a big guy who never forgot a fellow SEAL's name, no
    matter how junior.
    He talked to us calmly. And he gave us two pieces of priceless advice. He said he
    was addressing those who really wanted this kind of life, those who could put up

    with every kind of harassment those instructors at the back of the room could
    possibly dish out.
    "First of all, I do not want you to give in to the pressure of the moment. Whenever
    you're hurting bad, just hang in there. Finish the day. Then, if you're still feeling
    bad, think about it long and hard before you decide to quit. Second, take it one day
    at a time. One evolution at a time.
    "Don't let your thoughts run away with you, don't start planning to bail out
    because you're worried about the future and how much you can take. Don't look
    ahead to the pain. Just get through the day, and there's a wonderful career ahead of
    you."
    This was Captain Maguire, a man who would one day serve as deputy commander
    of the U.S. Special Operations in Pacific Command (COMPAC). With his twin


    eagles insignia glinting on his collar, Captain Maguire instilled in us the
    knowledge of what really counted.
    I stood there reflecting for a few moments, and then the roof fell in. One of the
    instructors was up and yelling. "Drop!" he shouted and proceeded to lay into us
    for the sins of one man.
    "I saw one of you nodding off, right here in the middle of the captain's briefing.
    How dare you! How dare you fall asleep in the presence of a man of that caliber?
    You guys are going to pay for this. Now push 'em out!"
    He drilled us, gave us probably a hundred push-ups and sit-ups, and he drove us up
    and down the big sand dune in front of the compound. He raved at us because our
    times over the O-course were down, which was mostly due to the fact that we were
    paralyzed with tiredness before we got there.
    And so it went on, all week. There was a swim across the bay, one mile with a guy
    of comparable swimming ability. There were evolutions in the pool, in masks,
    wearing flippers and without. There was one where we had to lie on our backs,
    masks full of water, flippers on, trying to do flutter kicks with our heads out over
    the water. This was murder. So was the log PT and our four-mile runs. The surf
    work in the boats was also a strength-sapping experience, running the boats out
    through the waves, dumping boat, righting boat, paddling in, backward, forward,
    boat being dragged, boat on our heads.
    It never ended, and by the close of that first week we had lost more than twenty
    men, one of them in tears because he could not go on. His hopes, his dreams, even
    his intentions had been dashed to bits on that Coronado beach.
    That was more than sixty rings on the big bell right outside the office door. And
    every time we heard it, without exception, we knew we'd lost an essentially good
    guy. There weren't any bad guys who made it through Indoc. And as the days wore
    on and we heard that bell over and over, it became a very melancholy sound.
    Could I be standing there outside the office door, a broken man, a few days from
    now? It was not impossible, because many of these men had had no intention of
    quitting a few hours or even minutes before they did. Something just gave way
    deep inside them. They could no longer go on, and they had no idea why.
    Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Marcus. Because the son-ofabitch might toll for
    thee. Or for any one of the sixty-odd others still standing after the brutal reality of
    week one, first phase. Every time we crossed the grinder, we could see the
    evidence right there before our eyes, a total of twenty helmets on the ground, lined
    up next to the bell. Each one of those helmets had been owned by a friend, or an
    acquaintance, or even a rival, but a guy whom we had suffered alongside.
    That line of lonely hard hats was a stark reminder not only of what this place could
    do to a man but also of the special private glory it could bestow on those who
    would not give in. It drove me onward. Every time I looked at that line, I gritted
    my teeth and put some extra purpose into my stride. I still felt the same as I had on

    my very first day. I'd rather die than surrender.
    The third week of first phase brought us into a new aspect of BUD/S training,
    called rock portage. This was dangerous and difficult, but basically we had to
    paddle the IBS along to an outcrop of rocks opposite the world-famous Hotel del
    Coronado and land it there. I don't mean moor it, I mean land it, get it up there on
    dry land with the surf crashing all around you, the ocean swell trying to suck that
    boat right back out again.
    I had to figure pretty big in this because of my size and ability to heave. But none
    of my crew was quite ready for this desperate test. It was something we just had to
    learn how to do. And so we went at it, paddling hard in from the sea, driving into
    those huge rocks, straight into waves which were breaking every which way.
    The bow of our boat slammed into the rocks, and the bowline man, not me, jumped
    forward and hung on, making the painter firm around his waist. His job was to get

    secure and then act like a human capstan and stop the boat being swept backward.
    Our man was pretty sharp; he jammed himself between a couple of big boulders
    and yelled back to us, "Bowline man secure!"
    We repeated his call just so everyone knew where they were. But the boat was now
    jammed bow-on against the rocks. It had no rhythm with the waves and was
    vulnerable to every swell that broke over the stern. In this static position, it cannot
    ride with the waves.
    Our crew leader's cries of "Water!" were little help. The surf was crashing straight
    at us and then through the boat and up and over the rocks. We had on our life
    jackets, but the smallest man among us had to hop over the bow, carry out all of the
    paddles, and get them safely onto dry ground.
    Then we all had to disembark, one by one, clambering onto the rocks, with the
    poor old bowline man hanging on for his life, jammed between the rocks with the
    boat still lashed to his torso. By now we were all on the rope, trying to grab the
    handles, but the bowline man had to move first, heading upward into a new
    position, with us now taking the weight.
    He set off. Bowline man moving! I hauled ass down in the engine room, pulling
    with all my strength. A wave slammed into the boat and nearly took us all into the
    water, but we hung tough.
    Bowline man secure! And then we gave it everything, knowing our crewmate
    could not come catapulting backward right into us. Somehow we heaved that baby
    onward and upward, dragged it clean out of the Pacific, cheated the Grim Reaper,
    and manhandled it right up there onto the rocks, high and dry.
    "Too slow," said our instructor. And then he went into a litany of details as to what
    we'd done wrong. Too long in the opening stages, bowline man not quick enough
    up the rocks, too long on the initial pulls, too long being battered by the waves.
    He ordered us onto the sand with the boat, gave us a set of twenty push-ups, then
    ordered us straight back the way we'd come -- up and over the rocks, boat into the
    water, bowline man making us secure while we damn near drowned...get in, get
    going, shut up and paddle. Simple really.
    That first month ended much like it had begun, with a soaking wet, cold, tired, and
    depleted class. At the conclusion of the four weeks, the instructors made some
    harsh decisions, assessing the weakest among us, guys who had failed the tests,
    perhaps one test, maybe two. They looked hard at very determined young men who
    would rather die than quit but simply could not swim well enough, run fast enough,
    lift heavy enough, guys who lacked endurance, underwater confidence, skills in a
    boat.
    These were the hardest to dismiss from the program, because these were guys who
    had given their all and would go on doing so. They just lacked some form of God-
    given talent to carry out the work of a U.S. Navy SEAL. Years later I knew several

    instructors quite well, and they all said the same about that fourth week first phase
    assessment, the week before Hell Week -- "We all agonized over it. No one wants
    to be in the business of breaking a kid's heart."
    But neither could they allow the weak and the hopeless to go forward into the most
    demanding six days of training in any fighting force in the world. That's not the
    free world, by the way, that's the whole world. Only Great Britain's legendary SAS
    has anything even comparable.
    The results of the four-week assessment meant there were just fifty-four of us left;
    fifty-four of the ninety-eight who had started first phase. And Class 226 would start
    early, as all Hell Week classes do, Sunday at noon.
    Late that last Friday, we assembled in the classroom to be formally addressed once
    more by Captain Maguire, who was accompanied by several instructors and class
    officers.
    "Everyone ready for Hell Week?" he asked us cheerfully.

    Hooyah!
    "Excellent," he replied. "Because you are about to experience a very searching and
    painful test. Each one of you is going to find out what you are really made of. And
    every step of the way, you will be faced with a choice. Do I give in to the pain and
    the cold, or do I go on? It will always be up to you. There's no quotas, no numbers.
    We don't decide who passes. You do. But I'll be there on Friday when Hell Week
    ends, and I hope to shake the hand of each and every one of you."
    We all stood in some awe for the exit of Captain Maguire, the quintessential
    Coronado man, who understood the pride of achievement at having scaled the
    heights and who knew what really counted, in the SEALs and beyond. He was the
    everlasting chief.
    They briefed us about what to bring to class on Sunday -- our gear, equipment,
    change of clothes, dry clothes, and some off-duty clothes, which would be placed
    in a paper bag so the successful guys would have something to wear when it was
    all over. Guys who went DOR (dropped on request) would also have dry clothes
    available anytime during the week when they prepared to leave.
    Our instructor told us to eat plenty, right through the weekend, but not to worry
    about sleep gear on Sunday afternoon, during which time we would be incarcerated
    in the classroom. "You'll be too keyed up to sleep," he added brightly. "So just get
    in here and relax, watch movies, and get ready."
    On the notice board was the official doctrine of the U.S. Navy SEALs, week five,
    first phase: "Students will demonstrate the qualities and personal characteristics of
    determination, courage, self-sacrifice, teamwork, leadership, and a never-quit
    attitude, under adverse environmental conditions, fatigue, and stress through-out
    Hell Week."
    That's laying it on the line, right? Almost. Hell Week turned out to be a lot worse
    than that.
    We spent the weekend organizing ourselves, and we assembled in the classroom at
    noon on Sunday, July 18. Two dozen in-structors from all over the compound, guys
    we'd never even met before, were in attendance. It takes that many to get a class
    through Hell Week, plus attending medics and support and logistics guys. I guess
    you need a full staff to march men into the ultimate physical tests of the navy's
    warrior elite.
    This is known as the Hell Week Lockdown. No one leaves; we sit and wait all
    afternoon; we have our seabags; and the paper bags with our dry clothes are lined
    up, our names written on the outside in black marker. They served us pizza, a
    whole stack of it, in the late afternoon.
    And outside you could sense it was quiet. No one passed by, no patrols, no
    wandering students. Everyone on the base knew that Hell Week for 226 was about

    to begin. It was not exactly respect for the dead, but I guess you understand by now
    more or less what I mean.
    I remember how hot it was, must have been ninety degrees in the room. We'd all
    been goofing off, wearing Sunday casuals most of the day, and we all knew
    something was going to happen as the evening wore on. Some movie was running,
    and the hours ticked by. There was an atmosphere of heightened tension as we
    waited for the starter's pistol. Hell Week begins with a frenzy of activity known as
    Breakout. And when it came for us, there were a lot more guns than the starter's.
    I can't remember the precise time, but it was after 2030 and before 2100. Suddenly
    there was a loud shout, and someone literally kicked open the side door. Bam!And
    a guy carrying a machine gun, followed by two others, came charging in, firing
    from the hip. The lights went off, and then all three gunmen opened fire, spraying
    the room with bullets (blanks, I hoped).
    There were piercing blasts from whistles, and the other door was kicked open and
    three more men came crashing into the room. The only thing we knew for sure

    right now was when the whistles blew, we hit the floor and took up a defensive
    position, prostrate, legs crossed, ears covered with the palms of the hands.
    Hit the deck! Heads down! Incoming!
    Then a new voice, loud and stentorian. It was pitch dark save for the nonstop
    flashes of the machine guns, but the voice sounded a lot like Instructor Mruk's to
    me -- "Welcome to hell, gentlemen."
    For the next couple of minutes there was nothing but gunfire, deafening gunfire.
    They were certainly blanks, otherwise half of us would have been dead, but believe
    me, they sounded just like the real thing, SEAL instructors firing our M43s. The
    shouting was drowned by the whistles, and everything was drowned by the gunfire.
    By now the air in the room was awful, hanging with the smell of cordite, lit only
    by the muzzle flashes. I kept my head well down on the floor as the gunmen
    moved among us, taking care not to let hot spent cartridges land on our skin.
    I sensed a lull. And then a roar, plainly meant for everyone. "All of you, out! Move,
    you guys! Move! Move! Move! Let's go!"
    I struggled to my feet and joined the stampede to the door. We rushed out to the
    grinder, where it was absolute bedlam. More gunfire, endless yelling, and then,
    again, the whistles, and once more we all hit the deck in the correct position. In
    barrels around the grinder's edge, artillery simulators blasted away. I didn't know
    where Captain Maguire was, but if he'd been here he'd have thought he was back
    in some foreign battle zone. At least, if he'd shut his eyes, he would have.
    Then the instructors opened fire for real, this time with high-pressure hoses aimed
    straight at us, knocking us down if we tried to get up. The place was awash with
    water, and we couldn't see a thing and we couldn't hear anything above the small-
    arms and artillery fire.
    Battlefield whistle drills were conducted in the midst of high-pressure water jets,
    total chaos, deafening explosions, and shouting instructors..."Crawl to the whistle,
    men! Crawl to the whistle! And keep your goddamned heads down!"
    Some of the guys were suffering from mass confusion. One of 'em ran for his life,
    straight over the beach and into the ocean. He was a guy I knew really well, and
    he'd lost it completely. This was a simulated scene from the Normandy beaches,
    and it did induce a degree of panic, because no one knew what was happening or
    what we were supposed to be doing besides hitting the deck.
    The instructors knew this. They understood many of us would be at a low ebb. Not
    me. I'm always up for this kind of stuff, and anyway I knew they weren't really
    trying to kill us. But the instructors understood this would not be true of everyone,
    and they moved among us, imploring us to quit now while there was still time.
    "All you gotta do is ring that little bell up there."

    Lying there in the dark and confusion, freezing cold, soaked to the skin, scared to
    stand up, I told one of them he could stick that little bell straight up his ass, and I
    heard a loud roar of laughter. But I never said it again, and I never let on it was me.
    Until now, that is. See that? Even in the chaos, I could still manage the smart-ass
    remark.
    By now we were in a state of maximum disorientation, just trying to stay on the
    grinder with the others. The teamwork mantra had set in. I didn't want to be by
    myself. I wanted to be with my soaking wet teammates, whatever the hell it was
    we were supposed to be doing.
    Then I heard a voice announcing we were a man short. Then I heard another voice,
    sharp and demanding. I don't know who it was, but it was close to me and it
    sounded like the Biggest Bossman, Joe Maguire, with a lot of authority. "What do
    you mean? A man short? Get a count right now."
    They ordered us to our feet instantly, and we counted off one by one, stopping at
    fifty-three. We were a man short. Holy shit! That's bad, and very serious. Even I
    understood that. A party was dispatched immediately to the beach, and that's where

    they found the missing trainee, splashing around out in the surf.
    Someone reported back to the grinder. And I heard our instructor snap, "Send 'em
    all into the surf. We'll sort 'em out later." And off we went again, running hard to
    the beach, away from the gunfire, away from this madhouse, into the freezing
    Pacific in what felt like the middle of the night. As so often, we were too wet to
    worry, too cold to care.
    But when we were finally summoned out of the surf, something new happened.
    The whistles began blasting again, and this meant we had to crawl toward the
    whistles all over again, but this time not on the smooth blacktop. This time on the
    soft sand.
    In moments we looked like sand beetles groping around the dunes. The whistles
    kept blowing, one blast, then two, and we kept right on crawling, and by now my
    elbows were really getting hot and sore, and my knees were not doing that great
    either. All four joints felt red-raw. But I kept moving. Then the instructors ordered
    us back into the surf, deep, so we could stay there for fifteen minutes, maximum
    immersion time in water hovering just under sixty degrees. We linked arms until
    we were ordered out to more whistles and more crawling.
    Then they sent us down to the surf for flutter kicks, heads in the waves. Then more
    whistles, more crawling, and back into the water for another fifteen minutes. Right
    next to me, one of the top guys in the class, an officer and a boat-crew leader, great
    runner, good swimmer, quit unconditionally.
    This was a real shaker. Another officer in his crew went running up the beach after
    him, imploring him not to go, telling the attending instructor, on his behalf, the guy
    did not mean it. No, sir. The instructor gave him another chance, told him it wasn't
    too late and if he wished he could go right back into the water.
    But the man's mind was made up, closed to all entreaties. He kept walking, and the
    instructor told him to get in the truck right next to the ambulance. Then he asked
    the guy doing the pleading if he wanted to quit too, and we all heard the
    sharp "Negative," and we saw the guy running like a scalded cat down the beach
    to join us in the water.
    The temperature seemed to grow colder as we jogged around in the freezing surf.
    And finally they called us out and the whistles blew again. We all dived back onto
    the sand. Crawl-ing, itching, and burning. Five guys quit instantly and were sent up
    to the truck. I didn't understand any of that, because we had done this before. It
    was bad, but not that bad, for chris'sakes. I guess those guys were just thinking
    ahead, dreading the forthcoming five days of Hell Week, the precise way Captain
    Ma-guire had told us not to.

    Anyway, right now we were ordered to grab the boats and get them in the surf,
    which we did without much trouble. But they made us paddle hundreds of yards,
    dig and row, lift and carry, dump boat and right boat, swim the boat, walk the boat,
    run the boat, crawl, live, die. We were so exhausted it didn't matter. We hardly
    knew where we were. We just floundered on with bloody knees and elbows until
    they ordered us out of the water.
    I think it was just before midnight, but it could have been Christmas morning. We
    switched to log PT in the surf. No piece of wood in all of history, except possibly
    the massive wooden Cross carried to Calvary by Jesus Christ, was ever heavier
    than our eight-foot hunk of wood that we manhandled in the Pacific surf. After all
    of our exertions, it was a pure backbreaker. Three more men quit.
    Then the instructors came up with something new and improved. They made us
    carry the boats over the O-course and manhandle them over the goddamned
    obstacles. Another man quit. We were down to forty-six.
    Right then we switched to rock portage and charged back down the beach to get
    the IBS into the water. We crashed through the light incoming waves like
    professionals and paddled like hell, using the remnants of our strength, to the rocks

    opposite the Hotel del Coronado. My swim buddy, Matt McGraw, was calling the
    shots in our boat by now, and we drove forward, crashed straight into the rocks,
    and the bowline man leaped for his life and grabbed on to the painter. We steadied
    the boat with the oars, and I thought we were doing real good.
    Suddenly the instructor, standing up on the top of the rocks right there at damned
    near two o'clock in the morning, bellowed at our crew officer, "You! You, sir. You
    just killed your entire squad! Stop getting between the boat and the rocks!"
    We hauled the boat out of the water, over the rocks, and onto the sand. The
    instructor gave us two sets of push-ups and sent us back the way we came. Twice
    more we assaulted the rocks, slowly and clumsily, I suppose, and the instructor
    never stopped yelling his freakin' head off at us. In the end we had to run the boat
    back along the beach, drop it, and get right back into the surf for flutter kicks with
    heads and shoulders in the water, then push-ups in the surf. Then sit-ups. Two more
    men quit.
    These DORs happened right next to me. And I distinctly heard the instructor give
    them another chance, asking them if they wanted to reconsider. If so, they were
    welcome to press on and get back in the water.
    One of them wavered. Said he might, if the other guy would join him. But the other
    guy wasn't having it. "I'm done with this shit," he said, "and I'm outta here."
    They both quit together. And the instructor looked like he could not give a flying
    ----. I later learned that when a man quits and is given another chance and takes it,
    he never makes it through. All the instructors know that. If the thought of DOR
    enters a man's head, he is not a Navy SEAL.
    I guess that element of doubt forever pollutes his mind. And puffing, sweating, and
    steaming down there on that beach on the first night of Hell Week, I understood it.
    I understood it, because that thought could never have occurred to me. Not while
    the sun still rises in the east. All the pain in Coronado could not have inserted that
    poison into my mind. I might have passed out, had a heart attack, or been shot
    before a firing squad. But I never would have quit.
    Soon as the quitters had gone, we were put right back to work. Lifting the boats
    into a head carry for the run over to the chow hall, only another mile. When I got
    there I was as close to collapse as I'd ever been. But they still made us push 'em
    out, lift the boat, to work up an appetite, I suppose.
    Eventually they freed us to get breakfast. We had lost ten men during the nine
    hours that had passed since Hell Week began; nine hours since those yelling,
    shooting gunmen had driven Class 226 out of their classroom, nine hours since we

    had been dry and felt more or less human.
    They were nine hours that had changed the lives and perceptions of those who
    could stand it no more. I doubt the rest of us would ever be quite the same again.
    Inside the chow hall some of the guys were shell-shocked. They just sat staring at
    their plates, unable to function normally. I was not one of them. I felt like I was on
    the edge of starvation, and I steamed into those eggs, toast, and sausages, relishing
    the food, relishing the freedom from the shouts and commands of the instructors.
    Just as well I made the most of it. Seven minutes on the clock after I finished my
    breakfast, the new shift of instructors was up and yelling.
    "That's it, children -- up and out of here. Let's get going. Outside! Right now!
    Move! Move! Move! Let's start the day right."
    Start the day! Was this guy out of his mind? We were still soaked, covered in sand,
    and we'd been up half killing ourselves all night.
    Right then I knew for certain: there was indeed no mercy in Hell Week. Everything
    we'd heard was true. You think you're tough, kid? Then you go right ahead and
    prove it to us.
    5


    Like the Remnants of a Ravaged Army

    We helped one another back over the sand dunes, picking up those who fell,
    supporting those who could barely walk...The baptism of fire that had reduced
    Class 226 by more than half was over...No one had ever dreamed it would be this
    bad.

    We lined up outside the chow hall and hoisted the boats onto our heads. It was now
    apparent we would go nowhere without them. As bankers carry their briefcases, as
    fashion models walk around with their photograph portfolios, we travel around
    with our boats on our heads. It's a Hell Week thing.
    I have to admit that after the first straight thirty hours, my memory of those five
    days begins to grow a little hazy. Not of the actual events, but of the sequence.
    When you're moving on toward forty hours without sleep, the mind starts playing
    tricks, causing fleeting thoughts suddenly to become reality. You jerk yourself
    awake and wonder where the hell you are and why your mom, holding a big, juicy
    New York sirloin, is not pulling the paddle right next to you.
    It's the forerunner to outright hallucination. Kind of semi-hallucinations. They start
    slowly and get progressively worse. Mind you, the instructors do their level best to
    keep you awake. We were given fifteen minutes of hard physical training both
    when we reached the chow hall and when we left. We were sent into the surf fast

    and often. The water was freezing, and every time we carried out boat drills, racing
    through the breakers with the four remaining teams, we were ordered to dump
    boat, pull that sucker over on top of us, then right it, get back in, and carry on
    paddling to our destination.
    The reward for the winners was always rest. That's why we all kept trying so hard.
    Same for the four-mile run, during which we got slower, times slipped below the
    thirty-two-minute standard, and the instructors feigned outrage as if they didn't

    know we were slowly being battered to hell. By that first Monday evening, we'd
    been up for thirty-six hours plus and were still going.
    Most of us ate an early dinner, looking like a group of zombies. And right
    afterward we were marched outside to await further orders. I remember that three
    guys had just quit. Simultaneously. Which put us down to six officers out of the
    original twelve.
    Judging by the one guy I knew, I didn't think any of the ones who quit were in
    much worse shape than they had been twelve hours before. They might have been
    a bit more tired, but we had done nothing new, it was all part of our tried-andtested
    routines. And in my view, they had acted in total defiance of the advice
    handed to us by Captain Maguire.
    They weren't completing each task as it came, living for the day. They had allowed
    themselves to live in dread of the pain and anguish to come. And he'd told us never
    to do that, just to take it hour by hour and forget the future. Keep going until you're
    secured. You get a guy like that, a legendary U.S. Navy SEAL and war hero, I
    think you ought to pay attention to his words. He earned the right to say them, and
    he's giving you his experience. Like Billy Shelton told me, even the merest
    suggestion.
    But we had no time to mourn the departure of friends. The instructors marched us
    down to an area known as the steel pier, which used to be the training area for SDV

    Team 1 before they decamped for Hawaii. It was dark now and the water was very
    cold, but they ordered us to jump straight in and kept us treading water for fifteen
    minutes.
    Then they let us out back onto dry land and gave us a fierce period of calisthenics.
    This warmed us a bit. But my teeth were chattering almost uncontrollably, and they
    still ordered us straight back into the water for another fifteen minutes, the very
    limit of the time when guys start to suffer from hypothermia. That next fifteen
    minutes were almost scary. I was so cold, I thought I might pass out. There was an
    ambulance right there in case someone did.
    But I held on. So did most of us, but another officer climbed out of the water early
    and quit. He was the best swimmer in the class. This was a stunning blow, both to
    him and the rest of us. The instructor let him go immediately and just carried on
    counting off the minutes the rest of us were submerged.
    When we were finally back on shore, I was not really able to speak and neither was
    anyone else, but we did some more PT, and then they ordered us back into the
    water for another period, I forget how long. Maybe five, ten minutes. But time had
    ceased to matter, and now the instructors knew we were right on the edge, and they
    came around with mugs of hot chicken broth. I was shaking so much I could hardly
    hold the cup.
    But nothing ever tasted better. I seem to remember someone else quit, but hell, I
    was almost out of it. I wouldn't have known if Captain Maguire had quit. All I
    knew was, there were half as many still going as there had been at the start of Hell
    Week. The hour was growing later, and this thing was not over yet. We still had
    five boats in action, and the instructors reshuffled the crews and ordered us to
    paddle over to Turners Field, the eastern extension of the base.
    There they made us run around a long loop, carrying the boat on our heads, and
    then they made us race without it. This was followed by another long period in the
    water, at the end of which this member of the crew of boat one, a tough-as-nails
    Texan (I thought), cracked up with what felt like appendicitis. Whatever it was, I
    was absolutely unreachable. I didn't even know my name, and I had to be taken
    away by ambulance and revived at the medical center.
    When I regained consciousness, I got straight out of bed and came back. I would
    not discuss quitting. I remember the instructors congratulating me on my new

    warm, dry clothes and then sending me straight back into the surf. "Better get wet
    and sandy. Just in case you forget what we're doing here."
    Starting at around 0200, we spent the rest of the night running around the base with
    the goddamned boat on our heads. They released us for breakfast at 0500, and
    Tuesday proceeded much like Monday. No sleep, freezing cold, and tired to
    distraction. We completed a three-mile paddle up to North Island and back, at
    which time it was late in the evening and we'd been up for more than sixty hours.
    The injury list grew longer: cuts, sprains, blisters, bruises, pulled muscles, and
    maybe three cases of pneumonia. We worked through the night, making one long
    six-mile paddle, and reported for breakfast again at 0500 on Wednesday. We'd had
    no sleep for three days, but no one else quit.
    And all through the morning we kept going, swim-paddle-swim, then a run along
    the beach. We carried the boat to chow at noon, and then they sent us to go sleep.
    We'd have one hour and forty-five minutes in the tent. We had thirty-six guys left.
    Trouble was, some of them could not sleep. I was one. The medical staff tried to
    help the wounded get back into the fray. Tendons and hips seemed to be the main
    problems, but guys needed muscle-stretching exercises to keep them supple for the
    day ahead.
    The new shift of instructors turned up and started yelling for everyone to wake up
    and get back out there. It was like standing in the middle of a graveyard and trying
    to wake the dead. Slowly it dawned on the sleepers: their worst nightmare was

    happening. Someone was driving them forward again.
    They ordered us into the surf, and somehow we fell, crawled, or stumbled over that
    sand dune and into the freezing water. They gave us fifteen minutes of surf torture,
    exercises in the waves, then ordered us out and told us to hoist the boats back on
    our heads and make the elephant walk to chow.
    They worked us all night, in and out of the surf; they walked us up and down the
    beach for God knows how many miles. Finally, they let us sleep again. I guess it
    was about 0400 on the Thursday morning. Against many pessimistic forecasts, we
    all woke up and carried the boats to breakfast. Then they worked us without mercy,
    had us racing the boats in the gigantic pool without paddles, just hands, and then
    swimming them, one crew against the other.
    Wednesday had run into Thursday, but we were in the final stages of Hell Week,
    and before us was the fabled around-the-world paddle, the last of the major
    evolutions of the week. We boarded the boats at around 1930 and set off, rushing
    into the surf off the special warfare center and paddling right around the north end
    of the island and back down San Diego Bay to the amphibious base. No night in
    my experience has ever lasted longer.
    Some of the guys really were hallucinating now, and all three of the boats had a
    system where one could sleep while the others paddled. I cannot explain how tired
    we were; every light looked like a building dead in our path, every thought turned
    into reality. If you thought of home, like I did, you thought you were rowing
    straight into the ranch. The only saving grace was, we were dry.
    But one guy in our boat was so close to breakdown, he simply toppled into the
    water, still holding his paddle, still stroking, kicking automatically, and continuing
    to row the boat. We dragged him out, and he did not seem to understand he'd just
    spent five minutes in San Diego Bay. In the end, I think we were all paddling in
    our sleep.
    After three hours, they summoned us to shore for medical checks and gave us hot
    soup. After that we just kept going, until almost 0200 on Friday, when they called
    us in from the beach with a bullhorn. No one will ever forget that. One of those
    bastards actually yelled, "Dump boat!"
    It was like taking a kick at a dying man. But we kept quiet. Not like an earlier

    response from a student, who had earned everlasting notoriety by yelling back the
    most insubordinate reply anyone had ever given one of the instructors. Never
    mind "Hooyah, Instructor Pat-stone!" (Because Terry Patstone was normally a
    super guy, always harsh but fair.) That particular half-crazed paddler
    bellowed, "Ass-h-o-o-ole!" It echoed across the moonlit water and was greeted by
    a howl of laughter from the night-shift instructors. They understood, and never
    mentioned it.
    So we crashed over the side of the boat into the freezing water, flipped the hull
    over and then back, climbed back in, soaking wet, of course, and kept paddling. I
    locked one thought into my brain and kept it there: everyone else who ever became
    a U.S. Navy SEAL completed this, and that's what we're going to do.
    We finally hauled up on our home beach at around 0500 on Friday. Instructor
    Patstone knew we just wanted to hoist boats and get over to the chow hall. But he
    was not having that. He made us lift and then lower. Then he had us push 'em out,
    feet on the boat. He kept us on the beach for another half hour before we were
    loosed to make the elephant walk to breakfast.
    Breakfast was rushed. Just a few minutes, and then they had us right out of there.
    And the morning was filled with long boat races and a series of terrible workouts
    in the demo pits -- that's a scum-laden seawater slime, which we had to traverse
    on a couple of ropes, invariably falling straight in. To make everything worse, they
    kept telling us it was Thursday, not Friday, and the entire exercise was conducted
    under battle conditions -- explosions, smoke, barbed wire -- while we were

    crawling, falling into the slime.
    Finally, Mr. Burns sent us into the surf, all the time telling us how slow we were,
    how much more there was to accomplish this day, and how deeply he regretted
    there was as yet no end in sight for Class 226. The water almost froze us to death,
    but it cleaned us off from the slime pits, and after ten minutes, Chief Taylor
    ordered us back to the beach.
    We now didn't know whether it was Thursday or Friday. Guys collapsed onto the
    sand, others just stood there, betraying nothing but in dread of the next few hours,
    too many of them wondering how they could possibly go on. Including me. Knees
    were buckling, joints throbbing. I don't think anyone could stand up without
    hurting.
    Mr. Burns stepped forward and shouted, "Okay, guys, let's get right on to the next
    evolution. A tough one, right? But I think you're up for it."
    We gave out the world's weakest hooyah. Hoarse voices, disembodied sounds. I
    didn't know who was speaking for me; it sure as hell sounded like someone else.
    Joe Burns nodded curtly and said, "Actually, guys, there is no other evolution. All
    of you. Back to the grinder."
    No one believed him. But Joe wouldn't lie. He might fool around, but he would not
    lie. It slowly dawned on us that Hell Week was over. We just stood there, zonked
    out with pure disbelief. And Lieutenant Ismay, who was really hurting, croaked,
    "We made it, guys. Sonofabitch. We made it."
    I turned to Matt McGraw, and I remember saying, "How the hell did you get here,
    kid? You're supposed to be in school."
    But Matt was on the verge of exhaustion. He just shook his head and said, "Thank
    God, thank God, Marcus."
    I know this sounds crazy if you haven't gone through what we went through. But
    this was an unforgettable moment. Two guys fell to their knees and wept. Then we
    all began to hug one another. Someone was saying, "It's over."
    Like the remnants of a ravaged army, we helped one another back over the sand
    dunes, picking up those who fell, supporting those who could barely walk. We
    reached the bus that would take us back to base. And there, waiting for us, was

    Captain Joe Maguire, the SEAL commanding officers, and the senior chiefs. Also
    in attendance was the ex-SEAL governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, who would
    perform the official ceremony when we returned to the grinder.
    But right now, all we knew was the baptism of fire that had reduced Class 226 by
    more than half was over. It hadn't beaten thirty-two of us. And now the torture was
    completed. In our wildest imaginations, no one had ever dreamed it would be this
    bad. God had given us justice.
    We lined up on that sacred blacktop, and Governor Ventura formally pronounced
    the official words that proclaimed we never had to tackle another Hell Week:
    "Class Two-two-six, you're secured." We gave him a rousing "Hooyah! Governor
    Ventura!"
    Then Instructor Burns called us to order and said, "Gentlemen, for the rest of your
    lives there will be setbacks. But they won't affect you like they will affect other
    people. Because you have done something very few are ever called upon to
    achieve. This week will live with you for all of your lives. Not one of you will ever
    forget it. And it means one thing above all else. If you can take Hell Week and beat
    it, you can do any damn thing in the world."
    I can't pretend the actual words are accurate in my memory. But the sentiment is
    precise. Those words signify exactly what Instructor Joe Burns meant, and how he
    said it.
    And it affected us all, deeply. We raised our tired voices, and the shout split the
    noontime air above that beach in Coronado.
    "Hooyah, Instructor Burns!" we bellowed. And did we ever mean it.

    The SEAL commanders and chiefs stepped forward and took each one of us by the
    hand, saying, "Congratulations," and offering words of encouragement about the
    future, telling us to be sure and contact their personal teams once we were through.
    Tell the truth, it was all a bit of a blur for me. I can't really recall who invited me to
    join what. But one thing remains very clear in my mind. I shook the hand of the
    great SEAL warrior Joe Maguire, and he had a warm word for me. And thus far in
    my life, there had been no greater honor than that.
    We probably devoured a world-record amount of food that weekend. Appetites
    returned and then accelerated as our stomachs grew more used to big-sized meals.
    We still had three weeks to go in first phase, but nothing compared to Hell Week.
    We were perfecting techniques in hydrology, learning tide levels and demographics
    of the ocean floor. That's real SEAL stuff, priceless to the Marines. While they're
    planning a landing, we're in there early, moving fast, checking out the place in
    secret, telling 'em what to expect.
    There were only thirty-two members of the original class left now, mostly because
    of injury or illness sustained during Hell Week. But they'd been joined by others,
    rollbacks from other classes who'd been permitted another go.
    This applied to me, because I had been on an enforced break when I had my
    broken femur. And so when I rejoined for phase two, I was in Class 228. We began
    in the diving phase, conducted in the water, mostly under it. We learned how to use
    scuba tanks, how to dump them and get 'em back on again, how to swap them over
    with a buddy without coming to the surface. This is difficult, but we had to master
    it before we could take the major pool competency test.
    I failed my pool competency, like a whole lot of others. This test is a royal bastard.
    You swim down to the bottom of the pool with twin eighty-pound scuba tanks on
    your back, a couple of instructors harassing you. You are not allowed to put a foot

    down and kick to the surface. If you do, you've failed, and that's the end of it.
    First thing these guys do is rip off your mask, then your mouthpiece, and you have

    to hold your breath real quick. You fight to get the mouthpiece back in, then they
    unhook your airline intake, and you have to get that back in real fast, groping
    around over your shoulder, behind your back.
    Somehow you find yourself able to breathe in pure oxygen, but the only way you
    can breathe out is through your nose. A lot of guys find the cascade of bubbles
    across their faces extremely disconcerting. Then the instructors disconnect your
    airline completely and put a knot in it. And you must try to get your inhalation and
    exhalation lines reconnected. If you don't or can't even try, you're gone. You need
    a good lungful of air before this starts, then you need to feel your way blind to the
    knot in the line behind your back and start unraveling it. You can more or less tell
    by the feel if it's going to be impossible, what the instructors call a whammy. Then
    you run the flat edge of your hand across your throat and give the instructor the
    thumbs-up. That means "I'm never going to get that knot undone, permission to go
    to the surface." At that point, they cease holding you down and let you go up. But
    you better be right in your assessment of that knot.
    In my case, I decided too hastily that the knot in my line was impossible, gave
    them the signal, ditched my tanks over my shoulder, and floated up to the surface.
    But the instructors decided the knot was nothing like impossible and that I had
    bailed out of a dangerous situation. Failed.
    I had to go and sit in a line in front of the poolside wall. It would have been a line
    of shame, except there were so many of us. I was instructed to take the test again,
    and I did not make the mistake the second time. Undid the sonofabitch knot and
    passed pool comp.
    Several of my longtime comrades failed, and I felt quite sad. Except you can't be a
    SEAL if you can't keep your nerve underwater. As one of the instructors said to me

    that week, "See that guy in some kind of a panic over there? There's confusion
    written all over him. You might have your life in his hands one day, Marcus, and
    we cannot, will not, allow that to happen."
    Pool comp is the hardest one of all to pass, just because we all spent so much time
    in the water and right now had to prove we had the potential to be true SEALs,
    guys to whom the water was always a sanctuary.
    It must not be a threat or an obstacle but a place where we alone could survive.
    Some of the instructors had known many of us for a long time and desperately
    wanted us to pass. But the slightest sign of weakness in pool competency, and they
    wouldn't take the chance.
    Those of us who did stay moved on to phase three. With a few rollbacks coming in,
    we were twenty-one in number. It was winter now in the Northern Hemisphere,
    early February, and we prepared for the hard slog of the land warfare course. That's
    where they turn us into navy commandos.
    This is formally called Demolitions and Tactics, and the training is as strict and
    unrelenting as anything we had so far encountered. It's a known fact that phase
    three instructors are the fittest men in Coronado, and it took us little time to find
    out why. Even the opening speech by our new proctor was edged with dire
    warnings.
    His name was Instructor Eric Hall, a veteran of six SEAL combat platoons, and
    before we even started on Friday afternoon, he laid it right on the line. "We don't
    put up with people who feel sorry for themselves. Any problems with drugs or
    alcohol, you're gone. There's four bars around here that guys from the teams
    sometimes visit. Stay the hell out of all of 'em, hear me? Anyone lies, cheats, or
    steals, you're done, because that's not tolerated here. Just so we're clear,
    gentlemen."
    He reminded us it was a ten-week course and we weren't that far from graduation.
    He told us where we'd be. Five weeks right here at the center, with days at the land

    navigation training area in La Posta. There would be four days at Camp Pendleton
    on the shooting ranges. That's the 125,000-acre Marine Corps base between Los
    Angeles and San Diego. We would finish at San Clemente Island, known to SEALs
    as the Rock and the main site for more advanced shooting and tactics, demolitions,
    and field training.
    Eric Hall finished with a characteristic flourish. "Give me a hundred and ten
    percent at all times -- and don't blow it by doing something stupid."
    Thus we went at it again for another two and a half months, heading first for the
    group one mountain training facility, three thousand feet up in the rough, jagged
    Laguna Mountains at La Posta, eighty miles east of San Diego. That's where they
    taught us stealth, camouflage, and patrolling, the essential field craft of the
    commando. The terrain was really rough, hard to climb, steep, and demanding.
    Sometimes we didn't make it back to barracks at night and had to sleep outside in
    the wild country.
    They taught us how to navigate across the land with maps and compass. At the end
    of the week, we all passed the basic courses, three-mile journeys conducted in pairs
    across the mountains. Then we headed back to the center to prepare for Camp Pen-
    dle-ton, where we would undergo our first intensive courses in weaponry.
    No time was lost. We were out there with submachine guns, rifles, and pistols,
    training for the not-too-distant days when we would go into combat armed with the
    M4 rifle, the principal SEAL weapon of war.
    First thing was safety. And we all had to learn by heart the four critical rules:

    1. Consider all weapons to be loaded at all times.
    2. Never point a weapon at anything you do not want to put a bullet through.
    3. Never put your finger on the trigger unless you want to shoot.
    4. Know your target and what's behind it.
    They kept us out on the shooting range for hours. In between times we had to
    dismantle and assemble machine guns and the M4, all under the eyes of instructors
    who timed us with stopwatches. And the brutal regime of fitness never wavered. It
    was harder than second phase, because now we had to run carrying heavy packs,
    ammunition, and guns.
    We also had a couple of weeks at the center to study high explosives and
    demolition. This mostly involved straightforward TNT and plastic, with various
    firing assemblies. The practical work happened only on the island of San
    Clemente. And before we got to do that, we had another rigorous training schedule
    to complete, including one fourteen-mile run along the beach and back.
    This was the first time we had run any race without being wet and probably sandy.
    Just imagine, dry shorts and running shoes. We floated along, not a care in the
    world.
    It was mid-March before we decamped to San Clemente for four weeks of training,
    long hours, seven days a week until we finished. This rugged moonscape of an
    island is situated off the California coast, sixty miles west of San Diego, across the
    Gulf of Santa Catalina.
    For almost fifty years, the U.S. Navy has been in command here, using the place as
    an extensive training area. There are no civilians, but parts of the island are an
    important wildlife sanctuary. There are lots of rare birds and California sea lions,
    who don't seem to care about violent explosions, shells, and naval air landings. Up
    in the northeast, right on the coast, you find SEALs.
    And there we learned the rudiments of fast and accurate combat shooting, the swift


    changing of magazines, expert marksmanship. We were introduced to the deadly
    serious business of assaulting an enemy position and taught how to lay down

    covering fire. Slowly, then faster, first in daylight, then through the night. We were
    schooled in all the aspects of modern warfare we would one day need in Iraq or
    Afghanistan -- ambushes, structure searches, handling prisoners, planning raids.
    This is where we got down to all the serious techniques of reconnaissance.
    We moved on to really heavy demolition, setting off charges on a grand scale, then
    hand grenades, then rockets, and generally causing major explosions and practicing
    until we demonstrated a modicum of expertise.
    Our field training tasks were tough, combat mission simulations. We paddled the
    boats to within a few hundred yards of the shore and dropped anchor. From that
    holding area, we sent in the scout recon guys, who swam to the beach, checked the
    place out, and signaled the boats to bring us in. This was strict OTB (over the
    beach), and we hit the sand running, burrowing into hides just beyond the high-
    water mark. This is where SEALs are traditionally at their most vulnerable, and the
    instructors watch like hawks for mistakes, signs that will betray the squad.
    We practiced these beach landings all through the nights, fighting our way out of
    the water with full combat gear and weapons. And at the end of the fourth week we
    all passed, every one of the twenty trainees who had arrived on the island. We
    would all graduate from BUD/S.
    I asked one of our instructors if this was in any way unusual. His reply was simple.
    "Marcus," he said, "when you're training the best of the best, nothing's unusual.
    And all the BUD/S instructors want the very best for you."
    They gave us a couple of weeks' leave after graduation, and thereafter for me it
    was high-density education. First jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where
    they turned me into a paratrooper. I spent three weeks jumping out of towers and
    then out of a C-130, from which we all had to make five jumps.
    That aircraft is a hell of a noisy place, and the first jump can be a bit unnerving.
    But the person in front of me was a girl from West Point, and she dived out of that
    door like Superwoman. I remember thinking, Christ! If she can do it, I'm definitely
    gonna do it, and I launched myself into the clear skies above Fort Benning.
    Next stop for me was the Eighteenth Delta Force medical program, conducted at
    Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That's where they turned me into a battlefield doctor. I
    suppose it was more like a paramedic, but the learning curve was huge: medicine,
    in-jections, IV training, chest tubes, combat trauma, wounds, burns, stitches,
    morphine. It covered just about everything a wounded warrior might need under
    battle conditions. On the first day I had to memorize 315 examples of medical
    terminology. And they never took their foot off the high-discipline accelerator.
    Here I was, working all day and half the night, and there was still an instructor
    telling me to get wet and sandy during training runs.
    I went straight from North Carolina to SEAL qualification training, three more
    months of hard labor in Coronado, diving, parachute jumping, shooting,
    explosives, detonation, a long, intensive recap of everything I had learned. Right
    after that, I was sent to join the SDV school (submarines) at Panama City, Florida.
    I was there on 9/11, and little did I realize the massive impact those terrible events
    in New York City would have on my own life.
    I remember the pure indignation we all felt. Someone had just attacked the United
    States of America, the beloved country we were sworn to defend. We watched the
    television with mounting fury, the fury of young, inexperienced, but supremely fit
    and highly trained combat troops who could not wait to get at the enemy. We
    wished we could get at Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda mob in Iraq, Iran,
    Afghanistan, or wherever the hell these lunatics lived. But be careful what you
    wish for. You might get it.

    A lot of guys passed SEAL qualification training and received their Tridents on
    Wednesday afternoon, November 7, 2001. They pinned it right on in a short
    ceremony out there on the grinder. You could see it meant all the world to the

    graduates. There were in fact only around thirty left from the original 180 who had
    signed up on that long-ago first day of Indoc. For myself, because of various
    educational commitments, I had to wait until January 31, 2002, for my Trident.
    But the training never stopped. Right after I formally joined what our commanders
    call the brotherhood, I went to communication school to study and learn satellite
    comms, high-frequency radio links, antenna wavelength probability, in-depth
    computers, global positioning systems, and the rest.
    Then I went to Sniper School back at Camp Pendleton, where, unsurprisingly, they
    made sure you could shoot straight before you did anything else. This entailed two
    very tough exams involving the M4 rifle; the SR-25 semiautomatic sniper rifle,
    accurate to nine hundred yards; and the heavy, powerful 300 Win Mag bolt-
    action .308-caliber rifle. You needed to be expert with all of them if you were
    planning to be a Navy SEAL sniper.
    Then the real test started, the ultimate examination of a man's ability to move
    stealthily, unseen and undetected, across rough, enemy-held ground where the
    slightest mistake might mean instant death or, worse, letting your team down.
    Our instructor was a veteran of the first wave of U.S. troops who had gone in after
    Osama. He was Brendan Webb, a terrific man. Stalking was his game, and his
    standards were so high they would have made an Apache scout gasp. Working right
    alongside him was Eric Davis, another brilliant SEAL sniper, who was completely
    ruthless in his examination of our abilities to stay concealed.
    The final "battleground" was a vast area out near the border of Pendleton. There
    was not much vegetation, mostly low, flat bushes, but the rough rocks-bouldersand-
    shale terrain was full of undulations, valleys, and gullies. Trees, the sniper's
    nearest and dearest friends, were damn sparse, obviously by design. Before they let
    us loose in this barren, dusty no-man's-land, they subjected us to long lectures
    stressing the importance of paying attention to every detail.
    They retaught us the noble art of camouflage, the brown and green creams, the way
    to arrange branches in your hat, the dangers of a gust of wind, which might ruffle
    your branches alone if they weren't set tight, betraying your position. We practiced
    all the hours God made, and then they sent us out onto the range.
    It's a vast sweep of ground, and the instructors survey it from a high platform. Our
    stalk began a thousand yards from that platform, upon which the gimlet-eyed Webb
    and Davis stood, scanning the acres like a pair of revolving radars.
    The idea was to get within two hundred yards of them and then fire through the
    crosshairs at the target. We had practiced doing this alone and with a partner, and
    boy, does this ever teach you patience. It can take hours just to move a few yards,
    but if the instructors catch you as they sweep the area with high-powered
    binoculars, you fail the course.
    For the final test I was working with a partner, and this meant we both had to stay
    well concealed. In the end, he finds the range and calls the shot, and I adhere to his
    command. At this stage the instructors have installed walkers all over the place,
    and they're communicating by radios with the platform. If the walker gets within
    two steps of you, you've failed.
    Even if you get your shot off unseen and hit the target, if they find you afterward,
    you still fail. It's a hard, tough, thinking man's game, and the test is exhaustive. In
    training, an instructor stands behind both of you while you're crossing the
    forbidden ground. They're writing a constant critique, observing, for example, that
    my spotter has made a wrong call, either incorrect distance or direction. If I then
    miss with the shot, they know the mistake was not mine. As ever, you must operate

    as a team. The instructor knows full well you cannot position, aim, and fire the rifle
    without a spotter calling down the range, and Jesus, he better be right.
    There was just one day during training where they walked on me, which I thought
    was pretty damned nervy. But it taught me something. Our enemy had a damn

    good idea where we might head before we even started, a kind of instinct based on
    long experience of rookie snipers looking for cover. They had me in their sights
    before I even got moving, because they knew where to look, the highest probability
    area.
    That's a lifetime lesson for the sniper: never, ever go where your enemy might
    expect you to be. My only solace on that rueful occasion was that the instructors
    walked on every single one of us that day.
    In the final test, I faced that thousand-yard barren desert once again and began my
    journey, wriggling and scuffling through the dusty ground, my head well down,
    camouflage branches firm in my hat, groveling my way between the boulders. It
    took me hours to make the halfway point and even longer to ease my way over the
    last three hundred yards to my chosen spot for the shot. I was not seen, and I
    moved dead slowly through the rocks, from gully to gully, staying low, pressing
    into the ground. When I arrived at my final point, I scuffled together a little hide of
    dirt and sticks, and tucked down behind it, my rifle carefully aimed. I squeezed the
    trigger slowly and deliberately, and my shot pinged into the metal target, right in
    the middle. If that had been a man's head, he'd have been history.
    I saw the instructors swing around and start looking for the place my shot had
    come from. But they were obviously guessing. I pressed my face into the dirt and
    never moved an inch for a half hour. Then I made my slow and careful retreat, still
    lying flat, disturbing not a twig nor a rock. An unknown marksman, just the way
    we like it.
    It had taken three months, and I passed Sniper School with excellent marks.
    SEALs don't look for personal credit, and thus I cannot say who the class voted
    their Honor Man.
    The last major school I attended was joint tactical air control. It lasted one month,
    out in the Fallon Naval Airbase, Nevada. They taught us the basics of airborne
    ordnance, five-hundred-pound bombs and missiles, what they can hit and what
    they can't. We also learned to communicate directly with aircraft from the ground
    -- getting them to see what we can see, relaying information through the satellites
    to the controllers.
    I realize it has taken me some time to explain precisely what a Navy SEAL is and
    what it takes to be one. But as we are always told, you have to earn that Trident
    every day. We never stop learning, never stop training. To state that a man is a
    Navy SEAL communicates about a ten thousandth of what it really means. It
    would be as if General Dwight D. Eisenhower mentioned he'd once served in the
    army.
    But now you know: what it took, what it meant to all of us, and, perhaps, why we
    did it. Okay, okay, we do have our own little brand of arrogance. But we paid for
    every last drop of that sin in sweat, blood, and brutally hard work.
    Because above all, we're patriots. We will willingly carry the fight to whoever may
    be the enemies of the United States of America. We're your front line, unafraid and
    ready to go in against al Qaeda, jihadists, terrorists, or whoever the hell else
    threatens this nation.
    Every Navy SEAL is supremely confident, because we're indoctrinated with a
    belief in victory at all costs; a conviction that no earthly force can withstand our
    thunderous assault on the battlefield. We're invincible, right? Unstoppable. That's
    what I believed to the depths of my spirit on the day they pinned the Trident on my
    chest. I still believe it. And I always will.

    6


    'Bye, Dudes, Give 'Em Hell

    The final call came -- "Redwing is a go!" The landing controller was calling the
    shots..."One minute...Thirty seconds!...Let's go!" The ramp was down...the gunner
    was ready with the M60 machine gun...No moon...Danny went first, out into the
    dark.

    As day broke over the mighty sprawl of the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan on
    that morning in March 2005, we checked into our bee hut and slept for a few hours
    before attending a general briefing. Dan Healy, Shane, James, Axe, Mikey, and I,
    the new arrivals from SDV Team 1, were immediately seconded to SEAL Team 10
    out of Virginia Beach, led right now by the teak-hard Lieutenant Commander Eric
    Kristensen, standing in for the absent CO, who was on duty elsewhere.
    Eric was funny as hell, always one of the boys, so much so it might have impeded
    his progress through the higher ranks in later years. These days 75 percent of all
    SEALs have college degrees, and the line between officers and enlisted men is
    more blurred than it has ever been. But Eric was thirty-two and the son of an
    admiral from Virginia. Despite his sense of humor and his often wry look at higher
    authority, he was a very fine SEAL commander, and he presided over one of the
    best fighting platoons in the entire U.S. Navy. Team 10 was brilliantly trained for
    the kind of warfare we were now entering. Lieutenant Commander Kristensen had

    a couple of right-hand men, Luke Newbold and Master Chief Walters, very special
    guys. I can only say it was a pleasure to work with them.
    Our briefing, like everything associated with Team 10, was top of the line, a kind
    of grim educational lecture on what was happening up on the northwest frontier,
    which divides Afghanistan and Pakistan. The steep, stony mountain crevasses and
    cliffs, dust-colored, sinister places, were now alive with the burgeoning armies of
    the Taliban. Angry, resentful men, regrouping all along the unmarked high border,
    preparing to take back the holy Muslim country they believed the infidel
    Americans had stolen from them and then presented to a new, elected government.
    Up there, complex paths emerge and then disappear behind huge boulders and
    rocks. Every footstep that dislodges anything, a small rock, a pile of shale, seems
    like it might cause an earthshaking avalanche. Stealth, we were told, must be our
    watchword on the high, quiet slopes of the Hindu Kush.
    These paths, trodden down for centuries by warring tribesmen, were the very
    routes taken by the defeated Taliban and al Qaeda after the withering U.S.
    bombardment had all but annihilated them in 2001. We would find out all about
    them soon enough.
    Within literally hours, we began our first mission. No one regarded us as rookies;
    we were all fully trained SEALs, ready for action, ready to get up there into those
    mountain passes and help slow the tide of armed warrior tribesmen moving back
    across the border from Pakistan.
    We flew by helicopter up into those passes, into the hills above a deep valley. We
    arrived, maybe twenty of us, including Dan, Shane, Axe, and Mikey, and fanned

    out around the mountain. Axe, Mikey, and James Suh (call sign Irish One) were
    positioned about one and a half miles from Chief Healy, Shane, and me (call sign
    Irish Three).
    This was a border hot spot, where multiple Taliban troop movements were taking

    place on a weekly, or even daily, basis. We expected to observe the Taliban way
    below us on that narrow, treacherous path through the mountains, moving along
    with their swaying camels, many of them loaded up with explosives, grenades, and
    God knows what else.
    I was walking with great caution. We had all been warned these glowering
    Afghanistan tribesmen would fight, and none of them were likely to be pushovers.
    I also knew that one false step, a dislodged rock, however small, would betray our
    positions. Those tribesmen had lived up here for centuries, and they had eyes like
    falcons. If they heard us or saw us, they would attack immediately. Our high
    command had left no doubt in our minds. This was dangerous stuff, but we had to
    stop the influx of armed terrorists.
    Carefully I moved along the ridge, occasionally stopping to scan the mountain pass
    with my binos. I was walking silently. Everything was clear in my mind. If a troop
    of wild tribesmen with camels and missiles came rolling into the pass, I must
    instantly whistle up reinforcements on the radio. If it was a lesser force, something
    we could deal with right here, we'd swoop and try to capture the leaders and take
    care of the rest by whatever means were necessary.
    Anyway, I continued my silent patrol, hunkered down behind a couple of huge
    boulders, and again scanned the pass. Nothing. I stepped out once more, into steep,
    barren, open country, and below me I suddenly saw three armed Afghanistan
    tribesmen. My brain raced. There was seventy yards between me and Shane. Do I
    open fire? How many more of them were there?
    Too late. They opened fire first, shooting uphill, and a volley of bullets from their
    AK-47s slammed into the rocks all around me. I hurled myself back behind the
    rocks, knowing Shane must have heard something. Then I stepped out and let 'em
    have it. I saw them retreat into cover. At least I'd pinned them down.
    But they came at me again, and again I returned fire. But right then, they unleashed
    two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and thank God I saw them coming. I dived
    for cover, but they blew out one of the boulders which had given me shelter. Now
    there were ricocheting bullets, dust, shrapnel, and flying rock particles everywhere.
    It felt like I was fighting a one-man war, and Christ knows how I avoided being hit.
    But suddenly, the echoes of the blast died away, and I could hear sporadic gunfire
    from these three maniacs. I waited quietly until I believed they had broken cover,
    and then I stepped out and hit the trigger again. I don't know what or who I hit, but
    it suddenly went very quiet again. As if nothing had happened. Welcome to
    Afghanistan, Marcus.
    This was one type of patrol, standing guard up there over the passes and trying to
    remain concealed. The other kind was a straight surveillance and reconnaissance
    mission (SR), where we were tasked with observing and photographing a village,
    looking for our target. It was always expected we would locate him since our intel
    was excellent, often with good photographs. And we were always in search of
    some sonofabitch in a turban who had for too long been indulging in his favorite
    pastime of blowing up U.S. Marines.
    On these sorties into the mountains, we were expected to pick out our quarry,
    either with high-powered binoculars or the photo lens of one of our cameras, and
    then swoop down into the village and take him. If he was alone, that was always
    the primary plan of the SEALs: grab the target, get him back to base, and make
    him talk, tell us where the Taliban were gathered, locate for us the huge
    ammunition piles they had hidden in the mountains.

    That high explosive had only one use, to kill and maim U.S. troops, up there in
    support of the elected government. We found it well to remember those Taliban
    insurgents were the very same guys who sheltered and supported Osama bin
    Laden. We were also told, no ifs, ands, or buts, that particular mass murderer was
    right where we were going, somewhere.

    Generally speaking, we were to grab our man in the village if he was protected by,
    say, only four bodyguards. No problem. But if there were more of them, some kind
    of Taliban garrison crawling with armed men, we were to call for a proper fighting
    force to fly in and take care of the problem. Either way, when we arrived, things
    ceased to look great for young Abdul the Bombmaker measuring out his dynamite
    down there in Main Street, Mud Hut Central, Northeast Afghanistan.
    Our next mission was a huge operation, around fifty guys dropped into the
    mountains, in the worst terrain you've ever seen. Well, maybe not if there are any
    mountain goats or mountain lions among my readers, but it sure as hell was the
    worst I'd ever seen. There were steep cliff faces, loose footing, sheer drops, hardly
    any bushes or trees, nothing to grab, nowhere to take cover if necessary.
    I have explained how supremely fit we were. We could all climb anything, go
    anywhere. But -- you're not going to believe this -- we took eight hours to walk
    one and a half miles. Guys were falling down the goddamned mountain, getting
    hurt, bad. It was hotter than a Texas griddle, and one of my buddies told me later,
    "I'd have quit the teams just to get out of there."
    I know he didn't mean it. But we all knew the feeling. We were tired, frustrated,
    roped together in teams, crawling across the face of this dangerous mountain with
    full rucksacks and rifles. To this day it remains the worst journey of my life. And
    we weren't even facing the enemy. It was so bad we made up a song about it,
    which our resident expert banjo player put to the music of the Johnny Cash song
    "Ring of Fire":
    I fell into a hundred-foot ravine,
    We went down, down, down, and busted up my spleen,
    And it burned, burned, burned -- that Ring of Fire . . .


    Our dual targets on that next mission were two Afghan villages set into the
    mountainside, one above the other. We had no clues which one harbored the most
    Taliban forces, and it had been decided we needed to take them both at gunpoint.
    No bullshit. The reason for this was a very young guy. We had terrific intel on him,
    from both satellites and the FBI. We did not, however, have photographs.
    I never knew where he was educated, but this young Taliban kid was a scientist, a
    master of explosives. We call them IED guys (improvised explosive devices), and
    in this part of the mountains, this kid was King IED. And he and his men had been
    wreaking havoc on U.S. troops, blowing stuff up all over the place. He'd recently
    blown up a couple of U.S. Marine convoys and killed a lot of guys.
    Foxtrot Platoon regrouped in the small hours of the morning after the trek across
    the mountains and positioned ourselves high above the upper village. As the sun
    came up, we moved swiftly down the hillside and charged into the village, crashing
    down the doors to the houses, arresting anyone and everyone. We were not
    shooting, but we were very intimidating, no doubt about that. And no one resisted.
    But the kid wasn't there.
    Meanwhile the main force, SEAL Team 10, was in and playing hell in the bigger,
    lower village. It took them a while, because this required interrogation, a skill at
    which we were all very competent. In these circumstances, we were grilling
    everyone, looking for the liar, the guy who changed his story, the guy who was
    somehow different. We wanted the guy who was obviously not a goatherd, as the

    rest of them were; a young guy who lacked the gnarled, rough look of the native
    mountain farmer.
    We got our man. It was my first close-up encounter with a fanatical Taliban fighter.
    I'll never forget him. He was only just old enough to have a decent beard, but he
    had wild, crazy eyes, and he stared at me like I'd just rejected the entire teachings
    of the Koran.


    I knew in that instant that if he could have killed me, he would have. No one had
    ever looked at me before, or has since, with that much hatred.
    That second operation in Afghanistan, the snatch-and-grab of Abdul the
    Bombmaker or whatever the hell his name was, brought home two aspects of this
    conflict to us newly arrived SEALs. First, the rabid hatred these Muslim extremists
    had for all of us; second, the awkwardness of complying with our rules of
    engagement (ROE) in this type of warfare.
    SEALs, by our nature, training, and education, are not very stupid. And along with
    everyone else, we read the newspaper headlines from all over the world about
    serving members of the armed forces who have been charged with murder in
    civilian courts for doing what they thought was their duty, attacking their enemy.
    Our rules of engagement in Afghanistan specified that we could not shoot, kill, or
    injure unarmed civilians. But what about the unarmed civilian who was a skilled
    spy for the illegal forces we were trying to remove? What about an entire secret
    army, diverse, fragmented, and lethal, creeping through the mountains in
    Afghanistanpretending to be civilians? What about those guys? How about the
    innocent-looking camel drovers making their way through the mountain passes
    with enough high explosive strapped to the backs of their beasts to blow up Yankee
    Stadium? How about those guys?
    We all knew that we'd chosen to do what 999 Americans out of every thousand
    would not even think about doing. And we were taught that we were necessary for
    the security of our nation. We were sent to Afghanistan to carry out hugely
    dangerous missions. But we were also told that we could not shoot that camel
    drover before he blew up all of us, because he might be an unarmed civilian just
    taking his dynamite for a walk.
    And how about his buddy? The younger guy with the stick, running along behind,

    prodding the freakin' camels? How about him? How about if he can't wait to
    scamper up those mountains and find his brother and the rest of the Taliban hard
    men? The ones with the RPGs, waiting in the hidden cave?
    We wouldn't hear him reveal our position, and neither would the politicians who
    drafted those ROEs. And those men in suits won't be on that mountainside when
    the first grenade explodes among us and takes off someone's leg, or head.
    Should we have shot that little son of a gun right off the bat, before he had a
    chance to run? Or was he just an unarmed civilian, doing no harm to anyone? Just
    taking his TNT for a walk, right?
    These terrorist/insurgents know the rules as well as they did in Iraq. They're not
    their rules. They're our rules, the rules of the Western countries, the civilized side
    of the world. And every terrorist knows how to manipulate them in their own favor.
    Otherwise the camel drovers would be carrying guns.
    But they don't. Because they know we are probably scared to shoot them, because
    we might get charged with murder, which I actually know they consider to be on
    the hysterical side of laughable.
    And if we did shoot a couple of them, they would be on their cell phones with the
    speed of ten thousand gigabytes, direct to the Arab television station al-Jazeera:

    BRUTAL US TROOPS GUN DOWN
    PEACE-LOVING AFGHAN FARMERS
    US Military Promises SEALs
    Will Be Charged

    Well, something like that. I'm sure you get my drift. The media in the United
    States of America would crucify us. These days, they always do. Was there ever a
    greater uproar than the one that broke out over Abu Ghraib? In the bigger scheme

    of things, in the context of all the death and destruction that Muslim extremists
    have visited upon this world, a bunch of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated does not
    ring my personal alarm bell. And it would not ring yours either if you ever saw
    firsthand what these guys are capable of. I mean, Jesus, they cut off people's heads,
    American heads, aid workers' heads. They think nothing of slaughtering thousands
    of people; they've stabbed and mutilated young American soldiers, like something
    out of the Middle Ages.
    The truth is, in this kind of terrorist/insurgent warfare, no one can tell who's a
    civilian and who's not. So what's the point of framing rules that cannot be
    comprehensively carried out by anyone? Rules that are unworkable, because half
    the time no one knows who the goddamned enemy is, and by the time you find out,
    it might be too late to save your own life. Making sense of the ROEs in real-time
    situations is almost impossible.
    Also, no one seems clear on what we should be called in Afghanistan. Are we a
    peace-keeping force? Are we fighting a war against insurgents on behalf of the
    Afghan government, or are we fighting it on behalf of the U.S.A.? Are we trying to
    hunt down the master terrorist bin Laden, or are we just trying to prevent the
    Taliban from regaining control of the country, because they were the protectors of
    bin Laden and all who fought for him?
    Search me. But everything's cool with us. Tell us what you want, and we'll do it.
    We're loyal servants of the U.S. government. But Afghanistan involves fighting
    behind enemy lines. Never mind we were invited into a democratic country by its
    own government. Never mind there's no shooting across the border in Pakistan, the
    illegality of the Taliban army, the Geneva Convention, yada, yada, yada.
    When we're patrolling those mountains, trying everything we know to stop the
    Taliban regrouping, striving to find and arrest the top commanders and explosive
    experts, we are always surrounded by a well-armed, hostile enemy whose avowed
    intention is to kill us all. That's behind enemy lines. Trust me.
    And we'll go there. All day. Every day. We'll do what we're supposed to do, to the
    letter, or die in the attempt. On behalf of the U.S.A. But don't tell us who we can
    attack. That ought to be up to us, the military. And if the liberal media and political
    community cannot accept that sometimes the wrong people get killed in war, then I
    can only suggest they first grow up and then serve a short stint up in the Hindu
    Kush. They probably would not survive.
    The truth is, any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules
    like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing's fair in
    war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed. It's been happening for about
    a million years. Faced with the murderous cutthroats of the Taliban, we are not
    fighting under the rules of Geneva IV Article 4. We are fighting under the rules of
    Article 223.556mm -- that's the caliber and bullet gauge of our M4 rifle. And if
    those numbers don't look good, try Article .762mm, that's what the stolen Russian
    Kalashnikovs fire at us, usually in deadly, heavy volleys.
    In the global war on terror, we have rules, and our opponents use them against us.

    We try to be reasonable; they will stop at nothing. They will stoop to any form of
    base warfare: torture, beheading, mutilation. Attacks on innocent civilians, women
    and children, car bombs, suicide bombers, anything the hell they can think of.
    They're right up there with the monsters of history.
    And I ask myself, Who's prepared to go furthest to win this war? Answer: they are.
    They'll willingly die to get their enemy. They will take it to the limit, any time, any
    place, whatever it takes. And they don't have rules of engagement.
    Thus we have an extra element of fear and danger when we go into combat against
    the Taliban or al Qaeda -- the fear of our own, the fear of what our own navy
    judge advocate general might rule against us, the fear of the American media and
    their unfortunate effect on American politicians. We all harbor fears about

    untrained, half-educated journalists who only want a good story to justify their
    salaries and expense accounts. Don't think it's just me. We all detest them, partly
    for their lack of judgment, mostly because of their ignorance and toe-curling
    opportunism. The first minute an armed conflict turns into a media war, the news
    becomes someone's opinion, not hard truths. When the media gets involved, in the
    United States, that's a war you've got a damned good chance of losing, because the
    restrictions on us are immediately amplified, and that's sensationally good news
    for our enemy.
    Every now and then, a news reporter or a photographer gets in the way sufficiently
    to stop a bullet. And without missing a beat, those highly paid newspeople become
    national heroes, lauded back home in the press and on television. SEALs are not
    churlish, but I cannot describe how irksome this is to the highly trained but not
    very well paid guys who are doing the actual fighting. These are superb
    professionals who say nothing and place themselves in harm's way every day, too
    often being killed or wounded. They are silent heroes, unknown soldiers, except in
    equally unknown, heartbroken little home communities.
    We did one early mission up there in the passes at checkpoint 6 that was worse
    than lethal. We'd just managed to get into position, about twenty of us, when these
    Afghan wild men hidden in the mountains unleashed a barrage of rockets at us,
    hundreds and hundreds of them, flying over our heads, slamming into the
    mountainside.
    We couldn't tell whether they were classified as armed combatants against the
    United States or unarmed civilians. It took us three days to subdue them, and even
    then we had to call in heavy air support to enable us to get out. Three days later,
    the satellite pictures showed us the Taliban had sent in twelve cutthroats by night,
    armed with Kalashnikovs and tribal knives, who crept through the darkness intent
    on murder, directly to our old position.
    But you can't prove their intentions! I hear the liberals squeal. No. Of course not.
    They were just headed up there for a cup of coffee.
    Those Taliban night attacks were the very same tactics the mujahideen used against
    the Russians, sliding through the darkness and cutting the throats of guards and
    sentries until the Soviet military, and the parents of young soldiers, could stand it
    no more. The mujahideen has now emerged as the Taliban or al Qaeda. And their
    intentions against us are just as bloodthirsty as they were against the Russians.
    The Navy SEALs can deal with that, as we can deal with any enemy. But not if
    someone wants to put us in jail for it back home in the U.S.A. And we sure as hell
    don't want to hang around in the mountains waiting for someone to cut our throats,
    unable to fight back just in case he might be classified as an unarmed Afghan
    farmer.
    But these are the problems of the modern U.S. combat soldier, the constant worry
    about overstepping the mark and an American media that delights in trying to
    knock us down. Which we have done nothing to deserve. Except, perhaps, love our

    country and everything it stands for.
    In the early weeks of our duties in Afghanistan, the fight went on. Platoons of us
    went out night after night, trying to halt the insurgents creeping through the
    mountain passes. Every time there was a full moon, we launched operations,
    because that was really the only time we could get a sweep of light over the dark
    mountains.
    Following this lunar cycle, we'd send the helicopters up there to watch these
    bearded fanatics squirting over the border into Afghanistan, and then we'd round
    them up, the helos driving them like sheepdogs, watching them run for their lives,
    straight toward us and the rest of the waiting U.S. troops for capture and
    interrogation.
    I realize it might seem strange that underwater specialists from SDV Team 1

    should be groping around nine thousand feet above sea level. It is generally
    accepted in the navy that the swimmer delivery vehicle (SDV), the minisubmarine
    that brings us into our ops area, is the stealthiest vehicle in the world. And it
    follows that the troops manning the world's stealthiest vehicle are the world's
    sneakiest guys. That's us, operating deep behind enemy lines, observing and
    reporting, unnoticed, living on the edge of our nerves. And our principal task is
    always to find the target and then call in the direct action guys. That's really what
    everyone wants to do, direct action, but it can't be done without the deadly
    business we conduct up there in those lonely peaks of the Hindu Kush.
    Lieutenant Commander Eric Kristensen was always aware of our value, and in fact
    was a very good friend of mine. He used to name the operations for me. I was a
    Texan, which, being as he was a Virginia gentleman, somehow amused the life out
    of him. He thought I was some kind of cross between Billy the Kid and Buffalo
    Bill, quick on the draw and Dang mah breeches! Never mind both those cowboys
    were from way north of me, Kansas or somewhere. So far as Eric was concerned,
    Texas and all points west and north of it represented the badlands, lawless
    frontiers, Colt .44s, cattlemen and Red Indians.
    Thus we were always flying out on Operation Longhorn or Operation Lone Star.
    Naming the ops for his Texas boy really broke him up. The vast majority of our
    missions were very quiet and involved strict surveillance of mountain passes or
    villages. We were always trying to avoid gunfire as we photographed and then
    swooped on our target. Invariably we were looking for the misfit, the one man in
    the village who did not fit in, the hit man of the Taliban who was plainly not a
    farmer.
    Sometimes we'd run across a group of these guys sitting around a campfire,
    bearded, sullen, drinking coffee, their AK-47s at the ready. Our first task was to
    identify them. Were they Pashtuns? Peaceable shepherds, goatherds? Or armed
    warriors of the Taliban, the ferocious mountain men who'd slit your throat as soon
    as look at you? It took only a few days to work out that Taliban fighters were
    nothing like so rough and dirty as Afghan mountain peasants. Many of them had
    been educated in America, and here they were, carefully cleaning their AK-47s,
    getting ready to kill us.
    And it did not take us much longer to realize how impressive they could be in
    action up here on their home ground. I always thought they would turn and run for
    it when we discovered them. But they did nothing of the kind. If they held or could
    reach the high ground, they would stand and fight. If we came down on them
    they'd usually either give up or head right back to the border and into Pakistan,
    where we could not follow them. But close up you could always see the defiance in
    their eyes, that hatred of America, the fire of the revolutionary that burned in their
    souls.
    It was pretty damn creepy for us, because this was the heartland of terror, the place

    where the destruction of the World Trade Center was born and nourished, perfected
    by men such as these. I'll be honest, it seemed kind of unreal, not possible. But we
    all knew that it had happened. Right here in this remote dust bowl was the root of it
    all, the homeland of bin Laden's fighters, the place where they still plot and
    scheme to smash the United States. The place where the loathing of Uncle Sam is
    so ingrained, a brand of evil flourishes that is beyond the understanding of most
    Westerners. Mostly because it belongs to a different, more barbaric century.
    And here stood Mikey, Shane, Axe, me, and the rest, ready for a face-off anytime
    against these silent, sure-footed warriors, masters of the mountains, deadly with
    rifle and tribal knife.
    To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum
    more difficult. Because right here we're talking Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts
    made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and an awful smell of urine and

    mule dung. Downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet
    here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most
    shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.
    Sanitation in the villages is as rudimentary as it gets. They have a communal head,
    a kind of a pit, out on the edge of the houses. And we are all warned to watch out
    for them, particularly on night patrols. I misjudged it one night, slipped, and got
    my foot in there. That caused huge laughter up there in the dead of night, everyone
    trying not to explode. Wasn't funny to me, however.
    The next week it was much worse. We were all in the pitch dark, creeping through
    this very rough ground, trying to set up a surveillance point above a very small
    cluster of huts and goats. We could not see a thing without NVGs (night-vision
    goggles), and suddenly I slipped into a gaping hole.
    I dared not yell. But I knew I was on my way down, and I shuddered to think
    where I was going to land. I just rammed my right arm rigid straight up, holding on
    tight to the rifle, and crashed straight into the village head. I went right under,
    vaguely hearing my teammates hiss, "Look out! Luttrell just found the shitter
    again!"
    Never has there been that much suppressed laughter on an Afghan mission. But it
    was one of the worst experiences of my life. I could have given typhoid to the
    entire Bagram base. I was freezing cold but I cheerfully jumped into a river in full
    combat gear just to get washed off.
    Sometimes there was real trouble on those border post checkpoints, and we
    occasionally had to load up the Humvees and transport about eighteen guys out
    there and then walk for miles. The problem was, the Pakistani government has
    obvious sympathy with the Taliban, and as a result leaves the border area in the
    northeast uncontrolled. Pakistan has decreed its authorities can operate on tarmac
    roads and then for twenty meters on either side of the road. Beyond that, anything
    goes, so the Taliban fighters simply swerve off the road and enter Afghanistan over
    the ancient pathways. They come and go as they please, the way they always have,
    unless we prevent them. Many of them only want to come in and rustle cattle,
    which we do not bother with. However, the Taliban know this, and they move
    around disguised as cattle farmers, and we most certainly do bother with that. And
    those little camel trains laden with high explosive, they really get our attention.
    And every single time, we came under attack. The slightest noise, any betrayal of
    our position, someone would open fire on us, often from the Pakistan side of the
    border, where we could not go. So we moved stealthily, gathered our photographs,
    grabbed the ringleaders, stayed in touch with base, and whistled up reinforcements
    whenever we needed help.
    It was the considered opinion of our commanders that the key to winning was intel,
    identifying the bombmakers, finding their supplies, and smashing the Taliban

    arsenal before they could use it. But it was never easy. Our enemy was brutal,
    implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life. As long as it takes, was
    their obvious belief. In the end they assume they will rid their holy Muslim soil of
    the infidel invaders. After all, they always have, right? Sorry, nyet?
    Sometimes, while the head sheds (that's SEAL vernacular for our senior
    commanders) were studying a specific target, we were kept on hold. I volunteered
    my spare time working in the Bagram hospital, mostly in the emergency room,
    helping with the wounded guys and trying to become a better medic for my team.
    And that hospital was a real eye-opener, because we were happy to treat Afghans
    as well as our own military personnel. And they showed up at the emergency room
    with every kind of wound, mostly bullets, but occasionally stabbings. That's one of
    the real problems in that country -- everyone has a gun. There seems to be an AK47
    in every living room. And there were a lot of injuries. Afghan civilians would
    show up at the main gates so badly shot we had to send out Humvees to bring them

    into the ER. We treated anyone who came, at the American taxpayer's expense,
    and we gave everyone as good care as we could.
    Bagram was an excellent place for me to improve my skills, and I hoped I was
    doing some good at the same time. I was, of course, unpaid for this work. But
    medicine has always been a vocation for me, and those long hours in that hospital
    were priceless to the doctor I hoped one day to be.
    And while I tended the sick and injured, the never-ending work of the commanders
    continued, filtering the intel reports, checking the CIA reports, trying to identify
    the Taliban leaders so we could cut the head off their operation.
    There was always a very big list of potential targets, some more advanced than
    others. By that I mean certain communities where the really dangerous guys had
    been located, identified, and pinpointed by the satellites or by us. It was work that
    required immense perseverance and the ability to assess the likelihood of actually
    finding the guy who mattered.
    The teams in Bagram were prepared to go out there and conduct this very
    dangerous work, but no one likes going on a series of wild-goose chases where the
    chances of finding a top Taliban terrorist are remote. And of course the intel guys
    have to be aware at all times that nothing is static up there in the mountains. Those
    Taliban guys are very mobile and very smart. They know a lot but not all there is to
    know about American capability. And they surely understand the merit of keeping
    it moving, from village to village, cave to cave, never remaining in one place long
    enough to get caught with their stockpiles of high explosive.
    Our senior chief, Dan Healy, was outstanding at seeking out and finding the good
    jobs for us, ones where we had a better than average chance of finding our quarry.
    He spent hours poring over those lists, checking out a certain known terrorist,
    where he spent his time, where he was last seen.
    Chief Healy would comb through the photographic evidence, checking maps,
    charts, working out the places we had a real chance of victory, of grabbing the
    main man without fighting an all-out street battle. He had a personal short list of
    the prime suspects and where to find them. And by June, he had a lot of records,
    the various methods used by these kingpin Taliban guys and their approximate
    access to TNT.
    And one man's name popped right out at him. For security reasons, I'm going to
    call him Ben Sharmak, and suffice to say he's a leader of a serious Taliban force, a
    sinister mountain man known to make forays into the cities and known also to have
    been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with
    bombs. Sharmak was a shadowy figure of around forty. He commanded maybe 140
    to 150 armed fighters, but he was an educated man, trained in military tactics and
    able to speak five languages. He was also known to be one of Osama bin Laden's

    closest associates.
    He kept his troops mobile, moving into or camping on the outskirts of friendly
    Pashtun villages, accepting hospitality and then traveling on to the next
    rendezvous, recruiting all the way. These mountain men were unbelievably
    difficult to trace, but even they need to rest, eat and drink, and perhaps even wash,
    and they need village communities to do all of that.
    Almost every morning Chief Healy would run the main list of potential targets past
    Mikey, our team officer, and me. He usually gave us papers with a list of maybe
    twenty names and possible locations, and we made a short list of the guys we
    considered we should go after. We thus created a rogues' gallery, and we made our
    mission choices depending on the amount of intel we had. The name Ben Sharmak
    kept on showing up, and the estimates of his force size kept going up just as often.
    Finally there was a tentative briefing about a possible Operation Redwing, which
    involved the capture or killing of this highly dangerous character. But he was
    always elusive. First he was here, then there, like the freakin' Scarlet Pimpernel.

    And the photos available were just head and shoulders, not great quality and very
    grainy. Still, we knew approximately what the sonofabitch looked like, and on the
    face of it, this was stacking up to be like any other SR operation -- get above the
    target, stalk him, photograph him, and, if at all possible, grab him.
    We had very decent intel on him, which suggested the CIA and probably the FBI
    were also extremely interested in his capture or death. And as the various briefings
    went on, Ben Sharmak seemed to get progressively more important. There were
    now reports of an eighty-troop minimum and a two-hundred-troop maximum in his
    army, and this constituted a very big operation. And Chief Healy decreed that me
    and my three buddies in Alfa Platoon were the precise guys to carry it out.
    We were not expected to take on this large bunch of wild-eyed killers. Indeed, we
    were expected to stay quieter than we had ever been in our lives. "Just find this
    bastard, nail him down, his location and troop strength, then radio in for a direct
    action force to come in by air and take him down." Simple, right?
    If we thought he might be preparing an immediate evacuation of the village in
    which he resided, then we would take him out forthwith. That would be me or Axe.
    The chances were I'd get only one shot at Sharmak, just one time when I could trap
    him in the crosshairs and squeeze that trigger, probably from hundreds of yards
    away. I knew only one thing: I better not miss, because the apparitions of Webb
    and Davis, not to mention every other serving SEAL, would surely rise up and tear
    my ass off. This was, after all, precisely what they had trained me for.
    And in case anyone's wondering, I had absolutely no qualms about putting a bullet
    straight through this bastard's head. He was a fanatical sworn enemy of the United
    States of America who had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S.
    Marines. He was also the kind of terrorist who would like nothing better than to
    mastermind a new attack on the U.S. mainland. If I got a shot, he'd get no mercy
    from me. I knew what was expected of me. I knew the team boss wanted this
    character eliminated, and when I thought about it, I was damned proud they
    considered me and my buddies the men for the job. As ever, we would do
    everything possible not to let anyone down.
    Every day we checked the intel office to see what further data there was on
    Sharmak. Chief Healy was right on the case, working with the ops officer and our
    skipper, Commander Pero. The problem was always the same: where was our
    target? He was worse than Saddam Hussein, disappearing, evading the prying eye
    of the satellites, keeping his identity and location secret even from the many CIA
    informers who were close to him.
    There was of course no point in charging into the mountains armed to the teeth
    with weapons and cameras unless we were absolutely sure of his whereabouts. The

    Taliban were a serious threat to low-flying military aircraft, and the helo pilots
    knew they were in constant danger of being fired upon, even on night ops. These
    mountain men were as handy with missile launchers as they were with AK-47s.
    There is a huge amount of backup required for any such operation: transportation,
    communications, available air support, not to mention ammunition, food, water,
    medical supplies, hand grenades, and weapons, all of which we would carry with
    us.
    At one point, quite early on, we had a very definite "Redwing is a go." And
    preparations were well under way when the entire thing was suddenly called off.
    "Turn one!" They'd lost him again. They had data, and they had reason to believe
    they knew where he was. But nothing hard. The guys in intel studied the maps and
    the terrain, ringed probability areas, made estimates and guesstimates. They
    thought they had him pinned down but not sufficiently narrowly to place him in an
    actual village or a camp, never mind with the accuracy required for a sniper to get
    off a shot.
    Intel was just waiting for a break, and meanwhile, me and the guys were out on

    other SR missions, probably Operation Goat Rope or something. We'd just come
    back from one of these when we heard there'd been a break in the hunt for Ben
    Sharmak. It was very sudden, and we guessed one of our sources had come up with
    something. Chief Healy had maps and studies of the terrain under way, and it
    looked like we were going straight out again.
    We were called into a briefing: Lieutenant Mike Murphy, Petty Officer Matthew
    Axelson, Petty Officer Shane Patton, and I. We listened to the data and the
    requirements and still regarded it as just another op. But at the last minute there
    was a big change. They decided that Shane should be replaced by Petty Officer
    Danny Dietz, a thirty-four-year-old I had known well for years.
    Danny was a short (well, compared with me), very muscular guy from Colorado,
    but he lived with his spectacularly beautiful wife, Maria, known to all of us as
    Patsy, just outside the base in Virginia Beach. They had no children but two dogs,
    both of them damn near as tough as he was, an English bulldog and a bullmastiff.
    Danny was with me at the SDV school in Panama City, Florida. We were both
    there on 9/11. He was heavily into yoga and martial arts and was a very close
    friend of Shane's. Guess those beach gods and the mystic iron men have stuff in
    common. I was glad to have Danny on the team. He was a little reserved, but
    underneath he could be very funny and was a sweet-natured person. It was not a
    great plan to upset him, though. Danny Dietz was a caged tiger and a great Navy
    SEAL.
    Now it seemed Redwing was again given the green light. The four-man team was
    nailed down. The two snipers would be Axe and me; the two spotters, Mikey and
    Danny. Command control, Mikey. Communications, Danny and me. The final
    shoot-on-target, me or Axe, either one of us spotting, whichever way it fell on the
    terrain.
    The plan was to sit up there and hide above the place we believed Sharmak was
    resident, if necessary for four days, probably not able to move more than a foot,
    remaining deadly still in a deadly place -- high in the hills.
    At no time would we be anything but carefully concealed, watching these heavily
    armed mountain men, who were lifelong experts on the local terrain, awaiting our
    chance to gun down their leader. It doesn't get a whole lot more dangerous than
    that.
    We were actually in the helicopter, dressed and organized, ready to leave,
    "Redwing is a go," when the mission was called off again. "Turn two!" It was not
    so much that we'd lost track of Sharmak as the fact that the slippery little son of a
    gun had turned up somewhere else.

    We disembarked and wandered back to our quarters. We shed our heavy packs and
    weapons, changed out of our combat gear, cleaned the camouflage cream off our
    faces, and rejoined the human race. The break lasted for two weeks, during which
    time we did a couple of minor missions up in the passes and nearly got our heads
    blown off at least twice.
    I surpassed myself once by nailing down one of the most dangerous terrorists in
    northeast Afghanistan. I had POSIDENT, and I actually saw him make a break for
    it on his own, riding a freakin' bicycle along the track. I didn't shoot him because I
    did not wish to betray our position by opening fire or even moving. We were
    expecting his complete camel train of high explosive to move along this route
    anytime, and we wanted both him and his munitions. At least I didn't emulate the
    actions of a former colleague, who, according to SEAL folklore, fired up the direct
    link and advised a cruising U.S. fighter/bomber of the GPS position. Then he
    watched a five-hundred-pound bomb demolish the terrorist, his camel, and
    everything within fifty yards of him. On this mission, we halted the camel train and
    managed to capture the terrorist and unload the explosive without resorting to such
    wild-and-woolly action.

    Sorry, lefties. But, like we say back home in Texas, a man's gotta do what a man's
    gotta do.
    And so the days passed by, until on Monday morning, June 27, 2005, they located
    Sharmak again. This time it looked really good. By noon the detailed maps and
    photos of the terrain were spread out before us. The intel was excellent, the maps
    weren't bad, the photographs of the terrain passable. We still didn't have a decent
    picture of Sharmak, just the same old head and shoulders, grainy, indistinct. But
    we'd located other killers up here with a lot less, and there was no doubt this time.
    "Redwing is a go!"
    Right after the briefing, Chief Dan Healy said to me, quietly, "This is it, Marcus.
    We're going. Go get the guys ready."
    I gave the crisp reply expected from a team leader to a SEAL CPO. "Okay, Chief.
    We're outta here."
    And I walked out of the briefing room and headed back to our quarters with a lot
    on my mind. I can't quite explain it, but I was assailed by doubts, and that feeling
    of disquiet never left me.
    I'd seen the maps, and they were clear. What I couldn't see was a place to hide. We
    did not have good intel on the vegetation. It was obviously bad and barren way up
    there in the Hindu Kush, around ten thousand feet. You don't need to be a Fellow
    of the Royal Geographic Institute to know this is arid country above the tree line,
    not much growing. Great for climbers, a goddamned nightmare for us.
    The village we were surveying had thirty-two houses. I counted them on the
    satellite picture. But we did not know which one Sharmak was in. Neither did we
    know if the houses were numbered in case we got better intel while we were up
    there.
    We had some pictures of the layout but very little on the surrounding country. We
    had good GPS numbers, very accurate. And we had a short list of possible landing
    zones, unnecessary for the insert, because we'd fast-rope in, but critical for the
    extract.
    I was certain we'd need to blow down a few trees on a lower level of the mountain
    in order to have cover when we left and to bring the helicopters in with the DA
    force if it was required. Barren, treeless mountainscapes are no place to conduct
    secretive landings and takeoffs, not with Taliban rocket men all around. Especially
    the highly trained group that surrounded Sharmak. He was goddamned lethal, and
    he'd proved it, more than once, blowing up the Marines.
    The one aspect of the mission that dominated my thoughts as I walked back to

    meet the guys was that there was no place to hide, no place from which to watch.
    You simply cannot do effective reconnaissance if you can't get into good position.
    And if those mountain cliffs that surrounded the village were as rough and stony as
    I suspected, we'd stick out on those heights like a diamond in a goat's ass.
    And there were likely to be between eighty and two hundred armed warriors
    keeping a very careful lookout on all the land around their boss. I was worried, not
    about the numbers of our enemy but about the problems of staying concealed in
    order to complete the mission. If there was a very limited selection of hiding
    places, we might have to compromise our angle on the village, not to mention our
    distance from it.
    I met Mikey back at the bee hut. I told him we were going in, showed him the
    maps and what photographs we had, and I remember his reply. "Beautiful. Just
    another three days of fun and sun." But I saw his expression change as he looked at
    the pictures, at the obviously very steep gradients, truly horrible terrain, a mountain
    we would have to clomp up and down in order to find cover.
    By this time Axe and Danny had appeared. We briefed them and wandered, a bit
    apprehensively, over to the chow hall for lunch. I had a large bowl of spaghetti.
    Right afterward we went back to dress and get organized. I wore my desert

    bottoms and woodland top, mostly because intel had said the landing zone was
    fairly green and we would drop into an area of trees. I also had a sniper hood.
    Mikey and Danny had their M4 rifles plus grenades; Axe had the Mark 12 .556caliber
    rifle, and I had one as well. We all carried the SIG-Sauer 9mm pistol. We
    elected not to take a heavy weapon, the big twenty-one-pound machine gun M60,
    plus its ammunition. We were already loaded down with gear, and we thought it
    would be too heavy to haul up those cliffs.
    I also took a couple of claymores, which are a kind of high-explosive device with a
    trip wire, to keep any intruder from walking up on us. I'd learned a hard lesson
    about that on my first day, when two Afghans got a lot closer than they should have
    and might easily have finished me.
    We took a big roll of detonator cord to blow the trees for the incoming landing
    zone when the mission was complete or for the insert of a direct action force. At
    the last moment, still worried about this entire venture, I grabbed three extra
    magazines, which gave me a total of eleven, each holding thirty rounds. Eight was
    standard, but there was something about Operation Redwing. It turned out
    everyone felt the same. We all took three extra magazines.
    I also carried an ISLiD (an acronym for image stabilization and light distribution
    unit) for guiding in an incoming helo, plus the spotting scope, and spare batteries
    for everything. Danny had the radio, and Mikey and Axe had the cameras and
    computers.
    We took packed MREs -- beef jerky, chicken noodles, power bars, water -- plus
    peanuts and raisins. The whole lot weighed about forty-five pounds, which we
    considered traveling light. Shane was there to see us away: " 'Bye, dudes, give 'em
    hell."
    All set, we were driven down to the special ops helicopter area, waiting to hear if
    there was a change. That would have been "Turn three!" The third time Redwing
    had been aborted. But this time there was only "Rolex, one hour," which meant we
    were going as soon as it was dark.
    We put down our loads and lay on the runway to wait. I remember it was very cold,
    with snowcaps on the not-too-distant mountains. Mikey assured me he had
    remembered to pack his lucky rock, a sharp-pointed bit of granite which had
    jabbed into his backside for three days on a previous mission when we were in a
    precarious hide and none of us could move even an inch. "Just in case you need to
    stick it up your ass," he added. "Remind you of home."

    And so we waited, in company with a couple of other groups also going out that
    night. The quick reaction force (QRF) was going to Asadabad at the same time. We
    had just done a full photo recon of Asadabad, which they carried with them. The
    deserted Russian base was still there, and Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar
    Province, remained a known dangerous area. It was of course where the Afghan
    mujahideen had almost totally surrounded the base and then proceeded to slaughter
    all of the Russian enlisted men. It was the beginning of the end for the Soviets in
    1989, only one range of mountains over from the spot we were going.
    Finally, the rotor blades began to howl on the helos. Apparently the many moving
    parts of Operation Redwing, so susceptible to change, were still in place. The call
    came through, "Redwing is a go!," and we hoisted up our gear and clambered on
    board the Chinook 47 for the insert, forty-five minutes away to the northeast.
    "Guess this ----er Ben Sharmak is still where we think he is," said Mikey.
    We were joined by five other guys going in to Asadabad, and the other helo took
    off first. Then we lifted off the runway, following them out over the base and
    banking around to our correct course. It was dark now, and I spent the time looking
    at the floor rather than out of the window. Every one of the four of us, Mikey, Axe,
    Danny, and me, made it clear, each in his own way, that we did not have a good
    feeling about this. And I cannot describe how unusual that was. We go into ops

    areas full of gung ho bravado, the way we're trained -- Bring 'em on, we're ready!
    No SEAL would ever admit to being scared of anything. Even if we were, we
    would never say it. We open the door and go outside to face the enemy, whoever
    the hell he might be. Whatever we all felt that night, it was not fear of the enemy,
    although I recognize it might have been fear of the unknown, because we really
    were unsure about what we would encounter in the way of terrain.
    When we reached the ops area, the helicopter made three false inserts, several
    miles apart, coming in very low and hovering over places we had no intention of
    going anywhere near. If the Afghans were watching, they must have been very
    confused -- even we were confused! Going in, pulling out, going back in again,
    hovering, leaving. I'm damn sure, if Sharmak's guys were out there, they could not
    have had the slightest clue where we were, if we were, or how to locate us.
    Finally, we were on the way into our real landing zone. The final call came -"
    Redwing is a go!" The landing controller was calling the shots: "Ten minutes
    out...Three minutes out...One minute...Thirty seconds!...Let's go!"
    The ramp was down, we were open at the rear, the gunner was ready with the M60
    machine gun in case of ambush. It was pitch black outside, no moon, and the rotor
    blades were making that familiar bom-bom-bom-bom on the wind. So far no one
    had fired anything at us.
    The rope snaked from the rear of the aircraft to the ground, positioned expertly so
    our guns could not get caught as we left. Right now no one spoke. Loaded with our
    weapons and gear, we lined up. Danny went first, out into the dark, I followed him,
    then Mikey, then Axe. Each one of us grabbed the rope and slid down fast, wearing
    gloves to avoid the burn. It was a drop of about twenty feet, and there was a stiff,
    biting wind.
    We hit the deck and spread, moving twenty yards away from one another. It was
    really cold up there, and the downward gale from the rotors, beating on us,
    whisking up the dust, made it much worse. We did not know if we were being
    watched by unseen tribesmen, but it was plainly a possibility, out here in this
    lawless rebel-held territory. We heard the howl of the helicopter's engines increase
    as it lifted off. And then it clattered away into the darkness, gaining speed and
    height rapidly as it left this godforsaken escarpment.
    We froze into the landscape for fifteen minutes of total silence. There was not a
    movement, not a single communication among us. And there was not a sound on

    the mountain. This was beyond silence, a stillness beyond the concept of silence,
    like being in outer space. Way down below us we could see two fires, or perhaps
    lanterns, burning, probably about a mile away, goatherds, I hoped.
    The fifteen minutes passed. To my left was the mountain, a great looming mass
    sweeping skyward. To my right was a group of huge, thick trees. All around us
    were low tree stumps and thick foliage.
    We were way below the place where we would ultimately operate, and it was very
    unnerving, because right here anyone could hide out. We couldn't see a damn thing
    and had no idea if there was anyone around. Sixteen years ago, not too far away
    from here, I guess those Russian conscripts sensed something very similar before
    someone slashed their throats.
    Finally, we climbed to our feet. I walked over to Danny and told him to get the
    comms up and let the controllers know we were down. Then I walked up the hill to
    where Mikey and Axe had the big rope which had, absurdly, been cut down and
    dropped from the helicopter.
    This was definitely a mistake. That helo crew was supposed to have taken the rope
    away with them. God knows what they thought we were going to do with it, and I
    was just glad Mikey found it. If he hadn't and we'd left it lying on the ground, it
    might easily have been found by a wandering tribesman or farmer, especially if
    they had heard the helicopter come in. That rope might have rung our death knell,

    signifying, as it surely must, that the American eagle had landed.
    We did not have a shovel, and Mikey and Axe had to cover the rope with trees,
    weeds, and foliage. While they were completing this, I opened up comms to the
    AC-130 Spectre gunship, which I knew was way up there somewhere monitoring
    us. I passed my message succinctly:
    "Sniper Two One, this is Glimmer Three -- preparing to move."
    "Roger that."
    It was the last time I spoke to them. And now we were assembled for our journey
    -- about four miles. Our route was preplanned, along a mountain ridge that
    stretched out into a long right-hand dogleg. Our waypoints were marked on our
    map, and the GPS numbers, detailing the precise position from the satellite, were
    clear, numbered 1, 2, and 3.
    That was just about the only thing that was straightforward. Because the terrain
    was absolutely horrible, the moonless night was still pitch black, and our route was
    along a mountain face so steep, it was a goddamned miracle we didn't all fall off
    and break our necks. Also, it was raining like a bastard and freezing cold. Within
    about ten minutes we were absolutely soaked, like Hell Week.
    It was really slow going, clambering and slipping, stumbling and looking for
    footholds, handholds, anything. All of us fell down the mountain in the first half
    hour. But it was worse for me, because the other three were all expert mountain
    climbers and much smaller and lighter than I was. I was slower over the ground
    because of my size, and I kept falling behind. They had a rest while I was catching
    up, and then when I got there, Mikey signaled to go straight on. No rest for
    Marcus. "---- you, Murphy," I said without even a pretense of good nature.
    In fact, conditions were so bad it was a lousy idea to rest up. You could freeze up
    here, soaked to the skin as we were, in about five minutes. So we kept going,
    always upward, keeping our body heat as high as possible. But it was still
    miserable. We never stopped ducking down under the trees and hanging limbs,
    holding on if we could, trying not to fall off the mountain again.
    In the end we reached the top of the cliff face and found a freshly used trail. It was
    obvious the Taliban had been through here recently in substantial numbers, and this
    was good news for us. It meant Sharmak and his men could not be far away, and
    right now we were hunting them.

    At the top, we suddenly walked out into an enormous flat field of very high grass,
    and the moon came out briefly. The pasture stretched away in front of us like some
    kind of paradise lit up in the pale light. We all stopped in our tracks because it
    looked amazingly beautiful.
    But an enemy could easily have been lurking in that grass, and an instant later we
    ducked down, staying silent. Axe tried to find a path through it, then tried to make
    his own path. But he simply could not. The pasture was too thick, and it nearly
    covered him. Before long he returned and told us, poetically, there in the southeast
    Asian moonlight, in these ancient storied lands right up near the roof of the world,
    "Guys, that was totally ----ing hopeless."
    To our right was the deep valley, somewhere down which our target village was
    located. We'd already hit waypoint 1, and our only option was to find another trail
    and keep moving along the flank of the escarpment. And then, very suddenly, a
    great fog bank rolled in and drifted off the mountaintop beneath us and across the
    valley.
    I remember looking down at it, moonlit clouds, so white, so pure, it looked as if we
    could have walked right across it to another mountain. Through the NODS (night
    optic device) it was a spectacular sight, a vision perhaps of heaven, set in a land of
    hellish undercurrents and flaming hatreds.
    While we stood up there, transfixed by our surroundings, Mikey worked out that
    we were just beyond waypoint 1, and we still somehow had to proceed on our

    northerly course, though not through the high grass. We fanned out and Danny
    found a trail that led around the mountain, more or less where we wanted to go.
    But it was not easy, because by now the moon had disappeared and it was again
    raining like hell.
    We must have gone about another half mile across terrain that was just as bad as
    anything we had encountered all night. Then, unexpectedly, I could smell a house
    and goat manure, even through the rain; an Afghan farmhouse. We had nearly
    walked straight into the front yard. And now we had to be very careful. We ducked
    down, crawling on our hands and knees through thick undergrowth, staying out of
    sight, right on the escarpment.
    Miserable as all this was, conditions were really perfect for a SEAL operation
    behind enemy lines. Without night-vision goggles like ours, people couldn't
    possibly see us. The rain and wind had certainly driven everyone else under cover,
    and anyone still awake probably thought only a raving lunatic could be out there in
    such weather. And they were right. All four of us had taken quite heavy falls,
    probably one in every five hundred yards we traveled. We were covered in mud
    and as wet as BUD/S phase two trainees. It was true. Only a lunatic, or a SEAL,
    could willingly walk around like this.
    We could not see that much ourselves. Nothing except that farmhouse, really. And
    then, quite suddenly, the moon came out again, very bright, and we had to move
    swiftly into the shadows, our cover stolen by that pale, luminous light in the sky.
    We kept going, moving away from the farm, still moving upward on the
    mountainside, through quite reasonable vegetation. But then all of my own
    personal dreads came out and whacked us. We walked straight out of the trees into
    a barren, harsh, sloping hillside, the main escarpment set steeply on a northern rise.
    There was not a tree. Not a bush. Just wet shale, mud, small rocks, and boulders.
    The moon was directly in front of us, casting our long shadows onto the slope.
    This was my nightmare, ever since I first stared at those plans back in the briefing
    room: the four of us starkly silhouetted against a treeless mountain above a
    Taliban-occupied village. We were an Afghan lookout's finest moment,
    unmissable. We were Webb and Davis's worst dream, snipers uncovered, out in the
    open, trapped in nature's spotlight with nowhere to hide.

    "Holy shit," said Mikey.

    7


    An Avalanche of Gunfire

    Down the mountain, from every angle. Axe flanked left, trying to cut off the
    downward trail, firing nonstop. Mikey was blasting away...shouting,..."Marcus, no
    options now, buddy, kill 'em all!"

    We edged back the way we had come, into the shadows cast by the last of the trees.
    It was not far back to waypoint 2, and we took a GPS reading right there. Mikey
    handed over navigational duties to Axe, and I groaned. Moving up and down these
    steep cliffs was really tough for me, but the streamlined, expert mountaineer
    Matthew Axelson could hop around like a ----ing antelope. I reminded him of
    those two correlating facts, and all three of my teammates started laughing.

    For some reason best known to our resident king of Trivial Pursuit, he led us off
    the high mountain ridge and down toward the valley which spread out from the
    elbow of the dogleg. It was as if he had decided to eliminate the dogleg entirely
    and take the straight line directly across to waypoint 3. Which was all fine and
    dandy, except it meant a one-mile walk going steeply downward, followed,
    inevitably, by a one-mile walk going steeply upward. That was the part I was not
    built for.
    Nonetheless that was our new route. After about fifty yards I was struggling. I
    couldn't keep up while going down, never mind up. They could hear me sliding
    and cursing in the rear, and I could hear Axe and Mikey laughing up front. And this
    was not a fitness problem. I was as fit as any of them, and I was not in any way out
    of breath. I was just too big to track a couple of mountain goats. Laws of nature,
    right?
    Our path was inescapably zigzagged because Axe was always trying to find cover,
    stay out of the moonlight, as we grappled our way back up the cliff to waypoint 3.
    We reached the top approximately one hour before daylight. Our GPS numbers
    were correct, as planned back at home base. And right up there on top of this finger
    of pure granite, Mikey picked a spot where we could lay up.
    He chose a position over the brow of the summit, maybe eighty feet down, right on
    the uppermost escarpment. There were trees, some of them close together, but
    directly beyond them was more barren land. We dropped our heavy loads, the four-
    mile journey complete, and tipped the grit and stones out of our boots. They always
    find a way in.
    Medically, we were all okay, no injuries. But we were exhausted after our grueling
    seven-hour hike up and down this freakin' mountain. Especially Mikey and me,
    because we both suffered from insomnia, particularly prepping for an operation
    like this, and we hadn't slept the night before. Plus it was freezing cold, and we

    were still soaked to the skin even though the rain had stopped. So, for that matter,
    was everything we carried with us.
    Danny had the radio up and he informed HQ, and any patrolling aircraft, that we
    were in position and good to go. But this was a little hasty, because right after that
    communication, the moon came out once more, and we swept the area with our
    NODs and couldn't see a damn thing. Not even the village we were supposed to be
    surveying in search of Sharmak. The trees were in the way. And we could not
    move out of the trees because that put us back on exposed barren ground, where
    there were a few very small tree stumps still in the ground but zero decent cover.
    Jesus Christ.
    This was plainly a logging area, maybe abandoned, but a place where a lot of trees
    had been cut down. Away to our right, the night sky above the highest peaks was
    brightening. Dawn was near.
    Danny and I sat on a rock in deep conversation, trying to work out how bad this
    really was and what to do. It was every frogman's dread, an operation where the
    terrain was essentially unknown and turned out to be as bad as or worse than
    anyone had ever dreamed. Danny and I reached identical conclusions. This really
    sucked.
    Mikey came over to talk briefly. And we all stared at the brightness in the sky to
    the east. Lieutenant Murphy, as command controller, called the shot. "We're
    moving in five." And so we picked up our heavy loads once more and set off back
    the way we'd come. After a hundred yards we found a down trail on the other side
    of the ridge, walked below the waypoint, and selected a prime spot in the trees
    overlooking the village, which was more than a mile and a half away.
    We settled in, jamming ourselves against trees and rocks, trying to get into a
    position where we could rest on this almost sheer escarpment. I glugged from my
    water canteen and, to tell the truth, I felt like a plant on the Hanging Gardens of
    Babylon. Danny was in his yoga position, sitting cross-legged like a goddamned
    snake charmer, his back against his tree.
    Axe, ever alert, stood guard, blending into the mountain to my left, his rifle primed
    despite the quiet. He was probably doing a New York Times crossword which he'd
    memorized word for word in his head. He did not get much peace, though. My tree
    turned out to be some type of a mulberry, and since I could not even doze off, I
    spent the time hurling the berries at Axe on account of his shaky attitude during the
    climb back up the mountain.
    Then another major fog bank rolled in and settled over all of us and the valley
    below. There was again no way to see the village, and the trouble with fog banks is
    they are likely to turn up in the same place often. It was plain we could not remain
    here in effective operational mode. Once more we had to leave.
    Mikey and Axe were poring over the maps and scanning the mountain terrain
    above us, where there was less fog. Danny and I had to keep looking toward the
    village, trying to use the glass, peering at whatever there was to be seen. Which
    was nothing. Finally Mikey said he was leaving, alone, just taking his rifle, in
    search of a better spot. Then he changed his mind and took Axe with him. And I
    didn't blame him. This place was enough to give anyone the creeps, because you
    never knew who might be watching.
    Danny and I waited, and the sun climbed high over the peaks and began to dry our
    wet clothes. The others came back after maybe an hour, and Mikey said they had
    found an excellent place for observing the village but that cover was sparse. I think
    he considered there would be some heightened risk in this operation, no matter
    what, because of the terrain. But if we did not take that risk we'd likely be up here
    till Christmas.
    And once more we all hoisted our packs and set off to the new hiding place. It was

    only about a thousand yards, but it took us an hour, moving along, and then up, the

    mountain, right onto that granite finger at the end of the ridge. And when we got
    there, I had to agree it was perfect, offering a brilliant angle on the village for the
    lens, the spotting scope, and the bullet. It had sensational all-around vision. If
    Sharmak and his gang of villains were there, we'd get him. As Mikey observed,
    "That guy couldn't get to the goddamned communal shitter without us seeing
    him."
    Danny's reply was not suitable for a family story such as this, entailing as it did the
    possible blasting of one of Sharmak's principal working parts.
    I stood there gazing at our new mountain stronghold with its massive, sheer drops
    all around. It was perfect, but it was also highly dangerous. If an attacking force
    came up on us, especially at night, we'd have no choice but to fight our way out. If
    someone started firing RPGs at us, we'd all be blown to pieces. There was only
    one way out, the way we had come. A skilled strategist like Sharmak could have
    blockaded us out here on this barren, stony point, and we'd have needed to kill a
    lot of guys to get out. And there was the ever present, disquieting thought that
    Sharmak's buddy bin Laden might also be in the area -- with probably the biggest
    al Qaeda force we'd ever faced.
    But in its way, this place was perfect, with the most commanding views any
    surveillance team could wish for. We just somehow had to burrow into this loose,
    rocky shale, keep our heads down, stay camouflaged, and concentrate. We'd be
    okay as long as no one saw us. But I still had a very uneasy feeling. So did the
    others.
    We all had something to eat, more water, and then we lay there facedown, quietly
    steaming as the sun dried our clothes. It was now hotter than hell, and I was lying
    under a felled log, jammed into the curve right against the wood, my feet out
    behind me. But unhappily, I was on top of a stinging nettle that was driving me
    mad. I could not, of course, move one muscle. Who knew if a pair of long-range
    binoculars was trained on us at this very moment?
    I was on glass, silently using the scope and binos. Murph was fifty yards away,
    positioned higher than me among some rocks. Axe was to my right, perched in an
    old tree stump hollow. Danny was down to the left in the last of the trees with the
    radio, hunkered down, the only one of us with any shade from the burning sun. It
    was approaching noon, and the sun was directly in the south, high, really high,
    almost straight above us.
    We could not be seen from below. And there was definitely no human being level
    with or above us. At least, not on this SEAL's mountain. We only had to wait, stay
    very still, shut up, and concentrate, four disciplines at which we were all expert.
    It was deathly quiet up there, just as silent as the night. And the silence was broken
    only by the occasional terse exchange between one SEAL and another, usually
    aimed toward Danny's privileged position in the shade, out of the direct rays of the
    sweltering mountain sun. They were not particularly professional exchanges either,
    lacking grace and understanding.
    "Hey, Danny, wanna switch places?"
    "---- you!"
    That type of thing. Nothing else. Not another sound to drift into the mountain air.
    But suddenly I did hear a sound, which carried directly to the southwest side of my
    felled tree. The unmistakable noise of soft footsteps right above me. Jesus Christ! I
    was lucky I didn't need to change my pants.
    And just as suddenly, there was a guy, wearing a turban and carrying a ----ing ax.
    He jumped off the log, right over the top of me. I damn near fainted with shock. I
    just wasn't expecting it. I wheeled around, grabbed my rifle, and pointed it straight
    at him, which I considered might at least discourage him from beheading me. He

    was plainly more startled than I was, and he dropped the ax.
    And then I saw the other Axe, standing up and aiming his rifle right at the guy's


    turban. "You must have seen him," I snapped at him. "Why the hell didn't you tell
    me? He nearly gave me a heart attack."
    "Just didn't want to make any noise," said Axe. "I drew a bead on him and kept
    him in my sights until he reached your log. One false move, I'd have killed him
    right there."
    I told the guy to siddown, against the log. And then something ridiculous
    happened. About a hundred goats, all with little bells around their necks, came
    trotting up the mountain, swarming all around the spot where we were now
    standing. Then up over the hill came two more guys. All of us were now
    surrounded by goats. And I motioned for them to join their colleague on the ground
    against the log. That's the Afghans, not the goats.
    Finally, Mikey and Danny made their way up through the bleating herd and saw
    immediately what was going on. Like me, they noted that one of the three was just
    a kid, around fourteen years old. I tried to ask them if they were Taliban, and they
    all shook their heads, the older men saying, in English, "No Tali-ban...no Taliban."
    I gave the kid one of my power bars, and he scowled at me. Just put it down on a
    rock next to him, with no thanks or nod of appreciation. The two adults glared at
    us, making it obvious they disliked us intensely. Of course, they were probably
    wondering what the hell we were doing wandering about their farm with enough
    weapons and ammunition to conquer an entire Afghan province.
    The question was, What did we do now? They were very obviously goatherds,
    farmers from the high country. Or, as it states in the pages of the Geneva
    Convention, unarmed civilians. The strictly correct military decision would still be
    to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions.
    How could we know if they were affiliated with a Taliban militia group or sworn
    by some tribal blood pact to inform the Taliban leaders of anything suspicious-
    looking they found in the mountains? And, oh boy, were we suspicious-looking.
    The hard fact was, if these three Afghan scarecrows ran off to find Sharmak and his
    men, we were going to be in serious trouble, trapped out here on this mountain
    ridge. The military decision was clear: these guys could not leave there alive. I just
    stood there, looking at their filthy beards, rough skin, gnarled hands, and hard,
    angry faces. These guys did not like us. They showed no aggression, but neither
    did they offer or want the hand of friendship.
    Axelson was our resident academic as well as our Trivial Pursuit king. And Mikey
    asked him what he considered we should do. "I think we should kill them, because
    we can't let them go," he replied, with the pure, simple logic of the born intellect.
    "And you, Danny?"
    "I don't really give a shit what we do," he said. "You want me to kill 'em, I'll kill
    'em. Just give me the word. I only work here."
    "Marcus?"
    "Well, until right now I'd assumed killing 'em was our only option. I'd like to hear
    what you think, Murph."
    Mikey was thoughtful. "Listen, Marcus. If we kill them, someone will find their
    bodies real quick. For a start, these ----ing goats are just going to hang around.
    And when these guys don't get home for their dinner, their friends and relatives are
    going to head straight out to look for them, especially for this fourteen-year-old.
    The main problem is the goats. Because they can't be hidden, and that's where
    people will look.
    "When they find the bodies, the Taliban leaders will sing to the Afghan media. The
    media in the U.S.A. will latch on to it and write stuff about the brutish U.S. Armed
    Forces. Very shortly after that, we'll be charged with murder. The murder of

    innocent unarmed Afghan farmers."
    I had to admit, I had not really thought about it quite like that. But there was a
    terrible reality about Mikey's words. Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid

    of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back
    in the U.S.A.? Yes. And I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many, many years in
    a U.S. civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.
    And yet...as a highly trained member of the U.S. Special Forces, deep in my
    warrior's soul I knew it was nuts to let these goatherds go. I tried to imagine what
    the great military figures of the past would have done. Napoleon? Patton? Omar
    Bradley? MacArthur? Would they have made the ice-cold military decision to
    execute these cats because they posed a clear and present danger to their men?
    If these Afghans blew the whistle on us, we might all be killed, right out here on
    this rocky, burning-hot promontory, thousands and thousands of miles from home,
    light-years from help. The potential force against us was too great. To let these
    guys go on their way was military suicide.
    All we knew was Sharmak had between 80 and 200 armed men. I remember taking
    the middle number, 140, and asking myself how I liked the odds of 140 to 4. That's
    35 to 1. Not much. I looked at Mikey and told him, "Murph, we gotta get some
    advice."
    We both turned to Danny, who had fired up the comms system and was valiantly
    trying to get through to HQ. We could see him becoming very frustrated, like all
    comms operators do when they cannot get a connection. He kept trying, and we
    were rapidly coming to the conclusion the goddamned radio was up the creek.
    "That thing need new batteries?" I asked him.
    "No. It's fine, but they won't ----ing answer me."
    The minutes went by. The goatherds sat still, Axe and Murph with their rifles
    aimed straight at them, Danny acting like he could have thrown the comms system
    over the goddamned cliff.
    "They won't answer," he said through gritted teeth. "I don't know why. It's like no
    one's there."
    "There must be someone there," said Murph, and I could hear the anxiety in his
    voice.
    "Well, there isn't," said Danny.
    "Murphy's god-awful law," I said. "Not you, Mikey, that other prick, the god of
    screwups."
    No one laughed. Not even me. And the dull realization dawned on us: we were on
    our own and had to make our own decision.
    Mike Murphy said quietly, "We've got three options. We plainly don't want to
    shoot these guys because of the noise. So, number one, we could just kill them
    quietly and hurl the bodies over the edge. That's probably a thousand-foot drop.
    Number two is we kill them right here, cover 'em up as best we can with rocks and
    dirt.
    "Either way we get the hell out and say nothing. Not even when the story comes
    out about the murdered Afghan goatherds. And some ----ing headline back home
    which reads, `Navy SEALs Under Suspicion.'
    "Number three, we turn 'em loose, and still get the hell out, in case the Taliban
    come looking."
    He stared at us. I can remember it just like it was yesterday. Axe said firmly,
    "We're not murderers. No matter what we do. We're on active duty behind enemy
    lines, sent here by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we
    can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose
    would be wrong."
    If this came to a vote, as it might, Axe was going to recommend the execution of

    the three Afghans. And in my soul, I knew he was right. We could not possibly turn
    them loose. But my trouble is, I have another soul. My Christian soul. And it was
    crowding in on me. Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would
    be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood. And the idea of doing that

    and then covering our tracks and slinking away like criminals, denying everything,
    would make it more wrong.
    To be honest, I'd have been happier to stand 'em up and shoot them right out in
    front. And then leave them. They'd just be three guys who'd found themselves in
    the wrong place at the wrong time. Casualties of war. And we'd just have to defend
    ourselves when our own media and politicians back in the U.S.A. tried to hang us
    on a murder charge.
    None of us liked the sneaky options. I could tell that. I guess all four of us were
    Christians, and if we were thinking like ordinary law-abiding U.S. citizens, we
    would find it very hard to carry out the imperative military decision, the overriding
    one, the decision any great commander would have made: these guys can never
    leave this place alive. The possible consequences of that were unacceptable.
    Militarily.
    Lieutenant Murphy said, "Axe?"
    "No choice." We all knew what he meant.
    "Danny?"
    "As before. I don't give a shit what you decide. Just tell me what to do."
    "Marcus?"
    "I don't know, Mikey."
    "Well, let me tell you one more time. If we kill these guys we have to be straight
    about it. Report what we did. We can't sneak around this. Just so you all
    understand, their bodies will be found, the Taliban will use it to the max. They'll
    get it in the papers, and the U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy. We
    will almost certainly be charged with murder. I don't know how you guys feel
    about that...Marcus, I'll go with you. Call it."
    I just stood there. I looked again at these sullen Afghan farmers. Not one of them
    tried to say a word to us. They didn't need to. Their glowering stares said plenty.
    We didn't have rope to bind them. Tying them up to give us more time to establish
    a new position wasn't an option.
    I looked Mikey right in the eye, and I said, "We gotta let 'em go."
    It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my
    life. I must have been out of my mind. I had actually cast a vote which I knew
    could sign our death warrant. I'd turned into a ----ing liberal, a half-assed, no-
    logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.
    At least, that's how I look back on those moments now. Probably not then, but for
    nearly every waking hour of my life since. No night passes when I don't wake in a
    cold sweat thinking of those moments on that mountain. I'll never get over it. I
    cannot get over it. The deciding vote was mine, and it will haunt me till they rest
    me in an East Texas grave.
    Mikey nodded. "Okay," he said, "I guess that's two votes to one, Danny abstains.
    We gotta let 'em go."
    I remember no one said anything. We could just hear the short staccato sounds of
    the goats: ba-aaaa...baaa...baaa. And the tinkling of the little bells. It provided a
    fitting background chorus to a decision which had been made in ----ing fairyland.
    Not on the battlefield where we, like it or not, most certainly were.
    Axe said again, "We're not murderers. And we would not have been murderers,
    whatever we'd done."
    Mikey was sympathetic to his view. He just said, "I know, Axe, I know, buddy. But
    we just took a vote."

    I motioned for the three goatherds to get up, and I signaled them with my rifle to
    go on their way. They never gave one nod or smile of gratitude. And they surely
    knew we might very well have killed them. They turned toward the higher ground
    behind us.
    I can see them now. They put their hands behind their backs in that peculiar Afghan

    way and broke into a very fast jog, up the steep gradient, the goats around us now
    trotting along to join them. From somewhere, a skinny, mangy brown dog appeared
    dolefully and joined the kid. That dog was a gruesome Afghan reminder of my own
    robust chocolate Labrador, Emma, back home on the ranch, always bursting with
    health and joy.
    I guess that's when I woke up and stopped worrying about the goddamned
    American liberals. "This is bad," I said. "This is real bad. What the ---- are we
    doing?"
    Axe shook his head. Danny shrugged. Mikey, to be fair, looked as if he had seen a
    ghost. Like me, he was a man who knew a massive mistake had just been made.
    More chilling than anything we had ever done together. Where were those guys
    headed? Were we crazy or what?
    Thoughts raced through my mind. We'd had no comms, no one we could turn to
    for advice. Thus far we had no semblance of a target in the village. We were in a
    very exposed position, and we appeared to have no access to air support. We
    couldn't even report in. Worse yet, we had no clue as to where the goatherds were
    headed. When things go this bad, it's never one thing. It's every damn thing.
    We watched them go, disappearing up the mountain, still running, still with their
    hands behind their backs. And the sense that we had done something terrible by
    letting them go was all-pervading. I could just tell. Not one of us was able to speak.
    We were like four zombies, hardly knowing whether to crash back into our former
    surveillance spots or leave right away.
    "What now?" asked Danny.
    Mikey began to gather his gear. "Move in five," he said.
    We packed up our stuff, and right there in the noonday sun, we watched the
    goatherds, far on the high horizon, finally disappear from view. By my watch, it
    was precisely nineteen minutes after their departure, and the mood of sheer gloom
    enveloped us all.
    We set off up the mountain, following in the hoofprints of the goats and their
    masters. We moved as fast as we could, but it took us between forty minutes and
    one hour to cover the same steep ground. At the top, we could no longer see them.
    Mountain goats, mountain herders. They were all the goddamned same, and they
    could move like rockets up in the passes.
    We searched around for the trail we had arrived by, found it, and set off back
    toward the initial spot, the one we had pulled out of because of the poor angle on
    the village and then the dense fog bank. We tried the radio and still could not make
    a connection with home base.
    Our offensive policy was in pieces. But we were headed for probably the best
    defensive position we had found since we got here, on the brink of the mountain
    wall, maybe forty yards from the summit, with tree cover and decent concealment.
    Right now we sensed we must remain in strictly defensive mode, lie low for a
    while and hope the Taliban had not been alerted or if they had that we would be too
    well hidden for them to locate us. We were excellent practitioners of lying low and
    hiding.
    We walked on along the side of the mountain, and I have to say the place looked
    kind of different in broad daylight. But its virtues were still there. Even from the
    top of the escarpment we would be damn near impossible to see.
    We climbed down and took up our precise old positions. We were still essentially

    carrying out our mission, but we remained on the highest possible alert for Taliban
    fighters. Below me, maybe thirty yards to my right, looking up the hill, Danny
    slipped neatly into his yoga tree, cross-legged, still looking like a snake charmer. I
    got myself wedged into the old mulberry tree, where I reapplied my camouflage
    cream and melted into the landscape.
    Below me on the left, same distance as Danny, was Axe with our heaviest rifle.

    Mikey was right below me, maybe ten yards, jammed into the lee of a boulder.
    Above us the mountain was nearly sheer, then it went flat for a few yards, then it
    angled sharply up to the top. I'd tried looking down from there, so had Murph, and
    we were agreed, you could not really see anything over the small outward ridge
    which protected us.
    For the moment, we were safe. Axe had the glass for twenty minutes, and then I
    took over for the next twenty minutes. Nothing stirred in the village. It had now
    been more than an hour and a half since we turned the goatherds loose. And it was
    still quiet and peaceful, hardly a breath of wind. And by Christ it was hot.
    Mikey was closest to me when he suddenly whispered, "Guys, I've got an idea."
    "What is it, sir," I asked, suddenly formal, as if our situation demanded some
    respect for the man who must ultimately take command.
    "I'm going down to the village, see if I can borrow a phone!"
    "Beautiful," said Axe. "See if you can pick me up a sandwich."
    "Sure," said Mikey. "What'll it be? Mule dung or goat's hoof?"
    "Hold the mayo," growled Axe.
    The jokes weren't that great, I know. But perched up there on this Afghan rock
    face, poised to fend off an attacking army, I thought they were only just shy of
    grade-one hilarity.
    It was, I suppose, a sign of nerves, like cracking a one-liner on your deathbed. But
    it showed we all felt better now; not absolutely A-OK, but cheerful enough to get
    to our work and toss out the occasional light remark. More like our old selves,
    right? Anyhow, I said I was just going to close my eyes for a short while, and I
    pulled my camouflage hat down over my eyes and tried to nod off, despite my
    pounding heart, which I could not slow down.
    Around ten minutes more passed. Suddenly I heard Mikey make a familiar alert
    sound...Sssst! Sssst! I lifted up my hat and instinctively looked left, over my
    portside quarter, to the spot where I knew Axe would be covering our flank. And he
    was right there, rigid, in firing position, his rifle aimed straight up the mountain.
    I twisted around to look directly behind me. Mikey was staring wide-eyed up the
    hill, calling orders, instructing Danny to call in immediate backup from HQ if he
    could make the radio work. He saw I was on the case, looked hard at me, and
    pointed straight up the hill, urging me with hand signals to do the same.
    I fixed my Mark 12 in firing position, pulled my head back a few inches, and
    looked up the hill. Lined along the top were between eighty and a hundred heavily
    armed Taliban warriors, each one of them with an AK-47 pointing downward.
    Some were carrying rocket-propelled grenades. To the right and to the left they
    were starting to move down our flanks. I knew they could see past me but not at
    me. They could not have seen Axe or Danny. I was unsure whether they had seen
    Mikey.
    My heart dropped directly into my stomach. And I cursed those ----ing goatherds
    to hell, and myself for not executing them when every military codebook ever
    written had taught me otherwise. Not to mention my own raging instincts, which
    had told me to go with Axe and execute them. And let the liberals go to hell in a
    mule cart, and take with them all of their ----ing know-nothing rules of etiquette
    in war and human rights and whatever other bullshit makes 'em happy. You want
    to charge us with murder? Well, ----ing do it. But at least we'll be alive to answer

    it. This way really sucks.
    I pressed back against my tree. I was still sure they had not seen me, but their
    intention was to outflank us on both wings. I could see that. I scanned the ground
    directly above me. The hilltop still swarmed with armed men. I thought there were
    more than before. There was no escape by going straight up, and no possibility of
    moving left or right. Essentially they had us trapped, if they had spotted us. I still
    was unsure.

    And so far not a shot had been fired. I looked up the hill again at one single tree
    above and to my left, maybe twenty yards away. And I thought I saw a movement.
    Then it was confirmed, first by a turban, then by an AK-47, its barrel pointed in my
    general direction though not directly at me.
    I tightened my grip on the trusty rifle and moved it slightly in the direction of the
    tree. Whoever it was still could not see me because I was in a great spot, well
    hidden. I kept perfectly still, that's goddamned motionless, like a marble statue.
    I checked with Mikey, who also had not moved. Then I checked the tree again, and
    this time that turban was around it. A hook-nosed Taliban warrior was peering
    straight at me through black eyes above a thick black beard. The barrel of his AK47
    was pointed right at my head. Had he seen me? Would he open fire? How did
    the liberals feel about my position? No time, I guess. I fired once, blew his head
    off.
    And at that moment all hell broke loose. The Taliban unleashed an avalanche of
    gunfire at us, straight down the mountain, from every angle. Axe flanked left,
    trying to cut off the downward trail, firing nonstop. Mikey was blasting away
    straight over my head with everything he had. Danny was firing at them, trying to
    aim with one hand, desperately trying to rev up the radio with the other.
    I could hear Mikey shouting, "Danny, Danny, for Christ's sake, get that ----ing
    thing working...Marcus, no options now, buddy, kill 'em all!"
    But now the enemy gunfire seemed to center on our two flank men. I could see the
    dust and rock shards kicking up all around us. The sound of AK-47s absolutely
    filled the air, deafening. I could see the Taliban guys falling all along the ridge. No
    one can shoot like us. I stayed right where I was, in my original position, and I still
    seemed to be taking less fire than the others. But in the next couple of minutes they
    had identified my position, and the volume of fire directly at me was increasing.
    This was bad. Very bad.
    I could see Axe was acquiring his targets quicker than I was because he had an
    extra scope. I should have had one too, but for some reason I had not fitted it.
    Right now all four of us were really amped up. We knew how to conduct a firefight
    like this, but we needed to cut down the enemy numbers, nail a few of these
    bastards real quick, give ourselves a better chance. It was hard for them to get us
    from directly above, which meant the flanks were our danger. I could see two of
    them making their way down, right and left.
    Axe shot one of them, but it was bad to the right. They were shooting in a kind of
    frenzy but, thank Christ, missing. I guess we were too. And suddenly I was taking
    heavy fire myself. Bullets were slamming into the tree trunk, hitting rocks all
    around me. The bullets were somehow coming in from the sides.
    I called down to Mikey, "We'll take 'em, but we might just need a new spot."
    "Roger that," he yelled back. Like me, he could see the speed at which they were
    moving up into the attack. We'd been shooting them for all of five or six minutes,
    but every time we cleared that ridge high above us, it filled up again. It was as if
    they had reinforcements somewhere over the ridge, just waiting to come up to the
    front line. Whichever way we looked at it, they had a ton of guys trying to kill four
    SEALs.
    At this point our options were nonexistent. We still could not charge the top of the

    mountain, because they'd cut us down like dogs. They had us left, and they had us
    right. We were boxed in on three sides, and there was never, not even for a couple
    of seconds, a lull in the gunfire. And we could not even see half of them or tell
    where the bullets were coming from. They had every angle on us.
    All four of us just kept banging away, cutting 'em down, watching them fall,
    slamming a new magazine into the breech, somehow holding them at bay. But this
    was impossible. We had to give up this high ground, and I had to get close enough
    to Mikey to agree on a strategy, hopefully to save our lives.

    I started to move, but Mikey, like the brilliant officer he was, had appreciated the
    situation and already called it. "Fall back!"
    Fall back! More like fall off -- the freakin' mountain, that is; a nearly sheer drop,
    right behind us, God knows how far down. But an order's an order. I grabbed my
    gear and took a sideways step, trying to zigzag down the gradient. But gravity
    made the decision for me, and I fell headlong down the mountain, completing a
    full forward flip and somehow landing on my back, still going fast, heels flailing
    for a foothold.
    At least I thought I was going fast, but Murphy was right behind me. I could tell it
    was him because of the bright red New York City fireman's patch he'd worn since
    9/11. That was actually all I saw.
    "See you at the bottom!" I yelled. But right then I hit a tree, and Mikey went past
    me like a bullet. I was going slower now, and I tried to take a step, but I fell again,
    and on I went, catching up to Mikey now, crashing, tumbling over the ground like
    we were both bouncing through a pinball machine.
    Ahead of us was a copse of trees on a slightly less steep gradient, and I knew this
    was our last hope before we plunged into the void. I had to grab something,
    anything. So did Mikey, and I could see him up ahead, grabbing at tree limbs,
    snapping them off, and still plummeting downward.
    In a split second I knew that nothing could save either of us, we'd surely break our
    backs or necks and then the Taliban would shoot us without mercy, as we would
    expect. But right now, entering the copse of trees at what felt like seventy miles an
    hour, my mind was in overdrive.
    Almost everything had been ripped away from me in the fall, everything except my
    ammunition and grenades -- all my packs, the medical stuff, food, water, comms,
    phone. I'd even lost my helmet with the flag of Texas painted on it. I was damned
    if I wanted some ----ing terrorist wearing that.
    I'd seen Mikey's radio aerial ripped off as we crashed downward. And that was not
    good. My gun strap had been ripped off me and my rifle whipped away. The
    trouble was, the terrain beyond the tree copse was completely unknown to us,
    because we could not see it from above. If we had, we might never have jumped;
    the ground just swept upward and then ducked away downward, inverted, like a
    goddamned ski jump.
    I rocketed up the lip of that back slope making about eighty knots, on my back,
    feetfirst. In the air I made two complete backflips and I landed again feet first, on
    my back, still coming down the cliff face like a howitzer shell. And at that moment
    I knew there was a God.
    First of all, I appeared not to be dead, which was right up there with Jesus walking
    on the water. But even more amazing was I could see my rifle not two feet from
    my right hand, as if God Himself had reached down to me and given me
    hope. Marcus, I heard Him say, you're gonna need this. At least, I think I heard
    Him. In fact, I swear to God I heard Him. Because this was a miracle, no doubt in
    my mind. And I had not even had time to say my prayers.
    I didn't know how far down we'd fallen, but it must have been two or three
    hundred yards. And we were both still going very fast. I could see Mikey up ahead,

    and I honestly did not know whether he was dead or alive. It was just a person
    crashing through the dirt and boulders. If he had not broken every bone in his body,
    that too was a miracle.
    Me? I was too battered to hurt, and I could still see my rifle tumbling down beside
    me. That rifle never strayed more than two feet from my hand throughout this
    death-defying fall. And I'll always know it was guided by the hand of God.
    Because there is no other explanation.
    We hit the bottom, both of us landing with terrific impact, like we'd jumped off a
    goddamned skyscraper. It shook the wind out of me, and I gasped for breath, trying

    to work out how badly injured I was. My right shoulder hurt, my back hurt, and on
    one side of my face, the skin had been more or less scoured away. I was covered in
    blood and bruised to hell.
    But I could stand, which was actually a really bad idea, because then the RPGs
    began to arrive, landing close, and I went down again. They exploded more or less
    harmlessly but sent up clouds of dust, shale, and wood shards from the trees.
    Mikey was next to me, maybe fifteen feet away, and we picked ourselves up from
    the ground.
    He still had his rifle strapped on. Mine was resting at my feet. I grabbed it, and I
    heard Murphy shout through the din of explosions, "You good?"
    I turned to him, and his entire face was black with dust. Even his goddamned teeth
    were black. "You look like shit, man," I told him. "Fix yourself up!"
    Despite everything, Mikey laughed, and then I noticed he'd been shot during the
    fall. There was blood pumping out of his stomach. But just then there was a
    thunderous explosion from one of the grenades, too close, much too close. We both
    wheeled around in the swirling dust and smoke, and there behind us were two large
    logs, actually felled trees.
    They were crossed over at the ends, like a pair of giant chopsticks, facing up the
    mountain, and we turned simultaneously and sprinted for cover. We cleared the
    logs and crashed down behind them, safe from gunfire attack for the moment. We
    were both still armed and ready to fight. I took the right-hand side, Mikey center
    left, guarding both the head-on approach and the flank.
    We could see them plainly now, swarming down the flanks of the cliff we had just
    crashed down. They were moving very fast, though not nearly as fast as we had.
    Mikey had a pretty good line on them, and mine wasn't bad. We opened fire
    straight at them, picking them off one by one as they moved in on us. Trouble was,
    there were so many, and it didn't seem to matter how many we killed, they just
    kept coming. I remember thinking that the two hundred estimate was a lot closer
    than the eighty minimum we had been advised.
    And this must have been Sharmak's work. Because these guys were not really
    marksmen, were using marginal rifles pretty recklessly, but nonetheless followed
    the military rules for this type of assault. They advanced down the side of the
    battlefield, trying to outflank their enemy, always attempting to get a 360-degree
    cover on their target. We were surely slowing their progress down, but we weren't
    stopping them.
    The fire never slackened for five minutes. They had sustained, nonstop, that
    opening volley, the one fired way back up the mountain when they could not see
    their target. They had blasted away at us all the way down to these logs, and they
    had augmented their fire with aimed rocket-propelled grenades. These guys were
    not being led by some mad-eyed hysteric, they were being led by someone who
    understood the rudiments of what he was doing. Understood them well. Too well.
    The ----er. And now they had us pinned down behind the logs, and, as ever, the
    bullets were flying, but we were somehow getting the better of the exchanges.
    Mikey was ignoring his wound and fighting like a SEAL officer should,

    uncompromising, steady, hard-eyed, and professional. I could see the guys on that
    left flank dropping down in their tracks as they raced toward us. On my side, over
    on the right, the ground was just a little flatter, with trees, and there did not seem to
    be so many of them. Every time they moved, I shot 'em.
    It was probably clear to them that Mikey and I could not be dislodged as long as
    the big logs covered us. And that's when they went to their biggest barrage of
    RPGs yet. These damn things, trailing that familiar white smoke, were unleashed at
    us from farther up the mountain. They landed to the front and the side but not
    behind, and they caused a tidal wave of dirt, rocks, and smoke, showering us with
    the stuff, robbing us of our vision.

    Our heads went down, and I asked Mikey where the hell were Axe and Danny, and
    of course neither of us knew. All we knew was they were up the mountain, not yet
    having jumped, as we had.
    "Guess Axe must have dug in and kept fighting out on the left," he said. "Danny's
    got a better chance of radio contact high up than he would down here."
    We risked a look up through the gloom, and we saw a figure plummeting down the
    mountain, just to the left of where we had fallen. Axe, no doubt, but could he
    survive that fall? He was on the first slope before the trees, and a second later he
    hurtled over the ski jump, flipped, and crashed on down the almost sheer cliff face.
    The gradient saved him, as it had saved Mikey and me, the way the steep mountain
    saves a ski jumper, enabling him to continue down at high speed without a terminal
    collision with flat ground.
    Axe arrived in one piece, stunned and disoriented. But the Taliban could see him
    now, and they opened fire on him as he lay on the ground. "Run, Axe...right here,
    buddy, run!" yelled Murph, top of his lungs.
    And Axe recovered his senses real quick, bullets flying around him, and he cleared
    those logs and crashed into our hide, landing on his back. It's unbelievable what
    you can do when the threat to your own life is that bad.
    He took the far left, slammed a new magazine into the breech, and started fighting,
    never missed a beat, hammering away at our most vulnerable point of enemy
    attack. The three of us just kept going, shooting them down, hoping and praying
    their numbers would lessen, that we had punched a hole in their assault. But it sure
    as hell never seemed like it. Those guys were still swarming, still firing. And the
    noise was still deafening.
    The question was, Where was Danny? Was that little mountain lion still fighting,
    still trying to make contact, as he pounded away at Sharmak's troops? Was he still
    trying to get through to HQ? None of us knew, but the answer was not long in
    arriving. From high up on the right on the main cliff face there was a sudden,
    unusual movement. Someone was falling, and it had to be Danny.
    The flailing body crashed through the high woods and flipped at the ski jump,
    tumbling, tumbling, all the way to the bottom, where it landed with a sickening
    thump. Just as we all had. But Danny never moved, just lay there, either stunned or
    dead. And the folklore of the brotherhood stood starkly before both Mikey and
    me: No SEAL was ever left alone to die on the battlefield. No SEAL.
    I dropped my rifle and cleared the log in one bound. Mikey came right after me.
    Axe kept firing, trying to give us cover, as we ducked down and ran fast across the
    flat ground to the base of the cliff. Mikey was still pouring blood from his stomach,
    and I felt like I had a broken back, low down, base of my spine.
    We reached Danny together, hoisted him up, and manhandled him back to the logs,
    dragging him into what passed for safety around here. They fired at us from the
    heights all the way across that lethal ground, but no one got hit, and somehow,
    against truly staggering odds, we were all still going, all in one piece, except for
    the shot Mikey took.

    As the resident medic, I should have been able to help, but all my stuff had been
    ripped away in the fall, and there was no time to do anything except shoot these
    bastards who carried AK-47s and hope to Christ they'd give up. Or at least run out
    of those RPGs. They could hurt someone if they weren't careful. ----ers.
    Right then, I was confident we were going to make it. The ground fell away quite
    sharply behind us, but way below was our target village, and it was on flat ground,
    with sturdy-looking houses. Cover, that was all we needed, with our enemy caught
    flat-footed on flat ground. We'd be all right. We'd get 'em.
    Danny fought back, cleared his head, and tried to get up. But his face was rigid. He
    was in terrible pain. And then I saw the blood pouring out of his hand.
    "I've been shot, Marcus, can you help me?" he said.

    "We've all been shot," replied Mikey. "Can you fight?"
    I stared at Danny's right hand. His thumb had been blown right off. And I saw him
    grit his teeth and nod, sweat streaming down his blackened face. He adjusted his
    rifle, banged in a new magazine with the butt of his hand, and took his place in the
    center of our little gun line. Then he turned to face the enemy once more. He was a
    bullmastiff, glaring up the mountain, and he opened fire with everything he had.
    Danny, Mikey, and Axe blasted that left flank while I held the right. The fire was
    still fierce on all sides, but we sensed there were more dead Afghans to the left than
    there were to the right. Murph shouted, "We're going for the higher ground, this
    side." And with all four barrels blazing, we tried to storm that left flank, get a
    foothold on the steep slope, maybe even fight our way back to the top if we could
    kill enough of them.
    But they also wanted the higher ground, and they reinforced their right flank,
    driving down from the top, anything to stop us getting that upper hand. We must
    have killed fifty or more of them, and all four of us were still fighting. I guess they
    probably noticed that, because they were prepared to fight to the last man to hold
    our left, their right.
    There were so many of them, and we found ourselves slipping inexorably back
    down the hill as the turbaned warriors closed in on us, driving us back by sheer
    weight of numbers, sheer volume of fire. When they loosed off another battery of
    RPGs, we had no other option but to retreat and dive back behind the crossed logs
    before they blew our heads off.
    God only knew the size of whatever arms cache they were drawing ordnance from.
    But we were just finding out what a force Sharmak and his guys really were:
    trained, heavily armed, fearless, and strategically on the ball. Not quite what we
    expected when we first landed at Bagram.
    Back behind the logs, we kept going, mowing them down on the flanks whenever
    we could get a clear shot. But again, the inflexible, unswerving progress of
    Sharmak's forces coming down the escarpment after us was simply too
    overwhelming. Not so much due to the volume of fire but because of their
    irresistible drive down the left and right of our position.
    The logs gave us good cover from the front and not bad to ninety degrees. But once
    they got past that, firing from slightly behind us, on both sides -- well, that was the
    reason we jumped from the heights in the first place, risking our necks, not
    knowing when or even if we would land on reasonable ground.
    There were not enough of us to protect our flanks. We were too occupied defending
    our position against a head-on attack. I suppose the goatherds had told them we
    were only four, and Sharmak swiftly guessed we would be vulnerable on the
    wings.
    I'm guessing a dozen SEALs could have held and then destroyed them, but that
    would have been odds of around ten or eleven to one. We were only four, and that
    was probably thirty-five to one. Which is known, in military vernacular, as a balls

    to-the-wall situation. Especially as we now seemed incapable of calling up the
    cavalry from HQ.
    Right here was a twenty-first-century version of General Custer's last stand, Little
    Bighorn with turbans. But they hadn't gotten us yet. And if I had my way, they
    were never going to. I know all four of us thought exactly that. Our only option,
    however, was to get to flatter ground. And there wasn't any of that up here. There
    was only one way for us to go, backward and down, straight down.
    Mike Murphy called it. "They'll kill us all if we stay here! Jump, guys, for ----'s
    sake, jump!"
    And once more all four of us clutched our rifles, stood up, braved the flying
    bullets, and headed for the precipice. We leaped into the void, Mikey first, me next,
    then Axe, then Danny. The drop must have been about thirty or forty feet, down

    into a thicket of shrubs alongside a little stream.
    We were by no means at the base of this little escarpment, but at least we were
    once more on a flat bit and not clinging to some cliff face. I landed directly on top
    of Mikey, then Axe and Danny landed on both of us. There wasn't even time to let
    rip with a few curses.
    We spread out and took up firing position again, preparing once more to blast the
    enemy away from our flanks, where they would be sure to begin their advance in
    the next stage of the battle. They were clambering down the rocks to our right, and
    I was trying to make sure none of them made it to the bottom. My rifle felt red-hot,
    and I just kept loading and shooting, aiming and firing, wishing to hell I still had
    my Texas helmet.
    We were trying to move into a decent position, jumping between the rocks,
    working our way out into open ground. But we were picking up fire now. The
    Taliban had seen us and were raining bullets down, firing from a prime overhead
    spot. We moved back against the rocks, and Danny was shot again.
    They hit him in his lower back, and the bullet blew out of his stomach. He was still
    firing, Christ knows how, but he was. Danny's mouth was open, and there was
    blood trickling out. There was blood absolutely everywhere. It was hot, and the
    stench of it was unmistakable, the cordite was heavy in the air, and the noise,
    which had not abated since they first opened fire, was deafening. Our ears were
    ringing from the blasts like we were wearing headphones.
    And then they opened up with the grenades again. We saw the white smoke
    streaking through the air. We saw them coming, winging down that canyon right
    onto us. And when they blew, the blast was overpowering, echoing from the
    granite rocks that surrounded us on three sides.
    It was like the world was blowing up around us, with the flying rock splinters,
    some of them pretty large, clattering off the cliff walls; the ricocheting bullets; the
    swirling dust cloud enveloping the shrapnel and covering us, choking us, obscuring
    everything.
    Murph was trying to reassess the situation, desperately trying to make the right
    decision despite our limited options. And let's face it, the options had not changed
    very much since I first slammed a bullet between that guy's eyes from behind the
    tree. Right now we were not hemmed in on our flanks; our enemy was dead ahead.
    That, and straight up. Overhead. And that's bad.
    I guess the oldest military strategy in the world is to gain the higher ground. In my
    experience, no Taliban commander had ever ordered his men to fight from
    anything other than the high ground. And did they ever have it now. If we'd been
    in a cornfield, it would have been nothing like so dangerous, because the bullets
    would have hit the earth and stayed there. But we were in a granite-walled corner,
    and everything bounced off at about a zillion miles per hour, which is more or less
    the definition of a ricochet. Everything, bullets, shrapnel, and fragments, came

    zinging off those rocks. It seemed to us like the Taliban were getting double value

    for every shot. If the bullet missed, watch the hell out for the ricochet.
    And how much longer we could go on taking this kind of bombardment, without
    getting ourselves killed, was anyone's guess. Murph and Danny had picked up the
    fight on the left and were still firing, still hitting them pretty good. I was firing
    upward, trying to pick them off between the rocks, and Axe had jammed himself
    into a good spot in the rocks and was blazing away at the oncoming turbans.
    Both Murph and I were hoping for a lull in the fire, which would signify we had
    killed a significant number. But that never came. What came were reinforcements.
    Taliban reinforcements. Groups of guys moving up, replacing their dead, joining
    the front line of this wide-ranging, large force on their home ground, armed to the
    teeth, and still unable to kill even one of us.
    We tried to take the fight to them, concentrating on their strongest positions,

    pushing them to reinforce their line of battle. No three guys ever fought with
    higher courage than my buddies up there in those mountains. And damn near
    surrounded as we were, we still believed we would ultimately defeat our enemy.
    We still had plenty of ammunition.
    But then Danny was shot again. Right through the neck, and he went down beside
    me. He dropped his rifle and slumped to the ground. I reached down to grab him
    and drag him closer to the rock face, but he managed to clamber to his feet, trying
    to tell me he was okay even though he'd been shot four times.
    Danny couldn't speak now, but he wouldn't give in. He propped himself up against
    a rock for cover and opened fire again at the Taliban, signaling he might need a
    new magazine as his very lifeblood poured out of him. I just stood there for a
    moment, helplessly, fighting back my tears, witnessing a brand of valor I had never
    before been privileged to see. What a guy. What a friend.
    Murph called out to me, "The only way's down, kid," as if I didn't know. I called
    back, "Roger that, sir."
    I knew he meant the village, and it was true. That was our chance. If we could grab
    one of those houses and make a stand, we would be hard to dislodge. Four SEALs
    firing from solid cover will usually get the job done. All we needed to do was coax
    the Taliban down there. Although if things didn't get a whole lot better in the next
    few minutes, we might not make it ourselves.
    8

    The Final Battle for Murphy's Ridge

    The ground shook. The very few trees swayed. The noise was worse than any blast
    all day...This was one gigantic Taliban effort to finish us. We hit the deck...to avoid
    the lethal flying debris, rock fragments and shrapnel.
    Lieutenant Mike Murphy bellowed out the command, the third time he had done so
    in the battle. Same mountain. Same command. "Fall back! Axe and Marcus first!"
    Again he really meant Fall off! And we were all getting real used to it. Axe and I
    sprinted for the edge, while Murph and Danny, tucked into the rocks, drew fire and
    covered our escape. I had no idea whether Danny could even move again, with all


    his wounds.
    Lying right along the top of the cliff was a tree trunk with a kind of hollow
    underneath it, as if it had been washed out by the rains. Axe, who could think
    quicker on his feet than most people I've ever met, made straight for that hole
    because the tree trunk would give him cover as he plunged down to whatever the
    hell was over the goddamned cliff.
    The slimly built Axe hit the ground like a javelin, skidded fast into the hollow, shot
    straight under the log, and out into space. I hit the ground like a Texas longhorn
    and came to a grinding halt, stuck fast under the log. Couldn't go forward, couldn't
    go back. ---- me. Was this a bummer or what?
    The Taliban had seen me by now. I was the only one they could see, and I heard a
    volley of bullets screaming around me. One shot smacked into the tree just to my
    right. The rest were hitting the dirt and sending up puffs of dust. I heaved at the

    log. I heaved with all my might, but I could not move that sucker. I was pinned
    down.
    I was trying to look backward, wondering if Mikey had seen me and might try a
    rescue, when suddenly I saw the stark white smoke trail of an incoming RPG
    against the mountain. The RPG smashed into the tree trunk right next to me and
    exploded with a shattering blast as I tried frantically to turn away from it. I can't
    tell what happened next, but it blew the goddamned trunk clean in half and shot me
    straight over the cliff.
    I guess it was about fifteen feet down to where Axe was moving into firing
    position, and I landed close. Considering I'd just been blown over the ledge like a
    freakin' human cannonball, I was pretty lucky to be still standing. And there right
    next to me on the ground was my rifle, placed there by the Hand of God Himself.
    I reached down to pick it up and listened again for His voice. But this time there
    was no noise, just one brief second of silence in my mind, amid all the chaos and
    malevolence of this monstrous struggle for supremacy, apparently being conducted
    on behalf of His Holy Prophet Muhammad.
    I was not sure whether either of them would have approved. I don't know that
    much about Muhammad, but, by all that's holy, I don't think my own God wished
    me to die. If He had been indifferent to my plight, He surely would not have taken
    such good care of my gun, right? Because how on earth that was still with me, I
    will never know.
    That rifle had so far fought three separate battles in three different places, been
    ripped out of my grasp twice, been blown over a cliff by a powerful grenade, fallen
    almost nine hundred feet down a mountain, and was still somehow right next to my
    outstretched hand. Fluke? Believe what you will. My own faith will remain forever
    unshaken.
    Anyhow, I picked it up and moved back into the rocks where Axe was now picking
    up fire from the enemy. But he was well positioned and fighting back, blazing
    away on the left, the flank for which he'd fought so desperately for so long.
    Actually it had been about forty minutes, but it seemed like ten years, and we were
    both still going.
    So, for that matter, were Mikey and Danny, and somehow they had both made the
    leap down here to the lower level, near the stream, where the Taliban assault was
    not quite so bad. Yet. We looked, by the way, shocking, especially Danny, who was
    covered head to toe in blood. Axe was okay but badly battered, and Mikey was
    soaked in blood from that stomach wound; not as bad as Danny, but not pretty.
    When that grenade blew me over the cliff, it probably should have killed me, but
    the only new injury I had sustained was a broken nose, which I got when I hit the
    deck semiconscious. To be honest, it hurt like hell, along with my back, and I was
    bleeding all over my gear. However, I had not been seriously shot, as two of my

    team had.
    Axe was holding the tribesmen off, leaning calmly on a rock, firing up the hill, the
    very picture of an elite warrior in combat. No panic, rock steady, firing accurately,
    conserving his ammunition, missing nothing. I was close to him in a similar stance,
    and we were both hitting them pretty good. One guy suddenly jumped up from
    nowhere a little above us, and I shot him dead, about thirty yards range.
    But we were trapped again. There were still around eighty of these maniacs coming
    down at us, and that's a heck of a lot of enemies. I'm not sure what their casualty
    rate was, because both Mikey and I estimated Sharmak had thrown 140 men
    minimum into this fight. Whatever, they were still there, and I was not sure how
    long Danny could keep going.
    Mikey worked his way alongside me and said with vintage Murphy humor, "Man,
    this really sucks."
    I turned to face him and told him, "We're gonna ----ing die out here -- if we're


    not careful."
    "I know," he replied.
    And the battle raged on. The massed, wild gunfire of a very determined enemy
    against our more accurate, better-trained response, superior concentration, and war-
    fighting know-how. Once more, hundreds of bullets were ricocheting around our
    rocky surroundings. And once more, the Taliban went to the grenades, blasting the
    terrain around us to pieces. Jammed between rocks, we kept firing, but Danny was
    in all kinds of trouble, and I was afraid he might lose consciousness.
    That was when they shot him again, right at the base of the neck. I watched in
    horror as Danny went down, this beautiful guy, husband of Patsy, a friend of mine
    for four years, a guy who had always been last away while we retreated, a guy who
    had provided our covering fire until he couldn't stand anymore.
    And now he lay on the ground, blood pouring from his five wounds. And I was
    supposed to be a ----ing SEAL medic, and I could not do a damn thing for him
    without getting us all killed. I dropped my rifle and climbed over the rock, running
    across open ground to get to him. All right. All right. No hero bullshit. I was crying
    like a baby.
    Danny was saturated in blood, still conscious, still trying to fire his rifle at the
    enemy. But he was in a facedown position. I told him to take it easy while I turned
    him over. "C'mon, Dan, we're gonna be all right."
    He nodded, and I knew he could not speak and would probably never speak again.
    What I really remember is, he would not let go of his rifle. I raised him by the
    shoulders and hauled him into an almost sitting position. Then, grasping him under
    the arms, I started to drag him backward, toward cover. And would you believe,
    that little iron man opened fire at the enemy once again, almost lying on his back,
    blasting away up the hill while I kept dragging.
    We'd gone about eight yards when everything I dreaded came true. Here I was, just
    about defenseless, trying to walk backward, both hands full, when a Taliban fighter
    suddenly loomed up out of the rocks to our right. He was right on top of us,
    looking down, a smile on his face as he aimed that AK-47 straight at my head.
    Neither of us saw him in time to return fire. I just said a quick prayer and stared
    back at him. Which was precisely when Axe banged two bullets right between his
    eyes, killed that tribesman stone dead instantly. I didn't have time to thank him,
    because the grenades were still coming in, and I just kept trying to drag Danny to
    safety. And, like Axe, Danny kept firing.
    I got him to the rock face just a few yards from Mikey. And it was clear the enemy
    had nearly managed to surround us for the fourth time today. We could tell by the
    direction of the gunfire and occasionally the RPGs. Danny was still alive and
    willing to fight, and Mikey was now fighting shoulder to shoulder with Axe, and

    they were inflicting heavy damage.
    I still thought we had a chance of getting out, but once more the only option was
    down, toward that village and onto the flat ground. Fighting uphill, as we had been
    doing since this battle started, did, in the words of our mission officer, really suck.
    I yelled out loudly, "Axe! Moving!" He had time to shout back, "Roger
    that!" before they shot him in the chest. I watched his rifle fall from his grasp. He
    slumped forward and slipped down the rock he'd been leaning on, all the way to
    the ground.
    I absolutely froze. This could not be happening. Matt Axelson, a family fixture,
    Morgan's best friend, a part of our lives. I started calling his name, irrationally,
    over and over. Privately I thought Danny was dying, and all I could see was a stain
    of blood gathering in the red dirt where Axe was slumped. For a brief moment I
    thought I might be losing it.
    But then Axe reached for his rifle and got up. He leveled the weapon, got a hold of
    another magazine, shoved it into the breech, and opened fire again, blood pumping

    out of his chest. He held his same firing position, leaning against the rock. He
    showed the same attitude of solid Navy SEAL know-how, the same formidable
    steadiness, staring through his scope, those brilliant blue eyes of his scanning the
    terrain.
    When Axe got up, it was the bravest thing I ever saw. Except for Danny. Except for
    Mikey, still commanding us after taking a bullet through his stomach so early in
    the battle.
    And now Murph was masterminding a way down the escarpment. He had chosen
    the route and called up Axe to follow him down. And still the bullets were
    humming around us as the Taliban started their pursuit. Mikey and Axe were about
    seventy-five yards in front, and I was dragging Danny along while he did
    everything he could to help, trying to walk, trying to give us covering fire.
    "It's okay, Danny," I kept saying. "We just need to catch up with the others. It's
    gonna be all right."
    Right then a bullet caught him full in the upper part of his face. I heard it hit home,
    I turned to help him, and the blood from his head wound spilled over us both. I
    called out to him. But it was too late. He wasn't fighting the terrible pain anymore.
    And he couldn't hear me. Danny Dietz died right there in my arms. I don't know
    how quickly hearts break, but that nearly broke mine.
    And still the gunfire never abated. I dragged Danny off the open ground maybe
    five feet, and then I said good-bye to him. I lowered him down, and I had to leave
    him or else die out here with him. But I knew one thing for certain. I still had my
    rifle and I was not alone, and neither was Danny, a devout Roman Catholic. I left
    him with God.
    And now I had to get back to help my team. It was the hardest thing I've ever done
    in my life.
    To this day I have nightmares about it, a chilling dream where Danny's still talking
    to me, and there's blood everywhere, and I have to walk away and I don't even
    know why. I always wake up in tears, and it will always haunt me, and it's never
    going to go away.
    And now I could hear Murph yelling to me. I grabbed my rifle, ducked down,
    slipped and fell off a rock, then started to run toward him and Axe while they
    provided heavy covering fire nonstop aimed at the Taliban's rocky redoubt, maybe
    another forty yards back.
    I reached the edge, ran almost blindly into a tree, bounced off, skidded down the
    slope, which was not very deep, and landed on my head right in the ----ing
    stream. Like any good frogman, I was seriously pissed off because my boots got
    wet. I really hate that.

    Finally I caught up with them. Axe was out of ammunition and I gave him a new
    magazine. Mikey wanted to know where Danny was, and I had to tell him that
    Danny had died. He was appalled, completely shocked, and so was Axe. Although
    Mikey would not say it, I knew he wanted to go back for the body. But we both
    knew there was no time and no reason. We had nowhere to take the remains of a
    fallen teammate, and we could not continue this firefight while carrying around a
    body.
    Danny was dead. And strangely, I was the first to pull myself together. I said
    suddenly, "I'll tell you what. We have to get down this goddamned mountain or
    we'll all be dead."
    And as if to make up our minds for us, the Taliban were again closing in, trying to
    make that 360-degree movement around us. And they were doing it. Gunfire was
    coming in from underneath us now. We could see the tribesmen still swarming, and
    I tried to count them as I had been trying to do for almost an hour.
    I thought there were now only about fifty, maybe sixty, but the bullets were still
    flying. The grenades were still coming in, blasting close, sending up dust clouds of

    smoke and dirt with flying bits of rock. There had never been a lull in the amount
    of ordnance the enemy was piling down on us.
    Right now, again tucked low behind rocks, the three of us could look down and see
    the village one and a half miles distant, and it remained our objective.
    Again I told Mikey, "If we can just make it down there and get some cover, we'll
    take 'em all out on the flat ground."
    I knew we were not in great shape. But we were still SEALs. Nothing can ever
    take that away. We were still confident. And we were never going to surrender. If it
    came down to it, we would fight to the death with our knives against their guns.
    "---- surrender," said Mikey. And he had no need to explain further, either to Axe
    or me. Surrender would have been a disgrace to our community, like ringing the
    bell at the edge of the grinder and putting your helmet in the line. No one who had
    made it through this far, to this no-man's-land in the Afghan mountains, would
    have dreamed of giving up.
    Remember the philosophy of the U.S. Navy SEALs: "I will never quit...My Nation
    expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If
    knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining
    ounce of strength to protect my teammates...I am never out of the fight."
    Those words have sustained many brave men down the years. They were engraved
    upon the soul of every SEAL. And they were in the minds of all of us.
    Mikey suddenly said, above the rage of the battle, "Remember, bro, we're never
    out of it."
    I nodded tersely. "It's only about another thousand yards to flat ground. If we can
    just get down there, we got a chance."
    Trouble was, we couldn't get down there, at least not right then. Because once
    more we were pinned down. And we faced the same dilemma: the only escape was
    to go down, but our only defensive strategy was to go up. Once more, we had to
    get off this ground, away from the ricochets. Back up the left flank.
    We were trying to fight the battle our way. But even though we were still going, we
    were battered half to death. I led the way back up the rocks, blasting away,
    shooting down anyone I could see. But they caught on to that real quick, and now
    they really unloaded on us, Russian-made rocket grenades. Coming straight down
    their right flank, our left.
    The ground shook. The very few trees swayed. The noise was worse than any blast
    all day. Even the walls of this little canyon shook. The stream splashed over its
    banks. This was one gigantic Taliban effort to finish us. We hit the deck, jamming
    ourselves into our rocky crevasse, heads down to avoid the lethal flying debris,

    rock fragments and shrapnel. As before they did not kill anyone with this type of
    thunderous bombardment, and as before they waited till the dust had cleared and
    then opened fire again.
    Above me I could see the tree line. It was not close, but it was nearer than the
    village. But the Taliban knew our objective, and as we tried to fight our way
    forward, they drove us back with sheer weight of fire.
    We'd tried, against all the odds, and just could not make it. They'd knocked us
    back again. And we retreated down, making a long pathetic loop, back the way
    we'd come. But once more we landed up in a good spot, a sound defensive
    position, well protected by the rock face on either side. Again we tried to take the
    fight to them, picking our targets and driving them back, making some ground now
    toward the village.
    They were up and screaming at us, yelling as the battle almost became close
    quarters. We yelled right back and kept firing. But there were still so many of
    them, and then they got into better position and shot Mikey Murphy through the
    chest.
    He came toward me, asking if I could give him another magazine. And then I saw

    Axe stumbling toward me, his head pushed out, blood running down his face,
    bubbling out of the most shocking head wound.
    "They shot me, bro," he said. "The bastards shot me. Can you help me, Marcus?"
    What could I say? What could I do? I couldn't help except by trying to fight off the
    enemy. And Axe was standing right in my line of fire.
    I tried to help him get down behind a rock. And I turned to Mikey, who was
    obviously badly hurt now. "Can you move, buddy?" I asked him.
    And he groped in his pocket for his mobile phone, the one we had dared not use
    because it would betray our position. And then Lieutenant Murphy walked out into
    the open ground. He walked until he was more or less in the center, gunfire all
    around him, and he sat on a small rock and began punching in the numbers to HQ.
    I could hear him talking. "My men are taking heavy fire...we're getting picked
    apart. My guys are dying out here...we need help."
    And right then Mikey took a bullet straight in the back. I saw the blood spurt from
    his chest. He slumped forward, dropping his phone and his rifle. But then he
    braced himself, grabbed them both, sat upright again, and once more put the phone
    to his ear.
    I heard him speak again. "Roger that, sir. Thank you." Then he stood up and
    staggered out to our bad position, the one guarding our left, and Mikey just started
    fighting again, firing at the enemy.
    He was hitting them too, having made that one last desperate call to base, the one
    that might yet save us if they could send help in time, before we were
    overwhelmed.
    Only I knew what Mikey had done. He'd understood we had only one realistic
    chance, and that was to call in help. He also knew there was only one place from
    which he could possibly make that cell phone work: out in the open, away from the
    cliff walls.
    Knowing the risk, understanding the danger, in the full knowledge the phone call
    could cost him his life, Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy, son of Maureen, fiancé
    of the beautiful Heather, walked out into the firestorm.
    His objective was clear: to make one last valiant attempt to save his two
    teammates. He made the call, made the connection. He reported our approximate
    position, the strength of our enemy, and how serious the situation was. When they
    shot him, I thought mortally, he kept talking.
    Roger that, sir. Thank you. Will those words ever dim in my memory, even if I live
    to be a hundred? Will I ever forget them? Would you? And was there ever a greater

    SEAL team commander, an officer who fought to the last and, as perhaps his dying
    move, risked everything to save his remaining men?
    I doubt there was ever anyone better than Mikey, cool under fire, always thinking,
    fearless about issuing the one-option command even if it was nearly impossible.
    And then the final, utterly heroic act. Not a gesture. An act of supreme valor.
    Lieutenant Mikey was a wonderful person and a very, very great SEAL officer. If
    they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won't ever be
    high enough for me.
    Mikey was still alive, and he carried on, holding the left. I stayed on the right, both
    of us firing carefully and accurately. I was still trying to reach slightly higher
    ground. But the depleted army of the Taliban was determined that I should not get
    it, and every time I tried to advance even a few yards, get even a few feet higher,
    they drove me back. Mikey too was still trying to climb higher, and he actually
    made it some of the way, into a rock strata above where I was standing. It was a
    good spot from which to attack, but defensively poor. And I knew this must surely
    be Mikey's last stand.
    Just then, Axe walked right by me in a kind of a daze, making only a marginal
    attempt at staying in the cover of the rocks. Then I saw the wound, the right side of

    his head almost blown away. I shouted, "Axe! Axe! C'mon, old buddy. Get down
    there, right down there."
    I was pointing at the one spot in the rocks we might find protection. And he tried to
    raise his hand, an act of confirmation that he'd heard me. But he couldn't. And he
    kept walking, slowly, hunched forward, no longer clutching his rifle. He was down
    to just his pistol, but I knew he could not hold that, aim, and fire. At least he was
    headed for cover, even though no one could survive a head wound like that. I knew
    Axe was dying.
    Mikey was still firing, but suddenly I heard him scream my name, the most bone-
    chilling primeval scream: "Help me, Marcus! Please help me!" He was my best
    friend in all the world, but he was thirty yards up the mountain, and I could not
    climb to him. I could hardly walk, and if I'd moved two yards out of my protected
    position, they would have hit me with a hundred bullets.
    Nonetheless, I edged out around the rocks to try to give him covering fire, to force
    these bastards back, give him a breather until I could find a way to get up there
    without getting mowed down.
    And all the time, he was screaming, calling out my name, begging me to help him
    live. And there was nothing I could do except die with him. Even then, with only a
    couple of magazines left, I still believed I could nail these ----ers in the turbans
    and somehow save him and Axe. I just wanted Mikey to stop screaming, for his
    agony to end.
    But every few seconds, he cried out for me again. And every time it happened, I
    felt like I'd been stabbed. There were tears welling uncontrollably out of my eyes,
    not for the first time on this day. I would have done anything for Mikey, I'd have
    laid down my own life for him. But my death right here in this outcrop of rocks
    was not going to save him. If I could save him, it would be by staying alive.
    And then, as suddenly as it began, the screaming stopped. There was silence for a
    few seconds, as if even these Taliban warriors understood that Mikey had died. I
    moved slightly forward and looked up there, in time to see four of them come
    down and fire several rounds into his fallen body.
    The screaming had stopped. For everyone except me. I still hear Mikey, every
    night. I still hear that scream above all other things, even above the death of Danny
    Dietz. For several weeks I thought I might be losing my mind, because I could
    never push it aside. There were one or two frightening occasions when I heard it in
    broad daylight and found myself pressed against a wall, my hands covering my

    ears.
    I always thought these kinds of psychiatric problems were suffered by other
    people, ordinary people, not by Navy SEALs. I now know the reality of them. I
    also doubt whether I will ever sleep through the night again.
    Danny was dead. Mikey was now dead. And Axe was dying. Right now there were
    two of us, but only just. I resolved to walk down to where Axe was hiding and to
    die there with him. There was, I knew, unlikely to be a way out. There were still
    maybe fifty of the enemy, perhaps by now hunting only me.
    It took me nearly ten minutes, firing back behind me sporadically to try to pin them
    down...just in case. I was firing on the wild chance that there was a shot at survival,
    that somehow Mikey's phone call might yet have the guys up here in time for a
    last-ditch rescue.
    When I reached Axe, he was sitting in a hollow, and he'd fixed a temporary
    bandage on the side of his head. I stared at him, wondering where those cool blue
    eyes of his had gone. The eyes in which I could now see my own reflection were
    blood black, the sockets filled from the terrible wound in his skull.
    I smiled at him because I knew we would not walk this way again, at least not
    together, not on this earth. Axe did not have long. If he'd been in the finest hospital
    in North America, Axe would still not have had long. The life was ebbing out of

    him, and I could see this powerful super-athlete growing weaker by the second.
    "Hey, man," I said, "you're all ----ed up!" And I tried, pitifully, to fix the bandage.
    "Marcus, they got us good, man." He spoke with difficulty, as if trying to
    concentrate. And then he said, "You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love her."
    Those were his last words. I just sat there, and that was where I planned to stay,
    right there with Axe so he wouldn't be alone when the end came. I didn't give a
    flying ---- what happened to me anymore. Quietly, I made my peace with God,
    and I thanked Him for protecting me and saving my rifle. Which, somehow, I still
    had. I never took my eyes off Axe, who was semiconscious but still breathing.
    Along with the other two, Axe will always be a hero to me. Throughout this brief
    but brutal conflict, he'd fought like a wounded tiger. Like Audie Murphy, like
    Sergeant York. They shot away his body, crippled his brain but not his spirit. They
    never got that.
    Matthew Gene Axelson, husband of Cindy, fired at the enemy until he could no
    longer hold his rifle. He was just past his twenty-ninth birthday. And in his dying
    moments, I never took my eyes off him. I don't think he could hear me any longer.
    But his eyes were open, and we were still together, and I refused to allow him to
    die alone.
    Right then, they must have seen us. Because one of those superpowerful Russian
    grenades came in, landed close, and blew me sideways, right out of the hollow,
    across the rough ground, and over the edge of the goddamned ravine. I lost
    consciousness before I hit the bottom, and when I came to, I was in a different
    hollow, and my first thought was I'd been blinded by the explosion, because I
    couldn't see a thing.
    However, after a few seconds, I gathered my wits and realized I was upside down
    in the freakin' hole. I still had my eyesight and a few other working parts, but my
    left leg seemed paralyzed and, to a lesser degree, so was my right. It took me God
    knows how long to wriggle out onto flat ground and claw my way into the cover of
    a rock.
    My ears were zinging, I guess from the blast of the grenade. I looked up and saw I
    had fallen a pretty good way down, but I was too disoriented to put a number on it.
    The main difference between now and when I'd been sitting with Axe was that the
    gunfire had ceased.
    If they'd reached Axe, who could not possibly have lived through the blast, they

    might not have bothered to go on shooting. They obviously had not found me, and
    I would have been real hard to locate, upside down in the hole. But whatever, no
    one seemed to be looking. For the first time in maybe an hour and a half, I was
    apparently not being actively hunted.
    Aside from being unable to stand, I had two other very serious problems. The first
    was the total loss of my pants. They'd been blown right off me. The second was
    the condition of my left leg, which I could scarcely feel but which was a horrific
    sight, bleeding profusely and full of shrapnel.
    I had no bandages, nothing medical. I had been able to do nothing for my
    teammates, and I could do nothing for myself, except try to stay hidden. It was not
    a promising situation. I was damn sure I'd broken my back and probably my
    shoulder; I'd broken my nose, and my face was a total mess. I couldn't stand up,
    never mind walk. At least one leg was wrecked, and maybe the other. I was
    paralyzed in both thighs, and the only way I could move was to belly crawl.
    Unsurprisingly, I was dazed. And through this personal fog of war, there was yet
    one more miracle for me to recognize. Not two feet from where I was lying, half
    hidden by dirt and shale, well out of sight of my enemy, was my Mark 12 rifle, and
    I still had one and a half magazines left. I prayed before I grabbed it, because I
    thought it might be just a mirage and that when I tried to hold it...well, it might just
    disappear.

    But it did not. And I felt the cold steel in the hot air as my fingers clasped it. I
    listened again for His voice. I prayed again, imploring Him for guidance. But there
    was no sound, and all I knew was that somehow I had to make it out to the right,
    where I'd be safe, at least for a while.
    My God had not spoken again. But neither had He forsaken me. I knew that. For
    damned sure, I knew that.
    I knew one other thing as well. For the first time, I was entirely alone. Here in
    these Taliban-controlled, hostile mountains, there was no earthly teammate for me,
    and my enemy was all around. Had they heeded the words of the goatherds? That
    there were four of us, and that right now they had only three bodies? Or did they
    assume I had been blown to pieces by the blast of the final Russian RPG?
    I had no answer to those questions, only hope. With absolutely no one to turn to, no
    Mikey, no Axe, no Danny, I had to face the final battle by myself, maybe lonely,
    maybe desolate, maybe against formidable odds. But I was not giving up.
    I had only one Teammate. And He moved, as ever, in mysterious ways. But I was a
    Christian, and He had somehow saved me from a thousand AK-47 bullets on this
    day. No one had shot me, which was well nigh beyond all comprehension.
    And I still believed He did not wish me to die. And I would still try my best to
    uphold the honor of the United States Navy SEALs as I imagined they would have
    wished. No surrender. ---- that.
    When I judged I had fully gathered my senses and checked my watch, it was
    exactly 1342 local time. For a few minutes there was no gunfire, and I was
    beginning to assume they thought I was dead. Wrong, Marcus. The Taliban AKs
    opened up again, and suddenly there were bullets flying everywhere, all around,
    just like before.
    My enemy was coming up on me from the lower levels and from both sides, firing
    rapidly but inaccurately. Their bullets were ripping into the earth and shale across a
    wide range, most of them, thank Christ, well away from me.
    It was clear they thought I might be still alive but equally clear they had not yet
    located me. They were conducting a kind of recon by fire, trying to flush me out,
    blazing away right across the spectrum, hoping someone would finally hit me and
    finish me. Or better yet, that I would come out with my hands high so the
    murdering little bastards could cut my head off or indulge in one of their other

    attractive little idiosyncracies before telling that evil little television station al-
    Jazeera how they had conquered the infidels.
    I think I've mentioned my view about surrender. I rammed another magazine into
    the breech of my miraculous rifle and somehow crawled over this little hill,
    through the hail of bullets, right into the side of the mountain. No one saw me. No
    one hit me. I wedged myself into a rocky crevasse with my legs sticking out into a
    clump of bushes.
    There were huge rocks to both sides, protecting me. Overall I judged I was jammed
    into a fifteen-foot-wide ledge on the mountain. It was not a cave, not even a
    shallow cave, because it had a kind of open top way above me. Rocks and sand
    kept falling down on me as the Taliban warriors scrambled around above my
    position. But this crevasse provided sensational cover and camouflage. Even I
    realized I would be pretty hard to spot. They'd have to get real lucky, even with
    their latest policy of trying to flush me out with sheer volume of fire.
    My line of vision was directly ahead. I realized I couldn't move or change position,
    at least in broad daylight I couldn't, and it was imperative I hide the blood which
    was leaking from my battered body. I took stock of my injuries. My left leg was
    still bleeding pretty bad, and I packed the wounds with mud. I had a big cut on my
    forehead, which I also packed with mud. Both legs were numb. I was not going
    anywhere. At least not for a while.
    I had no medical kit, no maps, no compass. I had my bullets, and I had my gun,

    and I had a decent view off my mountain, straight ahead over the canyon to the
    next mountain. I had no pants, and no buddies, but no one could see me. I was
    wedged in tight, my back to the wall in every possible sense.
    I eased myself into a relatively comfortable position, checked my rifle, and laid it
    down the length of my body, aiming outward. If enough of them discovered me, I
    guess I'd quickly be going to join Danny, Axe, and Mikey. But not before I'd killed
    a whole lot more of them. I was, I knew, in a perfect position for a stubborn,
    defensive military action, protected on all sides, vulnerable to a frontal assault
    only, and that would have to be by weight of numbers.
    I could still hear gunfire, and it was growing closer. They were definitely coming
    this way. I just thought, Don't move, don't breathe, do not make a sound. I think it
    was about then I understood how utterly alone I was for the very first time. And the
    Taliban was hunting me. They were not hunting for a SEAL platoon. They were
    hunting me alone. Despite my injuries, I knew I had to reach deep. I was starting to
    lose track of time. But I stayed still. I actually did not move one inch for eight
    hours.
    As the time passed, I could see the Taliban guys right across the canyon, running
    up and down, seemed like hundreds of them, plainly searching, scouring the
    mountain they knew so well, looking for me. I had some feeling back in my legs,
    but I was bleeding real bad, and I was in a lot of pain. I think the loss of blood may
    have started to make me feel light-headed.
    Also, I was scared to death. It was the first time in my entire six-year career as a
    Navy SEAL I had been really scared. At one point, late in the afternoon, I thought
    they were all leaving. Across the canyon, the mountainside cleared, everyone
    running hard to the right, swarms of them, all headed for the same place. At least
    that's how it seemed to me across my narrow field of vision.
    I now know where they were going. While I was lying there in my crevasse, I had
    no idea what the hell was going on. But now I shall recount, to the best of my
    gathered knowledge, what happened elsewhere on that saddest of afternoons, that
    most shocking massacre high in the Hindu Kush, the worst disaster ever to befall
    the SEALs in any conflict in our more than forty-year history.
    The first thing to remember is that Mikey had succeeded in getting through to the

    quick reaction force (QRF) in Asadabad, a couple of mountain ranges over from
    where I was still holding out. That last call, the one on his cell phone that
    essentially cost him his life, was successful. From all accounts, his haunting words
    -- My guys are dying out here...we need help -- ripped around our base like a
    flash fire. SEALs are dying! That's a five-alarm emergency that stops only just on
    the north side of frenzy.
    Lieutenant Commander Kristensen, our acting CO, sounded the alarm. It's always
    a decision for the QRF, to launch or not to launch. Eric took a billionth of a second
    to make it. I know the vision of us four -- his buddies, his friends and teammates,
    Mikey, Axe, Danny, and me, fighting for our lives, hurt, possibly dead, surrounded
    by a huge fighting force of bloodthirsty Afghan tribesmen -- flashed through his
    mind as he summoned the boys to action stations.
    And the vision of terrible loss stood stark before him as he roared down the phone,
    ordering the men of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the
    fabled Night Stalkers, to get the big army MH-47 helo ready, right there on the
    runway. It was the same one that had taken off just before us on the previous day,
    the one we tracked in to our ops area.
    Guys I've already introduced charged into position, desperate to help, cramming as
    much ammunition as they could into their pouches, grabbing rifles and running for
    the Chinook, its rotors already screaming. My SDV Team 1 guys were instantly
    there. Petty Officers James Suh and Shane Patton reached the helo first. Then,
    scrambling aboard, came the massively built Senior Chief Dan Healy, the man who

    had masterminded Operation Redwing, who apparently looked as if he'd been shot
    as he left the barracks.
    Then came the SEAL Team 10 guys, Lieutenant Mike McGreevy Jr. of New York,
    Chief Jacques Fontan of New Orleans, Petty Officers First Class Jeff Lucas from
    Oregon and JeffTaylor from West Virginia. Finally, still shouting that his boys
    needed every gun they could get, came Lieutenant Commander Eric Kristensen,
    the man who knew perhaps better than anyone that the eight SEALs in that helo
    were about to risk a lethal daytime insertion in a high mountain pass, right into the
    jaws of an enemy that might outnumber them by dozens to one.
    Kristensen knew he did not have to go. In fact, perhaps he should not have gone,
    stayed instead at his post, central to control and command. Right then, we had the
    skipper in the QRF, which was, at best, a bit unorthodox. But Eric Kristensen was a
    SEAL to his fingertips. And what he knew above all else was that he had just heard
    a desperate cry for help. From his brothers, from a man he knew well and trusted.
    There was no way Eric was not going to answer that call. Nothing on God's earth
    could have persuaded him not to go. He must have known we were barely holding
    on, praying for help to arrive. There were, after all, only four of us. And to
    everyone's certain knowledge, there were a minimum of a hundred Taliban.
    Eric understood the stupendous nature of the risk, and he never blinked. Just
    grabbed his rifle and ammunition and raced to board that aircraft, yelling at
    everyone else to hurry..."Move it, guys! Let's really move it!" That's what he
    always said under pressure. Sure, he was a commanding officer, and a hell of a
    good one. But more than that, he was a SEAL, a part of that brotherhood forged in
    blood. Even more important, he was a man. And right now he was answering an
    urgent, despairing cry from the very heart of his own brotherhood. There was only
    one way Eric Kristensen was headed, straight up the mountain, guns blazing,
    command or no command.
    Inside the MH-47, the men of 160th SOAR waited quietly, as they had done so
    many times before on these hair-raising air-rescue ops, often at night. They were
    led by a terrific man, Major Steve Reich of Connecticut, with Chief Warrant
    Officers Chris Scherkenbach of Jacksonville, Florida, and Corey J. Goodnature of

    Clarks Grove, Minnesota.
    Master Sergeant James W. Ponder was there, with Sergeants First Class Marcus
    Muralles of Shelbyville, Indiana, and Mike Russell of Stafford, Virginia. Their
    group was completed by Staff Sergeant Shamus Goare of Danville, Ohio, and
    Sergeant Kip Jacoby of Pompano Beach, Florida. By any standards, it was a crack
    army fighting force.
    The MH-47 took off and headed over the two mountain ranges. I guess it seemed
    to take forever. Those kind of rescues always do. It came in to land at just about the
    same spot we had fast-roped in at the start of the mission, around five miles from
    where I was now positioned.
    The plan was for the rescue team to rope it down just the same, and when the
    "Thirty seconds!" call came, I guess the lead guys edged toward the stern ramp.
    What no one knew was the Taliban had some kind of bunker back there, and as the
    MH-47 tilted back for the insert and the ropes fell away for the climb-down, the
    Taliban fired a rocket-propelled grenade straight through the open ramp.
    It shot clean past the heads of the lead group and blew with a shattering blast
    against the fuel tanks, turning the helo into an inferno, stern and midships. Several
    of the guys were blown out and fell, some of them burning, to their deaths, from
    around thirty feet. They smashed into the mountainside and tumbled down. The
    impact was so violent, our search-and-rescue parties later found gun barrels
    snapped in half among the bodies.
    The helicopter pilot fought for control, unaware of the carnage behind him but
    certainly aware of the raging fires around and above him. Of course, there was

    nothing he could do. The big MH-47 just fell out of the sky and crashed with
    thunderous impact onto the mountainside, swayed, and then rolled with brutal
    force over and over, smashing itself to pieces on a long two-hundred-yard
    downward trail to extinction.
    There was nothing left except scattered debris when our guys finally got up there
    to investigate. And, of course, no survivors. My close SDV Team 1 buddies James,
    Chief Dan, and young Shane were all gone. It was as well I did not know this as I
    lay there in my crevasse. I'm not sure I could have coped with it. It was nothing
    less than a massacre. Weeks later I broke down when I saw the photographs,
    mostly because it was me they were all trying to rescue.
    As I explained, at the time I knew nothing of this. I only knew something had
    happened that had caused a lot of Taliban to get very obviously excited. And soon I
    could see U.S. aircraft flying right along the canyon in front of me, A-10s and AH64
    Apache helicopters. Some of them were so close I could see the pilots.
    I pulled my PRC-148 radio out of my pouch and tried to make contact. But I could
    not speak. My throat was full of dirt, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my
    mouth, and I had no water. I was totally unable to transmit. But I knew I was in
    contact because I could hear the aircrew talking. So I fired up my emergency
    distress beacon on the radio and transmitted that.
    They picked it up. I know they did because I could hear them plainly. "Hey, you
    getting that beacon?" "Yeah, we got it...but no further information." Then they just
    flew off, over to my right, where I now know the MH-47 had gone down.
    The trouble was, the Taliban steal those radios if they can, and they often used
    them to lure the U.S. helicopters down. I was unaware of this at the time, but now
    it's obvious to me, the American pilots were extremely jumpy about trying to put
    down in response to a U.S. beacon because they did not know who the hell was
    aiming that beacon, and they might get shot down.
    Which would have been, anyway, little comfort to me, lying there on the
    mountainside only half alive, bleeding to death and unable to walk. And now it was
    growing dark, and I was plainly running out of options. I guessed my only chance

    was to attract the attention of one of the pilots who were still flying down my
    canyon at pretty regular intervals.
    My radio headset had been ripped away during my fall down the mountain, but I
    still had the wires. And I somehow rigged up two of my chem lights, which glow
    when you break them in half, and fixed them to the defunct radio wires. And then I
    whirled this homemade slingshot around my head in a kind of luminous buzz saw
    the first moment I saw a helicopter in the area.
    I also had an infrared strobe light that I could fire up, and I had the laser from my
    rifle, which I took off and aimed at the regular U.S. flyby. Jesus Christ! I was a
    living, breathing distress signal. There's got to be someone watching these
    mountains. Someone's got to see me. I was using this procedure only when I
    actually saw a helicopter. And soon my optimism turned to outright gloom. No one
    was paying attention. From where I was lying, it looked like I'd been abandoned
    for dead.
    By now, with the sun declining behind the mountains, I had almost all of the
    feeling back in my legs. And this gave me hope that I might be able to walk,
    although I knew the pain might be a bit fierce. I was getting dangerously thirsty. I
    could not get the clogged dust and dirt out of my throat. It was all I could do to
    breathe, never mind speak. I had to find water, and I had to get the hell out of this
    death trap. But not until the veil of darkness fell over these mountains.
    I knew I had to get myself out, first to water and then to safety, because it sure as
    hell didn't look like anyone was going to find me. I remember Axe's final words.
    They still rang clearly in my mind: "You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love
    her." For Axe, and for Danny, and above all for Mikey, I knew I must stay alive.

    I saw the last, long rays of the mountain sun cast their gigantic shadows through
    the canyon before me. And just as certainly, I saw the glint of the silver barrel of an
    AK-47 right across from me, dead ahead, on the far cliff face, maybe 150 yards. It
    caught the rays of the dying sun twice, which suggested the sonofabitch who was
    holding it was making a sweep across the wall of my mountain, right past the
    crevasse inside of which I was still lying motionless.
    And now I could see the tribesman in question. He was just standing there, his
    shirtsleeves rolled up, wearing a blue and white checkered vest, holding his rifle in
    the familiar low-slung grip of the Afghans, a split second short of raising it to the
    firing position. The only conclusion was he was looking for me.
    I did not know how many of his buddies were within shouting range. But I did
    know if he got a clear sight across that canyon and somehow spotted me, I was
    essentially history. He could hardly miss, and he kept staring across, but he did not
    raise his rifle. Yet.
    I decided this was not a risk I was prepared to take. My own rifle was loaded and
    suppressed. There would be little noise to attract anyone else's attention. And very
    carefully, hardly daring to breathe, I raised the Mark 12 into the firing position and
    drew down on the little man on the far ridge. He was bang in the crosshairs of my
    telescopic sight.
    I squeezed the trigger and hit him straight between the eyes. I just had time to see
    the blood bloom out into the center of his forehead, and then I watched him topple
    over the edge, down into the canyon. He must have fallen two hundred feet,
    screaming with his dying breath all the way. I was not in any way moved, except to
    thank God there was one less.
    Almost immediately two of his colleagues ran into the precise spot where he had
    been standing, directly across from me. They were dressed more or less the same,
    except for the different colors of their vests. They stood there staring down into the
    canyon where the first man had fallen. They both carried AKs, held in the firing
    position but not fully raised.

    I thought they might just take off, but they stood there, now looking hard across the
    void which separated my mountain from theirs. From where I was, they seemed to
    be looking right at me, scanning the cliff face for any sign of movement. I knew
    they had no idea if their pal had been shot, simply fallen, or perhaps committed
    suicide.
    However, I think option one was their instinct. And right now they were trying to
    find out precisely who had shot him. I remained motionless, but those little black
    eyes were looking straight at me, and I realized if they both opened fire at once on
    my rocky redoubt, the chances of an AK-47 bullet, or bullets, hitting me were good
    to excellent. They had to go. Both of them.
    Once more, I slowly raised my rifle and drew a bead on an armed Taliban
    tribesman. My first shot killed the one on the right instantly, and I watched him
    tumble over the edge. The second one, understanding now there was an enemy at
    large, raised his gun and scanned the cliff face where I was still flat on my back.
    I hit him straight in the chest, then I fired a second time in case he was still
    breathing and able to cry out. He fell forward without a sound and went to join his
    two buddies on the canyon floor. Which left me all alone and thus far
    undiscovered.
    Just a few hours previously, Mikey Murphy and I had made a military judgment
    which cost three lives, the lives of some of the best SEALs I ever met. Lying here
    on my ledge, surrounded on all sides by hostile Taliban warriors, I could not afford
    another mistake. I'd somehow, by the grace of God, been spared from the
    consequences of the first one, made way up there on that granite outcrop which
    ought to be named for Mikey, our superb leader. The Battle for Murphy's Ridge.
    Every decision I made from now on would involve my own life or death. I needed

    to fight my way out, and I did not give a damn how many of the Taliban enemy I
    had to kill in order to achieve that. The key point was, I could not make another
    mistake. I could take no chances.
    The far side of the canyon remained silent as the sun disappeared behind the high
    western peaks of the Hindu Kush. I figured the Taliban had probably split their
    search party in this particular area and that I'd gotten rid of one half. Out there,
    somewhere, in the deathly silence of the twilight, there would almost certainly be
    three more, looking for the one surviving American from that original four-man
    platoon that had inflicted such damage on their troops.
    The friendly clatter of the U.S. Apaches had gone now. No one was looking for me.
    And by far my biggest problem was water. Aside from the fact I was still bleeding
    and couldn't stand up, the thirst was becoming desperate. My tongue was still
    clogged with dust and dirt, and I still could not speak. I'd lost my water bottle on
    the mountain during the first crashing fall with Mikey, and it had now been nine
    hours since I'd had a drink.
    Also I was still soaking wet from when I fell in the river. I understood I was very
    light-headed from loss of blood, but I still tried to concentrate. And the one
    conclusion I reached was that I had to stand up. If a couple of those Taliban came
    around that corner to my left, the only way to approach me, and they had any form
    of light, I'd be like a jackrabbit caught in someone's headlights.
    My redoubt had served me well, but I had to get out of it right now. When the
    bodies of those three guys were found at first light, this mountain would be
    swarming with Taliban. I dragged myself to my feet and stood there in my boxers
    in the freezing cold mountain air. I tested my right leg. Not too bad. Then I tested
    my left, and that hurt like the devil. I tried to brush some of the shale and dirt away
    from where I'd packed the wound, but the shards of the shrapnel were jutting out
    of my thigh, and every time I touched one, I nearly jumped through the ceiling. At
    least I would have, if there'd been one.

    One of my main problems was I had no handle on the terrain. Of course I knew
    that the mountain reared up behind me and that I was trapped on the cliff face with
    no way to go except up. Which from where I stood, almost unable to hobble, was a
    seriously daunting task. I tested my left leg again, and at least it wasn't worse.
    But my back hurt like hell. I never realized how much pain three cracked vertebrae
    could inflict on a guy. Of course, I never realized I had three cracked vertebrae
    either. I could move my right shoulder despite a torn rotator cuff, which I also
    didn't realize I had. And my broken nose throbbed a bit, which was kid's stuff
    compared with the rest. I knew one side of my face was shredded by the fall down
    the mountain, and the big cut on my forehead was pretty sore.
    But my overriding thought was my thirst. I was only slightly comforted by the
    closeness of several mountain streams up here. I had to find one, fast, both to clean
    my wounds and to drink. That way I had a shot at yelling through the radio and
    locating an American helicopter or fighter aircraft in the morning.
    I gathered up my gear, radio, strobes, and laser and repacked them into my pouch. I
    checked my rifle, which had about twenty rounds left in the magazine, with a full
    magazine remaining in the harness I still wore across my chest.
    Then I stepped out of my redoubt, into the absolute pitch black and deathly silence
    of the Hindu Kush. There was no moon, and it was just starting to rain, which
    meant there wasn't going to be a moon in the foreseeable future.
    I tested the leg again. It held my weight without giving way. I felt my direction
    around the huge rock which had been guarding my left flank all day. And then,
    with the smallest, most timid strides I had ever taken, I stepped out onto the
    mountain.
    9

    Blown-up, Shot, and Presumed Dead

    Right behind me I heard the soft footsteps of the chasing gunmen...there were two
    of them, just above me in the rocks. Searching. I had only split seconds to work,
    because they were both on me, AKs raised...I went for my grenades.

    Even in the pitch black of the night, I could feel the shadow of the mountain
    looming above me. I actually thought I could see it, a kind of dark force, darker
    than everything else, blacker than the rock walls upon which I was leaning.
    I knew it was a hell of a long way to the top, and I would have to move sideways
    like a delta crab if I was going to make it. It was also going to take me all night,
    but somehow I had to get up there, all the way to the top.
    I had two prime reasons for my strategy. First, it would be flat up there, so if it
    came down to another firefight, I would have a good chance. No guys firing down
    on me. Every SEAL likes his chances of winning a fight on flat ground.
    The second issue was calling in help. No helicopter ever built could land safely on
    these steep Afghan cliffs. The only place within the mountain range where an MH47
    could put down was in the flat bowl of the fields below, where the villagers
    raised crops. Dope, that is.
    And there was no way I was going to risk hanging out near a village. I was going


    up, to the upper flatlands, where a helo could get in and then get out. Also, my

    radio reception would be better up there. I could only hope the Americans were
    still scouring the mountains, looking for the missing Redwings.
    Meanwhile, I thought I might be dying of thirst, and my parched throat was driving
    me onward to water and perhaps safety. So I took my first steps, guessing I was
    probably going to climb around five hundred feet straight up. But I'd travel a
    whole lot farther on the zigzag course I'd have to make up the mountain.
    I began my climb, out there in the dark, by moving directly upward. I jammed my
    rifle into my belt so I had two hands to grip, but before I'd made the first twenty
    feet going slightly right, I slipped badly, which was a very scary experience. The
    gradient was almost sheer, straight down to the valley floor.
    In my condition I probably would not have survived the fall, and I somehow saved
    myself from falling any more than about ten feet. Then I picked it up again,
    clawing my way up, facing the mountain and grabbing hold of anything I could
    with a grip like a mechanical digger. You'd have needed a chain saw to pry me off
    that cliff face. All I knew was, if I fell, I'd probably plummet several hundred feet
    to my death. Which was good for the concentration.
    So I kept going, climbing mostly sideways, grabbing rocks, vines, or branches,
    anything for a grip. Every now and then I'd dislodge something or snap a branch
    that would not bear my weight. And I guess I must have made more noise than the
    Taliban army has ever made in mountain maneuvers.
    I'd been going for a couple of hours when I sensed I heard something behind me. I
    say sensed because when you are operating in absolute darkness, with no sight at
    all, everything else is heightened, all of your senses, particularly sound and smell.
    Not to mention the sixth one, same one a goat or an antelope or a zebra has, the
    one that warns vulnerable grazing animals of the presence of a predator.
    Now, I wasn't that vulnerable. And I sure as hell wasn't grazing. But right then I
    was in Predator Central. Those cutthroat tribal bastards were all over my case and,
    for all I knew, closing in on me.
    I lay flat, stock-still on the mountain. And then I heard it again, the distinct snap of
    a twig or a branch. I estimated it was maybe two hundred yards behind me. Right
    then my hearing was at some kind of a peak in this ultraquiet high country. I could
    have picked up the soft fart of a billy goat a mile away.
    Then I heard it once more. Not the billy goat, the twig. And I knew for absolute
    certain I was being followed. ----! There was still no moon, and I could still see
    nothing. But that would not be true of the Taliban. They'd been stealing equipment
    from the Russians, and then the Americans, for years. Everything they had was
    stolen, except for what bin Laden had purchased for them. And their supplies
    certainly included a few pairs of NVGs. The Russians were, after all, pioneers of
    that particular piece of battle gear, and we knew the mujahideen had stolen
    everything from them when the Soviet army finally pulled out.
    The presence of an unseen Afghani tracker was very bad news for me, not least for
    the remnants of my morale. The thought that there was a group of killers out there,
    stalking me across this mountain, able to see me when I could not see them...well,
    that was a sonofabitch in any man's army.
    I decided to press on and hope they did not decide to open fire. When I reached the
    top, I'd take them out. Just as soon as I could see the little bastards. First sign of
    light, I'd stake my position underneath some bushes where no one could see me,
    and then I'd deal with them as soon as they got within range. Meantime, I was so
    thirsty I thought I might die before that hour approached.
    I was trying everything. I was breaking the thinnest tree branches off and sucking
    at them for liquid. I sucked at the grass when I found some, hoping for a few drops
    of mountain dew. I even tried to wring out my socks to find just a taste of water.

    There is nothing quite so terrible as dying of thirst. Believe me. I've been there.
    As the night wore on, I began to hear the occasional U.S. military aircraft above

    the mountains, usually flying high. And when I heard one in time, I was out there
    whirling my buzz-saw lights, transmitting the beacon as well as I could, still a
    walking distress signal. But no one heard me. It occurred to me that no one
    believed I was alive. And that was a very grim thought. It would be pretty hard to
    find me up here, even if the entire Bagram base was searching for me in these
    endless mountains. But if no one believed I was still breathing, well, that was
    probably the end for me. I experienced an inevitable feeling of utter desolation.
    Worse yet, I was so weakened, and in such pain, I realized, once and for all, I was
    never going to make it to the top of the mountain. Actually, I might have made it,
    but my left leg, blasted by that RPG, was never going to stand the climb. I would
    just have to keep going sideways, struggling across the steep face of the mountain,
    sometimes down, sometimes up, and hope to get my chance.
    I was still losing blood, and I still could not speak. But I could hear, and I could
    hear my pursuers, sometimes calling to each other. I remember thinking this was
    very strange because they normally moved around in total silence. Remember
    those goatherds? I never heard that first one coming until he was about four feet
    from me. That's just the way they are, treading softly, lean, light men with no
    encumbrances -- not even water.
    When those Afghans travel, they carry their guns and ammunition and nothing
    else. One guy carries the water for everyone; another hauls the extra ammunition.
    And this leaves the main force free to move very fast, very softly. They are born
    trackers, able to pick up a trail across the roughest ground, and they can walk right
    up on you.
    Of course, that assumes they are only after one of their own. Trying to follow a
    great 230-pound hulk like myself, slipping and sliding, crashing and breaking
    branches, causing minor avalanches on the loose ground -- I must have been an
    Afghan tracker's dream. Even I realized my chance of actually losing them was
    close to zero.
    Maybe those calls I heard among them were not really commands. Maybe they
    were outbursts of suppressed laughter at my truly horrible rock-climbing abilities.
    Wait until it gets light, I thought. This playing field would even out real quick.
    That's if they didn't shoot me first, in the dark.
    I kept skirting around the mountain. Way below I could see the lights from a
    couple of lanterns, and I thought I could see the flickering flame of a fire. That
    must have been the valley floor, and it gave me my first guidance as to the terrain,
    but not much. In fact, it gave me the impression the ground where I was standing
    was flat, which it really was not. I stopped for a minute to see if there was anything
    else down in that valley, any further sign of my enemy, but I could still see just
    about nothing except for the lanterns and the fire, all of them about a mile down.
    I gathered myself and took a step forward. And in that split second I realized I had
    stepped into the void. I just fell clean off that mountain, straight down, falling
    through the air, not over the ground. I hit the side of the mountain with a terrific
    bang, knocked the breath right out of me. Then I rolled, crashing through a copse
    of trees, trying to grab something to slow me down.
    But I was moving too fast, and gathering speed. I fell helplessly down a steep bit,
    which leveled out for a few yards and allowed me to slow down. Finally I stopped
    on the edge of yet another precipice, which I sensed rather than saw. And I just lay
    there gasping for breath for a good twenty minutes, scared to death I'd find myself
    paralyzed.
    But I wasn't. I could stand. I still had my rifle, although my strobe light had gone.
    And somehow I had to get back up to my highest point. The lower I was positioned

    down this mountain, the less my chance of getting rescued. I must go upward, and
    so I set off again.
    I climbed, slipped, and scrambled for two more hours, until I thought I was more

    or less back to the point where I'd fallen off the mountain. It was 0200 now, and
    I'd been going for a long time, maybe six or seven hours. The pain was becoming
    diabolical, but in a way I was relieved I still had feeling in that left leg.
    The Taliban army was still following me. I heard them, louder as I climbed higher,
    as if they'd been waiting for me. They were certainly a bigger force now than they
    had been two hours ago. I could hear them all around, more and more people
    searching for me, dogs barking, maybe a half mile back.
    By now I could hear the river, which I knew was the same one I'd fallen in the
    previous afternoon. The same river on whose banks my three buddies lay dead.
    Thirsty as I was, I could not bring myself to go in search of its ice-cold flowing
    waters gushing down the mountainside. That was the only water on this earth I
    could not drink, water from the river which flowed right by the bodies of Mikey,
    Danny, and Axe. I had to find a different one.
    With no compass, only my watch, I had to revert to navigation by the stars, which
    mercifully were now out, the thick high banks of clouds having passed over. I
    found the Big Dipper and followed the long curve of its stars all the way to the
    right angle at the end, where the shape angles upward, pointing directly at the
    polestar. That's the North Star. We learned it in BUD/S.
    If I turned directly toward it and held out my left arm at a right angle, that way was
    west, the way I was headed. I think at this point I may have been suffering from
    hallucinations, that very odd sensation when you cannot really tell reality from a
    dream.
    Like most SEALs, I'd experienced it before, at the back end of Hell Week. But
    right now I was becoming very light-headed. I was a hunted animal all alone in
    wild country, and I tried to pretend my buddies were still alive. I invented some
    kind of a formation with Danny climbing out on my right flank, Axe up to the left,
    and Mikey calling the shots in the rear.
    I pretended they were there, I just couldn't see them. I think I was reaching the end
    of my tether. But I kept reminding myself of Hell Week. I kept telling myself this
    was just Hell Week all over again; I'd sucked it up then, and I could suck it up
    now. Whatever these bastards threw at me, I could take it. I'd come through. I
    might have been losing my marbles, but I was still a SEAL.
    I could not, however, deny the fact I was also becoming disheartened. For the
    moment my pursuers were quiet, and I suddenly came upon a huge tree with a
    couple of big logs resting directly underneath it. I crawled under one of them and
    rested for a while, just lying there, feeling damned sorry for myself.
    In my head I played over and over again one of the verses of Toby Keith's country
    and western classic "American Soldier." I remember lying there quietly singing the
    words to myself, the part that said I might have to die..."I'll bear that cross with
    honor."
    I sang those words all night. I can't tell you how much they meant to me. I can tell
    you, it's little things like that, the words of a song, which can give you the strength
    to go on. Nonetheless, the fact was I had no idea what to do.
    It occurred to me I could just settle in right here and make it my last stand. But I
    quickly dismissed this as a strategy. In my mind I was still committed to Axe's last
    request: "You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love her." Helluva lot of good it
    would do Cindy Axelson if I ended up shot to pieces on the slopes of this
    godforsaken mountain. And who then would ever know what my buddies had
    done? And how hard and bravely they had fought? No. It was all up to me. I had to
    get out and tell our story.

    I was comfortable and very, very tired, but thirst drove me on. Screw this, I
    decided, and I dragged myself up again and kept walking, hobbling, that is, making
    the most of this apparent expanse of flatter ground. It was just beginning to get
    light, around 0600. I knew that six hours from now, the sun would be in the south,

    but it was such a high sun out here, almost directly overhead, and it made
    navigation that much more difficult. I remember wondering where the hell I would
    be next time I saw the friendly polestar.
    Almost immediately I found myself on a trail which was going my way. I could tell
    by the tight feel of the ground it was pretty well used, which meant I would have to
    move with immense care. Trails frequently traveled invariably lead to people, and
    before long I saw a house up ahead, maybe even three or four. At this distance it
    was hard to tell.
    My first thought was of a tap or a well. If I had to, I'd get into one of these
    primitive residences and get rid of the occupants somehow. Then I could clean up
    my wounds and drink. But as I grew closer I could see there were four houses, very
    close together. To get their water I'd probably have to kill twenty people, and that
    was too much for me. I elected to keep going, praying I'd stumble upon a river or a
    mountain stream before much longer.
    Well, I didn't. The sun was up, and it was growing hotter. I kept going for another
    four or five hours, and the hallucinations were getting worse. I kept wanting to ask
    Mikey what we should do. My mouth and throat had just about seized up. I could
    barely move my parched tongue, which was now firmly stuck to the roof of my
    mouth. I was afraid if I tried to move it, it would tear the skin off. I cannot describe
    the feeling. I had to get water.
    Every bone in my body was crying out for rest, but I knew if I stopped, and
    perhaps slept, I would die. I had to keep going. It was strange, but the thirst which
    was killing me was also the driving force keeping me on this long, desperate
    march.
    I recall thinking there was no water this high up, and I resolved to go back down to
    slightly lower slopes where hopefully a stream might come cascading out of the
    rocks, the way it does up here. Right then the sun was burning down on me, really
    hot, and way above me, the high peaks were still snowcapped. Something had to be
    melting, for Christ's sake. And all that water had to be going somewhere. I just had
    to find it.
    Down in these lower areas, I found myself in the most beautiful green forest, so
    beautiful I wondered whether it might be a mirage. There were soft ferns, deep
    green grasses, and tall shady evergreens, a scene of verdant, lush mountain growth.
    Jesus Christ, there had to be water down here somewhere.
    I paused often, listening intently for the sound of a running stream. But there was
    only silence, that shattering, merciless silence of the high country where no roads
    carve into the landscape, where no machines disrupt and pollute the air. Where
    there are no automobiles or tractors; no television, radio, or even electricity.
    Nothing. Just nature, the way it's been for thousands of years up here in this land
    of truly terrible beauty and ravenous hatred.
    Don't get me wrong. The gradients were still very steep, and I was working my
    way through the forest, through the gutters of the mountain. Much of the time I
    was just crawling, hands and knees, trying to ease the pain in my left leg. To be
    honest, I really thought I might be finished now. I was full of despair, wondering if
    I might black out, begging my God to help me.
    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil: For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort



    me . . .

    That's the Twenty-third Psalm, of course. We think of it as the Psalm of the
    SEALs. It is repeated at all of our religious ser-vices, all funerals. Too many
    funerals. I know it by heart. And I clung to its message, that even in death I would
    not be abandoned.

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest
    my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell
    in the house of the Lord for ever.
    It was all I had, just a plaintive cry to a God Who was with me, but Whose ways
    were becoming unclear to me. I had been saved from more or less certain death,
    and I was still armed with my rifle. But I did not know what to do anymore, except
    keep trying.
    I left the trail and once more went upward, heading for high ground again. I was
    listening, straining to hear the sound of the water I knew must be here somewhere.
    I was on a steep escarpment, hanging on to a tree with my right hand, leaning out
    away from the cliff face. Would I ever hear the tumbling sound of a mountain
    stream, or was I really destined to die of thirst up here where no American would
    ever find me?
    I kept repeating the Twenty-third Psalm in my head, over and over, trying to stop
    myself from breaking down. I was scared, freezing cold, without shelter or proper
    clothes, and I just kept saying it . . .


    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
    He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's
    sake . . .


    That's how far I was in the prayer when I heard the water for the first time. I could
    not believe it. There it was, unmistakable, way below me, a brook, maybe even a


    small waterfall. In this pure mountain air, amid this awesome silence, that was
    swiftly flowing water. I had to find a way down to it.
    I guess I knew in that moment, I was not going to die of thirst, whatever else befell
    me. It was just one of those moments that make your life spin right out in front of
    you. I thought of home, and my mom and my dad, and my brothers and friends.
    Did any of them know about me? And what had happened? Maybe they thought I
    was dead. Maybe someone had told them I was dead. And in those fleeting seconds
    I was overwhelmed by the sadness, the heartbreaking, crushing sadness of what
    this would mean to my mom, the lady who always told me I was Mama's angel.
    What I did not know at the time but learned later was that everyone thought I was
    dead. Back home it was now some time in the small hours of Wednesday morning,
    June 29, and several hours previously a television station had announced that a
    four-man SEAL reconnaissance team that was on a mission in the northeast
    mountains of Afghanistan had all been killed in action. My name was among the
    four.


    The station, like the rest of the world's media, had also announced the loss of the
    MH-47 helicopter with everyone on board, eight SEALs and eight members of the
    160th SOAR Night Stalkers. Which made twenty special forces dead, the worst
    special ops catastrophe ever. My mom collapsed.
    By the middle part of that Tuesday evening, people had begun to arrive at the
    ranch, local people, our friends, people who wanted to be with my mom and dad,
    just in case there was anything they could do to help. They arrived in trucks, cars,
    SUVs, and on motorbikes, a steady stream of families who all said damn near the
    same thing: We just want to be with you.
    Outside the door of the main house, the front yard was like a parking lot. By
    midnight there were seventy-five people in attendance, including Eric and Aaron

    Rooney, from the family that owns one of the big East Texas construction
    corporations; David and Michael Thornberry, local land, cattle, and oil people,
    with their father, Jonathon; Slim, Kevin, Kyle, and Wade Albright, my boyhood
    friends, a lot of them Aggies.
    There was Joe Lord; Andy Magee; Cheeser; Big Roon; my brother Opie and our
    buddy Sean; Tray Baker; Larry Firmin; Richard Tanner; Benny Wiley; the strength
    coach at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Those big tough guys were all in grade school
    with me.
    Another of our local construction moguls, Scott Whitehead, showed up. He never
    even knew us, but he wanted to be there. He turned out to be a tower of strength
    for my mom, still calls her every day. Master Sergeant Daniel, highly decorated
    U.S. Army, showed up in full uniform, knocked on the front door, and told my dad
    he wanted to help in any way he could. He still shows up nearly every day, just to
    make sure Mom's okay.
    And of course there was my twin brother, Morgan, making all speed to the ranch,
    refusing point-blank to accept the broadcaster's "fact" that I was dead. My other
    brother Scottie got there first, but not being an identical twin brother to me, he
    could only know what he was told, not what the telepathic wavelengths told him.
    He was almost as devastated as Mom.
    My dad hit the Internet to check if there was further news or any official
    announcement from the SEAL HQ in Hawaii, my home base. All he found was
    confirmation of the MH-47 crash and four other SEALs missing in action.
    However, one of the Hawaiian newspapers was reporting the death of all four of
    us. At which moment I guess he believed it was true.
    Shortly after 2:00 a.m. in Texas, the SEALs began to arrive at the ranch from
    Coronado. Lieutenant John Jones (JJ) in company with Chief Chris Gothro flew in,
    with Bosun's Mate Teg Gill, one of the strongest men I know. Lieutenant David
    Duf-field arrived from Coronado right afterward, with John Owens and Jeremy
    Franklin. Lieutenant Josh Wynn and Lieutenant Nathan Shoemaker came in from
    Virginia Beach. Gunner's Mate First Class Justin Pitman made the journey from
    Florida. I should stress that none of this was planned or orchestrated. They just
    came, strangers mingling with friends, united, I suppose, in grief for a lost brother.
    And there to greet them all with my mom and dad was the mighty figure of Billy
    Shelton. No one had ever seen him in tears before. It's often that way with the
    toughest of men.
    Chief Gothro immediately told my parents he did not give a damn what the media
    said. There was no confirmation that any of the original four-man SEAL team was
    dead, although it was highly likely they had not all survived. He knew about
    Mikey's last call: My guys are dying out here. But there was no certainty about any
    of it. He told Mom to have faith, told her no SEAL was dead until there was a
    body.
    And then Morgan arrived and told them all straight-out I was alive, and that was an

    end to it. He said he'd been in contact with me, had felt my presence. He thought I
    may have been injured, but I was not dead. "Goddamn it, I know he's not dead," he
    said. "If he was, I'd know."
    By now there were 150 people in the front yard, and the local sheriffs had
    somehow cordoned off the entire ranch. No one could enter the property without
    passing through these guardians. There were police cruisers parked along the wide
    dirt road which leads to the house. Some of the officers were inside the perimeter
    fences, praying, at short services conducted by two naval chaplains who had
    arrived from Coronado in the small hours. Just in case, I guess.
    Some time before 0500 my mom answered the front door to see SEAL lieutenant
    Andy Haffele, with his wife, Kristina, standing there. "We wanted to help, any way
    we could," said Andy. "We just got here from Hawaii."

    "Hawaii!" said Mom. "That's halfway around the world."
    "Marcus once saved my life," said Andy. "I had to be here. I know there's still
    hope."
    I can't explain what all this meant to Mom. She hovered somewhere between hope
    and total despair. But she's always said she'll never forget Andy and the long
    journey he and Kristina made to be with our family.
    It began, I suppose, just as neighborly visits, interspersed with more professional
    arrivals from SPECWARCOM. But it would turn into a vigil. No one went home,
    they just stayed, day after day, night after night, all night, praying to God that I was
    still alive.
    When I think about it, these many months later, I'm kind of overwhelmed: that
    much love, that much caring, that much kindness to my parents. And I think about
    it, all of it, every day, and I still have no idea how to express my gratitude, except
    to say I know the door of our home is open to each and every one of them, no
    matter the hour or the circumstance, for all the days of my life.
    Meantime, back up the goddamned mountain, unaware of the mighty gathering still
    building at home, I was listening to the distant flow of water. Hanging on to the
    tree, leaning out, wondering how to get down there without killing myself in the
    process. That's when the Taliban sniper shot me.
    I felt the sting of the bullet ripping into the flesh high up at the back of my left
    thigh. Christ, that hurt. Really hurt. And the impact of the AK bullet spun me
    around, knocked me into a complete backflip clean off the ----ing mountain.
    When I hit, I hit hard, but facedown, which I guess didn't do my busted nose a lot
    of good and opened up the gash on my forehead.
    Then I started rolling, sliding very fast down the steep gradient, unable to get a
    grip, which may have been just as well. Because these Taliban bastards really

    opened up on me. There were bullets flying everywhere, pinging and zinging into
    the ground all around me, ricocheting off the rocks, slamming into the tree trunks.
    Jesus Christ, this was Murphy's Ridge all over again.
    But it's a lot harder to hit a moving target than you might think, especially one
    traveling as quick as I was, out of control, racing between rocks and trees. And
    they kept missing. Finally I came to a stop in a flatter area, and of course my
    pursuers had not made the downward journey nearly as fast as I had. I had had a
    decent start on them, and to my amazement I had come to little harm. I guess I
    missed all the obstacles, and the earth beneath me was softish and loose packed.
    Also, I still had my rifle, which to my mind was a bigger miracle than Our Lady of
    Lourdes.
    I began to crawl, going for cover behind a tree and trying to assess the enemy
    positions. I could see one guy, the nearest of them, just standing and pointing at

    me, yelling at two others, who were out to the right. Before I could make any kind
    of a decision, they both opened fire on me again. I did not have much of a shot at
    them, because they were still maybe a hundred yards up the cliff face and the trees
    were shielding them.
    Trouble was, I could not stand properly, and aiming the rifle was a problem, so I
    decided to make a break for it, on my hands and knees, and wait for a better spot to
    take them out. I crawled, not fast but steady, over terrible terrain, full of little hills
    and dipping gullies. It could hardly have been better country for a fugitive, which I
    now was, except I could not walk down the gullies, and I sure as hell couldn't get
    down those steep slopes on all fours, not having been born a freakin' snow leopard.
    So every time I reached one of those small precipices, I just threw myself straight
    off and hoped for a reasonable landing. I did a lot of rolling, and it was a long,
    bumpy, and painful ride. But it beat the hell out of getting shot up the ass again.
    I kept it up for about forty-five minutes, crawling, rolling, and falling, staying out

    in front of my pursuers, gaining ground on the downward falls, losing it again as
    they ran up on me. And nowhere on that snaking route down the hills did I find a
    decent spot to get rid of the gunmen who were hunting me down. The bullets kept
    flying, and I kept moving. But finally I hit some flatter ground and all around me
    were big rocks. I decided this would be Marcus's last stand. Or theirs. One way or
    another. Although I did not know exactly how many of them there were.
    I remember thinking, Now, how the hell would Morgan get out of this? What would
    he do? And it gave me strength, the massive strength of my seven-minutes-older
    brother. I decided that in this position, he'd wait till he saw the whites of their eyes.
    No mistakes. So I crawled behind this big rock, checked my magazine, then
    flipped off the safety catch of my Mark 12. And waited.
    I heard them coming but not until they were very, very close. They were not
    together, which was unnerving, because I could not account for them all. But I
    could see the spotter now, the guy who was literally tracking me down, not trying
    to shoot me; he didn't even carry a rifle. His job was to locate me and then call the
    others to bring fire down on me. Cheeky little prick.
    But it's the Afghan way. This Sharmak was an excellent delegator. One guy carries
    the water, another the extra ammunition, and the marksmen don't have to spend
    their time searching the terrain. They have a specialist to do this.
    This particular specialist was not having much trouble tracking me, probably
    because I was leaving tracks like a wounded grizzly, scuffing up the ground and
    bleeding like a stuck pig from both my forehead and my thigh all over the shale.
    I moved carefully on my knees around the rock, now with my rifle raised, and
    there was the Taliban spotter standing right in front of me, not ten feet away -- but
    he had not spotted me.
    In that instant I fired, dropped him dead in his tracks. And the force of the bullet
    knocked him backward, with blood pumping out of his chest. I think I got him
    straight through the heart, and I heard him hit the deck. But simultaneously right
    behind me I heard the soft footsteps of the chasing gunmen. I turned around and
    there were two of them, just above me in the rocks. Searching. I had only split
    seconds to work, because they were both on me, AKs raised. ----! I could get one,
    but not both.
    I went for one of my grenades, ripped out the pin, and threw it straight at them. I
    think they got a couple of shots away but not in time to get me before I plunged
    back behind the rock. This was up close and personal, not five feet between us. I
    was just imploring the Lord to let my grenade explode, and it did, blasting the two
    Afghans to smithereens, splitting rocks, sending up a sandstorm of earth and sand.
    Me? I just kept my head well down and hoped to Christ there were no more of
    them.

    It was around this time I began to black out a little, not from the blast of the
    grenade, just a general blacking-out situation. Everything was catching up with me,
    and as I lay there waiting for the debris to stop falling out of the sky, I started to
    feel pretty rotten, dizzy, unsure of myself, shaky. I think I hung around down there
    behind the rock for a few minutes before I ventured out, still crawling, trying to see
    if the other Taliban guys were following. But there was nothing.
    Obviously, I had to get away from here, because that explosion from the grenade
    must have attracted some attention somewhere. I sat there for a few more minutes,
    marveling at the silence, and pondered the world. And the conclusion I reached
    was I needed to learn to fight all over again, not like a Navy SEAL, but like a
    secretive Afghan mountain man. At least, if I planned to stay alive.
    The last hour had taught me a few major lessons, the main one being I must gain
    the ability to fight alone, in direct contrast to everything I had ever been taught.
    SEALs, as you now know, fight in teams, only in teams, each man relying entirely
    on the others to do exactly the right thing. That's how we do it, fighting as one in a

    team of four or maybe ten or even twenty, but always as one unit, one mind, one
    strategy. We are, instinctively, always backing up, always covering, always moving
    to plug the gap or pave the way. That's what makes us great.
    But up here, being hunted down, all alone -- this was entirely another game. And
    first I had to learn to move like an Afghan mountain man, stealthily, staying out of
    sight, making no sound, causing no disturbance. Of course, we had learned all that
    back in California, but not on the heightened scale which was required up here,
    against a native enemy even more stealthy, quiet, and unseen than we are.
    Crawling around on all fours was not going to help. I had to concentrate, work
    myself into the correct military position before I pounced on my prey. I had to
    conserve ammunition, make certain I was going to kill before I carried out the
    deed, and above all try to stay out of sight and not betray myself by lumbering
    around like the wounded grizzly I was.
    I resolved that when I next had to strike out against my enemy, it would be with
    our customary deadly force, always ensuring I held the element of surprise. Those
    are the tactics that invariably win conflicts for the truly ruthless underdog like the
    mujahideen, al Qaeda, and, from now on, me.
    I dragged myself back up onto my hands and knees. I listened carefully, like an
    eager hound dog, turning my head sideways to the wind. Nothing. Not a sound.
    Maybe they'd given up or perhaps they considered I was probably dead. Either
    way I was out of there.
    With my rifle jammed in my belt I began moving west, toward the water. It was
    still way below me, and since I was trying to avoid falling down this freakin'
    mountain again, I would zigzag my way down the steep slopes until I found it.
    I've long lost count of the distance, but it felt like three or four miles, crawling
    along, resting, praying, hoping, trying my best, just like Hell Week. I think I did
    black out two or three times. But finally I heard the waterfall. I heard it hissing in
    the afternoon sun, tumbling off a high rock and into a deep pool before running
    down to the lower levels of the stream.
    Somehow I arrived right on the top of that waterfall, maybe twenty feet above the
    flow. It really was beautiful, the sun glinting on the surface and all around it the
    trees on the mountain, high above the valley, on the edge of which was an Afghan
    village, way, way below me, maybe a mile.
    For the first time for as long as I could remember, no one was trying to hunt me
    down. I could hear nothing, I could see no one, everything seemed tranquil. I'd
    plainly taken out the scouting party, because if there'd been anyone sneaking along
    behind me, I'd have heard it, believe me. I might not yet move like a tribesman,
    but I had developed the hearing of one.

    I'd been without water for so long, I figured another half a minute would not make
    much difference, and so I pulled out my rifle scope to take a look down at the
    village from this excellent vantage point. I forced myself up, hanging on to a rock
    with my left hand, right above the water.
    The view from there was outstanding, and I could see the village, its upper houses
    clinging to the mountain, built right into the rock face by guys who were obviously
    craftsmen. It was like something out of a child's picture book, like the home of the
    wicked witch or something, gingerbread houses on a big rock-candy mountain.
    I put the scope away, and, not daring to look at the state of my left leg, I took a step
    forward, trying to find a spot where I could begin to slide down on my backside to
    the waiting ice-cold pool below me. That's when that left leg finally gave way.
    Perhaps it was the newly shot part, or maybe the blown-up parts, or just the
    tendons which could take no more strain. But that leg buckled and flung me
    forward, really badly.
    I twisted and fell headlong downward, sliding over loose, smooth ground, shale
    and sand, gaining speed rapidly, tumbling over, feet in the air, sometimes digging

    the toes of my boots in, fighting for a foothold, any hold would be fine. I rocketed
    straight past that lower pool and kept right on going. I can't even imagine the speed
    I was going, but I could see it was a hell of a long way to the bottom, and I could
    not stop.
    Up ahead of me was a sapling, and I lunged at it as I shot headlong past, trying to
    get a hold of anything to slow me down. My fingers closed on its thin, whippy
    trunk and I tried to pull myself up, but I was just going too fast, and it flipped me
    right over and landed me on my back. For a fleeting moment, I thought I was dead.
    Didn't make much difference whether I was dead or alive, my battered body just
    kept going for almost a thousand feet, then the mountain kind of swerved and I
    went with it, tumbling and sliding for another five hundred feet to what was more
    or less the bottom of that escarpment. I landed in a heap, feeling like I'd broken
    every bone in my body. I was out of breath, blood was trickling down my face
    from the cut on my forehead, and I generally felt just about as sorry for myself as
    it's possible to be.
    You're probably not going to believe this, but my rifle was again right beside me,
    and once more it was the thirst that saved me. Instead of just lying there, a
    bloodstained heap in the hot afternoon sun, I thought of that water, now right above
    me. At least it had been when I'd flashed past it a few moments ago.
    I knew I had to climb back up there or die. So I grabbed my rifle and began the
    long crawl to the drink that should restore my life. I scrambled and slipped over the
    loose ground, and I am certain by now you have comprehended what a truly
    horrible mountaineer I am. I can only plead the gradient. It was unbelievably steep,
    not quite sheer but almost. A great rock climber would probably have taken full
    gear in order to scale it.
    Personally I'm not sure which I was worse at, going up or falling down. But it was
    two hundred feet to that water. It took me two more hours. I blacked out twice, and
    when I reached it, I plunged my head in, just to free up my tongue and throat. Then
    I washed my burning face, cleaned the gash just below my hairline, and tried to get
    the blood to wash off the back of my leg. I couldn't tell whether the sniper's bullet
    was still lodged in there or not.
    All I knew was I needed to drink a lot of water and then try to attract attention and
    get to a hospital. Otherwise I did not think I would survive. I decided to move up a
    few yards to where the water was lapping off a rock and splashing into a small
    pool. I lowered my head and drank. It was the sweetest water I had ever tasted.
    And I was just getting into this real luxury when I noticed there were three guys
    standing right above me, two of them with AKs. For a moment I thought I was

    hallucinating. I stopped drinking. And I remember I was talking to myself, just
    mumbling really, flicking between reality and dream.
    Then I realized one of them was yelling at me, shouting something I was supposed
    to understand, but in my befuddled state I just couldn't get it. I was like a badly
    wounded animal, ready to fight to the end. I understood nothing, not the hand of
    friendship, not the possibility of human decency. The only sensation I could react
    to was threat. And everything was a threat. Cornered. Scared. Suddenly afraid of
    dying. Ready to lash out at anything. That was me.
    The only thought I had was I'll kill these guys...just give me my chance. I rolled
    away from the pool and held my rifle in my get-ready position. Then I began to
    crawl away over the rocks, braced all the time for a volley of AK bullets to rip into
    me and finally finish me off.
    But I "reasoned" I had no choice. I would have to risk getting killed by these guys
    before I could hit back. Dimly I recall that first character was still yelling his head
    off, literally screaming at me. Whatever the hell he was saying seemed irrelevant.
    But he sounded like the outraged father of one of the many Afghani tribesmen
    who'd been removed from the battlefield by the men seconded to SEAL Team 10.

    Probably by me.
    As I made my way, slowly, painfully, almost blindly to the bigger rocks up ahead,
    it did cross my mind that if these guys really wanted to shoot me they could have
    done it by now. In fact, they could have done it any time they wanted. But the
    Taliban had been hunting me down for too long. All I wanted was cover and a fair
    position from which to strike back.
    I flicked off the safety catch on my rifle and kept crawling, straight into a dead end
    surrounded by huge boulders on all sides. This was it. Marcus's last stand. And,
    slowly, I half rolled, half turned around to face my enemy once again. The problem
    was, right here my enemy had kind of fanned out. The three guys somehow had
    gotten above me and yet surrounded me, one to the left, one to the right, and one
    dead ahead. Christ, I thought. I've only one hand grenade left. This is trouble. Big
    trouble.
    Then I noticed there was even bigger trouble out in the clearing. There were three
    more guys moving up on me, all armed with AKs slung over their backs. And they
    too fanned out and somehow climbed higher, but they positioned themselves
    behind me. No one fired. I raised my rifle and drew down on the one who was
    doing the screaming. I tried to draw a bead on him, but he just moved swiftly
    behind a huge tree, which meant I was aiming at nothing.
    I swung around and tried to locate the others, but the blood from my forehead was
    still trickling down my face, obscuring my vision. My leg was turning the shale
    beneath me to a dark red. I no longer knew what the hell was happening except that
    I was in some kind of a fight, which I was very obviously about to lose. The
    second three guys were moving down the rocks in rear of me, quickly, easily, right
    on top of me.
    The guy behind the tree was now back out in the open and still yelling at me,
    standing there with his rifle lowered, I guessed demanding my surrender. But I
    couldn't even do that. I just knew that I desperately needed help or I was going to
    bleed to death. Then I did what I never thought I would do in the whole of my
    career. I lowered my rifle. Defeated. My whole world was spinning out of control
    in more ways than one. I was fighting to avoid blacking out again.
    I just lay there in the dirt, blood seeping out, still clutching my rifle, still, in a
    sense, defiant, but unable to fight. I had no more strength, I was on the edge of
    consciousness, and I was struggling to understand what the screaming tribesman
    was trying to communicate.
    "American! Okay! Okay!"

    Finally I got it. These guys meant me no harm. They'd just stumbled on to me.
    They weren't chasing me and had no intention of killing me. It was a situation I
    was relatively unused to this past couple of days. But the vision of yesterday's
    goatherds was still stark in my mind.
    "Taliban?" I asked. "You Taliban?"
    "No Taliban!" shouted the man who I assumed was the leader. And he ran the edge
    of his hand across his throat, saying once more, "No Taliban!"
    From where I was lying, this looked like a signal that meant "Death to the
    Taliban." Certainly he was not indicating that he was one of them or even liked
    them. I tried to remember whether the goatherds had said, "No Taliban." And I was
    nearly certain they had not. This was plainly different.
    But I was still confused and dizzy, uncertain, and I kept on asking, "Taliban?
    Taliban?"
    "No! No! No Taliban!"
    I guess if I'd been at my peak, I'd have accepted this several minutes ago, before
    Marcus's Last Stand and all that. But I was losing it now. I saw the leader walk up
    to me. He smiled and said his name was Sarawa. He was the village doctor, he
    somehow communicated in rough English. He was thirtyish, bearded, tall for an

    Afghan, with an intellectual's high forehead. I recall thinking he didn't look much
    like a doctor to me, not wandering around on the edge of this mountain like a
    native tracker.
    But there was something about him. He didn't look like a member of al Qaeda
    either. By now I'd seen a whole lot of Taliban warriors, and he looked nothing like
    any of them. There was no arrogance, no hatred in his eyes. If he hadn't been
    dressed like a leading man from Murder up the Khyber Pass, he could have been
    an American college professor on his way to a peace rally.
    He lifted up his loose white shirt to show me he had no concealed gun or knife.
    Then he spread his arms wide in front of him, I guess the international sign for "I
    am here in friendship."
    I had no choice but to trust him. "I need help," I said, uttering a phrase which must
    have shed an especially glaring light on the obvious. "Hospital -- water."
    "Hah?" said Sarawa.
    "Water," I repeated. "I must have water."
    "Hah?" said Sarawa.
    "Water," I yelled, pointing back toward the pool.
    "Ah!" he exclaimed. "Hydrate!"
    I could not help laughing, weakly. Hydrate! Who the hell was this crazy-assed
    tribesman who knew only long words?
    He called over a kid who had a bottle. I think he went and filled it with fresh water
    from the stream. He brought it back to me and I kept chugging away, glugging
    down the water, two good-sized bottles of it.
    "Hydrate," said Sarawa.
    "You got that right, pal," I confirmed.
    At which point we began to converse in that no-man's-land of language, the one
    where no one knows hardly a word of the other's native tongue.
    "I've been shot," I told him and showed him my wound, which had never really
    stopped bleeding.
    He examined it and nodded sternly, as if he understood the clear truth that I badly
    needed medical attention. Heaven knows how severely my left leg would be
    infected. All the dirt, mud, and shale I'd inflicted on it couldn't have done it much
    good.
    I told him I was a doctor too, thinking it might help somehow. I knew there would
    likely be savage retribution for a non-Taliban village sheltering an American

    fugitive, and I was praying they would not just leave me here.
    I wished to hell I still had some of my medical gear with me, but that was lost a
    lifetime ago on the mountain with Mikey, Axe, and Danny. Anyway, Sarawa
    seemed to believe I was a doctor, although he seemed equally certain he knew
    where I'd come from. With a succession of signals and a very few words, he
    conveyed to me he knew all about the firefight on the mountain. And he kept
    pointing directly at me, as if to confirm he absolutely knew I had been one of the
    combatants.
    The tribal bush telegraph up here must be fantastic. They have no means of fast
    communications, no phones, cars, nothing. Just one another, goatherds wandering
    the mountainside, passing on the necessary information. And here was this Sarawa,
    who had presumably been miles away from the action, informing me about the
    battle which I had helped fight the previous day.
    He patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and then retreated into a kind of
    conference with his fellow villagers while I talked to the kid.
    He had only one question, and he had a lot of trouble asking it, trying to make an
    American understand. In the end I got his drift: Were you really the lunatic who fell
    down the mountain? Very far. Very fast. Very funny. All my village saw you do it.
    Very big joke. Ha! Ha! Ha!

    Jesus Christ! I mean, Muhammad! Or Allah! Whoever's in charge around here.
    This kid really was from a gingerbread village.
    Sarawa returned. They gave me some more water. And again he checked over my
    wound. Didn't look one bit happy. But there were more important things to discuss
    than the state of my backside.
    I did not, of course, realize this. But the decision Sarawa and his friends were
    making carried huge responsibilities and, possibly, momentous consequences:
    They had to decide whether to take me in. Whether to help me, shelter me, and
    feed me. Most important, whether to defend me.
    These people were Pashtuns. And the majority of the warriors who fought under
    the banner of the former rulers of Afghanistan, plus a vast number of bin Laden's
    al Qaeda fighters, were members of this strict and ancient tribe, almost thirteen
    million of whom live right here in Afghanistan.
    That steel core of the Taliban sect, that iron resolve and deadly hatred of the
    infidel, is unwaveringly Pashtun. The backbone of that vicious little tribal army is
    Pashtun. The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken
    approval and tacit permission of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.
    The two communities, the warriors and the general mountain populace, are
    irrevocably bound together. The mujahideen fighting the Russians were principally
    Pashtun.
    Never mind "No Taliban." I knew the background. These guys might be peace-
    loving villagers on the surface, but the tribal blood ties were wrought in iron.
    Faced with an angry Taliban army demanding the head of an armed American
    serviceman, you would essentially not give a secondhand billy goat for the
    American's chances.
    And yet there was something I did not know. We're talking lokhay warkawal -- an
    unbending section of historic Pashtun-walai tribal law as laid out in the hospitality
    section. The literal translation of lokhay warkawal is "giving of a pot."
    I did mention this briefly when I outlined the Pashtun tribal background much
    earlier. But this is the part where it really counts. This is where the ole lokhay
    warkawal gets shoved into context. Right here, while I'm lying on the ground
    bleeding to death, and the tribesmen are discussing my fate.
    To an American, especially one in such terrible shape as I was, the concept of
    helping out a wounded, possibly dying man is pretty routine. You do what you can.

    For these guys, the concept carried many onerous responsibilities. Lokhay means
    not only providing care and shelter, it means an unbreakable commitment to defend
    that wounded man to the death. And not just the death of the principal tribesman or
    family who made the original commitment for the giving of a pot. It means the
    whole damned village.
    Lokhay means the population of that village will fight to the last man, honor-bound
    to protect the individual they have invited in to share their hospitality. And this is
    not something to have a chitchat about when things get rough. It's not a point of
    renegotiation. This is strictly nonnegotiable.
    So while I was lying there thinking these cruel heartless bastards were just going to
    leave me out here and let me die, they were in fact discussing a much bigger, lifeor-
    death issue. And the lives they were concerned with had nothing to do with
    mine. This was Lokhay, boy, spelled with a big L. No bullshit.
    For all I knew, they were deciding whether to put a bullet through my head and
    save everyone a lot of trouble. But by now I was drifting off, half asleep, half alert,
    and the distinction was minimal. Sarawa was still talking. Of course it occurred to
    me that these men might be just like the goatherds, loyal spies for the Taliban.
    They could easily take me in and then send their fastest messengers to inform the
    local commanders they had me, and I could be picked up and executed anytime
    they wanted.

    I wished fervently this was not the case. And though I thought I understood Sarawa
    was a nice guy, I couldn't know the truth about him; no one could, not under those
    circumstances. Anyway, there was nothing much I could do about it, except maybe
    shoot them all, and a fat chance I would have had of getting away. I could hardly
    move.
    So I just waited for the verdict. I kept thinking, What would Morgan do? Is there
    any way out of this? What's the correct military decision? Do I have any
    options? Not so you'd notice. My best chance of living was to try and befriend
    Sarawa, try somehow to ingratiate myself with his friends.
    Disjointed thoughts were blundering through my mind. What about all the death
    there had been in these mountains? What if these guys had lost sons, brothers,
    fathers, or cousins in the battle against the SEALs? How would they feel about me,
    an armed, uniformed member of the U.S. military, staging various gun battles,
    blowing Afghanis up on their very own tribal lands?
    I obviously didn't have any answers, nor could I know what they were thinking.
    But it couldn't be good. I knew that.
    Sarawa came back. He sharply ordered two men to raise me up, one of them under
    each of my arms to give me support, and lift me off the ground. He ordered another
    to lift my legs.
    As they approached me, I took out my last grenade and carefully pulled the pin,
    which placed that little bastard right in firing mode. I held it in one hand, clasped
    across my chest. The tribesmen did not seem to notice. All I knew was, if they tried
    to execute me or tie me up or invite their murderous Taliban colleagues in, I would
    drop that thing right on the floor and take the whole ----ing lot of them with me.
    They lifted me up. And slowly we began to head down to the village. I did not
    understand, not then, but this was the biggest break I'd had since the Battle for
    Murphy's Ridge first started. These friendly Pashtun tribesmen had decided to
    grant me lokhay. They were committed to defend me against the Taliban until there
    was no one left alive.

    10


    An American Fugitive Cornered by the Taliban

    Then I found a piece of flinty rock on the floor of the cave, and, lying painfully on
    my left side, I spent two hours carving the words of the Count of Monte Cristo
    onto the wall of my prison: God will give me justice.

    Sarawa and his friends did not attempt to take away my rifle. Yet. I carried it with
    me in one hand while they slowly lifted me down the steep track to the village of
    Sabray, a distance of around two hundred yards and home to perhaps three hundred
    households. In my other hand I clutched my last grenade, no pin, ready to take us
    all to eternity. It was a little after 1600, and the sun was still high.
    We passed a couple of local groups, and both of them reacted with obvious
    astonishment at the sight of an armed, wounded American holding his rifle but
    being given help. They stopped and they stared, and both times I locked eyes with
    one of them. Each time he stared back, that hard glare of pure hatred with which I
    was so familiar. It was always the same, a gaze of undisguised loathing for the

    infidel.
    They were, of course, confused. Which was not altogether surprising. Hell, I was
    confused. Why was Sarawa helping me? The worrying part was Sarawa seemed to
    be swimming against the tide. This was a village full of Islamic fanatics who
    wanted only to see dead Americans. Up here in these lawless mountains, the plan
    to smash New York's Twin Towers had been born.
    At least, those were my thoughts. But I underestimated the essential human
    decency of the senior members of this Pashtun tribe. Sarawa and many others were
    good guys who wished me no harm, and neither would they permit anyone else to
    do me harm. Nor would they kowtow to the bloodlust of some of their fellow
    mountain men. They wanted only to help me. I would grow to understand that.
    The hostile, wary looks of the goatherds on the trail were typical, but they did not
    reflect the views of the majority. We continued on down to the top house in Sabray.
    I say top house because the houses were set one above the other right into the
    almost sheer face of the mountain. I mean, you could step off the trail and walk
    straight onto the flat roof of a house.
    You had to descend farther to reach the front door. Once inside, you were more or
    less underground in a kind of man-made cave of mud and rocks with a plain dirt
    floor, obviously built by craftsmen. There were rock stairs going down to another
    level, where there was another room. This, however, was an area best avoided,
    since the villagers were likely to keep goats in there. And where there are goats,
    there is goat dung. All over the place. The smell is fiendish, and it pervades the
    entire dwelling.
    We arrived outside this house, and I tried to let them know I was still dying of
    thirst. I remember Sarawa handed me a garden hose with a great flourish, as if it
    had been a crystal goblet, and turned on a tap somewhere. I replaced the pin in my
    hand grenade, a process deeply frowned upon by the U.S. military, and stuck it
    safely in the battle harness I still wore.

    Now I had two free hands again, and the water was very cold and tasted fabulous.
    Then they produced a cot from the house and set it up for me, four of them raising
    me up and lowering me carefully onto it under the supervision of Sarawa.
    Above me I could see U.S. warplanes screaming through the high mountain sky.
    Everyone except me was pointing up at them. I just stared kind of wistfully,
    wondering when the hell they would come for me.
    By now the entire population of Sabray was surrounding my cot, watching as
    Sarawa went to work. He carefully cleaned the wounds to my leg, confirming what
    I had suspected, that there was no bullet lodged in my left thigh. Indeed, he located
    the bullet's exit hole. Christ! I'd been bleeding from both places. No wonder I
    didn't have much blood left.
    Then he took out a small surgical instrument and began pulling the metal shrapnel
    out of my leg. He spent a long time getting rid of every shard from that RPG he
    could find. That, by the way, hurt like hell. But he kept going. And then he cleaned
    it all again, thoroughly, applied antiseptic cream, and bound me up.
    I just lay there, totally exhausted. Pretty soon, I guess around six o'clock, they
    came back and moved me inside, four of them carrying the cot. They gave me
    clean clothes, which was the best thing since my first drink of water. They were
    soft Afghan garments, a loose shirt and those baggy pants, unbelievably
    comfortable. I felt damn near human. Actually, they gave me two sets of clothes,
    identical, white for daytime, black for night.
    The only hitch came as I changed from my battered U.S. battle dress, really only
    my cammy top, into the tribal garments. My shoulder still ached like the devil, and
    they had to give me a hand. And when they saw the somewhat extravagant tattoo I
    have on my back -- a half of a SEAL Trident (Morgan has the other half) -- they
    damn near fainted.

    They thought it was some kind of warlike tribal emblem, which I suppose it was.
    And then they thought I might be the devil incarnate, and I had to keep telling them
    I was a doctor, anything to stop them believing I was a special warrior from the
    U.S. Armed Forces, a man who sported a symbol of a powerful voodoo on his
    back, which was surely evil and would definitely, one day, wipe them all out.
    Happily, I managed to win that argument, but they were real pleased that I now had
    my shirt on, and they pulled down my sleeve to cover my upper arm, where a part
    of the design was visible.
    By the time they began to leave, they were smiling, and I had become, for the rest
    of my stay in the village and I suppose far beyond, Dr. Marcus.
    My final request was to be taken out to the communal head for a pee, and they took
    me but made me adopt the traditional Afghan body position for this operation. I
    remember falling over backward, which made them all laugh helplessly.
    However, they carried me back safely to my cot, still giggling, and I suddenly
    realized with horror they had removed my rifle. I demanded to know where it was,
    and the tribesmen tried hard to explain they needed to take it away, lokhay or
    no lokhay, because if the Taliban ever did get into this room, they would not
    believe I was a wounded doctor, not with a sniper rifle like that. Lokhay or
    no lokhay.
    At that stage I did not understand them, and anyhow there was little I could do
    about it. So I just cast it from my mind. And I lay there in the fading light when
    they finally left me entirely alone.
    I had had water and I'd eaten some of that flat bread they bake in the East. They
    had offered me a dish full of warm goat's milk into which I was supposed to dip it.
    But the combination was without doubt the worst-tasting sensation I'd ever had. I
    damn near threw up, and I asked them to take the milk away, telling them it was
    against my religion! I thus tackled that hard, awful bread bone dry. But I was

    grateful, and I tried to make that clear. Hell, I could have been dead up the
    mountain. But for them, I would have been.
    And now once again I was alone. I stared around me, looking for the first time at
    my surroundings. A thick, loose-woven Afghan carpet covered the floor, and
    colored cushions were placed against the wall. There were carved hanging
    ornaments but no pictures. There was glass in the windows, and below this house I
    could see others had thatched roofs. They were definitely skilled builders up here,
    but I was uncertain where the raw materials came from, the rocks, glass, and straw.
    Inside my room there was one very large, locked wooden box. In there, I learned,
    were the most valued possessions of every member of the household. And there
    was not much. Trust me on that. But what they had they seemed prepared to share
    with me.
    I'd been given a couple of blankets, and as the night drew in, I discovered why.
    The temperature plummeted from the searing heat of the day straight into the
    thirties.
    I noticed there was also an old iron woodstove in one corner of the room, where I
    later learned they baked bread every day. The system up here is for the two main
    houses, like this one, to do the baking for everyone, and the bread is then
    distributed. I lay there wondering where all the smoke went when they lit the stove,
    since there was no chimney. But that was a discovery yet to come. Answer:
    nowhere. That wood smoke stayed right in my bedroom.
    I drifted into a half sleep, my wounds still throbbing but thankfully not becoming
    infected. Hooyah, Sarawa! Right?
    The door to my new residence was quite thick but ill fitting. It would keep out the
    wind and the rain, but the guys had to give it a mighty shove to open it. I'd already
    noticed that, and I knew no one could enter the room without waking me, so I had
    no need to sleep on high alert.
    What happened next, however, took me by surprise. The door gave way to a kick
    that shattered the silence. I opened my eyes in time to see eight armed Taliban
    fighters come barging into the room. The first one came straight over to my cot and
    slapped me across the face with all his force. That really pissed me off, and he was
    a very lucky boy that I could not move and was effectively a prisoner. If he'd even
    thought about putting his hands on me when I was fit, I'd have ripped his ----ing
    head off. Little prick.
    I knew they were Taliban because of their appearance, very clean cut, manicured
    beards, clean teeth, hands, and clothes. They were well fed and could speak broken
    English. None of them was very big, maybe around five feet eight on average, and
    they all wore those old Soviet leather belts, the ones with the red star in the middle
    of the buckle. They wore Afghan clothes, but each one had a different-colored vest.
    Every man carried a knife and a Russian pistol jammed into his belt. Everything
    made in Moscow. Everything stolen.
    There was nothing I could get my hands on to defend myself. I had no rifle, no
    grenade, just my own personal badge of courage, the Lone Star of Texas on my
    arm and chest. I needed some of that courage because these bastards laid into me,
    kicking my left leg and punching my face and upper body, beating me to hell.
    I didn't give that much of a shit. I can suck this kind of crap up, like I've been
    trained. Anyway, they didn't have a decent punch among them. Essentially they
    were all very lucky boys, because in normal circumstances, I could have thrown
    any one of them straight through the freakin' window. My main worry was they
    might decide to shoot me or tie me up and march me off somewhere, maybe over
    the border to Pakistan, to film me and then cut off my head on camera.
    If I'd thought for one moment that was their intention, it would have been bad
    news for all of us. I was hurt, but not so bad as I was making out, and I was

    formulating a fallback plan. Up above me in the rafters, I could see a four-foot


    long iron bar, just resting there. Could I get it if I stood up? Yes.
    In a life-or-death situation, I'd grab that bar, carefully select the most violent of
    them, and smash it right through him. He'd never get up again. Then I'd lay into
    the front two, taking them entirely by surprise. At the same time, using the bar, I'd
    ram the whole group into a corner, crushing them together, as per standard SEAL
    combat strategy, making it impossible for anyone to draw down on me, pull a
    knife, or get out.
    I'd probably have to obliterate the skulls of another couple of them before using
    one of those Russian pistols to finish anyone still alive. Could I have done it? I
    think so. My buddies back in SEAL Team 10 would have been mighty
    disappointed in me if I'd failed.
    My absolute fallback position would have been to kill them all, grab their weapons
    and ammunition, then barricade myself in the house until the Americans came to
    get me.
    The problem was, where would all this get me in the short term? What was the
    point of being a bad-ass SEAL, the way some guys would be? The house was
    surrounded by more Taliban, all of them with AKs. I saw those guards come in and
    then go out again. Some of the little creeps were right outside the window.
    Anyway, the entire sprawl of the village of Sabray was surrounded by the Taliban.
    Sarawa had told me so, and it beat me why I'd been left alone...unless they
    knew...unless they were indoctrinated...unless I really was in the hands of off-duty
    Taliban warriors.
    But the guys at my bedside were not off duty. They were right on my case,
    demanding to know why I was there, what the American planes were doing,
    whether the United States was planning an attack on them, who was coming to
    rescue me (good question, right?). I knew that right now discretion was, by a long
    way, the better part of valor, because my objective was simply to try and stay alive,
    not to get into a brawl with knife-wielding tribesmen or, worse, get myself shot.
    I kept telling them I was just a doctor, out here to help with our wounded. I also
    told them a huge lie, that I had diabetes. I was not a member of the special forces,
    and I needed water, which they ignored. The main trouble was, strangely, my
    beard, because they knew the U.S. Army did not permit beards. Only the U.S.
    Special Forces allows that.
    I managed to persuade them I needed to go outside, and they gave me this one
    single opportunity, one last desperate try to slip away. But I could not move fast
    enough, and they just dragged me back inside, threw me on the ground, and beat
    me even more seriously than they had before. Broke the bones in my wrist. That
    hurt, and I've since needed two operations to correct it.
    By now they had lit their lanterns, maybe three of them, and the room was quite
    light. And their inquisition went on for maybe six hours. Yelling and beating,
    yelling and kicking. They told me my buddies were all dead, told me they'd
    already cut everyone's head off and that I was next. They said they had shot down
    an American helicopter, killed everyone. They were just full of bravado, shouting,
    boasting they would in the end kill every American in their country and then
    some...We will kill you all! Death to the Satan! Death to the infidel!
    They pointed out with huge glee that I was their main infidel and I had mere
    moments to live. I took a sidelong glance at that iron bar, perhaps my last hope.
    But I told them nothing, stuck to my guns, kept on telling them I was only a doctor.
    At one stage, one of the village kids came in, about seventeen years old. I was
    pretty certain he had been in one of the groups I'd passed on the way down here.
    And he had what I now call the Look. That sneering hatred of me and my country.
    The Taliban guys let him come in and watch them knocking me around. He really

    liked it, and I could tell they regarded him as "one of us." He was allowed to sit on
    the bed while they kicked at the bandage on my left thigh. He just loved it. Kept

    running the edge of his hand over his throat and laughing, "Taliban,
    heh?...Taliban!" I'll never forget his face, his grin, his triumphant stare. And I kept
    looking right up at that iron bar. The kid, too, was a very lucky boy.
    Then my interrogators found my rifle laser sight and my camera and wanted to
    take pictures of one another. I showed them how to use the laser to achieve their
    pictures, but I showed them the wrong way around and told them to stare into the
    beam with their naked eye. I guess the last favor I did them was to blind the whole
    ----ing lot of 'em! Because that beam would have burned their retinas right out.
    Sorry, guys. That's show business.
    Right after that, must have been around midnight, a new figure entered the room,
    accompanied by two attendants. I knew this was the village elder, a small man with
    a beard, a man who commanded colossal respect. The Taliban immediately stood
    up and stepped aside as the old man walked to the spot where I was lying. He
    kneeled down and offered me water in a little silver cup, gave me bread, and then
    stood up and turned on the Taliban.
    I was not certain what he was saying, but I found out later he was forbidding them
    to take me away. I think they knew that before they came, otherwise I'd probably
    have been gone by then. But there was no mistaking the authority in his voice. It
    was a small, quiet voice, calm, firm, and no one spoke while he spoke. No one
    interrupted either.
    They hardly said a word while this powerful little figure laid down the law. Tribal
    law, I guess. When he left, he walked out into the night very upright, the kind of
    posture adopted by men who are unused to defiance. You could spot him a mile off,
    kind of like an Afghan Instructor Reno. Christ! What if he could see me now?
    Upon the departure of the village elder, six hours after they had arrived, at around
    0100, the Taliban suddenly decided to leave. Painful eyes, I hoped.
    Their leader, the chief talker, was a thin character almost a head taller than all the
    rest. He led them outside, and I heard them walk off, moving softly up to the trail
    which led out of Sabray and into the mountains. Once more I was left, bleeding
    badly and very bruised, eternally grateful to the village elder, drifting off into a
    form of half-awake sleep, scared, really scared those bastards would somehow
    come back for me.
    Bang! Suddenly, there went that door again. I nearly jumped out of my new
    Afghan nightshirt with fright. Were they back? With their execution gear? Could I
    get up and fight again for my life?
    But this time it was Sarawa. And I had to ask myself, Who was he really? Had he
    tipped someone off? Was he in the clutches of the Taliban? Or had they just come
    for me and broken in when no one was looking?
    I still had not been informed of the concept of lokhay. Possibly because they had
    no way to inform me, and anyway I had no choice but to trust them. It was my only
    shot at survival.
    Sarawa was carrying a small lantern, accompanied by a few of his friends. I sensed
    them but could not really see in the pitch dark, not in my condition in this
    flickering light.
    Three of the villagers lifted me off the floor and carried me toward the door. I
    remember seeing their silhouettes on the mud walls, sinister, shadowy figures
    wearing turbans. Honestly, it was like something out of Arabian Nights. Big
    Marcus being hauled away by Ali Baba and his forty thieves to meet the ----ing
    genie. I could not, of course, know they were acting on the direct orders of the
    village elder, who had told them to get me out of there in case the Taliban decided
    to ignore the ancient rules and take me by force.

    Once outside, they doused the light and set up their formation. Two guys to walk in
    front with AK-47s and one guy in the rear also carrying an AK. The same three
    guys as before carried me, Sarawa included, and began to walk out of the village,

    downward along a trail. We traveled for a long way, the guys walking for more
    than an hour, maybe even two. And they walked tirelessly, like Bushmen or
    Bedouins.
    In the end we headed down a new trail all the way to a river -- I guess the same
    one where I'd met them -- by the waterfall, on a higher reach. I must have been a
    complete dead weight, and not for the first time I was amazed by their strength.
    When we reached the river, they stopped and adjusted their grip on me. Then they
    walked straight into it and in near total silence carried me across, in the darkness of
    this moonless night. I could hear the water rippling past but nothing more as they
    waded softly through it. On the other side, they never broke stride and now began
    to make their way up a steep gradient through the trees.
    It was lush and beautiful in the daylight. I'd seen it, and even in this cold night, I
    could feel its soft, dark green isolation, heavy with ferns and bushes. Finally we
    reached what I took to be a cave set deep into the mountainside. They lowered me
    to the ground, and I tried to talk to them, but they could not see my signals or
    understand my words, so I drew a blank. But I did manage to make Sarawa
    understand I suffered from diabetes and required water at all times. I guess the
    dread of dying of thirst remained uppermost in my mind, and right then I knew I
    could not get down to that river, not by myself.
    They carried me to the back of the cave and set me down. I think it was around
    0400 when we got there. It was Thursday, June 30. They left me with no food, but
    they did come up with a water container, an aged Pepsi bottle actually, the most
    evil-smelling piece of glass on this planet. I thought it must have been used for
    goat shit in a previous life. But it was all I had, a bottle from a sewer, but filled
    with water.
    I was afraid to put it to my lips, in case I contracted typhoid. Somehow I held it
    above my face and poured its contents into my mouth like one of those Spanish
    guys tending their bulls, or whatever they do.
    I had no food or weapon, and Sarawa and his guys were on their way out. I was
    terrified they'd never come back and had just made a decision to dump me. Sarawa
    told me he'd be back in five minutes, but I was not sure I could believe him. I just
    lay there on the rocky floor, in the dark, all alone, shivering in the cold, uncertain
    of what would befall me next.
    In the remains of that night, I fell to pieces, finally lost my mind and sobbed
    hopelessly out of pure fear, offering no further resistance to anything. I thought I
    could not take it any longer. Reno would have kicked my ass, for sure and certain.
    Hopefully on the right side, not the left.
    I kept on thinking of Morgan, crazily trying to communicate with him, trying to get
    my thought waves tuned in with his, begging God to let him hear me. And soon it
    began to get light. Sarawa had been gone for over two hours. Jesus Christ! They'd
    dumped me out here to die; Morgan didn't know where I was or whether I was
    dead or alive; and my SEAL buddies had given me up for dead.
    My brain would have been racing but for the fact that I had suddenly been attacked
    by a tribe of big black Afghan ants, and that really got my attention. I might have
    given up, but I was ----ed if I was going to be eaten alive by these little sonsabitches.
    I got myself raised up and laid into 'em with my Pepsi bottle.
    Most of them probably died from the smell, but I killed enough to beat them off for
    a while. And the hours ticked by. Nothing. No Pashtun tribesmen. No Sarawa. No
    Taliban. I was getting desperate. The ants were trickling back. And I no longer had
    the strength to mount a full assault on them. I went into selective-killing mode,

    going for the leaders with my Pepsi bottle.
    Then I found a piece of flinty rock on the floor of the cave, and, lying painfully on
    my left side, I spent two hours carving the words of the Count of Monte Cristo
    onto the wall of my prison: God will give me justice.


    I wasn't sure I quite believed it anymore. He'd been out of touch for some time
    now. But I was still alive. Just. And maybe there was help on the way. He works in
    awful mysterious ways. Still, even my rifle was gone now, like most of my hope.
    I was just beginning to drift off again, maybe a little before 0800, when the place
    seemed to come alive. I could hear the little bells around the necks of the
    goddamned goats, and they seemed to be above me. When sand and rocks started
    raining down on me, I realized there was no roof to my cave. I was open to the sky,
    I could hear those goat hooves pounding away up there somewhere, and the sand
    kept pouring down on me.
    The good news was it buried the ants, but I was trying to stop it getting in my eyes,
    and so I turned facedown, shielding my eyes with my hands, my right wrist aching
    like hell from that Taliban gun butt. Suddenly, to my complete horror, I saw the
    barrel of an AK-47 easing round the corner of the rock which guarded my left side.
    I couldn't hide, I couldn't even take cover, and I sure as hell couldn't fight back.
    The barrel kept coming, then the rest of the rifle, the hands, and the face -- the
    face of one of my buddies from Sabray, grinning cheerfully. I was in such shock I
    could not even bring myself to call him a crazy prick, which he plainly was. But he
    brought me bread and that appalling goat's milk and filled my water bottle. The
    one from the sewer.
    Half an hour later Sarawa came, five hours after he said he would. He looked at my
    bullet wound and gave me more water. Then he posted a guard at the entrance to
    my roofless cave. The guard was thirtyish and, like the rest of them, whip-thin and
    bearded. He sat on a rock a little way above my entrance, his AK-47 slung over his
    shoulder.
    I kept drifting off, lying there on the floor, and every time I came awake I leaned
    out to see if the guard was still there. His name was Norzamund, and he always
    smiled real friendly and gave me a wave. But we could not speak, no common
    words. He came down once to fill my water bottle and I tried to get him to share
    his with me. No dice.
    So I lifted the evil Pepsi bottle and splashed the water directly into my mouth.
    Then I chucked it to the back of the cave. Next time Norzamund brought water, he
    went back and found the goddamned thing and filled it yet again.
    I was alone in the late afternoon, and I saw the goatherds come by a couple of
    times. They never waved or made contact, but neither did they betray my position.
    If they had I do not believe I would be here. Even now I'm not sure
    whether lokhay works for a guy who's left the village.
    Norzamund had left me some fresh bread, for which I was grateful. He went home
    shortly after dark, and for several hours I saw no one. I tried to stay calm and
    rational because it seemed Sarawa and his men were intent on saving me. Even the
    village elder was plainly on my side. That's nothing to do with my charm, by the
    way. That's strictly lokhay.
    I sat there by myself all through that long evening and into the night. June 30
    became July 1; I checked my watch around midnight so I knew when that
    happened. I tried not to think of home and my mom and dad, tried not to give in to
    self-pity, but I knew it was around 3:00 p.m. back home in Texas, and I wondered
    if anyone had the slightest clue about how much trouble I was in and whether they
    realized how badly I needed help.

    What I definitely did not know was that there were now well over two hundred
    people gathered at the ranch. No one went home. It was as if they were willing a
    hopeless situation to become hopeful, as if their prayers for me could somehow be
    answered, as if their presence could somehow protect me from death, as if they
    believed that if they just stayed in place, no one would announce I had been killed
    in action.

    Mom says she was witnessing a miracle. She and Dad were serving three meals a
    day to every person on that ranch, and she never knew where the food came from.
    But it kept coming, big trucks from a couple of food distributors were arriving with
    steaks and chicken for everyone, maybe two hundred meals at a time. No charge.
    Local restaurants were trucking stuff in, seafood, pasta, hamburgers. There was
    Chinese food for fifty, then for sixty. Eggs came, sausage, ham, and bacon. Dad
    says the barbecues never went out.
    Everyone was there to help, including the Herzogg family, big local cattle ranchers,
    churchgoers, patriots, ready to step up for a friend in need. Mrs. Herzogg showed
    up with her daughters and without asking just went to work cleaning the place up.
    And they did it every day.
    The navy chaplains made everyone recite the Twenty-third Psalm, just like I was
    doing. During the open-air services, everyone would stand up and solemnly sing
    the navy hymn:
    Eternal Father, strong to save,
    Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
    Who bid'st the mighty ocean deep
    Its own appointed limits keep . . .


    And of course they always ended with the special verse exclusively for the Navy
    SEALs, the everlasting anthem for SPECWARCOM:


    Eternal Father, faithful friend,
    Be quick to answer those we send,
    In brotherhood and urgent trust,
    On hidden missions dangerous,


    O hear us when we cry to Thee,
    For SEALs in air, on land, and sea.
    People just slept whenever and wherever they could. We have a large wood
    guesthouse at the entrance to the property, and people just went in there. The
    SEALs came into the house and slept where they could, on beds, on sofas, in
    chairs, wherever. And every three hours, there was a telephone call, patched in
    directly from the battlefield in Afghanistan. It was always the same: "No news."
    No one ever left Mom alone, but she was beside herself with worry.
    As June turned into July, many were beginning to lose faith and believe I was dead.
    Except for Morgan, who would not believe it and kept saying he'd been in
    communication, mentally. I was hurt but alive. Of that he was certain.
    The SEALs also would not even consider the possibility that I was dead. He's
    missing in action, MIA. That was their belief. And until someone told them
    different, that's all they would accept. Unlike the stupid television station, right?
    They thought they could say any damn thing they felt like, true or not, and cause


    my family emotional trauma on a scale only a community as close as we are could
    possibly understand.

    Meanwhile back in the cave, Norzamund came back with two other guys, again
    frightening the life out of me. It was about 0400 on Friday, July 1, and they had no
    lantern. They communicated with whispers and hissing signals for silence. Once
    more they lifted me up and carried me down the hill to the river. I tried to throw the
    foul-smelling water bottle away, but they found it and brought it right back. Guess
    there was a heavy shortage of water bottles in the Hindu Kush. Anyway, they
    looked after that bottle like it was a rare diamond.
    We crossed the river and turned up the escarpment, back to the village. It seemed

    to take a real long time, and at one point I flicked on the light on my watch, and
    they almost went wild with fury: No! No! No! Dr. Marcus. Taliban! Taliban!
    Of course I didn't know what they were talking about. The light was tiny, but they
    kept pointing at it. I soon realized that light was an acute danger to all of us, that
    the village of Sabray was surrounded by the Taliban, waiting for their chance to
    capture or kill me. My armed bearers had the same Pashtun upbringing and knew
    the slightest flicker of a light, no matter how small, was unusual out here on the
    mountain and could easily attract the attention of an alert watchman.
    I switched that sucker off, real quick. And one of my guys, walking out in front
    with his AK, had some English. He came back to me and whispered: "Taliban see
    light, they shoot you, Dr. Marcus."
    Finally we reached high ground, and I picked up the word helicopter. And right
    here I thought someone might be coming to rescue me. But it was just a false
    alarm. Nothing came. I stretched out on the concrete, and some time before dawn,
    Sarawa showed up with his medical bag and attended to my leg. He removed the
    blood-soaked dressings, washed out the wounds, and applied antiseptic cream and
    fresh bandages. Then, to my astonishment, he produced some insulin for the
    diabetes I didn't have.
    Guess I was a better liar than I thought. And I obviously had to take it. The stuff I
    do for my country. Unbelievable, right?
    They moved me into a house up there near the top of the village, and soon after I
    arrived I met my first real friend, Mohammad Gulab, the thirty-three-year-old son
    of the village elder, and the resident police chief. Everyone called him Gulab
    (pronounced Goo-larb), and his position in the community was very strong. He
    made it clear the Taliban were not going to take me while he had anything to do
    with it.
    He was an extremely nice guy, and we became good friends, or as close to good
    friends as it's possible to be when the language barrier is almost insurmountable.
    Mostly we tried to communicate about families, and I understood he had a wife
    and six children and God knows how many cousins and uncles. Conveying news
    about my identical twin brother was a tough one, so we just settled for brother,
    mainly because Gulab unfailingly thought Morgan was me. Like a lot of other folk
    have done down the years.
    Gulab had a friend with him who was also a solid man, plainly an appointed relief
    guard. Between them they never left me alone. By this time I knew why. The
    village was entirely embarrassed when the Taliban had crept in here armed to the
    teeth and conducted an interrogation regardless of the wishes of the people. Those
    warriors had been on the verge of causing the ultimate retribution under the laws
    of lokhay, which would have obliged the village to go to war to the last man on my
    behalf.
    I did not yet comprehend the full implications of lokhay but I knew it was

    important and that I would not be surrendered. And now I had a full-time guard
    detail in my room. This did not prevent other visitors from coming in, and my first
    on that morning in my new house was a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old.
    He sat on the edge of my cot and tried to teach me a Muslim prayer: La La e La La
    -- Muhammad del la su La La. I pretty soon got the hang of it and repeated it with
    him. He was thrilled, clapped his hands and laughed, and charged out through the
    door to round up a posse of other kids. Gulab tried to inform me that the repetition
    of that prayer meant that I was now a Muslim. And almost immediately the first
    little boy came racing back into the room with all his buddies, about twenty of
    them, all eager to pray with the new Texan convert.
    I tried to explain I was a doctor, and they understood this pretty quickly, started
    saying over and over, "Hello, Dr. Marcus," laughing like hell and falling about like
    kids do. I could tell they really liked me, and I borrowed a marker pen one of them

    had and wrote each of their names in English on their arms. Then I let them write
    their names on mine.
    We exchanged words for ears, nose, and mouth. Then for water (uba) and for
    walk (ducari), both of which I found useful. In the end they left, but other local
    tribesmen came in to speak to Gulab, and I began, with his encouragement, to
    converse with the guys who walked the goats, the men who would understand
    distance. Slowly, during the course of the day, we established there was a small
    American base two miles away.
    They pointed out the window directly at a mountain which looked like a spare part
    from the Rockies. It towered above us, a great wall of granite that would have
    caused a mountain goat to back off. "Over there, Dr. Marcus, far side," one of them
    managed to say. And since I probably could not have reached the window, never
    mind the mountain, I put that plan on the back burner for the moment.
    They had been referring to the village of Monagee, in the district of Manrogai,
    where I knew the U.S. military had some kind of an outpost. But it was out of the
    question right now. I couldn't get there or anywhere else until my leg improved.
    Nonetheless, the goatherds had some good information about the terrain and the
    distances to various villages and U.S. bases. These guys walk around the
    mountains for a living. Local knowledge. That's key to every serving SEAL,
    especially one who was planning a kind of soft jailbreak, like me.
    With the goatherds, I was able to work out that from the scene of the original
    battlefield where the others died, on that terrible night of June 28 I had traveled
    around seven miles, four walking, three crawling. Seven miles! Wow! I couldn't
    believe that. But these herders knew their land. And they, like everyone else, knew
    all about the Battle for Murphy's Ridge, where it had been fought and the very bad
    losses sustained by the Taliban..."You shoot, Dr. Marcus? You shoot?"
    Me? Shoot? Never. I'm just a wandering doctor trying to look after my patients.
    But I was real proud of traveling seven miles over the mountain in my beat-up
    condition after the battle.
    I took my ballpoint pen and marked distances, drew maps, made diagrams of the
    mountains on my right thigh. When that got a little crowded, I had to use my left.
    (Shit! That hurt. That really hurt!)
    At noon the kids came back for prayers, bringing with them several adults, clearly
    eager to meet the new American convert, no longer an infidel. We prayed together
    to Allah, kneeling -- painfully, in my case -- on the floor. After which we all
    shook hands, and I think they welcomed me to their prayers. Never told 'em, of
    course, I slipped in a quick one to my own God while I was at it, respectfully
    wondering, if it was all right with Him, whether I could get my rifle back anytime
    soon.
    They all came back for afternoon prayers at 1700, and again at sunset. The little

    kids, my first friends, had to leave for bed right after that, but I remember they all
    came and hugged me before they left, and, not having mastered "Good-bye" or
    "Good night" yet, they repeated their first American phrase again and again as they
    left the room: "Hello, Dr. Marcus."
    The older kids, the young teenagers, were allowed to stay and talk with me for a
    while. Gulab helped them to communicate and we parted as friends. The trouble
    was, I was getting sick now, and I was beginning to feel pretty ropy, not just the
    pain of my wounds but kind of like flu, only a bit worse.
    When the kids had finally left, I received a visit from the village elder himself. He
    brought me bread, gave me fresh water, then sat down for maybe three hours while
    we discussed, as best we could, how I could get to an American base. It was clear I
    was a major problem to the village. Threats were already being received from the
    Taliban, informing the villagers how urgent it was for their cause that I be
    surrendered to them immediately.

    The old man imparted this to me but took the view I was in no shape to travel and
    that it would simplify matters for a member of his Pashtun tribe to make the
    journey, on foot, to the big U.S. base at Asadabad and inform them of my
    whereabouts. I had no clue at the time he was preparing to make the journey
    himself, some thirty to forty miles alone in the mountains.
    He asked me to write out a letter for him to take to Asadabad. I wrote, This man
    gave me shelter and food, and must be helped at all costs. At the time I was under
    the distinct impression that he and I were going to make the journey together,
    possibly with an escort and a few guys to help carry me. Departure time was set for
    1930, right after evening prayers.
    But I had misunderstood. The old man had no intention of traveling with me,
    correctly reasoning I'd be a far greater nuisance on such a trek over the mountains
    than I would be lying here. Also, if the Taliban found out we'd gone, we would be
    highly susceptible to ambush. I never saw him again, to thank him for his kindness.
    I waited all afternoon and half the night for him to come and have me collected.
    But of course he never did. I remember being hugely disappointed, not for the first
    time, that more definite plans were not being formulated for my evacuation.
    At one point during the evening, the tribal leaders came and had a meeting in my
    room. They just sat on the floor and talked, but they brought me back the little
    silver cup I'd had in the first house. And they poured me several cups of that chai
    tea they drink and, I think, grow on a small scale up here. The ceremony included
    sweet candy, which you eat while you drink your tea. And that tasted great after my
    enforced diet of very, very dry baked flat bread.
    Gulab stayed with me and was cheerful as ever, but he either could not or would
    not answer questions about his father and his immediate plans. I think the tribal
    leaders felt it was better for me not to know -- classified, Pashtun-style, FYO and
    all that. The work of the elder was information provided on a need-to-know basis
    only. I was getting used to operating outside the loop, everyone's freakin' loop, that
    is.
    Gulab spent much of the evening trying to explain to me the complex threads that
    hold together the Pashtun tribes and al Qaeda, still working in conjunction with the
    Taliban army. The United States had been busy trying to clear all of them the hell
    out of Afghanistan for four years but with only limited success.
    The jihadists seem to have some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a
    whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with
    money, sometimes promising protection, sometimes with outright threats. The truth
    is, however, neither al Qaeda nor the Taliban could function without the
    cooperation of the Pashtun villages.
    And often, deep within the communities, there are old family ties and young men

    who sympathize with the warlike mentality of the Taliban and al Qaeda chiefs.
    Kids barely out of grade school -- joke, they don't have grade schools up here -are
    drawn toward the romantic cutthroats who have declared they'll fight the
    American army until there is no one left.
    I guess there's something very alluring about that to some kids. You can see these
    potential Taliban recruits in any of the villages. I've seen dozens of them, too
    young to have that much hate and murder in their eyes and hearts. Christ, one of
    the little bastards had sat on my bed urging eight armed men to torture me. Nice.
    He couldn't have been more than seventeen.
    But there is another side to this. Sabray was obviously governed wisely by Gulab's
    father. And there was a sense of law and order and discipline in an essentially
    lawless land. Al Qaeda effectively owns great swaths of land in Kunar Province,
    which had now been my home for the better part of three months. And this is
    mostly because of the terrain.
    I mean, how the hell do you impose national government on a place like this? With

    no roads, no electricity, no mail, little communication, where the principal industry
    is goats' milk and opium, the main water company is a mountain stream, and all
    freight is moved by mule cart, including the opium. You're whistling Dixie. It's
    never going to happen.
    Al Qaeda are running around in broad daylight, mostly doing what the heck they
    want, until we show up and chase the little pricks back over the border to Pakistan.
    Where they stay. For about ten minutes, before launching their next foray into
    these tribal mountains, which their ancestors have ruled for centuries.
    These days there are less gifts and a lot more fear. The Taliban is a ruthless outfit,
    with instincts about killing their enemies which have barely changed in two
    thousand years. They should somehow by now have frightened the bejesus out of
    my buddy Gulab and his father, but they had not succeeded, so far as I could see.
    There's just something unbreakable about them all, a grim determination to follow
    the ancient laws of the Pashtuns -- laws which may yet prove too strong even for
    the Taliban and al Qaeda.
    But from where I was sitting, in the smoky main room of one of Sabray's high
    houses, talking to the village cop, that's not the way the tide was running. And until
    the United States decides to wield a very large stick up here in support of the
    elected government of the people, in Kabul, I'm not looking for any serious change
    real soon. The enemy is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve victory,
    terrorizing its own people, if necessary, and resorting to barbaric practices against
    its enemy, including decapitating people or butchering them.
    We are not allowed to fight them on those terms. And neither would we wish to.
    However, we could fight in a much more ruthless manner, stop worrying if
    everyone still loved us. If we did that, we'd probably win in both Afghanistan and
    Iraq in about a week.
    But we're not allowed to do that. And I guess we'd better start getting used to the
    consequences and permit the American liberals to squeak and squeal us to ultimate
    defeat. I believe that's what it's called when you pack up and go home, when a war
    fought under your own "civilized" terms is unwinnable.
    We're tougher, better trained, better organized, better armed, with access to
    weapons which cannot be resisted. The U.S. Armed Forces represent the greatest
    fighting force this world has ever seen, and we keep getting our butts kicked by a
    bunch of illegal thugs who ought to be eliminated.
    Look at me, right now in my story. Helpless, tortured, shot, blown up, my best
    buddies all dead, and all because we were afraid of the liberals back home, afraid
    to do what was necessary to save our own lives. Afraid of American civilian
    lawyers. I have only one piece of advice for what it's worth: if you don't want to

    get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get
    killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in
    the first place.
    Because that's what happens. In all wars, down all the years of history. Terrible
    injustices, the killing of people who did not deserve to die. That's what war is. And
    if you can't cope with it, don't do it.
    Meantime, I was stuck in the house waiting for the old man to show up, when he
    was already miles away, walking through the mountains, the thirty or so miles to
    Asadabad. Once I wandered outside when no one was looking, and I tried to find
    him. But he seemed to have gone missing. Even then I never dreamed that little old
    guy was walking to Asadabad by himself.
    I couldn't really tell, but I sensed something was making my guys jumpy. And
    about ten or eleven o'clock that night, we moved. They had just brought me fresh
    water and bread, which I consumed gratefully, and then I was instructed to pack up
    and leave. By this time my leg was a little better, even though it hurt, and with
    some assistance I was able to walk.

    We made our way in the dark down to a different house and stepped off the trail
    directly onto the roof. We had some kind of a sheet, and the three of us laid down
    close together for warmth. It was very, very cold, but I guess they felt there was
    some danger if I'd remained in my old spot. Maybe they had suspicion of someone
    in the village, worry that someone had tipped off the Taliban as to my precise
    whereabouts. But whatever, these guys were taking no chances. If Taliban gunmen
    burst into my old house, they would not find me.
    I was up here on the freakin' roof, huddled with Gulab and his buddy, freezing to
    death but safe. And once more I was amazed by the silence, that mountain silence.
    There was not one single sound in the entire village of Sabray, and for a Westerner
    that's really hard to imagine.
    Gulab and his pal made no sound. I could scarcely hear them breathing. Whenever
    we did anything, they were always telling me shhhhh, when I had thought I was
    being silent as the grave. It's another world up here, so quiet it defies the logic of
    Western ears. Maybe that's why no one has ever conquered these high lands of the
    Afghan tribesmen.
    I slept on and off through the night, up there on the roof. Once I dared to change
    position, and you'd have thought I'd set off a fire alarm from the reaction of my
    new friends. "Shhhhh, Dr. Marcus...Quiet." It just showed how jumpy they were,
    how nervous of the hushed killers of the Taliban army.
    At dawn we packed up and returned to the house. I wanted to sleep some more, but
    there was a big tree right outside the window that had a view down the mountain,
    and in that tree lived the world's loudest rooster. That sucker could have awakened
    a graveyard. And he did not give a damn about dawn, first light and all that. He let
    it fly right after midnight and never let up. There were several times when, if it had
    come to a straight coin toss between taking out Sharmak or the rooster, I could
    easily have spared Sharmak.
    The tribal chiefs came back again around 0700 to conduct their early morning
    prayers in my room. Of course I joined them in reciting the bits I had learned, and
    then, when the adults left, the door flew open and a whole bunch of kids came
    charging through the door, shouting, "Hello, Dr. Marcus."
    They never knocked, just came tumbling in, grabbing me and hugging me. And it
    went on intermittently throughout the day. Sarawa had left his medical bag in my
    room, and I fixed up their cuts and scrapes, and they taught me bits of their
    language. Those kids were great. I'll never forget them.
    By that Saturday morning, July 2, I was still in a lot of pain; my shoulder, back,
    and leg were often killing me. Gulab knew this, and he sent an old man from the

    village to see me. He came with a plastic pouch containing tobacco opium, which
    looks like green bread dough. He gave me the pouch, and I took a pinch of the
    stuff, put it in my lip, and waited.
    I'm here to tell you, that was a miracle. The pain slowly vanished, completely. It
    was the first time I'd ever done drugs, and I loved it! That opium restored me, set
    me free. I felt better than I had since we all fell down the mountain. What with the
    Muslim prayers and now my becoming a devotee of the local dope, I was drifting
    into the life of an Afghan peasant. Hooyah, Gulab, right?
    The old man left the bag with me, and it helped me get through the next hours
    more than I can say. When you've lived through a lot of pain for a few days, the
    relief is terrific. For the first time I understood the power of that drug, which is, of
    course, the one the Taliban and al Qaeda feed to suicide bombers before they
    obliterate themselves and everyone else within range.
    There's nothing heroic about suicide bombers. They're mostly just dumb,
    brainwashed kids, stoned out of their minds.
    Outside the house, I could see the U.S. helicopters flying overhead, Black Hawk
    60s and MH-47s, obviously looking for something. Hopefully me. I knew from

    what the Taliban had said that one of our helos was down, but not, of course, who
    had been on board, that eight more of my buddies from Alfa Platoon were dead,
    including Shane Patton, James Suh, and Chief Healy.
    I also did not know that neither Mikey's, Danny's, nor Axe's body had been found
    and that the helos were circling the area trying to pick up any trace of the original
    four who had set off on the ill-fated Operation Redwing. The aircrew did not know
    whether any of us were alive or dead. And back home, the media were vacillating
    between dead and missing, whichever made the best story on the day, I guess.
    Didn't help any in East Texas, I can say that.
    Anyway, when I saw those helos, I charged outside. I took off my shirt and waved
    it over my head, yelling, "Here I am, guys! I'm right here. It's me, Marcus! Right
    here, guys!"
    But they just flew off, leaving me a somewhat forlorn figure standing outside the
    house, trying to put on my shirt, and wondering again whether anyone would ever
    come and rescue me.
    In the fullness of time I understood the quandary for the American military. Four
    SEALs, fighting for their lives, had made one final communication that we were
    dying up here. Since then, there had been neither sight nor sound of the four of us.
    Militarily, there were several possibilities, the first being we were all now dead.
    The second was we were all still alive. The third was there were survivors, or at
    least a survivor, and they were somewhere on the loose, possibly wounded, in steep
    country where there is almost no possibility of making a safe landing in any
    aircraft.
    I guess the last possibility was that we had been taken prisoners and that in time
    there would be either a ransom note demanding an enormous cash payment or a
    television film showing us first as prisoners and then being executed.
    The last option was unlikely when the missing were Navy SEALs. We don't
    habitually get captured. Either we kill our enemy or our enemy kills us. SEALs
    don't put their hands up or wave white flags. Period. The command post knew that
    back in Asadabad, or Bagram.
    They would not have been expecting a communiqué from the Taliban saying
    SEALs had been captured. There's an old SEAL motto: Never assume a frogman's
    dead unless you find his body. Everyone knows that.
    The most likely scenario, aside from all dead, was that one or more of the
    Redwings was hurt, out of communication, and unable to make contact. The
    problem was location. Where were we? How could we be found?

    Plainly, the Taliban were not saying a thing; therefore, they had no prisoners.
    Equally, the missing SEALs weren't saying anything. Dead? Probably. Wounded in
    action and still holding out in the mountains, out of contact? As the days went by,
    this must have seemed increasingly less likely.
    By now Gulab had told me that his father had departed to walk to Asadabad alone.
    All my hopes rested in the soft tread of this powerful yet tiny old man.


    11
    Reports of My Death Greatly Exaggerated

    He literally dragged me into a standing position, and then...He was running and
    trying to make me keep up with him, and he kept shouting, signaling, again and

    again:Taliban! Taliban are here! In the village! Run, Dr. Marcus, for God's sake,
    run!
    Gulab had now become the principal figure in my life. He called the security shots,
    made sure I had food and water, and was, in my mind, the link between us and his
    father as the old man toiled through the mountains to Asadabad.
    The Afghani policeman betrayed no sign of stress, but he did reveal to me that a
    letter had been received earlier from the commander of the Taliban forces. It was a
    written demand that the villagers of Sabray hand over the American immediately.
    The demand came from the rising officer of the Taliban army in the northeast, the
    firebrand "Commodore Abdul," right-hand man to Sharmak and a character who
    plainly saw himself as some kind of Eastern Che Guevara. His reputation was
    apparently growing as an ambush leader and as an officer who was expert at
    bringing in new recruits through the passes.
    I never knew, but it would not have surprised me to learn he had been in the front
    line of the army that confronted the team on the ridge, though I have no doubt the
    strategy was planned by the senior man, Sharmak, who had done so much damage
    already.
    They did not, however, faze Gulab. He and his father had replied that it made no
    difference how bad the Taliban wanted the American, they were not going to get
    him. When Gulab told me, he made a very distinct, brave, dismissive gesture. And
    he spent some time trying to convey his personal position: They can't frighten me.
    My village is well armed, and we have our own laws and rights. The Taliban need
    our support a lot more than we need theirs.
    He was a gallant and confident man, at least on the surface. But I noticed he took
    no chances when there was any kind of suggestion the Taliban were coming in. I

    guess that's why we ended up sleeping on the roof.
    Also, he had not the slightest interest in a reward. I offered to give him my watch
    in return for his unending decency to me. I implored him to take my watch,
    because it was all I had to offer. But he always refused to accept it. As for money,

    what use could that have been to him? There was nothing to spend it on. No shops,
    the nearest town miles and miles away, a journey that had to be made on foot.
    A couple of the sneering kids did ask for money, teenagers, maybe sixteen- or
    seventeen-year-olds. But they were planning to join the Taliban and leave Sabray,
    to fight for "freedom." Gulab told me he had no intention of leaving here. And I
    understood that. He was part of the fabric of the village. One day he would be the
    village elder. His family would grow up here. It was all he had ever known, all he
    had ever wanted. This very beautiful corner of the Hindu Kush was where he
    belonged. What use was money to Mohammad Gulab of Sabray?
    The last of the kids had left my room, and I was lying there contemplating the
    world, when there was a kick on the door that nearly took it off its hinges. No one
    kicks a door in quite like that except a Taliban raiding party. That was all I could
    imagine. But around here, where doors don't fit, a good bang with your sandal is
    about the only way to get the sonofabitch open, short of a full-blooded shoulder
    charge.
    But the sudden shock of a door being kicked in about five feet from your head is a
    nerve-racking experience. And I'm neurotic about it to this day. Because the sound
    of the crash on the door is the sound I heard before I was tortured. It sometimes
    dominates my dreams. I wake up sweating, a tremendous crash echoing in my
    mind. And no matter where I am, I need to check the door lock before I can sleep
    again. It's pretty goddamned inconvenient at times.
    Anyway, this was not the Taliban. It was just my own guys opening the door,
    which must have been shut firmly by the kids. I restarted my heart, and my room

    stayed kind of quiet until midmorning, when the door catapulted open with a
    violent bang! that shook the goddamned mountain, never mind the room. And once
    more I almost jumped out of my Afghan jumpsuit. And this time they were
    shouting at me. I could not understand what, but something had broken out, things
    were on the move. Jesus Christ! I had to steady this group down. There were adults
    and kids, all mixed up, and they were all yelling the same thing -- "Parachute!
    Parachute! Parachute! Dr. Marcus, come quick!"
    I made my way outside, aching to high heaven all the way. I resolved to have
    another shot of that opium soon as I returned, but for now it was all eyes upward,
    straight at the clear blue, cloudless skies. What could we see? Nothing. Whatever
    had landed was down, and I stood there trying to make them understand I needed
    to know if there had been a man on the end of that parachute, and if so, how many
    parachutes there had been. Was this a drop zone for my buddies to come right in
    and get me?
    The upshot of this was also nothing. The tribesmen simply could not understand
    me. The kids, who I detected were the ones who had actually spotted the parachute,
    or parachutes, were just as mystified. All the hours of study we had done together
    had come to nothing.
    There was a sudden conference, and most of the adults upped and left. I went back
    in. They returned maybe fifteen minutes later and brought with them all my gear,
    which they had hidden away from the eyes of the Taliban. They gave me back my
    rifle and ammunition, my H-gear (that's my harness), and in its pocket, my PRC148
    intersquad radio, the one for which I'd lost the little microphone earpiece. It
    still had its weakish battery and its still-operational emergency beacon.
    I was aware that if I grabbed the bull by the horns and went right outside and let rip
    with this communications gear, I would once more be a living, breathing distress
    signal, which the Amer-icans might catch from a cruising helo. On the other hand,
    the Taliban, hidden all around in the hills, could scarcely miss me. I found this a bit
    of a dilemma.
    But the rearmament guys of Sabray also brought me my laser and the disposable

    camera. I grabbed my rifle and held it like you might caress a returning lover. This
    was the weapon God had granted me. And, so far as I could tell, still wanted me to
    have. We'd traveled a long way together, and I probably deserved some kind of an
    award for mountain climbing, maybe the Grand Prix Hindu Kush presented to
    Sherpa Marcus. Sorry, forget all that, I meant mountain falling, the Grand Prix
    Hindu Crash, awarded unanimously to Sherpa Marcus the Unsteady.
    Outside, I put on my harnesss, locked and loaded the rifle, and prepared for
    whatever the hell might await us. But with my harness back, I was not yet done
    with the kids. That harness contained my notebook, and we had access to the
    village ballpoint pen.
    I marched them back into the house and carefully drew two parachutes on the page.
    I drew a man swinging down from the first one. On the second one, I drew a box. I
    showed both pictures to the kids and asked them, Which one? And about twenty
    little fingers shot forward, all aimed directly at the parachute with the box.
    Beautiful. I had intel. There had been some kind of a supply drop. And since the
    local tribesmen do not use either aircraft or parachutes, those supplies had to be
    American. They also had to be aimed at the remnants of my team. Everyone else
    was dead. I was that remnant.
    I asked the kids exactly where the chutes had dropped, and they just pointed to the
    mountain. Then they got into gear and raced out there, I guess to try and show me.
    I stood outside and watched them go, still a bit baffled. Had my buddies somehow
    found me? Had the old man reached Asadabad? Either way, it was one hell of a
    coincidence the Americans had made a supply drop a few hundred yards from
    where I was taking cover. The mountains were endless, and I could have been

    anywhere.
    I went back into the house to rest my leg and talk for a while with Gulab. He had
    not seen the parachute drop, and he had no idea how far along the road his father
    had journeyed. In my mind, I knew what every active combat soldier knows, that
    Napoleon's army advanced on Moscow at one mile every fifteen minutes, with full
    packs and muskets. That's four miles an hour, right? That way, the village elder
    should have made it in maybe eleven hours.
    Except for two mitigating factors: (1) he was about two hundred years old, and (2)
    from where I stood, the mountain he was crossing had a gradient slightly steeper
    than the Washington Monument. If the VE made it by Ramadan 2008, I'd be kinda
    lucky.
    One hour later, there it goes again. Bang! That goddamned door went off like a
    bomb. Even Gulab jumped. But not as high as I did. In came the kids, accompanied
    by a group of adults. They carried with them a white document, which must have
    looked like a snowball in a coal mine up here where the word litter simply does not
    exist.
    I took it from them and realized it was an instruction pamphlet for a cell
    phone. "Where the hell did you get this?" I asked them.
    "Right out there, Dr. Marcus. Right out there." Everyone was pointing at the
    mountainside, and I had no trouble with the translation.
    "Parachute?" I said.
    "Yes, Dr. Marcus. Yes. Parachute."
    I sent them right out there again, trying to make it clear that I needed the
    mountainside searched for anything like this, anything that might have come in on
    the parachutes.
    My guys don't drop cell phone pamphlets, but they might have been trying to drop
    me a cell phone and the pamphlet just came with it. Either way, I could not find out
    for myself, so I had to get the guys to do it for me. Gulab stayed, but the others
    went with the kids, like a golf crowd fanned out to look for Tiger's ball in deep

    rough.
    Gulab and I settled down. We had a cup of tea and some of those delicious little
    candies, then lounged back on our big cushions. Suddenly, bang! The door nearly
    cannoned off its hinges. I shot tea all over the rug, and in came everyone again.
    This time they had found a 55-90 radio battery and an MRE (meal ready to eat).
    The guys must have thought I was starving. Correct. But the battery did not fit my
    PRC-148 radio, which sucked, because if it had, I could have fired up a permanent
    distress signal straight into the sky above the village. As things were, I had no idea
    if my present weak radio beacon would reach much higher than the rooftops.
    I had no need to interrogate the kids further. If there had been anything else out
    there on the mountain, they'd have found it. There obviously wasn't. Whatever the
    drop had contained, the Taliban had beaten the kids to it. The one bit of reverse
    good news was they clearly had the cell phone or phones, and they would probably
    try to use them. And the entire U.S. electronic surveillance system in the province
    of Kunar would be listening, ready to locate the caller.
    But then I noticed something which made my blood boil. Almost every one of the
    kids had been battered. They had bruises on their faces, cut lips, and bloody noses.
    Those little pricks out there had beaten up my kids, punched them in their faces, to
    stop them getting the stuff from the drop. There is no end to the lengths these
    people will go to to win this war.
    And I'll never forget what they did to the kids of Sabray. I spent the rest of the day
    patching them up, all those brave little guys trying not to cry. I nearly wiped out
    the entire contents of Sarawa's medical bag. Whenever I hear the word Taliban, I
    think of that day first.
    More strategically, it did seem the American military believed there was at least

    one SEAL still alive down here. The question was, What now? No one wanted to
    risk sending in another MH-47 helicopter, since the Taliban seemed to have
    become very adroit at knocking them down. Mind you, they have had a lot of
    practice, right back from when they were using those old Stinger missiles to knock
    the Russians out of the sky.
    And we all knew the danger point was landing, when the ramp was down, ready
    for an insert. That's when the mountain men aimed the RPGs straight in the back,
    to explode right in the fuel-tank area. And I guess the U.S. flight crews could never
    be sure of any Afghan village, who might be in it, what weapons they had, and how
    skilled they might be at using them.
    I knew they'd need a pretty good aerial group to soften the place up before they
    could come in and get me. And I was desperate to give them some kind of a guide.
    I rigged up my radio emergency beacon to transmit through the open window. I
    had no idea how much battery I had left, so I just turned it on, aimed it high, and
    left it there on the window ledge, hopefully pinpointing my whereabouts to any
    overhead flights by the air force or the Night Stalkers.
    To my surprise, U.S. reaction happened a whole lot quicker than I thought it would.
    That afternoon. The U.S. Air Force came thundering in, dropping twelve-hundredpound
    bombs on the mountainside beyond the village, right where the Taliban had
    picked up the stuff from the parachute drop.
    The blasts were incredible. In my house, well, I thought the whole building was
    coming down. Rocks and dust cascaded into the room. One of the walls sustained a
    major structural fault as blast after blast shook the mountain from top to bottom.
    Outside, people were screaming as the bombs hit and exploded; thatched roofs
    were blown off; there was a dust storm outside. Mothers and kids were rushing for
    cover, the tribesmen were at a complete loss. Everyone had heard of American
    airpower, but they had not seen it firsthand, like this.
    In fact none of the bombs, I guess by design, hit Sabray. But they came close.

    Damned close. All around the perimeter. There must have been a big lesson right
    here, and a very simple one. If you allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to make camp
    in and around your village, no good can possibly come of it.
    However, that wasn't much comfort to my villagers as they tried to clean up the
    mess, rebuild walls and roofs, and calm down frightened kids, most of whom had
    had a very bad day. And all because of me. I looked out at the havoc around me
    and felt the most terrible sadness. And Gulab understood what I was feeling. He
    came over and put his arm around me and said, "Ah, Dr. Marcus, Taliban very bad.
    We know. We fight."
    Jesus. Just what I need. A brand-new battle. We both retreated into the house and
    sat down for a while, trying to plot a course for me which would cause the least
    possible trouble to the farmers of Sabray.
    It seemed apparent that my presence here was causing a more and more threatening
    attitude from the Taliban, and the last thing I wanted was to cause pain and
    unhappiness among these people who had sheltered me. But my options were
    narrow, despite the Americans being, it seemed, hot on my trail. One of the main
    problems was that Gulab's father had not made contact with us, because there was
    no way he could. And we had no way of knowing whether he had made it to a
    military base.
    The Taliban were probably not overwhelmingly thrilled at being bombed by the

    U.S. Air Force and had probably sustained many casualties out there on the
    mountain. It occurred to both Gulab and me that the word revenge might not be far
    from the curled lips of these hate-filled Muslim fanatics and that I might be the
    most convenient target.
    That meant a major problem and probably loss of life for the people of Sabray.
    Gulab himself was under pressure since he'd received that threat from the Taliban.
    He had a wife, children, and many relatives to think about. In the end, the decision
    made itself. Clearly, I had to leave, just to keep the village from becoming a
    battleground. Lokhay had worked well, but we both wondered if its mystical tribal
    folklore could hold out indefinitely in the face of the wounded and somewhat
    embarrassed Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
    The U.S. bombardment of the mountainside had for a while raised my hopes and
    expectations. After all, here were my own guys, swooping over these tribesmen
    from the Middle Ages, hitting them hard with high-tech modern ordnance. That's
    got to be good, right?
    But not everything's good. Retribution, against me and my protectors, was now
    uppermost in my mind. I think it was the tight-fisted old oil baron John Paul Getty
    who once observed that for every plus that takes place in this world, there is,
    somewhere, somehow, a minus. He got that right.
    The question was, Where should I go? And here, my options were very limited. I
    could never make the long walk to the base at Asadabad, and anyhow that would
    seem inane since the village elder was either in there or very nearly. And the only
    place of refuge close by was the U.S. outpost at Monagee, two miles away over a
    steep mountain.
    I did not relish the plan, and neither would the guys who would need to assist me
    on the journey. But so far as Gulab and I could tell, there was nothing else we
    could do except hunker down and prepare for a Taliban attack, and I really did not
    want to put anyone through that. Especially the kids.
    We thus resolved that I should walk with him and two others over the mountain to
    the village of Monagee, which sounds Irish but is strictly Pashtun and is
    cooperative with the U.S. military. The plan was to wait until long after dark and
    then slip out into the high pastures around eleven o'clock, stealthily passing right
    under the noses of the probably sleeping Taliban watchmen.

    I could only hope my left leg would stand up to the journey. I'd lost a ton of
    weight, but I was still a very big guy to be half carried by a couple of slender
    Afghan tribesmen, most of whom were five foot eight and 110 pounds soaked to
    the skin. But Gulab did not seem too worried, and we settled down to wait out the
    long dark hours before eleven, when we would make our break.
    Night fell, quite abruptly, as it does up here in the peaks when the sun finally slips
    behind them. We lit no lanterns, offering no clue to the Taliban. We just sat there in
    the dark, sipping tea and waiting for the right moment to leave.
    Suddenly, from right out of the blue, there was the most colossal thunderstorm. The
    rain came swiftly, lashing rain, driving sideways over the mountain. It was rain like
    you rarely see, the kind of stuff usually identified with those hurricanes they keep
    replaying on the Weather Channel.
    It belted down on the village of Sabray. All windows and doors were slammed tight
    shut, because this was monsoon rain, driving in, right across the country from the
    southwest. No one would have set foot outside home because that wind and rain
    would have swept anyone away, straight off the mountain.
    Outside, great gushes of water cascaded down the steep main trail through the
    village. It sounded like we were in the middle of a river, the water racing past the
    front door. An area like this cannot, of course, flood, not up here, because the
    gradient is far too steep to hold water. But it can sure as hell get wet.
    We had a rock-and-mud roof that was sound, but I did wonder how some of the
    households down below us were getting along. Everything here is communal,
    including the cooking, so I guess everyone was just crowded in together in the
    undamaged houses, out of the rain.
    Up above us, the mountaintops were lit up by great bolts of forked lightning, ice
    blue in color, jagged, electric neon in the sky. Thunder rolled across the Hindu
    Kush. Gulab and I got down close to the thick rock wall at the back of the room
    because our own house was by no means watertight. But the rain was not driving
    through the gaps in the rocks and mud. Our spot was dry, but we were still
    deafened and dazzled by this atrocity of nature raging outside.
    That level of storm can be unnerving, but when it goes on for as long as this one,
    you become accustomed to its fury. Every time I looked out the window, the
    lightning flashed and crackled above the highest peaks. But occasionally it
    illuminated the sky beyond our immediate range of hills, and that was just about
    the creepiest sight you've ever seen, like the wicked witch of the Kush was about
    to come hurtling through the sky on a broomstick.
    Lightning out in front, naked and violent, is one thing. But similar bolts hidden
    from view, turning the heavens into a weird, electric blue, made a landscape like
    this look unearthly, enormous black summits, stark against the universe. It was a
    forbidding sight for a wounded warrior more used to the great flat plains of Texas.
    But slowly I became used to it and finally fell into a deep sleep flat out on the
    floor. Our departure time of 2300 came and went and still the rain lashed down.
    Midnight came, and with it, a new calendar date, Sunday, July 3, which this year
    would be the midpoint of the Fourth of July weekend, a time for celebration all
    over the U.S.A., at least in most parts, except for those in profound mourning for
    the lost special forces.
    While I was sitting out the storm, the mood back home on the ranch, according to
    Mom, was very depressed. I had been missing in action for five days. The throng
    gathered in our front yard now numbered almost three hundred. They had never
    left, but the crowd was growing very solemn.
    There was still a police cordon around the property. The local sheriffs had been


    joined by the judges, and the state police were busy providing personal escorts in
    the form of cruisers to accompany the SEALs on their twice-daily training runs,

    front and rear.
    Attending the daily prayers were local firemen, construction men, ranchers,
    bookstore owners, engineers, mechanics, teachers, two charter-boat fishing
    captains. There were salesmen, mortgage brokers, lawyers from Houston, and local
    attorneys. All of them fighting off my demise in the best way they knew how.
    Mom says the whole place was lit up all night by the lights from the automobiles.
    Someone had brought in portacabins, and there seemed little point in people going
    anywhere. Not until they knew whether I was still alive. According to Mom, they
    separated into groups, one offering prayers every hour, others singing hymns,
    others drinking beers. Local ladies who had known Morgan and me all our lives
    were unable to hold back their tears. All of them were in attendance for only one
    reason, to comfort my parents if the worst should be announced.
    I don't know that much about other states, because my experience in California has
    been strictly sheltered in the SPECWARCOM compound. But in my opinion, that
    nearly weeklong vigil carried out in an entirely impromptu manner by the people
    of Texas says a huge amount about them, their compassion, their generosity, and
    their love for their stricken neighbors.
    Mom and Dad did not know all of them by any means, but no one will ever forget
    the single-minded purpose of their visits. They just wanted to help in any way they
    could, just wanted to be there, because one of their own was lost on the battlefield
    far, far away.
    And as the weekend wore on, no Stars and Stripes were flying. I guess they were
    not sure whether to raise them to half-mast or not. My dad says it was obvious
    people were becoming disheartened -- the sheer regularity of the signal by phone
    from Coronado: "No news." The grimness of the media announcing stuff like:
    "Hope is fading for the missing Navy SEALs...seems like those early reports of the
    death of all four will be proved accurate...Texas family mourns their loss...Navy
    still refusing to confirm SEALs deaths . . ."
    It beats the hell out of me. In the military, if we don't know something, we say we
    don't know and proceed to shut up until we do. Some highly paid charlatans in the
    media think it's absolutely fine to take a wild guess at the truth and then tell a
    couple of million people it's cast-iron fact, just in case they might be right.
    Well, I hope they're proud of themselves, because they nearly broke my mom's
    heart, and if it had not been for the stern authority of Senior Chief Petty Officer
    Chris Gothro, I think she might have had a nervous breakdown.
    That morning he found her in the house, privately crying, and right then Senior
    Chief Gothro stepped in. He stood her up, turned her around, and ordered her to
    look him straight in the eye. "Listen, Holly," he said, "Marcus is missing in action.
    That's MIA in our language. That's all. Missing means what it says. It means we
    cannot at present locate him. It does not mean he's dead. And he's not dead until I
    tell you he's dead, understand?
    "We do not have a body. But we do have movement on the ground. We cannot tell
    right now who it is, or how many there are. But no one, repeat, no one in
    SPECWARCOM believes he is dead. I want you to understand that, clearly."
    The austere words of a professional must have hit home. Mom rallied after that,
    aided and comforted by Morgan, who still claimed he was in contact with me and
    that whatever else was happening, I was not dead.
    There were now thirty-five SEALs on the property, including Commander Jeff
    Bender, Admiral Maguire's public relations officer and a fantastic encouragement
    to everyone. Navy SEAL chaplain Trey Vaughn from Coronado was a spiritual
    pillar of strength. Everyone wanted to talk to him, and he dealt with it all with

    optimism and hope. When the mood was becoming morbid and there were too
    many people in tears, he would urge them to be positive. "Stop that crying right
    now...we need you...we need your prayers...and Marcus needs your prayers. But

    most of all we need your energy. No giving up, hear me?" No one will ever forget
    Trey Vaughn.
    There were also two naval chaplains from the local command who just showed up
    out of nowhere. Chief Bruce Misex, the navy recruiter boss from Houston, who'd
    known me a long time, turned up and never left. As the days had worn on,
    shipments of seafood started to arrive from the gulf ports to the south: fresh
    shrimp, catfish, and other white fish. One lady brought an enormous consignment
    of sushi every day. And families who had spent generations in the South stuck hard
    by that old southern tradition of bringing covered dishes containing pots of chicken
    and dumplings to a funeral.
    Dad thought that was a bit premature, but there were a lot of people to feed, and he
    assumed a loose command of the cooking. Everyone was grateful for everything.
    He says it was strange but there was never any question of anyone going home.
    They were just going to stay there, for better or for worse.
    Meanwhile, back in the freakin' thunderstorm, more than thirty pounds lighter than
    when I first set off on this mission, I was sleeping like a child. Gulab said at 0300 it
    had been raining for nearly six hours without ever slowing up. I was out to the
    world, the first time I had slept soundly for a week, oblivious to the weather,
    oblivious to the Taliban.
    I slept right through the night and woke up in broad daylight after the rain. I
    checked my watch and rounded on Gulab. I was supposed to be in Monagee, for
    chris'sakes, why the hell hadn't he made sure I was? What kind of a guide was he,
    allowing me to oversleep?
    Gulab was sanguine. And since we were growing very efficient at communicating,
    he was able to tell me he knew it was the first time I had been able to sleep for a
    long time, and he thought it would be better to leave me. Anyway, he said, we

    could not possibly have gone out in that weather because it was too dangerous. The
    overnight walk to Monagee had been out of the question.
    One way and another, I took all this pretty badly. I actually stormed out of the
    house, racked by yet another disappointment; after the helicopters that never came,
    Sarawa's sudden vanishing while I was in the cave, the village elder taking off
    without me. And now the trip to Monagee in ruins. Christ. Could I ever believe a
    goddamned word these people said?
    I'd been asleep for so long, I decided to indulge myself in a luxurious and
    prolonged pee. I walked outside wearing my harness and a very sour expression,
    temporarily forgetting entirely that I owed my life to the people of this village. I
    left my rifle behind and walked slowly down the steep hill, which was now as
    slippery as all hell because of the rain.
    At the conclusion of this operation, I took myself up the hill a little way and sat
    down on the drying grass, mainly because I did not wish to be any ruder to Gulab
    than I already had been, but also because I just wanted to sit alone for a while and
    nurse my thoughts.
    I still considered my best bet would be to find a way to get to the nearest American
    military base. And that was still Monagee. I stared up at the towering mountain I
    would have to cross, the rain and dew now glinting off it in the early morning sun,
    and I think I visibly flinched.
    It really would be one heck of a climb, and my leg was aching already, not at the
    thought of it but because I'd walked a hundred yards; bullet wounds tend to take a

    while to heal up. Also, despite Sarawa's bold efforts, that leg was, I knew, still full
    of shrapnel, which would not be much of a help toward a pain-free stroll over the
    peak.
    Anyway, I just sat there on the side of the mountain and tried to clear my mind, to
    decide whether there was anything else I could do except sit around and wait for a

    new night when Gulab and the guys could assist me to Monagee. And all the time,
    I was weighing the possibility of the Taliban coming in on some vengeful attack in
    retribution for yesterday's bombardment.
    The fact was, I was a living, breathing target as well as a distress signal. There sat
    the mighty Sharmak, with his second in command, "Commodore Abdul," and a
    large, trained army, all of them with essentially nothing else to do except kill me.
    And if they managed to make it into the village and hit the house I was staying in,
    I'd be lucky to fend them off and avoid a short trip to Pakistan for publicity and
    execution.
    Christ, those guys would have loved nothing more in all the world than to grab me
    and announce to the Arab television stations they had defeated one of the top U.S.
    Navy SEAL teams. Not just defeated, wiped them out in battle, smashed the rescue
    squad, blown up the helicopter, executed all survivors, and here they had the last
    one.
    The more I thought about it, the more untenable my position seemed to be. Could
    the goatherds of Sabray band together and fight shoulder to shoulder to save me?
    Or would the brutal killers of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the end get their way? It
    was odd, but I still did not realize the full power of that lokhay. No one had fully
    explained it to me. I knew there was something, but that ancient tribal law was still
    a mystery to me.
    I stared around the hills, but I could see no one outside of the village. Gulab and
    his guys always behaved as if the very mountainside was alive with hidden danger,
    and while he did not in my mind make much of an alarm clock, he had to be an
    expert on the bandit country which surrounds his own Sabray.
    It was thus with rising concern that I saw Gulab racing down the hill toward me.
    He literally dragged me into a standing position and then pulled me down the trail
    leading to the lower reaches of the village. He was running and trying to make me
    keep up with him, and he kept shouting, signaling, again and again: Taliban!
    Taliban are here! In the village! Run, Dr. Marcus, for God's sake, run!
    He pushed his right shoulder up under my left arm to bear some of my fast-
    dwindling weight, and I half hobbled, half ran, half fell down the hill. Of course by
    my own recent standards this was like a stroll on the beach.
    I suddenly realized we might have to fight and I'd left my rifle back in the house. I
    had my ammunition in the harness, but nothing to fire it with. And now it was my
    turn to yell, "Gulab! Gulab! Stop! Stop! I don't have my gun."
    He replied something I took to be Afghan for "What a complete ----ing idiot
    you've turned out to be."
    But whatever had put the fear of God into him was still right there, and he had no
    intention of stopping until he had located a refuge for us. We ducked and dived
    through the lower village trails until he found the house he was looking for. Gulab
    kicked the door open, rammed it shut behind him, and helped me down onto the
    floor. And there I sat, unarmed, largely useless, and highly apprehensive about
    what might happen in the next hour.
    Gulab, without a word, opened the front door and took off at high speed. He went
    past the window like a rocket, running hard up the gradient, possibly going for the
    Hindu Kush all-comers 100-meters record. God knows where he was going, but
    he'd gone.
    Three minutes later he kicked open the door and came charging back into the

    house. He was carrying my rifle as well as his own AK-47. I had seventy-five
    rounds left. I think he had more in his own ammunition belt. Gravely he handed me
    the Mark 12 sniper rifle and said simply, "Taliban, Dr. Marcus. We fight."
    He looked more serious than I'd ever seen him. Not afraid, just full of
    determination. Up on that mountain, when he had first seen me, Sarawa had made
    the decision with his buddies that I, a wounded American, should be

    granted lokhay. The doctor knew perfectly well from the first moment by that
    gushing mountain river that the situation might ultimately come to this. Even if I
    didn't.
    It was a decision that, right from the start, had affected everyone in the village. I
    think most people had accepted it, and it had obviously been endorsed by the
    village elder. I'd seen a few angry faces full of hatred, but they were not in the
    majority. And now the village chief of law and order, Mohammad Gulab, was
    prepared to stand by that unspoken vow his people had given to me.
    He was doing it not for personal gain but out of a sense of honor that reached back
    down the generations, two thousand years of Pashtunwalai tradition: You will
    defend your guest to the death. I watched Gulab carefully as he rammed a new
    magazine into his AK. This was a man preparing to step right up to the plate. And I
    saw that light of goodness in his dark eyes, the way you always do when someone
    is making a brave and selfless action.
    I thanked Gulab and banged a new magazine into my rifle. I stared out the window
    and assessed the battlefield. We were low down on almost flat terrain, but the
    Taliban's attack would be launched from the higher ground, the way they always
    preferred it. I wondered how many other rock-and-mud houses in Sabray were also
    shielding men who were about to fight.
    The situation was serious but not dire. We had excellent cover, and I didn't think
    the enemy knew precisely where I was. So far as I could see, the Battle for
    Murphy's Ridge represented a two-edged sword. First of all, the tribesmen could
    be seething with fury about the number of their guys killed in action by Mikey,
    Axe, Danny, and me. This might even mean a suicide bomber or an attack so
    reckless they'd risk any number of warriors just to get me. I wasn't crazy about
    either option.
    On the other hand, they might be slightly scared at the prospect of facing even one
    of that tiny American team that had wiped out possibly 50 percent of a Taliban
    assault force.
    Sure, they knew I was wounded, but they also knew I would be well armed by the
    villagers, even if I had lost my own rifle. I guessed they would either throw
    everything at me, the hell with the expense, or take it real steady, fighting their way
    through the village house by house until they had Gulab and me cornered.
    But an impending attack requires quick, expert planning. I needed to operate fast
    and make Gulab understand our tactics. He immediately gave way to my
    experience, which made me think he had never quite accepted my story about
    being a doctor. He knew I'd fought on the ridge, and right now he was ready to do
    my bidding.
    We had two areas to cover, the door and the window. It wouldn't have been much
    good if I'd been blasting away through the window at Taliban down the street
    when a couple of those sneaky little bastards crept through the front door and shot
    me in the back.
    I explained it was up to Gulab to cover the entrance, to make sure I had the split
    second I would need to swing around and cut 'em down before they could open
    fire. Ideally I would have preferred him to issue an early warning that the enemy
    was coming. That way I might have been able to get into the shadows in the
    corners and take 'em out maybe six at a time instead of just gunning down the

    leader.
    Ideally I would have liked a heavy piece of furniture to ram in front of the door,
    just to buy me a little extra time. But there was no furniture, just those big
    cushions, which were obviously not sufficiently heavy.
    Anyway, Gulab understood the strategy and nodded fiercely, the way he always did
    when he was sure of something. "Okay, Marcus," he said. And it did not escape
    me, he'd dropped the Dr. part.


    When battle began, Gulab would man the end of the window that gave him the best
    dual view of the door. I would concentrate on whatever frontal assault might be
    taking place. I'd need to shoot steadily and straight, wasting nothing, just like Axe
    and Danny did on the mountain while Mikey called the shots.
    I tried to tell Gulab to stay calm and shoot straight, nothing hysterical. That way
    we'd win or, at worst, cause a disorderly Taliban retreat.
    He looked a bit vacant. I could tell he was not understanding. So I hit him with an
    old phrase we always use before a conflict: "Okay, guys, let's rock 'n' roll."
    Matter of fact, that was worse. Gulab thought I was about to give him dancing
    lessons. It might have been funny if the situation had not been so serious. And then
    we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.
    There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the
    Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they
    would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from
    these tribal villages up here in the mountains.
    No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another
    hundred Afghan people, including women and children, in order to get me. The
    Taliban and their al Qaeda cohorts were mercilessly cruel, but this Ben Sharmak
    was not stupid.
    Besides, I detected no battlefield rhythm to the gunfire. It was not being conducted
    with the short, sharp bursts of trained men going for a target. It came in prolonged
    volleys, and I listened carefully. There was no obvious return of fire, and right then
    I knew what was happening.
    These lunatics had come rolling out of the trees into the village, firing randomly
    into the air and aiming at nothing, the way they often do, all jumping up and down
    and shouting, "Death to the infidel." Stupid pricks.
    Their loose objective is always to frighten the life out of people, and right now
    they seemed to be succeeding. I could hear women screaming, children crying, but
    no return of fire from the tribesmen of Sabray. I knew precisely what that would
    sound like, and I was not hearing it.
    I looked at Gulab. He was braced for action, leaning in the window with me, one
    eye on the front door. We both clicked our safety catches open.
    Up above we could still hear the screaming, but the gunfire subsided. Little
    sonsabitches were probably beating up the kids. Which might have inspired me to
    get right back up there and take on the whole jihadist army single-handed, but I
    held back, held my fire, and waited.
    We waited for maybe forty-five minutes and then it was quiet. As if they had never
    been here. That unseen village calm had returned, there was no sense of panic or
    sign of injured people. I left it to Gulab to call this one. "Taliban gone," he said
    simply.
    "What happens now?" I asked him. "Bagram?"
    Gulab shook his head. "Bagram," he said. Then he signaled for the umpteenth
    time, "Helicopter will come."
    I rolled my eyes heavenward. I'd heard this helicopter crap before. And I had news
    for Gulab. "Helicopter no come," I told him.
    "Helicopter come," he replied.

    As ever, I could not really know what Gulab knew or how he had discovered what
    was happening. But right now he believed the Taliban had gone into the house
    where I had been staying and found I was missing. No one had betrayed me, and
    they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating
    the people and, in particular, the village elder.
    This armed gang of tribesmen, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans
    and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains
    entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish, and

    they would rapidly begin to lose recruits. Armies need food, cover, and
    cooperation, and the Taliban could only indulge in so much bullying before these
    powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.
    That's why they had just evacuated Sabray. They would still surround the village,
    awaiting their chance to grab me, but they would not risk causing major disruption
    to the day-to-day lives of the people. I'd been here for five nights now, including
    the night in the cave, and the Taliban had crossed the boundaries of Sabray only
    twice, once for a few hours of violence late in the evening, and once just now for
    maybe an hour.
    Gulab was certain they had gone, but he was equally certain we could not dare go
    back to the house. It was almost ten in the morning by now, and Gulab was
    preparing to leave and take me with him, once more out into the mountains.
    It had passed midnight back in Texas and the vigil at our ranch continued. The
    media was still voicing its opinion that the SEAL team was dead, and the latest call
    from Coronado had been received. There was still no news of me. They all knew
    there would be another call at 0400, and everyone waited out there in the hot July
    night, their hopes diminishing, according to Mom, as the hours ticked by.
    People were starting to speculate how I could possibly have survived if no one at
    the American base knew where I was. But news was really scarce, except for the
    part some members of the media invented. And people were beginning to lose
    heart.
    Except, apparently, for Morgan and the other SEALs, none of whom would even
    consider I was dead. At least that's what they always told everyone. "MIA," they
    kept repeating. "MIA. He's not dead till we say he's dead."
    Morgan continued to tell everyone that he was thinking about me and I was
    thinking about him. He was in contact, even if no one else was. And Senior Chief

    Gothro kept a careful eye on my mom in case she disintegrated.
    But she remembers that night to this day, and how there were people growing
    sadder by the minute. And how the SEALs held it all together, the chaplains, the
    officers, the noncoms, some ordering, some imploring, but asking everyone to keep
    the faith.
    "Marcus needs you!" Chaplain Trey Vaughn told this large and disparate
    gathering. "And God is protecting him, and now repeat after me the words of the
    Twenty-third Psalm. `Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
    death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort
    me.' "
    Solemnly, some of the toughest men in the U.S. Armed Forces stood shoulder to
    shoulder with the SEAL chaplain, each of them thinking of me as an old and, I
    hope, trusted friend and teammate. Each of them, at those moments, alone with his
    God. As I was with mine, half a world away.
    At 0400 the call came through to the ranch from Coronado. Still no news. And the
    SEALs started the process all over again, encouraging, sharing their optimism,
    explaining that I had been especially trained to withstand such an ordeal. "If

    anyone can get out of this, it's Marcus," Chaplain Vaughn said. "And he'll feel the
    energy in your prayers -- and you will give him strength -- and I forbid you to
    give up on him -- God will bring him home."
    Out there in the dry summer pastures, surrounded by thousands of head of cattle,
    the words of the United States Navy Hymn echoed into the night. There were no
    neighbors to wake. Everyone for miles around was in our front yard. Mom says
    everyone was out there that night, again nearly three hundred. And the policemen
    and the judges and the sheriffs and all the others joined Mom and Dad and the iron
    men from SPECWARCOM, just standing there, singing at the top of their lungs, "
    `O hear us when we cry to Thee, for SEALs in air, on land and sea . . .' "

    Back in Sabray, Gulab and I were making a break for it. Clutching our rifles, we
    left our little mud-and-rock redoubt in the lower street and headed farther down the
    mountain. Painfully, I made the two hundred yards to a flat field which had been
    cultivated and recently harvested. It was strictly dirt now, but raked dirt, as if ready
    for a new crop.
    I had seen this field before, from the window of house two, which I could just see
    maybe 350 yards back up the mountain. I guess the field was about the size of two
    American football fields; it had a dry rock border all around. It was an ideal
    landing spot for a helicopter, I thought, certainly the only suitable area I had ever
    seen up there. It was a place where a pilot could bring in an MH-47 without risking
    a collision with trees or rolling off a precipice or landing in the middle of a Taliban
    trap.
    For a few moments, I considered writing a large SOS in the dirt, but Gulab was
    anxious, and he half carried, half manhandled me out of the field and back onto the
    lush mountain slopes, and there he found me a resting place at the side of the trail
    where I could take cover under a bush. And this carried a bonus, because the bush
    contained a full crop of blackberries. And I lay down there in the shade luxuriously
    eating the berries, which were not quite ripe but tasted damned good to me.
    It was very quiet again now, and my trained sniper's ear, honed perhaps better than
    ever before, detected no unusual sound in the undergrowth. Not a snapped twig,
    not an unusual rustling in the grass. No unusual shadow behind a tree. Nothing.
    We waited there for a short while before Gulab stood up and walked a little way,
    then turned and whispered, "We go now." I got hold of my rifle and twisted onto
    my right side, ready to heave myself upward, a movement that this week had taken
    a lot of concentration and effort.
    I don't know why it happened. But something told me to look up, and I cast my
    eyes to the slope behind us. And right there sitting very quietly, his gaze steady
    upon me and betraying nothing, was Sharmak, the Taliban leader, the man I had
    come to capture or kill.
    I'd seen only a grainy, not very good photograph of him, but it was enough for me.
    I was certain it was him. And I think he knew I knew. He was a lean character, like
    all of them, fortyish, with a long, black, red-flecked beard. He wore black Afghan
    garb, a reddish vest, and a black turban.
    I seem to recall he had green eyes, and they were filled with a hatred which would
    have melted a U.S. Army tank. He stared right through me and spoke not one word.
    I noticed he was unarmed, and I tightened my grip on the Mark 12 and very slowly
    turned it on him until the barrel was aimed right between his eyes.
    He was not afraid. He never flinched, never moved, and I had a powerful instinct
    to shoot that bastard dead, right here on the mountain. After all, it was what I had
    come for; that or capture him, and that last part wasn't going to happen.
    Sharmak was surrounded by his army. If I'd shot him, I would not have lasted
    twenty seconds. His guys would have gunned down both me and Gulab and then,
    minus their beloved commander in chief, probably would have massacred the

    entire village, including the kids. I considered that and rejected shooting him.
    I also considered that Sharmak was clearly not about to shoot me. The presence of
    Gulab made it a complete standoff, and Sharmak was not about to call in his guys
    to shoot the oldest son of Sabray's village elder. Equally, I did not feel especially
    inclined to commit suicide. Everyone held their fire.
    Sharmak just sat there, and then Gulab nodded to the Taliban boss, who I noticed
    made an infinitesimal incline of his head, like a pitcher acknowledging a catcher's
    signal. And then Gulab walked slowly across to talk to him, and Sharmak stood up,
    and they turned their backs on me and moved farther up the mountainside, out of
    my sight.

    There was only one subject they could possibly be discussing. Would the people of
    Sabray now agree to give me up? And I could not know how far Gulab and his
    father would still go to defend me.
    I just slumped back under the blackberry bush, uncertain of my fate, uncertain
    what these two mountain tribesmen would decide. Because each of them, in his
    way, had so far proved to be unbending in his principles. The relentless killer, a
    man who saw himself as the warrior-savior of Afghanistan, now in conference with
    the village cop, a man who seemed prepared to risk everything just to defend me.
    12
    "Two-two-eight! It's Two-two-eight!"


    In her mind, there could be only one possible reason for the call...They'd found my
    body on the mountain...A voice came down the line and demanded, "Is the family
    assembled?"

    They were gone for five minutes, and they came back together. Ben Sharmak stood
    for a few moments staring at me, and then he climbed away, back to his army.
    Gulab walked down the hill to me and tried to explain Sharmak had handed him a
    note that said, Either you hand over the American -- or every member of your

    family will be killed.
    Gulab made his familiar dismissive gesture, and we both turned and watched the
    Taliban leader walking away through the trees. And the village cop offered me his
    hand, helped me to my feet, and once more led me through the forest, half lifting
    me down the gradients, always considerate of my shattered left leg, until we
    reached a dried-up riverbed.
    And there we rested. We watched for Taliban sharpshooters, but no one came. All
    around us in the trees, their AKs ready, were familiar faces from Sabray ready to
    defend us.
    We waited for at least forty-five minutes. And then, amid the unholy silence of the
    mountain, two more guys from my village arrived. It was obvious they were
    signaling for us to leave, right now.

    Each of them gave me support under my arms and led me up through the trees on
    the side of this steep escarpment. I have to admit I no longer knew what was going
    on, where we were going, or what I was supposed to be doing. I realized we could
    not go back to the village, and I really did not like the tone of that note Gulab had
    shoved in his pocket.
    And here I was, alone with these tribesmen, with no coherent plan. My leg was
    killing me, I could hardly put it to the ground, and the two guys carrying me were
    bearing the whole of my weight. We came to a little flight of rough rock steps cut
    into the gradient. They got behind pushing me up with their shoulders.
    I made the top step first, and as I did so, I came face to face with an armed Afghani
    fighter I had not seen before. He carried an AK-47, held in the ready-to-fire
    position, and when he saw me, he raised it. I looked at his hat, and there was a
    badge containing the words which almost stopped my heart -- BUSH FOR
    PRESIDENT!
    He was Afghan special forces, and I was seized by panic because I was dressed in

    the clothes of an Afghan tribesman, identical to those of the Taliban. But right
    behind him, bursting through the undergrowth, came two U.S. Army Rangers in
    combat uniform, rifles raised, the leader a big black guy. Behind me, with
    unbelievable presence of mind, Gulab was roaring out my BUD/S class numbers
    he'd seen on my Trident voodoo tattoo: "Two-two-eight! It's Two-two-eight!"
    The Ranger's face suddenly lit up with a gigantic smile. He took one look at my
    six-foot-five-inch frame and snapped, "American?" I just had time to nod before he
    let out a yell that ripped across the mountainside -- "It's Marcus, guys! We got him
    -- we got him!"
    And the Ranger came running toward me and grabbed me in his arms, and I could
    smell his sweat and his combat gear and his rifle, the smells of home, the smells I
    live with. American smells. I tried to keep steady, not break down, mostly because
    SEALs would never show weakness in front of a Ranger.
    "Hey, bro," I said. "It's good to see you."
    By this time there was chaos on the mountain. Army guys were coming out of the
    forest from all over the place. I could see they were really beat up, wearing
    battered combat gear, all of them with several days' growth of beard. They were
    covered in mud, unkempt, and all grinning broadly. I guessed, correctly as it
    happened, they'd been out here searching for my team since early last Wednesday
    morning. Hell, they'd been out all night in that thunderstorm. No wonder they
    looked a bit disheveled.
    It was Sunday now. And Jesus, was it great to hear the English language again, just
    the everyday words, the diverse American accents, the familiarity. I'm telling you,
    when you've been in a hostile, foreign environment for a while with no one to
    whom you can explain anything, being rescued by your own kind -- tough,
    confident, organized guys, professional, hard-trained, armed to the teeth, ready for
    anything, bursting with friendship -- well, it's a feeling of the highest possible
    elation. But I wouldn't recommend the preparation for such a moment.
    They moved into action immediately. An army captain ordered a team to get me up
    out of the forest, onto higher ground. They carried me up the hill and sat me down
    next to a goat pen. U.S. Corpsman Travis instantly set about fixing up my wounds.
    He removed the old dressings which Sarawa had given me and applied new
    antiseptic cream and fresh bandages. He gave me clean water and antibiotics. By
    the time he'd finished I felt damn near human.
    The atmosphere was unavoidably cheerful, because all the guys felt their mission
    was accomplished. All Americans in combat understand that feeling of celebration,
    reflecting, as we all do, that so much could have gone wrong, so much we had
    evaded by our own battlefield know-how, so many times it could have gone either

    way.
    These Rangers and Green Berets were no different. Somehow, in hundreds of
    square miles of mountainous terrain, they'd found me alive. But I knew they did
    not really understand the extreme danger we were all in. I explained to them the
    number of Taliban warriors there were out here, how many there had been against
    us on Murphy's Ridge, the presence of Sharmak and his entire army, so close,
    maybe watching us...no, forget that. Most certainly watching us. We were all
    together, and we would make a formidable fighting force if attacked, but we would
    be badly outnumbered, and we were now all inside a Taliban encirclement. Not just
    me.
    I debriefed them as thoroughly as I could, first of all explaining that my guys were
    all dead, Mikey, Axe, and Danny. I found that especially difficult, because I had
    not told anyone before. There had been no one for me to report to, definitely no
    one who would understand what those guys meant to me and the gaping hollow
    they would leave in my life for the rest of my days.
    I consulted my thighs, where I still had my clear notes of routes, distances, and

    terrain. I showed them the areas where I knew the Taliban were encamped, helped
    them mark up their maps. Here, here, and here, guys, that's where they are. The
    fact was, the bastards were everywhere, all around us, waiting for their chance. I
    did have a feeling that Sharmak might have grown wary of facing heavy American
    firepower head-on. He'd had half his army wiped out on the ridge by just four of
    us. There were a lot more of us now, gathered around the goat pens while Travis
    did his number.
    I asked the Ranger captain how many guys he had. And he replied, "We're good.
    Twenty."
    In my view that was probably a bit light, since Sharmak could easily be back to his
    full strength of maybe 150 to 200 warriors, reinforced by al Qaeda.
    "We got gunships, Apache Sixty-fours, standing by," he said. "Whatever we need.
    We're good."
    I stressed once more that we were undoubtedly surrounded, and he replied, "Roger
    that, Marcus. We'll act accordingly."
    Before we left, I asked them how the hell they'd found me. And it turned out to be
    my emergency beacon in the window of the little rock house in the mountain. The
    flight crews had picked it up when they were flying over and then tracked it back
    to the village. They were pretty certain the owner of that PRC-148 radio was one of
    the original SEAL team but had to consider the fact it might have been stolen by
    the Taliban.
    They did not, however, think it had been operated by Afghan tribesmen in this
    instance, and they thought it unlikely the beacon had been switched on and aimed
    skyward by guys who had not the slightest idea what it was for.
    They thus reasoned that one of the SEALs was right down there in that village, or
    in any event pretty damned close. So the guys just closed in on me, somehow
    moving their own dragnet right past the Taliban dragnet. And suddenly there I was,
    dressed up like Osama bin Laden's second in command, arms wrapped around a
    couple of tribesmen like we were three drunks falling up the hill, the village
    policeman right behind yelling, "Two-two-eight!"
    Led by Gulab, we set off for the village and moved back into my second house, the
    one where we'd sat out the storm. The army threw a security perimeter all the way
    around Sabray, and they carried me up past that big tree and into the main room. I
    noticed that rooster was right there in the tree; he was quiet for a change, but the
    memory of him still made me want to blow his freakin' head off.
    The guys rustled up some tea and we settled down for a detailed debriefing. It was
    noon in Sabray, and in attendance was a very serious group of army personnel,

    from captains on down, mostly Rangers and Green Berets. Before we started, I was
    compelled to tell 'em I had hoped to be rescued by the SEALs -- because now I'd
    definitely have to put up with a lot of bullshit from them, telling me, "See that, the
    SEALs get in trouble, and they gotta send for the army to get 'em out, like
    always."
    That got a loud cheer, but it did not disguise my eternal gratitude to them and what
    they had risked to save me. They were really good guys and took total control in
    the most professional way. First they radioed into base that I had been found, that I
    was stable and unlikely to die, but regretfully, the other three team members had
    died in action. I heard them confirm they had me safe but that we were still in a
    potentially hostile Afghan village and that we were surrounded by Taliban and al
    Qaeda troops. They were requesting evacuation as soon as night fell.
    The debriefing went on for a long time as I tried to explain details of my actions on
    and off the battlefield. And all the time, the kids kept rushing in to see me. They
    were all over the place, hanging on to my arm, their own arms around my neck,
    talking, shouting, laughing. The adults from the village also came in, and I had to
    insist they could stay, especially Sarawa, who had reappeared, and Gulab, who had

    never left. I owed my life to each of them.
    So far, no one had found the bodies of Mikey, Danny, and Axe. And we spent a
    long time going over satellite photographs for me to pinpoint the precise places
    they had died. The army guys had some data on the battle, but I was able to fill in a
    lot of stuff for them. Especially to explain how we had fallen back under Mikey's
    command, and then kept falling back, how we never had any option but to
    establish our defense farther down the mountain, always farther down.
    I recounted how Axe had held our left flank with such overwhelming gallantry, and
    how Danny, shot so many times, kept firing, trying to hold our right flank until his
    dying breath. And how, in the end, there were just too many of them, with too
    much firepower, too many of those big Russian-made grenades, the ones that
    finally blew Axe and me clean out of the battle.
    Taliban casualties had been, of course, high. It seemed everyone knew that. I think
    all of us in that little room, including Gulab, thought the Taliban would not risk
    another frontal assault on the Americans. And so we waited until the sun began to
    slip behind the mountains, and I said good-bye to all the kids, several of whom
    were crying. Sarawa just slipped quietly away. I never saw him again.
    Gulab led us down to the flat field at the base of the village, and with the comms
    up and running, we waited it out. The Ranger security guard was in formation
    around the perimeter, in case the Taliban decided to give it one last shot. I knew
    they were out there, and I never took my eyes off that mountain slope as we all sat
    there, around twenty army personnel and maybe ten villagers, the guys who had
    stuck by me from the beginning.
    We all sat in the dark, backs to the stone wall, looking at the field, just waiting.
    Way over the high horizon, shortly before 2200, we could hear the unmistakable
    distant beat of a big U.S. military helicopter, clattering in over the mountains.
    We saw it circling, far away from the slopes where I believed the main Taliban and
    al Qaeda forces were camped. And then suddenly Gulab grabbed my arm,
    hissing, "Marcus! Marcus! Taliban!"
    I stared up at the escarpment and there in the darkness I could see white lights,
    moving quickly, across the face of the mountain. "Taliban, Marcus! Taliban!" I
    could tell Gulab was really uneasy, and I called over the army captain and pointed
    out the danger.
    We all reacted instantly. Gulab, who was unarmed, grabbed my rifle, and he and
    two of his buddies helped me climb the wall and jump down the much deeper drop
    on the other side. Several of the villagers ran like hell up the hill to their rocky

    homes. Not Gulab. He took up position behind that wall, aiming my sniper rifle
    straight at the enemy on the hillside.
    The army comms guys moved into action, calling in the United States air armada
    we knew was out there -- fighter bombers and helicopters, ready to attack that
    mountain if there was even a suggestion the Taliban might try to hit the incoming
    rescue helo.
    I considered it was obvious that they were planning one last offensive, one last-
    ditch attempt to kill me. I grabbed a pair of NVGs and took up my position as
    spotter behind the wall, trying to locate the mountain men, trying to nail them once
    and for all.
    We could still see the rescue helo way out in the distance when the U.S. Armed
    Forces, who'd plainly had it up to their eyeballs with this ----ing Ben Sharmak,
    finally let it rip. They came howling across those pitch-black crevasses and blasted
    the living hell out of those slopes: bombs, rockets, everything they had. It was a
    storm of murderous explosive. No one could have lived out there.
    The lights went out for the Taliban that night. All those little white beams, their
    fires and lanterns -- everything went out. And I just crouched there, calling out the
    information to the comms guy next to me, identifying Taliban locations, the stuff

    I'm trained to do. I was standing up now with a smile on my face, watching my
    guys pulverize those little bastards who beat up my kids and killed my teammates.
    ---- 'em, right?
    It was a grim smile, I admit, but these guys had chased me, tortured me, pursued
    me, tried to kill me about four hundred times, blown me up, nearly kidnapped me,
    threatened to execute me. And now my guys were sticking it right to 'em.
    Beautiful. I saw a report confirming thirty-two Taliban and al Qaeda died out there
    that night. Not enough.
    The shattering din high in the Hindu Kush died away. The U.S. air offensive was
    done. The landing zone was cleared and made safe, and the rescue helo came
    rocketing in from the south.
    The Green Berets were still in communication, and they talked the pilot down, into
    the newly harvested village opium field. I remember the rotors of the helo made a
    green bioluminescent static in the night air.
    And I could hear it dropping down toward us, an apparition of howling U.S.
    airpower in the night. It was an all-encompassing, shattering, deafening din,
    thundering rather than echoing, between the high peaks of the Hindu Kush. No
    helicopter ever smashed the local sound barriers with more brutality. The eerie
    silence of those mountains retreated before the second decibel onslaught of the
    night. The ground shuddered. The dust whipped up into a sandstorm. The rotors
    screamed into the pure mountain air. It was the most beautiful sound I ever heard.
    The helo came in slowly and put down a few yards from us. The loadmaster leaped
    to the ground and opened the main door. The guys helped me into the cabin, and
    Gulab joined me. Instantly we took off, and neither of us looked out at the
    blackness of the unlit village of Sabray. Me, because I knew we could not see a
    thing; Gulab, because he was uncertain when he would pass this way again. The
    Taliban threats to both himself and his family were very much more serious than he
    had ever admitted.
    He was afraid of the helicopter and clung to my arm throughout the short journey
    to Asadabad. And there we both disembarked. I was going on to Bagram, but for
    the moment Gulab was to stay on this base, out there in his own country, and assist
    the U.S. military in any way he could. I hugged him good-bye, this rather
    inscrutable tribesman who had risked his life for me. He seemed to expect nothing
    in return, and I had one more shot at giving him my watch. But he refused, as he
    had done four times in the past.

    Our good-bye was painful for me, because I had no words in his language to
    express my thanks. I'll never know, but perhaps he too would have said something
    to me, if he'd only had the words. It might even have been warm or affectionate,
    like...well..."Noisy bastard, footsteps like an elephant, ungrateful son of a gun." Or
    "What's the matter with our best goat's milk, asshole?"
    But there was nothing that could be said. I was going home. And he may never be
    able to go home. Our paths, which had crossed so suddenly and so powerfully in a
    life-changing encounter for both of us, were about to diverge.
    I boarded the big C-130 for Bagram, back to my base. We touched down on the
    main runway at 2300, exactly six days and four hours since Mikey, Axe, Danny,
    and I had occupied this very same spot, lying here on this ground, staring up at the
    distant snowcapped peaks, laughing, joking, always optimistic, unaware of the trial
    by fire which awaited us high in those mountains. Less than a week. It might have
    been a thousand years.
    I was greeted by four doctors and all the help I could possibly need. There was also
    a small group of nurses, at least one of whom knew me from my volunteer work in
    the hospital. The others were stunned at the sight of me, but this one nurse took one
    look at me standing at the top of the ramp and burst into tears.
    That's how terrible I looked. I'd lost thirty-seven pounds, my face was scoured

    from the crash down mountain one, my broken nose needed proper setting, I was
    racked with pain from my leg, my smashed wrist hurt like hell and so did my back,
    as it will when you've cracked three vertebrae. I'd lost God knows how many pints
    of blood. I was white as a ghost, and I could hardly walk.
    The nurse just cried out, "Oh, Marcus!" and turned away, sobbing. I declined a
    stretcher and leaned on the doctor, ignoring the pain. But he knew. "Come on,
    buddy," he said. "Let's get you on the stretcher."
    But again I shook my head. I'd had a shot of morphine, and I tried to stand
    unassisted. I turned to the doc and looked him in the eye, and I told him, "I walked
    on here, and I'm walking off, by myself. I'm hurt, but I'm still a SEAL, and they
    haven't finished me. I'm walking."
    The doctor just shook his head. He'd met a lot of guys like me before, and he knew
    it wouldn't do a damn bit of good arguing. I guess he understood the only thought I
    had in my mind was What kind of a SEAL would it make me if they had to help me
    off the plane? No sir. I won't agree to that.
    And so I entered my home base once more, moving very slowly down the ramp
    under my own steam until I touched the ground. By this time, I noticed two other
    nurses were in tears. And I remember thinking, Thank Christ Mom can't see me
    yet.
    Right about then I think I caved in. The doctors and nurses ran forward to help me
    and get me stretchered into a van and directly to a hospital bed. The time for
    personal heroics had passed. I'd sucked up every goddamned thing this ----ing
    country could throw at me, I'd been through another Hell Week to the tenth power,
    and now I was saved.
    Actually, I felt particularly rough. The morphine was not as good as the opium I'd
    been given. And every goddamned thing hurt. I was met formally by the SEAL
    skipper, Commander Kent Pero, who was accompanied by my doctor, Colonel Carl
    Dickens.
    He came with me in the van, Commander Pero, a very high-ranking SEAL officer
    who had always remembered my first name, ever since the day we first met. He sat
    beside me, gripping my arm, asking me how I was. I recall telling him, "Yes, sir,
    I'm fine."
    But then I heard him say, "Marcus." And he shook his head. And I noticed this
    immensely tough character, my boss's boss, had tears streaming down his face,

    tears of relief, I think, that I was alive. It's funny, but it was the first time in so long
    that I was with someone who really cared about me, the first time since Mikey and
    Axe and Danny had died.
    And I found it overwhelming, and I broke down right there in the van, and when I
    pulled myself together, Commander Pero was asking me if there was anything I
    needed, because no matter what it was, he would get it.
    "Yes, sir," I replied, drying my eyes on the sheet. "Do you think I could get a
    cheeseburger?"
    The moment I was secured in Bagram, they made news of my rescue available. I
    had been in the hands of the U.S. military for some hours, but I know the navy did
    not want anyone to start celebrating until I was well and truly safe.
    The call went around the world like a guided missile: Bagram -- Bahrain -SATCOM
    to SPECWARCOM, Coronado -- direct phone link to the ranch.
    The regular call had come in on time at around one that afternoon, and they were
    expecting another "no news" update at four. But now the phone rang at three.
    Early. And according to my dad, when Chief Gothro came outside and walked
    through the crowd to collect my mom, telling her there was a call from Coronado,
    she almost fainted. In her mind, there could be only one possible reason for the
    call, and that was the death of her little angel (that's me).
    Chief Gothro half carried her into the house, and when they arrived at the bedroom

    where the phone was installed, the first thing she saw was Morgan and my other
    brother, Scottie, with their arms around each other, sobbing uncontrollably.
    Everyone thought they knew the military. There could be only one reason for the
    early call. They'd found my body on the mountain.
    Chief Gothro walked my mom to the phone and informed her that whatever it was,
    she had to face it. A voice came down the line and demanded, "Chief, is the family
    assembled?"
    "Yessir."
    "Mr. and Mrs. Luttrell?"
    "Yes," whispered Mom.
    "We got him, ma'am. We got Marcus. And he's stable."
    Mom started to collapse right there on the bedroom floor. Scottie moved swiftly to
    save her from hitting it. Lieutenant JJ Jones bolted for the door, stood on the porch,
    and called for quiet. Then he shouted, "They got him, guys! Marcus has been
    rescued."
    They tell me the roar which erupted over those lonely pastures way down there in
    the back country of East Texas could have been heard in Houston, fifty-five miles
    away. Morgan says it wasn't just your average roar. It was spontaneous. Deafening.
    Everyone together, top of their lungs, a pure outpouring of relief and joy for Mom
    and Dad and my family.
    It signaled the conclusion of a five-day vigil in which a zillion prayers had been
    offered by God-fearing folk; they understood in that split second after the
    announcement that those prayers had been asked and answered. For them, it was a
    confirmation of faith, of the unbreakable hope and belief, of the SEAL chaplain
    Trey Vaughn and all the others.
    Immediately, they raised the flag, and the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the hot
    breeze. And then the SEALs linked arms with my family and my friends and my
    neighbors, people who they might never see again but to whom they were now
    irrevocably joined for all the days of their lives. Because no one, according to
    Mom, could ever forget that one brief moment they shared, that long-awaited
    moment of release, when fears and dreads were laid to rest.
    I was alive. I guess that's all it took. And all these amazing guys, with hearts as
    wide as the Texas prairies, burst suddenly into song: "God bless America, land that

    I love . . ."
    That's Mrs. Herzogg and her daughters; Billy Shelton; Chief Gothro; Mom and
    Dad; Morgan and Scottie; Lieutenant Andy Haffele and his wife, Kristina; Eric
    Rooney; Commander Jeff Bender; Daniel, the master sergeant; Lieutenant JJ
    Jones; and all the others I already mentioned. Five days and five nights, they'd
    waited for this. And here I was, safe in a hospital bed eight thousand miles away,
    thinking of them, as they were thinking of me.
    Matter of fact, at the time I was just thinking of a smart-ass remark to make to
    Morgan, because they'd told me I was about to be patched through to my family,
    on the phone. I guessed Morgan would be there, and if I could come up with
    something sufficiently slick and nonchalant, he'd know for sure I was good. Of
    course, it wasn't as important to talk to him as it was to speak to Mom. Morgan
    and I had been in touch all along, the way identical twins usually are.
    Right around this time, I was assigned a minder, Petty Officer First Class Jeff
    Delapenta (SEAL Team 10), who would never leave my side. And remember,
    damn near everyone on the base wanted to come and have a chat. At least that's
    how it seemed to me. But Jeff was having none of it. He stood guard over my room
    like a German shepherd, taking the view that I was very sick and needed peace and
    rest, and he, PO1 Jeff, was going to m