Vascular, Violent, Valley – An Afghan Helicopter Assault

HAF is ON, Westy”…..bolt upright in my bed this statement was delivered from the crack of light in my dark room. It was a routine statement, but at 01:30am with a sleep deprived head it felt like I had a hangover and received ten swift jabs. It took a few minutes to register. After which I checked my body armour and equipment one more time, picked up my rifle and holstered my pistol. I then braced myself to walk out into the blistering cold early morning air, but my lack of sleep had added to my confusion as the weather had now turned to a more mild spring climate. The harsh winter period of our deployment was coming to an end.

Now Helmand Province, Afghanistan is not widely known to the Western public as being a cold place, I have served 3 months in the Arctic previously and was still slapped in the face by the unforgiving Middle East desert cold. Two places in my life I have experienced frost nip and the worst one was in Afghanistan. I would purposely doddle towards the tail of the CH-47 Helicopter embracing the hot exhaust air from its rear.

A HAF is a Helicopter Assault Force, this dark morning we were embarking on an ambitious HAF into the ‘Heart of Darkness’, a daunting target was often titled as such but we had heard this many times before so a pinch of salt was always taken. As a Platoon Mentor of 30 Afghan Special Forces soldiers I shepherded them onto the Chinook Helicopter…enjoying the warmth in the process.

My many experiences of helicopters made it a rollercoaster of emotions whenever I set foot on one – they excited me but always put me in a position where I had no control. As I entered the tail and gave the ‘thumbs up’ to the aircrewman I had one last glance over my shoulder, confirming I was the last man on…and in turn ensuring I was the first man off.

During April 2012 the Taliban had been on the run and retreating up a valley system of several enemy held villages. A US Marine armoured unit had been leading an assault to push through the villages systematically and flush them out. It was working and the Taliban would fight for a while before retreating to the next village to regroup and prepare to fight again. The Yanks continued their ground push through the series of villages until the Taliban were forced into a last stand. With ground forces sat off from the final village we made contingency plans for an aerial assault directly into it.

Excitement was growing with the trickle of intelligence suggesting the Taliban were there in high numbers and committed to fighting, with this being the last line in a series of villages they would have nowhere to go apart from into the open desert. The temptation of taking out a large gathering of the enemy coupled with it probably being our last proper scrap before heading home made this mission an eagerly anticipated one; every man prayed the helicopters, weather and desire from above (God, Allah and NATO HQ) would align to give us this chance to take it to the Talib. To the confused civilian I would offer this explanation…in our 6 months tour a lot of time is spent sweaty, dirty, exhausted and frustrated searching for an enemy. That enemy if deciding the odds aren’t favourable to him will disappear, blend into the community; then only when our back is turned he will attack. He will dig explosives into the ground to maim us instead of facing us man to man, use children as human shields. The opportunity to grab this coward by the scruff of the neck when cornered and give him smack around the face is not to be taken for granted. Of course it’s not all macho chest slapping and being gung-ho, it isn’t that at all actually but there is the more reflective side also. While presenting professional hunger to go out and do the job we remain mindful of the risk, we had made it most of the way through the tour….wouldn’t it be a blow to lose more men now, wouldn’t it be devastating to lose a limb at this late stage. Every moment with my intact legs was savoured. I mean, the post tour trip to Ibiza just wouldn’t quite be the same with one missing!! Risk versus reward…I guess if I returned feeling I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t taken the risk to make a difference then that pina coloda by the pool wouldn’t taste as sweet.

The village was called Fulad, split into two parts, North and South. It had an old Russian hill fort commanding a view over it and spanned a few kilometres in length. The interior was a standard collection of compounds with alleyways connecting them and high sandy mud walls. To the west of the Northern part was a large area of irrigation ditches and green ploughed fields, which would present a nightmare to navigate if encountered. A series of mountains occupied the other flank. My squadron was to land in the Northern part of the village…in the irrigation ditches and ploughed fields, obviously! Maybe it was such a genius idea that the Talib wouldn’t expect it but I’m sure they would adjust to the sound of a massive helicopter appearing in the middle of their sleepy village. We had been granted ‘permission’ from the restrictive command of ISAF/NATO (under the strain of the petty Hamid Karzid) to conduct a night time ‘break in’, allowing us the advantage of moving unseen once dropped off. With our superior training and night vision equipment this was appreciated, however, the average Afghan soldier has such a reluctance to use his NVG’s he may as well be blindfolded. When they did actually pull them down over their eyes they would wander around taking big exaggerated steps with arms stretched out, feeling around like playing a game of blind man’s bluff. I’ll be honest I tend to adopt an approach like a wacky comedy burglar with slow over extended paces but not as bad as those clowns. It was due to a lack of depth perception with the NVG’s but manageable with practice.

The night before the assault we gathered in our briefing room for orders, all aspects were covered for this complex operation. My group would be responsible for the eastern half of the village, about 15 UK/US troops and 60 Afghan soldiers. The force would be split between two Chinook heavy lift helicopters, arriving just before dawn. The US Marine armoured unit had one of its leaders called Capt David Pham. I would meet David on the battlefield at a later time and become good friends and it reinforced to me that this professional US Marine force would be ruthlessly well led and cause as much damage to the enemy defenders as possible. They would start rolling towards the village as we got airborne from our camp, this it was hoped would prompt the residing Taliban to rush in numbers to their defensive positions, towards the Southern tip of the village. Our success hinged on this, our plan of releasing the noisy tanks ensured the village would be alive with an alert enemy by the time we arrived, a risk compared to landing without alerting them. Both options were weighed up and of course if we just decided to turn up we could have the situation of the enemy being scattered and able to fire at the helicopters on arrival. So, we hoped the tanks would divert their attention because we were going to land smack bang in the middle of the village.

I didn’t get much sleep, it was an early start and my body clock wouldn’t allow an early night. Some thoughts occupied the mind but generally it was just going over my actions, ensuring I knew exactly what I had to do. It’s the moment when waking after a brief doze that creates strange thoughts, kind of like when you wake from a dream and can’t picture where you are or if it’s reality. Eventually I would shake it off and laugh that the reality is more alarming than most dreams, we’d actually be getting on a helicopter to go and assault an enemy village. Once I had carried out my ritual of checking my weapon and equipment I set off for the airfield.

Outside our camp we waited in lines on the airfield, it was flanked on one side with a mountain of watch towers and bare desert intersected with ‘Highway One’ on the other. Still pitch black I was already expending energy trying to get the Afghans to stay in their lines, it was important to maintain the order as it was vital they got on the right helicopter and in the right order because at the other end the Talibs wouldn’t be giving us a few minutes to sort ourselves out. This was one of the exasperating parts of working with the Afghans and I would work hard to not lose my temper. They would just walk off to talk to their mates in other lines, or sit with them and jumble up the order. Despite us telling them the importance they would say “It’s OK Whiskey we know, we will move when helicopters come.” But that was the problem, they would move but having not listened they would be clueless to where they should be and end up in the wrong place causing confusion. Their commanders were just as bad and hardly any use at all.

My first buzz of the day arrived along with the sight and sound of our Chinook CH-47 helicopters. It is, in my eyes a majestic machine, to many it may resemble a flying bus but to me it matched extreme power with grace and versatility. Its twin rotors made a distinctive sound that gave it its own personality and its bulky rear ramp would lower, inviting you in. It’s a pretty sensational feeling, walking towards the tail ramp with the powerful downwash from the rotors hitting you in the face, looking around at your fellow warriors willingly boarding this flight into the unknown. Men were going to die today, that we were sure of, the dedication of not allowing it to be your friend was the binding force that motivated us.

Once on board the deafening, shuddering Chinook I gave the thumbs up to the aircrewman and he raised the ramp. I took a seat closest to the ramp in order for me to exit the helicopter first on landing, a series of nods, thumbs up and positive smiles circled around the back of the craft; moments later the engines roared and I felt that ‘roller coaster’ surge feeling in my stomach as we lifted up and away…I imagined in my head the tanks starting their engines and the metallic, creaking noise carrying on the wind to the Taliban sentries, who would in turn wake the others. Would they be prepared I wondered, because ready or not…

I checked the orange backlight of my mini GPS watch – ’10 kilometres’, I could see the other helicopter as a dark silhouette in the sky behind us. We had no way of receiving an update on movements in the village so all I could do was run through the series of possibilities facing us on landing. I just hoped we would touch down without taking fire, in the air we were at the mercy of this machine and its vulnerability while hovering to land. I’ll be honest with you, despite the obvious concern for the events about to unfold there is an element of stimulation during the flight, a sense of ‘coolness’ and arrogance, mans primal instinct in its most pure state of preparation. Imagine a lion or gorilla, prowling around its foe with its chest stuck out, convincing himself he is superior and backing himself to win the battle. In this instance it isn’t macho bullshit, it’s natural emotions supplying mind and muscle with preparation…and stacks of adrenaline on call.

The flight to target is always subdued, it has to be due to the noise of the aircraft but you get the feeling it would also if there was no engine noise. Some guys’ sit head slumped forward on their rifle, some drop it back as if asleep, some look around, some stare like a man possessed. I loved to stare at the tail gate, in darkness or light that strip of the outside world transfixed me no matter how tired I was. Was this in anticipation or was it a physical need to picture what I was going to do when it eventually lowered. Either way I would spend the whole flight analysing what I was going to do when it did lower, what I would do in every different scenario while exiting.

One thing was for sure, the phrase ‘herding cats’ applied to every single exit I made with a a mass of crazy Afghan soldiers. The tailgate would have a 30% gap at the top allowing a view out, on some assaults you would see the sun rising, stunning colours hitting the desolate desert and mountains and many times I would tell myself “This is awesome”, not for any bullshit idealism of ‘losing myself’…I was sat around 30 men armed to the teeth so I knew exactly why I was getting to see that sight but I knew it was a beautiful way to go to war. Not this morning, as we had had permission to assault before daybreak – in total darkness.

There comes a point in this aerial tour that everything changes, and it evokes an emotion in me that I could never replicate or feel in any other situation. With the thunderous noise of rotor blades changing sound, the aircrewman turns around to me the closest man to him and raises one finger – “One minute”, that moment grips you by the chest, it means in one minute this helicopter is going to drop to the ground and that tailgate is going to lower, there is only one way to go and nobody on the back of this aircraft knows exactly what lies in wait.

It was a classic helicopter assault; arriving before dawn we hoped to catch the Taliban off guard. For this particular assault we would land in the middle of the village and directly in range of the enemy weapons.

“One minute.”

I passed the call down and like a row of dominoes you could see in the lowlight heads bob into line as straight as a die. Then in unison every man stood up, turned towards the tail and took a knee – lined up ready to move as soon as that ramp lowered. The aircrewman would then try and give more indications but we knew the score, the one minute was all we needed as from then it was like muscle memory. Soon the helicopter blades would change sound, the cab would shudder as it slowed and the ‘woca woca’ noise from the blades would go into slow motion. The floor would seem like it was going away from you, dust and sand would appear in the gap.

My GPS watch has our rendezvous programmed into it and despite it running down the distance to the RV at the same rate it has been the whole flight, it seems accelerated. It’s almost as if time is moving faster and the GPS is having a fit as it goes into 3 figures….900m… 800m… 700m. The direction arrow is spinning in all directions. Each man has taken a knee, facing the ramp, rifle firmly gripped, my NVG’s flicker into life and turn my world into a green glow of shadows. Suddenly the aircraft jerks and rears up, offering its tail end towards the ground, now we are waiting for the touchdown and the ramp to drop…..it feels like an eternity. Totally focused on the ramp I manage a smile, imagining the Taliban lined out to the south in defence, laying there waiting for the tanks. I imagine the pang of shock they get on realising there are two helicopters landing right under their noses but behind their lines. It was the ideal scenario, the perfect assault.

Except that the enemy aren’t lined out to the south, they aren’t facing the other way, and they aren’t waiting for the tanks. They are still in the village.

“GO”!! The ramp hits the deck and I sprint forward into a dust storm, I am wildly off balance as my feet connect with the humps of the ploughed field. It’s vital that I don’t hesitate or fall as there is a steady stream of men behind me and we all need to get clear of the helicopter. This is our most vulnerable moment, the Chinook even in the dark is a red rag to a bull; it is big, noisy, creating a massive signature from its dust storm and one definite bullet magnet.

Within seconds the enemy have located it and we start receiving a high volume of machine gun fire.

Screaming at the Afghans to move into a covered ditch I catch a glimpse of our fellow helicopter slowing to a hover on the other side of our field. ‘BOOM’… the unmistakable echo of an RPG being fired, soon followed by an explosion. Whether it was fired at our aircraft or the other one I don’t know but I was relieved to see it detonate in the field away to my left. It soon became apparent that our comrades weren’t going to land with ease, although I should have been scanning the dark tree-line to my front for the enemy shooting at us I couldn’t help but get drawn towards the ground to air battle commencing above me. A stream of tracer bullets from a Taliban machine gun were arching into the sky towards helicopter 2, in turn the door gunner was hammering the position in retaliation with 7.62mm automatic fire. It was a fierce trade off and the pilot, having been compromised had no option but to abort his landing. Any longer and they faced receiving a telling shot that would drop it out of the sky. As it banked away into the dark sky it dawned on us that we were now on our own. The sun hadn’t yet dawned on us so at least we had that advantage, even if I was surrounded by 30 or so Afghan Frankenstein imitators.

My next battle of the day wasn’t with the Taliban who had now set their sights solely on us once our helicopter had departed and we’d melted into the dark shadows of a tree-line. The Afghan soldiers were point blank refusing to move any further. When I ordered them to head towards the buildings they replied nonchalantly, “No Whiskey, we no move until it is light.” I was absolutely raging; we had been given the green light to take the risk of inserting under the cover of darkness to take advantage of our superior skills and night vision equipment. These soldiers were now telling me they wanted to waste our upper hand and sit idle until the sun came up, also throwing away our momentum.

With my anger levels at maximum there was another struggle going on to the south. The second wave were moving in to and in their part of the village and the story is taken up by my great friend and Royal Marine ‘Twiggy’ who was part of the second wave…

Second Wave

We were on a USMC Sea Stallion helicopter and we didn’t have faith or luck with them on this tour. They carried no under belly armour unlike the British Chinook so there wasn’t much confidence if we started to take fire; the floor we had our feet on would soon turn into a bean can from an old western. My task was to lead my group into a fire support position to enable an assault team to close in with support. Despite the vulnerability of the craft we were confident in our abilities and as I watched the bright glow of Camp Bastion disappear I looked around and was reassured by the focus on the faces of my brothers around me. As we approached target I had shiver down my spine at the thought of running ‘blind’ into the unknown. Something seemed off and I had the impression that we were stalling our route to target. It then became apparent that I was right.

I looked across at our Captain and the loadmaster was frantically trying to relay a message to him. This did not look good. The message was soon passed to me, “The first helicopter wave into the valley have come under rocket fire and are now in heavy contact taking machine gun fire. We are now orbiting to assess whether to abort our insertion and pull back to make a new plan.” I was extremely unhappy about the thought of withdrawing without a solid reason. The lads started become restless and we soon got more information that one helicopter had withdrawn under heavy fire but they’d managed to put one on the ground and inserted a team into the enemy positions. It was Westy’s team and about 30 Afghan soldiers and they were now totally isolated on their own, under fire and people were considering leaving them there alone. The 8 man British/American team were now in a valley in the darkness and surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters heavily armed and occupying dug in machine gun nests. The deception had failed and they were in defensive positions ready to fight to the death.

I was sat near Jase a fellow Royal Marine and the lads were raging and a full mutiny was about to take place unless the decision was made to put us on the ground. With the atmosphere being acknowledged our commander leaned over and told the loadmaster to pass a message on to the pilot, “Our men are on the ground and in the shit, get us on the fucking ground immediately so that we can help them.” I remember looking out of the back of the helicopter and seeing the dark village absolutely erupting with gun fire from Westy’s team and the Taliban. The rear of our helicopter then also erupted with emotion as every man started shouting, “Get us on that fucking battlefield.” We knew it was going to be a hot landing and committed to fighting straight from the ramp if we needed to. There was no way we could live with leaving a team on its own against a heavily defended village of hundreds of fighters with nowhere to retreat.

“One Minute.”

We were going in. WE now started to receive incoming fire and I could see the bright zipping lines of tracer bullets flying through the sky next to us. The loadmaster shouted that there were enemy near the landing zone and we were going in hot. To say I had a spike of unbelievable adrenaline doesn’t do justice to how I felt. I was bursting to get on the ground. As we shuddered onto the ground we started receiving rocket and machine gun fire directly to the helicopter. The metal cab made a deafening noise as the bullets smacked into it. We were on the ground but couldn’t exit, the ramp hadn’t been lowered. The loadmaster was curled up in the corner, frozen with complete shock. We were too heavy to climb over the gap at the top of the tailgate and would’ve broken our legs on dropping down the other side.

We were sitting ducks and I just knew we were going to take a casualty, I just knew it…

Someone grabbed the loadmaster and screamed at him to lower the ramp. Once he’d been forced into doing so we scrambled in a mass gang to get clear of this bullet magnet. I sprinted as hard as I could and all I could see was green dust and the blur of sweat in my eyes. There was a hail of bullets, rockets and grenades being thrown at us and as I managed to reach the cover of a mud wall building I let out a quick sigh of relief. This was soon taken away from me with a swift blow on hearing the dreaded words being shouted out:

“Man down, man down, man down.”

Northern Village

Back in the northern part of the village we were getting information that Twiggy and the lads had landed on. This was a massive relief to know we weren’t alone. Our second helicopter which had aborted under fire had now landed in a field a little further away and they were making their way towards us. News had come through about the casualty on Twiggy’s helicopter. It was Corporal Brian Riddle and his dog Jonny, a US Marine dog team tasked to help us search for mines and explosive devices set to maim us. I’d become good friends with Brian just like the other American lads and was desperate to hear about his condition. He had taken the brunt of an RPG attack which had landed close to the helicopter tail gate. Brian had suffered deep lacerations to his legs, body and back and was bleeding profusely. The quick thinking of the lads and first class medical treatment from our medic Matt enabled him to be dragged back onto the helicopter with his dog Jonny and evacuated out of the area. He was critical but alive.

We had a long hard day of fighting ahead of us and it would require a full chapter to document it all. The actions of Brian and the men on Twiggy’s helicopter epitomised our band of brothers, despite being absolutely certain that they were going to face a wall of lethal fire and take casualties they didn’t just agree to go. They fucking demanded to go. Warriors and gentlemen of the highest order who will forever have my deepest thanks and respect.

The day was unfortunately to suffer further tragedy. One of our British teams had identified a suspicious mud compound that looked certain to have improvised explosive devices. They had called for the US Marine EOD (bomb disposal in crude terms) to come and exploit it. Whilst attempting to enter the area Staff Sergeant Joe Fankhauser USMC had stepped on a device and set it off. I vividly remember looking south at the precise moment that the device detonated and remember seeing a quick flash of light. It was followed up by a bone crunching boom and the vacuum caused could be felt in the chest. Even though I wasn’t close enough to assess what was going on, I had a deep sinking feeling that it was very bad news for our lads. My patrol fell silent as we contemplated the likely outcome of such a massive explosion.

Joe had immediately lost 3 limbs causing massive trauma and blood loss and was treated and evacuated by the British Marine and Para team. Jase was on hand to provide immediate lifesaving treatment and was followed up with Matt arriving to take over the efforts to save Joe from getting worse. Further treatment was given on the helicopter evacuation but on arrival at the medical facility SSgt Joe Fankhauser was tragically pronounced dead. Joe was 30 years old and from Texas.

Joe left behind his wife Heather and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Joe, Semper Fi Brother, Per Mare Per Terram, thank you for your service and stand easy Marine.

*****************************************************

L.G. West is a serving Royal Marines Commando, adventurer and author. Trampface is his first book, a true story which he wrote in-between solo world travel, serving his country and consistently giving his family and guardian angel nightmares. It is available on amazon in paperback and eBook or direct from the author – trampface@mail.com. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07BJCJ7QX
His second book about living in the Calais Jungle migrant camp for 7 nights is also available.

 

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