Theodore's World: Miracles On The Front Line: Snipers Defy Odds, Death In Afghanistan

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September 07, 2009

Miracles On The Front Line: Snipers Defy Odds, Death In Afghanistan

Miracles On The Front Line: Snipers Defy Odds, Death In Afghanistan

h/t Pat Dollard

MIANPOSHTEH, Afghanistan

For seven hours, the Marine sniper team waited, crouching behind a concrete block in a dusty courtyard, at the edge of an adobe compound. They were pretty sure that a group of local Taliban militants was on the other side of the compound wall. But the snipers couldn’t strike until they had some proof.

So they stayed there, in silence. They downed energy drinks to stay awake. They urinated in bottles and defecated in bags, so they wouldn’t leave evidence of their presence behind.

Team leader Sgt. Erik Rue kept himself sharp by running scenarios in his head of what could happen next: What if the Taliban burst in, guns blazing? What if they enter unarmed? What if there are children in the way? What if the courtyard is overrun by the militants? Where do we go then?

U.S. Marines and Taliban guerrillas have battled in the villages and compounds of this farming community nearly every day for eight weeks. It’s become one of the epicenters of America’s renewed war effort in Afghanistan. But during most of those shootouts, the two sides have been hundreds, even thousands, of feet apart. On Tuesday, they fought at point-blank range.

And despite all those hours of what-ifs, Rue and his team couldn’t have predicted how this gunfight would play out. By the time it was over, at least two men were dead. Another took a bullet to the chest but escaped unharmed. And another had his gun shot out of his hands. Four more survived what should have been a lethal bomb blast. “It was a fuckin’ pretty eventful day, to say the least,” Rue says.

After waiting for so long, the sniper team decided to try something new to flush out their targets. Rue — a smallish, slight military brat with a clean-shaven head and world-weary brown eyes — whispered into his radio to his headquarters, about a mile away.

Bring some helicopters overhead, he said, and make a low pass. The guys over the compound wall might start shooting at the helos. And then we’ll have proof of their hostile intent. The helicopters — already circling over another group of Marines engaged in a firefight — began to swoop in towards the snipers’ position. They made their pass.

But the men on the other side of the wall didn’t take the bait. If they had guns, they didn’t bother shooting them at the Cobra gunship and the Huey attack chopper.

Staff Sgt. Doug Webb was getting sick of waiting. The tattooed, twitchy Long Island, New York, native wanted to figure out if these guys were Taliban or not. Right now.

He scooted into a small room, adjacent to the courtyard. On the western wall of the room, at floor level, was a yard-wide “mousehole.” Webb lay his chest on the floor, and stuck his face in the hole.

At first, all he could see were ankles and feet. All he could hear were four male voices, speaking Pashto. Then he recognized a single word: “Taliban.” Webb looked up, and saw that one of the men had a vest packed with ammunition. And an AK-47.

Webb came back into the courtyard — and almost got shot himself. He surprised his teammate, Sgt. Nick Worth, who drew a pistol on him. “Whoa!” Webb whispered. Worth returned the gun to its holster.

“Man, I just saw a guy with an old-school mujahideen chest rig and a weapon,” Webb whispered excitedly. But the guy — and his three pals — appeared to be walking away from the snipers on a north-south trail, at the compound’s edge. If the snipers were going to attack, they had to do it right away,
“Fuck it. Now or never,” Rue said. He sent three snipers to the roof, and ran out of the courtyard with three others: Sgt. Ryan Steinbacker, Cpl. Fred Gardner, and Worth. They entered an east-west alleyway, perpendicular to the trail that Webb had spied through his mousehole.

They reached the intersection, and saw one man in the distance to their left. Luckily, he didn’t see them in the alleyway. Then, a second man, wearing brown tunic and a black hat, turned the corner. He was maybe five feet from the snipers. His eyes widened with surprise.

“I gave him half a second. He swung around his AK,” said Worth, who was carrying a Benelli 1014 shotgun. “Then I put four buckshot rounds in his chest.” Rue added a few more shots. The man crumpled to the ground.

A third man in a white robe was in the distance, about 150 feet to the north. He raised his AK-47 and fired at the snipers. Steinbacker dropped to one knee and shot the man with his M4. He dropped.

Almost immediately, a barrage of bullets came flying in directly at the snipers, from the cornfields in the west and from the trees to the east. Clearly, there were more than four militants on the area. Many, many more. And some of them could shoot.

Lance Cpl. Justin Kuhel, positioned on the roof, had the M203 grenade launcher blasted out of his hand. Lance Cpl. Justin Black, next to him, took a shot in the center of his chest. It spun him around. He collapsed on his forearms.

“It felt like I got hit with a hammer,” Black says. He reached his hand underneath his armor plates. Luckily, there was no blood.
But Black was clearly in trouble. “After I got hit, I’m laying there. And I saw rounds hit right in front of me. I thought, ‘Man, this might be it.’”
It was another now-or-never point for the Marines. The fire from the corn was about to separate the sniper groups from one another — and make them much easier to pick off. “Pull back! Pull back!” Rue yelled.
They ran back to the courtyard, and took up guarding positions at the entrances. “Hey, are you all right? Are you all right?” the snipers asked each other.
They gawked at Black’s perforated chest plate, and wondered how the hell he was still alive. The snipers knew he wasn’t the only lucky one; that storm of lead from the cornfield could’ve killed any of them. “I felt invincible until then,” Black says. “Then it’s, ‘Aw, fuck. I can get shot.’”

The gunshots died down, for a minute. Rue’s mind turned to those two Taliban bodies, outside on the trail. American forces could glean valuable information from their weapons, their documents, their radios, their fingerprints. But the Taliban were famous for removing their dead almost instantly.

Once again, it was now-or-never time. Rue and Webb went out to get the bodies. The Marines grabbed the first dead militant by the ankles, and dragged it back into the courtyard. He had his AK-47 still slung across his chest, and a rice bag, filled with ammunition.

Again, the Marines took fire from at least two different positions in the corn. Again, the fire died down. It was time to make a run for the second body. They hurled themselves into the alleyway, and made a right on the trail.

Ordinarily, Marines here have avoided these obvious footpaths; local militants have turned the trails into death traps, filled with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. But there was no time to cut through the fields. As they moved, Webb noticed a purple sack. “I bet this guy left us a little present,” he thought. “That’s probably a bomb.”

That’s when the thing exploded.

A thunderous boom rang out. A cloud of dirt engulfed the snipers. Webb fell forward. “I saw a white flash and stars, like I got hit in the face,” he says. Days later, he’s complaining of memory losses. Webb and several other members of the team have been diagnosed with concussions. But somehow, none of them were seriously hurt.

“That’s fucking it! Everyone back inside!” Rue shouted. In a daze, they stumbled back to the courtyard.

Not long after, a handful of infantrymen from a Marine platoon wandered into the compound. They were later joined by the rest of their squad, and a second unit from nearby Echo company.

The firefight continued. But now it was the Taliban who were outgunned. The Cobra and the Huey blasted thousands of rounds into the treelines and buildings that the militants were using as firing positions.

That allowed the sniper team a chance to exit the battle, nearly 12 hours after they had first slipped into that courtyard. Scampering along the side of a canal, they walked out as they entered — in silence.

Rue, for one, is still surprised they made it all back intact. “Being that close to the IED blast and everyone walking away — that’s a miracle,” he says. “Receiving such heavy fire down an exit point without getting shot — that’s a miracle. And two guys getting shot and not getting hurt. That’s in the category of a miracle, too.”

Echo company and the Taliban are still battling around those compounds, more than 36 hours after the sniper team’s initial attack. But the conflict has returned to its normal routine. The two sides are back to firing at each other from hundreds of yards away, not right up-close.

And the sniper team has been confined to base to recover from that harrowing morning.

Wild Thing's comment.........

Thank God for miracles and thank God for our troops.

Posted by Wild Thing at September 7, 2009 04:55 AM


literally on the edge of my seat reading that

trying to understand this Afghanistan war

Posted by: Eden at September 7, 2009 07:03 AM

Great story. These young people are simply amazing.
The website has some very revealing info as well.

Posted by: Jim at September 7, 2009 09:27 AM

Good story.

I'm like you Eden. I am trying to figure out what is happening in Afghanistan. It is looking a lot like Vietnam. It shares long borders with Iran and Pakistan. These two countries are either anti American or have large anti American elements. They act as sactuaries and rebuilding and rearming bases for the Taliban. This is reminiscent of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. We need to seal off those two borders which will require a very large number of troops. Seems like we are not proficient at sealing borders, not even our own.

Posted by: TomR at September 7, 2009 12:53 PM

Good story WT, it brings back nightmares of RVN and the ROE's there. We seem to have lost the objective to PC correctness and pusillanimous world opinion that forces the United States to go it alone. This administration hasn't defined the objective beyond withdrawal time schedules directed at the enemy. Either fight to win or pull all the troops all the way out.
I agree Tom, but this administration lacks the intestinal fortitude to do that. Thankfully those Marines survived the fight. At least this generation's protective gear works better than our flak jackets that seemed best suited at keeping in body odor and heat and little else out. Remember this: Both doctors and politicians bury their mistakes.

Posted by: Jack at September 7, 2009 03:32 PM

Now that's a nightmare Jack, Flak Jackets, extra weight, and in the heat of the Jungle it was like being in a pressure cooker. Everybody tried to lose the damn things, or didn't wear them at all. And that damn bathing suit that went along with it was the quickest way to crotch rot.

A new Butterbar tried to get everyone to wear them until his first patrol, he learned real quick.

Posted by: Mark at September 7, 2009 04:30 PM

LOL Mark, shirtless most of the time, mine was worn past the MP's at Division then promptly removed to set on, gawd that thing smelled, beyond gamey the flies wouldn't even land on it, the crust around the urinals was better scented, as for the bathing suit, didn't have one, but caught the rot anyway, they wouldn't stop an AK round either, then there was that wonderful helmet that hammered your brain as you bounced along. I remember some of the worst beatings I took was from debris from prop wash beneath the shit hook on the LZ's , that POS vest didn't help at all, it took hours to pick the grass and small bits of rock and dirt from the hide.

Semper Fi you magnificent warriors.

Posted by: Jack at September 7, 2009 06:06 PM

Then there was the inquisition, By Gunnery Sergent Dell, 'Where's your flak jacket'. 'Gesh gunny, I don't know it was here a minute ago, somebody must of took it.' then he'd say , 'well who took the damn thing, who would want it ? 'I don't know Gunny, that's the same question I've been asking',...He gave up on it after awhile. Those damn flak jackets have got to be all over the place in South Vietnam.

Except for a few things and those damn flak jackets the Gunny was Aces.

Posted by: Mark at September 7, 2009 07:25 PM

,,,,and congress has a moment of silence to honor----Micheal Jackson,,,,,,,,,,,
Those assholes in Washington couldn't carry the boots of one of our soldiers. America needn't look to Hollywierd for its heroes. They're right down the street, on any base USA, and around the world. GOD bless our troops.
nuf sed

Posted by: Frankly Opinionated at September 8, 2009 12:11 AM