BY FRED BROWN, © 2009
Al Buck looked across the hard, gray and black terrain. Not much different from the training, he thought. Only just a little more rocky. The boys would do fine here. The exercises had been quite realistic and for once the Army had let him do it right without a lot of interference from above. Thank goodness for Hamp, Lieutenant General Jay Hamp. Good guy, let’s you do your job, keeps the desk clerks out of the way, let’s you be a little creative within boundaries, of course, but overall, he didn’t allow his West Point graduate credentials, top of his class or two stars, stand in his way of getting the job done, or thinking a little outside the normal Army routine. Hamp was no rules and regs man when it came to this team. He was our man. If anyone understood us, how it was to work, the only way it could work, it was Hamp. Any other way, and it was toes up all around.
First, let me say that Afghanistan is a shit pen. You can’t believe the poverty and the way people have to live. I’ve seen better bird cages than the pest holes they call homes. This place is unbelievable. Hamp told me the Big A reminds him of Nam. At least the people do. Hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and when you think you’ve found a good guy, he turns out to be a bad guy. They switch sides like it was a game, which it is, I think. Just when you believe a deal is done, you suddenly realize that they have gone off to the other side to work up a better arrangement. Usually money is involved. And somebody’s head. It is a crazy place.
The second thing you notice is the inhospitality. Even the birds hate you. I was in Desert Storm, of course. We became accustomed to sand in your slits. But this is much, much different. It really blows here. There are mountains, and then there are more mountains, pointed, rugged things. The Al-Q boys can live off of nothing, and their cave system is really superior to anything I’ve seen. Hamp says the caves are better than the Nam rats dug, and that is high praise. The Nam Cong could construct a cave.
The land is up, down, then across sand that is blowing through you. It will just wear the hide right off of your boots, take the skin off of your hands, if you aren’t wearing gloves. I don’t see how these people make it here. You see them everywhere, pulling these long blankets over their heads when the winds pick up and sand swirls in. All you see are their black eyes in a stinging mist of yellow. The women, of course, you never see, except in a berka. But, then, that’s not my problem right now. My job is to make sure the Al-Q quit living here, or end up baking in the desert, bones and all.
I’m Al Buck, Sergeant Major to Gen. Hamp. That’s about all you need to know at the moment. Our unit is new. We are in the 9th Army, 1st Regiment, 1st Battalion Special Forces Ops, the 911. You already know why we are new and what that designation means. Our shoulder patch is a giant cobra, wrapped around a mountain peak, poised to strike. Underneath are the words “Vengeance Is Ours.”
Just hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Hamp, was ordered to Tampa, at Special Ops Command. General Tommy Franks, the four-star in charge, said he had gotten word from Washington that they wanted to form an elite team, outside the rules. It was going to be quiet, because attitudes were changing rapidly in Washington. Some high ranking folks had been daylighted, as some of my old mountain buddies say. There just wouldn’t be a lot of news about us with the other commandos getting most of the attention. The President had gotten this real kick-ass attitude about losing two tall buildings in New York and having a wing blown off of the Pentagon, and he wanted a group entering the back door to dust heads. Take that to mean a literal translation. We were going in as a highly sophisticated, top clearance sniper team to clean out the place of some big name bad guys, and to protect other commando teams in some of their missions. We were born killers.
The general told Hamp to put together the sharpest, clinical shooters he could find, from all the other Special Ops teams. Nothing but the best, and he wanted a top non-com in charge. That’s me, Sergeant Major Al Buck. They call me “Cut.” That’s because I won’t cut and run when the going gets tough. Instead, I prefer to do the cutting, if you can visualize that, which I think you can. Outside of the uniform, I’m a decent fellow—the usual, married to the Army, twice married to really nice women who didn’t understand my first love and marriage. Not their fault at all. I’m just wedded to the Army. I love it, and other things come second: God, country, then family. I don’t think they liked the order of the lineup. So, right now, I’m a bachelor again, which makes it a lot less complicated.
Hamp came to me and said we were putting together a special team. That sounded like all the other spooky things that go on here, but he assured me that this was not going to be part of the SEALS, Delta Force (we call those guys the Delta Darlings, but not to their faces), or any of the other commando types you read so much about.
“Your boys are going to be hand picked by me and you and you will go by nicknames only. In fact, that is your only existence,” Hamp told me.
“What are you calling this bunch of no-names?” I asked.
“The Night Crawlers.”
“And just what are these Night Crawlers going to do, Hamp?”
“Shoot the fuck out of ragheads and other rodents.”
In the course of putting together this team of expert shooters, I had the pick of the litter. The best of the best, which was a lot of fun. I have always liked to see things work to perfection, and this group was something else. All of them had been through the normal commando-kill schools: Airborne Rangers, Delta Force, SEALS, Air Force Special Ops, Army Green Berets, and even the Marine Ranger School. Out of all that expertise, ego and gung-ho testosterone, I had my choice of the top ten, to then be narrowed to the five preeminent shooters in the world, or at least that was our view.
Since they had been through the best training the military has, and the best taxpayer money can buy, it was my job to just hone a few other skills: training with a few ultra new, really nice weapons, a little more stealth training, getting accustomed to the latest and hottest type of night vision eyewear, and communications about the size of a dime, and more practice time on the sniper range.
The men I picked were the finest those various and odd branches had to offer. They were not only the best, but the brightest of the lot, and that is saying something when you think about it. You can’t be too stupid and make it through Ranger school. Well, maybe Ranger school. You just got to have nuts the size of basketballs, but the Green Berets and SEALS require some smarts. I won’t say anything about the Delta Darlings. They just don’t like anybody at all, and the less you know about them, the better off you are. But they are the best this country has to offer on most occasions. You already know about the Marines. If it has to be torn up, positively, absolutely overnight, send the Marines.
The ten I picked were just superior men in every way: they were in the military for life, like me; they were leaders on their own, capable of making individual decisions; fearless; and of course, they were the best shooters the military had. Each one could put a shell in your ear from right at three clicks. In the dead of night. With a little tencho help, of course.
You might think that dealing with ten ornery and smart types would be difficult. It had its moments, but in general, they respected me because I had been to Desert Storm and Somalia, and I’m just not the sort who takes a lot of guff from the Gunga Dins. That’s why they call me Cut. Plus, I’ll brag just a bit here: I have a degree in English Literature from the University of Georgia, ’93. I know, you are wondering what is an English Literature major doing in this sort of environment? Why aren’t you teaching somewhere, smoking a pipe and wearing tweed? The answer is complicated, so I’ll give you the short version: Just after returning from the Gulf War, I finished up my degree over the next couple of years.
I love writing and words. Being on front lines where life and death are like night an day. There is a rhythm to it, and this rhythm allows me to explore emotions and feelings most people never experience. I have kept a diary all of my life, loved reading, and writing, and that is partly what you are reading here: The Diary of a Night Crawler. That’s only a portion of the answer. Now, I ask you, where could a writer go to find better material than the front lines with an Army unit? Old Hemingway is my model. And if you look back across the history of literature, you will see that a rather large squadron of writers had their beginnings in combat. It makes for compelling reading, and there is nothing like the threat of instant death to focus your attention. And I have always been a fan of Winston Churchill: journalist, Member of Parliament, great statesman, and warrior. He was also a pretty decent hand with not only oratory, but writing as well.
So, there you have my background just a little. I need to tell you that I am, like most great soldiers, a Southern boy. Georgia is my home state. We know how to hunt, kill things, take orders, and just kick the living shit out of you if you fuck with us. That’s why the military loves Southern boys. They understand hard times, hard days, hard orders and hard fists.
I am prone to fat. But getting in shape for the Big A melted the blubber like butter. I am in pretty decent condition for an old man of 33, trying to keep up with boys a decade or so younger. Hamp is twenty years older than me and can still run you into the ground. He’s amazing, and I would walk through the gates of hell for him.
Once the selection process began, Hamp and I had more than 200 volunteers. Word was out that there was to be a shit-kicking bunch and many from what I call the Gunga Testosterone group turned up. They don’t care much for anything except killing. I eliminated them immediately. And then it took time to weed out others, to get it down to ten. From there, the process worked for itself: you had to be able to use many different weapons systems; you had to be able to bulls eye every time, not just now and then, every time and from various distances and under difficult circumstances; and you had to be able to think. That got rid of several.
And finally we had five, plus I insisted on a backup, a replacement. You always need replacements in the military. It’s called redundancy. The men for the most part were rare specimens and I came to know them better than their mamas did. I also came to love them as much. My plan was not to leave a single one of them behind in Afghanistan.
Let me introduce the boys to you. First is Jamie Dore, from West Virginia. He’s Green Beret all the way, a master sergeant, and, like me, loves books. But when hell arrives, you want Jamie on your side. He shoots like a Swiss clock and we call him “Slam D” because he will slam dunk your ass with a long-range rifle with laser scopes. He is a graduate of the University of West Virginia, was a star wide receiver for the Mountaineers, and got a degree in civil engineering. He’s brainy and loyal.
Sonny Twofeathers, a three-quarters Cherokee Indian from Robbinsville, N.C., near the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The boys call him “Tracker,” because he can find you no matter where you hide. He likes to say you can run, but you can’t hide. He grew up hunting, trapping wild animals for food, and tracking in the woods. He is a dead shot, but more important, Tracker is a virtuoso with the MP-5 submachine gun. He comes to us from the SEALS.
Joe Dan Hunt, a tall Texan from the North Dallas Forty, he says. He was All-American center at the University of Texas Longhorns. He is big, mean as a Brahma, smart and tough. So tough, we call him “Scrap Iron.” He is just awesome when it comes to adapting to any type of situation. He earned a degree, are you ready for this, in secondary education. He said he wanted to teach in grade schools, because that’s where the problems start, and if they don’t get straightened out there, they multiply later. Scrap Iron says he knows, because he was one of those problems. Only football and The Delta Force saved him, he says. He can kill you in so many ways. None of them are very nice. He is an expert with bombs, guns, knives, and for a big man, you won’t even know he’s there until he has slit you from top to bottom.
Hank Bass, Gyrine. He’s crazy. Like brilliant crazy. “Fusion.” That’s because he will fuse your bones together, melt them down, and pour them out. I’ve never seen anybody quite like him. I’m just glad he’s on our side, and that he listens and takes orders. Fusion shoots with instinct. I’ve only seen this one other time in my life, but not with Fusion’s innate ability. He anticipates your next move, and has a bullet waiting on you. He’s also good with many weapons, including explosives. Being a graduate of Louisiana State University in Baton Rogue, a Coonass, wanted to be a fighter pilot and wound up in the Air Force’s Special Commando Unit. That figures. He was a science major with a minor in math. Maybe that’s why he’s so good. He just figures the angle, and cuts you off at the knees.
Billy Bodean, an Army Ranger. Just a great athlete. He was All-Southeastern Conference from the University of Tennessee. He was a running back with moves like Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett. He is quick and as stealthy as a cat. I love to watch Bad Billy work. He has been to the Ranger’s special mountain training, qualified with the French mountain troops in the Alps, and is rugged as they come. We call him “Hacksaw.” It’s obvious. He will cut you to pieces.
I made Hamp put one more on the team just for back up. He’s the brooding Sol Heinric, a strange man in a strange land. Sol had been a sniper with one of the mountain teams. He had been through the 101st Airborne school at Fort Campbell, Ky., and was tough as an anvil. I spotted him one day on the sniper range. He was just too consistent. But, he is a hard man to understand. You don’t have problems with Sol, you just never know what he’s thinking. That’s why we call him “Black Hole.” He will send you off in one in a heart beat. He’s the only MIT graduate I have ever met. I think he majored in physics, or something. You never get a straight answer from him. Just results.
That’s the team. All of the boys are master sergeants, or have been promoted to that rank for this operation. We wanted them to have a higher rank to draw the better pay on top of combat and hazardous duty pay. Very hazardous duty.
After our exhaustive training and cross-training on all of the weapons, and some really deadly new gadgets, we assembled for our departure to Tajikistan. I know, I know. The President, Gen. Powell and everyone else were saying that we could only go into that country if we were doing humanitarian sorts of mission. That was for public consumption, and if you think about it, our mission was humanitarian. We were ridding the world of Taliban and the Al-Q. Plus, the Night Crawlers meant to find Osama bin Laden, the man of the hour, and take his head off.
Only a handful of people knew about us: General Franks, of course, the bossman. Lieutenant General Hamp, who was in direct contact with us, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense and General Colin Powell, Secretary of State. That was it. But you need to know this, too. Hamp and Bush were great friends. Hamp had been to the Texas ranch long before Bush became president. They had known each other back in high school and they corresponded when Bush went off to Yale and Hamp took it to the Long Gray Line at West Point.
After college, Hamp got busy with his Army career, and the president got busy making money. But they always kept in touch with each other. Laura Bush and Mary Hamp became good friends as well, sort of like cooking out in my backyard, and then we go to your backyard. Those were some backyards to be in, of course. It is probably not surprising to you, then, that President Bush had his personal inside dope on this operation. In fact, he called Hamp weekly once we got underway, wanting to know how the boys were. Once, Hamp even patched the President through to us on an highly secure line. I think they call it the red phone. And it sits on the president’s desk, or something like that.
Getting into Afghanistan was easy. We just parachuted in. The Taliban and Al-Q never knew we were there. Or if they did, they didn’t try to do anything about it. Good thing. You know how in World War II, the Germans shot up the airborne troops as they dropped in. Our chutes are the latest stuff invented. We jump at higher altitudes, get down faster in low altitude openings, and on the way down, our goggles allow us to pick up any warm blooded thing moving and breathing. A laser in the eyepiece locks onto the warmth and all we do is fire the weapon. The laser does the work. It is wonderfully amazing at what happens next. It’s called “accurate fire.” Never misses. We got the thing on the big AC-130 Specter gunships. And on our M4 combat weapons. We just pull the trigger and the lights go out. You shoot at us on the way down, and we blow you away. I love that. It’s a version of the old Bosnian warlord who told his adversaries that if “you shoot some of mine, I bomb your cities.” Same philosophy of force begetting Armageddon for me and mine. You shoot at us as we descend, and we will shred you.
The boys gathered up their chutes, stuffed them under rocks, pulled a little tab and they disintegrated in a smokeless fizz. Then we hooked up all of the gear that came out of the C-130 with us. It was a considerable amount of firepower and other goodies, what I call “new wave” gadgets. I love technology. Our backpacks are the latest, too, allowing us to carry a lot of weight, but distributed differently, so that it doesn’t wear you out. Each of us can carry more than 150 pounds on our backs because of these new light weight all purpose packs. We headed out for our first mission in the Big A.
One thing, we are always in contact with a squadron of Army attack helicopters. They are our support, if you can imagine that. It’s a matter of economics, if you think about it. The government, your tax dollars at work, put a lot of money into each one of my boys. They are expensive to keep around. High maintenance. The Apaches, Cobras, Pave Lows and the very bad ass Black Hawks. They are expensive and deadly. So, you’ve got one set of high-priced flying assets looking after another set of high-priced ground assets. It makes good economic sense, if you think about it. I’m just damned glad the choppers are here. All of them are what we call weapons platforms and they will grind up your ass into mush.
The Night Crawlers were sent to Afghanistan to do two things: provide long-range protection for our incoming ground troops, without them knowing it, and hunt down Osama bin Laden and kill him. As the military’s long-hunters, we intended to do just that. If the Al-Q and Taliban showed up, they were going to die as well. It was that simple.
We landed near a place in Tajikistan called Dushanbe, not far from the border with Afghanistan. I know you have heard a great deal about Kunduz and Mazael-Sharif, two Taliban and Al-Q strongholds, and key transportation centers down into the south. That’s where we headed. Hamp wanted us to check out Kunduz first, since it near a far northeast town of Faizabad, which is not that far from the Pakistani border. The fear was that Osama could slip into Pakistan and then make his way out to India, which was on the verge of turning Pakistan into a pile of nuclear charcoal pits.
We set up in some hills above Kunduz, covered up, camouflaged and waited. Well, we didn’t exactly wait for the Al-Q. Our guys don’t wait for something to happen. They sort of like to keep it stirred up. Tracker set off to see what he could find. He took Hacksaw with him. They weren’t gone all that long when there was a loud racket. I, of course, had been in constant contact the boys with our GPS gear and throat microphones. The GPS, by the way, is the same device the Air Force uses to guide their smart bombs and the Navy uses for cruise missiles. These are some of the reasons I think you have to be nuts to take on the United States. We just have too much high-powered technology that can really FUBAR the place.
Just as Scrap Iron and I arrived, Hacksaw was looking at three caves. One was, as the President said, smoking.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Sarge, you should have seen it. Hacksaw sent one shell into that cave there, the one you see with all the black smoke. And it just sort of went to hell from there.”
“What do you mean went to hell, Tracker?”
“Went to hell, Sarge. I don’t know what he did.”
Hacksaw was smiling broadly. He was like a kid on Christmas with a new robot control racer. He just couldn’t wait to see how it would work. I also needed to tell you earlier that I encouraged my boys to find their own high-tech toys to use in this operation. It got to be fun watching them try to out thingamabob each other. They were allowed, within reason, to bring some new toys with them on this mission. As long as it didn’t interfere or weight them down from the required equipment.
“Okay, Hacksaw, what did you fire into that cave?”
“Well, Sarge, you know that little nerdy guy back at Tampa Special Ops who was always working in the lab, designing things? I asked him if he could jazz up our grenade launcher. He really did it.”
“Jazzed it up. You got to watch this thing, Sarge.”
Hacksaw fired into the second cave. It was like someone turned on all the lights in the place and you could hear a shell banging around inside.
“Now, the best I understand this, Sarge, is that that first shell is like the mother ship. It breaks open and sends out all these little ships, which break open and send out other little ships. Some of the ships explode immediately into fine pieces of sharp shrapnel. Others just lie about the place, waiting for something, or somebody to step on ‘em. Then kaboom!”
“Hacksaw, you mean one grenade is actually several grenades?”
“Not exactly, Sarge. Maybe hundreds, or even thousands. Nerd said he wasn’t sure how it would work. I just know that those things keep going off inside that cave there, and I think they are multiplying like rabbits. No telling how many there are, or how long they will keep on exploding in there. Neat, huh?”
Somehow, a raghead managed to emerge from the dark hole that was flickering with light behind him. He was outlined with neon-like flashes of lights blinking behind him. As he staggered a bit, Tracker put one in his ear and dropped him in the cave mouth. There was no sound. He never knew what hit him. Our specialty is silence.
All of a sudden, the hills were crawling with Al-Q and Taliban. They couldn’t’ see us, but bullets were coming from all directions, bouncing about. They are pretty good with those Ak-47s. During Nam, that weapon wore us out, but the old MP5 is too much for them now. Especially our long-rifles.
Tracker cranked up, taking out three. And then Hacksaw just simply blew the heads off of five or six. Their heads exploded as if they were melons. I made a note to ask him what sort of shell that was, too. When it gets too hot, the Night Crawlers just vanish into the rocks, and that is what we did now. Vanished to fight another day, leaving the Al-Q and Taliban shooting at shadows. But, I had found out that we could hold our own and Hacksaw had taken my suggestion to the limit. I wondered who else had brought along some extracurricular goodies.
Back at base camp, we gathered around to eat some of the MREs, and the high-energy food that we had packed. Hacksaw was in top form.
“You should have seen that raghead when his head exploded. He had this real surprised look as his face sailed away. It was great!”
“You must have been using that old-world hot-nosed shell,” said Black Hole. “Really unreliable over long distances. It wobbles too much. Can’t count on it.”
“Yeah, well there are a half-dozen ragheads out there with no heads. Seems to work pretty well,” said Hacksaw.
“Barbaric, if you ask me,” said Black Hole.
“You got something better?”
“We shall see, my friend. We shall see.”
“Get some rest, guys. Morning is coming. We got a big night ahead. Scrap Iron, you take first watch.”
Our first night in the Big A had been fairly successful. We even managed to carry out President Bush’s first order. We smoked them out of their holes. Although, I think he might have had something else in mind. Hacksaw smoked them all right. Smoked their brains.