An Essay by Roy Luke Coffey
The first time I was in a firefight, I was caught in the wide open. The patrol had come to a halt, and as I began to look around I realized how exposed I was.
I instinctively crouched to try and lower my silhouette against a dusty and open field. In mere seconds the morning’s silence was shattered with the mechanical popping of a machine gun. I was back on my feet and running toward some pillars, where the rest of my squad was seeking cover. Please don’t step on an IED, please don’t step on and IED. I said to myself, over and over again, as I sprinted across the open ground. Bullets whizzed over my head and kicked up dust around my rapidly moving feet.
Finally I arrived. I immediately turned on my heel and aimed my rifle at the enemy position. I could see the sharp V of dust kicking up from the pressure of a muzzle laid on a wall. I aimed down my ACOG scope and began firing into that dusty V. I saw the Navy dog handler shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as he crawled in the prone, his left arm pushing his body along. The magazine pouches on his plate carrier dragging in the dust. The right arm tucking his M4 under his armpit. Pointing down the alleyway to our front. Firing frantically while bullets rained and he slid to cover.
I heard the smacks and cracks of bullets hitting a wall and realized we were taking more contact from the mud hut complex fifty or so meters from the front of the pillars. We tucked in even closer and adjusted fire away from the V. I leaned out, fired some rounds, leaned in, and repeated while we tried to gain fire superiority. For an instance the firing died down. In those few precious seconds, I quickly reloaded and brought my rifle back up, training it on the doorway on the roof of the complex.
A white man dress, a black beard, equally black turban. A fucking AK-47. I trained my crosshairs and fired. five, six, seven rounds. The last two smacked into the frame of the doorway, kicking up dust. The AK fell to the ground, and that strange form fell back into shaded blackness.
I didn’t have time to think. Across the rooftop another black turbaned head braved a glance and squeezed off a few rounds. The fight continued.
The first time I saw a dying man was soon after. When the fighting died down another man walked out on the roof of the complex, trying to surrender. He had his hands up, and I looked down my scope to see the stark blaze of his palms.
“There’s one on the roof,” somebody shouted, then followed with gunfire. We all opened up, and he dropped. The last eruption of fire until we started to push north, toward the exfil, and another firefight.
A few minutes later a teenage boy came out of the compound pushing a wheelbarrow, and in it was his father. He precariously balanced the wheelbarrow on the skinny log that served as a bridge over the dank green shit creek. His father was moaning and crumpled. The fight in him was decimated. Our medic began to treat two bullet wounds. One in the arm, the other a gut shot. He took his time and was not gentle in his treatment.
My first thought was, is that the guy I shot or was it the man from the roof? Had he been shot in his attempted surrender? Or was he already wounded and trying to surrender? The truth is I’ll never know for certain.
An NCO hollered for me to take his fingerprints with the small handheld computer we packed with us on patrol. I got out the device and prepped it while the black bearded man breathed shallow, through distant moans. I grabbed his bloodied hand.
It was cold. And in that touch I understood that distance through which he breathed. And I understood he was going to die.
And he did die, shortly afterward, on a medevac helicopter on its way to Kandahar Air Field. It didn’t bother me that he died, and it didn’t bother me that it may have been me who took his life. The simple, soldiering truth of it is, I like to think I killed him.
The first time I saw a dead body, we were in the never ending grape rows of Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Grape rows are mud walls that varied in height. Some of them only waist-high and easily surmountable. Others stood towering, six or seven feet over your head. The grape vines hung off their hardened dirt sides, growing up from the ankle-deep water that had been forced in between them by hand dug irrigation canals. The whole district was crossed with them, running east to west.
The combination of vegetation, one hundred ten to twenty -degree heat, and putrid water, made for miniature jungles of intense humidity. The grape rows were squared off into parcels. They ranged in size but never larger than half an acre. They were squared in by raised goat paths that we harshly learned not to use. The Taliban set IEDs into chokepoints where the paths cut through a small gate or hole in the packed dirt walls that bordered the tree lined roads. Roads that we only crossed and never walked down for fear of the IEDs that lingered below the surface, waiting to leap up in explosion to take your leg. Only one leg below the knee, if you were lucky.
We were pushing across one of those goat paths when the Taliban opened fire from a mud hut to the east. I climbed a grape row, lugging the thirty-pound M240B machine gun with me, to see if I could get its much needed volume of fire into the fight. The leading squad was in my field of fire, leaving me useless. I could only slide back into my grape row, and listen to the firefight.
The leading element got on line and began firing wildly into anything that looked like good cover. The Afghan National Army, or ANA unit, followed suit, launching a few RPGs into potential enemy firing positions. By that point it was routine, another day of work. Then:
The shout for a medic is always followed by a terse, anxiety filled question, that hangs in the air for a short eternity.
“It’s ANA,” was the response. All the American soldiers breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps it was wrong to be relieved, but that was the brutal nature of the place and time where we were. Better it be another strange face, whose language you don’t understand, religion you don’t share, and family you don’t know.
I was up and moving, laboring over the grape walls, sliding over the goat paths, trying to keep my silhouette low and small. We moved up to where the lead element had set in and pushed to the wall where they had taken contact. There was a small hole, just wide enough to get a single man through. I stepped through and quickly slid down the wall on the backside.
And there was his body. I had to catch my footing to keep from stepping on the corpse of the ANA soldier. I somehow managed to avoid his splayed limbs and stepped around him. He had been shot through the gut, coming through the same hole in the wall I had just struggled through. He had bled out in a couple of minutes.
We loaded the body into a plastic stretcher that cinched down to create a strange womb, to securely transport it to a nearby field we could use for a landing zone. A few of us, alongside some ANA, rotated out on carrying the stretcher. We drug the body through the ankle-deep water and pushed it up over the walls to roll down the other side.
In the stretcher you could hear and smell the blood and shit swishing back and forth.
The first time—and only time-it broke me, we were at the end of the first day of a two day operation. It was about six months into the deployment, and Afghanistan was beginning to wear. That day was a culmination of It. Whatever It was.
We landed that morning, about three a.m., and pushed into a nearby village. A couple of weeks earlier we had discovered, quite by accident, that it had become a Taliban stronghold. They had forced the locals out, planted IEDs in the roads, and turned rooftops and compounds into fighting positions. We were in the first compound at day break, to begin a long, slow process of trying to clear the village one mud hut at a time.
The day drug into the early afternoon, and we were nearly finished. The village was totally abandoned. A ghost town scattered with pots and pans, sleeping mats, and shell casings from the previous weeks. The roads were lined with IEDs, so we had to scramble over walls and rooftops. Exposing ourselves in mad dashes to get back to cover. The rule of thumb in Panjwai was you never got the one up on the Taliban. They always ambushed us.
Word came down on the radio, our First Sergeant was lost, trying to move south to our company’s other elements. He wasn’t even an infantryman. He was a tanker who had been sent to our company because he had all the right connections with all the right people. To really get out there, in the shit. He was an ignorant and stupid man.
We pushed back out, through the village, through the heat of the early afternoon. Backtracking across ground we had already covered, backtracking across wasted effort, knowing the Taliban would quickly reoccupy. All because of the First Sergeant’s fuck up. We made it back to the north, to the main road, and began to walk toward the trucks, when what we had anticipated that entire day finally erupted.
The nature of fighting in Panjwai was mostly hit and run, quick ambushes and small firefights. A handful of fighters making quick work, then disappearing before the helicopters got on station. But sometimes during especially shitty days, and always during the large operations where we moved to clear areas of a strong Taliban presence, we fought battles.
They opened up from the mud hut village we had just “cleared”, firing from fifteen or twenty meters on my squad mates who were in the open along the road. Another group opened up fire to our south and southeast from a corn field and grape hut about a one hundred fifty meters away. I was fortunate enough to be behind the wall of the village, not quite out in the open yet. It was a miracle no one was hit.
The leading element hit the dirt and returned a massive volume of fire. I began to tug out a hand grenade from its pouch on my plate carrier. I looked up at the wall above my head, the pin on the grenade about halfway out, and judged my capacity to clear its ten foot reach. I quickly decided I had better not try my luck. I carefully pushed the pin back into its original position and forced the grenade back into its tightly fitting pouch when my squad leader began to shout orders to move to the trucks. I somehow managed to get the grenade back in its place. I took off running. I turned to look at the enemy fighting position as I ran. It was crumbling with rifle, grenade launcher, and machine gun fire.
We managed to crowd to the relative safety of the armored trucks and the ditch line along the road. The fighting had temporarily lulled, and I sat down, my back to a tire, the sweat from my ass soaking the ground around me. The day began to creep into my mind, and the months leading up to it began to settle into my gut. And I hated it. I hated being there, I hated that I was sitting next to our incapable first sergeant. That was about as far line of thought went.
Bullets began to snap on the armor of the truck I was behind. The First Sergeant was hanging his large head into the open, observing in awe the shit storm that was unfolding. Bullets whizzed overhead, and I said in the tone of a reprimanding kindergarten teacher, with as much condescension as I could, to this tanker, who having spent his career behind feet of armor, was convinced he was impervious to small arms fire:
“First Sergeant, they’re shooting at you.” I was surprised with the pleasantness of my voice. Kid gloves as they would say in the jargon.
He pulled his head out from the open, clambered back into his truck, and sat there in the AC until the fighting died down. Lucky for him the aging, Russian-made anti-tank rifle that I had been on the receiving end of a couple of weeks before, had been found by another unit.
The fighting slanted off again, a brief respite in the ebb and flow of combat. But it was quickly shattered when, once more, we began to take fire from the village we had just cleared.
I didn’t care anymore.
I stood up with a patience that negated my sense of self-preservation, my sense of place. I calmly stepped out onto the open road. Slowly walking with the upright stature and canter of a farmer checking his crops, and fired into the town. Into the corn field. Into the grape fields. I was looking down my scope, lining up my sights on anything that looked like a good fighting position. With a collected nature, that showed no worry or stress for the potential harm that could come to me, I emptied a magazine.
The Taliban retreated from the fight to reorganize and rearm for the next round. We consolidated our unit to await the next round of orders. We were to continue to move south, escorting the First Sergeant to the rest of the company, and the commander’s, location. They called for someone to lead to element with the mine sweeper, and it was met with a deep, hesitant silence. I stepped up and took the lead. I practically led at a run across the open ground leading to the corn field, wanting to at least shroud myself in the concealment the corn offered.
In the corn field I could see tracks of pushed over corn, where just minutes before Taliban fighters had been firing at us. I waited for the crack of an AK and the impact of a bullet on my body. It never came.
We left the field, dropped into the grape rows, pushed into the southernmost village. I rounded the corner and there, finally, I saw other soldiers. The southern element of the company was settled into their own exhaustion. While we were fighting from the open road with Taliban in the fields and the northern most village, the southern element had been dredging through the alleyways and rooftops, fighting inside theirs.
I didn’t care, the day was over. I collapsed in exhaustion and began to think that maybe, just maybe, we were done. That here on the edge of dark, our much larger force could settle in for the night and prepare ourselves for the fight we knew was coming the next day.
That small moment of hope was quickly shattered.
We couldn’t believe what came out of the commander’s mouth. Our squad was to move back to the north and continue clearing, now that the First Sergeant had been led by the hand over only three hundred meters of Panjwai.
We consolidated and moved out and once more I was in the lead. We went back the way we came, on the edge of the village, as I moved along the last wall, a few feet from it, I saw in my peripheral vision a quick and urgent movement.
My heart stopped.
And I knew in the minutiae of that moment I was going to die.
Then, the dog began to bark. My blood rushed and my heart raced and my legs weakened. The dog retreated briefly, then came back to the doorway again. And the exhaustion of the adrenaline submitted itself to an intense anger that craved destruction.
I shot the dog. And sent it whelping into the courtyard. Into the hands of its owner who looked at me with a distance only hate can build.
I moved on. Twenty meters, my legs began to shake. Thirty meters, my breathing was rapid. Forty meters, tears began to swell. Fifty meters, I thought about the undeserving violence I had done, to an innocent being. Sixty meters, I went to my knees, in the bottom of a grape row. And I sobbed and cried, and my mind melted into a confusion, and I lost myself to the deterioration of where I was, what I had done, what I had seen.
That was the first, and only time, it broke me.