My Longest Day

Our last combat mission was my worst experience of the war, but it taught me the most.

We landed on the X, which basically means right on top of them. There were two objectives, so my platoon split up. First and second squad and my platoon seargeant killed two men in the treeline to the south and wounded a third who ran into a compound on the west side of the creek that wove through the village. My objective was a dry hole so we moved down to consolidate with the other two squads.

We isolated the compound where the wounded Taliban had retreated and established security. As we were getting ready to breach the door, one of the Rangers pulling rear security spotted a male standing at the entrance to another mud brick compound through the treeline on the east side of the creek. He was pointing something at our assault squad. The Ranger fired a burst from his semiautomatic weapon (SAW), and the man went down. I was the closest leader to that security element so my radiotelephone operator and I linked up with them and crossed back over the creek to secure the area.

As we were wading across the stream we heard the wailing of women and kids coming from inside the compound. I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach.

We took turns climbing the mud embankment on the far side as the others pulled security. I was the first up and could see right away that the man we had shot was elderly and that the thing laying by his side that he had been pointing at us was a cane. He wasn’t dead yet and was moaning prayers to Allah in a gurgling voice. I pulled the cane away from him as if it was a weapon. I don’t know why I did that.

I pulled security on the aluminum panel that was the makeshift door to the compound where the sobbing was coming from and I saw several bullet holes in it. The burst from the SAW had gone through and around the old man and penetrated the door.

We had our interpreter yell for anyone inside to back away from the entrance, threw a flash bang and breached the door. I immediately stepped over the crumpled body of a woman on the other side.

We took cover where we could in the courtyard and pulled security on the many dark entrances to the rooms on the opposite side. All of the women and children’s lamentations, and what sounded like a man moaning, came from just one room. It took several callouts and a flash bang to get them to exit.

We separated and searched them and found a wounded teenager inside the room with a bullet in his back. Meanwhile the old man had died and the sun was coming up.

We strong-pointed the compound and held up while we informed the Joint Operations Center about what had happened. There was a set payment that was given to the families whose members were killed inadvertently by coalition forces: $1,500 USD for a man, $250 USD for a woman (the same as for dead livestock). The Afghan government set the price, not us. The higher ups would have to fly that in. The red tape took time though, and we were going to have to wait until sundown for it to be safe for the helicopters to land anyway.

So there we sat. In a compound filled with fifteen to twenty women and children, whose grandfather and grandmother we had just killed. We did the best we could to keep the teenager alive until we could put him on the bird that dropped off the cash. He died too.

Imagine if foreign soldiers had just killed your grandparents and then you had to sit there with them the whole day. It was maybe the longest day of my life.

We sat there for about twelve hours with nothing to do but look at the dead bodies of two old people and listen to the moans of a teenager. The children never left the side of their grandma. They just knelt there, prayed, and cried. I felt really far from home and really unwelcome.

But then something happened that taught me more about life than all the other missions I had been on combined. We sat there so long that they began to make their midday meal right there in front of us. Vegetables and rice and some goat. It smelled great. I was starving and knew every other Ranger was too but we didn’t dare ask for any. Turns out we didn’t have to. The children brought over bowls of food and offered them to us. There wasn’t nearly enough for the entire platoon but it was a gesture we didn’t deserve.

Imagine what you would do sitting next to a Muslim who had just killed your grandparents. Would you offer them food? Because that’s what the people of this supposedly hateful religion, who had been praying to their heathen God all day, did.

I had never been more tired than when we flew out that night. I’ll never forget walking up the ramp of that helicopter as a Ranger walked past me with a bag of cash to give to that family. That’s where my taxes went, and for once I didn’t mind. I wish it had been more. Afghanistan always looked the most beautiful to me when we were flying out in the early mornings headed back to base. It looked peaceful. That night it looked sad.

I still dream about the sounds that old man made as he died, and of the face of that little girl as she handed me a wooden bowl filled with food. For some reason I wish I hadn’t pulled his cane away but I always do in my dreams.

I’ll never hate Muslims, not after that day. Love and forgiveness exist everywhere.