Two Apache gunships stormed over our battle-torn hilltop just as we reconvened at my Humvee. They arrowed into a steep climb until, hundreds of feet above us, they leveled off and plunged down into a gunnery pass. Their 30mm guns belched flame. Rockets spewed from pylon pods. A Hellfire missile went down range. Below us, the enemy side of the valley turned into a typhoon of steel and smoke.
The sight of those gunships riding to our rescue energized our weary men. They rose as one, arms high, cheering as the choppers dealt death to our tormentors.
As the Apaches strafed, I found Captain Dye. “We’ve got fixed wing coming in. Couple of A-10s.”
Whatever aviation spigot had been shut off earlier was now open wide. I grinned and gave him a thumbs-up.
Then he added, “And a B-1, too.”
The B-1 Lancer had been built as the last of the Cold War strategic bombers. Designed to carry nukes into the heart of Soviet Russia, each one could now carry dozens of satellite-guided bombs. For us, having one in the air was like an infantry platoon on Iwo Jima having a B-29 squadron on call.
“Wrath of God,” I said.
“We need to get the ANA back here,” Captain Dye said. He started to run after them, but I grabbed his shoulder. “Sir, I got this. You’re working the radios. If you go down, we all go down.”
He stopped and thought it over. “You’re right. Go ahead.”
“I’m on it,” I replied.
The Apaches made another gunnery run. The enemy fire slackened, but we were still receiving occasional bursts from the ridges. I found one of the marine NCOs and told him what we needed. It took about twenty minutes for him to round up the Afghan troops—it was like herding cats—but soon everyone was tucked behind our hilltop perimeter.
Or so we thought.
The Apaches pulled off in preparation for the A-10s’ arrival. They choppered east to pick off any of Galang’s men trying to escape into Pakistan.
Over the radio, we heard the Warthog drivers roll into their attack runs. The peculiar sound of their engines rose in the distance.
“Hold it! Hold it! We’ve got men on the ridge!” First Sergeant Grigsby warned.
Somehow a squad of exceptionally aggressive Afghan troops had fought their way forward, across the valley, and halfway up one of the ridges. In the process, they’d lost contact with the rest of the ANA force.
Through our binos, we could see them skirmishing with one of the support-by-fire positions. Captain Dye told Reuter to call off the A-10s, whose pilots pulled up and went into orbit a few miles away. It took another half hour to get those hard chargers to cease their assault and return to us.
Once they did, hell visited Galang’s men.
The Warthogs whistled in first, flaying the ridges with their tank-busting cannons before unleashing six satellite-guided bombs. We watched the concussion waves roll off the ridges toward us. A moment later, the ground shook as though a volcano had just blown its top.
Somehow the enemy managed to stay in the game. The remaining machine-gun positions continued to lash at us. Our rigs took hits. The men stayed hunkered down. It was time for the wrath of God.
“Pound those assholes,” Captain Dye said to Reuter. Our forward observer keyed his mike and talked to the Lancer crew. “I don’t care if they have high heels and miniskirts. Drop everything you have on that ridge!”
We heard the air force pilot chuckle through his confirmation.
Miles overhead, the B-1 Lancer reached its release point. The bomb bay doors flung open, and the crew disgorged its deadly load.
Seconds passed. The weapons fell with precision, their fins making minute corrections to their flight path based on the data stream flowing to their electronic brains from a satellite in orbit above us.
The ridges simply exploded. Eleven bombs struck in precise succession, each one overlapping the other until it looked as though a giant’s fist had punched upward through the earth’s crust, splintering rock and trees in all directions. In the holocaust of smoke and flames, men disintegrated. Weapons melted. Dugouts vanished.
Peals of thunder rolled through the valley. Our hilltop trembled and quaked. In seconds, smoke engulfed the stricken ridges and all we could see was debris raining down for hundreds of meters in all directions.
When it was over, the silence was almost unbearable. Galang’s force had been pulverized.
The fighting had lasted for almost six hours. Exhausted, we hooked up our three disabled rigs and towed them off our hilltop for home. Our long column traveled west with barely a word shared among us. Empty shell casings littered our Humvee’s floorboards, and as we bounced along the rugged Afghan roads, they jingled like sleigh bells.
When we reached Bermel, the homebodies turned out in force. The divide between combat troops and the men who work behind the wire grows wider in moments such as those. Band of brothers? No. Battle sifts those relationships like nothing else.
We called them POGs (Personnel Other than Grunts) or FOBBITS. They smiled and laughed and took photos of our battered trucks as we parked out on the maintenance pad. They had spent the fight safe inside the base, uniforms clean, body armor stowed under their bunks. Now they behaved like the picnicking civilians who had turned out to watch the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War. Combat tourists. What was worse, the POGs failed to notice how their ball game–like reception affected us. My men endured it, but just barely. Engines off now, the men dismounted to lean against tires, smoke in silence, or just stare into space.
I wasn’t normally a smoker, but I was that evening.
My head throbbed. That weird pinkish fluid still dribbled from my ears and nose. Each time I took a step, the world tilted. Staying on my feet was an effort, but I refused to sit down. I didn’t want the men to think I was weak.
“Woah, lookit that,” a POG with a camera marveled as he studied the bullet holes all over Sabo’s Humvee. He started snapping pictures as his buddies laughed and smiled.
I wanted to punch the son of a bitch.
Excerpted from Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan by Sean Parnell with John R. Bruning.
Copyright 2012 by Sean Parnell.
Excerpt courtesy of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers LLC.