The man who recruited me into the army in the mid 80’s, SGT Bill Steel (yes that was his real name) oddly ended up being my platoon sergeant a few years later. He once told me the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is that a fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time”, and a war story begins with “This ain’t no shit”.
…this ain’t no shit. The following is based on actual events.
It was late and it was only going to get later since I had stayed up all night going over the Op plan in my head. I was nervous, which is what happens when you have adrenaline in front of you, adrenaline behind you, and several hours of quiet in the present. I could never sleep before a mission. I considered it a personal flaw that I couldn’t.
Chandler, Cole and I had unpacked and repacked our Alice (rucksacks) three times by roll-out at 23:30 hours and we were wide awake. Tom Goff had managed to nod off to sleep in the late afternoon as had Gepart. I felt calmer knowing our LT (Goff) was confident enough to sleep. He was a good LT and led us well. It was an odd coincidence that had brought Tom to our platoon after officer’s candidate school. Gepart and I had gone through our demolition training with him at Fort Leonard Wood a couple years earlier. Like us, he had been a lowly private back then. The Army tries to keep officers away from units where they served as enlisted men, but they don’t look too hard at former enlisted class mates.
“Tom, are we going to use dual ignition on all placements or just the primary?” I asked as we walked toward the helipad.
Without looking at me he shouldered one of the rucks and got a better grip on his M16. “We’ll chain everything together with det-cord, so a single ignition on each placement is fine. It’s redundant anyway.” He turned and looked at me with a crooked grin, that roguish college boy look that the Army liked their officers to have. “And don’t call me Tom.”
“Yes sir,” I muttered. “Tom.”
He shook his head and carefully shoved his rucksack through the open door of the Blackhawk. Each of us in turn did the same, patiently waiting to gently stow our bags full of explosives.
The air was still warm with a soft breeze from a certain gulf, in a certain part of the world. Though night had fallen hours before, the ground radiated warmth up, dissipating only under the blades as the whine of the helo engines broke the silence around us. We were the only thing moving as far as the eye could see. Even the sentries on the perimeter stood motionless, their thousand meter stares already settling in on their watch.
“Jesus, that’s a lot of bang,” Cole said as we climbed in and sat next to each other.
“It’s a big bridge.”
Within moments we were in motion. Nothing is as uniquely disorienting as lifting into the air at a tilt in the dark. Your body, firmly tucked into it’s sling chair rack tells your mind you’re seated, but your inner ear tells you you’re falling. The sense of lost balance floods your chest and gut for a moment before one or the other gives up and says “Screw it. You’re doing weird shit again.”
It was dark; dark as the inside of a black bag. But the air in that certain region near a certain gulf felt freeing. It buffeted our faces and hands, and tugged at the loose fabric of our trousers as we climbed then dove, climbed then dove, following the terrain of the earth. Our eyes grew slowly accustomed to the low light. The dimmed instrument panel lights of the cockpit cast an eerie glow on one side of our faces and we watched each other as our fingers moved over our equipment, checking and rechecking each strap, buckle, coil and ammo pouch. We didn’t need to see any of it; our fingers knew where everything should be.
Gepart’s head nodded forward, his chin resting on his chest. I swear that boy could sleep anywhere. Though we had been in for the same length of time, he seemed to pickup the old-timer habits better than any of us. I’d give anything to nod off for a few minutes, but my brain just wouldn’t shut the hell up long enough to drift away like that.
It only took forty minutes to arrive at our drop zone. In the old days, a piece of rope tied around the waist and through the legs is what passed for a harness. An O ring snap-link with no lock was our descender, and a doubled length of gold braid rope was our way down; no fast-roping, no web strap seats, no fancy figure eights, scarabs or rack descenders. It was three loops around the snap link for a fast descent, four loops for a slower or heavy load descent. Forty pounds of C4 plus our TSOP gear qualified as heavy.
The rappel was fast even with the extra lick of rope through the beener, and my gloved brake hand got hot soon after I left the door of the Hawk. Once on the ground, I steadied the rope for belay as our transportation package slid down next. Chandler was on the other side doing the same for our team mates.
At one-hundred-sixty pounds myself, my pack and equipment weighed half as much as I did, but even with the pressure on my shoulders, tipping me backward, I wrestled the heavy black bundle away from the rope after it slid down and drug it clear. Tom was the last out, rappelling down the gold braid as I belayed for him.
Without so much as a goodbye, the Blackhawk dipped its nose and slipped away into the night. We waited, crouched and silent until we could no longer hear it. We sat vigilant watch over the landscape until our ears stopped ringing, searching for any sign we had been detected.
As we listened and watched for signs of movement Tom put his hand on my shoulder. “You have point.”
I nodded and pulled my pace count beads up on their lanyard. Prayer beads we called them; simple black beads strung on a short length of parachute cord, nine beads above the first knot, four beads above the second knot. Each of the low beads representing a hundred meters, and a thousand for the top. I checked my compass for direction and moved forward. I wouldn’t need the map until we reached the road. It would take us two hours to get to the road if we were careful, an hour and half if we weren’t.
I checked over my shoulder when I was twenty meters ahead to make sure the others still followed so silent was the team. Behind me, each of the other four had a hand on our transportation package, an inflatable assault raft.
I was grateful to be on point. Despite the slowly cooling air, my neck poured sweat down my shoulders, soaking my shirt. But out in front, I could focus, undistracted by towing the rubber boat or the quiet rustling of bodies. I could concentrate on the world around me.
I stopped nearly two hours later, a hundred meters from the road. There, ahead of us was something that wasn’t in the briefing; a nine foot chain link fence.
“Shit,” I muttered and turned backward to Tom.
They stopped moving and crouched low as Tom came up to join me.
“That’s not good,” he whispered as we knelt.
“Over it or through it?” I asked as I reached into a side pouch for my lineman dikes, heavy pliers with cutter jaws.
He looked back at the other three then to the fence again. “Get closer and see if it’s wired. If it’s not, we’ll cut through.”
“I doubt it’s wired,”
“Check it. Make sure.”
“Roger that.” I said as I dropped my pack on the ground.
Suck as the Suck might, there are times when pure joy fills a grunt’s soul; a clean bed after being in the field, sitting in a chair to eat hot food after bagged rations for a week, and dropping your pack after humping it a few thousand meters. I felt like a super hero, almost as if I could leap the fence.
I moved forward with my rifle held rigid in front of me, silent as a cat on a stalk.When I reached the fence, I relaxed in a sigh of relief. It was as I had predicted; unwired.
“We’re good,” I whispered into my tactical headset. “Bring my bag forward.”
Two clicks in my ear confirmed my message had been received and I began clipping the links on the fence. A moment later, Chandler was next to me cutting links from above. When we had sliced a single slit through the fence I stood back, holding the floppy wire mesh as the others moved through and across the road. They took taut watch on the other side. When all four were across, I grabbed my pack and watched the road as I hustled across. In the distance, a glow appeared.
“We’ve got company coming down the road,” I said, shouldering my pack as the others moved down the bank.
Tom looked toward the road, checking his watch before looking back at me. “It’s the mid shift patrol.”
“They’re moving fast. Do you think they’re checking the fence?”
He shrugged. “We’ll be in the water before they get here.” He looked down the bank where Chandler and Cole were already foot stomping the pumps to inflate our oversized pool toy. Gepart looked up toward us, a nervous scowl on his face.
I nodded and knelt just below the edge of the road, keeping rear guard watch while the others prepped the boat. The glow on the horizon grew wider and finally, headlights appeared over the hill. I turned and half slid, half climbed down the bank to the river. “They’re about a mile out,” I said as we put our packs in the raft and lifted it.
Tom nodded and climbed in once it hit the water. Each of us stepped in, Gepart last with a tense backward glance up the hill. The headlights cast a glow across the whole top of the bank now, giving it a silver edge across its slick, black silhouette.
The paddles dipped into the water, silently propelling us forward with little more than a ripple on the surface. As the sound of the trucks on the road neared, we saw light on the water behind us. They weren’t checking the fence, they were checking the river.
Tom tapped my shoulder and jerked his head toward the bank. We dug deep with the paddles, pushing the raft to the edge of the water. There, we flattened our bodies across the edges of the raft, and remained still. Certain rivers in certain parts of the world are barren of debris. But near bends, like any ancient flowing body of water, it had etched deep cuts into the soft clay over the centuries. We tucked ourselves into the sharp edge and hugged the steep wall.
For a tense moment we held our breath as the vehicles passed, the hum of their tires and the rattle of loose latches echoing from the other side. The light passed us quickly, never reaching our shadow with its harsh beam. We waited until the hum of their tires faded to nothing before moving again.
“Tell me again why the air force isn’t doing this?” Cole asked.
“They don’t like water,” Chandler said in a whispered chuckle.
“Funny. But they could bomb this bridge.”
Tom looked at Cole as we pushed ourselves back into the water. “SAM sites would take out our planes this deep behind the border.”
Cole shook his head. “And a plane costs more than an LT and four grunts.”
“Yep, a lot more.”
“Shut up and paddle,” Gepart hissed.
For nearly an hour we paddled with the current down that certain river toward a certain bridge. Straddling the edges of the raft, our knees dipped in water resting on the outer rubber rail, we moved in practiced rhythm. Careful not to splash, the only sound around was the occasional drip of water off the tips of the paddles.
When we arrived, I looked at our packs, piled neatly in the center of the raft then back at the bridge. “Did we bring enough C4?” I whispered. The structure was huge; wide enough for three tanks to roll abreast across the river.
“Cole, back guard,” Tom said, shouldering Cole’s pack.
Cole knelt on the soggy bank, his gaze nearly as intense as the powdered egg farts he’d been dropping on us through the whole trip down river. I suspected Tom had left him on the river for that reason.
Up the slippery bank we scrambled to the superstructure of the bridge. Though massive, four strategically located C4 clusters would easily slice through the arc of steel supporting the concrete deck. A certain dictator of a certain country we were sneaking through, would not be rolling his tanks across this bridge after we were done.
I mused as I climbed through the girders toward my placement site, how sexy it would be if (like in the movies) we could set the timer to blow just as tanks began to cross, sending them into the river. But that’s not how it works in real life. The Suck has rules: Never come in too early or stay too late else risk being discovered. This bridge would be scrap at the bottom of the river long before the tanks rolled over the hill toward it.
It only took twenty minutes for each of us to tape our C4 to our spans. The cloth wrap was dyed to be nearly the same color as the paint on the steel. Even in the day light, you’d be hard pressed to pick it out unless you were looking for it.
“Charlie one, placement complete,” Tom’s voice whispered through my headset.
Chandler looked up. “Charlie three, done.”
“Four done,” I said, barley a whisper into my mic.
We sat motionless waiting for Gepart. A moment later his voice broke the silence. “Lights on the road.”
I looked down at the river, seventy feet below us and spotted Cole dragging the raft under the bridge; he’d seen them too.
We waited, listening to the approaching trucks. “Charlie two, are your charges in place?” Tom whispered into our ears.
Two clicks responded in the affirmative. Above us, the rumble of engines vibrated the bridge deck. I closed my eyes and listened for anything suggesting they were going to stop. Half way across, that’s what happened. From only ten feet above me, a light appeared and illuminated the water below. Muted voices mumbled something I couldn’t understand then I flinched backward as an object fell past me.
It splashed into the water and the light disappeared. The voices moved to the other side of the bridge and the light appeared on the water again. It seemed they were trying to find how fast the current was moving. But why?
I looked toward Tom. I couldn’t read his expression in the dark, but his posture seemed relaxed enough. It made me relax a tick as well.
After a few more moments, the voices faded, vehicle doors closed, and the vehicles continued their drive across the bridge. It wasn’t long before their headlights painted a wide arc of light on the other side and they drove off.
Gepart crawled over through the girders and handed me a coil of wire and det-cord. “Tie in and pass it over to the LT.”
I finished sinking my blasting caps into the soft C4 and spliced the wire with Gepart’s before doing the same with the cord. Tom was already joining the leads from the other two explosive placements when I climbed over to him.
“What do you think those assholes were doing?” I asked, handing him my wire and cord ends.
He shook his head as he twisted the wire into a tight Western Union pigtail. “Maybe they found our hole in the fence and were trying to figure out how far we got.”
“I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be thinking ‘river crossing’ if I found a hole in a highway fence.”
He shook his head again. “I hope you’re right.”
I looked down river and watched their lights disappear behind a low hill. “Scouts?”
Tom stopped his work for a second then shook his head. “It’s too early if the INTEL was right. They shouldn’t get to [redacted] until after sunrise.” He looked toward the fading line of headlights on the light trucks as the four of them wound around the river road on the other side. “But we should finish quick and go just in case.”
I nodded. “I’ll go check Chandler’s placement. Yours is good.”
“Roger that,” he said as he continued to combine the ignition contacts for each of the four explosive placements. Chandler was waiting, standing on a girder, his arm perched on a rail above him. “What’d LT say about the trucks?”
“No clue. Advance scouts maybe.”
“Shit. They’re early.” He looked down at his charges and smiled. “I hope they don’t mind being stuck on the other side of the river.”
I chuckled. Chandler was a riot. After checking Chandler’s placement and detonation receiver, I called to Tom through my mic. “Charlie one, Charlie four. Placement three going hot…you ready?”
“Affirmative. Go hot.”
I looked at Chandler and nodded before making my way back to my charges. Gepart had just finished his check of my placements and had received the order to go hot on the detonator. Tom crawled across the spans and checked each again before motioning us down.
Below, Cole had moved our rifles back into the raft and was waiting, anxious eyes flitting across the river as we approached. “I thought he was trying to drop a grenade on me for a second,” Cole said, tension coloring his tone.
“Good. Maybe you’ll stop farting now that you shit your pants,” Chandler said, tossing his pack in the center of the raft.
Tom shoved Chandler aside, his face creased in stern warning. “Let’s go. I don’t want to get stuck on the–” He stopped mid sentence and looked toward the upstream road. “You hear that?”
I put my hand on the concrete abutment of the bridge and felt a dull vibration. “Shit. Heavy equipment.”
“Move,” Tom hissed.
We piled aboard and pushed the raft into the water. We needed to be as far from the blast as possible so we had to delay detonation at least until we were around the next bend of the river. We began paddling, quietly at first, but as the rumbling of tanks got louder we began to abandon noise discipline and dug deeper, racing toward the bend. The first spotlights appeared on the road above us as we neared the turn in the river.
“I’m blowing it now,” Tom said, dropping his paddle and reaching for the twin detonators.
“Wait,” I hissed. “We’re almost clear.”
“I don’t want even one tank getting across that bridge,” he said, his face pinched in tense repremand.
He looked back at the bridge then to me as we continued to paddle. As we rounded the curve in the river, the first row of tanks started across the bridge. I looked back and smiled as two more rows followed closely behind them.
“Now,” I said.
Tom clacked the detonators in his palm. The water glowed with fire as our explosives liquefied the girders. It was another second before the sound reached our ears. The bridge curled in on itself and the first four rows of tanks tipped forward and followed the bridge deck into the water–just like in the movies. I felt like I had just sunk a basket from mid court. What a thrill.
We disappeared around the turn and lost sight of everything except the glow above the bank. But behind us, the sound of squealing metal and revving diesel engines filled the night.
For a long while after, we paddled quickly but more quietly, the noise and light disappearing behind us. It took almost a half an hour before we could no longer see sign of the fires or spotlights. It took slightly longer than that for us to stop looking over our shoulders every five seconds.
After nearly an hour, Tom checked our position on the map and nodded us toward the shore. The bank was lower there and the water calmer, being on the inside of a turn. We waited for several minutes before seeing a light flash from above; two slow flashes followed by three fast ones.
Tom nodded and we pulled our equipment from the raft before slicing its sides and sinking it with rocks from the bank. Without all the C4, the packs were much lighter and we scrambled up the bank with little trouble. Waiting at the top was an ancient looking Mercedes delivery van and two men–partisans.
We four enlisted men stood rigid watch, weapons on the ready, as Tom walked over to them. After a moment, he motioned us over and we climbed into the back of the van. It smelled like farm animals. Cole wrinkled his nose as we settled into place, backs against the walls.
As we set out, Gepart dropped his chin to his chest and seemed to fall asleep almost immediately. I decided I’d try as well. After having my eyes closed for only a few moments, Tom hit me with the back of his hand. “Admit it. You just wanted to see the tanks go in the water.”
I looked up and smiled. “Hooah.”
He shook his head and chuckled. “Hooah.”
Just then Cole farted. Chandler kicked out at Cole’s boot as we started to laugh. There we were, five young, adrenaline addicted kids, in a van older than we were, rattling down a highway next to a certain river, in certain country near a certain gulf, laughing at a fart.
A wise professor once told me, the difference between “Based on actual events,” vs. “This is a true story,” is a flair for the dramatic. The “true story” is a dry recitation meant to do nothing but educate and rarely to entertain. I hope you were all entertained by my story, based on actual events.
S.L. Shelton is the author of an Amazon Bestselling Thriller/Action Espionage Series, (The Scott Wolfe Series), and the new Bestseller, Hedged. Follow him here on WordPress, on Twitter @SLSheltonAuthor or Facebook. His wife is currently battling an aggressive, rare cancer. If you feel the desire to help, you can buy his books ,leave a review, comment, like or follow.