This is the second part to my “Alamo” story. I have tried to recreate this event, locales and conversations from my memories of them. Writing this post has been a challenge. In order to maintain their anonymity, in some instances I have changed the names and home towns of individuals involved. The trauma of losing brothers in arms is terrible enough. I didn’t want to add to the pain of loss to their families. For my part, I pray for the comfort of the families of the fallen and eternal rest for my brothers.
I swung through the entrance of my room to the outside catwalk exposing myself to the last place where I had seen the enemy. I remember thinking to myself; “I am going to get hit. Please don’t hit me in the face.” I searched for movement…nothing.
I looked at the Afghan Police compound located directly across the street. Both of our compounds formed a makeshift cul-de-sac at the top of the incline from the main base, closed at the end by a wall of hesco that ran perpendicular to the street below and separated the government center from the town of Musa Qala, outside of the wall. Confusing right?
With my weapon at high ready I crept to the end of the catwalk. There was movement in my left peripheral. Not moving my rifle, I looked over to the left to catch a glimpse of three friendlies of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), geared up and rushing towards the detainee holding area directly across the street.
One of the additional duties you pulled was to stand duty as the QRF. If you were ambulatory, you were on the watch with the responsibility to muster and move toward wherever the trouble was. The command and every Marine depended on the QRF to meet and engage until support would follow.
There were two Marines in the lead; Lance Corporal Ron Wilson, 20, from Ohio and Private First Class John Vittori, 19, from Tennessee. Mark Dease, an Irishman from Co Derry, accompanied the Marines as the third member of the initial QRF. Dease was working as a NATO contractor for a British firm training the Afghan police force.
They must’ve known what was going on because they all had their weapons pointed towards a detaining area of three cells between the Afghan police compound and hesco wall with a doorway that opened to the street between us. To the right of the jail entrance was a covered bunker constructed of shoulder high sandbags with a camouflaged net roof. As long as I had billeted in Musa Qala, it had never been manned.
The QRF was moving quickly along the wall opposite my building. Dease looked up at me and pointed to the entrance of the jail, where the cells were built into the side of the police compound on the first floor. I moved to the end of the catwalk where I took an overwatch position within twenty meters of the jails entrance.
Wilson, Vittori and Dease moved along the wall of the police compound until it came to a corner where turning left presented a set-in of five or six meters from the jail entrance doorway. The entrance was a flimsy wooden door, left open most of the time.
My over watch position was a sketchy spot considering the total lack of cover. But I had a good angle to see what was going on inside the jail enclave.
Everything was fluid; what I mean is things just started to happen and I had absolutely no control of any of it. The three man stack approached the corner. Wilson stopped at the end of the building, peeking around the corner. Wilson pivoted around the corner, weapon at high ready. A knot in my stomach as all three moved as one element, fearlessly towards the jail entrance.
A barrage of bullets came out of nowhere. They tore through the camouflage netting hanging over the side of my building. The bullets sounded like a swarm of pissed-off hornets. 7.62 mm rounds chipped away at the concrete walls, stairs, and windows throwing shards of concrete and brick in every direction. There was little time to react.
I squeezed the trigger and got two, maybe three shots off before my ass hit the concrete floor. I rolled to the left and was prone on the steps that lead below. I was partially deaf and completely shocked from the enormous sound of gunfire, pops, cracks and ricochets of bullets impacting the building. It sounded like the gunman/gunmen had gone cyclic (holding the trigger down on fully automatic and letting the belts of ammunition run through the gun until empty or failure). Any yelling or screaming was drowned out by the gunfire. A cloud of dust and the smell of burnt gunpowder saturated the scene.
I figured the gunfire had to be coming from just within the jail entrance, the jail cells themselves (that I could see from my position on the second floor), a break in the wall, or the old sand bag bunker located right outside the jail walls.
Then there was dead silence. I got up and crept back up onto the catwalk I heard movement behind the jail walls. I again had the overwhelming feeling that I was going to get shot in the face. I drew down on the jail entrance and tried to assess the scene, searching for any movement from the QRF, scanning the buildings and roofs around me and also keeping an eye on the hill to my left to see if anyone was coming up. Everything was in slow motion, a blur.
Silence. The type of dead silence where you know something big is about to happen. The dust began to settle, revealing a horrific scene. Wilson and Vittori were slumped over each other, within arms distance of the entrance to the jail. Dease was on the ground, a couple meters from Wilson and Vittori, sitting up against the wall breathing heavily. He was white as a ghost. Our eyes met. He was hit bad.
I stood up to move along the catwalk. As I came up I caught movement from my left peripheral, in the direction of the jail entrance. As I panned my gaze to the entrance I was dumbfounded to see one of the gunmen partially exposing himself through the entrance of the jail. Judging by the amount of fire he’d put out initially, I thought he may have been running low on ammo, and needed another weapon. I drew down on him and placed my reticle center mass. My sight picture appeared and disappeared as my hands were shaking uncontrollably. With fury I pulled the trigger.
Misfire. Fuck me.
Of all the times why now?
I racked the bolt on my weapon, aimed back in but he had backtracked into the jail enclave. Every couple of seconds, I fired a pair of bullets high above the jail entrance walls.
I was shooting high, real high. Just enough to let the enemy know I was there. I didn’t want to shoot our casualties, who were only feet from the jail entrance where the enemy had set up a firing position.
I couldn’t tell how many there were, definitely more than one. I just knew one of them had an RPG and that fact weighed very heavy on me. There was that and the fact that the jail holding area lead out into the main streets of the city, where more bad guys could assault in from. Fear engulfed me.
“Where the fuck is everybody else?!” I heard more noises from what sounded like both sides of the jail enclosure. I couldn’t tell if I was hearing movement from the bunker on the outside or from inside the jail cells, which I could see from my position on the second floor catwalk.
I ran up and down the catwalk trying to get a better angle on either the gunmen hiding directly behind the jail entrance or another guy maneuvering between the jail cells. I continued to switch, firing at the jail cells, and then firing above the entrance, then to the bunker trying to locate, then isolate the gunmen with fire.
I worried about snipers zeroing in on me from the surrounding buildings. I didn’t have my Kevlar or body armor on, and my only cover was the flimsy guardrail that wrapped around the 2nd floor. There was just no time.
I wasn’t taking calm, collected shots. It was more me taking pot shots in the enemy’s general direction – over the casualties, then ducking back into cover when the insurgent replied with a burst of his own bigger, meaner, more damaging bullets. I figured it was only a matter of time before I was going to get hit…and the fucking RPG…
Another burst of enemy machine gunfire, this time aimed at the roof, sent me to my knees as shards of concrete peppered the catwalk and ground floor below.
The situation looked real bleak. The enemy had a clear field of fire from which he owned the ground floor. The only thing in my favor was that I held the heights. They couldn’t maneuver on the ground without me shooting at them.
I thought to myself, “I know I’ve said this before BUT, this is literally it man, I’m outgunned and they have an RPG”. I knew I was going to die. I aimed back in and fired a pair of shots into the jail cells, ducking back into cover.
Time had slowed down, what felt like hours were only minutes as I kept a wary eye to the left, on the hill leading up to our cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure if anyone down the hill knew the severity of the situation. I could just see someone walking back up the hill from chow, apparently unaware of the gunfight being fought just up the street, walking right into the death trap the enemy gunmen had set.
I saw the figure of a guy casually walking up the hill. A second look confirmed it was Thumper strolling up the hill, completely oblivious to the hell he was walking into.
Bullets were ambient noise in Helmand Province 2010.
I dashed halfway across the 2nd floor catwalk. The only words I could muster were, “Dude! we’re getting shot at, get your ass up here please! Come up around the back!” It was nothing short of a plea. I was scared.
Thumper immediately recognized the severity of the situation and ran around the back of our building up the stairs to the cat walk. I spotted more Marines from the QRF now cresting the hill. A wave of semi-relief hit me.
The Marines moved into position along the Afghan Police compound facing me. I let them know I thought the biggest threat was right behind the jail entrance where the enemy was getting ready to engage me with RPG fire. Sgt Beck, one of QRFs squad leaders, yelled to his Marines to get into position along the Police compound wall facing me.
I ran back across the catwalk as fast as I could, expecting bullets to tear through my chest at any moment. I tripped along the way. My knee went down and I almost face-planted. I made it back to the corner and brought my rifle back to high ready, aiming in on the jail entrance.
Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me, coming up the stairs. My blood froze. I swung my rifle around as quick as I could to meet Thumper center mass.
“You fuckin asshole” – I gasped.
“Dude what the fuck is going on?”
“Ugh, nothing good man, they’re down there – behind the walls AND they got a….” before I could finish explaining that the enemy possessed an RPG, Thumper drew down his rifle and let loose a volley of bullets, rendering me deaf in my left ear for the remainder of the week.
“Dammit man, I’m trying to tell you that they have a fucking….”
Bang! Bang! … Bang! Bang! Bang! – Thumper’s rifle interrupts.
“That dude keeps popping out!” – Thumper yells.
“Fuck it” – Bang Bang Bang… Bang.
Communication in combat is FUBAR.
By this time every Marine on the base was flooding the area, forming an outer cordon around the police compound. Squad leaders on the ground were maneuvering their Marines into firing positions on the ground floor and onto the roof above me.
I heard movement just beneath me, under the catwalk, where Marines were moving into a defensive position behind a 5×5 block of hesco barrier jutting/sticking out from the main wall. It was the only cover on my side of street, otherwise you were in the kill zone. The enemy could fire on all avenues of approach. There was no way you could assault the enemy from under us. The enemy had every avenue of approach covered well.
I could hear gunfire impacting the hesco barrier below me. After firing a couple rounds, I looked over the guardrail, down to the 5×5 block of hesco and saw Corporal Brenner, an Intel analyst with the S-2, sitting with his back against the hesco, facing the back of our building, he was bleeding profusely from gunshots to his head and midsection. He wasn’t moving.
“CORPSMEN! Doc! Doc! Get the fuck over here, Doc!”
The Marines stacked up on the back of my building were already on the move to get Brenner. I turned around and saw a group of Marines rushing down the narrow corridor under me, towards Brenner with no concern for their safety. I turned back and joined the chorus of covering fire while the Marines on the ground floor below me, grabbed Brenner and carried him to the back of our building. It happened so quick I didn’t have time to process whether or not Brenner was dead. Again, everything was just fluid.
The QRF drove one of their gun trucks up the hill with an M2 .50 caliber machine gun. I could see the spiraling cloud of dust kicked up by the MATV as it came to a screeching halt behind the police compound. If we couldn’t assault through the jails entrance, we could always resort to blowing a hole in the back of the jail compound and assault through the jail cells…obviously easier said than done but the Ma Deuce could abide.
Thumper set up in a window in our room facing the Afghan police compound and began to engage the gunmen behind the jail wall.
The QRF Marines near the police compound had managed to grab Dease from around the corner of the building and were preparing to assault to recover Wilson and Vittori.
But as the Marines approached, the enemy gunmen fired sporadically through the entrance and into the area surrounding the downed Marines. Fuck. Maybe they had a spotter relaying our movements from one of the many surrounding buildings. We scanned the surrounding area from the catwalk, looking for spotters on top of buildings or dickers with radios on motorbikes in the streets.
Alternatively, silence was broken with long bursts of deafening firing, then silence again, punctuated by single potshots, sending us to the ground because we thought it was a sniper zeroing in on us.
Thumper yelled out, “I see him! He keeps popping up on the other side of the bunker.” There was so much shit going on at once. The volume of fire intensified and grenades started to explode as the QRF Marines on the ground tried to get to the wounded Marines just outside of the jail entrance. I could hear the Marines frantically yelling as they fought.
Signaling with the QRF below, the plan was for us to lay down heavy gunfire from the second floor and roof, covering the Marines maneuvering their way to the causalities on the ground. Once they got to the corner of the Afghan police compound, the lead Marine in the stack would toss grenades into the jail entrance. When the grenades detonated, we would unleash hell from the second floor and rooftop. The QRF Marines on the ground would then swarm the casualties, dragging them out of the kill zone.
Once again a long cyclic burst of gunfire and the QRF Marines squeezed into the compound wall using the defilade falling back to cover. The enemy was just trying to bait us in at this point. A trick as old as time. The gunmen sporadically shot at the casualties and it was driving everyone insane. Literally.
I could hear Marines yelling below and behind me somewhere downstairs.
“MARINES COMING UP!”
“We’ll cover you, come on up” – I yelled.
Four QRF Marines dashed up the stairs and piled into our room. I kept my sites on the jail entrance. I recognized some of the guys from QRF. A couple were combat replacements from 1/8. One of the Marines, Lance Corporal Lewis, was bleeding profusely from face.
Lewis was amped. We tried to calm him down and figure out where he was hit but he was inconsolable. Wilson and Vittori were two of his best friends. He kept trying to get up and run down into the kill zone to go get them. Two Marines had to hold him up against the wall to stop him from moving. His screams for his friends tore at my heart. Every burst from the enemy machine gun sent him deeper into a rage.
“We gotta get Lewis out of here”. – Barlow
Two QRF Marines physically moved Lewis to the doorway.
“WE GOT MARINES COMING OUT!” – Barlow yelled down to the Marines on the ground floor.
Corporal Barlow, Lance Corporal Miller and I crept back on the catwalk. I saw the silhouette of a person moving inside the old sandbag bunker outside of the jail.
Barlow grabbed a 40mm grenade from his chest rig. He slid open the breach to his M203, inserted the high explosive grenade and locked it shut.
“FRAG OUT” – we yelled
Without hesitation, he took his trigger finger and flipped the safety forward. He took one cool, collected breath, exhaled slowly and squeezed. There was a low, muffled pop and the round left the tube. It sailed to the back of the jail enclosure and let loose a massive explosion.
Weaver, Miller and I unloaded ten to fifteen rounds into the bunker and jail cells. The silhouette disappeared.
Two Marines helped Lewis down the stairs, then dashed the twenty meters to the back of the White House. I looked back and could see the Battalion XO at the back of our building, waving the Marines on. He was surrounded by more QRF Marines.
Ok. Back to square one. I aimed in above the jail wall as multiple grenades were tossed over the jail wall.
“Frag out! Frag out!”
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
In unison we fired everything we had into the jail enclave. The noise was deafening. The Marines on the ground swarmed to Wilson and Vittori , grabbing them by their flak, blouse and pants and pulling them around the corner into cover where “Doc” immediately began working on them.
Seconds later, the MATV blasted out several long bursts of fire from its 50. Cal machine gun into the east side of the police compound walls. The noise was beyond deafening. It drowned out all other sounds and thoughts in the immediate area. The gunfire crescendoed and then stopped abruptly.
End of Part II