Part 2 of 3
Back at the beginning of this five-day operation, it was envisaged that a period of twelve hours be afforded all troops standing down from a mission before returning to the field. Unfortunately the inevitable delays and general tardiness associated with the French Army resulted in a cheek-clenching six and a half hours to shower, shave, something else beginning with ‘sh’, and SLEEP. Certain soldiers decided to forego one or more of the first three in that list, but not a single person neglected to put head to pillow for as long as possible. Of course it was never going to be long enough.
At 5.30am we hit the road once again, only this time the destination was slightly apart from our previous compound capers. Hopping out of the VAB upon our arrival, we were greeted with a scene that resembled a gigantic construction sight more than anything. Large diggers, earth-moving machinery and trucks rumbled to and fro, the early morning sunshine effortlessly eclipsed by a slow-turning tornado of sand and dust. Our faithful Section Travaux (Construction Section) had begun work on a Combat Outpost (COP) beside a strategic crossing point on the main river running through the valley. Every which way one looked, a combination of French and American troops dotted the horizon in small teams posted across the mountain tops. A security perimeter composed of artillery posts and numerous VABs with their trusty .50cal machine guns encircled the works on ground level. It was (relatively) safe to say that one was (relatively) secure. Things are all very relative here in Afghanistan.
Our task on this fine morn was to secure the as-of-yet untouched sites for the construction teams, scanning the ground with our trusty metal detectors in case either a purposely placed IED or just a long forgotten UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) popped its unwelcome head out of the ground. A lengthy and methodical but critically important process, we took our time but ultimately found nothing. All the better. The green light flashed and the machines rumbled on. Just then, an Adjudant Chef from the mine/explosive specialist unit approached us on a short-term recruitment drive, needing a small team to accompany him on a brief but extremely steep climb up to the location of a future surveillance post overlooking the site of the future COP. Scanning with the metal detectors as we climbed, the sweat quickly began cascading down our faces. However, we quickly cooled and damn-near froze once we arrived at the top. Only then did the Adjudant Chef decide to inform us that it was on this very spot that our Captain had perished the week before. Momentarily overwhelmed by the morbid air of that fateful day, we quickly snapped to. The detection wasn’t over yet, and we were entrusted with clearing the site and confirming its security for the construction of the look-out post. To say that our work that day was meticulous would be a grave understatement of the care and attention employed in assuring that not a single trace of danger (mainly in the form of IEDs) existed on that lofty perch.
With nothing remaining in terms of detection work, our guys were afforded the rare luxury of crashing out for the afternoon, finding a sunny spot to stretch our weary legs while awaiting orders. Those orders eventually came through just before nightfall. We were to pack up and move out, deeper into the local village and coincidentally to the same compound where the infamous Battle of the Billygoat occurred the day before. Ready with a mean disposition and all the ration biscuits we could spare, we made for the compound. Now, some things here in Afghanistan can be far more unsettling than gunfire and explosions. For instance, arriving at a house where only two days ago we had been surrounded by people and farm animals to find it now completely deserted, door wide open, fire still lit with kettle on the boil. The radio reports soon came flooding in. All other units had found their target compounds in exactly the same condition. The entire area was a ghost town. It was clear that the Taliban had tipped off the locals. Trouble was on the horizon, best leave before it kicks off. Concerning the empty buildings and outhouses, we’d all received the training both in France and at Bagram with the American instructors. From here on in, every single step needed be taken with the utmost care. Trip wires, pressure plates, photosensitive triggers, everything and anything could await us in this deserted house. Well, where there’s a room to clear and booby traps to uncover, it’s Engineers AWAY!! So in we went, flash lights on the end of our rifles. Slowly pacing forward, scanning walls, behind doors, gently upturning mattresses, closely examining carpets and rugs for signs of foreign objects hidden beneath. The inspection took about 40 minutes but in the end provided nothing by way of hidden explosive traps. Phew!
And so we closed the doors, set-up a guard rota and settled down for the night. Oddly, no trouble came our way. A few bursts of sporadic gunfire periodically broke the sleepy silence the next day, but the arrival of the helicopters soon quietened down any insurgent activity. We stayed huddled and undisturbed throughout and, oddly enough, left on time for the return to camp. By 6pm we were home, dry and ready for a hot meal. The whole detachment involved in our five-day mission rejoiced upon hearing that the next outing wouldn’t be until 1am the following morning, giving us almost thirty six hours at the FOB. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, internet, shower, bed, laundry, it’s amazing how simple things become luxuries fit for a King once one is deprived of them long enough. The batteries began their recharging as one final twenty four hour outing remained. It wouldn’t be the most perilous or eventful in general, but it ended up being quite interesting all the same…..