Ghosts of the Valley
Chapter 8 Danger Close
July – August 2011
Operation Diamond Head
Pech River Valley, Afghanistan
Our mission was simple: take back land in the valley, establish strongholds, and flush the enemy out. Coming back to the valley meant bringing humanitarian assistance for the local populace and put bad guys in body bags. Simple enough.
Holy shit, I’m back! Talk about déjà vu.
Our MP squad were the first Americans in the valley since the last units retracted earlier that year. As we approached the entrance of the valley, we were to meet with local Afghan police at a checkpoint in order to proceed forward. When we arrived at the checkpoint, smoke had engulfed the building and we found some the police officers beheaded, with their heads on sticks. God this smell is ripe. The interpreter said there was a message on the wall from the Taliban.
“What does the message say?” I asked the interpreter.
“Keep coming,” he replied.
These assholes are taunting us. Telling us to come deeper into the valley. Wait, this was planned. They have to know we are coming, right? So, how many of them are waiting for us?
For a week, we moved from one stronghold position to another mirroring the infantry, taking pop shots, and being heckled by the enemy. Day four into the operation and we tried to keep ourselves sane since we couldn’t leave the trucks for any reason. We conducted our same ritual as the night before, by fighting over and opening all the good MREs. We would drink as many energy drinks as we could, then stay up and talk about every subject imaginable. Well, time to pre-game by blessing the energy Gods. We shot gunned three discounted energy drinks each. The sweet nectar that was responsible for fueling military forces through conflicts in the past decade, the well-known Rip It energy drink. Letting the drink hit my bloodline, I closed my eyes and sank my head in the back of my seat.
After about an hour of silence, Garcia and I were eating our dinner in the front seat staring out the windshield into the complete darkness of the Afghan night. From our far right, the huge red ball of an RPG flew directly over our truck and impacted fifteen meters above SGT Lane’s truck.
“Sergeant,” Garcia asked. “Yeah man,” I replied.
“Was that an RPG?” he asked. “Yeah man,” I replied.
Time to go to work.
As I crawled to the back of the truck, I told Doyle to start utilizing his infrared camera to scan for enemy targets as I opened the emergency hatch and manned the additional crew served weapon on the back of our truck. As I took my headset off to crawl to the back, I told Garcia to start playing some music to really pump me up during this firefight. We had found a way to hotwire our iPod into the internal headset frequencies—sorry if you’re reading this, Cas.
“I got you, Sergeant.” A grin creased his face.
Once through the emergency hatch, with the weapon fully loaded, I grabbed the additional headset in the back so I could communicate with my team on the inside. As soon as I put the headset on and was able to hear the inside of my truck, Taylor Swift could be heard playing throughout our headsets.
“Garcia,” I said.
“Yes, Sargento?” he replied in Spanish. “Fuck you.”
Times like this remind myself how many headaches my soldiers have given me. I know I’ve aged years because of them but it’s been worth it. I’ve loved every single one of my
soldiers and would do anything for them. I couldn’t just say it though. I would need to show it through my actions, display what leadership looked like so that one day, they could carry on that tradition. Every leader has a defining moment that sets a base foundation of one’s leadership style allowing the leader to display one’s true colors. My defining life moment presented itself during one of the toughest military situations one could be placed in: the enemy surrounding and attempting to overrun you.
On the afternoon of August 4, 2011, we received a call that a humanitarian aid convoy was under attack to the west of us and was in need of immediate assistance. I knew exactly where we were going: the village of Matin (Ma-teen). On my first deployment, we called it the Matin Mile because you would take contact the whole way through the village.
“Alright, listen up guys, the mountains will incline high around us. There is a village close to the road and the vegetation will eat up your flanks so watch your fire when we get in here,” I told my soldiers.
We were the third truck of our four-truck convoy so by the time the first truck arrived on scene, we were stopped around the curve of the mountain and couldn’t see much. Gunfire could be heard in the distance, but nothing seemed to be aimed at us.
“Power 2-2 (SSG Castellanos), this is Zulu (my callsign), what’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but there is a fuel truck blocking the road, an Afghan police officer is wounded, and he’s lying in this ditch next to us waving for help,” SSG Cas replied.
Shit, we don’t have a medic right now and I haven’t executed medical duties since my first deployment.
I can’t let that police officer bleed out though.
But I don’t know the situation or where the enemy is, I could be walking into an ambush. Fuck it.
“Power 2-2, this is Zulu, I am dismounting. I’ll grab the wounded.” “Garcia check both radio stations. You’re in charge of
communications. And get our SATCOM (satellite communication set) up just in case we lose the fill or can’t get a hold of anyone. Doyle, start prepping additional rounds and if you get positive identification, start throwing some rounds downrange. Kill these motherfuckers Doyle! Melton, you’re in charge of the truck. Make sure these two got everything they need in case I don’t come back,” I instructed them.
I crawled to the back of the truck and grabbed my small aid bag. I loaded my weapon and told Melton to prep a smoke grenade to conceal my movement. As Melton prepped the grenade and opened the hatch, I took a moment to talk to the Big Guy upstairs. I could tell this was one of those moments that I needed to be selfish and ask God for my forgiveness of sins and get me through this obstacle that lay ahead of me.
“Dear God, hey, it’s me again. Sorry I haven’t talked to you in a while. I swear if you can get me through this one alive . . .”
Usually during this time, soldiers will swear off their addictions of drinking alcohol or other bad habits in exchange for their life. Begging the Almighty Lord and Savior with our shitty customs deal that will hopefully stray bullets away from us.
Don’t kid yourself, you got beer in your fridge right now.
I dropped the ramp once I heard the smoke was out and ran out the back and to the left along the passenger side toward truck one. I looked to my left where the smoke grenade was supposed to be, but it was late on dispersion and I was now completely exposed for the enemy to see. The gunfire got louder the closer I got to truck one. Being the only American outside the trucks, the enemy was taking the opportunity to try and hit me like that carnival duck shooting game.
I stopped in front of truck one, looked around to assess my threats, and build a course of action. To my left (driver side of the trucks) was a long stretch of cornfields that led to the base of a mountain that continued up into the clouds. To my right was a small irrigation ditch that inclined up a hill towards a village. About 40 meters in front of me, was an abandoned fuel truck, located perpendicular to the police officer who was lying in the ditch bleeding out. Petitioning for his life and for me to hurry, the police officer cried out in anguish and tried to speak in broken English begging, “Please Soldier, please.”
“I’m coming” I said in an annoyed voice similar to my wife telling me to do the dishes.
With little to no suppressive fire support, I sprinted toward the fuel truck, then baseball slid into the ditch straight into a stream of human feces. I crawled my way to the casualty who was panicking and starting to go into shock from slowly bleeding out. Trying to keep myself as small as possible from enemy fire, I reached with my left hand and baseball gripped the police officer’s lower leg squeezing as hard as I could to apply pressure to the wound. Reaching with my right hand into my medical equipment pouch I removed a tourniquet and placed it above his bullet wound. After what seemed about three minutes of our position being pounded by the enemy, I knew if I didn’t make a move, they would take advantage of it and overrun us. The police officer continued to panic, so I rolled him into my body and hugged him so that my body armor would protect him from any incoming rounds and I would take the bullet instead of him.
Trying not to slide into the small waterway ditch, he curled
next to me and dug his nails into my arms holding me as if I were
the Savior himself. My left thigh was soaked in his blood from the tourniquet that kept coming undone because he would not stop squirming around. He sporadically tried to dig with his bare hands for more defilade to protect us from incoming fire. The incoming enemy fire was effective; I could hear the smacking of bullets against the wall above my head. My ears were ringing from the explosions and gunfire. Dirt and debris surrounded me as if it were trying to shield me from the enemy. With the police officer screaming his indecipherable language in my right ear, I couldn’t understand the traffic on my radio. Then I heard, a loud “Pffftt” sounded behind me. I couldn’t pick my head up to look, so I rolled my body backward while keeping my wounded patient close to my body armor. As I looked behind me, I saw what I could only describe as my own Lord and Savior at that moment in time: my squad leader, SSG Castellanos, opened his air compressed door and looked down at me.
“Cas, help! These rounds are getting close and I can’t get out of this ditch!” I yelled.
Although I had barely served with Cas, when I looked back at him, he gave me this quiet, yet confident look that set me at ease with all that was going on around me. I didn’t even question it I knew he was going to get me out of it alive, so why not go all out. I rolled back over and looked at the Afghan police officer in the eyes and for the first time he understood perfect English as I told him, “Get ready to run, bitch.” He smiled, nodded his head in agreement and propped himself up to move. Cas pulled his grenade out and threw it not far from the other side of the truck, which I took as my cue to get us out of the kill zone. I grabbed the police officer, threw his arm over my shoulder, and dashed for cover behind the first truck of our four- vehicle convoy. SGT Lane, who was standing on the platform outside his door of truck one, saw five enemy fighters enter the ditch where I had been laying. He grabbed an M249 squad automatic weapon and eliminated all five fighters before they could reach my location. At first, I wondered why Cas threw the grenade so close to the other side of the truck but as I sprinted to SGT Lane’s truck for cover, I could see the cornstalks moving heavily as enemy fighters were sprinting toward our location. One of my last vivid thoughts from that moment was, “Jesus Christ, they are going to try and overrun our position.”
Then, the thunderous roar from an F-16 came down, as the pilot flew 100 feet off the ground, banked left, and hit his afterburners to conduct a show of force. Everything went deathly silent. I could see the pilot’s red helmet, as he was flying so low. LT Pleasants was doing everything he could to get us continued show of force runs. The pilots conducted numerous low fly overs in attempts to keep the enemy back; however, nothing seemed to work. After the back of the truck was opened I carried my patient inside, set him down, and continued to assess him for other injuries while treating his existing ones. His blood oozed onto my left thigh as I lifted his leg to pack gauze into his exit wound and applied a pressure dressing. “Gelinas (the gunner for truck one I was sitting next to), watch this guy and make sure he doesn’t go into chock,” I said. “I’ll try but my gun keeps jamming, Sergeant.”
Truck one had a mounted gun that was controlled by the gunner from inside the truck so he did not have to be exposed outside to enemy fire. The truck hatch was open as he was sticking his hands SGT Ambriz covered in blood. Moments after placing the casualty in the truck and sustaining his wounds.
out to try and mess with the components to get it to work. By the time I grabbed my weapon and started to recheck my ammo count, the truck got silent. I could hear incoming gunfire from outside, but it was like everything inside got sucked into a seashell; sound was faint, and no one moved. I stopped what I was doing and looked back at Gelinas who was looking up staring at the open hatch to his truck. I peeked my head over and I could not believe
what I saw. There he was, 6’ 3”, 220 lbs of man, SGT Lane, my good friend who served with me on my first deployment. He was kneeling on top of truck one trying to fix the gun. The truck already stood 12-feet tall. With him on the roof above me, he was just a big target exposed in the open with the enemy taking free shots on him.
I watched him completely dazed in amazement. He would take the weapon apart, get shot at. Stop. Pick up his weapon, shoot back, then go back to work on the truck’s gun. This brave son of a bitch. What is he thinking? Well, I can’t let him get shot alone. I hope I don’t get shot in the face though, I want my family to be able to recognize me.
I threw open the truck’s emergency hatch, raised my weapon, and started to acquire targets. Crack! Crack! Crack! Holy shit, I can’t tell where the fire is coming from. All of a sudden, I felt a tug on my pant leg.
“Sergeant, did you hear?” Gelinas asked.
“We’re surrounded,” he said.
“No shit? I couldn’t tell. I think they’re getting closer though,” I said. Surrounded? Well this isn’t the first time I’ve been surrounded. Few times during my first deployment, but this was different. They were way too close for comfort. Movement was all around us as they were trying to find ways to our trucks through blind spots.
I engaged the enemy to the left, swung right, and engaged up into the village. I did this repeatedly until I went through 500 rounds. I looked over to see Lane pulling off a simple Call of Duty move. He got tired of trying to fix the trigger assembly on the gun, so he yelled down into the truck and told Gelinas to use the camera on the gun to find the enemy to engage. SGT Lane pulled the trigger manually every time Gelinas told him he was on target and, spun around on the roof until I heard him scream.
“Ah, something hit my ass,” he yelled.
I assessed his injury and a bullet skimmed his ass cheek. That’s when I told him we had enough, we had to get him down, and that this gun was done. Next, we saw SSG Cas run around the truck alone toward the fuel truck blocking the road.
“Come on, we can’t let him do this by himself,” I said.
I dropped the ramp and ran to the hood of the fuel truck where I started to engage enemy on both sides. I looked over to see SGT Lane grab SSG Cas by the vest and pull him out of the truck.
“You’re the squad leader. We need to keep you safe,” he yelled.
SGT Lane threw his weapon in the fuel truck and dropped the keys on the floor; as he bent over to grab the keys, enemy bullets penetrated the windshield where Lane’s head had been. He quickly threw the truck into reverse, rammed it into the ditch, and emptied the fuel so the Taliban could not capture it and utilize its resources.
The local commander told us he was sending an Infantry unit to replace us, but until they got there, we had to sustain the causality and defend our positions against the enemy at all costs.
Okay, time to go to work.
SSG Cas, SGT Lane, and I stood our ground to cover the flanks
of our vehicles from dismounted enemy fighters who were using the cornfields as concealment to maneuver and get closer.
“Lane, they are getting close man! You got a boom box? We need some grenades to keep them back,” I yelled.
I grabbed as many M203 rounds (grenades that can be shot from the grenade launcher attached to my rifle) that I could find and started to fire them in a pattern in the cornfield hitting their egress routes. I fired so many grenades that my launcher detached from my rifle and my weapon became disabled and ineffective to use.
I threw my weapon into truck one and told the driver to give me his M249—a squad automatic weapon that weighs roughly 22 pounds (with a 200-round drum) and can fire up to 850 rounds a minute. As I loaded my M249 ammunition onto the feed tray, I looked around to see targets as they maneuvered around us. It was hard to see with the debris and smoke filling the area, but I saw their shadows moving in the cornfield. They were coming for us.
I could hear the Taliban yelling at one another formulating plans to get around us. It gave me chills down my spine to hear them that close. I could tell they were trying to get close enough so we couldn’t use our grenades. The battle was coming down to sheer will, of who wanted it more. They wanted to completely annihilate us in place, take over our trucks, and drag us through the village; however, that shit just wasn’t going to happen.
“Lane, they are getting closer! Look at the cornstalks. They’re about 22 meters away!” I yelled.
“Give me that flashbang,” Lane demanded.
“Why?” “I just want to scare the shit out of them. I don’t care at this
point.” He giggled.
I grabbed my M249, racked my first round in, took a deep
breath, and headed to the back of truck one. It was then that I was about to experience one of the scariest moments of my life.
Ok, Lane is at the front of the truck. I just need to cover the rear, watch these paths, and make sure they don’t get an RPG off.
Wait, what is SGT Buyno waving at?
I looked into the windshield of truck two to see SGT Buyno waving his hands hysterically, but I couldn’t tell what he was trying
to say. Whatever. I raised my weapon, placed the buttstock in my shoulder, and circled around the back of the truck facing the cornfields to the south.
Simultaneously, my eyes focused, my breath was taken from me, and my heart stopped. This can’t be.
Hurry, wake up!
In slow motion, three Taliban fighters exited the cornfield no more than 8 feet in front of me. All four of us were shocked to see one another. Time stopped, but the battle raged on outside our glass bubble. All three of the Taliban fighters’ eyes opened wide, they yelled to one another, and then started to raise their weapons at me.
Shit! They are so close! Where did they come from?
They are still running toward me. Do I go hand to hand? I guess this is how I die.
Hurry, do something! Wake up!
Using my weapon as a paint brush, my canvas was their bodies.
I aimed at the far-right enemy fighter and while holding down the trigger, I traced the muzzle of my weapon from the right as the recoil lifted it to the left. Holding my breath, I watched as my bullets cut the enemy fighters in half. From torso to heads, pink mist blood splattered and skulls of the enemy imploded as their bodies fell at the base of the cornfield. I retraced my weapon and saw their limp bodies roll off the side of the road. Moaning and grunting from their last breaths could be heard as their souls left their bodies. I retreated to the back of the truck and started to reload my weapon and catch my breath.
“Lane, Cas, they are about to overrun us,” I yelled.
Sitting behind the tire, I peeked my head back around the truck to make sure there was not a second wave of fighters coming in when
I noticed one of the fighters I shot was partially lying on the road and was trying to crawl back into the cornfield. I could have easily swung back around the truck, put him out of his misery, and shot him in the head. But I didn’t. Instead, We both locked eyes as he was too weak to pull himself anymore.
It was like we both stopped what we were doing and took a moment of peace from the whole thing. Two men embracing a moment, fighting for what they believed in. His moment came to a halt however as his body went limp and his dead weight rolled back into the cornfield.
We started to grab all the hand grenades we had. While using direct fire against the village, we rolled grenades into the cornfield to keep the dismounted fighters back. Engaging both sides with little cover, we kept traversing and reengaging targets until we became overwhelmed. My weapon was running dry and it needed lubricant to keep it going but that was back in my truck over 75 meters away.
Well, I’m getting my workout today. I sprinted with my M249 back to my truck and entered through the rear ramp. As the ramp was closing, it caught my foot, smashing it. I screamed and Melton disengaged the ramp and freed my foot.
“God, that hurt, I can’t feel my foot. Give me the CLP (weapon lubrication). I need to lube these guns.” I said.
“Roger, here Sergeant. Is everything okay? Can I come out and help?” Melton asked.
“No, stay here. These guys need you. I don’t need you getting killed. Open the ramp. I’m going back.”
You know, years later, I look back and I feel like that was a very selfish moment of me. I knew it was dangerous and maybe I made the right tactical call, but, a part of me wonders if I took experience away from my soldiers getting in the fight. I just wanted to be selfish because I did not want to have to drag my soldiers home like I did LT Parten. I refused to put my soldiers in a body bag.
“Sergeant... Sergeant, Wake up!” “Sergeant!” Garcia yelled. “What?’’ I replied as I stopped and turned around. Kneeling in the back of the SGT Ambriz, clearing cornfields, Pech River Valley, 2011 truck, I looked up to see all three of my soldiers sitting in silence not engaging the enemy or spotting enemy positions. They were just staring at me like they were about to break some bad news to me. I could hear bullets smacking the side of our truck and mumbled words from the cracking radio in the background.
“Air support just radioed in. They believe we’re surrounded by an enemy force of 150 fighters,” Garcia said.
“Yeah, it feels like it.” I gave him a dead stare.
“Hey Sarge. There’s sixteen of us. We’re kind of outnumbered,” he said.
All three of my soldiers sat there, quiet, staring at me for an answer and guidance. I thought about what my NCOs would have said to me. I thought about that day back in September when I was the nervous Private. I tried to replicate my NCOs and their demeanor. So, I gave them a smile and put my hand on Doyle’s shoulder.
“That just means there’s more targets for us to hit, start knocking them down, get me some kills. Tell LT to get us some more close air support. We’re gonna need it,” I smirked.
I could tell I was giving Garcia a stare like I would never see him again. I slapped Doyle’s face in a love tap manner for good luck. Then, I brought my eyes to Melton and gave him a look like entrusting him with my children.
“Melton, take care of them. I have to get back out there. Now drop the ramp.”
Combat is brutal and harsh and requires men to be just as brutal in order to succeed. In that moment, my soldiers knew I needed them to dig in and revert to their primal stages to overcome the enemy.
As I ran back to truck one, they told me they were going to push up the road, turn around, and prepare for our replacement unit to arrive in fifteen minutes. As I got into truck one, I figured I would get into the fight since the gun was still down. I climbed up and exposed my upper body and engaged targets on both sides. Because my radio died, I had no way to hear communications. The F-16 announced he was coming in for a danger close strafing run—normally depending
on the size of the rounds and type, 200 meters is considered extremely danger close. He would be performing hits at 25 meters from our trucks. The pilot decided to utilize his 20mm six-barrel Gatling gun, which fires at 6,000 shots per minute. As he came in for his gun run, dirt and debris were kicked up from the cornfield massacre he was distributing on them and raining down on me and the top of the truck.
Jesus that was close! I can’t hear shit.
God, I’m tired.
Wait, what is that to the left?
Above me and to the left in the village an enemy fighter appeared
around the corner of a building. As he swung his AK-47 around and toward me, he fired multiple times at me hitting the top of the truck. With my unfocused eyes, I raised my weapon and acquired my target with the buttstock of my rifle barely on my cheek and fired three shots into his upper torso. Before I could see what happened to him, something snapped my head back and stung my face one inch below my left eye. I collapsed into the truck and fell into SGT Lane’s lap. The hot barrel of my gun landed on a case of Monster energy drinks exploding half of them all over inside the truck.
“Lane, I think I’m hit. My face hurts,” I said.
“Zulu is hit. I say again Zulu is hit.” Lane announced over the radio. All I could think about were my soldiers in that truck alone
hearing on the radio I was hit.
They probably think I’m dead.
I felt like I was letting them down.
“It’s just a small piece of shrapnel. You’re fine.” He pulled the small piece of metal out of my face and threw it on the floor.
“Ow! Asshole. Oh yeah, sorry about the monsters by the way.” I said.
As we laughed, we both looked out the front windshield only to witness one of the most badass American sights you could see. SSG Cas was running along the cornfield to the rear of our convoy to link up with the Infantry unit replacing us. While running, he was engaging targets. When his weapon finally ran out of ammunition, an enemy fighter appeared out of the corn stalks. It was just him versus Cas and we could do nothing but watch. Without hesitation Cas dropped, slung his M4 rifle, drew his M9 pistol, acquired his target, and eliminated the threat with two shots to the chest as he kept running.
“Ambriz, what the hell did we just see?” Lane asked.
“I don’t know man. I have blood in my eye. I can’t see shit. But I think I just saw Cas kill someone with a pistol, right?” I asked.
“Right.” Lane replied.
“Right . . . well, I’m going to go sit down now. I’m tired.” I said.
I can’t believe I just witnessed Cas kill this guy with a pistol. I’m forever dubbing him the name Pistol Pete. SSG Castellanos, AKA Pistol Pete Once Cas reached
the rear of our convoy, he linked up with our replacement unit, explained to them the situation, and pointed out the enemy positions. After we were relieved from the area, we received clearance to head back to base and refit.
Sitting in the back of truck one, I took my helmet off, rubbed the blood off my face, and tried to decompress what had just happened. These mountains sure do know how to leave grueling scars on you; they never seem to disappoint. The fighting was so intense it took every ounce of energy from me.
“You okay, Sergeant?” Gelinas asked.
“I’m fine. I just need a second.”
Get yourself together Ambriz. Soldiers are looking at you. Pick your
head up and stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re still alive.
Do not show them this emotion.
After we headed back to base, we dropped the casualty off at the
aid station, cleaned the brass out of our truck, washed the blood off, refit all of our ammunition, and headed right back out into sector. This went on for another week or so until we finally seized FOB Blessing and the remainder of the Pech River Valley back from the Taliban.
A few weeks later I was walking back from chow, I was stopped by my lieutenant.
“Ambriz, you guys did good out there,” he said. “Thank you, Sir.”
Not knowing which words to choose, he looked down awkwardly as he took a deep breath and returned his gaze to my eyes.
“We put you in for another Bronze Star with Valor.” He placed his hand on my chest and then walked away.
I stood there speechless. The same emotions from my first deployment came rushing back. I didn’t know what to say or think as I was not prepared for the scrutiny and spotlight again that came with that award. A single tear came down my face as I looked at the sunset crest the mountain pass.
Hey LT Parten, can you believe this shit-show?
I can’t believe I’ve made it this far. I wish you were still here though. I could use your guitar playing to calm me down. I don’t know how much more my soul can take with this valley. I feel like the mountains’ shadows are pulling me into hell. Well, here’s to the next eight months left in this deployment.