A Country He was Not Supposed to be In
Harmon’s hunch proved fortuitous for both the Air Force and Meese, W. The Air Force because he’d uncovered a potentially valuable new asset; the recruit because it gave him the purpose he’d been searching for.
When Sgt. Delarosa came back three days later to report recruit Wade Meese had not only equaled, but beaten his earlier score, hitting thirty-seven out of forty, including being perfect at eight-hundred meters, the young man’s fate was sealed, at least as far as the Air Force was concerned.
Based on Lt. Harmon’s strong recommendation, following basic training Meese went to the Air Force’s eleven-day Advanced Designated Marksman School (ADMS), followed by the even more intense nineteen-day Close Precision Engagement Course (CPEC). While he could have washed out of either, he didn’t; instead finishing both near the top of his group.
After graduating from CPEC in the fall of 2002 he was deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to a security detail at Bagram Airbase, the center of U.S. presence in the country and their battle with the Taliban.
For six months, between October 2002 and March 2003, Meese and his spotter spent eight hours a day behind their respective scopes. In those months they wracked-up sixteen confirmed kills of snipers either seeking to damage the F-16s, Huey helicopters or giant C-130 cargo planes parked on Bagram’s vast runways or harass American security patrols on the outskirts of the base. But Meese was only one of nearly a dozen other sniper teams competently executing similar duty, so his superiors agreed they could spare him for a “special” assignment.
Because it had not escaped their notice that in the CPEC he had not only demonstrated deadly accuracy at long distance shots, but surprising skill at field concealment; in other words, he could keep the enemy from even knowing he was there until it was too late. Which is why, in the spring of 2003 he went back to the U.S. for the crash, two-week Basic Military Mountaineer Course (BMMC) at Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
Returning to Afghanistan in May, while he was still officially based at Bagram, Meese found he’d been reassigned to a Special Operations Group (SOG) – it was never quite clear if they were still under military supervision or if somehow “another government agency” (nobody ever said CIA, of course) had taken charge – to address a different and more challenging problem the Americans faced.
The northeast corner of Afghanistan is a narrow spit of land a little over two-hundred miles long, east to west, varying from a mere eight miles to up to forty miles wide, north to south. On maps it’s called the Wakhan Corridor, but informally is known as The Panhandle. It is sandwiched between Pakistan to the south, China to the east, and Tajikistan to the north. And it also happens to be along the northern edge of the Hindu Kush, some of the most remote and rugged mountain terrain in the world.
Remote except for one factor, two of the northern spurs of the fabled Silk Road pass through it. Where in past centuries it was spices, silk, gunpowder and gold moving over its rugged trails, now it was drugs; raw opium or its refined end-product, heroin and hashish. While the United States military wasn’t bothered much by small parties of a few smugglers for local benefit, either consumption by family or friends or sale for needed cash, they were more than a little troubled by the caravans of three or four dozen donkeys whose payloads, worth millions, ended up helping buy arms and equipment for the Taliban.
They would learn about the caravans either through Afghani informants or by spotting them already on the mountain trails with high-altitude aerial surveillance.
So, starting in late May, 2003, equipped with a Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle, which had a longer effective range, to say nothing of a great deal more hitting power than the American military’s standard M24 sniper rifle, now Airman First Class Wade Meese was sent into the Wakhan Corridor on “missions of opportunity” to interdict and disrupt the drug convoys.
He would be helicoptered to a remote location in the western parts of the corridor, then make his way overland alone and on foot – an understatement if there ever was one – to intercept the caravan. Each mission meant he might be in the field for two and sometimes three weeks at a time.
In May of 2005 an informant shared with his CIA handler rumors of a large caravan supposedly originating in Afghanistan carrying more than a ton of raw opium through Tajikistan and into Russia to be sold. For the Americans, it was too tempting to pass-up.
Which is why in early July, Meese found himself perched on a shoulder of the Alichur Mountains at not quite twelve-thousand feet, watching a narrow donkey trail paralleling the Pamir River, the common border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Unfortunately, the south side of the Pamir River butted hard up against the steep flanks of the Nicholas Mountains and so the trail – one of the Silk Road’s northern routes − sat on the north side, which meant both the trail and he were in Tajikistan.
It was not the first time he had pursued targets into a country he was not supposed to be in.
Next: In the Kush
© 2019 Dave Lager