“Beware of advice – even this.”
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) – Poet, biographer
Another way of saying ultimately we have to follow our own counsel.
“Beware of advice – even this.”
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) – Poet, biographer
Another way of saying ultimately we have to follow our own counsel.
Targets (Part One)
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
The first of the smugglers emerged around the mountain’s shoulder opposite his position a little past ten in the morning, about when expected, as a sat phone update yesterday morning placed them only seven miles to the west. The situation for him was ideal. The sun was still at his back; they would be looking into it. A brisk wind from the east had come up, which meant it could help rather than hinder his shot, and the converse for theirs.
The lead smuggler was wearing a short gray Russian military parka that had seen better days, the bottom of his loose-fitting perahan overshirt poking out below, and a decorated, flat-top pakol cap favored by leaders. His face was swathed in a scarf against the chilly east wind. It struck Meese he seemed a little tall for an Afghani.
Meese watched as three donkeys he was leading emerged into view, then counted as the rest of the caravan followed. There were others with Russian parkas, a couple with what looked like their coat’s heritage was with the American military, and at least one that might have once belonged to a mountain soldier from India; their heads were covered either with turbans or trapper-style cold weather caps. Like the leader, their faces were mostly hidden by scarfs.
It took nearly half an hour for all eleven men and their thirty-four donkeys to round the shoulder. But they were still mostly moving toward him in a straight line, having yet to turn the corner skirting the edge of the gulch. He figured it would take another half-hour to forty-five minutes.
He studied them. A few with faces swathed in scarves was not unusual; but all of them being so masked was curious. He also had the impression looking at their eyes they were all young, also a bit odd, as there were usually at least a couple of grizzled older men, the leaders.
Meese had been in Afghanistan for a hundred and nineteen weeks, the equivalent of three tours for most other soldiers. He had lost count of his kills, but knew it had to be somewhere above eighty, unconfirmed, of course, because he had no spotter or other friendly to witness for him.
When the slow-moving caravan had moved up the trail and was now stretched out across his field of vision something else suddenly struck him as off; no one had an AK-47 hooked over his shoulder or cradled in his arms. But he could see what appeared to be rifle barrels sticking up from the donkey’s loads; maybe this crew was too lazy to carry the nearly eight-pound weapon, preferring to let the donkey’s do the work.
He should have paid more attention to the little anomalies piling up with this group.
He waited. He was good at waiting. On one level he waited for them to move slightly past his position on the other side of the gulch so when they turned to see where the fire raining down on them was coming from, they would be looking directly into the sun. But he also waited to savor the…What? Not the adrenalin surge you might expect before going into battle, in fact, quite the opposite, he was looking for the calm, the peace that always settled on him from a complete confidence he was in total command of his target’s fate.
Which is how he thought of them: not as human beings, but simply as nameless, soulless targets. He was not shooting at people; it wasn’t a question of not allowing himself to think of them as people, the thought never even occurred to him. His job, his purpose, his mission, his reason for being here was to eliminate targets. In a way, the tiny figures reminded him of ducks crawling across the back of a shooting gallery booth at a carnival.
When the lead man reached ten yards short of a cover opportunity, and the last man had passed the rear cover spot, for some odd reason Meese reversed his planned procedure and sighted in on and squeezed his first shot off at the last man. The rifle made a deep, thud-like report and the built-in recoil absorption system meant all he felt was the kick equivalent of a twelve-gauge shotgun, even though the Barrett had many times more power.
Meese didn’t wait to see the man go down – there was no doubt in his mind he did – and instead swung the rifle a short arc to the right to bring it to bear on the lead man. He took the shot in less than three seconds but did linger long enough to see the man thrown forward, then stumble and pitch over the edge of the trail into the gulch.
Bringing the rifle back to his left, Meese expected to see the remaining men frozen in place, staring in his direction with expressions of surprise and fear, trying to figure out where the deadly slugs and following loud booms had come from.
But what he saw were not frightened smugglers, but men who had quickly moved around behind their donkeys and seemed to be working on something… Working to disengage their rifles from the side of the donkey pack where they had been hidden from view. Because as each man brought the weapon up, Meese recognized they were not AKs, but Russian Druganov sniper rifles, a weapon with fire power much closer to his own.
While it was possible one or two could acquire a Druganov on the black market, that all of them had the more powerful weapon said these were no ordinary smuggler types, these were trained men, probably Russian soldiers.
© 2019 Dave Lager
“Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”
Natalie Goldberg (1948- ) – Author, artist, Zen practitioner
The idea that we have paths to follow in life – we can, of course, choose to take them or, on the other hand, can ignore them and even refuse them – is a recurring theme in my Ro Delahanty books; perhaps that’s why this Goldberg quote struck me.
Reading the Mountain
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
To most people, a mountain is a mountain is a mountain… They are momentarily awestruck by its immense grandeur, its sheer sides, its starkness, but rarely notice much more than that and are soon bored by its seeming sameness and ready to move on. To Wade Meese a mountain was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces needing to be meticulously studied, so his place and his target’s place in the big picture could be understood, his moves carefully planned out, his adversary’s counter-moves anticipated and his responses to them determined. A man of infinite patience, he wasn’t at all bothered by the mountain’s loneliness and desolation, he embraced it, he felt at home in it.
You might assume selecting the best hide from which to make a shot would be at the top of a sniper’s agenda, but that decision comes much later, after spending many hours lying on his belly in his mottled desert camo cold weather suit surveying every minute detail of his surroundings through his rifle’s scope, executing a step-by-step preparation process he’d learned in sniper school and honed over more than a dozen previous missions into the Kush.
His first need was to simply get a “feel” for the mountain. Even though it was only a great pile of rocks, to Meese a mountain had a personality, a mood. It could make you feel welcome, inviting you to explore and admire its power and beauty – people like John Muir and Ansel Adams understood this. It could be unwelcoming, even hostile to your endeavors – Mt. Everest climbers were well-acquainted with this feeling. For a sniper, an unfriendly mountain was to be avoided if possible, as bad luck seemed to flow from its flanks. Or it could be an impersonal mountain, indifferent to your presence. He spent many minutes with his eyes closed, reaching out with his feelings, letting the mountain touch him, eventually deciding this one was pretty much uninterested in him, a good thing.
Next, he listened to the wind, or as his mountaineering instructors had said, “Let the wind talk to you.” Yes, he needed to keep careful track of its direction and speed, as wind was the number one factor affecting the trajectory for the kind of long-distance shots he planned. While there was no vegetation at this high altitude, like trees or grasses whose swaying he could monitor, what might surprise the untrained observer was there was always some wisp of dust that could be used to gauge the wind.
And the wind could even warn you of danger if you “listened” carefully: the boot scrape of an enemy sneaking up on you; the distant rumble of an engine; perhaps the braying of an unhappy donkey.
He spent more than an hour considering the position of the sun and clouds and the shadows they would cast at different times of the day: shadows that could mask possible cover his targets could retreat to; shadows that could be used to hide their approach; shadows that could distort their position and throw off his aim.
On this mission, though, he would be in luck relative to the sun; for most of the day it would be at his back or off to his left, offering little chance a reflection off his scope might give away his presence.
One of his most important assessments was identifying any potential cover his targets might seek to use when they came under fire: the rocks they could retreat behind, the depressions they could throw themselves into, the crevasses they could hunker down in. He found half-a-dozen good cover spots and many more not so good spots, but they were clumped, leaving an open gap along the trail across from him with relatively little cover.
And, of course, he checked for any possible escape routes; running back the way they had come; scrambling up or down the mountainside; charging him.
There was reviewing the angle of his shots. A down-angle shot was good, because gravity was your friend, because your high position gave you the best overview of the field of fire and because any adversaries had the distinct disadvantage of an up-angle shot. A flat angle shot was nearly as good, as this was the most common angle and what they mostly trained on. As a sniper, if you could possibly help it you passed on up-angle shots, as they were the most problematic; gravity was not your friend and your field of vision was restricted.
It took six hours for him to catalog and assess all these factors, which then became the basis for the two most crucial decisions in his process, first, selecting his best possible fire zone, as well as a couple of alternatives, and then deciding on the ideal hide from which to take his shots, along with at least one alternative.
In this case though he found only one ideal fire zone, a stretch half again the length of a football field on the opposite side of the gulch; all thirty-six donkeys and their handlers would fit in the section and be in the open. The trail there was narrow, only six feet wide, and hemmed in by a steep drop-off into the gulch on one side and a severely angled, gravel-strewn upslope on the other, neither offering much of an escape route. The good cover spots he’d found were at the opposite ends; if he could drop the lead and last man with his first two shots, the remaining targets would have trouble gaining the safety of cover.
Finally, for his primary shooting position he picked a spot between two rocks a foot apart. That wide an opening gave him an ideal ninety-plus-degree field of fire yet would present a small opening for any return fire. A secondary hide thirty feet to his right was a ledge from which he could shoot down but that had the disadvantage he would be partially exposed. He thought if by chance they zeroed in on his first hide, he could scramble to his second and continue firing.
© 2019 Dave Lager
(NOTE: We’ll be out of town this coming week, “iffy” Internet connection, so publishing this chapter a bit early.)
In the Kush
Monday, July 4, 2005
The only paved and drivable road into the Wakhan Corridor ends at Khandud, a quarter of the way up the panhandle; from there two trails lead to the east. One is a wide, fairly flat wagon route through the corridor’s central valley following the Little Pamir River and ending at the Chinese border.
Then there is the narrow and much more rugged donkey track through Tajikistan Meese now watched. Although at Khandud there is a bridge over the Pamir, it has a checkpoint and so is avoided by smugglers.
Aerial photos and satellite surveillance of the panhandle had mapped the two main trails, including identifying a pair of remote fords of the Pamir on the northern route. But it had also marked numerous faint footpaths meandering up and over the mountains, sometimes using passes as high as fourteen-thousand feet. It was these paths Meese used to move around, undetected.
According to the informant, the caravan was scheduled to leave Khandud, a hundred miles to his west, during the third week of June. Thirty-six donkeys and their dozen handlers would be lucky to average six miles a day on the twisting, up-and-down trail, while Meese, who could travel lighter and faster and average ten, even twelve or more miles a day, could arrive at a pre-selected strike point a couple days ahead of the column.
Multiple high-altitude photographs of several possible ambush sites were fed into a computer, converting them into detailed topographic maps. Meese and his superiors then spent hours studying the maps, finally selecting a site on the side of one of the Alichur Mountains forty-five miles west of Lake Zorkul, the headwaters for the Pamir. While not his first mission into Tajikistan, it was the furthest east he had ever been in that country.
The op plan was to set-up on a ledge twenty feet above the trail, find a narrow gap among the rocks through which he could fire, but at the same time offering him good cover. The narrow trail came around a shoulder of a mountain above the Pamir not quite two miles to his west, so he would have plenty of warning of the caravan’s approach. The trail then swung north, to his right, to skirt around a deep gulch, then curled back to the south, passing below his position. In other words, he should have a wide, unobstructed sight line for his shots.
He was to wait for the donkeys and their handlers to be lined up in the open across his field of vision on the other side of the gulch, a shot of thirteen-hundred yards, well within the Barrett’s effective range.
Since the Barrett’s slug traveled at more than double the speed of sound, it would take three seconds for the smugglers to hear the rifle’s deep boom after having been hit. The plan was to first take out the point man, then swivel to the back and take down the last man within those three seconds, in effect hitting them even before they even knew they were under fire. He would then select targets of opportunity among the rest of the convoy.
While they would likely return his fire, the effective range of the AK-47s most smugglers carried was at best six hundred yards, less than half the distance to his position; he should be relatively safe from shots by untrained smugglers who were themselves under attack.
He arrived late in the afternoon of the eighth day and called in on a secure satellite phone – the surrounding high mountains made conventional radio useless – to report his arrival and receive an update. The convoy had been spotted by aerial surveillance the day-before-yesterday still twenty-five miles to his west. He had two days, at least, to wait, except for him it didn’t mean time to kill, it meant plenty of time to get ready.
After a beef jerky snack – one of the survival tricks he learned at mountaineering school was you don’t think in terms of three meals a day, you instead have snacks every couple of hours – he set-up camp under a nearby overhang offering some protection from the overnight dusting of snow – yes, in the Hindu Kush it can snow even in July – bundling up in a zero-degree sleeping bag he’d ordered online. Another thing the mountain-fighting veterans had taught him was government issue sleeping bags were too heavy and only okay down to temperatures in the low-twenties; anything in the teens – and yes, it could drop into the teens here in the summer – and you were shivering through the night. So, officers sort of turned a blind eye if out-in-the-field types like Meese bought top-of-the-line backpacker’s down bags with their own money.
The first thing he did on the morning of his ninth day, July Fourth, was gather hands-full of snow and pile them in the shade under the overhang, protected from the sun, then use a small propane stove and his ten-ounce stainless steel cup to melt the snow and top-off a pair of two-liter water bottles he carried. Here in the parched mountains, water, not bullets or food, was his single most crucial commodity, because a dehydrated sniper had trouble concentrating and could make fatal mistakes.
The next thing on his agenda was to literally learn inch-by-inch the mountainside on the other side of the gulch.
Next: Reading the mountain
© 2019 Dave Lager
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
“Life’s a dance you learn as you go, sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow; don’t worry ’bout what you don’t know, life’s a dance you learn as you go”
“Life’s A Dance,” Allen Shamblin & Steve Seskin
In my head I just substituted the word “writing” for “life” and “skill” for “dance,” and suddenly these lyrics from a counrty-western song seemed awfully relevant.
A Ro Delahanty Novella
By Dave Lager
“But from each crime are born bullets
that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies.”
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
Part One: Tajikistan
Boot Camp, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
Monday, May 13, 2002
Lt. Harmon ran his finger down the clipboard, checking the rifle range qualification scores of his recruits. They were pretty much what he expected after a decade as an U.S. Air Force basic training command officer: a few poor scores in the teens and low-twenties; barely qualifying scores in the upper-twenties; and some decent scores in the lower-thirties.
“At least this bunch seems to know one end of an M4 from the other,” he commented to First Sergeant Delarosa, his Lead Drill Instructor.
“Ain’t nobody shot a toe off yet, Sir.”
It was a running joke among recruit training people; given the strict safety rules and close supervision by range personnel, to their knowledge no one had ever actually “shot a toe off.”
“Unh,” Harmon grunted.
But as he reached two thirds of the way down the list, his finger paused at a score of thirty-six. Glancing up at Delarosa with a frown of disbelief, he said, “This for real?”
The sergeant, who had been training recruits at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base even longer than the lieutenant, knew what had caught his officer’s attention, “Yes, Sir.”
All military recruits, no matter which branch of the service they sign up for, receive similar basic training. They were going to be soldiers and so shared the common, if not always likely possibility they could at some point find themselves in a combat situation. One of the fundamentals they were required to demonstrate in order to graduate was a basic skill with an M4 carbine, the standard long-gun used by most services. They needed a minimum qualifying score of twenty-six out of forty pop-up targets – all assumed to be enemy combatants – from at close range to up to three-hundred meters away, or a little over the length of a football field. Scores in the upper-twenties were good, in the lower thirties excellent; a thirty-six out of forty was extraordinary, to say the least.
Running his finger to the left, Harmon said, “Meese, W. What’s his story?”
“Nothin’ special far as I can tell. You know how these kids are. Some of ‘em lay their hands on a weapon the first time and start bragging what great hunters they’ve been and are gonna ace the test.”
Harmon finished the sergeant’s thought, “And then bitch up a storm something must be wrong with the weapon because they barely passed.”
The two shared a grunt-like snicker, as the type was almost a cliché around boot camps.
“Heard anything about this Meese’s background?” the officer said. “I gather he didn’t mention hunting.”
“No, Sir,” Delarosa said with a shrug. “He worked at a pizza parlor before signing up. I heard him mention once he thinks he’ll probably end up a food service specialist.”
“Unh… What kinda kid is he. Not another class clown I hope.” Neither the lieutenant nor the sergeant had much use for recruits who didn’t take their training seriously.
Delarosa shook his head, “He’s different, quiet, keeps to himself, doesn’t pal-up with the others – you know, trade digs, tell jokes, eyeball the female recruits.”
To Delarosa, a recruit was a recruit; a warm body he needed to turn into a neophyte soldier. If he heard a sexist remark it earned the entire squad twenty-five push-ups on the spot, so any offenders soon learned to keep their thoughts to themselves.
“He’s a little guy, only five-seven. Never bitches about the dust or the sweat.” Delarosa didn’t have to add he heard that complaint often in arid south-central Texas. The first few weeks of basic training includes lots of rigorous physical challenges, mostly to assess the recruits’ stamina but also to see who can deal with the discomfort of combat and not complain too much. That Meese wasn’t a whiner earned him a few respect points with Delarosa and Harmon.
“When the range sergeant gave him his weapon and told him what to do,” Delarosa continued, “he stepped up to the firing line and did it, nice as pie.”
Harmon raised his brows, pleased, “And you were there? Saw this?”
“Always am, Sir. I like to see how they do the first time they handle an M4.” He paused for a second, thinking, then added, “You know how some people can just pick-up a guitar and start playin’ it like it was the easiest thing ever? That’s the feeling I got watching him with his weapon.”
“What’s your gut telling you?” Harmon had learned to respect his subordinate’s opinion; a smart officer always did, after all, Delarosa was the one with the recruits on a daily basis and had over the years seen lots of them come and go.
“Like lots of the kids these days, he signed up after 9/11; wanted to serve. But I have the feeling he’s driftin’, just looking for a place to land.” It was not uncommon for young people barely out of their teens to hope service in the military would help them find a purpose.
“Okay… Look, I’ll check his ASVAB, see if it’ll tell us anything,” Harmon said.
All recruits for any service branch take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a series of assessment tests that, along with their personal preferences, as well as what the particular branch needs, helps determine their specific duty assignment if they make it past basic training.
“Here’s what I want you to do, Sergeant. In the next day or so take him back out to the range. Run him through the qualifying round again. If his score is even close to this one, see what he can do at four-hundred, six-hundred and even eight-hundred meters.” Eight-hundred meters is half-a-mile.
“What should I tell him?”
Harmon shrugged, “Tell him he had a good score – I figure he knows it already – and you want to see if he can do it again.”
“What’re you thinking, Sir, Robinson?” Delarosa wondered aloud.
The U.S. Air Force’s Counter Sniper School was based at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Counter snipers were used to augment security around the perimeter of combat zone air bases to keep enemy snipers from damaging planes or other equipment from long distances.
“We’ll see. We haven’t had a really good sniper candidate in a couple of years,” Harmon said with an expression both hopeful and skeptical.
Next: Chapter 2: A Country He was Not Supposed to be In
© 2019 Dave Lager
“My writing often contains souvenirs of the day – a song I heard, a bird I saw – which I then put into the novel.”
Amy Tan (1952- ) – Novelist
Way back when, I read several of Bob Ludlum’s early thrillers. Almost always set in some exotic location, I remember being impressed by the often minute detail in his descriptions that nonetheless perfectly set the mood for the scene. I used to wonder if he spent hours on end wandering the streets and back alleys of Prague or Istanbul or Shanghai gathering these impressions, maybe jotting them down in a notebook (this was pre computer days) to be pulled out later when needed. And I used to smile at the idea that somewhere along the way some unsuspecting Ludlum fan would come across one of these descriptions in a book he was reading and suddenly exclaim, “Oh my god, he just described the front of my apartment building in Paris.”
He had many names…
Wade Meese was his birth name …
He was known as Natty among the fraternity of military snipers, after the famous frontier sharpshooter, Natty Bumpo.
Never There was his secret CIA codename, because on his clandestine missions into the wild Hindu Kush he was officially “never there.”
And he was Skassa – “ghost” – to the Taliban-sponsored drug smugglers that were his targets along the ancient Silk Road, because they never knew when or where one of his deadly .50 caliber bullets would find them.
His most grave “mission” though would not be in rugged Afghanistan, but a sniper vs. sniper dual with a SWAT Team’s designated marksman named R. Delahanty on the shores of the Mississippi River in rural Iowa.
Next: Sniper’s Day Chapter 1
© 2019 Dave Lager