Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356

Afghanistan: High Value Target

Chapter 1

“After the first death, there is no other.”
Dylan Thomas

Clinging to a red plutonic spine above Afghanistan’s dry southern plains, U.S Marine Firebase Saker confronted the cedar-covered northwest border of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area. During the day, hot desert winds lifted a corundum of granite sand and crushed obsidian that, given sufficient time, would reduce sheer cliffs and forged armor to gray dust.

At night the winds reversed. Descending from the twenty-one thousand-foot summits of Kuh-e Shashgal and Kuh-e Tuioksa, the winds whipped the gray corundum across Firebase Saker’s sand bags and stone parapets. Once becalmed in the personnel bunker’s dark silence, the dust settled onto the Marine’s bivy sacks, packs and M16s. images

Saker. Named after Afghanistan’s Peregrine Falcon, the Coalition’s most eastern outpost snagged dawn’s first light.

The shadowy edge between dawn and day crept onto the reinforced concrete bunker where it touched the M2 fifty-caliber machine gun before spilling down the rocky west slope to the valley floor.

Six Marines squinted toward the rising sun. Afghanistan’s jagged eastern border was silhouetted against the bright yellow orb.

A Marine Sergeant shielded his eyes against the glare. “Another blistering mother fuckin’ hot day in paradise!” He forced an oiled patch into the breech of his M16. The Marines hated the dawn when their NVGs faded and the Taliban finished their prayers and opened fire from the surrounding high ridges.

Under ideal conditions–no wind, rain or incoming fire–Saker’s Marines took three minutes to clean and oil the M16’s breech, bolt and magazine. Then the hard winds would rise, filling the machined slides, hinges and pins with the same tenacious, abrasive grit.

“Fucking dust,” the Sergeant looked around the dim bunker. None of the six Marines bothered to glance up from their weapons. Dressed in dusty desert camo pants, faded olive green T-shirts and worn, dun-colored boots, they worked cleaning patches down the barrels of their M16s. To a man, the Marines refused to bitch about Saker. Not about the inedible MREs, the stink of shit, piss, sweat, the water rationing or the fact that the Taliban had the crapper’s coordinates dialed in.

Two days earlier, the Moolies had fired three mortars off Mind Bender Ridge. The 82mms arrived with shrieks, punctuated by the crack of high explosive. The mortars blasted three shattered bowls into the hard rock, two outside the perimeter, one next to the plywood shitter.

“Maybe mortaring the doogey pit is a kind of Moolie joke!” a PFC remarked as he heaved the shattered frame onto a burn pile.

The Sergeant shifted his M16 to the crook of his arm. “Private, you’re more fucked up than the Taliban.”

“Yes, Sir,” the PFC tossed a fragment of shit-splattered plywood onto the foul smelling pyre.

Straddling a major infiltration route, Saker’s mission was to observe and interdict, not capture and hold. As such, the weapons were mobile small arms, AT-4 shoulder-fired rockets, M252 81mm mortars and one M120 millimeter mortar.

Built of bunkers blasted out of the base rock and supplied by helicopter alone, Saker was hot. The Taliban constantly probed it with small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Two weeks before, the outpost had come within twenty meters of being overrun. It was the fourth time in the last nine months. Saker suffered six casualties. One dead, five wounded. Of the five, one would later die at Landstuhl. The Firebase’s annual death toll eclipsed eight times that number.

The Marines posted to Saker were convinced the U.S. Army riflemen spent too much time glassing the surrounding hillsides and not enough searching the local village compounds. The mission, as the Marines interpreted it, was kill Moolies, kill Moolies, and if you can’t kill Moolies, then drive them back into Pakistan. Contact, however, bred casualties and the American taxpayers had grown weary of hometown boys dying in unpronounceable places.

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Including the six Marines, Saker was manned by thirty-two regular Army; two Afghan National Army; and three officers–a captain and two lieutenants. With few exceptions, the Firebase’s contingent was tough and highly motivated.

A Solifugae scuttled across the bunker’s dirt floor. Six million years of Afghanistan’s blistering days, freezing nights and prolonged droughts had sculpted the six-inch Camel Spider into a brittle mix of speed, armor and firepower. Little wonder the Marines respected them. Cloaked by the shadows, the Solifugae were drawn to heat and movement. An Army PFC used his M9 bayonet to herd a six-inch Camel Spider into a cardboard box then tossed in a scorpion. The spiders and scorpions instantly morphed into tiny gladiators, circling fangs against arching stingers, in a gladiatorial fight to the death.

Blocking the Camel Spider with the M9’s blade he looked up. “Gentlemen, place your bets.” The game was an old one.

The Sergeant’s oily patch hesitated on the trigger guard. “Private, turn that fucking spider loose.” After PFC Howard-Smith got bit in the hand, the Captain issued an order against pitting spiders against scorpions.

Prior to Howard-Smith’s bite, the most reckless of Saker’s defenders bet a week’s hazard pay on the winners. Ninety percent of the time, the spider killed the scorpion, forcing the PFC to offer odds. The fights ended when Howard-Smith was bitten while trying to separate the combatants long enough to close the bets. Examining the PFC’s hand, Saker’s medic told him camel spider venom wasn’t fatal, and treated the draining blister with an antibiotic cream. Covering it with a large band-aid, he advised Howard-Smith to walk it off.

The PFC, however, proved to be allergic to Camel Spider venom. By that night his arm had swollen to twice its normal size. When blood stopped flowing to his forearm and hand, the medic tried to reduce the PFC’s compartment syndrome. The skin ripped open across his bicep, and he was helivacked to Khost where surgeons performed an emergency fasciotomy. He was then evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany. Last anyone heard Howard-Smith was on his fifth skin graft and could still lose the arm.

Camel spiders were as aggressive as abused pit bulls and, like the Taliban who ringed the rocky hills above Saker, would attack whenever the odds tipped in their favor. Still, the Marines rarely killed them. The camels kept Saker’s plagues of mice in check.

The smell of sweat mingled with the reassuring chemistry of Hoppe’s cleaning solvent and gun oil, eddied through the square, concrete bunker. Metal slides traced metal grooves with coldly efficient tolerances that projected Saker’s boundaries out to five hundred meters. The solvent reminded some of pheasant season in South Dakota, others of a screaming drill instructor.

The Marines could recite the Sergeant Instructor’s warnings in their sleep, “A fucking grain of sand can cost you your life. Treat your weapon like your dick. Protect it! Honor it! Keep it clean! Don’t let Homos touch it! And don’t take the safety off until you’re ready to rock and roll!!”

After nine months in Afghanistan, the Marines knew if you didn’t keep the M16A2 cleaned and oiled, you were fucked. Fire six clips on full auto and the barrel turned red-hot seconds before the slide jammed. It was predictable. Between the dust and heat, nothing worked in Afghanistan.

To prove a point, the string of overhead bulbs blinked out. The bunker pitched into deep darkness. It took three seconds for the Marine’s eyes to locate the thin ray of dusty rose light that speared through a tiny hole in the canvas door. The men listened.

“Anyone gas the generator?” the Sergeant glanced over his shoulder at a PFC. The generator was flown in on the last supply Chinook three days before. Taliban mortar attacks destroyed the last two. After the last direct hit, Saker’s Captain ordered it fortified with sandbags.

“Yesterday afternoon,” a PFC shifted under the Sergeant’s glance.

“Check it again!”

The PFC rose, crossed the room and exited into the dusty light. Three minutes passed before the generator coughed to life, then settled down into a constant, calm hum. The lights blinked on and the PFC parted the blanket that served as a door. “The generator had gas,” he stepped into the bunker “The air filter was clogged.” He sat down on his cot and returned to his M16.

As the Marines cleaned their weapons, the shadowy edge between dawn and day flowed west across the remnants of an ancient road that divided the dry valley. Four kilometers out, the mud brick compound of Turah Tizhah lay broken on the valley floor. Two years had passed since the Taliban used it to attack a supply convoy to Saker. During the firefight that followed, a B-52 dropped a single, five hundred-pound bomb that reduced a central compound to shattered piles of brick and earth.

Twenty kilometers further west, the road skirted the villages of Zherah Ghar and Dehi Ghar that squatted upon the dusty, desiccated plain. In the eight years since the last significant rain, Dehi Ghar’s poppy fields and scattered fruit trees had withered and died. Deprived of water, the thin soil boiled away in Afghanistan’s raw winds, leaving only the land’s red bones to bleach beneath the desert sun. Dehi Ghar had since shrunken to a few families clustered around a salty well.

Eighty kilometers beyond Dehi Ghar the rough road joined the AO1 Kabul-Jalalabad Highway northwest to Kabul. What the harsh winds and endless drought spared, the goats finished, browsing away the foliage until the valley resembled an ancient, scarred anvil. The hammers came later. First as conventional bombs dropped by B-52s, then 120 mm artillery shells and later, when Coalition’s armored vehicles rolled through, mortars arced onto attacking Afghani Taliban.

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Aji al Swardi, the Firebase’s Afghani interpreter, claimed that Alexander of Macedon’s legions marched down the road into the Hindu Kush. In 325 A.D., Alexander attacked the ancient cities of Ora, Bazira and Massaga. Six enlisted men listened to al Swardi recount that upon the death of Massaga’s chieftain, his aged mother, Cleophis, assumed command of the army.

Seeing the old woman lift her son’s spear in defiance of the vast horde, Massaga’s women joined her on the walls. When Alexander’s siege failed to conquer the city, he negotiated a treaty. Cleophis opened the gates, and the Greeks marched in and promptly slaughtered every man, woman and child.

“Fucking smart,” one of the PFCs observed. “Too bad the Moolies won’t suck on the same dick.”
The Coalition could secure and hold the torturous road to Dehi Ghar during the day. The Taliban, however, owned the night. Working in the dark of a new moon to compromise the NVGs, the bomb-makers buried a Russian 105 millimeter shell between the rough, four-wheel tracks. Triggered to a remote detonator, the IED flattened an armored personal carrier. When the dust cleared, three soldiers were jack-strawed into a tangle of scorched limbs, blackened heads and naked torsos. A paragraph appeared on the second page of the L.A. Times. Brass blamed it on Iranian-shaped charges…and the war raged on.

A distant muzzle flash summoned a return burst from the M2 .50 caliber machine gun.

Captain Richard Heinson, Saker’s Officer In Charge, scanned the hillside with his armored binoculars. “Hit anything?” he asked the gunner.

“No sir! Not that time.”

Hidden within the north slope, Deodar cedars, which the local villagers logged for pocket money, the Taliban swept the parapet with harassing small arms. When AK-47 rounds splintered against the stone parapets, Saker’s Marines would pound back with the .50 caliber. Returning fire held the insurgents a distance. Sooner or later, when bad weather prevented air support, they would assault the rock walls.

Afghanistan’s high mountains and narrow valleys, vast deserts and deep gorges, rocks, insects and thin, weak soil had forged the Taliban into a hard, resourceful force, ready to die for their beliefs. Lacking airpower or mobile artillery, armed only with light and heavy mortars, rocket propelled grenades, a few inaccurate rockets, small arms, Browning Automatic Rifles and .50 caliber machine guns, the Moolies had forced the world’s best-equipped army onto a series of besieged outposts supplied solely by Chinook helicopters.

Heinson turned and stepped down into the bunker. All water was helicoptered onto the isolated spine. None of Saker’s contigent had bathed or shaved for ten days and the strong smell of men accustomed to living in sweat-stained uniforms filled the twelve by twelve rock enclosure. The Captain was the lone exception. Though he had shaved that morning, his face was already dusted with Saker’s gray talc. The Marines sitting on the bunks acknowledged him with nods.

Looking around the dim bunker, the Captain advised them, “Predator INTEL reports a company-sized contingent of Taliban have gained the ridge.”

The Marines stopped cleaning their weapons. The closest to the exit stood up. “Sir, is that a full company?”

“Three hundred, give or take,” the Captain nodded toward Mind Bender Ridge.

“Did the Predator catch anything else?”

“Two dozen dead Moolies strung across the valley floor and up the east slope of the pass.”

“Fuck, yes!” a Marine Sergeant released the slide on his M16. A round slid home. “Any idea who’s responsible?” he set the safety.

“None,” the Captain noted the action. The Marines were well trained. No way could he could hold Saker without them.

“What’s next?”

“We check our weapons and ammunition and prepare for contact.”

The M2 gunner leaned into the bunker, “Sir, there’s something you should see!”

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The Captain crossed to the armored observation point, where a spotting scope pointed toward the distant ridge. Adjusting the focus, Heinson watched a figure run down the trail that descended from the pass into the shadowed cedar forests. From the distance of a thousand meters, something wasn’t right. No rifle, no turban, short hair, a pistol gripped in his right hand. A bright red stain covered his salwar kameez blouse, torn izar pants. The sound of automatic fire reached the Firebase.

“The Moolies are doing their fucking best to kill him!” the Sergeant raised his M16 and checked the safety. “Wonder what he did?”

“Held hands with the Mullah’s daughter,” a PFC appeared next to him.

“Or got to second base.” A second looked across to the forested hillside, “Sir, we should save them the trouble.” He rested his M16 on the wall.

Watching the Taliban run full tilt down the trail, Heinson said, “Private, you couldn’t hit a moving target at that distance with all the ammunition in Afghanistan. Save the round, you may need it.”

Two hundred meters behind the running figure, a dozen men with AK47s raced to close the distance. One stopped and raised his rifle. Sharpening the scope’s sixty-power optics, the Captain saw muzzle flashes. A second later, the sound of automatic rifle fire floated across the valley to the Firebase. The figure kept running.

Standing behind Heinson, the Marine Sergeant tracked the lead figure with his M-16. Just short of pulling the trigger, he set the sights ahead and above of the runner’s head. At that distance, a killing shot was luck alone. “That Moolie’s a fucking Marathon Man.” He held his fire.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Heinson silently recited the ancient Arab proverb.

Attracted by the rapid small arms fire, soldiers materialized on the parapet. In a minute, twenty men, including the six Marines, were scattered behind the sandbags. The two Lieutenants glassed the sheer, rocky face.

One turned to the riflemen, “Back to your posts!” he shouted. One 82mm Russian mortar would devastate Saker’s crowded defenders.

“Sir?” the Marine Sergeant continued to track the runner. “We could drop the 120mm on that first group…we’ve plotted the coordinates.”

“Where?” Heinson searched for the impact zone.

The Sergeant pointed to a glade, a thousand meters and three quarters of a mile up the forested face. “Locate the clearing where the trail crosses!”

The Captain swiveled the scope. The lone figure was still far above them, running fast. “How long to target impact?” Moolie or not, Heinson admired the insurgent’s stamina.

“Fifteen seconds–give or take.”

“Hold your fire until I give you the signal!” the Captain rapidly calculated the distance between the runner and the pursuing Taliban.

The Sergeant erected the M252 mortar on a fixed-point concrete slab, dialed the coordinates and glanced at the Captain.

Heinson waited until the running man crossed the clearing, then counted down twenty-five seconds. “Fire!” he commanded.

The Taliban reached the clearing a second before the mortar rocketed in. Three heard the incoming whistle in time to dive for cover. Six others were a second late. Two bodies tumbled downhill out of the explosion’s gray smoke and disappeared into the dense cedars. The remaining seven were either killed instantly or were mortally wounded. Five would die within minutes.

The Private pumped his M16 above his head. “GET SOME!” he yelled.

The Captain’s scope traced the trail uphill to the pass. He counted twenty Taliban running through the green cedars. Roughly fifty more cleared the ridge and took a lower more direct trail that led down through the cedars and into the narrow valley. During the next minute the Captain watched a hundred and fifty men cross the pass.

“Sir, I’ve got Tactical Air Control on the radio,” the Sergeant held the radio out to the Captain. “They say it’s a slow day at the office and can deliver a load in, uh, three minutes.”

“We’ll keep them advised of our situation.”

From over two kilometers away the scope magnified details: beards, caps, the color of a disdasha, AK47s, mortars and RPGs. Utilizing the terrain for cover, the running man sprinted through the clearings and slowed when the cedars closed across the trail. The Captain watched him stop, turn, take aim with the pistol, and fire. The distance to the Taliban was far beyond the pistol’s maximum accurate range. Watching from two thousand meters away the Captain judged it was a wasted round. Then, the lead pursuer suddenly staggered off the narrow path. His gray turban spun away. Gathering speed, it launched off a cliff then floated for a hundred meters before it disappeared onto a shadowed scree slope.

The Captain could only guess at the lone runner’s crime.

Following four decades of war, the Moolies had refined guerilla tactics to fine art. When confronted by overwhelming firepower, they never exposed themselves in large numbers. An attack averaged less than a dozen men. Even then, the insurgents maintained their spacing. Ten years combating the Russians and now more than that fighting the Americans taught them that the Coalition wouldn’t waste a fourteen thousand dollar cluster bomb on one man.

“Captain,” the Sergeant was standing behind and to his left, “What’s up with the Marathon Man?”

“Something critical,” the Captain looked away from the scope to rest his eye. Marathon Man could possess valuable INTEL.

“If the Moolies close with us, TAC won’t drop.”

The rules governing CAS, Close Air Support, were modified after four Canadian Light Infantry were killed and eight wounded by a friendly-fire laser-guided bomb. The Captain was well aware of the minimum distance required before a pilot could drop. No close-in bombing runs were authorized, no matter how loudly Coalition troops were screaming for help.

“Sir, we’ve got maybe twelve minutes before Marathon Man reaches us. Another three or four before the Moolies hit us with everything they’ve got. Much closer and they’ll overrun us.”

“He could have INTEL about HVTs.”

“Or be wrapped in C4 and ball bearings,” the Sergeant watched the running figure. “No Moolie Intel is worth the risk of significant casualties. Sir, I suggest we call in the strike.”

The Captain returned to the scope. Marathon Man appeared to be tiring. The Taliban were closing the distance. Seventy meters now separated him from the pursuers. The sound of repeated automatic bursts reached the Firebase. The Marathon Man turned, fired one shot, and instantly returned to full stride. A second pursuer crumpled.

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“Fuck me!” the Captain whispered.

“Sir?” the Marine Sergeant turned from the hillside.

“Can you to light up that pursuing group without killing the Marathon Man?”

“Doubtful! A mortar is chancy. We can harass them with the .50 cal and M16s.”

“Then harass them!” In seconds thirty automatic rifles and the .50 caliber machine gun raked the pursuers. “Stay off the Marathon Man!” the Captain ordered. “Can you reach them with the M107?” he turned to the Sergeant.

“Sir, it’s a kick in the ass to shoot but worse than inaccurate on moving targets.”

“What about that surplus LAW?”

“The 72? It’s designed to take out tanks.”

“It’s been gathering dust for two years. Use it!”

The Sergeant retrieved the short tube from the ammunition bunker, set the sights on the trail and cleared the area. A second after the rocket exited the tube, six fins extended. A screw of smoke raced toward the rocky hillside. The detonation killed three of the pursuing group. The survivors dove for cover among rock outcrops and rotting cedar logs. The LAW bought time enough for Marathon Man to reach the rocky slope that rose a half mile from Saker. Descending the loose shale in long windmill strides, he fell once, rolled and was on his feet, running across the dry, flat valley to the Firebase.

Puffs of dust on the valley floor marked the AK rounds. Saker’s combined force was now on the trench walls. Thirty-eight M16’s returned fire with a steady, sharp chatter. Two more Taliban crumpled. Distracted by the incoming small arms fire, thirty Taliban switched their fire to Saker’s defenses. AK rounds rang off the armor plate, chipped at the mud walls and thudded into the sandbags. An incoming mortar landed long, sending a fountain of broken rock and dust rolling over the riflemen. The next would fall six meters short. The third would land on their heads.

“Take out that mortar,” the Captain yelled.”

The mortar team rapidly swiveled the 81mm and fired. The explosion was long. Still, it was close enough to send the Taliban mortar team scrambling for cover. The second rocket landed closer. The Moolies’ fire faltered.

The lone figure reached Saker’s slope transition. Rising one hundred and fifty vertical meters above the dusty plane, on a good day it was a hard climb. Using the terrain for cover, he sprinted up a steep trail that clung to the shadows, away from the incoming small arms fire. The slope turned vertical and the figure slowed to a walk. Exposed on the sheer face, the next mortar could take him out. The Captain had too much invested in the Marathon Man to let him die on the lee slope. He turned to the Marines. “I need two volunteers to bring that man in!”

“Sir?” The Marines were shocked by his request. They wouldn’t hesitate to rescue a wounded, or even dead Marine. But risk their lives for a Moolie? Two reluctantly stepped forward.

“Sir, he could be packing!” one noted for the record.

Heinson watched the runner falter. “He has INTEL! Take water! He’ll need it!”

One Marine glanced at the other then dodged between the bunkers and slipped onto the exposed slope. Marathon Man had ground to a stop. Running downhill, the Marines reached the man. He was on his hands and knees, his head down, facing the shale. The Marines patted him down. He was clean.

When one tried to take his pistol, the grip tightened and a dry, barely audible voice issued from the dusty face. “Negative,” it croaked. In the second before the shock wore off, the exhausted runner identified himself, “Major Jack Hull, Marines…” he stated his serial number, and then grabbed the water bottle. He drank, hurried, desperate gulps. His breathing slowed and the strength flowed into his arms and legs.

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Two Taliban had worked into a position that offered a clear shot. Rounds cracked off the surrounding rocks. Major Hull’s voice was clearer now. Staggering to his feet he ordered, “Move!”

Ducking the incoming rounds, the Marines exchanged a single, amazed glance and started to climb.

The Captain was huddled against the bunker when Hull and the two Marines dived over Saker’s perimeter wall. Hull’s eyes were bloodshot, his manjammies were filthy and stank of sweat, urine and death. Catching his breath, he identified himself.

The Captain straightened. “Major Hull? Where’s your uniform? What happened to your unit?”

Hull shook his head. “No unit. My spotter’s dead,” his breath came in deep, distorted gasps. “Where’s TAC?”

“On standby!” Heinson glanced at the Sergeant. TAC was waiting for coordinates.

“You should have called in a mission when you had a chance!”

The Captain struggled to adjust to the new chain of command. “An air strike would have wasted you along with the Moolies, Sir!”

“You should have taken the shot,” Hull cut him off. Small arms fire was increasing. A mortar landed down slope, shaking the ground. When the dust cleared, Hull crossed to the parapet and reached for the Barrett M107.

The Sergeant moved to stop him.

“Sergeant, stand aside!” the command clear in his voice, Hull squared himself to the M107.

Captain Heinson’s nod served in place of a direct order.

The Sergeant stepped to one side. Hull shifted the M107 .50 caliber to a sand bag on the parapet wall. Placing the stock against his shoulder and opening his eye to the scope, he asked, “Sergeant, are you worth a shit as a spotter?”

“Fair, Sir!” the Sergeant reached for a loaded clip.

Watching Hull settle the butt stock against his shoulder, one of the Marines whispered, “Fuck, that’s Jack Hull!”

“The Sniper?” The other ducked as a fresh burst of small arms fire raked the bunker. “He’s real? Fuck! I thought he was a comic book hero!”

Small arms fire intensified as the Taliban registered the distance. Focusing the spotting scope as he scanned, the Sergeant said, “You’ve got a mortar eleven o’clock, four degrees, nine hundred meters!”

Hull exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The white puff of a shattering .50 caliber round appeared below the mortar.

“Twelve up, six left!” the Sergeant barked the coordinates.

The Major spun twelve clicks of elevation into the scope and six clicks of left windage. The next shot cut the loader in half. Hull was waiting when the panicked aimer rose in confusion. Traveling at 1900 feet per second, the heavy 709-grain ball split his upper body in two. The Sergeant watched as the aimer’s chest came apart, his head disappeared in a puff of red and gray vapor as his arms spun away in opposite directions.

“Sergeant! Stop rubber necking!” Hull yelled. “This is a target-rich environment! You’re falling behind!”

The scope swept the steep rock face. “Two RPGs, eight o’clock, eight hundred meters, five degrees!” the Sergeant reported. The thirteen-kilo M107 swung smoothly to the left, hesitated and then recoiled. Hull found the next target, hesitated and squeezed again.

“Seven o’clock six hundred meters…” the .50 caliber’s thunderous report cut him off.

Hull’s next round hit a man sprinting across a shale slide. Two Taliban tried and failed to improve their firing position. A new mortar position opened up, an RPG flew from a cedar grove. The heavy caliber replied with a diesel’s heavy steady rhythm. Shot followed shot, followed shot. Each shot, unhurried, exact–mortal.

For all the expression that crossed his face, Hull might have been a champion skeet shooter breaking clay pigeons. A tribal sense of purpose filled the defenders of Firebase Saker. The Marines rapidly loaded the massive .50 caliber brass into the steel clips then handed them to Hull, who shoved the heavy boxes home, racked the slide and selected a target. Fighting for the field glasses they watched the attacking Taliban fall. A dozen crumpled before the survivors searched for cover on the bare surrounding hillsides. When the .50 caliber continued to decimate their ranks, they started to retreat. At first in singles, then pairs and finally, as the .50 caliber sucked them out from behind rocks, cut through cedar trunks and picked off exposed legs, arms, chests or heads, the reluctant retreat turned to a rout.

None of the Taliban that the .50-caliber hit survived. Hull was still swinging on figures struggling toward the pass when the LRSR jammed. He squeezed the trigger then racked the bolt. Again he squeezed the trigger and yanked the slide. And he continued to cycle through the loading and firing sequence until the Sergeant emptied his water bottle onto the breech. Steam flashed off the black metal. “Sir, it’s overheated. A round jammed!”

Hull jerked slide again and then again, before he looked up with a dazed expression. Staring toward the rocky pass, he took a deep breath and struggled to gather himself. Thirty seconds passed before he nodded and slowly released the M107.

Few men could shoot more than four rounds through the massive rifle. Now the ground around his feet glistened with a two-inch deep layer of brass casings. The butt of the M107 was tinted red. The heavy recoil had bludgeoned his right shoulder. He could not feel his right arm.

Saker’s riflemen lowered their rifles and stared at Hull. To a man they recognized the difference between a trained sniper and one bred to the profession.

“Captain!” the waiting Sergeant held the radio to his ear. “Tactical Air Control says they’re ready to hump the load!”

Captain Heinson looked away from Hull’s bloodied Afghan shirt.

The Captain turned to face the Sergeant, “Advise them to bring it. West side of the pass. Sergeant, relay the coordinates.”

“Yes, Sir!”

Two minutes later an F-18 screamed low over the ridge. From that distance the captain could see the 500-pound cluster bombs tumble onto the ragged horizon. A minute later a B-52A dropped two more from 30,000 feet. Firebase Saker’s defenders watched in awe as rolling fire swept the ridge.

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