‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 Romeo.’ The word ‘romeo’ following a call-sign meant that a radio operator was speaking for the officer he was assigned to, rather than the officer himself speaking. ‘Well, I’ll do mine myself for now,’ I thought.
‘Havoc 6 Romeo this is Havoc 5, be advised that Havoc 2 and TOC 2 are assembled on HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) Budweiser and beginning movement to Objective Coors.’
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6 Romeo, good copy. Out.’ ‘Outed’ by a mere radio operator, ‘Great,’ I thought. If Havoc 6 himself were on the line, he could ‘out’ me and end the conversation whenever he wanted, but not so much for his ‘romeo’. ‘I’ll have a word with that private when we link-up’, I thought.
‘F**k!’ a soldier near me whispered, as he pulled the charging-handle on his M4 carbine to cock it. He should have done that when we were still on the chopper, one minute out from landing. Had we not been trying to be so quiet, his sergeant would have given him a thrashing for that one.
We fell into a ‘wedge’ formation and began movement towards the target house. Night vision on, one viewed the world through a green hole the size of a beer bottle cap, which only covered the soldier’s non-shooting eye. Forget what you see in Hollywood movies, night vision is much less clear than is usually portrayed, and the flat image it creates causes you to lose depth perception. Top that off with having to walk through roughly-ploughed, hard-earth fields, with a forty-pound ballistic vest loaded down with ammunition and equipment, and a pack on your back with another fifty pounds of food, water, and radio batteries; I was lucky not to fall flat on my face every few steps. Of course, fifteen months of combat operations later I became an old hand at moving under such conditions. Though it was never ideal, and occasionally threw one off balance still, it became much easier to deal with.
The limited visibility certainly did little to help you with the nerves associated with awaiting your ‘baptism by fire’, whenever that might come. You at least knew that the enemy had it worse, having no night vision to speak of, but an advantage in familiarity with his home soil.
Even the ‘old’ veterans could still be affected by the drawbacks of heavy equipment and night-vision. Not far into our movement, Sergeant First Class H managed to fall over an unseen obstacle, severely spraining his ankle. There was no way he could patrol on that injury, so we called in a MEDEVAC chopper to come and take him out. He would only be a liability if we had to carry him everywhere for the next three days. We were not far from our original landing-zone, so we carried him back, put him on the incoming bird, and continued on our mission.
This was not a lucky start.
Having a truly professional and experienced senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) like Sergeant H with us was a comfort to younger, less experienced, yet higher-ranking officers like Chris and I. The next most senior NCO was Staff Sergeant L, who took over as platoon sergeant for the rest of the mission. L had a few tours under his belt, and we trusted him to step up to the plate.
As we approached the house, Chris signaled the platoon to form into a ‘file’ formation in order to move more quickly through the palm trees ahead, and to cross a small foot-bridge over an irrigation ditch that we had identified pre-mission through satellite imagery. I fell to the back of his platoon with my radio operator, to stay out of their way as we crossed. Crossing even a small obstacle like this caused trouble; if you met the enemy with half your men on one side and half one the other you could not immediately bring your full force to bear. At best it would slow your ability to react, at worse it gave the enemy the chance to defeat you piecemeal.
Staff-Sergeant C’s squad was at the front. C had been in combat before and had performed well, a comforting thought. He signaled his two point men to cross first, and clear the opposite side. Satisfied that it was safe to cross, he began moving the rest of his squad. At the rear, I could see none of this, but I knew what was happening.
Suddenly I heard shouting up front. Had the point-men identified enemy trying to escape? Were there civilians in our path, or a possible threat?
CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK! The unmistakable sound of M4 carbines firing! Everyone immediately dropped to the ground. This was it! My baptism by fire, the moment of truth. Would my training stick with me? What would I do?
My nerves held through, and my training kicked-in. I did what Chris would normally do as platoon leader had I not been present; I sent the ‘contact report’ to the commander.
‘Havoc6thisisHavoc5! Contact! East! Out!’ There, the first step in making enemy contact: send the contact report to your commander letting him know you were engaged in hostilities and the general direction of the enemy. Brevity was key in this report; as you needed to take control of the situation, you were to allowed to ‘out’ your commander immediately so you could get back to the fight. This was the only time you were allowed that indulgence.
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 (no ‘romeo’ here, now we had the real commander’s attention, and he was not even abiding by my judiciously-applied ‘out’), develop the situation and report when possible, out.’ Of course we knew to ‘develop the situation’, that was step two of the ‘actions on contact’ procedure. Though one did not actually think through the steps, training had drilled them into instinct.
The shooting had stopped, and no orders were being given to the rear squad to act. Normally they would be ordered forward to return fire and manoeuvre on the enemy. Something must be wrong. Perhaps the enemy had already run, perhaps they were already dead. Perhaps we had casualties, maybe even Chris and Sergeant L, in which case leadership was needed up front! I grabbed my radio operator and rushed ahead of the rest of the platoon to see what was awry. I weaved around the now kneeling soldiers, and crossed the foot bridge.
“Who’s the f**k’s that?’, a voice directed towards me.
‘F**kin’ XO’, I replied with some indignation.
‘Oh, sorry sir.’ It was Sergeant L. I was about to ask what was happening, when I spied the cause of our excitement. On the ground lay Private First Class S, one of Staff Sergeant C’s soldiers, grunting in pain while the medic examined his arm. ‘Damn, casualties,’ I thought to myself. Why weren’t Chris and Sergeant L moving the rest of the troops forward to fight whoever did this? Then I noticed a large mound next to Private S… a mound which I ascertained, not without a small amount of bewilderment, was a dead cow.
‘What the f**k’? I asked.
‘F**kin’ cow attacked S, so the guys shot it.’ Sergeant L replied in his country accent, clearly annoyed and yet somewhat amused with the situation.
‘Oh for f**k’s sake’, I exclaimed (That Britishism had always been a favorite of mine). 'Why did it attack him?'
'Don't know sir, he must have spooked it. He didn't do anything to try and piss it off.'
‘How the f**k am I going to call this one up?’
‘Hell if I know, have fun with that sir,’ L smirked, ‘Doc says his arm may be broken, I got to get this MEDEVAC prepared.’
Right. Well, might as well get it over with. I signaled my radio-operator over and grabbed the handset.
‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5.’
‘Havoc 5 this Havoc 6, send it. Over’
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5. Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow. Over.’
A longer than normal pause.
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6, say again. Over.’ I knew he wasn’t going to buy this one the first time around.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, I say again: Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow, break… The cow attacked one soldier, and was then shot by elements of Havoc 2, break... Currently have one casualty with a potential broken-arm. Over.’
Another pause. The CO wasn’t going to have as much fun calling this up to the Squadron Commander as I was calling him. Our Squadron Commander was what most soldiers in the Army call ‘a hard man’.
‘Havoc 5, what the f**k?’ Well, might as well throw radio protocol out of the window on this one. ‘Assess the situation, and get Havoc 2-4 to send the MEDEVAC report. Over’.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, roger. He’s already working on it. Over.’
‘5 this is 6. Good. Out.’