The thrilling true story of a Marine special operations unit in a battle for their lives in Afghanistan
Level Zero Heroes, Michael Golembesky's New York Times bestselling account of Marine Special Operations Team 8222 in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan, was just the beginning for these now battle-hardened special operations warriors.
The unforgiving Afghan winter has settled upon the twenty-two men of Marine Special Operations Team 8222, call sign Dagger 22, in the remote and hostile river valley of Bala Murghab, Afghanistan. The Taliban fighters in the region would have liked nothing more than to once again go dormant and rest until the new spring fighting season began. No chance of thatthis winter would be different.
Along with Afghan and International Security Forces (NATO), the Marines of Dagger 22 continued their fight throughout the harsh winter to shape the battlefield before the Afghan ground began to thaw. From one firefight to the next, the noose began to tighten around the village of Daneh Pasab and the Taliban command cell operating there. On April 6, 2010, a ground force consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces, Afghan Commandos and Marine Corps special operations conducted a night assault to destroy the heavily entrenched Taliban force, breaking their grip on the valley and stopping the spring offensive before it ever began.
But nothing in Bala Murghab comes easily as combat operations wear on the operators of Dagger 22, as they lean on each other once again in order to complete their mission in one of the most brutal environments on earth.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
STAFF SERGEANT MICHAEL GOLEMBESKY served 8 years with the United States Marine Corps and is a combat veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Golembesky served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller with Marine Special Operation Team 8222 (MARSOC). His previous book, Level Zero Heroes, was a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO.
Read an Excerpt
U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan
By Michael Golembesky
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Michael Golembesky
All rights reserved.
A DARKER DAWN
DECEMBER 31, 2009 FORWARD OPERATING BASE TODD WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
Life in Bala Murghab was like living in exile. The days became routine and mundane at best. The cold weather was settling in, now not only freezing our tents at night but lasting long into the day until the soft muddy ground in our compound area froze rock-hard.
The team was lucky enough to have our own mobile generator to provide us heat and electricity. Sometimes it would run out of fuel in the middle of the night and send the temperature inside our tent well below freezing in a matter of minutes, pushing guys deeper into their cold-weather sleeping bags to stave off the shivers. Many nights it was a blessing to have radio watch inside the team's tactical operations center (TOC), which was two converted shipping containers that had a little bit of insulation in the walls to help trap some of the heat.
As bad as we thought we had it with the living conditions at our compound on the FOB, the 82nd Airborne and Afghan soldiers had it far worse out at the many different posts and checkpoints in the valley. From the mixed group of Italians and Americans who now manned combat outpost (COP) Pathfinder, they borrowed old H-45 fuel-drip heaters for warmth inside a small plywood shack. For the men at COP Corvette on the edge of the village of Ludina, burning anything they could find was as good as it was going to get. It didn't take long before they resorted to buying and bartering for firewood from local villagers to keep their small mud house from becoming a meat locker.
It was hard to find a reason to complain about our living conditions at the FOB when there were men less than a mile away suffering in silence as the days grew even colder. At least we had access to a hot meal twice a day at the small chow hall the Italians were operating in an old general-purpose tent across from the 82nd's command center, where my friend Danny worked daily sixteen-hour shifts. While they were living off of MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) and the occasional hot meal trays that would come out to them via small resupply patrols from the FOB, we were enjoying the opportunity to sit in a warm tent and eat fresh bread the Italian cooks made in a makeshift wood-fired oven they had built in the back from old bricks.
As much as life in Bala Murghab sucked, it could have been worse. In Afghanistan, things can go from bad to shitty in a heartbeat. It was best to just be thankful for what little you had.
I still remembered the first time I met Danny in person. It was about the third day into the recovery mission of the two missing paratroopers and our team had just arrived in the valley a few hours before the paratroopers tragically drowned in the river. I had been talking to the continuous stream of aircraft being sent to us for over thirty hours because at the time I was the only qualified controller in the valley. During a quick return trip to the FOB to get fresh batteries for my radio before heading out on an ill-fated night mission to the north end of the valley, I stopped into the 82nd Airborne's command operations center (COC).
In the middle of the room, surrounded by a bank of computers and radios, I saw an Army staff sergeant hard at work. I'd presumed him to be Barbarian Fires, Danny's radio call sign. Short in stature, hair a mess, empty cans of Coke and notepads filled with grids surrounding him. He looked as exhausted as I felt, but I went over to him anyway and stuck out my hand. He looked up as I told him my name and said, "Hey, I'm the guy on the other end of the radio. Just wanted to introduce myself and put a face to the voice."
He shook my hand and said, "Danny. You've been awake for like thirty hours. Damn, man. Welcome to BMG."
Since that first introduction nearly two months ago, Danny and I had become good friends and continued to work as partners in the same fight. The both of us had become the primary link between our two units even as things began to change in the valley.
As for the team, January not only brought us a new year, but also new opportunities to get outside the wire and start operating with our small ragtag group of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers that we managed to pry away from their commander, Colonel Ali. The majority of the ten soldiers we got came from the platoon manning the Alkazai (pronounced Acka-zie) School checkpoint and were sheltered in a large tent we were able to get them. Pat and Jack, the team's two element leaders, were the primary handlers and dealt with the daily routine of keeping tabs on these guys.
I had a lot of respect for Pat, which had only grown during our time in Afghanistan. His mind-set and outlook on war was something to behold; I still recalled my first impression of him during the team's pre-deployment training in Nevada a few months prior.
I'd only been with the team a short time, and I barely knew its members, but already Pat stood out. Energetic and passionate about all things military, and never too busy to help or explain something.
Pat and Jack were both Force Recon Marines that had been reassigned to MARSOC like many of the guys on the team. Jack was soft-spoken and someone I trusted deeply. We shared a lot of things in common, same age, married, kids, and an underlying notion that military life had run its course for us and our families. They were both good guys to lean on when things got tough, and I tried to be that for them.
We started out slow with our ANA soldiers — a few local foot patrols around the Bazaar area and to COP Pathfinder on the other side of the valley. It was just to see if they could handle the basics: being ready to go on patrol on time, keeping their weapons operational, and having all of their gear — basic stuff — the things Marines learned in boot camp. Most personal gear like socks, boots, and jackets would be traded to locals for food. We kept the ANA soldiers inside the security area at first; the last thing we wanted was to get them into a firefight right off the bat. There would be plenty of opportunities for that.
Building trust and confidence is the hardest and most important piece when working with an indigenous partner force. If they were going to respond well and be useful during a firefight, the Afghan soldiers needed to know that they could rely on us to be there for them.
This was a task that was better left to the operators like Pat and Jack. My specialty was talking to aircraft, which I hadn't done since leaving Objective Pathfinder. It's an art form, a perishable skill if not used.
The highlight of my days now consisted of our weekly airdrop of supplies, usually happening well after midnight while the rest of the FOB was asleep. I wasn't really "controlling" them, merely baby-sitting and passing along basic information like wind speed to the aircraft before clearing the release of the payload.
The field between the FOB and the large foothills on the west side of the valley was used as a drop zone. The only thing that made getting up at 0200 to receive a CDS (container delivery system) drop was the chance to see the amazing canvas of stars on cloudless nights. I would stand on top of the perimeter wall of the FOB with my radio and Peltor headset waiting for the inbound C-130 cargo aircraft to break the radio silence and establish communications. The night sky reminded me of camping high in the mountains of Colorado.
Absence of ambient light from modern civilization made for a deeper view into space, exposing twenty stars for every one star that you would typically see living in the suburbs or outskirts of a city. Even the cloudy outer band of the Milky Way galaxy could be seen stretching from horizon to horizon. Quiet and beautiful even as the ice-cold wind penetrated through my jacket and made my cheeks numb, once again thinking to myself ...
Afghanistan would be a beautiful country to visit if only everybody wasn't trying to kill you.
With my PVS-15 night vision goggles on, on clear nights I could make out the shape of the aircraft as it passed over Hell's Gate, the two large mountain features that merged on the river at the furthest southern end of the valley. As the full effects of winter settled in, the need for fuel to power the team's generator for heat became greater. Military generators eat JP-8 fuel like a fat kid at a buffet dessert bar. Some CDS drops were all fuel; twenty pallets containing four fifty-five-gallon drums of JP-8 would be pushed out of the back of a C-17 aircraft as it thundered past the FOB at about a thousand feet.
Fuel in Afghanistan is lifeblood; it ranks up there with water and ammunition. If you don't have it, you are pretty much screwed.
Except for the amazing view, CDS drops were usually pretty uneventful. Occasionally you would get a parachute that would not blossom open. These are referred to as "burn-ins." Once the pallets were jettisoned out of the back of the aircraft, if the chute didn't catch enough air, it would plummet to the ground at high speed. Dragging above it, the chute looked like a long, dark green tail. The pallet made a thud sound as it smacked the ground. For the team members pulling security on the drop zone, this was the main reason for having them all get back into the armored vehicle about five minutes out from payload release. Amazingly some of the pallets would survive the death plunge, while others would burst on impact, destroying all the supplies on the pallet.
When I wasn't controlling aircraft, I felt pretty much useless to the team. And when you are not on a mission, boredom becomes the enemy.
Ever since PRO 6 — the 82nd's battalion commander — had left Bala Murghab, the team's operational tempo had slowed down tenfold. Operation Buongiorno was our last major mission, and now we were limited to what our ANA could handle.
Was this a good thing? Yes and no.
It was fulfilling to get outside the wire on a regular basis and contribute to the fight. On the other hand, being tasked out to every knee-jerk reaction mission got old real fast.
Having downtime allowed for me to work on other things that would help out Rob and the rest of our intelligence section. I finally was able to unload and set up my Raven B drone, a small and lightweight prop plane with a side-mounted camera that was easy to deploy on short notice. If units in the area were not directly involved in a firefight, air assets in the valley were nonexistent. This was due mainly to our remote location and low priority for sourcing aircraft for non-active-engagement reasons.
I really wanted to help Rob in any way I could. Out of everyone on the team, he was the one I respected the most. Rob was a natural leader and had the experience and confidence to back it up. He was one of the senior Force Recon guys who were assigned an additional duty of working intel after receiving specialized training. Rob had a love-hate relationship with this job: it wasn't nearly as exciting as being an element leader but he understood the importance of it. So if he needed help, it was the least I could do.
Placing the Raven B radio antenna on the roof of our tactical operations center — which was nothing more than two shipping containers put together — I ran the cable down into the room where the control laptop was. Connecting the laptop to a large flat screen TV that was mounted on the wall, the team could view the real-time video while I controlled the Raven by plotting waypoints on the laptop's map and assigning it an altitude to fly at.
Launching and landing the Raven still required manual control, which I would do from atop an additional shipping container that Pat had converted into the team's armory. It sat next to the TOC and provided a great 360- degree view of the valley so I could visually land the small remote- controlled aircraft. The majority of the work controlling the drone was done from my small workstation in the corner of the TOC.
I started off small. A few flights around the Bazaar area and Pathfinder Hill, then pushed it up north to COP Corvette and areas to the south. I needed to test the Raven's video and control signal strength before pushing it out over Taliban territory.
The first real use for the Raven came during the first week of January when the Taliban decided to change up their technique by launching 107mm Chinese Katyusha rockets at the FOB from somewhere in the southern portion of the valley. They wanted to show us they were still in the fight and possibly trying to deal some payback for the embarrassing beating they received during Operation Buongiorno. No doubt that the news of it had traveled through the grapevine out of the valley. The whole region must have known of their failure to keep us from taking one hill and compound.
On several different occasions during indirect fire (IDF) attacks, I would immediately toss up the Raven and make contact with Danny over the radio. He had instant access to the readouts from the lightweight counter mortar radar (LCMR) that was located just outside. He would quickly send me a general grid to where the radar calculated the object had originated. This was called a point of origin, or POO for short.
The LCMR uses a pretty basic concept for determining where something was launched from. The radar sends out a continuous signal, creating a large dome shape over the area. It picks up objects based on speed or velocity. So a bird flying in the air would not trigger it, but a mortar or rocket moving at high speed would catch its attention. From there, the system only needs a small sample of data about the trajectory of the object to calculate a grid to where it originated from. In the military we call this math a back azimuth.
Danny and I tried our best to identify where the launcher was before the Taliban could break it down or cover it and flee the area. It ended up turning into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse on a valley-size scale.
Once the rockets were fired and triggered the radar, the enemy would be long gone before any aircraft could reach the valley to scan for their location. The Raven was our best chance to find them in a timely manner and hopefully send a few Italian 120mm mortars back their way.
The launcher and its team had eluded us for almost two weeks. They would fire three rockets one day, go dormant for two days, and move the launch to a new location. The one thing we couldn't figure out was if the majority of the calculated launch locations were coming from around the village of Qibcaq (pronounced Kip-chalk), which was located across the river from the FOB and to the south. But on a few occasions the POO grid would put it directly south near the village of Daneh Pasab, which was on our side of the river.
Two launches? Not likely. Sturdy metal and welding equipment was hard to come by in this region. The launching rail was most likely fabricated someplace else and then brought into the valley.
So how were they moving the heavy metal launcher safely across the swift-flowing river?
They would not be foolish enough to try and move it across one of the two bridges near the Bazaar and FOB. New Bridge was the southernmost one and was manned by the local Afghan National Police, ANP for short. The northern bridge was located right out in front of the FOB and was guarded by Afghan soldiers. It was commonly known as the Old Bridge and for good reason. It was made from scrap metal and large steel pipes that would make any respectable structural engineer cringe. Both of these checkpoints would have easily caught them.
The Taliban must have been doing it some other way.
Paddy — who was basically in the same boat as Rob, pulling an extra duty working intelligence for the team — had picked up on a small piece of information. It was a mere reference buried deep in an intel report that could have easily been overlooked or dismissed. "They have a rope to get across the river" is all that it said.
Another bridge in the southern portion of the valley — a way to circumvent Coalition and Afghan checkpoints — providing easy travel and access to both sides of the valley?
As far as we knew, it was only a rumor. It would have helped to explain a few things, but until we found a way to stop the rocket attacks, this rope bridge theory would have to stay on the back burner.
The first attack using IDF was unexpected and caught us off guard. We had no prior intel reporting that gave any indication that the Taliban had access to rockets or were bringing some into the valley. It was just after noon prayer on a dreary and overcast day — which seemed to be the weather all the time now in the valley. I was lying on my cot when the first rocket whistled over the FOB and detonated in the drop zone. For a long and uncomfortable minute, the entire base was silent with people unsure of what just happened.
A loud, high-pitch siren began to pulsate, breaking the silence.
"Incoming! Incoming!" I heard someone yell from outside the tent, followed by footsteps running past on the plywood walkway that Billy had built to keep us out of the mud.
I jumped up and snatched my kit and helmet before pushing the flap of the tent door open.
Excerpted from Dagger 22 by Michael Golembesky. Copyright © 2016 Michael Golembesky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
MAP INDEX VI
AUTHOR’S NOTE XVII
1. A DARKER DAWN 9
2. DEEPER INTO WINTER 18
3. CASTING THE LINE 25
4. TURN AND FIGHT 38
5. OBJECTIVE FIESTA 51
6. FALLEN ANGELS AT CORVETTE 69
7. A FAILED ATTEMPT 79
8. OBJECTIVE AVALANCHE 93
9. EA GLE DOWN 108
10. THE DOWNWARD SPIRALING 127
11. YELLOW DEVIL 146
12. BEGINNING OF THE END 158
13. DOUBLING DOWN 171
14. SNAKE EYES AND THE MIDGET 181
15. APRIL 6, DANEH PASAB 190
16. THROUGH THE BREACH 200
17. FESTERING RATS 209
18. RALLY POINT 220
19. CEMETERY HILL 239
20. ALL THE KING’S MEN 258
21. ONE LAST TIME 272
LIST OF CHARACTERS 299
FALLEN HEROES OF BALA MURGHAB,
AF GHAN I STAN 303
ACKNOWL EDGMENTS 305
ONLINE BONUS MATERIAL 307
ACRONYMS AND DEFINITIONS 309
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 313