In the line of fire


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

I HAVE often heard of a type of soldier with special skills, someone physically brave and practically intelligent; someone who led and was followed without a voice raised or ego challenged. In my imaginings I conjured the picture of the super athlete from my schooldays, the kid who captained cricket and football, now grown up to exchange his footy jumper for a uniform.


While sometimes the image conformed, when I met these special soldiers most at first appeared unexceptional. If, for example, you spotted Corporal Dan on a bus in "civvies", I doubt you would identify him as an elite soldier. He is healthy and tanned but unremarkably so, with none of the look-at-me, personal trainer-type fitness and not a trace of aggression in his bearing. If on that bus you came to ask directions and converse with Dan you would not at first learn a lot. He would more likely ask about you. He would volunteer little, and you would part company recognising an understated, courteous and even gentle persona.

So consider this: the very same Dan, on November 1, 2007, then 24 years old, is a commando, the last man in an assault team on a 10-hour climb towards the snow-covered ridgelines of the Kush Khadir Valley. The team is 84km northwest of its main base at Tarin Kowt, in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. Dan is a member of Rotation V. This deployment is the Australian Special Operation Task Group's fifth since the war began in 2001. At this stage the principal rationale for going to war was to obliterate the mountain sanctuaries of al-Qa'ida.

Dan's section is climbing towards a ridgetop where, in support of a wider operation, a planned observation post will keep eyes on the valley below. They have climbed with little pause since dusk and are near exhausted as dawn approaches. They do not follow defined paths, instead "cross grain" the escarpment to avoid being caught silhouetted against the night sky. Dan is fighting to maintain concentration as well as contain fatigue when, above his breathing, he picks up a soft warning tongue clicking from the soldier ahead. He looks to see the soldier giving a thumb down, "danger close" signal.

The next sound is a voice calling "Hoi". And, as if with the flick of a switch, Dan's exhaustion vanishes. Through his night-vision goggles he sees a man slipping out of the shadows about 10m ahead and above. The man, about 30 years of age, wearing a full beard and in white robes, raises his rifle. It is a folding stock Kalashnikov variant, an AK74, the weapon of a Taliban commander. From that moment, as soldiers will often say, "the training kicks in". Eyes lock. "The windows of the soul," says Dan, the image now forever freeze framed in his mind.

The Taliban commander is closer to the soldier ahead of Dan, whose yell, "Shoot the c..t", will be recalled by everyone else in the section other than Dan. As he shouts, Dan raises his Colt M4, the standard issue Special Forces assault rifle much admired for its balance, reliability and all-important feel. Dan and the Taliban commander fire together. The Australian commando feels the heat of the rounds from the AK74 as they tear through his trousers, smashing a water bottle in one of his pockets, discharging the warm liquid. "Here we go," thinks Dan. But it is the Taliban commander who is hit. His body contorts with shock, falling and rolling against Dan's legs. There is no time for further reflection. "One dead enemy," he yells. An enemy with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) is seen sprinting and ducking. "Ten metres full right, two enemy."

The battle is on; weapons from both sides open up. The Australians have bumped into a nest of insurgents. From a cave mouth above them the Australians can hear a commander directing fire. They treat the area with 40mm grenades fired from an attachment on their M4s. Dan's weapon has a stoppage. He unhooks his 66mm rocket launcher. "Such a bugger to carry," he says. "You might as well use it." Rounds from the PKM machine gun are crashing into the rocks around him. It is too dark to aim properly. Dan estimates the trajectory in the way he did with an orange toy gun as a boy. The high explo sive round lights up the ridge and the PKM is heard no more. More 40mm fire is poured into the cave, collapsing the walls. The shouting from inside ceases but from the surrounding area it inten sifies, as does increasingly accurate enfilade fire. They have been fighting for about 10 minutes and the sun is beginning to colour the horizon. As soon as it cracks, the Australians will be unmasked. They pull back and are hundreds of metres further down the mountain when the close air support arrives and more high explosive bursts burn brighter than the now-rising sun.

Dan's section later passes through the Kush Khadir village, at the foot of the valley, where word of the conflict has already reached. Support for the Taliban tends to vary from village to village in keeping with a patchwork of tribal allegiances and enmities; here they are hated. The locals cheer and shake Dan's hand. Later, back in Australia, something similar if less demonstrative occurs when Corporal Dan from 4th Battalion (Commando), the Royal Australian Regiment is presented with a Commendation for Gallantry.

Four years later, and Dan is back in another valley, this time in the west of Uruzgan, close to Helmand province. It is now Rotation XVI, and the more things change the more they stay the same. The Australian Area of Operations has now extended, with many small patrol bases scattered through the valleys. An age-old "ink blot" approach has been applied, the foreigners' presence gradually soaking up more local support as they ever so slowly gain trust.
The coalition has by now a far more dominant presence but it does not control the ground and danger is everywhere. Even so, Dan's confidence has grown. The 28-year-old strategic corporal no longer needs to wait for an intelligence report to predict enemy movements. Like many a good soldier, he has learnt to think in the way of his adversary.

Dan has proposed siting an observation post near the village of Shahid-e Hasas where his team of six would work with American snipers from Operational Detachment Alpha, the Army Green Berets. A 1km stretch of road had twice been mined in the preceding week, and the road was about to be patrolled by the Americans and a unit of Australia's Mentoring Task Force (MTF).

Since 2007, roadside bombs have become the insurgents' principal weapon of choice. A crude device - a small plastic tub of homemade explosives mixed with scrap metal shrapnel and wired to a simple battery pack - delivers astonishing "bang for buck". Beyond tearing life and limb from coalition soldiers and even greater numbers of Afghans, in a blinding flash the improvised explosive device (IED) can convert a million-dollar armoured vehicle to twisted and smoking junk. By this day, August 15, 2011, more than half the growing list of casualties were a consequence of IEDs, with many of Dan's coalition comrades dying in thin-skinned vehicles. These have been progressively replaced by heavier armoured mine-resistant vehicles, the coalition forced to increase spending by billions to counter a weapon produced for a few dollars.

At the observation post at 0630 Dan sees a local on a motorbike emerge from the village. He is a fighting age male, who appears to be scouting the 1km stretch of road at the mouth of the valley, the very location the snipers have targeted. At 0930, as if on cue, two men move towards the location on another motorbike. Through his spotting scope, just 400m away, Dan sees the older man dismount. The magnification is such that he is able to watch the man's teeth in close up stripping the detonation wires, and his fingers as he splices them together. Taliban bomb makers are known within their community as "scientists". The one now seen in close-up paring the wires is about 50 years of age. He will prove to be a veteran of this agonising war, intelligence tracking his existence to as far back as 2001.

Dan's team on the hill watch the scientist's assistant lay and conceal a battery pack at the other end of the wire. They clearly know what they are doing. So do the snipers. Dan corrects the sighting on his marksman rifle, a Heckler and Koch 417. A US Green Beret marksman alongside does the same. Two in the team act as spotters; the other six will simultaneously fire.

Dan calls the shot. The older man drops straight away. The other is hit but manages to move. Another man carrying a rifle appears from the village. Within seconds he is also hit, but not fatally, managing to take cover. Not for the first time, Dan marvels at the capacity of humans to withstand the catastrophic impact of a high-velocity 7.62 bullet.

The scientist lies dead, shot once through the chin. The two men who had been winged are later found dead in a cave 600m away. At this point the patch of ground where the bomb was to be laid turns into a crime scene. Evidence recovered through biometric analysis will help link the scientist to a string of bombings. His body is moved out of the way; villagers will later attend to the burial. The savage blast gives Dan pause to think about the headlines that would have been made in Australia if the attack on the returning column of Bushmasters had gone as planned.

Soldiers always say that, despite the danger, they prefer to be out in the field. In August 2011 Dan gets plenty, perhaps too much of what he wished for. Eight days later he is on another all-night climb to another overwatch position above the village of Ashre Kalay, in Khas Uruzgan. When daylight arrives the commando sniper team sees a group of males gathering 800m away. Four men are carrying AK47s. The sniper team can see one giving orders, and watch as the men begin to conceal the weapons in their robes. The four gun carriers are within a larger group who do not appear to be carrying weapons.

Under the Australian rules of engagement, the men with weapons constitute legitimate targets. The sniper team calls what it sees in on the radio and is told to engage. Two insurgents are winged, spun by the power of the bullets. One ducks behind a wall. Another runs and is hit, dropping instantly into an aqueduct. Through binoculars they see men crawling to recover the man who fell dead. They watch as the two who have been winged are carried to safety. The Australians do not shoot. "We know they are bad but we also know our rules. They have no weapons." From his position 800m away, Dan can feel the village atmospherics change. The air is suddenly full of menace; a barrage of fire rains in on them.

Over the roar Dan can hear the enemy yelling. He runs for better cover, falling winded and corking his leg. Another commando thinks he has been hit. On the ground, he pulls out a map and begins to read out the co-ordinates over the radio. Effective mortar fire begins to strike the enemy positions. Somewhere beyond the naked eye an American B1 bomber releases a joint direct attack munition, a guided bomb, that follows the path prescribed by a young soldier on the ground whose fingertips have the power to summon the fires of hell.

Dan looks up at an Apache, clearly discerning the face of the pilot sitting in the centre of the cockpit as if on a bar stool, giving him the thumbs up. It is a powerful moment. "Brilliant," says Dan. Heavily outnumbered, the six Australians and their Afghan interpreter have pulled off a narrow escape.
By bookending these incidents, from November 2007 and August 2011, a telling snapshot of the war is revealed. In 2007, when Dan fought the Taliban in the mountain eyrie, encounters were more random. The enemy operated in larger groups and seemed more prepared to stay and fight protracted actions. By 2011, however, the Australians could claim many more areas where the Taliban's grip had been weakened. But as Dan has now seen, the gains had not extinguished the enemy's capability. The insurgents encountered on the hills above Ashre Kalay were well trained, probably in Pakistan.

The insurgent's use of IEDs was an even more effective way to pin down the Coalition's massive and expensive war machine. Two days before the Ashre Kalay action, Private Matthew Lambert succumbed to wounds after a roadside bomb detonated. He became the 28th Australian soldier killed since the war began.

In the 2007 rotation alone, Australian Special Forces killed and identified 400 Taliban. They knew they were seriously thinning the ranks of the enemy. The Australians drew no attention to the body counts. Boasting about the death toll of Afghans and their allies is hardly likely to play well in Afghanistan. And back home in Australia it would seem just as bloodthirsty. In contrast, the Australian public became well acquainted with our own body count. It is not hard to understand why a sense of Australians as more victim than victor had formed.

While militarily the Australians had made significant progress, the battle for public opinion was nothing short of carnage wherever you looked, even though in Uruzgan local Afghans more often died at the hands of the Taliban than the foreigners. Ordinary Australians were asking why Australian lives were being lost in this remote and pitiless graveyard. How could these robed mountain bandits represent a threat to citizens of a far distant continent? By 2007, the proposition that Afghanistan remained an al-Qa'ida sanctuary was beginning to lose conviction. However, another form of conviction was commensurately growing. The Australian soldiers could see the progress they were achieving much more clearly than did those back at home. And every new casualty, whether for good or bad, was increasing commitment.

In November 2007, this personal stake in the war was driven home within Bravo Company and Dan's small and tight band of brothers. Three weeks after the mountain assault at Kush Khadir, Dan was again hiking into battle. This time his team was heading towards two "compounds of interest" at Musa Kalay, east of Charmestan, in the upper reaches of the Mirabad Valley. Six soldiers from the Afghan National Army accompanied the Australian patrol.

Dan was in a rear cordon. Another team would make a Level One clearance, or a soft knock approach, rather than the Level Two blowing in of the door. The first man through the door was a friend of Dan's and a well-respected member of the No. 2 Commando Regiment, Private Luke Worsley. Dan had known Luke since they did their initial employment training at Singleton back in 2002. The 26-year-old bearded private is a powerful yet gentle spirit. "A top bloke, dedicated, fit ... a big man with a big heart." In the way of many a mission, detailing planning immediately goes awry. As they approach the mud brick compound, a sentry with an RPK machine gun has spotted them and is seen scaling down a rooftop to warn his comrades. He is immediately engaged and killed, but the gunfire has sounded the warning. And so too does Luke Worsley, who calls out in Pashto as he goes through the door. The commando, vulnerable in the narrow doorway the Australians call the "fatal funnel", fires a short burst that is met from 18m away by a PKM machine gun and from 10m away by an AK47.

One round from the PKM strikes Luke Worsley's lighter Special Forces attack helmet, entering his temple above the left eye. Another commando, Corporal Cam, goes forward, pushing through the fire fight and regaining the initiative. He kills the assailants in one determined sweep with his M4 and hand grenades. Dan has heard over the coms that Bravo Company has suffered a killed in action. In his rear cordon they fire a nine-banger distraction grenade to confuse other Taliban fighters whose weapons are lighting up at different points of the compounds.

A young woman picks up an AK47 dropped by her presumed fallen husband and begins firing at the Australians. She is also killed. Children are heard crying. Cam sees another member of his team "manoeuvre through the fire fight to get to a newborn baby and manoeuvre that baby out of the fire fight to ensure its safety". All of the Taliban within the compound are killed but so too are civilians, and not for the first or last time. One is a teenage girl. The incident illustrates a disconnect between the reality of this type of war and its comprehension at home. The soldiers fight in a human space: there are no defined trench lines, flanks or neutral territory. Too often when the guns begin to roar, somewhere in between can be heard the wailing of women and children.

The Taliban well understand and frequently exploit the defensive cover of a civilian environment. And coalition forces, including Australians, find it difficult to discriminate between civilian and combatant when, as on this occasion, fighting erupts in the close quarter living space of a village compound. The Australians know that even though there is no clear line defining the battlespace, somehow they must make all effort to ensure it is not crossed. When civilians become indiscriminate victims of warfare it is probably time to go home.

A formal inquiry into the deaths of Luke Worsley and civilians at Musa Kalay followed. According to the team leader, Sergeant "Chook": "Through the fire fight there were civilian casualties taken, but saying that, we didn't just go in there and go crazy. It is very difficult but it's just the way they fight." While the report of the inquiry is published on a government website, the story of how the war is truly fought is not well communicated. This is partly because journalists see very little of the action, partly because of the high security blanket that shrouds Special Forces operations, and probably because explaining civilian deaths is beyond the ability of just about everyone.

At dawn the Australians troop out of Musa Kalay, and it is fair to say the grief they carry with them is mostly for their comrade. "Buggered and tearful" is how Dan puts it. Luke is the first close mate to be killed. The loss, which will not be the last, reaches deep into the tight Army family. The raw recognition that it could have been one of them becomes clearer to each of the commandos slogging their way out. It will soon come home as well to every wife and mother.

Bravo Company calls for a helicopter evacuation, but it is not available. They carry their 110kg comrade on a stretcher, taking turns, while also shepherding the persons under control who have been detained. The 8km journey is the company's most difficult. However, rather than reduce commitment to an uncertain objective of delivering security to this wild country, it increases resolve.

Corporal Dan will see a lot more action. He is that kind of soldier. Every unit has one, someone who is like a magnet for battle. In 2011 I spent some time with his company, watching them come in and out of action. I listened hard as they reported their experiences. You can't help noticing that when it comes to describing the killing of an enemy they have a way of lapsing into abstract, using phrases such as "I reduced him". It is soon clear to me that this shy and understated soldier has killed many men, so I asked him an awful question, the kind journalists are known for: "How many?"
"I don't know. We are not like some of the Americans, who give you that 16 confirmed ... all that shit.

No ... I don't keep a count."

"How do you live with it?"

"No problems ... sleep well. Don't dwell on it."

Dan is a professional soldier: his job is to kill, to live with it and get on with the next mission. What is striking about him is what you see in many of these soldiers - that their strength is less external and specific as it is internal and general. They absorb a range of characteristics from every corner of the world: the army, their mates and society.

On a return visit to his home town on the Murray River, Dan is in a pub talking to some mates. He sees a group of Afghan fruit pickers and wanders over, conversing with them in Pashto. They are surprised. So, too, are his old school mates. I ask him what he tells people when they strike up a conversation on a bus or a plane. "I tell them I am a fire fighter."

Edited extract from Uncommon Soldier by Chris Masters (Allen & Unwin, $49.95), out Monday
Excellent book, well written, researched and balanced in the way it is put forward. Definitley reccomend reading it to anyone in or aspiring to join.