Remembering the Fallen. US Army Rangers
It was now day five for our Sniper/Recon team which consisted of myself (sniper), “P” as my spotter, and four reconnaissance rangers. We had been gathering intelligence and tracking a high value target behind enemy lines in southern Afghanistan for the past four days. With the intel we had gathered, we sent up our reports to an assault force consisting of 30 Rangers and chose to conduct an operation to capture or kill the H.V.T located in a small compound near our location.
My team met up with the assault force early in the afternoon on the fifth day. After a quick operations order, we decided to make our movement under the cover of darkness to the targeted location. As the sun fell beneath the Afghanistan horizon, our element set out on a foot movement that would total 10 kilometers over rough terrain and through small villages. The movement seemed to my team a lot further, we had been awake for 4 and a half days carrying 70-100 pounds of gear and only managing to take 15 to 30 minute cat naps every now and then. Thanks to the training we had stateside, we knew what our bodies were capable of in the worst of conditions.
The assault force would conduct the actual raid capture or kill the target while my team of six would break off 1 kilometer short of the target, and provide an over watch/blocking position. The position we were set in was surrounded by one foot tall vegetation and small two foot deep depressions scattered throughout a large field, not an ideal place to be but it was the best that we could do. Noticing the depressions in the area, I signaled to the rest of the men that it would be a fallback position if things went sour.
As we lay in the prone, concealing ourselves to the best of our ability beneath the vegetation, the remaining assault force set up in positions around the target building preparing to conduct a breach. Observing the environment around our position, I noticed a group of men gathering around a small hut less than two hundred yards away. It seemed like they were in what appeared to be a football style huddle discussing their next play on an offensive drive.
I called up what I was observing to the Recon Team Leader and kept eyes on the men. Looking back at my spotter and shaking my head side to side, he took the safety off of his .300 Winchester Magnum and put an infrared laser on one of the men’s chest. There was an eerie feeling settling over the area, almost like a thick wool blanket, we just knew something was about to happen, this type of activity was something I had not seen before in the area.
As the assault team prepared to make a final approach on the target building, the sun had now begun to crest over the horizon. The operation was taking longer than expected. Not only did we have to traverse over rough terrain, but we had to remain unseen and quiet moving through and over villagers sleeping outside which took us some time. The men that “P” and I had been observing had now left, dispersing in all directions. A call came through my ear piece radio from the Recon TL stating, “I think we should hunker down, I think we’re about to get into a fight.”
No less than 30 seconds after him stating this, we hear loud snaps pass through the air over our heads and impacting a few feet from us. Without hesitation, my team crawled over to a nearby depression I had pointed out earlier and crammed our bodies into it. The intensity of the fire was overwhelming and somewhat hard to believe. ”SNAP, SNAP, SNAP, SNAP.” Bullets impacted only a few inches from us, cutting the vegetation in half and sent dirt flying into the air.
We were being engaged from all sides with RPK machine guns, AK-47’s, AK-74’s, and occasionally rockets. I managed to climb on top of one of the Recon members to try and get accurate fire on the individuals engaging us. With my “P’s” body crammed next to mine, we oriented our scopes in the direction of a small village 400 yards away where most of the fire came from. Only being able to extend my suppressed SR-25 sniper barrel out through vegetation, my optics were partially obscured but I was able to see three men running on a rooftop. I saw what appeared to be one of the men carrying an RPK machine gun and preparing to set it up to fire on us.
I yelled out to my spotter, “You got the guys 400 out on the building rooftop?” He replied back to me, “Roger, eyes on, one RPK, go for it.” I placed the center of my cross-hairs on the throat of the man holding the machine gun, this being the only portion of his body I could see clearly. ”Sending!” informing my spotter that I was sending my first shot. The first shot was a miss, causing the man to slightly flinch as the round flew past him. Due to a bad position, I couldn’t see the splash of where the round fell and asked “P” for a rough adjustment.
After his correction, I held half a MIL to the left of his throat and squeezed the trigger again. The second round landed where it needed to be. As his body slumped over the machine gun, the two remaining men proceeded to maneuver to another position. Once I had the correct hold off, I squeezed off another round with “P” following up my shot with his loud .300 Win Mag. I was extremely frustrated at the fact that I was not able to engage all of them, but I knew that once we had a lull in the fire I would be able to successfully engage them from a better position.
The enemy by now had not only completely surrounded us, they were also closing in. I could hear them screaming “Allah Hu Akbar” and the sound of the vegetation cracking as they ran through it. They did a pretty good job at keeping us pinned down. Every second that elapsed, a volley of bullets would impact danger close, at some points an inch or two in front of our faces. Holding them back as best we could, the Recon TL called for backup to the assault force which was also in a hell of a fight. We received reports from them occasionally stating that they were pinned down and in hand combat distance. Help from them at the time was not an option, and was told to fight our way to them if possible.
With our movement denied, we then began calling in for air support from every asset in the area. We managed to get a few F-16 and B-2 bombers dispatched to us and requested that they drop ordinance danger close on our position. In order for them to do so, we had to give them coordinates to the enemy’s position.
As I stuck my eyes above the vegetation to get eyes on, a loud crack passed inches away from my left ear causing a deafening ring to within it. Quickly taking cover and making sure I wasn’t hit, I realized that this was not the regular string of fire we had been encountering. One of the Recon Medics screamed out my call sign to make sure I was fine. “Yeah, son of bitch almost got me with that one. Going back up…cover me!” I replied back to him. As they lay down a few rounds of 5.56 and .300 Win Mag, I stuck my head above the vegetation again. ”SNAP, SMACK!” Another single bullet flew past my head and struck the ground behind me! “We got a sniper on us!” I yelled to the men.
With bombers in flight and less than 10 minutes out, we knew we somehow needed to get the enemy target coordinates. We devised a quick plan to faint the sniper fire and allow one of us to get positive eyes on the enemy. My spotter and I would send out a string of fire simultaneously in the direction of the sniper fire while the Ranger communications operator rolled out of the hole allowing him to see the targets. With a quick countdown, we started to engage. I could see rounds impacting danger close next to my spotter and in front of my rifle. With the rounds focused on us, it allowed the communications Ranger to get quick eyes on target and take cover.
Rolling back into the depression with us, he gave us the coordinates to send up to the incoming fighter pilots. After sending the coordinates, a pilot responded to us over our radio, “We cannot engage with ordinance, collateral damage too high. Over,”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The Recon TL showed his discuss with the call and responded back to the pilots insisting that they drop ordinance, they could even drop danger close if need be. The same call came back to us. All they could do was show their presence and hope to scare off the enemy. Knowing that this was going to be a situation that we would have to fight out of on our own, our now immediate priority was to eliminate the enemy sniper.
I remembered a technique in one of the sniper courses that I had been to called the “Snap/Bang”. The technique is only accurate out to 500 yards and allows you to determine a snipers distance and rough location, but I thought I’d give it a try. As another “SNAP” passed overhead, I counted the seconds it took before I heard the “BANG” from his rifle. With this technique, I estimated that the sniper had to be at least 450 yards away. I asked “P” if he could see any tall, single structures at that distance, and if so, observe the top floor windows of that structure. I managed to take a few peeks in-between the sniper fire and picked out a building where I would be if I were the sniper.
Talking my spotter onto a building I believed the sniper may be 500 yards away, another snap passed overhead impacting behind my shoulder. “I got him!” my spotter shouted out to me. In the process of telling me where the shot originated, “P” saw two men from the corner of his eye approaching danger close to our position. I told him to take care of them while I tried to get a better position in order to take a precise shot through a window. While “P” engaged the men, I tried inching my way up above the depression to get into a steady prone position. “SNAP!” Another round passed just inches away from my head halting me in my tracks, not allowing me to get into position.
The good thing was that I was now able to at least see the buildings window clearly. The sniper had set himself in a perfect urban hide. He had a dark drape in the window, and placed himself deep into the room, not allowing us to see or engage him. All my spotter and I could do at this point was somewhat suppress him with accurate fire. With every round that we shot in the window, he responded with accurate fire of his own.
Knowing that we couldn’t perform this for much longer, we had to get out some way or another. After a few more calls over the radio to the assault force, we finally heard some good news. A small machine gun team was on the way to help us out. They had been fighting just as hard as we were and we figured that they would take no more than 10 minutes to get to our position. We were absolutely wrong, these Rangers carrying their machine guns and over 800 rounds of ammo, got to us within 5 minutes. The small machine gun team ran towards the gunfire and fell into the prone with three machine guns and three M4’s roaring just behind us.
I swear it was something out of the movies.
The intensity of the gun fire they put down range was so overwhelming, it caused the enemy sniper and insurgents to cease-fire momentarily from pure shock. As they lay down covering fire, the TL threw out a smoke grenade in order to conceal our movement.
Against All Odds
The four Recon Rangers began to bound back in pairs while “P” and I put accurate fire on the enemy snipers position. Knowing that my spotter and I would be the last to bound back the 300 yards to a safe position, I simply looked over at him, wished him luck and pounded his fist. For a moment, I laughed aloud out of pure frustration. It was time we finally got into a position where we could engage the enemy.
When it was our chance to maneuver back, I put a fresh 20 round magazine in my rifle, went to a knee and cracked off a quick five shots at the enemy. “P” heard my rifle fire and began running to a spot where he could cover me. I don’t remember anything about the bound back except the feeling of running on air, probably the fastest I had ever run in my life.
Once in a safe position, we provided cover fire for the machine gun team, allowing them to gather up at our new position. We found a small trench on the back side of a road where we loaded fresh mags and took a quick drink of water we had stored in our assault packs. Preparing to move out and assist the assault force, we got word that one of the guys had been shot but not life threatening and receiving treatment.
After the quick break, we positioned ourselves in a wedge formation and prepared to move out. As the movement began I saw out of my peripheral a man in white clothing peaking from behind a corner of a nearby hut. I called “P” over to me and laid my rifle on his shoulder. As soon as my eye focused on the scope reticle, the man popped out pointing an AK-47 barrel in our direction. I only recall quickly squeezing the trigger immediately as the center of my cross-hairs landed on his chest. His body crumbled under his dead weight, partially exposing his head from the corner of the building with the AK-47 lying underneath him.
Over the course of our short movement, we received a call over our radios stating that the assault force had secured multiple personnel within the targeted compound and had taken up a rally position in a nearby compound. Enemy fire for now seemed to have come to abrupt stop, once again, something that didn’t seem right.
The terrain forced us to walk near a small ravine filled with muddy knee and chest deep water that lead to our rally point building less than 500 yards away. “SNAP, SNAP, SNAP!” We all dove into the ravine and laid down aggressive fire to our flank. The enemy had concealed themselves with the locals in the area and began ambushing us with once again with accurate and overwhelming fire. I was able to spot the heads of a few targets over the edge of the embankment and began to engage them.
While engaging targets, I heard extremely loud cracks next to my ear. At first I thought it was one of the Rangers who had come to our rescue shooting an M4 next to my ear. I looked over at one of them to tell them to push left a bit. As my mouth began to open, I saw that the nearest man to my left was 15 feet away. The sound I was hearing was actually the rounds of enemy fire popping and smacking the mud behind me. Firing off another shot and hitting an enemy Taliban in the face, I looked back to my left and prepared to move away from my targeted location. As I began to move, heard another strange sound, but not the sound of a bullet snapping overhead, this was a different sound.
The weird sound that I heard was then followed by a loud scream. Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, one of the men who came in to save us just a few minutes ago, had been struck in the thigh. A stream of blood sprayed out from his leg and into the ravine water. Without hesitation, the men around him dove on his body and started to apply pressure on his wound. Blood quickly filled the stagnate water that we were in, turning the water a dark brown. Myself along with my spotter and a few M4 and Machine gunners raised ourselves out of the water and emptied our magazines on the partially obscured enemy.
While we were engaging, one of our Medics ran under heavy incoming fire and through waist deep water to reach Kopp. Upon reaching him, he tossed his medical bag into the water, opened it and proceeded to provide care. I was in complete awe watching the medic go to work with his medical bag lay floating in the ravine and bullets impacting around him.
This was not the place to stay and dish out a fight. I turned to an officer behind me, grabbed his shoulder and pulled him close to me so that I could inform him of where the enemy sniper was last spotted. “Sir, if we can…” I felt what seemed to be water smack the side of face.
This was not water hitting my face, it was blood.
The PL sunk from my grasp and into the water screaming “I’m hit, I’m hit!” A single round struck the PL in the upper chest, just above his body armor. “P” immediately fell on the PL and placed his finger in the bullet hole while I turned back to my rear and emptied half a magazine back towards the enemy. A medic from my Recon team ran over to him and started to assist him. The enemy sniper had strategically taken out key members of our team and was now focusing in on myself and spotter.
“Wrap it up boys, we’re moving!” shouted one of the leaders on the ground.
“P” had grabbed up Kopps’ assault bag full of ammo and took up a position in front of me. The men from Kopps’ machine gun squad proceeded to carry him out. With two tourniquets wrenched tightly on his upper thigh, still losing blood and occasionally drifting in and out of consciousness, the team waded through the ravine. I placed myself behind the men, ensuring that if anyone were to ambush us from our six o’clock, I would either take the round or eliminate the threat.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, the type of feeling you get when you’re walking in the dark by yourself as a child lingered over me. I was completely exhausted, I hadn’t eaten a good meal in almost a week. My muscles were tightening up in my lower back and legs as I tried to stay as low as I could in the water, as the incoming rounds snapped overhead and impacted the muddy walls a few feet from my face.
I had accepted the fact that I was probably going to die. For some reason I didn’t care anymore, I was more frustrated than anything else. I couldn’t stand watching my guys get hit and scream; the sound of them screaming was blood-curdling.
Every few feet we had to move in the water, the men carrying Kopp would have to submerge him completely. I remember seeing the color of his skin turn pale and the guys trying to keep him awake. Rage and emotion came over to a point where I almost couldn’t control it. I heard him continuing to talk back to his mates, curse out of frustration because he wasn’t in the fight, and apologize for getting hit. I knew Rangers were tough men, but this was a level of toughness I hadn’t seen before. I felt as if I couldn’t move fast enough through the thick mud at the bottom of the ravine. With every leg movement I made, it felt as if I was carrying 200 pounds of equipment.
“Come on bro, we got this shit,” P shouted at me as he looked back, struggling to swim in the now chest and neck-deep water.
I could hear the rounds impacting behind and overhead, snapping trees limbs. The men carrying Kopp had it the worst. They were not able to engage, and carrying well over 1,000 rounds of machine gun ammo, only relying on myself and “P” to engage enemy for them as we made our way 300 meters to a safe house.
If it weren’t for the amount of training and the daily 6-8 mile runs, weekly “long” runs, and monthly 15-18 mile ruck runs, I’m not sure any of us would have made it.
“Get up here snipers!” the ground commander shouted, instructing us to push up to the front of the formation.
“You guys are up first. Get into the safe house and provide cover for the rest of us!”
“Roger that!” I replied.
I grabbed up “P” and looked at the open 50 meter terrain we would first have to maneuver through before getting through the main gate of the house. I looked over at “P” and pounded his fist.
As we climbed over the 4 foot embankment and pushed through the brush, I could see the building. We ran as fast as we could, crisscrossing each other as we headed for the large 10 foot blue painted doors that surrounded the mud house.
As we got closer to the door, “BRRRRRRRRRRRR!” and the ground began to shake.
I fell on my face and took cover. “Irv!” “P” ran over shouting and grabbing me thinking I had been hit.
As I looked up at him getting back on my feet, he says to me, “It’s our guys.”
At that split second, all I could do was laugh. The sound that we heard was the awesome sound of cover fire. There were six Rangers from the assault force on a rooftop firing every gun they had in their arsenal. The sounds of 7.62 and 5.56 machine guns unleashing all at once no more than eight feet over our heads caused the ground to shake. I thought we had been ambushed from an army of Taliban.
As we sprinted through the doors, drenched in heavy wet clothing, we were greeted by the Ranger assault force commander.
“Get high up, we need the snipers to pick these guys off!” he instructed us.
These were the words I had been waiting to hear all day.
“P” and I ran over to the nearby mud house and climbed a ladder on the rear side that one of the locals had left behind. The men who had lain down covering fire met us with smiling faces and a large pile of smoking hot brass around them.
The sun had now reached its highest point in the Afghan sky, and the temperature rose above 120 degrees. The bottom of my combat boots started to torch my feet as I laid down behind my rifle observing targets in the distance. As much as it burned, the overwhelming amount of targets I was now able to see through my 10 power scope shut out all other feeling.
I wasn’t sure what would happen if I shot my rifle after it had been submerged. “Screw it,” I thought to myself. I focused in on a target almost half a mile from our position carrying an AK-47 with ammo draped over his shoulder. I wasn’t sure how much I had to lead him with my scope because I wasn’t sure how fast he was running. “P” was busy working on a target with his .300 Win. Mag. and I didn’t want to bother him.
I figured I would lead my target by 3.5 MILs to start off with, and watch the impact of the bullet hit the ground, which would allow me to make a correction. I reached up and dialed 23 minutes of angle on the elevation of the scope. With each click I made on the scope, the target began to slow down. As his pace came to a halt, a slight grin grew on my face. “I got you now,” I thought out loud. Slowly pulling the trigger back as the center of my reticle lay on the center of his chest, I noticed the heat mirage pick up at a steep angle. Before the shot broke, I adjusted for the wind indicated by the mirage.
As the shot broke, I saw the tail end of the vapor trail from the bullet fly down range and sink into the targets upper chest cavity. The bullet hit him with such force it caused his man dress to fly open, exposing the bullet wound. The impact looked like an 18 wheeler truck going 100 mph hit him. His rifle flew from his hands as he fell backward into the powdery dirt.
As fast as he hit the dirt, two of his friends came in to retrieve his body and drag it off behind a small mud hut. I didn’t engage the men. Instead I shifted my scope to the left focusing at a long road. I could see groups of men exiting a white vehicle all carrying AK-47’s. The distance was too far for me to engage them so I shouted over a “P”, “Hey, hit the guys in the white car!”
I knew that the shot would be a tough one, it was well over 1100 yards, but if figured the sound of a .300, 190 grain bullet snapping in their direction would keep them out of the fight.
“MEDIVAC is in route!” was the transmission coming over my radio. The Army’s best helicopter pilots were coming in to extract the wounded. My team on the roof continued to engage the enemy to the best of our abilities for hours. We had to keep focus on the amount of ammo we had with each shot we put down range. It got to the point where I asked one of the machine gunners to take off a strip of ten rounds from his belt of ammo hanging from his MK-48. The rounds were becoming scarce, and a whole new fear set in.
Over the top of the trees in the distance, I could see the MEDIVAC hauling in. As the helicopter approached, we shifted fire to avoid sending a stray round in their direction. Even under the AK-47 fire, the helicopter landed in-between our position and the enemy, absorbing any potential incoming rounds as a few men carried and assisted the three wounded Rangers. As quickly as they came in, they were off, flying them to the nearest hospital. As for us, the fight continued.
“ALAH HU AKBAR!”
I quickly looked over my shoulder behind me and over the tall wall that surrounded the house. There were four men that had managed to get within a few feet from the outside of the wall. They were so close that I could see the features on their faces and the dirt smudged under their eyes. I got the attention of the guys on the roof and signaled to them that we would take them out all at once before they were able to gain entry. “I got the guy in the button shirt!” I yelled to my guys. They all quickly replied back to me identifying which target they had.
“3, 2, 1…” With one loud “BOOM”, the targets crumbled and fell to the ground as they were all engaged. I remember the target being so close in my scope, that I could see the detail in one of his buttons on his shirt as I squeezed the trigger.
“Immediate extract needed! Immediate extract needed our location!” came over the net, calling to a Marine F.O.B. nearby.
“Negative. You guys have to come to us. We cannot go into that area with anything less than a Brigade. We will position near your location south. Over.” The Marines responded.
“Let’s get ready to move out boys!”
I was in disbelief. We had been in the area with a small team of Rangers in a firefight from hell, surrounded, and at some points almost overrun.
The plan for our extraction was as simple as it could get. We had to run to the Marines in Humvees a-waiting us on a nearby hill overlooking our location almost a mile away! I remember thinking to myself in a sarcastic tone, “I swear I’ve seen this before…oh yeah, Black Hawk Down.”
As my team climbed down from the rooftop and gathered with the remaining Rangers on the ground, “P” and I checked our magazines to see how much ammo we had left. We were both down to our last mag. “P” had around 12 rounds left while I was down to my last 10 out of the 200 plus rounds we started off with. All I could imagine was running through the enemy, engaging them in hand to hand combat, stabbing them with the large 6 inch Buck knife I carried on my hip.
“Irv, can you put your snipers in front and behind our formation?” the commander asked.
With myself being the sniper squad/team leader, I wanted to take the front and have “P” pick up the 6. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about what may lay in the open terrain leading to the Marines. The pucker factor was maxed out!
The large blue doors opened and I started to run. My body was drained from not only the five-day operation, but from the now half day firefight we were in. Every time my boot hit the soft dirt, I would look at a different sector, observing where any potential enemy could be. With the sound of the bullets snapping overhead, my pace picked up. The feeling of vomit rising in my throat from overexertion was suppressed from the sight of the awaiting Humvee’s.
“Get in, Get in, Get in!” We shouted arriving at the vehicles. The expression the Marines had on their faces were almost indescribable. It seemed as if they thought we were crazy for going in the area, but it just goes to show what a group of dedicated men are willing to do for the greater good.
With the captured targets in hand, we packed ourselves in the Humvees like sardines. An entire Ranger assault force and Recon/Sniper team stuffed in four Humvees already packed with Marines. I had managed to cram myself under the feet of the Marine .50 cal gunner with my head resting on my spotter’s knee. The pain I felt from being crushed didn’t bother me, I was just happy we were getting out.
After settling down, debriefing, and preparing to catch a flight back to our compound, the impact of what we went through settled in. Almost all of the guys had multiple bullet holes in their shirts and pants. I had a small bullet hole in the right shoulder of my multi-cam shirt. The reality of what could have happened shocked me to the core.
Two of the men who had been shot on this mission survived. Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, age 21, died from the wounds he suffered after rescuing my six man team. He was less than two weeks out before shipping back home.