Been awhile since I posted a new FARTICLE, but with all of the crazy shit going on in the world being covered by the 24/7 media brainwashing machine, there hasn’t been much point and mine would just be another observational opinion. Anyone who follows my facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FARTICLE15/ gets my daily rants on the bullshit parade when I am not posting tasteless and juvenile humor. However, with the movie 12 Strong coming out and many of the discussions I have been reading about that story, a lot of memories have been flooding back to me regarding my role in OEF, to include supporting the ground elements highlighted in 12 Strong. My role in that story will be for another time, but this memory is one of another crazy night that happened a few weeks later in November in a place not labeled on any map or chart. We called it Hot Dog Valley.
I was in the CAOC working the Dynamic Targeting Cell, or Time Sensitive Targeting for some who can’t overcome the terminology mistakes that continue to plague us. Given the nature of the conflict, the battle space, and the enemy, the majority of our targets were reactive vice deliberate, so my crew was busy as fuck and prosecuting targets as we found them non-stop. I got a call one night that a helo went down in northern Afghanistan, somewhere between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz, and we had friendlies on the ground taking fire. Mind you, this was 2001, so we didn’t have a sky full of armed UAVs that can quickly respond and we were just learning to use coordinate seeking weapons and strategic bombers for CAS, so ingenuity and innovation were key to just about everything we did. This was about as unconventional of a war we have fought, at that point, which would become the norm we are accustomed to today.
All I had available to support our downed personnel were 2x F/A-18C carrying 2x GBU-31v2 (2000lb JDAMs) each. The Hornets using Nighthawk targeting pods at the time did not have the capability to derive their own coordinates, so it was on us to get those bombs where they needed to go to protect our guys until the CSAR arrived. The SOF LNO (Special Ops Forces Liaison Officer) passed us the downed crew’s location, we brought it up on stereo imagery and the most current satellite imagery available, and the description of the friendly’s and enemy’s location were “in the valley. Problem was that this was at the base of a mountain range that had a bunch of valleys leading to a river basin. On imagery, it looked like a pack of hot dogs, so we named it Hot Dog Valley.
Unable to identify any distinguishable land features, based on what the guys on the ground were passing to us through the SOF LNO while fighting in the dark, I ran out to the ops floor to talk directly to the downed crew. I told them to verify their location and give me a range and bearing to the enemy location and any other descriptive features they can through their NVGs. They did and I ran back to my station, identified both, told the SOF LNO to keep get us on voice to update us on the movements of both while I dropped the target aimpoints for our jets. I got the points dropped, passed them to AWACS to pass to the strikers, and advised that the Hornets perform low level passes over the enemy position, strafing runs if necessary, and keep the bad guys’ heads down while our CSAR got in to rescue our guys. The SOF LNO reported strikes were good, CSAR inbound, and he would update me if further action is required. No sooner did that strike end before we quickly got tasked with the next, and the next, and the next….Just another night on the job.
Hours went by, we kept on hitting targets all over the country, splattering Taliban and Al Qaida goatfuckers all over the Afghan landscape. A lull finally happened and I stepped out to piss, get some food, and grab a smoke. After doing this for 18 hours a day for a month, still processing what happened on 9-11 and why I was here, I was already numb to it, but it also became a frightening addiction that fucks with your mind. The SOF LNO found me outside as my paralyzed mind slowly adjusted to the silence and peace of the smoke pit. He said, “hey man, you got ’em good. Don’t have a count, but you wasted a shitload of them. Our guys are okay and made it back, everyone is alive and only a few minor injuries. You did good, man.” I wanted to thank him, but I froze because up to that point, I hadn’t really had to deal with saving lives. I ran CSAR and CAS missions plenty of times, but never where our guys were in that level of danger, let alone having spoken to them as they were taking fire and hearing the shots ringing in the background. I couldn’t even look at him, let alone get any words out. I was a young Staff Sergeant and I think he understood because he just patted me on the shoulder and said, “take your time, but not too much. We need you in there.” That was the moment where everything I had been training for my entire career and had been doing for the past month finally became real to me. I realized that what I did actually mattered and more good guys could die if I don’t do my job to the absolute best of my ability. I walked around to the back of the building, lit another cigarette, cried in the dark where no one could see me, turned around and went back inside to get back to doing what I had been doing for the last month. Hunting and killing as many of those goatfuckers as I could find.
I continued doing the job every night for another 6 weeks before I was suddenly told I need to pack my shit and get on the next plane home.
Me: “Why? We’re not done here yet? I’M NOT DONE HERE YET!”
Major: “You have been deployed most of this year and will get a remote tour credit if you stay.”
Me: “You’re shitting me. That’s your fucking rationale? Keep your fucking remote tour credit, I’ll sign a waiver. The enemy is still out there and you don’t have anyone here who can do what I’m doing.”
Major: “We have a guy arriving tomorrow who will be taking over for you.” (It was a wingman who was more than qualified)
Me: “This is fucking bullshit and you know it!!! Send me to Kuwait or Qatar for a day, bring me back, and you can start my clock over. I don’t give a fuck, but don’t kick me out now. I’m not finished here!”
Major: “I know, Sgt, but you will be back here before you know it, trust me, so go home and enjoy your Christmas now because you might miss the next few.”
Me: “Christmas is ruined for a lot of people this year, sir. That’s why we’re here. To make sure no more Christmases are ruined. Please let me stay in the fight.”
Major: “And I promise to ruin as many as I can for you later, but right now you have to go home. That is an order.”
A few months later, I was sitting at my desk back in South Carolina going over the current BDA reports when a man in a suit walked into my office. Never seen him before, no credentials, unescorted visitors badge, and no idea what the hell he was doing in my space. He walked right up to me.
Suit: “Are you SSgt XXXXXXX?”
Me: “Yes sir, and you are?”
Suit: “Someone who has been looking for you for awhile now. I can give you a name to address me, but it won’t be my real name.”
Me: “Okay, got it. Your boys read me into the program downrange, so if you have an issue, you can go talk to my SSO.”
Suit: “No, I don’t care about that and I am thankful they read you in. You do fantastic work and I’m here specifically to thank you for that work.”
Me: “Why are you here and what do you want from me?”
Suit: “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on the night of November XX 2001?”
Me: “I was at the CAOC doing my job, prosecuting targets and directing CAS. The entire deployment is a blur because it was non-stop, but if you give me a mission to reference…”
Suit: “Does the name Hot Dog Valley mean anything to you?”
Me: “Who are you and how do you know about Hot Dog Valley? That was a name of a location on a map we used as an informal reference for a CSAR mission. No one outside of the CAOC knows that reference and I know I didn’t see you there.”
Suit: “Sgt, on behalf of the men who you saved on that mission, I am here to pass on their thanks and appreciation for saving their lives.”
Me: (Extremely confused at this point) “What? Who are you? I don’t even know who was down there, how many, why they were there, nothing. I just know that we had friendlies down who were under attack and needed air support.”
Suit: “No one ever told you what happened down there?”
Me: “No, like most spook things, it was all under wraps and to me, it was just another mission and I didn’t have time to think about it because I had other missions to attend to as soon as I completed that one. There was never time to go back and ask what happened or why, I was just told that my bombs saved some lives. That’s it.”
Suit: “Sgt, I cannot give you specific details for reasons you are obviously aware, but you saved the lives of over a dozen men, uniformed and otherwise, who went on to facilitate the liberation of the northern operating areas in Afghanistan with indigenous forces. Had it not been for your creative solutions to a dire situation, a lot of good men would be dead and whether or not we could have driven the enemy from the north when we did is still unknown. All we know is that we couldn’t have done so when we did without you. My team mates thank you, as do those who were along on that mission because they didn’t think CAS was possible with the assets available. You proved us all wrong and we’re alive as a result.”
Me: “So what now? I mean, I am happy to know I made a difference, but this a bit overwhelming. What do you want from me now?”
Suit: “Nothing more than to know that you are going to be there when we need you.”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Suit: “I can offer you no medals, awards, certificates, or even acknowledgement that this meeting ever happened. All I can offer you is a hand shake and my sincere thanks for what you have done and what you continue to do. I hope you continue doing it. We need you out there. I know the Air Force is fickle on what is and is not authorized with your uniform regs, but there is one thing I want you to do for me.”
Me: “What is that, sir?”
Suit: “Ranger roll your hat.”
Me: “Sir, I’m not a Ranger. I’m just an Air Force POG. Not only will some of my SNCOs get butthurt and cry over it, but the last thing I need is a grunt going off on me for pretending to be one of them.”
Suit: “I understand, but some of the guys you saved said they want you to do that so they know who to look for in that CAOC when they need the targeting support they need. Again, I understand the risk, but the guys who made this request in lieu of any formal recognition know a little something about the Ranger rolls. It matters to them.”
That was the last time we spoke and the only time I ever saw him. I just shook his hand and he turned and walked out of the building. I Ranger rolled my hat for the remainder of my career, I took a shitload of heat for it, even got a letter of counseling for it in the NCO Academy (it was bullshit, but that is another story), but I kept those rolls until the day I retired. Another 11+ years of doing the job in various roles and various assignments, but no one ever approached me to acknowledge the rolls in my hat or indicate that they knew anything about Hot Dog Valley. I have no regrets and I like to think that those rolls that got me into so much trouble over the last half of my career not only honored the men I helped save in that 15 minute span of time in a place no one ever heard of or gives a fuck about that faded into the darkness of the non-stop anarchy war, but hopefully also honored the lives lost on 9-11 that led me to that place in time to do what I did to the best of my ability. Over four years since I retired from active duty and I still feel like I haven’t done enough, but each day I become a little bit more comfortable living a normal life, but it isn’t easy. If I am ever recalled to active service (God save us all if that shit show happens), I will have Ranger rolls in my hat.