Captain B. A. Friedman, USMC is a field artillery officer and author of 21st Century Ellis, as well as numerous articles and posts. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild. Views contained in this story do not represent the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.
The Amphibious Combat Vehicle rolled to a stop on the soft Levantine sand, the Mediterranean water turning it dark as it streamed off the vehicle. The gunner scanned the surroundings over the sights of his M240G medium machine gun, then gave a thumbs up to the vehicle commander, who repeated the gesture to the Marine Staff Sergeant in the back.
The vehicle commander scowled. The Staff Sergeant was smoking. Inside the ACV. He had briefed him on the regulations before splashing out of the USS Iwo Jima, and smoking was against the regulations. He was also standing, with one arm on the bulkhead for support in case the driver moved again. This was also against regulations. One of his Marines was playing music with some kind of device. The song was Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. Not even piped into his Kevlar. Out loud. That was definitely against the regulations. “Fucking MARSOC,” the vehicle commander grumbled to himself.
Staff Sergeant Logan Sanders motioned for his team to get ready then stepped onto the gate to exit the vehicle. A quick glance at his wrist GPS told him the crew of the ACV had been dead on, a short one click movement would take them to their assault position. He flipped the switch on his radio and spoke into the microphone jutting out from his helmet. “One at a time gents, two minute intervals,” Sanders said in his slow drawl. He stubbed out the cigarette on the ACV’s damp hull and then stepped out of the vehicle and out into the night. Sanders was tall, with a runner’s body. His years as a Raider had turned his muscles into tight ribbons; his lack of bulk was deceptive. His face was square-jawed and had a perpetual five o’clock shadow, a feature on which numerous Sergeants Major had looked with suspicion.
He moved south, keeping the sparkling Mediterranean to his right, sticking to the sparse scrub of grass clinging to the low ridge where the land met the sand. Ready to drop and take cover at a moment’s notice. There was little chance of detection. The team leader had chosen the insertion point well.
An easy jog brought him to a rocky ridge jutting out from the landward side towards the sea. He quickly found the planned assault position and took a slightly elevated position, with excellent fields of view both south and north. He checked his gear while he waited. His M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle was in Condition 1 and ready. He already knew his comm worked. His full-body armor bit into his skin at the joints. It felt like leather but it in actually it was thick, tough fibers threaded through with cords and sensors. Over it he wore standard issue desert MARPAT cammies that were mottled with sweat that the breathable armor allowed to escape when his body temperature rose.
The rest of his team arrived. Corporal Jones, his machinegunner, carried an M240G medium machine gun. Corporal Hernandez arrived next with his M32 semi-automatic 40mm grenade launcher and an extra M4 carbine strapped to his back. Next came HM Cramer, his Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman. Finally, Sergeant Burge, his bulky second in command arrived, also armed with the M27. It was just enough firepower to buy them time to call in any salvation from offshore or overhead.
Silently the team took up a loose perimeter and pointed their weapons outboard into the night. Once the team was assembled, Sanders flipped his radio over to Command 1 and transmitted the brevity code: “Abe.”
After a moment’s delay the radio in his ear crackled back. “Good morning, Logan. I see you’re lying on the beach while some of us are hard at work at the office.”
Sanders chuckled inwardly as he tried to remove a fleck of sand caught in his right eye. “What would I do on these missions without your chipper voice, Sick?”
“You’d fuck it up and you know it.” Staff Sergeant Jessica “Sick” Cikolata responded. Sick was a combat controller, a relatively new Military Occupation Specialty in the Marine Corps. As unmanned systems proliferated on the battlefield and communications technology had gotten better and better in the early 21st Century, the military had to figure out how to use it on the ground. At first they loaded grunts down with an ever-increasing array of data uplinks, computers, and radios leading to disaster. DARPA’s “Squad X” program was predicated on pushing more and more data and information to the lowest level; so much so that the individual Marine could do nearly anything except fight for all the batteries and communication gear he had to carry.
The solution was too elegantly simple for the engineers to see: a division of labor. Now a combat controller ran all the data, communications, ISR, and fire support for the troops on the ground; usually from elsewhere. It was a bad idea for a Marine in the middle of a firefight to have his nose stuck in a laptop. But sifting through a myriad forms of data, imagery, and fire support options was much easier for a Marine with a staff in a safe office back in the States. Grunts still had a small, cell phone-sized screen if the combat controller needed to push imagery directly to them, but now they only had to worry about the radio integrated with their Kevlar helmets. One communication link to one combat controller opened up a world of possibilities.
“Ok Logan. My eye pod is right over you and we’re all up today. I even have Mule driver out from 2nd CLB.” Eye pod was combat controller shorthand for the suite of UAS systems that acted as their eyes in the sky; hence eye pod. Usually maintenance issues caused one or more of the UAS systems to be grounded but they were lucky today, it seemed. The eye pod was formed around a Hummingbird drone outfitted to loiter overhead in a roughly static position providing both a data uplink for the communication systems and all around surveillance for the team. Three Stinger drones orbited the Hummingbird at a slightly lower elevation. These were the simplest drones, but Sanders’ favorite: it was little more than a mini chain gun suspended under a rotor. Simple. Stacked above the Hummingbird were a standard Predator for on-the-go fire support and two Ravens. These last two were upgraded models based on really old designs, but they worked. Lastly, high above the team was a targeting drone called “Sauron” in the combat controller community. It was built for nothing but staying in one place and providing “eyes” on the ground for targeting. Through it, Sick could call in anything from 60mm mortars to B-2 bombers.
The Mule was infantry slang for the load-bearing drone that they would need if this mission was a success, and 2nd CLB was 2nd Combat Logistics Battalion, the unit that owned the drones and their operators. It looked exactly like its name, except it lacked a head. It had four legs and a body to which cargo could be strapped. Like ammo, MREs. Or a body.
“Ok, Sick. Target location still the same?” Sanders said.
“Yes, but this is intel from Langley so you know what that means.”
“It’s probably wrong. Maybe we’ll get lucky this time.”
“Break. My ISR team is getting too far ahead of you. You’re going to have to walk faster to keep up with me, Cowboy. You’re slowing us down.”
“Alright, Sick. We’ll giddyup.”
“One more thing. Hernandez’ breathing and heart rate are elevated. Any reason for that? The Skipper wants to know.”
“First mission with MARSOC. It’s just jitters.”
“He thought so but wanted me to check.”
He used hand and arm signals to get the team on their feet, then checked his watch. Two hours of light left for two clicks to the compound. Easy day, even though his legs were still a little sore from his team leader’s PT session earlier in the week. As the team moved out in a dispersed formation, Sanders clicked onto Command 1 again.
“Sick, tell the Skipper thanks a lot for that leg workout.”
“Will do. I got my Stingers all along your route. There’s not a soul out tonight.”
He turned to look back at his team and motioned again, this time telling them to keep their eyes open and weapons ready. Drones were nice but the old ways still worked.
An hour and a half later Sick guided the team behind a small sandy ridge.
“Ok, Sanders, this is it. The target’s in the compound just over the ridge. Intel was good, but there’s a catch. He’s only got a four-man bodyguard team but there’s also a fail safe: suicide bomber in the next house. If anything goes wrong, the bomber runs into the compound and blows the place sky high. That’s the Skipper’s read anyway. I spotted the explosives with the Hummingbird. I can guide you in so that he won’t see you until he hears shots. Try to be quiet and you won’t have to deal with him.”
“Subtle isn’t really my strong suit,” Logan said, then clicked over to Tac 1 to talk to the team. “Listen up. New intel. Suicide bomber in the next house over. Once we grab the target, he’ll run into the compound and blow it rather than let us have him. Burge you go in last and wait for him. Soon as you see him, take him down and then take cover. Everyone else, the plan goes as briefed. Check?”
Rather than waste words, the four men all nodded. “OK follow me,” Logan radioed. He got up moved as quickly but smoothly towards the compound.
“Once you cross the ridge, bear right. You’re taking the long way around the compound. It’ll expose you to the open field to the southeast but I had my Ravens clear it, twice,” Sick said.
Logan rounded the corner, his brain screaming that he was exposed in the field but he trusted his controller. He had to.
“Bang a hard left around the corner and you’ll see the bomber’s hut. No windows on this side.”
He did so and saw the hut. Once the rest of the team was around the corner, he pointed. Once he knew everyone had seen it, he continued on.
“Halfway down the wall on the left you’ll hit the gate. It’s old and rickety, but don’t let it fool you. It’s meant to make noise to alert the bodyguards. Two are patrolling the courtyard and the other two are in a hut watching TV. As briefed. The two patrollers are tired, I can see them yawning. Open the gate quietly and you’ll catch them. They’re going to cross paths in the center of the courtyard in eight. Seven. Six.”
Sanders held up right hand with five fingers, then put them down one by one. When he was out of fingers, he kicked the gate off its hinges.
He thought he heard Sick sigh in frustration through the radio as he scanned the courtyard in front of him. Two men with AK-47s stood facing each other but looking right at him. He fired at the right one first, then the left. Both hit in the chest, both knocked back onto their rears but still facing him. Another shot to the right, another to the left. They went all the way down this time. He looked right. Hernandez and Jones were set up with the machine gun. He crouched with his weapon at his shoulder.
The other two guards ran out of the hut and the three Marines opened up. The two remaining guards were cut to pieces.
Jones got up and Hernandez followed. Cramer was right on their heels. The three Marines had a job to do. Sanders reached back and tapped Burge on the shoulder and the two men moved forward into the courtyard, Sanders watching the bodies of the four guards and Burge walking backwards protectively. “Suicide bomber on the move,” Sick said in his ear. Sanders didn’t have time to react before he heard Burge’s rifle fire one shot. Then Burge grabbed Sanders pulled him down to the ground.
The bomb seemed to rock the whole world under Sanders as it went off, even under the bulk of his assistant chief. It had gone off outside the compound, harming nothing but the bomber. Sanders sucked in smoke and heavy air from the explosion involuntarily, then coughed.
The two Marines stood up. “Good work,” Sanders said. “I got your back, boss,” Burge said. Sanders switched to Command 1. “Brevity code Barney.”
They looked up and Jones, Hernandez, and Cramer walked out of the house. Jones had a body over his shoulder. He walked up to Sanders and dropped the load on the ground. “He didn’t even get out of his bedclothes.”
Sanders looked at the target. The thickly-bearded man was going to have black eye. Sanders looked at Jones.
“He lunged at me.”
Sanders sighed and keyed the radio. “Brevity code Carl.”
“Sanders, this is Sick. Straddle him and point the front of your Kevlar at his face so I can get a good scan.”
Sanders did so, sitting down on the man to pin his arms to his sides just in case he came to.
“Got it,” Sick said. “That’s him. The Mule is on the way.”
Sanders stood up. Jones and Hernandez were joking about teabagging the terrorist.
“Gentlemen,” Sanders said sternly. “Aye, Staff Sergeant,” the two younger Marines said in unison.
“Cramer, get him ready for extract. The rest of you get up on the walls. The whole village is awake now. We’ll have company.”
The team dispersed and Cramer bent over the prostrate prisoner. First arms and legs were bound with zipcords and then the corpsman injected him with a syringe.
“Night, night. Next stop, the USS Iwo Jima,” Cramer quipped. Sanders lit a cigarette and watched him work.
“Those are not good for you, Sanders. Haven’t you read the SECNAV instruction on tobacco use?” Sick joked.
“I’m familiar with it yes. I needed to relax.”
“I know. Your heart rate is up. Everyone’s is but yours and Hernandez’s are particularly high.”
“Where’s the Mule?”
“One minute out.”
One minute later a drone the size of a small pony trotted through the gate towards them. It had been inserted in the same way as the team, just in a different location via a different ACV. Sanders transmitted brevity code “Duffman” to signify the Mule had arrived.
Sanders and Cramer loaded the prisoner onto the drone and strapped him down.
“Sick. I’m sending you a package. All wrapped up with a bow. Brevity code Edna.”
“Aww, you’re so sweet.” The Mule trotted back out the gate and down towards the sea.
“Staff Sergeant,” someone yelled. “Lots of activity in the village. We’re gonna have company.”
Sanders keyed his mic. “Sick. Talk to me.”
“I see them. The MEU is seeing them too. The BLT commander wants to land some fire support for you. Any issues with that?”
“I’m not one to turn down the big guns.”
Sanders spent the next forty-five minutes watching the village. From his vantage point, he could glean nothing of what was coming. Just that something was coming. He spotted MV-22 Ospreys from the MEU off in the distance, dropping off a three-gun section of Expeditionary Fire Support System 120mm mortars courtesy of the MEU’s artillery battery. Ten minutes later Sick came back.
“Arty’s on the deck. Three tubes up,” she said.
“That’s the good news. Bad news is those aren’t just civilians in the village. They’re gearing up for a fight. Part-timers, probably, but there’s a whole lot of them. Splitting up into teams to assault your compound. There’s already machine guns and RPG teams along your egress routes. Give me ten minutes and I’ll soften them up for you.”
“Got anything for me to do?”
“Check on Hernandez. Vitals are still high. In ten minutes, try to hold on to something.”
Sanders walked along the wall of the compound, eyes still warily on the neighboring village. There were at least a hundred fighters, probably from a dozen nearby villages. Sick had told him there were even more along the ridges to his rear. This mission was about to go sideways.
He came up on Hernandez and put his hand on the younger Marine’s shoulder. “How you feeling, Corporal?”
“I’m ready to light ‘em up, Staff Sergeant. You just tell me when.” Bravado.
“I know you’re ready, but focus. This is a tough first mission and it’s about to get tougher. You ok?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant. Just a little a worried. You know my wife’s pregnant. Can’t get it out of my head. What if I don’t come back?”
“You will. You did well at indoc, you know your shit. Let me worry about getting us out. Besides, Cramer can raise your kid just fine.”
Hernandez stifled a laugh. “Aye, Staff Sergeant.”
His comm beeped. It was Sick again. “Good work. Whatever you gave him, it worked. His vitals are already dropping. Now get everybody down.”
“Hernandez, hit the deck,” Sanders said, then motioned for the rest of the time to do likewise.
A minute later the air in his lungs was forced out and it felt like he would fall up into the sky so disorienting were the constant impacts from the Marine mortars. The first minute was the worst, but for another five minutes smaller blasts went off so quickly they almost sounded like one constant roar. So close he could feel them more than hear them. Then a ringing silence.
“Sick, what was that?”
“Two sorties of F-35s dropping bombs behind you and arty firing a linear sheaf to your front to discourage an assault from the village. You’re welcome.”
He looked around at his team. Everyone seemed ok. He looked at the village. The crowds moved back into the village but the largest of them was now streaming out of the village far to his right, moving south.
“Sick, they’re moving to cut off our egress again.”
“I see them. It’ll take some time to get birds back around. What do you want to do?”
“Get the fuck out of here. Can’t go back into those ridges, its ambush country. I’m going to go forward.”
“Can’t. The fighters in the village are setting up roadblocks at major intersections. They’ll cut you to pieces.”
Sanders pulled a cigarette from his pack and lit it. His radio crackled. “Logan, Skipper says to knock off the smoking. The glow is a target indicator.”
“Tell him I think the mortars and bombs already let them know where we are,” Sanders replied. He blew smoke into the air.
“Ok. I’m going forward. Retracing my steps is a recipe for an ambush,” he said.
“Dammit, Logan. No. You have to go back. I can screen your movement.”
“Sick, they’re going to expect me to go back. They’ll be waiting. You can’t see everything.”
“I can see what’s in front of you, and I’m saying you can’t go that way.”
Sanders tore his headset off in frustration. He looked up at one of Sick’s Ravens that was doing a circuit around the compound. He raised his arm and shook his fist at it.
“Boss,” Burge said, “they want you back on the radio.”
Sanders sucked on the stub of his cigarette then threw it away before pulling the headset back on.
“There are worse gestures you could have directed at me, I suppose,” Sick said.
“All right, Sick. We’ll go back. You’re drones better be on point,” Sanders said.
“Wait.” Silence. “I have a plan. I’m going to guide you out to a different beach further north. Get your boys in the courtyard.”
Sanders sighed, but Sick was the best. He had to trust her. The team assembled in the courtyard when a big black ball rolled through the gate with only the faint crunch of gravel announcing its arrival. It was the size of a very large beachball but had two camera sensor systems mounted on each side. It looked like an overinflated motorcycle tire — without the motorcycle.
He looked into one of the drone’s cameras. “Is that you, Sick?”
“One of my drone controllers. He commandeered an amphibious recon drone from the MEU that happened to be on the beach. Follow it.”
Sanders looked at the team. “We’re making a run for it. Follow me. If I go down, follow the bouncing ball.” The Marines and sailor grinned and checked their weapons one last time. He nodded at them and trotted for the gate. The ball rolled out in front of him.
They passed the gate into the open area between it and the village. Sanders picked up the pace and started sprinting. The ball drone kept a head of him. The driver was good. They reached the first building and the ball moved along the wall to a corner then peaked out down the street, just like a human would.
“Straight ahead,” Sick said.
The ball rolled across the street to the cover of an opposite building and the team followed. Another corner.
“Turn right here.”
The ball did so, and so did Sanders. He kept his rifle up straight ahead, ready to fire.
He followed the ball left. The street in front ended in a building. He saw the flash from a window first, then felt bullets skitter against stone all around him. He couldn’t see anything except the ball veering right.
“Right! Down the alley!” Sick yelled.
The team followed. The ball stopped in the cover of the alley and Sanders looked behind him to the team.
“No one’s hit,” Sick said. “Sorry about that, couldn’t see inside that building. Wait one.” Silence. “Sanders, you’re hit.”
He looked down. There was a red stain on his sleeve just above his left elbow.
“Just a flesh wound, Sick. My arm still works.”
“You don’t have time for Cramer to see to it. I’m using your armor to constrict blood flow at your armpit. You’re going to feel a little pinch.”
His armor constricted around his left arm just under his armpit. It was more than a pinch but it didn’t hurt. At least not in the sense of the word in a Marine’s unofficial dictionary of pain. The wound did hurt, but getting shot was supposed to. He could deal with it.
“Ok, moving on. Go down the alley and take the first right.”
The team moved out, following the ball’s path through the dust. A right turn, a long straightaway, then a left turn. The whole time Sanders could hear the shouts of the gathering fighters. If they were caught, they’d be dead. Or worse. The sun was out now and the time for sneaking around was pretty much gone. The lower flying drones overhead were visible, and about to become targets. Time was running out.
“You’re at the edge of the village. The fighters are just about to assault the compound. When they do, I have another F-35 drop ready for them. You’ve got a three mile run along a dirt path straight to the beach. I’ve got eyes all around it and it’s deserted. Ready?”
The ball rolled forward in a cloud of dust along the trail and the team chased it at a run. He signaled to the team to stay spread out and kept a high pace but not fast enough to make anyone throw up. Three miles was not a difficult distance for them, and the adrenaline seemed to compress time.
A mile out from the village he heard another earthshaking boom. Sick’s surprise for the fighters assaulting the compound.
After the second mile he started to hear the “brrrt, brrrt” noises of the Stinger drones firing their chain guns.
“What’s up, Sick?”
“They’re on your trail. Probably alerted to your escape by whoever shot at you. There’s not too many left though. I’m taking care of them.”
A mile later they reached the beach. The ball drone didn’t stop but rolled across the sand and into the water, floating away back to the Iwo Jima. An ACV was parked on the beach on the beach, its engine turned off with the gunner scanning the surroundings from behind his machine gun.
Sanders clicked on his radio and transmitted the brevity code “Frink” to notify command that he was at the extract point. He looked up at the gunner behind the machine gun.
“You’re clear,” he yelled. “Get in.”
Sanders motioned for his team to board the vehicle and scanned back along their route. Not a soul was pursuing them and birds were chirping on the quiet beach. Sanders boarded the ACV and lit a cigarette. He sat down heavily in a veil of smoke as the vehicle started moving and slipped back onto the waves.
“Hey, no smoking back there,” someone yelled from the cockpit.
Sanders exhaled smoke and clicked his radio on. “Sick. Thanks.”
“Glad you made it, Sanders. Sick out.”