'The Spotted Beast' Chapter 1: A High Value Target

Michael H. Varhola

The Spotted Beast Chapter 1: A High Value Target

It was the captain's idea, and it seemed like a good one at first. It was a variation on hammer and anvil, the captain explained, and my team, Team A, was the anvil. We’d hit them from above, where they’d least expect it, push down to the second level, and hold it. Team B, would come in at the ground level and push them up and into us. This seemed more like hammer and hammer to me, but the captain was a West Point grad, and I was just a buck sergeant on my first enlistment.

It was still dark when we’d slipped into the village. We’d left the Humvees a ways back and had moved in on foot. The captain, the detachment sergeant, and Team B, the so-called hammer, concealed themselves facing the front of the building in a chaotic jumble of mud bricks and low walls that might have once been somebody's home. Team C moved to cover the rear of the apartment.

We crossed over from the roof of the adjacent apartment, each man in full battle rattle carefully balancing on the two thick planks we’d hauled up from the rubble of a bombed-out building.

The goal was surprise: be in position at BMNT, at the first glimmer of dawn - then hit the target, and any guards he might have, fast and hard while they were still asleep. If we could capture anybody alive, especially the HVT, we would. If not, we’d bring back pictures and DNA, and, if luck was with us, intelligence.

The Old Man had decided to wrap up the whole network in this sector. We knew a lot about them already, but not enough. That’s because HUMINT team's source was dead now -- beheaded in front of his wife and kids in the village square. So now we were blind. Also, the Hajiis had learned to keep off the cell phones. So we were deaf too. There was nothing left but to take out those we knew about, and hope the interrogators could get something out of whoever we managed to capture. And, of course, the jackpot for this raid would be the HVT himself, Haji Jaan - insha’allah, God willing, as the Hajis say.

The team had just managed to make it across the gap between the two apartments when the dogs started to bark. First one, then another, and finally the whole village seemed reverberate with the canine chorus. We half expected this. We were lucky to have gotten as far as we had without rousing them. It might not have been the detachment. It might have just been the sun clearing the horizon. It didn't much matter now.

The team took up positions, one squad on either side of the trapdoor that opened onto the second level, just as we had rehearsed back at the FOB. Then, without further direction, one soldier from each squad secured a  rope with a grappling hook to opposite sides of the low mud-brick wall that encircled the roof, and then carefully placed the coiled end at the feet of their respective squad leaders. They then silently took up their new positions, training their weapons on the two adjacent buildings. I was the closest to the opening, but I could see nothing but the top part of the access ladder that faded into a dark interior that was impervious to the early morning light. There was only silence below, while outside in the village the cacophony of the dogs gradually subsided into sporadic yelps. The odor from my armpits managed to seep through my body armor and into my nostrils, briefly winning out over the smell of donkey dung, dust, and out-houses that dominated the village. It was the smell of fear and I knew it. But it wasn't the first time, and probably not the last.  

Lieutenant Kyler had been designated as the head of Team A. Like the detachment as a whole, the team had been built and organized for this mission, with two squads in each team. Kyler was otherwise a platoon leader, my platoon leader in fact. He was the senior man on the roof, and now everyone waited on his signal. I liked Kyler. Like many of the Georgia boys in the battalion, Kyler seemed to be a natural born soldier. He was steady in action, got along with those above him, and took a personal interest in each man in platoon, black, white or Hispanic. His young son back at Fort Carson idolized him. He wanted nothing more in life than to put on the Army Service Uniform and follow in his father's footsteps. 

Kyler signaled to his fire team leaders. It was time to execute the next phase. I motioned to Corporals Cox and Alvarez. They fired short bursts from their M-4s, then froze -- listening. There was no response -- not a sound.

The lieutenant turned to the men covering their rear. “Hixson, get over here.  Yalla!”

“Moving, Lieutenant.”

Hixson carried one of the team’s two M-203 grenade launchers, which was attached to the underside of the M-4 rifle.  

“You see that doorway there?” Kyler pointed toward the outline of an open doorway, now visible, but barely, in the wane light filtering in from above. “Drop one in there." Hixson stepped over to the opening, quickly sighted, and squeezed the trigger. Dust and debris exploded from the trap door. From over the wall came the sound of what must have been the front door crashing in. Team B was making its move. The sound of small arms fire followed, M-4 intermingled with AK-47, all muted by the thick concrete and brick walls of the apartment.

From somewhere below I could hear a rhythmic cry drifting up: “Allahu Akhbar!  Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!”  It wasn’t a prayer.  It was a death chant.  The Hajis understood the situation; they were covered top and bottom. They were just trying to prop up their courage long enough to take some infidels with them.

"The rest of you follow me," Kyler said. 

"Charloe . . .”

I turned to face him. He looked the perfect warrior, calm, self-assured, and he always lead from the front.

“Cover my six.”

"Yes, Sir."

“Mother fuckers, mother fuckers, mother fuckers,” Cox screamed his own chant. As he let go another burst from his M-4.

I could see that Cox was losing it.  This was his first real action and he’d seen his buddy from basic training taken out by IED during their last mission. There wasn’t anything anybody could do about it now — except clear the building as quickly as they could, secure the detainees, and try to get back to the relative safety of base camp without taking any more casualties.

I was scared too. I had that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that I always had just before I went into action. I’d work through it. Once we started down ropes, adrenalin and training would take over. I’d be right behind Kyler, covering down on the left, so the he could focus on any threats to the front.  The third man in would cover right. That’s how we trained. We had to work as a team, like a machine, really, if we were going to make it.  I owed this to the team; they were all laying it on the line for me too.

I glanced at the 2nd ID patch on my right shoulder. It was an idealized native American, as they called them now (I should say “us” really, I guess), in full headdress. It stared not at him, but directly backwards, as if watching his rear. On his left shoulder was the same patch. That one faced forward.

"It's once more into the breach, Grandpa," I said, but silently, telepathically, the way we had always communicated.

Jake could feel the second explosion through his boots, but no blast came up through the hatchway. Hixson must have succeeded in getting that one deep into the next room.

“Follow me!”  Kyler shouted, as his gloved hands grasped the rope and he quickly slid to the floor. Using the second rope, I was seconds behind him as the lieutenant charged into the building, past passageways leading off to left and right, and through the open doorway directly ahead.  Looking past the lieutenant, Jake could see a twisted body lying in a pool of blood. Behind him, he could hear Hixson shouting, “Go right, go right!  No, I mean left!”

Who that was meant for: Kyler, me, or the squad members following behind us? I would never know for sure. But I stopped and trained my rifle down the left-side passageway. I was squinting into the dimness when I heard a burst of fire from somewhere inside the room that Kyler had just entered. This was followed by the thud of a body hitting the floor.

I will never forget what I felt at that moment. My stomach heaved and I could feel the blood pounding in the veins in my temples, but somehow the moment seemed unreal and I must have frozen.

“Fuck,” I shouted.  “Lieutenant.  You OK?”

“Charloe, get moving, man. Just don’t stand there.”

I turned to see Alvarez just behind me. I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself – because I was moving – but maybe I wasn’t. And anyway, this wasn’t the time or place for that kind of crap.

As I stepped into the room, rifle at the ready, I could see that Lieutenant Kyler was down, just inside and to the left of the doorway. He was on his knees, bent over, and clutching his belly. There another Haji stretched out on the floor, and was blood everywhere. Its sharp metallic stench, mingled with the smell of weapons’ fire and ruptured intestines, breached my nostrils and caught in my throat. I could feel my gorge rising. I clenched my jaws tightly in an effort not to throw up.

Looking past the lieutenant, I could see another doorway, maybe the stairway down to the ground floor. I caught a glimpse of movement disappearing into the shadows and fired a short burst in that direction. Bullets ricocheted off of the plastered brick wall.

He could hear Alvarez coming into the room behind me as a small figure emerged from the doorway.

I swung my weapon and began to squeeze the trigger. Then I hesitated. It was a just a boy, disheveled and ragged looking, and unarmed. He held something in his right hand.

A satchel, the size of a gym bag, came sailing directly at me as I cut him down, but too late.

“IED!” I yelled as I turned to escape and collided with Alvarez, pushing that soldier back through the doorway, and in the process shielding him from the explosive device.

I felt myself being lifted up.  Then there was blackness. Whether or not I felt pain, I could never recall.


To Be Continued