Daniel Steciak

January 2011


It is evening time, and five of us are sitting in a warm room around the fire. The room is dim, and smells of wood smoke, cigarettes, and dust. Months ago, the room had been a farmer’s barn; now it is a makeshift living quarters for soldiers. Our small outpost is a walled compound on a hill, rented from the owner for what is, in Afghanistan, a small fortune. My platoon is spending a week-long rotation there, patrolling the nearby village of Juy Zarin in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province.

The Tangi Valley runs north-south alongside a river, and the paved roadway through it has become known to some of the soldiers in my company as “Walter Reed Highway” for the thirty IED-related casualties it has produced in the previous three months. Few of the villagers are openly hostile towards us, but they are always mindful of the Taliban, who move through the valley at night. They are in a delicate situation-- we Americans have much to offer them, but they know that we will not be in their valley forever, and they know that the ANA and ANP cannot fight the insurgency alone.

Shank, our forward observer, grabs the teapot off of the fire and begins pouring the tor chai, Afghan black tea, into cups made from plastic water bottles. I reach for my cup, and hear an explosion, the unmistakable noise of an RPG being launched, and the men at the guard post on the roof above our heads begin shouting, “Contact, from the woodline!” As we scramble out of the room, I hear AK and PKM fire coming from the trees near the river, and tracers fly over the compound’s wall towards the southern and eastern guard posts. My body armor is in my room, only fifty meters away, and I run along the wall towards the west corner of the qalat.

At the corner, I pause. My equipment is up the hill, and the entire slope is taking small arms fire, tracers skipping off of rocks or embedding themselves in dirt. The noises add up to a steady drone, with bursts of light- and medium-machine gun fire punctuated by the crack of rifles and 40mm grenades exploding; our fire and theirs merging together. For a moment, the enemy fire focuses on the northern and southern guard positions, and I run up the hill, making my way along a narrow path in the rock.

Reaching the top, I duck in to my squad’s room and throw on my body armor, grab my rifle, and put on my helmet. My eyes fall on the M72 rocket launcher I’ve been carrying around for months, and I snag it up by the strap. I kneel in the doorway and raise my M14 to my face. Looking through the scope, I see muzzle flashes from two areas in the woodline-- one cluster to my south near a stone wall, the other to the southwest next to a bend in the river. On my left, our northern position is taking heavy fire, and chips of straw and mud are flying off of the adobe wall that forms the rear of the guard post.

I fire five rounds at the southwest position close to where I saw machine gun muzzle flashes, then let my rifle hang by its sling. Cradling the M72 in my arms, I pull the safety pin, pop the sight covers off, and extend the firing tube. I’m too close to the building and the wall behind me, so I move out in to the open, and my pulse increases as I leave the cover of the doorway. Kneeling, I look behind me, shout “Backblast area clear!” I pull the safety tab, use the machine gun fire as an aimpoint, and squeeze the firing button.

The noise is deafening, and a cloud of dust swirls up around me. The rocket flies towards its target, a red streak against the mottled green background, and without waiting to see it hit, I move back towards the safety of the doorway. By this time, there is far more fire coming from our side than theirs—it has been perhaps five minutes since the initial shots. This is a probing attack, nothing more. The enemy fire is dying away, for they know that they have only minutes before we bring helicopters down on them. I raise my rifle, and fire at the enemy positions, though I know my chances of hitting anything are slim. After a minute or two, all is quiet, and I can hear the faint sound of rotary-wing aircraft; Apaches from FOB Shank, ready to rain fire down on the insurgents who are no longer there.

Dust and smoke are slowly settling, and the entire area smells of powder, an acrid stench that hangs in the air. My friend Hayes and I rush over to our squad’s position, and begin checking our men for ammunition and injuries. It is a quick but thorough check, looking for blood, shrapnel, and other wounds. None of them have seen combat before, and they are excited to have finally met the enemy who has been blowing them up for months on end.

At the bottom of the hill, I meet with our platoon leader and some of the other NCOs. The atmosphere is warm; there are no friendly casualties and we report ammunition levels amidst jokes and banter about the firefight. There is an air of muted celebration, as all of us come down from the adrenaline we hadn’t had the chance to notice before. I dig in my pocket and hand out cigarettes. Lighting mine, I inhale deeply. The light is fading, and soon the call to prayer will echo through the valley, as it has for centuries.

It has been no more than ten or fifteen minutes since the first round fired. This was a minor skirmish, one that will determine nothing in the overall scheme of things, but none of that matters to us in the here and now. I put out my cigarette and begin walking up the hill to my soldiers.



on August 7, 2011

hi dan hope all is well.at least as well as it could be considering the circumstances.after the article that hit this morning,chinook goes down in rescue mission,30 service members lost.i started lookin around for all the information i could get on the area indicated in the article.seems operations have been goin on in the tangi joy zarin valley in wardak province for sometime.i would like to personally thank you at this point.while you and your unit was engaged on the 21st of january.i was preparing to celebrate my birthday so again just let me say thank you . i think you are right though that encounter was meant to test your response.its obvious in light of recent events in the area.i do have one question though "i know you probably cant answer"its a two parter. what brought down the chopper and where did they get it ?thank you for listening.but most of all for just being there in so many ways. prayers always legion

Dr. W

on January 29, 2011

So glad you 'lived to tell the story', Your narration is riveting and paints a picture some of us can not begin to imagine.
Hope to see you soon...all the best, and
Dr. W


on January 24, 2011

Great story, thanks for sharing.

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