Mark Edge is losing it. After a disastrous operation in Afghanistan, he lashes out at an American SEAL, who Edge knows is responsible for the death of one of his own men. His Officers on the Squadron believe that Edge should be temporally withdrawn from operations.
His astute wife knows there is something wrong with him and fears he has had enough.
Edge joins a unit of Green Berets in Colombia and quickly finds this is no rest tour. He meets a duplicitous British embassy staffer who is an MI6 Agent and a beautiful but hopeless CIA officer.
As usual, trouble haunts his footsteps as he is thrown into conflict with the drug cartels and finds out friends cannot be relied upon. The real enemies are the mountains and jungles of the blighted country.
Operation Moshtarak March 2010
Staff Sergeant Mark Edge was a worried man. Some would say he was a real “cup-half-full” and a dour individual, but he was running through the “what if?” scenarios. Because now he was the leader of the rump of SAS troopers, and it was his duty to work out the odds and what could go wrong. One thing nearly a lifetime of soldiering had taught him was that things could go wrong and when they did, they happened with alarming speed.
It had started as a joint find-fix-strike operation, to sweep Marjah in Helmand Province, and clear the way for Canadian Troops. Operating with the US SEALs, the Special Forces had killed many Taliban leaders and destroyed several drug factories in ambushes and by calling in air strikes. But then everything changed and they were redeployed to hunt for a pair of Canadian Evangelists, who had gone missing in the south of their area of responsibilities (AOR).
Their church reported them missing after they missed their second scheduled phone call and this was reported to the Canadian authorities. It was a difficult task to track down a single vehicle in a country the size of Afghanistan, but their last reported sighting was of them leaving Kandahar in a 4×4. There was no trace in Lashkar Gah but a vehicle matching the description of the Canadians 4×4 was seen headed west a number of weeks previously. An RQ4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone sent imagery of a 4×4 that it spotted in a village west of Marjah and intelligence staff identified two possible locations in the hills where the couple might be being held.
There was a large, joint SEAL/SAS operation in the area to track down members of the Taliban leadership and it was relatively easy to re-task these Special Forces assets in a potential hostage rescue; that was assuming the Canadians were still alive. The Americans conducted close, covert reconnaissance of the small village but drew a blank. The SAS team concentrated on the large, walled complex in the hills. Guy Jarvis had entered the complex, dangerous even in the small-hours. He found them and where they were being held. He made a report very quietly on the net to Mr H, their patrol leader. There were eight of them conducting close surveillance from hides around the complex. Morrison was on a month of well-earned leave, probably schmoozing with Micky Keeble’s sister. Edge was with the main force and the Americans, and he had made an enemy.
The British Special Forces or rather the rump of them, were teamed up with the four remaining SEALs. Although Edge probably outranked the leader of the four Americans, politics ensured that an American SEAL was in command. Edge wasn’t happy because right from the beginning of the operation, Petty Officer Kelly had taken an instant dislike to the taciturn Staff Sergeant Edge. Petty Officer Kelly wore his Irish Americanism like a grudge and all the British in general and specifically, Edge was his focus.
Edge was no natural when it came to leadership, but he had a job to do and he would do it to the best of his abilities. Firstly, he checked his troopers, ensuring there were no loose pieces of equipment. He confirmed each man including himself, carried a spare belt of ammunition for Corporal “Dinger” Bell, who was hefting the 7.62 version of the Minime. He checked their soft water bottles strapped to the side of their Daypacks were full, the drinking tubes over their shoulders were clean and their helmet mounted NVGs were operating. Finally, he asked Sergeant Boothe to check his equipment. He didn’t need to tell the three troopers they would be going into contact that night. They were wearing standard MTP uniform with Kevlar knee and elbow pads, cutaway Kevlar helmets for the radio equipment and Interceptor body armour.
Satisfied, Edge said: “I thought Kelly would have briefed us all together, but clearly not, so I’ll do it.”
“Situation: Enemy forces not known but probably at least twenty. Standard weapons with possible RPGs.
“Mission: Our force will be inserted by helicopters and approach the complex on foot, to conduct a coup de main attack tying up the defenders. We are on the left flank supporting the SEALs. The observation unit will storm the complex and free the hostages. We will cover their withdrawal and move back to the helicopters. The entire force will be flown to Kandahar on completion of the mission.
“Timings: We move out as soon as the choppers land. All radio comms through me. I will relay to Kelly. I wish we had more role radios but we don’t and will have to make the best of it.”
Edge then asked some questions to check understanding and then the character assassination group started.
“Edge, why can’t we get the Yanks back from their pointless exercise in that village?”
“Because Jarvis thinks they’re going to move the hostages, which is why we’re going in tonight.”
“What does Mr Hogan advise?”
“I haven’t been able to communicate with him.”
“So, the only person who can communicate with the SEALs is you and you can’t even speak to our lads in the complex?” Trooper James asked, almost aghast.
“And the man supposed to be leading this evolving cluster, couldn’t be arsed to brief us?”
Edge kept quiet.
“Why, Edge?” asked Sergeant Boothe.
“Because Kelly is an Irish American, whatever that means and he hates the Brits, me especially.”
“This has got all the makings of a cake and arse party.”
And then they waited. Edge went outside for a cigarette and was halfway through it when Kelly appeared.
“Have your Hereford Faggots got their shit together?”
Edge flicked the cigarette away contemptuously, “When do we go, Kelly?”
“In fifteen minutes as soon as they have the choppers checked. Don’t fuck this up, Edge.”
“I’ll be watching you, Petty Officer Kelly.”
“Fuck you, Edge.”
Edge went back into crumbling Afghan complex to grab his team, “We move in ten minutes.”
He fitted the personal role radio gear, the rest of the team already wearing theirs and Edge made a comms check, ” Delta One from Delta Two, radio check, over.”
There was just the hiss of static.
“Come on, Kelly, answer the fucking radio. Delta One from Delta Two, radio check, over.”
Sergeant Boothe raised his eyes.
“Delta Two from Delta One, OK.”
“Right, let’s go fellas. Remember your drills. Don’t bunch together. We go forward, not back and no man left behind.”
It was a short jog to the landing site, where two Blackhawk helicopters stood, engines running and blades turning. The SEALs were already on-board the lead Blackhawk and a Master Crewman directed the SAS team to the second.aircraft. It made sense to split the teams in case a helicopter went down, but they were already undermanned.
The Blackhawk rose and turned quickly, following the first aircraft with the SEALs on board. It was impossible to see the passing terrain, but occasionally they made out the hills towering above them. The flight lasted some twenty minutes before the helicopters slowed and circled above their landing site. They disembarked quickly and Edge checked no kit had been left behind. He was the last off.
“Good luck and God’s speed,” the Master Crewman said to him. Edge tapped his leg in thanks and went out into the swirling dust.
They crouched down while the helicopters took off to loiter, waiting for their return and not on the ground, where they were in danger from enemy ground fire. The helicopters were a diminishing drone when Kelly came on the radio.
“OK, let’s move.”
They advanced up the hill in extended arrowhead formation, Edge’s section forming the left-hand-side of the formation. When they studied the maps prior to the operation, they knew they would be advancing uphill towards the complex. But this was nothing compared to the terrain they were ascending. The ground was deeply rutted with dry water courses running down hill and while these could provide a degree of cover, they were full of camel thorn bushes, whose barbs tangled their equipment and tore uniforms and flesh. The compound itself was a hollow square of high walls and buildings, living quarters, storerooms and buildings for the animals, almost clinging to the side of the hill. Edge moved his NVGs up and out of the way, preferring to rely on his night vision.
It was hard going and in places the troopers had to scramble up on all fours. After about thirty minutes they came across an area of clear ground, unencumbered by boulders or cover. In the distance they could hear gunfire and concluded the observation team were fighting in the complex. Time was now of the essence.
It was as they were crossing the cleared ground that the ambush came down on top of them. About four AK47 were sending the rounds down and they knew that this was effective fire targeting them, because of the proximity of the rounds cracking overhead. They went to ground, but each man crawled between five and ten metres to cover, so they wouldn’t reappear in the same position when returning the fire.
“Come on, Dinger, get the Minime up and running.”
They commenced a ripple fire of short bursts with longer ones from the Minime at the Taliban positions to suppress their fire. Kelly came over the radio
“Prepare to move… Move!”
The SAS troopers increased the rate of fire as the SEALs moved forward and once they were in cover and returning fire, the troopers were ready to advance.
“Prepare to move… Move!”
They dashed forward, zig-zagging across the ground, bypassing the SEALs to a new position within grenade range of the Taliban locations. Once again, the troopers were sending rounds forward. Edge fired a tracer round and he knew this was the last couple of rounds.
He changed the magazine and continued firing.
“I need more rounds,” Dinger said over the net and James crawled over to him with another belt of 7.62 ammunition.
“OK, this is it. The fight through. Stand by,” Kelly said over the net, “Move!”
The SEALs dashed towards the Taliban’s defensive line and began to roll up the water course. Edge and the troopers checked fire to prevent hitting the SEALs. They found a dead body, which they checked was dead by firing a burst at the head. They used grenades to clear enemy cover and found just two more dead. Three Taliban fighters had fooled them into thinking there were far more of them, by judicious use of cover and moving position after each shot.
It was then that Edge’s maxim proved things were unravelling with astonishing speed. The frontal ambush had been a rope-a-dope tactic, because as soon as the SEALs reached the cover of the water course, a second Taliban group opened fire from the right flank, enfilading the SEALs, who were now trying to react to this new threat. They were firing down their own lines, pinned in the depression with no room to manoeuvre. The SEAL nearest to the Taliban positions, hit by a high velocity round in the occipital bone. He would never get up again.
“All call signs, I have a man down. Receiving heavy fire from right flank.”
In dirty and complicated circumstances, the leadership of junior and senior NCOs is paramount. It takes a rare talent to rally a team and react quickly and effectively to complex, evolving situations. To motivate men to put their lives in danger, despite the noise and confusion of a firefight.
Edge loathed the Taliban and everything they stood for. He hated their barbarism and cruelty and their penchant for lopping the ears and noses of women who upset them. The Taliban ensured their country remained a tribal, medieval hell hole, stuck forever in the past. But it was their country and in his considered opinion, they were the best light infantry in the world. And what’s more, their jobs had become more difficult since leaked photographs showed dead Taliban fighters being ridiculed, posed and pissed on by American Special Forces soldiers. Edge had a strange, moral code of conflict. If an enemy asked for quarter, he would give it if circumstances permitted. The killing of three IRA men had stayed with him, the guilt never went away. He had been close enough to be showered with their blood and he would wake at night, gasping and in a cold sweat.
“Left section will move around you and take their positions from their left flank. Keep them suppressed until I call on you to check fire. I don’t want my men shot by your team, while we’re clearing their positions.”
Unlike yours, he could have said.
“I’ll lead, then James, Boothe and Dinger, you’ll be stopping any attempt to outflank us. “Edge threw him a belt of ammunition.
“Right section we’re preparing to move. Move!”
Edge hit them on their left flank as the US SEALs slackened their fire. A young boy, too immature to wear a turban spotted the troopers come in on their flank. The boy’s AK47 seemed bigger than him, but he fired a burst at Edge and he felt a round rip through the material of his trousers.
Edge killed him and then started to lob grenades into the Taliban positions. James was firing like something possessed, clearing the enemy lines and Dinger cut down three attempting to flee uphill, back to the compound. Edge came across a Taliban in cover, badly wounded and trying to raise his weapon. He kicked the AK47 away and headed uphill. One he was convinced was playing possum, in order to attack them from behind. Boothe put a short burst into the Taliban’s head and the troopers went into cover, the dead and severely wounded lying around them like scattered rags.
He allowed their adrenalin rates to fall then went on the net.
“We will now assume the right flank. On my…”
“I’m in charge, Edge!”
“Not any more, Kelly. You fucked up.”
Heavy gunfire was coming from the complex and they went into all round defence as the SAS troopers came out of the buildings. They carried two bodies, a dead trooper and the female hostage. Jarvis was being helped along. Both she and Jarvis were covered with blood.
“He’s OK, Edge. Took a burst on the back of his body armour, trying to protect the woman. Jock Porter was killed fighting in the complex. All for nothing I’m afraid.”
As they withdrew’ Kelly passed the position the Taliban had been defending. He went into the rocks, found the immobile Taliban and put several bursts into the wounded man.
“Just what did that achieve, Kelly?”
“You Brit bastards are too squeamish to do a man’s job, so I did it for you.”
“I hope the Taliban get you, cut off your balls and stuff them in your mouth.”
By the time they reached the landing site, Jarvis was unconscious. Edge got on the second chopper with the bodies, the dead woman and her inconsolable husband and the medics. He checked the back of the dead SEAL’s head and found a gunshot wound, a small entrance wound in the occipital bone and a larger exit hole with some bone loss.
Edge quoted quietly the Catholic prayer for those who have fallen in battle:
“All Powerful God,
We honour today those men and women—
Our sons and daughters,
Husbands and wives,
Fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers—
Who have laid down their life for their country.
Whether weary or emboldened, quiet or defiant,
Vulnerable or ready when You called them home,
Their sacrifice is too humbling for words
except these uttered in prayer.
Loving Lord, bless them forever in Your eternal peace…
Cherish their spirit, honour their commitment,
send them our love,
and will never forget the service that they gave.”
On the flight to Kandahar, Edge cradled the unconscious Jarvis like a child, the darkened mountains passing below, the gale from the open door snatching his smock. When they landed, Edge gave his report to the Captain and Warrant Officer Hogan, smoked a cigarette and wondered how he was going to play this.
His next visit was to see James. The eight-man assault team was now seven and the mood was subdued.
“What happened in there, James?”
“We cocked-up the recon. There were far more than we thought, even though Jarvis had gone in alone to pinpoint the hostages. It was an incredibly brave thing to do. Well, when we went in it was like poking your bell-end in a fire ants’ nest. We had to blow the cell doors and suddenly they were everywhere. Jock Porter went down when we were fighting our way out of the building. Ena Sharples had the husband and Jarvis had the woman, because of his gentle and calming manner.
They started to lob grenades. I found a niche, Ena pulled the husband into a room, but Jarvis had nowhere to go. He grabbed the woman and held onto her, to protect her when the grenades went off. Then a fighter sprayed the corridor with gunfire and two rounds hit Jarvis on his body armour. Unfortunately, the woman was hit in the throat. He tried everything to save her, but by the time the medic struggled his way in, she was dead.
“Thanks James. I’m really sorry about Jock. Unfortunately, we were lumbered with the SEAL, job experience boys, led by a rabid hater of all things British.”
Edge went to see Jarvis in the Role 2 Enhanced at Kandahar. He was lying on his side trying to read a book, it was impossible to lie on his back.
“What’s the damage?” Edge asked.
“Sprung ribs, one broken. Fragments from a grenade in my thighs.”
“So, the body armour does work, doesn’t it?”
“Where the hell were you lot?”
Edge pulled up a chair and sat down. He looked long and hard at Jarvis, “We were there. It was just uncoordinated.”
“Whoever came up with such a dammed fool plan should be shot!”
“There wasn’t time. We had to act, to take the risk.”
“We took the risk and paid for it,” Jarvis said bitterly.
“We lost a man fighting our way up to the complex.”
Edge lit a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
“Really?” Edge said, “What happens to you now?”
“Medical flight back to the UK and when I get back to the Lines, I’m putting in a formal complaint regarding the conduct of this operation.”
A nurse came into the ward, scowled at Edge and took the cigarette off him. She left to dispose of it and he chuckled.
“Guy, what will be the point of putting in a formal complaint? Will it change anything? Will it bring Jock Porter, the SEAL or that Canadian woman back to life? Will it make her husband’s grief go away?”
“No, but I’m sick of being used. Where was that woman’s God? What was God doing while she was being raped and abused?”
“You can’t blame God for every death in the world.”
Jarvis looked at him angrily, “I don’t blame God, because God doesn’t exist. That poor woman knows that now. She wasted her precious life on a fictional concept of a supreme being and an afterlife. Just stupid!”
“Perhaps her belief in God gave her some solace in the end.”
“It was their stupid belief in God that got them into trouble in the first place!”
Edge sighed and looked at the floor, “Guy, sometimes operations go wrong. They just do. It’s the nature of the beast. We operate in a chaotic and messy environment, with plenty of scope for cock-ups and they happen. Shit happens.”
“And people die. I watched the life go out of her, I was covered with it and even tasted it and there was nothing I could do.”
Edge stood up and smiled sadly at his comrade, “Go home. Do the physio they tell you to do and get looked after by that nice Welsh girl who I’m willing to bet, thinks the world of you. We’ll chat when I get home if you like. It may be time to think long and hard if this is the job you still want to do. I know I’ve had cause to evaluate my own life.”
“Are you the bloody padre now, Edge?”
Edge recoiled slightly as though he had been struck and Jarvis felt sorry and immediately regretted what he had said. It wasn’t Edge’s fault, “Sorry, Edge.”
Edge looked at Jarvis’ book. It was The Little Drummer Girl, “Not a good choice of reading material, Guy, given the distressing ending. Martine Krowchuk, by the way.”
“The woman you tried to save. Her name was Martine Krowchuk. You did your best.”
“But it wasn’t good enough, was it?”
Edge went out with a gloomy feeling and went to find the nurse to apologise. Guy Jarvis would have to come to terms with his own demons, as Edge had to do with his.
Back in the transit block, there were eight beds, real beds with mattresses. Edge had made sure they got a hot meal and now the three troopers had cleaned their weapons, checked their kit and lay dozing or reading on the beds. Kelly and the SEALs were holding court down the other end of the room and looked up when Edge came in.
“Well, if it isn’t Edge, the faggot-in-chief.”
One of the SEALs chortled but the other two looked embarrassed. Edge cleaned his carbine and sorted out his kit, re packing the items in his bergen in sealable plastic bags. He changed his trousers and saw a ragged graze on his thigh, caused by the rounds which narrowly missed him. He paid absolutely no attention to Kelly’s carping, methodically going through his kit with a gentle smile. Booth recognised that smile and was worried. It was dangerous.
Edge looked up at a guffaw of laughter. All three American troops were looking at him.
“Hey, Kelly. You lot like to call themselves “Irish American,” don’t they?”
Kelly looked at him with contempt.
“It’s just that why don’t the Russian immigrants call themselves “Russian American,” or the Greeks, “Greek American,” just the Micks. Do you think you’re special?”
Kelly stood up, his fists clenching.
“If the IRA are “freedom fighters,” why do they like blowing women and children to pieces?”
“Fuck you, Edge,”
The smile was still there, but now it was terrible to behold, “I’ve put bits of kids in a body bag. Does that make you “Irish Americans” feel good about the cause? Are the Provos any different to the Taliban? How would you feel if charity fundraising dinners for the Taliban were held in London?”
“That’s a fucking stupid comparison? You Brits fucked up, you couldn’t even clear the complex and one of my men died.”
“Is it? The relatives of the kids slaughtered might disagree with you. And we lost a trooper in there because you were plodding up the hill like carthorses. OK, let’s do a lesson in ballistics. Let’s compare the standard NATO 5.56mm with the AK47s 7.62mm rounds. The 5.56 round sacrifices kinetic energy for the ability to carry more ammunition. The damage is caused when the small round starts to tumble, usually after 250 metres. But the 7.62, now that’s a different kettle of fish.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Edge?”
“The 7.62 packs a heavier punch,” Edge pulled up his undershirt to expose a ragged and torn area of flesh, still angry red, “Nine years ago I was shot, just a nick, but the 7.62 round’s cavitation opened me up like a meat cleaver.”
“Big deal, you got shot. I don’t know if you Brits know, but the idea is not to get shot.”
“I had a look at the back of your dead SEAL’s skull. A nice, neat little entrance wound, with a larger exit would and some bone loss. If he had been shot by a 7.62 round, he would have lost half his head. I am forced to conclude that he was shot by his own side. You did something tonight that was unthinkable…”
Kelly was on his feet and approaching Edge with a face, white and pinched in anger. Trooper James slipped out of the door and went into the night.
“You did the unthinkable, Kelly. You fired down your own gun line and killed one of your own men. You’re fucking incompetent and I wouldn’t follow you to a petting zoo!”
Kelly was nearly on Edge, his K-bar knife drawn back to strike. Edge moved like a cobra striking and hit Kelly just under his nose with the fleshy part of his hand. The blow was not powerful enough to kill, but Kelly went down unconscious with blood and mucus streaming from his mouth and nose. Edge stood up and stared at the two SEALs still on their feet.
“Right, which one of you bastards is next?”
The door opened and Warrant Hogan came in, followed by Trooper James.
“Stand down, gentlemen, if you’d be so kind. Edge, outside with me now!”
Outside, Edge slumped against a Hesco bastion and lit a cigarette. The Warrant Officer stared into the dawn. Then he spoke without looking at Edge.
“What have you done you bloody fool?”
“He had it coming, Mr H.”
“But you clobbered him”
“He had a knife.”
“Did you provoke him?”
“I proved he was responsible for killing his own man. It doesn’t matter if he pulled the trigger or not, he fucked up and we had to get them out of the shit.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Edge. We won’t be able to sit on this one,” The Warrant Officer was struck by a thought, “Have you had enough, lad?”
Edge ground the cigarette out under his boot, “There’s something I need to do yet.”
“It’s a deeply personal matter, Mr H.”
“You will seek help if you need it?”
“I guess I’m so sorry that we lost Jock Porter and so nearly Guy Jarvis. I hate this fucking country. There just doesn’t seem any point in what we do.”
“Remember: He who would valiant be. ‘Gainst all disaster, Let him in constancy, Follow the Master.…”
He patted Edge on the shoulder, “Be a Pilgrim, Edge. I’ll do what I can to keep the wolves away from your sledge, but have witnesses and make sure your story’s watertight.”
© Blown Periphery 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file