San Luis Airfield Forward Operating Base, the Ranch of Camilo Hernández and University Hospital Department of Nariño
The two Blackhawk helicopters flared above San Luis Airfield and went into the hover above two concrete dispersals. San Luis was the closest airfield to the border and had a refuelling capability. Each one had an underslung load of a generator and fuel and as the helicopters deposited their loads, Edge and Wilson ran up to them with earthing hooks to uncouple the loads. The Blackhawks put down some distance away, and Vaughn and Garcia got out of the first and Nguyen out of the second. With Edge’s and Wilson’s help they dragged the tents out of the helicopters to where they would be set up, a command post and a medical facility.
The two pharmacists’ mates set up the air blower and connected it to the generator. Edge started to move lacon boxes of medical kit from the pile where they had been dumped off the helicopter. Then he went and helped Wilson and Nguyen put up the conventional tent for the command post and connect the lighting and power outlets. Wilson carried in the comms equipment. They would be a forward node to the main communications hub back at Pasto.
The two Blackhawks left to go back to Pasto and as Vaughn and Garcia seemed to have the medical treatment facility up and running, Edge went to see if he could help with the command post. He was wearing his usual combat clothes with body armour, simply as somewhere to carry his spare magazines.
“Look at you, Edge,” Wilson remarked, “All dressed up and no place to go.”
“So, you’ve heard.”
“Just about everyone has heard, Edge. Are you pissed?”
“What’s the point? The Pentagon has decreed it and I wouldn’t embarrass the Major by kicking off. You don’t need me.”
“You’ll be going soon, won’t you?” Nguyen asked, “Back to Britain.”
“I guess so. Don’t ask me if I’ll miss you because I hate tearful goodbyes.”
“I won’t miss your “borrowing,” Edge.”
Edge looked out of the tent flap at the airfield, “This is a bloody, desolate place, Nguyen.”
“I’ve seen worse. At least it has a control tower and fuel. What will you do once the operation starts?”
“Go and help the medics,” Edge said almost reluctantly, “I hope we won’t be busy.”
“Amen to that.”
The large ranch was about 4 miles east of Tulcan and a mere twenty minutes’ walk away from the Colombian border. It was a large, spreading area, with a two-winged hacienda, stable blocks, garages for the many cars, built in a mock colonial style. Lawns swept northwards towards the trees, well-tended and watered, with an ornamental garden near to the hacienda. Without doubt, Camilo Hernández was accustomed to living a comfortable life, happy with the huge revenues that flowed from the production and distribution of cocaine. On the morning that Edge and the rest of the troops got off the helicopters, it was completely empty.
While the buildings were empty, the trees and scrub surrounding the property were teeming with an enhanced company of the Ecuadorian 9th Special Forces Brigade “Patria.” They were expecting an illegal incursion into Ecuador by American Special Forces, and they were ready for them.
The first of the limousines arrived late morning and parked in designated areas around the buildings. Like the buildings, the cars were empty apart from the drivers, who after parking the vehicles, walked through the gatehouse where a minibus was waiting to ferry them out of the area.
From an American perspective, Ecuador is a low-interest country and, thus US has developed a specific foreign policy towards it. There are two main goals driving US foreign policy towards Ecuador: democracy promotion and to encourage Ecuador in free market reforms by American economic initiatives like Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA). At present, US, European countries and Russia are all competing to control the keys of the Ecuadorian market.
The inauguration of Lenin Moreno as Ecuador’s new President on May 24th creates an opportunity for the United States to reconstruct its relationship with Latin America’s left. It’s a new relationship that the U.S. should pursue with a combination of respect and great caution.
Under Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s government pursued a policy that sometimes deliberately, and other times indirectly, undermined the strategic interests of the United States. The expulsion of the U.S. military from its forward operating location at Manta, Ecuador in September 2009 reduced the effectiveness of efforts to address narcotics trafficking in the region.
At the same time, the Correa government was an active participant and an advocate of leftist organizations working against U.S. influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Bolivarian Alliance of the People of the Americas (ALBA), and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), among others. Data intercepted in 2008 from the computer of Raul Reyes, former leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suggest that the Correa government, like Venezuela and Cuba, maintained clandestine ties and supported the FARC and other illegal armed groups seeking to conduct terrorist acts against, and overthrow democratic governments in the region. In pursuit of investment and financing independent of Western companies and institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund), the Correa government also played a significant role in opening the Ecuadoran economy to Chinese companies and banks, as well as accelerating the entry into the region of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese military contractors.
At 10:35, an F16C took off from Buenaventura and headed out across the Pacific to gain altitude. At 10:50 it turned back towards Colombia and crossed the coastline south of Tumaco, close to the Ecuador border, but still inside Colombian airspace. The aircraft was carrying a SLIR pod and the F16 didn’t have to go into Ecuador airspace to conduct its mission. The sideways looking IR pod picked out several heat sources, in and around the hacienda. The vehicle engines were still warm and Hernández’s servants had lit the fire and put the cookers on in the kitchen wing. The imagery was sent by satellite link to Pasto operating base, Langley and the Department of Defence. The final go order was given just before lunchtime that day, by which time, two F16s were fully armed with 2,000 lb Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM)s and their pilots were in the ready room.
Across the pan, the C130H Compass Call jamming aircraft was giving the final check of its jamming equipment. This would blind the Ecuadorian air defence radars, allowing the F16s to deliver their JDAMs. It was a risky undertaking politically and was a classic example of “groupthink” in action.
At the Main Operating Base in Pasto, six Blackhawk helicopters were ready to deliver the sixty troops of the assault force. A seventh helicopter was available to transport the command team to the FOB at San Luis Airfield. The two Apache attack helicopters had conducted their air test and now their crews were waiting.
Clarita Rivera watched the preparations with a sense of mounting excitement. Her private Cessna was parked some distance from the helicopters and as soon as the successful conclusion of the mission had been received, she would return to Bogota.
“We’ll go in fifteen and then refuel the choppers at San Luis. We’ll be ready for onward move into Ecuador, as soon as the bombers have hopefully obliterated the target.”
Rivera was surprised to see Martinez in his full combat gear and carrying a rifle. Outside the Green Berets were lined up in their chalks, ready to board the helicopters.
“Remember Thiago, we need a positive identification of Camilo Hernández and take some DNA. It’s the electronic media we’re interested in, so grab as much as you can carry. When do you go into Ecuador?”
“As soon as the air have done their business. We’re timed to land on the target at 17:00, which should give us an hour on the ground, with our withdrawal covered by the darkness.”
She looked around the base, struck by just how quiet the troopers were as they lined up, “Where’s Edge?”
“Against my better judgement, he will remain in the forward MTF to help the Doc.”
“But he does know the sensitivity of this operation and why he can’t go on the raid?”
“Yes, and I have to say, he took it rather well. Hopefully we won’t need his rather lethal talents.”
“He does have another, gentler side. I’ve seen it.”
The Major looked at her and smiled. Lieutenant Collins had been absolutely right. She was besotted with the Englishman and she had it rather badly. Oh, to be young again. He thought.
“Well, Clarita. I suppose we’ll be getting going on the first leg of this great adventure. Wish me luck.”
He held out his hand, but she ignored it and kissed him on the cheek, “Good luck, Thiago. I may not be here when you all get back.”
He hefted his rifle and headed towards the designated Blackhawk.
“Mount up!” he yelled and Rivera went back into the Command tent. Lieutenant Turner was holding the fort with a sergeant she didn’t recognise. Perez was fulfilling the duties as a runner, although he had nowhere to run, or rather limp to. She grabbed a coffee, stared at the map and waited…
Edge was outside the medical tent, when he heard the Blackhawks coming in from the north. Two refuelling bowsers stood ready as the Blackhawks and two Apache gunships swept down. The pax got out and moved away as the refuelling got underway and Edge saw the Doc striding towards the MTF. He was as surprised as Rivera had been, to see them all in fighting order, the Doc included.
“Goodness me, Doc. Somebody has opened a tin of soldiers.”
The Doc went in and noted the preparations with approval, “Well done, everyone. This is an MTF to be proud of.”
“Nothing to do with me,” Edge said with a shrug, “Thank the Aviation Wings finest. I just carried in some medical kit.”
“Hopefully we won’t need it, but well done and thank you, you two. Is there any coffee?”
Vaughn pointed at a Buffalo boiler sending up a gentle cloud of steam. It was on a trestle table with disposable mugs and containers of powdered milk, coffee and sugar.
“Outstanding,” the Doc said and made all of them coffee.
Edge took his outside and watched the helicopters being refuelled and the troopers sitting on the grass in a huddle. A few of them were throwing a baseball and Edge was struck at just how familiar this was. Very few of them smoked and a few had taken themselves off to be alone with their final thoughts.
God’s speed, he thought slightly sadly.
In the command tent, the Major was hanging on by the radio, waiting for the call to come from Pasto. He guessed the COMAO of aircraft was airborne, and was waiting for the signal that the bombers had crossed the Ecuador coast. The atmosphere was tense until a single word was transmitted in clear, repeated several times:
Picador, Picador, Picador.
Lieutenant Collins went out of the tent and shouted to the men: “On the Crash-Hawks now! Let’s go, move, move, move!”
In the command bunker of the Ecuadorian Northern Air Defence, the radar screens started to display a blanket of static and the transponders of several aircraft disappeared. There was little panic because this is precisely what the operators had been expecting. The colonel commanding the bunker made a single call on the secure landline to a general of the IV Army Division “Amazonas.”
“General, ellos vienen.”
The troops of the Green Berets nicknamed the Blackhawk the “Crash Hawk.” This was because of the aircraft’s predilection for crashing, because the Black Hawk’s horizontal stabilator tended to fail multiple times. Like most of the troops, they hankered to have back their reliable Huey Slicks and were of the opinion that someone’s progress wasn’t always translated to the end users.
As the helicopters were heading south towards the border at ultra-low-level, at 10,000 feet, the two F16 had the hacienda and surrounding buildings on their AN/APG-66 radars. Their changing positions were marked on the GPS and the changing data was fed to the four 2,000 lb JDAM bombs. The vapour trails of the aircraft could be seen on the ground and the Ecuadorian Special Force troops hunkered down in their slit trenches, ready for the colossal blast waves that would sweep across their positions.
At the GPS signal, the four bombs tumbled away from the aircraft, before attaining supersonic drop profiles. The key components of the system consisted of a tail section with aerodynamic control surfaces, a strake kit, a combined inertial guidance system and GPS guidance control unit. The bombs were at 5.000 feet as the two F16s banked hard left and crossed the border.
The boom of the now supersonic aircraft was obliterated by the exploding bombs, along with the buildings of the ranch. The roofs lifted and then collapsed back into the wrecked buildings and huge chunks of masonry and wooden beams were blown high into the air.
Back at San Luis Airfield the rear party looked at each other as the aircraft went onto re-heat and the bombs exploded. It was like a summer storm that comes out of nowhere. The Doc looked at them and smiled reassuringly.
“At least it wasn’t us,” he said.
Edge noticed that Emma Garcia put her hands in her smock pocket so no one could see she was shaking. She looked guiltily at Edge, who smiled and nodded gently. It was their secret.
The Blackhawks and the Apache gunships on each flank, lifted to climb over the range of hills and then swept down to the River Chiquito and the Ecuador border. The land below was good farming land and cattle bucked and ran in terror as the helicopters roared overhead. At a school they passed overhead, children had gone home, apart from the stragglers, who waved at the helicopters as they went over their heads. One of the troopers in the door waved back at the kids and then they were gone.
The lawns of the ranch were a verdant green up ahead, surrounding the burning and destroyed buildings. The Blackhawks spread apart and flared for landing. Lieutenant Collins looked with a degree of despair at the comprehensively destroyed hacienda that was still on fire. A number of the limousines had been damaged and a couple were burning with a thick, acrid black smoke. He led the men off the helicopters and they opened out into formation. Most of the helicopters were still on the ground when the flower beds and shrubs erupted with the explosions of carefully prepared and sited mines.
The M18 Claymore, is a directional fragmentation mine, 8-1/2 inches long, 1-3/8 inches wide, 3-1/4 inches high, and weighs 3-1/2 pounds. The mine contains 700 steel spheres (10.5 grains) and 1.5 lbs layer of composition C-4 explosive and is initiated by a No. 2 electric blasting cap. It has a 50-yard killing zone but can still be effective at 100 yards. The killing zone has a 60-degree arc of fire and a splay of .2 feet up to a height of 6 feet.
The ball bearings from the Claymores tore through the troopers, who were not in cover on the lawns. Collins was hit in the leg and stomach, but managed to stay on his feet.
“FALL BACK!” he yelled, “Fall back to the buildings. Find what cover you can!”
The helicopters clawed into the air, just as effective fire erupted from the woods surrounding the ranch. One of the Blackhawks trailing smoke, disappeared below the trees and crash-landed in the river. Some troopers were cut down as they tried to reach cover, while others made it to the non-burning buildings. There followed not so much a fire fight as a pitched battle, that made the passage of time superfluous. The Green Berets were not only outnumbered, but outgunned by the Ecuadorian army troops.
In a great deal of pain, Lieutenant Collins contacted the FOB to let them know they were being engaged and had landed in the middle of an ambush.
“This is Picador, repeat, Picador. We are being engaged by a large force of enemy troops, regular army and not FARC. We are in trouble!”
Next, he knew that they would have to evacuate the wounded first and requested two Blackhawks for an immediate dust-off. They came in over the trees and Collins and a handful of troopers went out into the killing zone to triage the casualties. Collins was aghast:
“No, don’t fuck around. Just get them on choppers! They can be triaged at the FOB!”
An Apache engaged hidden targets along the tree line, with its chain gun, to cover the first two Blackhawks. And then a new and terrible dimension was added to the gun battle, as 9K32 Strela-2 manpad missiles were fired up at the helicopters. Both Blackhawks were pumping out chaff and flares, but the Apache was hit along with a Blackhawk. The helicopter started to spin and carved huge divots out of Camilo Hernández’s beautifully manicured lawns. The Apache reared up, turned on its back and crashed into the woods, exploding with a fiery ball of Avtur.
Events unfolded like a tracer in the night. Slow, almost lazy at first, then getting faster, streaking towards them. It was Wilson who notified them first, running from the command post to the medical tent. He burst in almost in a state of panic, wide-eyed and almost incoherent.
“It’s going belly-up down there!” he gasped, “They have been ambushed by professional troops, not FARC! They’ve lost three helicopters and are pinned down!”
“What about casualties?” the Doc demanded.
“Not sure of exact numbers, but there is a load of them. Dead as well.”
“OK, keep us posted. Edge, go with Wilson to the CP,” he turned to the pharmacist mates, “I’m sorry but this will be your baptism of fire. We will triage the casualties here, but most will probably need to go on to the hospital in Pasto. Sergeant Garcia, you will go with the casualties to the hospital, to do a handover with the surgical staff. I may need Edge to open up the MTF at the Main Operating Base, to deal with the P2s and the walkers. Let’s see what comes our way from the combat area. Did you see any body bags when you transferred the medical equipment across?”
“I did, Sir,” Vaughn told him, “In one of the large lacon boxes outside. I’ll get them ready.”
The Doc looked at Garcia, who was clearly concerned, “Don’t worry, Sergeant. It will just be a scoop and run. Nobody will expect you to do advanced in-transit care.”
She gave an unhappy smile and against all the directives of equality, diversity and ethos, the Doc gave her a platonic hug, “You’re the only one who can do it, I’m afraid.”
“I’m all right, Doc, I think. I’ll be OK.”
“Of course, you will. Testículos grandes, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
They loaded the casualties on the single Blackhawk and Collins shouted in fury at the other helicopters that were circling out of range. By now he was bleeding out and he had the absolute clarity and understanding that he would be dead in a matter of minutes, perhaps an hour. But he was still in command and his men looked to him. He hobbled up to the ruins and the radio man who was covering him and keyed the handpiece,
“Blackjack from Picador, what the fuck are you doing? Having a sightseeing tour? My men are being cut to pieces down here. Request immediate dust-off. Get that expensive piece of junk to suppress the fire from the treeline. Hurry! Picador out.”
“Why the fuck do they need me to tell them to do their fucking jobs?”
“Sir, for God’s sake get into cover”
“Too late for…”
The rounds hit Collins’ right side. One went in his shoulder, smashing it to bloody fragments. The second hit him in the neck and the third the side of his head. He went down and would never get up again. The radio operator covered with his commander’s blood and brains, keyed the mike.”
“All callsigns, Charlie is down, I repeat Charlie is down!”
Edge hurried out of the CP with Nguyen and headed for the medical tent. He knew that things were going wrong and with incredible speed, proving his maxim was correct.
“Doc, the first Blackhawk is due in any time now. Do you need help with triaging the casualties?”
“Bring your bag.”
“There is something else, Doc,” Edge stated rather hesitantly.
“Lieutenant Collins is dead. He died trying to extricate his men.”
“Oh, God! I thought it was supposed to be an intelligence gathering mission.”
“So did I.” Edge was thinking of Clarita Rivera in a cold fury.
They could hear the helicopter coming in and looked to the orange and yellow southern sky. The Blackhawk was a dark silhouette in the sky and then the landing light went on. The Doc and Edge crouched down in the long grass at the side of the hardstanding as the helicopter flared and landed, its rotors still turning. There were well over ten casualties and dead bodies on the aircraft, as the Doc looked in at the door. Edge was already up inside with his medical bergen and he started to go through the casualties from the rear forwards.
“Are there any of you that can walk?” the Doc asked and three men got off, “Go into the medical tent.”
Edge had finished his first quick and dirty triage, “Three dead, although that’s your shout, Doc. The rest need surgical intervention, seven of them.”
The Doc helped the walking wounded into the tent and called to Garcia, “Get on the chopper, Emma. Go with the casualties to the hospital, perform a handover then come straight back.”
Looking extremely anxious, she climbed into the Blackhawk, trying not to think of the blood on the floor as she lost her footing. The next two cabs coming in were about a mile away as the first one took off, strobing a fuselage light for visibility.
The Doc came back and said to Edge: “You take the first, I’ll take the second. You may have to go with the seriously wounded to the hospital. This will go down in the annals as one of the great fuckups!”
As the first one landed on the grass by the main runway, Edge was on board. Fortunately, the only casualties were walkers, the rest the able bodied, glad to be out of that nightmare over the border. In the second helicopter, there were a couple of walkers, four requiring surgery and the rest either dead or beyond help.
“Help me get the dead and the Cat-Two-Delayed over and onto the grass.”
“But at least two aren’t dead yet,” a shocked trooper said in a dazed voice, blood running from under his helmet.
“I’m sorry, son, but they will die. We have to concentrate on those who have a chance.”
“It’s harsh but it is what triage is about, son.”
He waved Edge over, “Go with these to the hospital and don’t get any stupid ideas about going with the chopper back across the border. You come straight, back here. Got that?”
The Doc looked around the MTF, wrestling with his thoughts. His reasons for doing what he was about to do were many and complex. He looked at Master Sergeant Vaughn who was doing his best, hopelessly out of his depth and thought about Lieutenant Collins who was now dead. He knew the way the army worked and the collective arse-covering that would ensue. Much of the blame would be heaped on Collins and that was a travesty. He went across to the command tent.
“Major Martinez, Thiago, I know you have a thousand and one things to worry about, but medical is my part of ship. The casualties would stand a better chance if I could go forward to triage them in the field, package them and send the choppers straight to hospital. Edge and Master Sergeant Vaughn can deal with the walkers here and back at the MOB when its needed. Edge can prep it for receiving the cat twos when he gets back from the hospital. I’ve warned him within an inch of his life that he is not to go forward.”
“Captain Anderson, Doc, I am reluctant to risk you in what could be an almighty fire fight. If you give me your word you won’t land if the LZ is hot, then go ahead. Take some close protection with you and God go with you.”
“Thank you Major… Thiago.”
He went back to the MTF and put on his combat gear with the rifle. It looked incongruous with the medical armband.
“The next chopper that comes in with the able bodied and the walkers, I’m going forward on it. It’s better if I can triage them there.”
Vaughn stared at him and Nguyen started to put his combat gear on.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going with you. You can’t be trusted on your own.”
“And what about your hand?”
He flexed it, “Fine Doc.”
“If it’s too hot we won’t land.”
The next Blackhawk that came in only had on board the minor wounded, which were unloaded and the Doc and Nguyen climbed on board. They took off just as the helicopter with Garcia on board returned. She went into the tent.
“Where’s the Doc and Edge?”
“He went on the chopper that just left. He’s going to triage them there. Edge went to the hospital with another load. You must have passed it.”
“Oh God,” she said, “I hope Edge gets back soon.”
“Me too,” Vaughn agreed.
The Blackhawk circled the LZ and the Doc and Nguyen stared down at a scene from hell. The buildings were still burning and the dead and wounded were scattered around the wrecked Blackhawk. The Apache was burning in the woods, while its brother helicopter suppressed the Ecuadorian troops in the treeline with rockets and its chain gun. It was nearly dark, which would help them and their helicopter spewing chaff and flares went down and began its landing, rearing nose up.
Most of the Ecuadorian troops had decided to call it a day and had fallen back into the woods. They had run out of manpads, but had inflicted terrible losses on the Gringos who had come into their country. There was a team manning a dugout and they had a LAW missile left. The Ecuadorian soldier knew he would only have one chance and he fired at the tail rotor of the Blackhawk as it came in. It blew off the tail of the helicopter, which reared up and started to spin. There was only one way it could go and that was down, to inflict more damage to the lawns.
The Blackhawk crashed and rolled on its side. The Doc and Nguyen clambered out into the last of the fire from the defenders and they were both hit. The Doc lay on his back and looked up at the stars, so bright, unfamiliar and beautiful, like shimmering necklaces. Nguyen crawled over to him in agony from the 5.56 mm rounds that had hit both of them.
“I’m so sorry, Van, Nam.”
It was dark now and at last the firing died away. The Doc grasped Nguyen’s hand, guessing he had passed on. He couldn’t move to check and lay there helplessly. At least the night sky was beautiful, that gave him some comfort. He wished Edge had been there, he would know what to do. Perhaps save them, but he doubted it. The Doc closed his eyes and decided he felt like he was lying on the floor of a disused factory. A night watchman was going around, shutting off the power in stages. His legs wouldn’t work and he couldn’t feel them. Then his arms and body. His sight narrowed, like he was staring through the wrong end of a telescope. Then the night watchman switched off the last light and the Doc felt nothing in the eternal darkness.
Back in Pastow Main Operating Base’s CP, The Sergeant and Perez had listened to the garbled reports coming in, with a mounting sense of shock.
“They’re getting slaughtered down there!”
They gave up trying to maintain the tote board and stared at Rivera. Their looks said it all. She had to get out, to go back to Bogota and conduct some kind of damage limitation, not for her but for the men of the Green Berets. She knew this was down to her and the guilt was crushing.
“I have to get back to Bogota, let them know what has happened.”
“Yeah, sure you do, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Turner said curtly.
That hurt her like a knife plunged into her heart. She was going to tell them how sorry she was, but it seemed pointless. She went and found the Cessna pilot with instructions to return to the capital. As the little aircraft took off, she started to cry. The Colombian pilot glanced at her but said nothing.
© Blown Periphery 2022