Authors: Steve Jason & Yohn Elam
Operation Enduring Freedom
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
His count was off. Second Lieutenant Riley Covington of the United States Air Force Special Operations Command was on watch at a perimeter security post. He had been lying at the top of a low rise, watching his sector, for four hours, and each time he had counted the boulders on the hill across the small valley, he had come up with thirty-six. This time, however, the count reached thirty-seven. Keep it together, buddy, Riley thought as he rubbed his eyes. He shifted slightly to try to allow the point of a rock that had been boring into his left leg to begin a new hole. I have no doubt these guys scattered these rocks out here ’cause they knew we were coming.
“You seeing anything, Taps?” Riley whispered into his comm. At the other security post, located on the opposite side of the harbor site, Airman First Class Armando Tapia was stretched out behind a small, hastily constructed rock wall.
“Everything’s good to go,” came the reply.
On this sixth night of their mission, Riley had chosen a less-than-ideal position to set up their camp. He didn’t feel too bad, however; there were probably fewer than a half dozen ideal sites in this whole desolate valley. He was positioned on a low hill to the east of his Operational Detachment Alpha, and Tapia was planted to the north of the team. Rising on the south and west of the ODA camp were steep cliffs. If anyone wanted to approach their bivouac, they would have to come through one of the two security posts.
Typically, AFSOC missions were carried out singly or in pairs. The special-ops personnel were dropped in from high altitude to take meteorologic and geographic measurements, then silently evacuated. Very clean, very quiet. But Riley’s team had lost three members in this area during the last two weeks. So it was on to plan B—take in a group and protect everyone’s backside.
The moon exposed the barren landscape, eliminating the need for vision enhancement. Riley shifted again and flexed his fingers to keep the cool night air from cramping them. A scorpion skittered up to check out the rustle. Riley’s number-two man, Staff Sergeant Scott Ross, said these creatures were called orthochirus afghanus Kovarik; Riley preferred to call them the “nasty little black ones.” A well-placed flick sent the arachnid careering down the front side of the hill. Time to start counting boulders again.
Riley Covington knew that if he could survive this tour in Afghanistan, chances were good that by this time next year, the scenery around him would look a whole lot better. He was two years out of the Air Force Academy, where he had been a three-time WAC/MWC Defensive Player of the Year and, as a senior, had won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. He was six-two, rock hard, and lightning fast. His nickname at the Academy had been Apache—later shortened to “Pach”—after the AH-64 attack helicopter. Hit ’em low, hit ’em hard, hit ’em fast! Riley had sent more opposing players staggering to the sidelines than he could count. Once, a writer for the Rocky Mountain News had compared his hitting ability to Mike Singletary’s, the infamous linebacker who had broken sixteen helmets during his college days at Baylor. He still felt proud when he thought about that comparison.
Two years earlier, Riley had been selected by the Colorado Mustangs in the third round of the Pro Football League draft, and commentators believed Riley had the possibility of a promising PFL career ahead of him. However, his post-Academy commitment meant putting that opportunity off for a couple of years. In the meantime, he had spent his last two thirty-day leaves in Mustangs training camps before rushing back out to wherever AFSOC wanted him next.
Riley’s insides tensed as he came to the end of his count. Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six . . . thirty-seven . . . thirty-eight! Something is definitely happening here, he thought.
WHOOMPF! The unmistakable sound of a mortar tube echoed through the valley below.
“Incoming!” Riley yelled as he opened fire with his M4 carbine at “boulders” thirty-seven and thirty-eight, causing one to stumble back down the hill and the other to remain permanently where it was.
A flare lit up the night sky as heavy machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms rounds targeted Riley’s ODA. Riley looked to his left and saw an anticoalition militia approaching from the north, right over Tapia’s position. Riley, seeing the size of the enemy force, let off a few more three-shot bursts, then bolted back down to the harbor site.
He took cover in a low ditch and scanned the camp. What he saw was not encouraging. Four of his ODA members were down—two with what looked like some pretty major shrapnel wounds. There was no sign of Tapia anywhere. The rest of his squad was scattered around the camp, pinned under the heavy barrage. One of their patrol Humvees had been hit with an RPG, and the large quantity of ammunition inside was cooking off. This situation was spiraling downward fast.
Movement caught his eye. It was Scott Ross, lying flat behind some empty petrol cans and waving to catch Riley’s attention. Using hand signals, Ross indicated that his com was down and pointed back toward the second patrol vehicle.
Riley looked in the direction Ross was pointing and saw their salvation. Off to his left, about fifteen meters away, an MK19 automatic grenade launcher was mounted on its low tripod. Riley quickly signaled back to Ross to provide full-automatic cover fire, then rocketed out from safety and across the dirt. He almost made it. Something hit him in the hip, spinning him counterclockwise in midair.
He landed hard, gasping for air. As he tried to get up, a mixture of stinging and deep, throbbing pain dropped him down flat. He knew his men desperately needed him, but he couldn’t move. Helplessness quickly overwhelmed him. Lord, I can’t stay down, but I don’t know if I can get up! Give me what I need! Please, give me what I need!
Ross was shouting at him, but the surrounding noise made it impossible for Riley to make out the words. Without the Mark 19, their chances were bleak.
Mustering all the strength he had left, Riley began pulling himself the rest of the way to the weapon. Bullets danced all around him, kicking up puffs of dirt into his face and clanging against the nearby Humvee. With each grab of the rocky ground, his adrenaline increased. Finally, the endorphins began to get the best of the pain, and Riley was able to get his feet under him. He stumbled forward, launched himself behind the Mark 19, and let loose.
It took him just under a minute and a half to empty the ammunition can of sixty grenades. The sound was deafening, and the explosions from the shells hitting the enemy positions lit up the night. Riley knew from experience that there was nothing to do but fall back in the face of that kind of fire, which was exactly what the enemy militia did. But RPGs and mortar rounds kept dropping into the camp.
Riley signaled for Ross to come and load another can of ammo on the Mark 19. Then he half ran, half staggered over to what remained of his ODA. The rest of his team huddled around him and he took a quick head count. Besides Ross, there were Dawkins, Logan, Murphy, Posada, and Li. Not good. They would be outnumbered if a second wave came.
“Posada, contact the command-and-control nodes in the rear and request immediate close air support and a medical-evacuation flight.”
Riley drew his team close. “Okay, men, we have two options. We dig in here and try to hold off another attack, or we surprise them while they’re regrouping.”
“Tell ya what, Pach,” said Kim “Tommy” Li, a man with an itchy trigger finger and way too many tattoos, “if there’s gonna be target practice going on here, I’d rather be the shooter than the bull’s-eye.”
Riley laid out his plan. “Okay, then, here’s how it’s going to work: I’m guessing they’ll feint another attack from the north, but their main force will come from the east, because that’s where the Mark 19 is. They know that if they don’t take the Mark out, they’re toast. So, Murphy and Li, I want you to belly out to those boulders twenty meters north to meet their feint. Logan, you and Ross remount the Mark on the Humvee and get her ready to go head-to-head with their onrush. Dawkins, you and I’ll hit the east security post. When you all hear us start firing, circle the Humvee around east; then everyone open up with everything and blow the snot out of these desert rats. Got it?”
An excited mixture of “Yes, sir” and “Yeah, boy” was heard from the men.
“Excellent! Posada, sweeten up our coordinates with command.”
“You got it, Pach,” Posada said as he pounded away on his Toughbook—a nearly indestructible laptop computer perfect for use in combat.
“We’ve got five of our guys down, with at least one probably out—that’s unacceptable. Let’s make ’em pay.” Riley locked eyes with each member of his team and tried to draw from them the same courage he was attempting to instill. “Dawkins, don’t wait for me to hit that security post with you! Ready . . . go, go, go!!”
Skeeter Dawkins was a good old boy from Mississippi. Fiercely loyal to Riley, there were several times when he had to be pulled off of fellow team members who he thought had disrespected their lieutenant. He was big, strong, fast, and knew only two words when under fire: Yes and sir.
Dawkins ran out ahead and was already in position by the time Riley got there and dropped next to him with a grunt of pain. Sixty meters out, Riley could see between forty and fifty well-armed enemy militia members prepping for another attack. “I’m guessing they’re not done with us yet, Skeet.”
“Yes, sir.” It sounded more like Yeah, zir.
“Looks like they’ll be feinting inside while rolling a flank around left. Must be boring being so predictable.”
The two men lay silently for a minute, watching the preparations of their enemies. Riley turned to look at the empty sky behind them. “Sure would like to see that air support come in right about now.”
“Skeet, anyone ever tell you that you ain’t much of a conversationalist?” It was hard not to slip into a Mississippi drawl when talking with Skeeter.
Skeeter grinned. “Yes, sir.”
The random actions of the enemy force suddenly coalesced into an organized forward movement.
“Looks like the Afghani welcome wagon’s rolling again.”
“Skeeter Dawkins, you gonna let any of those boys through here?”
Skeeter turned to Riley. He looked genuinely hurt at his lieutenant’s attempt to force an expansion of his vocabulary.
Riley laughed. Nothing like feigned confidence to hide what you’re really feeling. “Don’t you worry, airman. Just make sure you give them a gen-u-ine Mississippi welcome.”
Skeeter smiled. “Yes, sir!”
Riley could hear the muffled sound of the Humvee starting up as he and Skeeter readied their M4s. Red dots from each of their M68 Close Combat Optics landed nose level on the first two attackers. Their fingers hugged the triggers.
The sudden whine of two Apache helicopters halted Riley’s counterattack. The 30 mm cannons mounted on either side of the choppers strafed the enemy force. The ensuing carnage was hard to watch. One life after another was snuffed out in rapid succession.
When the last bad guy stopped moving, the Apaches turned and headed back to where they’d come from. Skeeter pulled Riley to his feet and helped him down the hill. Pain crashed through Riley’s hip, and his left leg buckled. Kim Li rushed over and slipped himself under Riley’s other arm.
“Well, Pach, it was a good plan,” Li laughed. “Guess I’ll have to take my target practice elsewhere.”
Riley knew it was just Li’s adrenaline talking, but he still had a hard time not laying into him. Too much blood had been spilled and too many screams filled the night air to be joking about killing just now.
Back at the harbor site, an MH-53 Pave Low was just dropping in to evacuate the team. Riley was eased onto a stretcher and carried the rest of the way. As he was lifted onto the helicopter with the two dead and five injured, football was the furthest thing from his mind.
Friday, December 19
Riley Covington’s hand shot out, clicking the alarm to Off just before the numbers shifted to 5:30 a.m. This was a game Riley played against the clock every morning, trying to wake up as close as he could to his alarm time without having to hear the obnoxious chirp. He was pretty good at it too. His days at the United States Air Force Academy had ingrained in him a sense of time that most people would find borderline compulsive.
He tossed his down comforter off and slowly swung his body out of bed, feeling the cold hardwood floor under his feet. The firmness of his mattress could be manually adjusted, and for the two days after each game, his bumps and bruises forced him to put the setting at “way soft.”
Moving to the window, he pulled the drapes back, and instantly the room filled with white light. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the reflection of the moon on the fresh snow made Riley squint. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else? he mused. He had always loved the Colorado winter—the frost on the windows, the muted sounds caused by a blanket of snow, the feel of a cold house in the morning while you’re still warm under the blankets.
Feeling invigorated, he padded into the kitchen, flicked on Fox News, and began to assemble the ingredients for his daily breakfast shake—a simple concoction of protein powder, soy milk, whey, and frozen berries. As the blender whirred to life, Riley read the crawl at the bottom of the television screen.
Homicide bomber in Netanya, Israel, kills four and wounds seventeen.
Riley’s anger flashed. This was the fifth bombing in the past two weeks. What was the matter with these people? Didn’t they care whom they killed? Didn’t they know that these women and children had nothing to do with their war?
As he stewed on this, his mind drifted back to a conversation he’d had with Tim Clayton, the senior pastor of Parker Hills Community Church, his home church when he could attend.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing people say we need to have compassion for these murderers and understand their belief system,” Riley had said the day a Palestinian bomber had killed fourteen people on a bus in Haifa.