By Heath Hansen
We entered the base between the HESCO barriers covered in concertina razor-wire, unprepared for a betrayal from one of our supposed allies. On November 9, 2005, as the convoy snaked its way into the safety of the base walls, I could see Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers watching us from the perimeter. They didn’t wave; they didn’t smile; they just stared.
Since the United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, there had never been an instance of an Afghan soldier attacking Americans, known as a “green-on-blue attack.”
But somehow I instinctively had little trust for them. We parked the Humvees and unloaded our equipment. I took off my helmet and body-armor, and set my weapon beside me.
The mission had been long and I was hungry. Before heading out for the operation, I had secured my favorite meal, and now it was time to relax and enjoy.
“Hey, give me your jalapeño cheese. I’ll give you my peanut butter.” I told the guy next to me. “F*** you, I love jalapeño cheese.” My buddy was going to drive a hard bargain before relinquishing his cheese. “Bro, I always put cheese on my chicken-tetrazzini MRE. I’ll give you my M&M’s too.” He looked at my M&M’s and packet of peanut-butter for a moment. “F*** yeah, peanut-butter, M&M’s. Alright, cool. Here.”
He threw the packet of cheese over. I was tired, uncomfortable, sore, and thousands of miles from home, but I was content. I got the “MENU 21 – CHICKEN TETRAZZINI” Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) and jalapeño cheese to top it off. It’s the little things in life that make you happy. The day was cold, but sunny, and in that moment, on that forward operating base (FOB) in Zurmat, Afghanistan, I had everything I wanted.
READ MORE about Heath Hansen’s time in Afghanistan
FOB Zurmat was an old base formerly occupied by American Special Forces to conduct operations. Squads would run missions out of Zurmat day and night. At any given time, there were roughly 15 U.S. soldiers and 25 ANA soldiers on the FOB. It sat well outside the town center, with very few civilian mud-huts near its perimeter; the closest probably 100 meters away.
My unit, composed of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, took responsibility for the inner security of the compound, while ANA soldiers manned the outer perimeter of the area. We generally stayed in our small section of the FOB and only left when conducting missions.
The ANA would usually stay by their guard towers within the FOB, but would occasionally walk into our area of the outpost. My platoon would typically remain at Zurmat for just a few days at a time, before returning to our home base in Gardez to refit.
I sat next to the fire and started eating my lunch. The soldier with my peanut butter and M&M’s was smacking his lips loudly as he ate.
“What the f*** was that?” He asked.
“Probably ANA had an accidental discharge. They do that s*** all the time,” I responded.
The Afghans were notorious for negligently firing their AK-47’s on the base. Without proper training, a finger could easily stray to the trigger. Hearing rounds go off on the FOB was becoming less and less surprising with each passing day.
“Damn, this mother-f***** is stupid. He’s gonna get his ass-chewed for that one,” I laughed.
We both shook our heads, smiling.
“They’re shooting at the Mortars! ANA is shooting at the Mortars!” Someone yelled from the other side of the building. I immediately dropped my chicken-tetrazzini and grabbed my M-4 carbine. I heard a short pause in the AK-47 fire, but a few seconds later, more shots started going off. I could hear screaming from everywhere.
There was a known Taliban presence in the town of approximately 100,000 people. The Special Forces soldiers had recently left the area and given us control of the base. There was no electricity or running water, although our unit had hired two local Afghans to dig a well in the days preceding this particular afternoon.
I slapped on my body armor and helmet, and quickly climbed the ladder to the roof of the building.
“Who the f*** is shooting!?” I yelled.
“I don’t know! A couple of guys by the mortar-tubes are wounded!” The paratrooper in the guard tower replied.
I did not know if this was a larger, coordinated attack, so I faced the opposite direction of the tower, in case enemy forces decided to attack from the rear.
I heard the sounds of M-4 fire coming from the guard tower. I continued to scan the rear of the building, when I caught a glimpse of something in my peripheral vision. I quickly pointed my weapon at the two Afghans running towards my position.
“STOP!!!” I screamed at the two civilians, keeping my right hand securely on my weapon as I raised my left hand to motion for them to cease their movement towards me. I realized these were the two civilian contractors hired to build a well on our FOB.
“Get the f*** down!” I yelled at the two men.
They looked at me and immediately complied with my order. Both laid chest-down in the dirt and outstretched both of their arms. They looked at me; I could see the fear in their eyes. They were breathing hard and saying something in their native language of Pashto.
“These guys might be Taliban,” I thought. “They are probably part of an attack against us. Some of my buddies are wounded and it’s probably because of these two assholes.
“I can kill them both right now and no one will question my decision. F*** these guys.”
I flipped my selector lever to “SEMI” and aimed my M-4 at the Afghan who appeared to be older. I put the red-dot from my M68 optic on his forehead. Slowly, I squeezed the trigger.
He looked straight at me, beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. There was pure horror on his face; he knew this was his last moment on earth.
Suddenly, I had a moment of pure clarity and grew a conscience. These guys were innocent. I could see it in their eyes. I released the pressure from my trigger. Today, I would not be a murderer. I stood them up individually and searched them quickly for weapons. They had nothing. I put them back onto the ground, chest-down, with the top of their heads touching the wall. I ordered them not to move. They may not have understood English, but they did exactly what I told them to do.
I rushed back up to the roof. The shooting had stopped, but the shouting had not.
“Bring a medic! We got two guys shot!”
They moved the two paratroopers to a secure room inside the building.
I walked to the edge of the roof and saw the shooter. He was wearing an ANA uniform, and had his AK-47 next to him. The fighter was shot through the face; the area above his mouth was caved in from the entrance wounds of the bullets as they tore through his head. His brains were splattered on the rocks behind him. He was still moving.
A paratrooper pulled security from the inner perimeter of FOB Zurmat with his weapon trained on the position of other Afghan National Army soldiers who might try to copy their comrade.
I looked back at the dead ANA soldier. His eyes were still open but there was no life left in them. Three stray dogs had wandered over to the dead body and began eating his brains and licking the blood-spattered rocks.
The injured paratroopers were loaded onto a Humvee and CASEVACed (casualty evacuation) back to FOB Gardez for medical treatment.
Often, when servicemen are injured, a helicopter is called in for evacuation; in this situation, based on the proximity of FOB Gardez to Zurmat, ground transportation was the fastest option. Both soldiers lived.
The remaining Afghan soldiers were questioned and removed from FOB Zurmat; the dead ANA soldier was loaded onto an Afghan military vehicle and transported to the nearest ANA base.
According to Joe rumors, the Afghan insurgent was new to this unit and received the equivalent of $40 cash (from the Taliban), and a trip to paradise (from us), to attack our position; he had also gotten high on drugs to work up the courage to carry out the assault.
This type of hostile action by an ANA soldier against allied US soldiers had never previously occurred during Operation Enduring Freedom. The ANA soldier had set a new precedent, and the Taliban had developed a new tactic.
The two Afghan civilians I decided not to shoot were innocent and had no previous knowledge of the attack. I made the right decision.
After the incident, we were debriefed by the leadership in our unit. The ANA soldier was indeed recently transferred to Zurmat. The other Afghan soldiers did not know him and had not had much time to talk to him. Immediately before the attack, he grabbed his weapon, left the guard tower on the outer perimeter of the FOB and began walking towards the location of our mortarmen (inner perimeter). When he was approximately 50 meters away from the paratroopers, he opened fire on their position with his AK-47. After firing multiple rounds, his weapon jammed. He ejected the magazine, dropped it, and inserted a new magazine. The soldier then continued with his suicide mission, firing at, and wounding, American servicemen as well as damaging two Humvees. He expended approximately 24 rounds before being killed by the American soldier in the guard tower; this soldier saved the lives of the infantrymen (whose weapons were out of reach) next to the mortar tubes.
Our commanders and senior NCO’s told us this was an isolated incident and that we should not hold it against the other Afghan soldiers. None of us were convinced this was an isolated incident and all of us still had contempt for the ANA. I never trusted another Afghan soldier again.
Later that night, after setting up new fighting positions and developing a security plan in the event of another attack from inside or outside the wire, I was finally able to get some rest. As I made my way to my sleeping bag, I realized how hungry I was. I remembered the chicken-tetrazzini MRE, with jalapeño cheese. I walked over to the smouldering fire. My lunch, which had now become my late dinner, was still warm.
I laid my weapon next to me, and enjoyed the meal. It’s the little things in life that make you happy, especially when you’re an Airborne Infantryman serving a combat tour in Afghanistan.
Heath Hansen spent five years as an airborne infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division. He deployed to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006 and Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He writes frequently for Soldier of Fortune.