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ONE

On April 18, 2002, at Zero Dark Twenty, an MK-47 Chinook helo lifted off from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, into the moonless night with a roar, escorted by two Apache gunships, headed to the village of Zarghun Mekh, twenty miles from Khost, Afghanistan. Mark Ericksen, a Navy SEAL lieutenant, and second-in-command, leaned forward on the webbed bench. He took a deep breath and reflected on his wife Karen’s last words to him as he gritted his teeth.

I’m proud of you for protecting our country, but I want you back home in one piece. I love you.

He glanced at several of his men, and his squadron commander, Major Jeb Templeton, nodded and gave them the thumbs-up sign. Eighteen men of Bravo Team, part of the elite tier-one operators from the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, were on a high- value-targets-mission. The men wore their battle dress uniforms and all had beards and long hair to blend into the Afghan culture. The team’s painted camo green and brown earth-tone faces highlighted the whites of their eyes. Several minutes into the flight many of the men closed their eyes to rest, and silence prevailed with the exception of the noise from the helo. The rotor blades thumped in cadence to a “whop-whop-whop” beat and the gears made a whining sound like a high-speed chainsaw.

Ericksen had been on thirty-two missions since arriving in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. He thought about their most recent mission briefing. Eleven days before, the Agency, as the military referred to the CIA, received actionable intel on the targeted leaders’ meeting set for April 18 at 0900 hours.

The Predator drone had conducted recon and surveillance in the village over the past six days and transferred intel back to the Agency at Bagram Air Base’s Tactical Operations Center, the TOC. Two days ago, the Predator drone’s live-feed video camera had picked up Mullah Abdullah, the Taliban’s second-in-command, along with a senior military commander.

Late in the evening of April 16 Bravo Team sent a small advanced team to conduct recon and surveillance. The next morning, Delta’s Fico Delgado, using a camera with telephoto zoom lens, collected photos of Saad Al-Fulani, a key Saudi Al-Qaeda leader, leaving a compound. Since Al-Fulani reported directly to Osama Bin Laden, his presence confirmed to the CIA/JSOC Command the significance of the meeting.

Ericksen reflected on the horrific terror attacks just seven months earlier, on 9/11: the planes that hit the World Trade Center buildings, the Pentagon, and the fourth hijacked plane, United Air Lines flight #93 on course to Washington DC. Had it not been for those brave Americans who rushed the terrorists and fought to take control of the plane, the White House or the Capitol building more than likely would have been destroyed. Sadly, the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board. On that day over 3,000 people died on American soil.

With a few minutes to go before insertion, the pilot voiced a warning: “Ten minutes out.” Ericksen and the men adjusted their helmets and night-vision devices with their gloves.

He was all about duty, honor, and country, and expecting less than one hundred percent from his men was an intolerable thought. He trusted his men and knew should he get injured or killed in action, they would never leave him behind. Failure wasn’t in his vocabulary.

The helo approached the Infrared Landing Zone (LZ), which glowed on a plateau two kilometers from the village where the high-value targets were reported to be staying. The air turbulence shook the helo as it hovered forty feet above the landing zone, kicking up dust, sand, and rocks. The men fast-roped to the ground on the plateau perched above the village, which stood over 3,000 feet in elevation.

The team quickly assembled one hundred yards away at the staging area. The winds howled out of the east at fifteen miles an hour, the temperature held at fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, while the rain pelted the ground into a mud-soaked path. Their eyes began adapting to the low-level light with the intensified images on the phosphorus screen to best direct their line of sight in green.

The team met Bashir Sadozai, an Afghan intelligence officer who had been embedded on several JSOC missions. They also met four operators from Bravo Team: Vinnie Goldman, the SEAL Team-Six two-way radio/satellite comms operator; Delta Force Sergeant Delgado; a CIA paramilitary operative; and an Air Force combat controller.

The infrared technology illuminated the houses at which two nights ago their informant, Walid, had installed guidance beacons. They could be seen only by certain types of night vision goggles and by the Predator drones’ thermal-imaging cameras. The two targeted mud and brick homes were located at the far end of the village, adjoined by three other homes and surrounded by a brick wall enclosure. Should the mission fail, the Predator operators stood ready to fire Hellfire missiles into those designated targeted homes.

By 0145 hours, they had traveled one kilometer and had another kilometer to go to reach the assault vantage point. The team momentarily stopped, took out their water packs, and drank some water. The vantage point sat perched on a bluff overlooking the targeted homes.

Most of the operators carried Heckler and Koch submachine guns with suppressors, each affixed with a green laser and a white strobe light, three magazines apiece, many flash bangs velcroed to their vest, body armor, a secure two-way radio, lip mic, and headset. Some carried rocket launchers with high explosives, a couple of sniper rifles, machine guns, and explosives to breach doors.

At 0155, Goldman received a call on his NSA encrypted satphone from the TOC. Ericksen stood twenty feet in front of the team when he and the team heard Goldman’s voice through their two-way radio headsets, “Abort mission! We’ve been compromised!”

“Shit!” Major Templeton said to the men through his mic. “Back to the landing zone.”

One minute later, a barrage of bullets rained down on them like a hailstorm bombarding a field of spring corn. Finding themselves targets in the kill-zone, the men scrambled for cover. A bullet pierced Templeton’s shoulder, knocking him to the muddy ground. Seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded fifteen feet away from him, spraying shrapnel into his legs. His mangled leg below the knee bled heavily.

Ericksen turned to Sadozai, ten feet behind him, and waved his hand in a follow-me gesture, “Bashir!” They rushed to Templeton’s aid, pulled him behind the nearest boulder, and applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

Loud crackling and pops from AK-47s and grenades spit out rocks, dust, and debris tumbling down the mountainside. A minute later a SEAL and a Delta were killed in a hail of bullets. A Delta operator went down, shot with a bullet to his thigh. As a SEAL combat medic charged to his aid and began patching him up, a bullet sliced through the medic’s neck, killing him. The Air Force combat controller and another operator ran into the kill-zone to fetch the Delta who had gone down, and as they carried him toward another boulder, bullets struck and killed both men. The acrid smell of explosives permeated the air. AK-47 rounds and rocket-propelled grenades continued to blast away at the team as they fired up the slope.

Goldman received a call on the satphone and gave it to Ericksen, who was now in command.

“Oscar-Foxtrot-Zulu-Gold Eagle, Condor is down. Do you copy?” said Ericksen.

“Roger that. The QRF [quick reaction force] is on its way. Do you copy?” Pathfinder asked.

“Roger and out,” Ericksen said.

Ten minutes later Pathfinder called. “The video link from the Predator spotted twenty-five armed insurgents moving fast up on the ridge. We’ve called in a couple of C-130 gunships and the Medevac from Jalalabad.”

“Thanks, Pathfinder, Roger and out.” Ericksen had good cover behind a large boulder as the bullets continued to rain down. He readied up his lip-mic and passed the word to his team.

A few minutes later the fighting stopped. Fear and uncertainty penetrated Ericksen’s mind for a moment, as one would expect of any brave SEAL Team-Six or Delta operator, but he, like many of his fellow brothers, was battle-hardened and mentally tough. Their focus zeroed in on their mission: capture or kill the insurgents. If it came down to a survival firefight: kill the enemy before the enemy kills you.

The men carried their dead and wounded back up to the LZ. He realized the extraction would be dangerous, and the chance of the helo being blown to bits magnified his concerns for the safety of his men.

Twenty minutes later, the fighting erupted again. The team ran for cover. Twenty insurgents raced down from the foothills shooting at the team. The insurgents who remained on top of the ridge fired at the pinned-down team from concealed positions.

Ericksen yelled “Fire!” They immediately blasted them with their submachine guns on full auto. Three insurgents ran towards him from thirty yards away. With his heart racing and his adrenaline pumping, he shot and killed one man, then turned to his right and shot the second man dead. The third man ran at him, stopped and aimed to shoot, yelling, “Allahu Akbar,” when Ericksen cut him down with a three-round burst and watched the man’s brains and blood fly out of his skull within a fraction of a second.

He swiftly turned to his left and saw Delgado firing at several insurgents. When one aimed to shoot Delgado from ten yards away, Ericksen shot him dead. Delgado glanced at the dead man as he hit the ground. He turned and nodded his head in a thank-you gesture to Ericksen, as their eyes met.

The Predator shot a Hellfire missile at a group of terrorists on the ridge. The team heard the sound of the boom and felt the explosion as the ground shook around them. Rocks, dirt, and body parts tumbled down, barely missing them. Glancing to his left, Ericksen spotted a charred head and a leg rolling past him. He turned to Goldman, adjusted his helmet, and with his right glove brushed the sweat off his beard. His heart kept pounding faster.

“Vinnie, call again and get the ETA on the Medevac and the gunships.”

At that moment, Vinnie got hit by two rounds in the neck and thigh. Ericksen heard a groan, turned, and saw Petty Officer First Class Vincent “Vinnie” Goldman down on the wet shale and muddy rocks. He ran to Goldman, pulled him a few feet behind the large boulder, and leaned over him. He glanced for a second at his own blood-soaked camo uniform, “Extraction is minutes away, bro. You’re going to make it.”

“Mark, please listen, tell my wife and son I love them.”

A minute later he coughed up more blood and died, holding Ericksen’s hand. His eyes stared up at nothingness. Goldman, a SEAL Team-Six operator, had been on several missions with him in Kandahar Province and they were good friends. Both he and Goldman were former teammates on SEAL Team-Eight before being selected for SEAL Team-Six. Ericksen’s tears rolled down his muddy, sweat-filled face.

Ten minutes later, the firefight went silent. Lech Pulaski, the master sergeant, and lead non-commissioned officer, raced over to his position. “Mark just got a call from TOC; they said a Pashtun village elder they detained claimed Sadozai is a Talib.”

“What!” said Ericksen, with a puzzled look. “Can’t be.”

“They said Bashir Sadozai.”

Ericksen had established a bond with Sadozai, who had recently been assigned to Bravo Team. In several firefights, he fought side-by-side with the team, killing many insurgents. Sadozai had intelligence, dedication, and performed courageously. The men trusted him.

Ericksen shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t believe it. Get me, Colonel Dawkins.”

“Oscar-Foxtrot-Zulu-Raven…Do you copy?” said Pulaski.

“Roger that. Sadozai is a fucking Talib spy. Put Gold Eagle on.”

“Gold Eagle, we have confirmation Sadozai is a Talib who provided intel to the Taliban about our missions,” said Dawkins. “Do you copy?”

“Roger that, Iron Fist.” Iron Fist was Colonel Dawkins’ code name.

“Sir, let me take him back for interrogation. It wouldn’t be the first time a tribal village informant flat-out lied!”

“Gold Eagle, goddammit! Now terminate Sadozai and that’s a damn, fucking order. Do you copy?”

Ericksen knew killing an unarmed person violated the Rules of Engagement. He wished Dawkins’ boss at JSOC, Rear Admiral Rieber, was available, but the Pentagon had called him back for a briefing. Ericksen didn’t respond.

“Gold Eagle, I’ve given you a fucking order so you best not give me any shit! Do you copy?”

Ericksen gave the satphone back to Pulaski. He shook his head and didn’t say a word. He needed time to think.

“What the fuck!” The ambush could be attributed to any number of possibilities: It could have been the local tribal village informant Walid, who set us up; maybe the first team had been spotted or heard during infiltration. Based on Bravo Team’s briefing, Pakistan’s Inter- Intelligence Services (ISI) provided the intel, did they double-cross us? Perhaps Bashir Sadozai was a spy.

The colonel said he had hard evidence. But why wouldn’t he let me take Sadozai back for interrogation and give him a chance to disprove the allegations against him? Disobeying his orders in the heat of battle probably would have grave consequences for me, even though my instincts may later prove me right. Those thoughts weighed on him. Time was running out. He had to make a decision.

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