Kunduz Province, Northern Afghanistan, June 2013
Sergeant Tanner Howland quickly ducked behind the mud-brick wall along with the other members of his rifle squad as a barrage of automatic weapon fire slammed into the other side, showering him and everyone else with shards of stone and dirt. The Taliban fighters had set up a strong defensive position inside the walls of the sprawling school compound, that was for sure. Tanner and his fellow Army Rangers had been trying to get close enough to take out the truck-mounted machine guns located on either side of the compound’s main entrance for the past fifteen minutes, but so far, it wasn’t working. The bad guys had dug in like ticks and were shooting the shit out of Tanner’s platoon.
He looked around, making sure all his troops—including the Afghanis fighting with them—were okay. Everyone was alive, but just barely. Every one of them was wounded, but Corporal Chad Hunter, the light machine gun operator, was dealing with the worst injury by far. He was visibly limping from a serious shrapnel wound across his right thigh, but even though it had to hurt like a son of a bitch, the man wasn’t complaining. He refused to fall back and get help from the medics in the rear, either.
“You holding up okay, Chad?” Tanner asked, throwing him a quick look as more rounds smacked against the backside of the wall.
“I’m good, Sarge.” Chad checked the extra belts of ammo for the M249 machine gun he’d slung over across his shoulder earlier. “Vas and Danny already patched me up.”
Tanner glanced down at the well-placed field dressing wrapped tightly around the wound on the blond man’s leg. Privates Marcos Vasquez and Danny Copeland, the other two members of Tanner’s fire team, had gotten to Chad within seconds of him getting hit. By sealing the wound with a liquid bandage, they’d probably saved his life. Rangers did whatever it took to get their buddies home.
Despite the bandage, Tanner would have preferred Chad fall back to the medics, but they needed the firepower too badly. Along with Vas and Danny, Tanner had five Afghanis assigned to his fire team, but none of them were as good with the automatic weapon as the corporal. He hated doing it, but he needed the man too much to let him go yet.
Tanner cursed as a hand grenade exploded nearby. “I thought we weren’t supposed to be involved in direct combat operations on this deployment.”
On the other side of him, his best friend and fellow fire team leader, Sergeant Ryan Westbrook, popped up and fired a few rounds from his M4 carbine in the general direction of the incoming gunfire.
“We’re not engaged in direct combat.” Ryan smirked. “We’re over here to advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces as they finish mopping up the last few dredges of the struggling, demoralized, and discouraged Taliban forces.”
Tanner chuckled. There weren’t many people who could laugh at a time like this, but after so many years of getting shot at, not to mention witnessing friends and enemies dying, the insanity going on around him now seemed like background noise. But as funny as Ryan could be sometimes, in this case, he wasn’t making crap up to get a laugh out of Tanner. His friend had merely been repeating the speech their commander had given them right before the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment had boarded their planes for the start of a seven-month deployment to Northern Afghanistan.
“Maybe someone should give the lieutenant colonel a dictionary, because I don’t think this particular group of Taliban is struggling too much,” Tanner said drily. “And we’re sure as hell doing a lot more than advising and assisting.”
Ryan probably would have said something sarcastic in return, but just then, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded against the wall several yards away, tearing open a hole large enough to ride a bicycle through and lighting up the night as bright as day. If that RPG had impacted only a few feet closer, it would have wiped out half their squad.
“We can’t keep wandering around out here like a bunch of pop-up targets on a rifle range.” Ryan looked at him, his dark eyes intent. “If my team does something crazy to get their attention, do you think you can slip your team over the wall and inside the compound? We have to deal with those machine gun nests by the entrance, or we’re never going to get in there.”
Tanner nodded. He’d known it would come down to this at some point. He looked around at his three guys and the handful of Afghan Nationals they were supposed to be assisting. None of them—especially the Afghanis—seemed thrilled about taking the lead on this assault, not when they were so obviously outgunned for this kind of operation.
This mission had been billed as a simple bag-and-grab of a regional Taliban warlord propped up by little more than a handful of poorly equipped rebels. But within minutes of assaulting the man’s compound, it had become apparent that the Afghan intel had been wrong. If Tanner had to guess, he’d say there were easily more than two hundred Taliban fighters in there, armed with AK rifles, light and heavy machine guns, RPGs, and what seemed to be an unlimited amount of ammo. They sure as hell weren’t demoralized or discouraged.
With two very skittish platoons of Afghan Nationals and a single platoon of Rangers short on some key personnel—like their squad leader—they simply didn’t have the numbers for a fight like this. Worse, now that the United States had turned over most of the responsibilities for conducting military ops like this to the Afghanis, the coordination for this mission had been one huge clusterfuck. They had no dedicated air or artillery support, communications with the battalion were spotty at best, and scariest of all, they had limited medevac assets available in the event things went bad.
And they were definitely going bad.
Tanner hadn’t exactly been able to take time for a head count, but he was fairly sure his platoon had already lost more men tonight than they had in their last two deployments. It was going to get worse before it got better. But falling back wasn’t an option. The Taliban fighters would be on them like rabid dogs if they tried that. No, the only thing they could do was press the attack and try to end this quickly.
“We can get in,” Tanner told Ryan. “But you’d better be there to cover our asses ASAP. If you aren’t, my team won’t last five minutes inside those walls on our own.”
“We’ll get through to you, I swear,” Ryan said.
Tanner didn’t doubt that. He and Ryan had grown up in the Seattle area, and even though they’d never met before going through Ranger Assessment together, that hometown connection had led to an immediate bond. When they’d both been assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Lewis-McChord, it seemed like fate had taken a hand. Through three tours in Iraq and now their second stint in Afghanistan, he and Ryan had watched each other’s backs through more shit than he cared to think about. They’d each taken a bullet meant for the other and seen more death and destruction than any human should ever have to face. They’d helped each other survive impossible odds and kept the other Rangers in their rifle squad alive at the same time.
Tanner couldn’t help feeling all that was about to change. He was tempted to chalk up such dismal thoughts to this insane mission. They were out here in combat when everyone back home thought the fighting was over. But he knew it was more than that. It was tough putting into words the reason he was so sure, but something told him their luck had finally run out.
Judging from the expressions on the faces of his fellow soldiers, they all sensed it, too.
“Watch yourself out there,” he warned them softly. “This could get ugly.”
These men were closer to Tanner than his own family. The thought of any of them getting killed filled him with dread. But Chad, Vas, Danny, and the others simply nodded, resigned to what they were about to do.
Ryan clasped Tanner’s shoulder, his face earnest. “We’ve had a good run, brother. Better than we had any right to. It’s not like we can keep tweaking the devil’s nose forever. Sooner or later, we all have to pay the price.”
Tanner’s mouth edged up. “If it’s a matter of sooner or later, I vote for later.”
Before Ryan could say anything else, Tanner was up and motioning for his men to follow as he led them toward the other side of the compound. One of the Afghanis with them called out their position softly into his radio, trying to let the rest of their forces know what the hell they were up to so they wouldn’t get whacked by friendly fire. But as poorly as their communications system was working lately, Tanner had no idea if anyone out there even heard the man.
They moved fast, only shooting when absolutely necessary so they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Ryan and his team had already started laying down heavy fire on the Taliban at the front gate, giving them the distraction they needed. Less than a minute later, Tanner and his team were at the rear of the compound, hiding out in the shadows.
“They’re going to be on us the moment we go over this wall,” he whispered. “We can’t stop, and we can’t slow down, no matter how bad it gets. We have to make it to the gate and take out those two heavy-duty machine guns. If we don’t, the rest of our guys are going to get wiped out when they charge the gate. Understood?”
Everyone nodded. They all knew how bad this was going to be, but they were going to do it anyway. Tanner felt his chest swell at that moment. Damn, these were some good men.
Tanner felt more than heard the uptick in weapon fire intensify at the front of the compound. Ryan and the other Rangers were moving toward the gate, giving Tanner and his guys a chance of making it over the wall alive.
“Let’s go,” he ordered.
Slinging his M4 over his back, Tanner leaped up to grab the top of the wall, pulling himself up. Around him, the others scrambled over the eight-foot-high obstacle. Chad’s leg was wrapped so tightly, he could barely bend it, so getting him over was a pain in the ass, but the machine gunner clenched his teeth and dealt with the pain.
They started taking sporadic gunfire the moment they dropped to the ground inside the compound. Tanner and his guys ignored it as best they could, spreading out to make it harder to hit them, then picking up the pace as they ran through the buildings and narrow alleys of the school property. It wasn’t time to shoot back yet. It was time to move fast—and get as close as they could to the gate before too many people realized they were in there.
They were within sight of the gate, and the two big 14.5mm truck-mounted machine guns positioned on either side of it, when the Taliban fighters finally figured out there was another threat coming at them from inside the walls. That was when the battle really started.
Bullets kicked up dirt around them as Tanner shouted orders to his men, moving them toward the left side of the gate. They’d focus all their attention on the machine gun positioned to that side and do everything they could to take it out. If they survived, then they’d worry about the one on the right. It was better to keep his small force together as long as possible and knock out one of the heavy weapons than split their forces and accomplish nothing.
Unfortunately, the fighters surrounding the machine gun on the left quickly figured out what the plan was and immediately skewed the big weapon around in their direction. The night sky suddenly lit up with muzzle flash and tracer glow. Around Tanner, members of his team went down, and he knew they weren’t going to get back up.
“Keep moving!” he shouted, forcing himself not to think about the price his friends were going to pay for taking out the weapons. “Put everything you have on that gun!”
It was an easy order to give but hard to do. There was nothing as bone-numbingly insane as charging up to the barrel of a heavy-duty machine gun when bullets the size of a person’s thumb were coming at you at a rate of one hundred and fifty rounds per second. There were thousands of people in the world who would never consider doing something so stupid. As for those who were brave enough to try it, most of them would give up after seeing the guy beside him get ripped in half by the vicious weapon.
But Tanner’s men continued to advance, laying down their own machine gun fire and launching 40mm grenades toward the truck. Tanner glanced over and saw Chad was barely keeping up with his bum leg. That’s when he realized Danny, as well as a couple of the Afghanis, were nowhere to be seen. His heart tightened in his chest, suddenly making it hard to breathe. If Danny could have moved at all, he would have been at their side…crawling if he had to.
Tanner pushed that thought away and kept moving, knowing the rest of the team would keep going only as long as he did.
They were less than forty feet away when Vas finally put a 40mm grenade directly in the back of the truck, silencing the thunder of the big weapon. Tanner kept them moving in that direction, emptying the remainder of his M4 magazine into the back of the vehicle until some of the spare ammo back there blew up. The truck bucked under the explosion, erupting into a fireball as the gas tank caught on fire. Flaming chunks of metal rained down on them, and out of the corner of his eye, Tanner saw another Afghani go down hard as a blur of flashing debris hit him in the chest.
Tanner refused to look around anymore, not wanting to know just how bad it really was. But he instinctively knew he’d lost a lot of his guys already.
“The other gun!” he shouted to anyone who was left, reloading his weapon as he ran in that direction.
His remaining men fell into step beside him. They had taken it in the ass so far, but they weren’t giving up.
The Taliban couldn’t swing the second machine gun around to shoot at them, not with Ryan and the other Rangers charging hard at the gate from outside the walls. But even without that threat, the heat coming at Tanner and his team still intensified as the Taliban fighters realized they had to keep them from taking out that machine gun. If Tanner and his team succeeded, the Taliban would be overrun by the good guys within seconds.
Not that what happened to the Taliban fighters mattered to Tanner at the moment. He and his remaining men were focused only on surviving the next few minutes and getting to that machine gun.
They’d advanced another fifteen feet against the onslaught of ball and tracer rounds coming their way, far enough to start laying accurate fire on the operator of that 14.5mm gun, when Tanner heard Chad’s M249 suddenly go silent. He twisted around in time to see the man who’d been on his team from day one tumble to the ground beside Vas, who must have gone down a split second earlier. Neither man moved.
As much as Tanner wanted to drop to his knees and yank his friends to his chest and make this all stop, he knew he couldn’t. He had to keep going or Ryan and the rest of his platoon would end up just like Danny, Vas, Chad, and the Afghanis who’d been brave enough to follow them into this fight.
Tanner swung his M4 over his back, then reached down for the lightweight machine gun in Chad’s hands. He instinctively checked the plastic ammo box mounted on the side of the gun, absently noting there was maybe half a pack of 5.56mm rounds left in it. A hundred rounds wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for what he needed to do.
He turned and ran toward the machine gun, ignoring the bullets kicking up the dirt around him. To his left, the other members of his platoon were pinned down outside the gate, unable to move any closer while the weapon was still functional.
Tanner paid no attention to the individual Taliban fighters, instead focusing on the gunner in the back of the pickup truck, firing short three- and four-round bursts from Chad’s M249. It was only a matter of time before he got hit by one of the bullets flying around him. He just had to take out the machine gunner before that happened.
Off to the side, a Taliban fighter aimed an RPG in his direction. Tanner could have swung his weapon around and engaged the shooter, made him duck even if he didn’t hit the man straight up. But if he did, there was a good chance he’d run out of ammo before disabling the machine gun in the truck, and he couldn’t risk it.
Ignoring the man about to kill him, Tanner locked on the machine gunner and squeezed the trigger of his weapon, popping off a long string of rounds right into the back end of the pickup truck. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to see if they had any effect because just then, the world exploded around him.
Tanner flew through the air for what seemed like forever before slamming into the ground like a bag of bricks. He bounced and rolled a few times before tumbling down into a deep crater carved out by a previous explosion. He came to rest in the bottom of the pit, debris raining down on him as he lay there in a twisted heap, the stock of the M249 digging painfully into ribs that had to be broken as dirt landed on his face and chest, choking him and making it nearly impossible to breathe.
He had no idea how badly he was hurt, but as the world started to go dark, he realized it was pretty damn bad. He wasn’t going to make it. And he was completely cool with that. The 14.5mm machine gun had fallen silent, replaced by the pop of smaller weapons and the sounds of running footsteps. His team had done its job. The gate was clear, and the platoon was moving quickly into the compound.
Tanner realized he must have passed out, because the next thing he knew, the shooting had stopped and someone was leaning over him, brushing dirt off his face. He forced his eyes open, wondering briefly if he was going to find a Taliban fighter standing there, an AK-47 pointed at his chest, ready to finally end this.
But it wasn’t a Taliban soldier. It was Ryan. His friend was down on one knee, regarding him with eyes that were completely devoid of emotion.
“I thought you were dead,” Ryan said.
“I probably should be,” Tanner told him.
Tanner considered pushing himself up into a sitting position but then changed his mind. Shit. He ached all over. “Chad and Vas didn’t make it. I’m pretty sure Danny’s gone, too.”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah. I saw their bodies a ways back while I was looking for you. My guys didn’t make it either. They all bought it during the last charge through the gate. It’s just you and me. We’re all that’s left of our squad.”
All twenty members of their combined fire teams dead. Tanner closed his eyes, letting the pain wash over him. Not the physical pain that came from broken bones and torn flesh, but the deeper ache in his chest that came from knowing he was alive while all his brothers were gone. The anguish grew deeper and darker with every breath he took, overwhelming him and leaving him to wonder how he could possibly survive another five seconds, much less make it through the rest of the night and beyond.
When he opened his eyes again, he assumed he’d see his pain mirrored in his friend’s gaze. But Ryan’s face was calm, almost detached, like he was sitting on the beach, watching the waves roll in and out. Tanner shouldn’t have been surprised. Ryan had always been able to compartmentalize shit like this better than he ever could.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Tanner pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around at the damage inside the compound formerly controlled by the Taliban. Bodies were everywhere. His platoon and the Afghanis fighting with them had done what they’d set out to do. But they had paid a price. Tanner wondered if the people responsible for doing the math would decide it had been worth it.
“What now?” he asked, not sure what else to say.
Ryan stared off into the distance. “We keep going.”
Tanner tried to imagine doing that but simply couldn’t see how it was going to be possible after what had happened.