Authors: Stan R. Mitchell
(Nick Woods, No. 3)
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the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank you for rescuing me, for healing
me, for making me into more than I could have ever been on my own. You are my
best friend and my soul mate for life.
Capt. Eaton, United States Marine Corps, and Sgt. Major Hill, United States
Marine Corps; two men who epitomized leadership and strength, and who made an
unforgettable impression on me.
Present Day -- Just inside Pakistan near the border of Afghanistan
Nick Woods took a knee and wiped the ample sweat from his forehead,
adjusting his pack in the cool night air. He made a mental note to thank the
gods of war that this was the middle of summer and not the freezing,
bone-chilling winter that drove even the tough locals into their compounds and
The three men accompanying him used the short break to adjust gear and
sip water while Nick’s brain worked in overdrive as he scanned his sector. He
was definitely putting his men out on a limb this time -- more so than when he
had led the assault on the Mexican slum of Neza-Chalco-Itza just six months
The unit’s overall mission, this time, was as simple as it had been in
Mexico: take down Rasool Deraz, a venerable elder who inspired hundreds of
Taliban and al Qaeda fighters across the country and into Pakistan.
Over the years,
Rasool Deraz had grown so powerful that most analysts and
several computer simulations reported that under his leadership the Taliban
would soon topple the Afghan government. And America felt that it had invested
too much in the past fourteen years to allow the Taliban to once again assume
control of Afghanistan.
company -- Shield, Safeguard, and Shelter, or S3 -- had been contracted by the
Afghan government to ostensibly provide training for their police force and
consult with the government at the highest levels to assist them in reducing
the threat from the Taliban. Or, at least that’s what it looked like on paper.
S3, however, wasn’t just some
firm. In reality, S3 was an arm of the CIA. A private company that filed annual
paperwork and paid its taxes, which helped create enough distance to allow the
U.S. government complete deniability.
S3’s job in Afghanistan had nothing to do with training the police.
Although Nick and his band of headhunters had severely limited resources, the
plan was simple: find Deraz, shoot Deraz, and hopefully set the Taliban back as
much as they could.
However, actually executing the plan would prove to be no small
So far, they had made it past their first obstacle.
The four men
of S3 had snuck across the border of Afghanistan and into Pakistan nearly an
hour ago with no problems. That, of course, was the easy part. But now, on this
side of the border, they were completely on their own. Just four men with no
chance of backup, air support, or extraction. In fact, the only guarantee they
were given was that America would deny any ties to S3 if they were captured or
You sure know how to dig a deep hole, Nick thought to himself.
But, at least he had brought three of his best men with him. He had
Marcus, the tall, commanding Marine drill instructor, who served as his
right-hand man. He had Truck, the merciless, insubordinate Special Forces
trooper, who had seen as much combat as any man alive. And he had Red, the
cocky, quick-tempered Marine, who carried a trainload of fight on his 5’5”
frame. Red was also one of the best point men Nick had ever encountered.
Their objective on this
raid was to infiltrate forty-plus miles into Pakistan (moving only in
darkness). They would travel along a moderate mountain range, trekking at
higher altitudes to avoid detection. Thankfully, this wasn’t the Hindu Kush
mountain range, which spanned as high as 20,000 feet. Instead, this range had
much lower elevations, being as Nick and his team were crossing into Pakistan
roughly 100 miles south of Khost. That mean much lower elevations, which were
much easier to traverse.
At the end of this
forty-mile journey into one of the most dangerous countries in the world, they
planned to raid a single compound and locate a man named
Ahmud al-Habshi was the primary communications man for the Taliban.
Therefore, his private
compound promised computers, probably several servers, and loads
. Essentially, it was a smorgasbord, a
tide-turning honey hole, of invaluable intelligence.
Then there was Ahmud al-Habshi himself, who knew the habits, movements,
and possibly every hiding spot used by Rasool Deraz. Nick Woods and his three
S3 shooters planned to wake him up late one night and take him on a one-way
field trip to Afghanistan. If they failed, a drone strike would quickly silence
al-Habshi, but it would in turn also destroy tons of evidence and any chance of
taking down Rasool Deraz.
Thus, it was critical that Nick and S3 properly execute this raid.
Failing to capture the intel from al-Habshi and eventually take down Deraz
would certainly doom Afghanistan.
Deraz was seen as a respected leader
and legend by the people in
Afghanistan, most of whom supported him. Blessed with high esteem and a
nation’s loyalty, his power and reach were difficult to fathom.
With just a
few words delivered by messenger, Deraz could call upon local fighters among
the people, who would spring up and strike an Afghan compound before
disappearing into the countryside.
strength of Deraz knew no bounds. He had supporters in the countryside. He had
supporters in the farmlands. He had supporters in the cities.
Without question, Rasool Deraz was the spiritual leader for many of the
Afghan people, and Nick and S3 had to find a way to take him down or
Afghanistan was doomed.
Only two hours later, and the fun and enthusiasm had definitely worn
Now it was just dirty, grueling work, pure and simple. Each man hauled
an 80-pound pack, a 20-pound assault vest, and a 5-gallon water jug (another 40
pounds) that had to be carried by hand. Even their trusty rifles had become
burdens no longer welcomed.
No amount of training could prepare you for continuous slogging across
such rough terrain. Steep slopes covered in loose rock in the dark made for a
very strenuous and slow pace. For the men of S3, real-life missions such as
these also meant they were constantly being forced to stop and take a knee to
reposition gear, check their surroundings, or simply remove a stray rock wedged
deep in a boot tread. And then there were the full-out halts at the slightest
detection of any movement or sound that forced them all the way down into the
So far, Nick and his S3 entourage had heard a lot more than they’d
actually seen. The area was known for quite the array of wildlife, some of
which were often large and catlike. So the sudden rustle or the cascading of
rocks was a common occurrence. Luckily, almost every incident, after further
inspection at the evidence (paw prints, a startled bird’s cry, scat, and other
fecal material) was agreed to have been animal-based. Apparently, four
over-loaded and heavily armed men stumbling across a mountain top worked
wonders when it came to deterring curious wildlife.
But then there had been a
few close calls of the human variety. This was a very rural area, and its
inhabitants were not scared of the treacherous terrain or predatory creatures
that came out after dark.
There had been the
occasional stray, unarmed villager, including a set of young boys, both no more
than ten, playing a game that involved whacking each other with sticks. It
would have been a pleasant moment if the damn kids, so enthusiastically lost in
their play, hadn’t chased one another all over the hill, and at one point
gotten close enough that Nick and his men were forced to fall back and hold
until the boys tired of their antics and left.
They had also spotted
several goatherders, who thankfully seemed to prefer managing their flocks in
the lower lying areas. Perhaps they were avoiding predators or working their
goats back home.
However, there had been
one very unique exception. After a good hour without seeing another human soul,
they suddenly spotted a particularly hearty goatherder literally hopping up the
daunting slopes with apparent ease all the while singing a peppy tune. Based on
the numerous inserted “baa’s,” Nick guessed the song had been composed by the
man himself and in dedication to his much-loved goats.
Nonetheless, all had been
oblivious to the four heavily armed, English-speaking men who most certainly
didn’t belong in this part of Pakistan.
Still, from a distance and
under the cover of darkness, they might have remained safe, if spotted
. They had worked hard to make an effort
to blend in as much as possible, carrying Communist Bloc weapons and wearing
Afghan-style clothing: boots, loose pants, and turbans.
But even with distance and darkness to aid them, it was their packs that
could easily give them away. Although theirs were foreign in make, packs, in
general, were uncommon in this area. Sure, there was the occasional shoulder
bag or belt pouch, but the closest thing to a pack one might see in this part
of Pakistan was the random small child’s backpack, maybe. Most families
couldn’t even afford those.
And it didn’t help that these particular packs were massive. Any local
transporting a load of this size would almost always use a mule, truck, or dirt
bike. Even if all a witness could make out was a rough silhouette in the dark,
the sheer size and odd shape of the packs could easily draw unwanted attention.
But Nick couldn’t do anything about the packs. He, Marcus, Red, and
Truck needed everything from food to water to ammo, and you didn’t go wandering
forty miles into a foreign country -- uninvited -- unless you brought along
some toys in case you were discovered.
Nick’s back was already screaming in pain, and he was certain his men
were hurting, too. Nick raised his fist, signaling a halt. The darkness allowed
for hand and arm signals to be passed, as stars and a half-moon shone down
unimpeded by clouds or fog.
The men of
Safeguard, and Shelter passed the signal up and down the line, then stopped,
spreading into a defensive circle on the side of the steep hill. Each man eased
his pack to the ground and sprawled behind it, facing outboard behind their
weapons. They reached for canteens and bits of chocolate or other energy
Nick’s whole body
protested loudly -- several hours of hard rucking was tough for a man in his
mid-forties -- as he attempted to lay his pack down as quietly as he could. He
wanted to rest a few minutes, like his men, but knew he needed to appear
unfazed by the three miles they had covered tonight.
Three miles didn’t seem
like much, but the unforgiving terrain and need to keep every sense on high
alert really took every ounce of energy out of you. Especially when you added
in the adrenaline rushes that came from hearing a disturbance or seeing
something in your night vision googles.
Despite wanting to rest,
Nick heaved himself up and walked toward his point man. He knelt beside Red and
put his hand on his shoulder, looking out to their front. The small man was
breathing hard and sweating heavily.
“How you holding up?” Nick
“This ain’t shit,” Red
said with a smile.
Nick imagined that the
weight they were carrying had to be especially difficult for a man of Red’s
size. Being the smallest man on the team meant that proportionally, he was
carrying much more than the rest of them.
“Good,” Nick said. “Go
ahead and relax a few minutes. Then you and I can check our maps and compare
where we think we are.”
“Roger that, boss.”
Feeling his legs and back
threaten to mutiny if he attempted to stand from a kneeled position again, Nick
made a mental note to stay on his feet as he moved over to Truck. The big man
was laid down behind an RPK machine gun. The gun’s bipod legs supported its
weight on the front while the rear of the gun lay on its seventy-five round
“Hey, Truck. How you
“Good. I was wondering if
you might give your pack up so I could make this more of a challenge?” the
smartass managed to choke out between deep gulps of air.
Nick smiled, shaking his
“Yeah, yeah. Now shut your
mouth,” Nick said, “or you’ll be carrying three of them.”
“Shit, sir. I’m Special
Forces. I could carry three packs plus little Red up there.”
Nick patted Truck on the
head and said, “I’m glad you’re on our side. And you better pray that Red
didn’t hear that little comment. Because there is no way I’m carrying your big,
dead, dumb ass through these mountains.
Lastly, Nick walked up to
Marcus, who was leaning against a nearby rock to keep him from squatting and
having to stand again.
“How you holding up, man?”
“I’m hurting,” Marcus
admitted. “Damn packs are heavy as hell, and I’m twice as big as Red and in way
better shape than Truck. We’ll need to keep an eye on them.”
“I was thinking the same
thing,” Nick said. “I know my back’s killing me, but I’m not some diesel, former
linebacker. Tell you what, before we move out, let’s make sure all of us take
eight hundred milligrams of ibuprofen to kill the pain and help keep us
focused. I know Truck’s probably starting to feel that busted knee about now,
had reinjured his knee
five months earlier -- an old football injury that had never fully healed --
but it wasn’t just Truck. All four men were nearly twice the age of most
military men, and they’d all been banged up over the years in training or
In truth, all of them were
a bit old to be doing this kind of work. They certainly lacked the qualities of
younger fighters, but no amount of youthful vigor could make up for the
decades’ worth of experience among them.
And there was no question
that Nick would always choose seasoned, accomplished fighters over young bucks
still trying to prove themselves. Besides it wasn’t like his unit was into
parachuting, diving, or any of the other crazy feats elite units had to be
capable of doing.
Nick groaned as he pushed
himself off the large rock and slipped back to Red’s position. Red was
breathing easier and sweating less, the break already doing its trick.
“Ready, Nick?” Red asked.
“Sure,” Nick said.
Red pulled a poncho liner
out of his pack and draped it over the two of them. Inside it, they both
produced small flashlights, covered by red lenses.
They compared each other’s
pace count and azimuth, confirming their location on the map. In the day and
age of the GPS, neither man used one. Both had learned that when you relied on
GPS, you checked your azimuth and pace count less frequently. And in turn, you
paid less attention to your land navigation.
GPSs were a serious crutch
that were all too easy to become reliant on, but GPSs broke. Batteries died.
Satellites were sometimes not available for accurate triangulation. Armies had
made it for centuries without GPSs, and neither of the two veterans wanted to
break tradition and chance risky gear. Not to mention tote an unnecessary
device and its required batteries.
After determining their
position, Red put the poncho liner up and Nick hunched over as he crept back to
his pack to rest a few moments. His legs and back ached to the bone and he
caught himself guzzling more water than he should.
Part of the thirst came
from the fact he was anxious. Nick hated to admit it, but it was true. It was
one thing for two scout snipers to sneak into a foreign country, as Nick had
against the Soviets numerous times in the ’80s, but quite another to take four
heavily weighed down guys. Two men could sneak and hide better, but four
required larger hiding places. And larger hides were more obvious and limited.
And more likely to be searched by the enemy if they ever detected your
Even now, if the Taliban
discovered them, just three miles inside Pakistan, they would be screwed. If
one man got hit, it would be all they could do to fight their way back to the
border while carrying a man. And even then they’d have to get by the Pakistani
army on the border, who would be more alert this time.
Shut up, Nick, he thought
to himself. This is how missions fail. You start thinking about all the things
that can go wrong, and then you lose your confidence. Before you know it, you
lock up with fear. Get in character.
The sound of Marcus
approaching broke him from his thoughts.
“Here are those pills,” he
said, before handing them to Nick and moving on to the next man.
Nick shook the pills in
his hand, placed them in his mouth, and swallowed them with a large gulp of water.
He braced himself for the next hour-long leg of the mission. On the bright
side, this was physically the hardest it should be. Their packs were heavily
laden with water and food, so with every drink and snack consumed, their packs
would grow lighter.
Ounces count, Nick thought
as he rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen them up.
After everyone was watered
and medicated, the team continued on its trek, inching deeper and deeper into