The Panda of Nuristan Province
Nuristan Province rests in the Hindu Kush mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan Border. It borders with Badakshan Province to the north and sits a relatively short distance below the narrow strip of land that juts into Pakistan known as the Wakhan (Your Mom’s) Corridor. Kunar Province sits to its immediate south. Translated as “Land of Light,” Nuristan is inhabited by, wait for it...Nuristanis. They speak their own language (literally took us months to get a translator despite being the second maneuver unit to occupy the battle space) and do not observe many of the more well-known Islamic traditions such as women covering their faces or not entering one another’s homes without express permission. This is due largely to the fact that until about 100 years ago, Nuristanis largely practiced Buddhism until they were conquered by force and “encouraged” to convert to Islam. It was in this restive province with the Cavalrymen of the 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team that this story took place.
It was sometime in midsummer 2007. I had recently been promoted to Sergeant First Class and therefore took my place amongst the poor, vanquished, and underappreciated staff monkeys in my Squadron’s Tactical Operations Center (TOC). My position was that of Battle Captain which encompassed a myriad of responsibilities; none more important than delivering assets to troops in contact or the request and coordination of MEDEVAC support for our wounded. For anyone that has never seen the inside of a Squadron or Battalion level TOC, picture those rooms with all the high tech equipment those government spooks are always occupying whenever they attempt to track down and kill Jason Bourne. Yes, picture exactly that but take away all of that high tech stuff and add lots of scotch tape and a coffee maker. Also, in the case of our TOC, add one high-speed hamster cage (thank you, Amazon).
The hamster cage was the dwelling of a feral mouse someone had caught on our FOB and immediately put into an empty fish aquarium. They then proceeded to catch things like scorpions and camel spiders which they would drop into the aquarium and place bets on how long the mouse would live. Looking back, I wish those “Coexist” stickers were trendy as that would have not only been funny, but would also have ironically demonstrated the pipe dream that is coexistence amongst creatures that just want to kill you. The mouse surprisingly beat all odds and killed everything that dared invade his homestead. In laymen’s terms, he was a bad motherfucker. He was shortly thereafter brought to the TOC and given to us as a pet. We promptly named him “Moose” to pay homage to all of his feats of strength and valor. We immediately ordered a very nice cage with a wheel and tunnels and all that shit. We even ordered him one of those balls so he could run around the TOC at will. On the plywood wall directly above and behind the cage, one of our more talented Paratroopers painted “Moose’s House of Pain” in blue with red “blood” dripping from the letters. The photos below are of the plywood wall along with his original aquarium; followed by one of Moose enjoying the spoils of war...
In August of 2008, after 15 months in that place, a few hours before we boarded helicopters out of there, we set Moose free and promptly destroyed his cage so that it could not fall into the hands of the enemy.
We set him free for two reasons:
- He had earned his freedom and it was the right thing to do.
- The unit that replaced us was full of pussies that complained about us breaking the rules about having pets. They were not worthy of being in his presence and I’m confident that eventually he would have killed all of them.
Moose was a shining example of the badassery displayed by both the critter and animal populations of Afghanistan. Sometimes late at night, I picture him attacking the jugular of a lone Taliban fighter under a full moon in the cold, dead mountains of the Hindu Kush. But I digress…
“No fucking way...is that a fucking Panda?! What the fuck?!”
is loosely what I remember everyone in the TOC exclaiming as we peered into the rover feed being broadcast to us from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circling our Area of Operations. The UAV was in our battle space due to a platoon of our troops coming into small arms contact with a small element of insurgents. We requested Close Air Support so Brigade unhesitatingly sent us a UAV. Not only a UAV, but the Army’s “Warrior Alpha” model. To anyone not familiar, the Warrior Alpha looks exactly like the Air Force Predator. There’s really only two differences:
- It’s completely unarmed making it useless in all but the most blissful of situations.
- Despite it being an Army platform, it doesn’t display the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) which is what the Army uses for land navigation. Nah...it displays Latitude/Longitude like it just got catapulted off a fucking aircraft carrier.
So not only is it incapable of killing the enemy, you can’t even tell where the fuck the enemy is located. Thanks a pantload, Rumsfeld. All you can do is watch them engage your fellow meat eaters all the while wishing you could do something aside from throwing another bag of popcorn in the microwave. It’s damn near impossible to open one of those with your fingers crossed, too. Don’t believe me; give it a try...I’ll wait.
We made repeated requests up the chain for Apache Helicopter Gunship support but at the time, they were all based out of Bagram and grounded due to weather. However, this skeptic suspects that it was double coupon day at Burger King which means wall to wall “quiff” in there. No fucking way an aviator is going to miss that opportunity. But while it may have pissed me off at that moment, damn do I respect the hell out of them for taking a break from the war effort to enjoy the company of some young, hot, 9.
Note: a “Hot 9” in Afghanistan is about a Stateside 2.5 - 3. Tops.
We continued to watch this small group of fighters rain down plunging fire on our troops and we literally couldn’t do a thing about it. Fucking Burger King, man. The only good thing was that there didn’t appear to be any enemy elements attempting to maneuver on their flanks. Within the next few minutes, Brigade called me and said they’d coordinated for “Dude” to come up and lend us a hand. Dude was the callsign used by the Squadron of F-15 fighter/bombers stationed in Afghanistan. They’d be coming all the way up from Kandahar due to the “weather issue” in Bagram so it would take them an extra 10-15 minutes to arrive on station. Apparently, double coupon day at Kandahar is on Wednesdays.
About 10 minutes later, Dude 2-1 and Dude 2-2 checked in with our Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller. A J-TAC is an Air Force NCO assigned to ground elements and his job is to conduct air/ground integration with fixed-wing aircraft in order to select the best possible way to fill people’s living rooms with shrapnel that says “Lockheed-Martin.” Despite the fact that they’re in the Air Force, they are awesome dudes and great to have in your corner when the chips are down. You want to know how cool they are? They wear Army uniforms and no one gives a fuck. They know that Air Force uniform looks totally gay so they just wear whatever the hell they want. I love those dudes. So the J-TAC read them on and they headed north to unleash some pain. They planned to drop one GBU-31 J-DAM (Guided Bomb Unit-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition) and follow it up with one MK-82 Airburst. A J-DAM is literally an old “dumb” bomb retro-fitted with a guidance system (reduce, recycle, reuse) and the 31 version contains 1,000 pounds of High Explosives. The MK-82 is also guided and contains 500 pounds of HE. However, it uses a proximity fuze which allows it to detonate while it’s still in the air. Total show-stopper. Needless to say, those insurgents were about to get their teeth turned into Chicklets.
As Dude made his way north, we began to use that worthless UAV to conduct a Collateral Damage Estimate. A CDE must be conducted prior to an aircraft being cleared “hot” onto a target. Basically, you make sure there are no civilians or occupied structures within the radius of the blast. If there are, you have to decide if “the juice is worth the squeeze” should you clear the aircraft to drop ordinance. The presence of a lone civilian will prevent a call of “weapon away” (and rightfully so in my humble opinion) but you can play a little fast and loose with structures. The UAV was observing the area with FLIR which detects heat signatures. In addition, the FLIR was set to White Hot meaning that any heat signature would show as white with a contrasting black background. Can you guess what Black Hot does? As the operator conducted an ever-widening “racetrack” around the target area, we saw it.
It was about 50-75 meters away from the little group of douchebags who were arrayed to the left and right of a PKM machine gunner; well within the blast radius. It was just an indistinguishable white blob as far as we could tell but it was moving. It also appeared to be quite large. The feed wasn’t the best and as the operator (who by the way was in a trailer in Vegas, getting combat pay and no doubt later complaining about PTSD) tried to adjust the contrast, Dude 2-1 checked in and confirmed that he had positively identified our troops as well as the enemy fighters and that he was computing a solution. I don’t know what “computing a solution” entails but it sounds way cooler than “This is Dude 2-1...friendly and enemy positions confirmed...doing math. Over.” Meanwhile, we were all peering and squinting at the monitor trying to identify that giant moving blob. Someone suggested (seriously) that we should look at the monitor through binoculars theorizing that we’d get more “magnification” that way. This was quickly dismissed by both blank stares and less than encouraging words. Suddenly, the blob got taller as Dude 2-1 radioed “Weapon Ready,” meaning that the pilots were ready to administer some hot, smoking, freedom. This thing was now twice the size it was before and it was repeatedly moving up and down like a big white blob doing squats. The J-TAC advised Dude 2-1 that we were still conducting CDE and unable to identify this white blob we were seeing. He advised that he would try to find it and identify it as well. He never found it which was a bit disconcerting since he was a “pickle switch” away from dropping 1,500 pounds of explosives in proximity of friendly troops. Obviously we didn’t want to drop ordinance on any of our guys; except for maybe Tim...that guy was a dick. The UAV operator (did I mention he was in Vegas?) relayed that he was going to switch to Daysight which might help us identify it. Daysight is like looking through binoculars that have been taking steroids and won’t shut the fuck up about Crossfit. If daysight was a guy, he’d be named Brett and smell of Axe body spray.
The Daysight feed came up and after a few seconds of contrast and focus adjustments by Vegas Boy, it was as clear as could be. It was a fucking Panda Bear. In fact, it was a Panda Bear standing upright against a tree, moving up and down using it to scratch its back. I know what you’re thinking: “There aren’t Pandas in Afghanistan!” I know you’re thinking that because that day, observing that feed, and despite the fact that we were looking at it, we were all thinking (and many of us even voiced it) the same thing. We then conducted a level of CDE that I never in a million years would have anticipated. We checked Google to see if Pandas were on the endangered species list.
Needless to say, Dude 2-1 never got to announce “Weapon Away.” Instead, both aircraft conducted a Show of Force over the enemy position. This is an extremely low pass coupled with the dropping of flares on the enemy for intimidation purposes. It is nowhere near as effective as a bomb the size of a Volkswagen but it does make the enemy shit kittens and break contact; which is exactly what they did that day. The Panda on the other hand just continued to scratch his back like he didn’t give a shit about anything in the world. It truly looked like bliss.
People can say whatever they like about the “insensitive, baby-killing” military. But there isn’t a fighting force in the world that takes more care to avoid collateral damage (even if it means quadrupling our own risk) than the Armed Forces of the United States. Sure, the enemy lived to fight another day but so did our guys. In addition, that fearless Panda got his back scratched which I think we can all agree probably felt pretty good.
In closing, Pandas were removed from the endangered list in 2016 so...you’re cleared hot.