Special Forces OD Alpha-555 (aka "Triple Nickel")
By Lance Bacon, SOF Magazine
White Knuckling Into Afghanistan To Avenge 9/11
Terrible weather was slapping the MH-47 Chinook back and forth and the helicopter struggled to reach 18,000 feet. Through a brief break in the coal-black storm clouds, the pilot's eyes fixed on a heartdropping site. The mighty Hindu Kush mountains planted defiant before them.
"Pull up! Pull up! Pull up!" he ordered as he pulled back hard on the stick.
In the bird's cargo hold, Air Force Technical Sergeant Calvin Markham slowly removed his headset.
"If I was about to impact the side of a mountain, I decided I rather not know about it," said the seasoned combat controller.
He already had enough to worry about. Markham, only days earlier, had been attached to Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 555, the "Triple Nickel." That 12-man Special Forces team, plus Markham, was about to become the first U.S. military personnel to set foot in Afghanistan. Their orders: Link-up with Northern Alliance commanders, assemble them for battle and utilize close-air support assets to bring Taliban and al-Qaeda foirces to their knees. Primary objectives included enemy positions at Bagram Air Base and the capital city of Kabul to the south.
That task in some ways seemed as enormous as the Hindu Kush mountains the men had nearly kissed. The A-team was restricted to one-third its normal gear. Its Northern Alliance partners were a hodge-podge of poorly equipped and heavily outnumbered soldiers. Afghani leaders were skeptical of American promises of military assistance. Though airstrikes had begun two weeks earlier, availability of aircraft was a big issue in this landlocked region and that was the only military assistance the Triple Nickel could expect.
Things were tough all over. They would get tougher, still. Yet no matter what troubles came their way, ODA-555 emerged victorious. Indeed, Pentagon planners estimated it would take the team six months to liberate Kabul.
It took the Triple Nickel only 25 days.
USAF Tsgt. Calvin Markham.
Joining The Team
The A-team's hair-raising flight over the Hindu Kush mountains originated at Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan. The base, commonly referred to as K2, sits 330 miles northwest of Bagram as the crow flies.
Markham had arrived in Karshi Khanabad fewer than three weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. The workdays there were long, 20 hours, on many occasions as Markham handled primary air traffic control duties and established the first combat search-and-rescue teams, whose job it would be to go in and rescue downed pilots and aircrews. As Markham describes it, his job was to "get everything coordinated between Big Air Force and Big Army, and try to get the two to mesh together. You're basically going on adrenaline the whole time."
The first CSAR teams were up and running in 24 hours about one week before American aircraft started bombing Taliban and al-Qaeda targets on 7 Oct. Assigned to the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the teams were locked, cocked and ready to go if any aircraft went down. Little did Markham know that his ride into Afghanistan would be under a slightly different pretense.
Initial airstrikes nailed enemy headquarters and commandand-control facilities. Taliban tanks, helicopters and fighters were destroyed on the ground. Three terrorist training camps were destroyed. But U.S. battle-planners soon needed to locate and, destroy mobile and hidden targets. That's where the Special Forces A-teams came in. Those men had to visually acquire and mark and destroy the targets. To do so, each team would infiltrate enemy territory and operate independent of all other U.S. military units. To prepare for this daunting task, a number of Special Forces teams entered "isolation," a time in which they studied every detail of the land, the enemy and the mission. As fewer than 100 Green Berets prepared to make the initial run into bad-man's land, Air Force Staff Sgt. Alan Yoshita was trying to sell A-team leaders on the idea of bringing a combat controller along for good measure.
"Triple Nickel" in front of the U. S. Embassy, 2 December 2001 'Markham is standing in the very center - middle row, centered on the flag. Photo by Calvin Markham.
Army Chief Warrant David Diaz bought his proposal.
There is no set doctrine or rule that requires a combat controller be assigned to a team, but it is a common practice when close-air is a likely or, in this case, a predominate mission. Diazs 12-man team of Green Berets, part of the 5th Special Forces Group based at Fort Campbell, Ky., was capable of calling in airstrikes, but not to the standard an Air Force combat controller could provide. Those airmen go through more than a year of intense training to ensure they can handle every type of aircraft in every type of terrain. Knowing he was about to land in the heart of Taliban country, and that he needed all the firepower he could get, Diaz asked Yoshita whom he would recommend to join the Triple Nickel.
The name he offered was familiar to many team members.
"In SOF - Air Force, Army and Navy - we're such a small, tight family that are used to working together. Four or five guys on the team already knew my name, and that opened the door," Markham said.
The team sergeant knew Markham - the two had been swim buddies at scuba school 10 years earlier. Another team member hailed from the same hometown. Another went through parachute Jumpmaster School with the controller.
The team liked the idea of bringing a controller Markham, specifically.
On 14 Oct., Air Force Col. Pat Pihana, commander of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, and Master Sgt. Bart Decker approached Markham with an offer too good to refuse: The now 34year-old airman had been selected to join the first Special Forces team to insert into Afghanistan and conduct unconventional warfare.
Decker would see similar action of his own later in the war, made famous by photos of him riding horseback in the Afghanistan mountains.
But on this day the airman, whom Decker describes as "by far, one of the great heroes of this war," gave his friend a quick-hit scenario that went something like this:
The A-team would fly at night over a mountain range, and hopefully make it over the crest. Team members would get shot at by Taliban troops, but hopefully would arrive alive at the front lines where they would link-up with the Northern Alliance. If the team survived all of this, it would set-up operations near Bagram Air Base and call-in airstrikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, and attempt to take the enemy airfield for further missions, as it had six months to take the capital city of Kabul.
It was a tough gig, no doubt about it. Even for the battle-hardened Green Beret team.
"How many teams are going in?" Markham asked his commander.
"Just one," Pihana answered. Months later, the response still raised Markham's eyebrows in reflection.
Sitting at the 23rd STS's home base of Hurlburt Field, Fla., a year-and-a-half later, Markham still seems to consider his options as he describes the discussion.
"Thirteen guys ... I wasn't sure if he was trying to get rid of me, or set me up for success," he said with a chuckle.
Confident it was the latter, Markham accepted the mission without reservation. He walked into the A-team's tent the following evening, and was "welcomed with open arms."
"You've gotta be able to build rapport and you've gotta have credibility," Markham said of his joining a very tight and well-qualified team. "If any team member doubts your ability, it's gonna cause some type of tension. When you're faced with a mission like that, you do not want any tension on the team."
Pic of Kabul by Tsgt. Markham after the city was liberated.
Rough Rides And White Knuckles
Before the Triple Nickel could drop bombs on bad guys, it had to get in the fight. That proved to be easier said than done.
Two MH-47 Chinooks would transport the team 300 miles from K2 to an area near the village of Astana in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley. The insertion point sat 37 miles northeast of Bagram Air Base, where the front line of fighting had stood for more than two years. There would be no escort aircraft to watch their back as they flew in. No one to help if attacked. The birds from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) were on their own.
Though there was no threat from enemy aircraft, there was a very real threat from ground-fire, and everyone knew it going in. The Taliban had an air-defense grid, albeit rudimentary, that included surface-to-air missiles and radars and men ready and able to use them.
"Think about it: You're an Afghan soldier, either Taliban, al-Qaeda, or Northern Alliance, just sitting on the side of a mountain," Markham said. "You've been sitting there for a decade. Your father sat there for a decade. And you've been told that if anything flies through your mountain range, shoot at it." Indeed, they did. The helicopters carrying the Triple Nickel troops took and returned sporadic small-arms and machine-gun fire. But there was a greater adversary looming among the Hindu Kush mountains: Mother Nature.
Extremely poor conditions caused Task Force 160 to abort the first two insertions on 17 and 18 Oct. A slight break in the weather on the 19th allowed the helicopters to punch through - but just barely.
"Task force pilots are amazing," Markham said. "They flew to the best of their abilities, the stars and moon and everything was in line and we got in."
The helicopter crews and A-team had to tighten their loads in order to get over the 18,000-foot mountain range The helicopter's protective armor blankets were removed, as were panels and other excess weight. In essence, the team was riding in a flying fuel tank.
The Triple Nickel had to make some cuts, as well. Members were allowed to bring only 100 pounds of gear, one-third the norm for this type of mission. Their 15 day supply of food, water, ammunition and batteries was cut significantly. They had enough to last between three to seven days. After that, they would be living off the land and their own ingenuity until an airdrop resupply could be arranged. For Markham, the gear cuts went especially deep.
A combat controller brings a lot of technical gear and equipment to do his job, such 'as radios, laser target-designators and a lot of batteries. When choosing what gear was going to be essential for the first week on the ground, he had to "take out 'necessity' items such as food, water," he said with a smile. "But, weighing in at a real light 255 pounds, can afford to skip a few meals here and there and not be affected by it."
The cuts proved enough to enable the stripped-down Chinooks to dear the massive, snow-capped peaks. The A-team made that 18,000-foot ascent with no external oxygen tanks. Markham admits the "air was a little thin" at that altitude, and the lack of oxygen made them a little weak going in, but it was just one of those times when "you've just gotta suck it up and press on with the mission."
Oxygen was the least of their worries as the birds made a steep and rapid descent, riding the terrain into unfriendly territory. The helicopter's crew chief, bracing himself with one hand, signaled one-minute to landing with the other. The A-team did a final gear check. The birds flared, and set down at two locations roughly 6,000 feet above sea level. ODA-555 removed its gear in mere seconds, and the Chinooks disappeared into the dark sky.
Thirteen members of the American military now stood in the Panjshir Valley, flanked by 15,000-foot mountain ranges on either side. In October, the beautifully crisp days quickly become bitter cold nights. "Down-to-the-bone, Wisconsin cold," as Markham describes it. The A-team was dressed in local garments, hats, coats and scarves, which helped them withstand the weather's sharp bite. The cold steel of M4 carbine semi-automatic rifles and 9 mm pistols was too familiar to notice.
The two A-teams converged soon after the Chinooks' hasty departure, and awaited their Northern Alliance liaison. The Afghani soldiers arrived in fewer than 20 minutes.
It was the first time meeting an American for many Northern Alliance soldiers, and what an eye-opener it was. Though lined on both sides by towering mountains, it was the Americans' height and build that fascinated the Afghani soldiers. Markham and a few of his fellow teammates stand well over 6-feet tall.
"You guys are big!" one Afghani soldier said as he offered tea, grapes and raisins.
The Americans gladly accepted the gifts and shared in small-talk, not out of need or obligation, but to begin to build rapport, trust and confidence with the host nation, a hallmark of Special Forces operations since 1952.
With the formalities aside, the team made necessary radio contacts with higher headquarters then jumped into Northern Alliance jeeps and headed south to a safe house. Destroyed tanks littered the side of the road, a reminder of the brutal fighting that has consumed this land for more than two decades. The toppled Russian tanks didn't bother the Americans. The jeep's driver, on the other hand, was cause for concern.
"Roads were sometimes narrower than the vehicles we were in. You were looking over 100 or 200-foot cliffs while the driver just cruised along - I think some of the biggest dangers I faced the whole time I was there was the truck rides," Markham said with a laugh.
A rough insert and a whiteknuckle ride down the mountain was enough excitement for one day. ODA555 was happy to arrive at its safe house unseen and unknown. The Northern Alliance owned this part of the Panjshir Valley, and local garb worn by the Americans helped them blend in. The Taliban often launched rocket attacks into nearby cities and villages, but the Triple Nickel's first two nights in Afghanistan remained rather uneventful.
On the diplomatic scale, the A-team faced a pretty tough battle. They were to meet with local commanders such as General Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who had assumed military leadership of the Alliance after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood. on 9 Sept. Fahim had expressed doubts about U.S. intervention.
"Fahim knew the only reason the Americans were there was because of 9/11, and there was some distrust there," said a source closely familiar with ODA-555's mission. "Nonmilitary Americans had been there, promising dose-air support that he had yet to see. Fahim wanted the Americans to put up or shut up."
The Triple Nickel was not about to shut up.
The Battle For Bagram
A handful of Triple-Nickel team members, on the morning of 21 Oct., stepped-off to scout Bagram Air Base. Diaz, the A-team's chief, wanted to get eyes on target and see where the forward line of troops were established, the type of mission Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later described as "doing things that are helpful to our side and unhelpful to the other side."
The A-team linked-up with local Northern Alliance commanders, led by Gen. Babajon, a man whose robust frame earned him the title "General Papa John" among the Americans. Together, the men went to the Bagram air-traffic control tower, which stood only 500 yards from enemy forces.
"The Northern Alliance had from mid-field north. Taliban and al-Qaeda had from mid-field south. We were right at midfield," Markham explained.
One A-team member who spoke fluent Arabic approached Babajon, who began pointing out key Taliban targets: the communication and control facility, the headquarters building, where the front-line commanders were located, ammunition dumps. The team never questioned the accuracy of Babajon's information.
"General Babajon and his men had been established on this front for three years. They knew the names of the people they were fighting against," said Markham, who already was plotting coordinates for future airstrikes. The ' combat controller's work soon came to a halt. The joint Special Operations Air Component, his first point of contact in the close-air support "kill chain," was on the line with some rather surprising news.
"Tiger 0-1, you have been approved and you have aircraft today coming in at noon. Give us your first target," the voice said.
"We just went out there for a recon, so there was a little bit of a scramble when I found out I had aircraft in about an hour," Markham said.
Two F/A-18 Hornets off the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt were quickly closing the 700-mile distance to Bagram, and the Triple Nickel got busy. One team member ran the laser target-designator, which "paints" a target with a laser beam that can be picked up by friendly pilots or laser-guided bombs Another A-team member grabbed a laser range-finder that is used to determine distance to targets and the azimuth from the A-team's position. Another soldier was talking to higher headquarters on satellite communications.
Babajon remained skeptical.
"He seemed to think we were up there for show," Markham said. "Then the first aircraft showed up."
Diaz placed the crossbars of his Bushnell optic scope on the first target as Markham made final communication with the inbound fighter jet.
"Is that it?" he asked Markham, pointing to the scope that peered south. The airman quickly glanced through the lens. "Yeah, that's it. Thirty seconds out," he said as he turned to resume his duties.
Diaz motioned for Babajon to look through his scope. The robust general's eyes scanned the room before he bent down to peer through the lens.
Thirty seconds later, just as Markham had promised, the earth shook A 500-pound bomb had hit its mark, the bunker that housed the Taliban's regional headquarters element. Babajon's eyes grew nearly as wide as the shower of dirt and debris that blossomed before him.
The Taliban immediately returned fire, aiming all they had at the air-traffic control tower. Instincts urged the A-team to break contact and find a safer position, but Diaz ordered his men to stand their ground. As one team member later explained, "the Taliban's aim sucked." Sporadic bullets would penetrate the tower, but incoming fire was neither sustained nor precise.
Triple Nickel CO Geoff Brady calling in air strike coordinates
The outgoing fire was another story.
As though they could smell the blood below, hungry pilots flying F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons showed up in short order.
"Everybody's getting in the game. Everybody wants a piece of Tiger 0-1," Markham said. "A lot of the pilots didn't even know there were teams downrange. When we spoke to them, they were like 'You're an American."
"No shit! Drop some bombs for me - I'm taking fire!"
Seemingly untouchable Taliban and al-Qaeda positions disappeared in the blink of an eye in response. The Triple Nickel watched as frightened and confused enemy scrambled for cover. Of course, the Americans had to take cover a time or two, as well. In addition to occasional small-arms and machine-gun-fire hitting the tower, bombs were dropped dangerously close to the A-team's perch, some as close as 500 meters, or 1,650 feet. Five-and-a-half football fields seems a considerable distance, until one considers the blast radius of a 500-pound bomb is roughly 2,600 feet. Fifty percent of the close-air missions that afternoon fell within "danger-close" parameters.
At one point, the Arabic-speaking American was handed a Taliban radio kept by the Northern Alliance. He first listened to the enemy's reports, then later pretended to be Taliban himself to extract detailed information. The Triple Nickel was receiving immediate bomb-damage assessments from the enemy, it had just nailed. Among those messages, one report stood out from all others: The commander of the Taliban front line had been killed
"With precision, we, dropped bombs through the front doors of their enemies," Markham said. "From that very first day, we started breaking the enemy's back."
Babajon, on the other hand, was dancing around the tower. Each strike brought a new round of hugs for his troops, and wide smiles and nods of approval for his American friends.
The Northern Alliance was astounded by the accuracy of American air strikes. Their leaders later told A-team members that the Triple Nickel had eliminated more Taliban and al-Qaeda on that first day than the Northern Alliance had killed in the first year of their war.
The victory was personal for the Americans, as well. A bit of payback for the 11 Sept. terrorist attacks that had happened a little more than a month earlier.
"I looked at my team and said 'Today, we just made history, "' Markham said. Though it felt rewarding to finally strike back, the team knew it had to remain focused. "We were excited about what we had just done, but everybody knew in the back of their head that every time we dropped a bomb, we were one bomb closer to making the biggest mistake of our lives."
It was a brutal truth the team would keep at the forefront of every close-air mission it would call in.
Though only seven of the A-team's 150 airstrikes took place that first day, it was more than enough to decimate an enemy stronghold that had stood for more than three years. Those airstrikes also helped the A-team win the respect of the Northern Alliance.
That respect would come in handy in the weeks that followed. The Triple Nickel was just getting started.
Heavy Bombers Get In The Game
With the Taliban's tight grip on Bagram loosened in one afternoon, the Triple Nickel set out to snatch the entire region from the enemy's grasp.
The A-team was given a target area 18 miles wide and 37 miles deep. Inside that area, there were no refugees and no friendlies. It was all Taliban and alQaeda.
"This was confirmed and confirmed and confirmed," Markham said. "Every time we hit a target, we were mindful of collateral damage. We looked around the target, we observed the target, we made sure there was no friendlies."
The Triple Nickel established three primary observation posts from which they would operate. One sat atop the mountain range northeast of Bagram. A second sat in the middle of the Panjshir Valley near the airfield. A third, positioned southwest of the air base, covered the flat open plains and the main highway going in and out of Kabul. From these locations, ODA-555 pounded Taliban and al-Qaeda targets day and night.
Targets were plentiful. Supplies were not. The A-team's groceries ran out after about a week in country, and the Americans turned to a diet of rice and goat. Markham lost 25 pounds in the weeks that followed as he and his fellow team members dealt with what he described as "a case of whistling piss-ass."
An airdrop was planned to resupply the team, but the mission went awry. Parachutes malfunctioned; all mission and personal gear was lost.
But in this dark dilemma, some team members shined their brightest. The team's communications specialist and engineer had to find a way to keep the team in business as the battery supply dwindled. The soldiers stepped down the voltage of car batteries and configured small generators to provide radios and laser target-designators an alternate power source.
Fueled by a this less-than-gourmet diet and creative power sources, the team continued to shower the Taliban with a cascade of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The airstrikes cratered the landscape in six straight days of attacks.
Reliable intelligence was now streaming into the team from a variety of sources: the rear element, intelligence officers on the ground, Northern Alliance soldiers, even Taliban and al-Qaeda turncoats who provided information to their fellow countrymen.
Early intelligence intercepts revealed that the Taliban and al-Qaeda we re not too worried about the American bombing plan, according to a senior Air Force official with deep knowledge of the air campaign. Air Force leaders understood why reconnaissance photos showed bomb craters from previous wars had not even come close to hitting many of their targets.
When the American bombs started to drop, however, the intelligence reports contained a very different message.
"The Taliban was saying 'This is different. This is not like the Russians the Americans are hitting the targets with their bombs,"' the senior Air Force official said.
The enemy was suffering severe losses, but there were a lot of Taliban and al-Qaeda in that valley. And a lot of fortified postions made stronger throughout the years.
ODA-555 needed more firepower.
"You can hit a mortar position with a 500-pound bomb, but all they do is pull the dead bodies out, bring in another five guys, put them in that hole with another mortar tube and now that position is recovered," Markham explained. "But when you put 2,000 pounders on a complete fighting area, and you kill 200 to 300 enemy, those next 200 to 300 guys ... well, think about a hundred of your buddies getting killed. I'm probably not going to want to go sit in that area again."
The combat controller "begged and begged and begged for bomber support," though he was well aware that neither the B1B Lancer nor the B-52 Stratofortress had ever been used in close-air support missions. With more than 16 years as a combat controller, and six years in the advanced skills of close-air support, Markham was ready to break the ice.
On 28 Oct., his wish was granted.
The B-52s that arrived on-scene could carry up to a dozen 2,000-pound bombs under their wings and 27 500-pounders in the bay. The B-1B carried twice that number of 2,000-pounders or up to 84 of the 500-pound bombs in its fuselage. Most fighter jets, in comparison, can carry either two 2,000-pounders or four 500-pound bombs.
"Now we were dropping some serious ordnance," Markham said. "Not only are we breaking the enemy's back, we are totally annihilating them and their warmaking effort."
ODA-555's attacks continued, even intensified, well into the second week of November.
So familiar had the terrain become that Markham would call in time-on-target missions for targets that sat miles away. The airstrike would unfold while he slept, called in strikes at another location or transmitted battlefield data and intelligence to the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
The cowboys they were having coming every night out of Kabul, 200 to 300 vehicles coming to reinforce the front lines, wasn't happening anymore," Markham said. "Our attitude was simple: if the Taliban came up to our battlefield area, and try to impose a threat against us, you will die. You will be eliminated."
So effective were ODA-555's airstrikes that two weeks after its insertion, a blanket order came from on high: No more Special Forces teams would go into Afghanistan without a certified tactical air-controller attached. Two controllers were even sent in to assist an A-team that had inserted about a week after the Triple Nickel.
So many were ODA-555s missions and targets that other team members soon began to call-in strikes. Markham had stern rules for the Triple Nickel and pilots alike.
"One thing that I beat into everybody's head [on the ground] was to verify our friendly location. You better verify - double-check and triplecheck where your friendly position is, because the second you don't, that's when you get someone killed."
Markham's second rule was one that sent a pilot or two packing.
"There were five fundamentals: Hey you, this is me. This is my position. This is the enemy. This is your target's coordinates and elevation. This is the type of bomb or running I want you to use, and the clearance. if you can't accept that, leave my battle area."
That happened on more than occasion. Though Markham is quick to add that it was not the pilot's fault; he said some aviators who showed up were not air-to-ground qualified. Others did not have appropriate equipment in their aircraft.
Other complications started to arise, as well. The kind that can put a serious dent in one's medical record.
The A-team was drawing direct fire every time it showed up for a mission. it wasn't hard to figure out why. The team exclusively relied on Northern Alliance vehicles to get it from place to place, and had to ask a variety of individuals for permission to use vehicles and drivers. Somewhere along that line, information was being leaked.
"The Taliban has agents on our side, and we have agents on their side," Markham said, speaking of Afghan soldiers. "Every time we went somewhere, we had a larger crowd surrounding us. The Taliban was getting the calls saying where we are."
Knowing there were far too many foxes in the hen house, Diaz devised a simple but sufficient plan. His team would tell Northern Alliance leaders they were headed to one place, but would demand the driver go elsewhere once they had cleared the camp.
While getting the A-team to the fight was becoming easier, getting aircraft to the fight was growing more and more difficult by the day. There still was a relatively low number of aircraft available so early in the fighting, and U.S. military leaders were hitting every strategic target they could identify. To make matters worse, three other Special Forces teams had inserted at various locations such as Harat, Mazare-Sharif, and Kunduz, and they needed air support just as bad as did the Triple Nickel. Worse yet, the "kill chain" was gaining links by the day.
"Immediate close-air support seemed to take forever, because everyone wants to get on the radio and be involved," Markham said. "Everybody wants to know what's going on. it would take too long."
The average time to execute a closeair mission was well in excess of 30 minutes, he said, and 30 minutes is way too long when Taliban bullets are ricocheting all around you. When the team came under such fire, Markham often went directly to the Airborne Command and Control Center aircraft or the support aircraft themselves and put out a blanket request: "Hey, I am taking heavy fire, I need close-air support now!"
"It's not the proper procedure," Markham said, "and we took some heat for it every once in awhile, but I would rather face getting in trouble than being dead."
The 30-minute minimum became a maximum when the blanket-call for doseair went out. Sometimes, the wait for bombs on target was reduced to single-digit minutes.
But the diminishing availability of air power was beginning to take its toll. Constant combat air patrols over Afghanistan wouldn't come until months later. In the meantime, ODA555 sent next-day requests for air support up the chain of command. Battleplanners would decide which Special Forces team would have priority each day, but the Triple Nickel went on the hunt dailym regardless of the priority its mission received. The bad weather that hampered their insertion still lingered, and sometimes caused close-air missions elsewhere to be scrubbed. When that happened, Markham was ready to pick up those fully armed aircraft.
"One of the nicknames we got was '7-11,' " Markham said. "If they knew one team couldn't use their air support, they'd send them to Tiger 0-1 because I could use them. We were the 7-11 of CAS: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we would use you."
"Shrek" can attest to that reputation. The radar navigator, who is a member of the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, asked that only his call sign be used for security reasons.
Shrek in early November was flying one of more than 20 combat missions when he diverted one ground controller's request for an airstrike. The controller wanted a bomb on a 65-foot by 65-foot building, but Shrek was carrying cluster bombs best suited for troops and vehicles in the open. Such a bomb "against a building is not a good match. It won't do enough damage," Shrek said. At his bequest, Navy F/A18 Hornets rolled in and picked up the mission.
Tiger 0-1 then picked up the heavy bomber.
Markham, who sat perched at one of his three observation posts near Bagram, had anti-aircraft artillery and enemy troops in sight. But not for long. The B-52 strike put the Taliban's attempt to reinforce a position to a rather quick end.
Despite the many things working against the A-team, ODA-555 had close-air support working like a fine oiled machine. The team's confidence, camraderie and capability were growing by the day.
All three of those intangibles would be put to the test on the A-team's 25th day in-country.
NEXT MONTH: The Triple Nickel squares-off against a much larger Taliban force in a climactic battle for Kabul. And when it seems they are about to lose the battle, the city indeed, their lives - Tech. Sgt. Calvin Markham pulls off "the impossible shot" that changes the war.
Good to see my old unit kicking some Taliban butt. Job well done Sgt. Markham.
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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