Staff Sergeant Elias Martinez had just checked the quick release affixed to the bow of the partially-deflated Zodiac for the third time when something made him look up.
There was a towering figure standing at the base of the CH-53’s ramp. Martinez instinctively straightened, then yelled for the rest of his team. There might be plenty of big Marines aboard the USS Boxer, but there was no mistaking the silhouette of the MEU Commander. Colonel John Brannigan cut an altogether different figure. There was something about the way he carried himself that set him apart and made him immediately recognizable.
What was surprising was the fact that the Colonel, with the squat form of Sergeant Major Santelli beside him, was in full kit. Helmet, NVGs, plate carrier, mags, radio, blowout kit, rifle, the works. He looked like he was ready to climb right on the bird and insert alongside Martinez’ Force Recon Team. Which was unheard of, and something that Martinez suddenly found he more than vaguely dreaded. No team leader wants an officer looking over his shoulder on an op, let alone the Colonel.
“Bring it in a minute, gents!” Brannigan boomed, managing to make himself heard over the racket of the Boxer’s flight deck. The team clambered over the soft-ducked Zodiac and the rest of their gear until they were gathered in a tight semi-circle around Brannigan and Santelli. They were a group of dark specters in the dimness of the flight deck, yards away from the superstructure’s lights, already kitted up and cammie-painted for the upcoming op.
“I wanted to meet up with all of the teams before you stepped off,” Brannigan shouted. “You boys are going to be the envy of the entire Marine Corps, you know that? You’ll be the only infantry Marines in the Fleet with an armored vehicle kill to your names, probably for years to come!” He reached out and shook each man’s hand. “I just wanted to stress one more time that we’re all counting on you. Yeah, me included. My ass is going to be on the lead bird going into the target village, so if you gunfighters don’t take those Shilkas out, I’ll be one of the first ones getting burned down. So go get your kill on! Good hunting, gents!” He shook Martinez’ hand last, looking the Staff NCO in the eye as he did so, nodded once, and then turned and motioned to Santelli, jogging toward the next ’53 aft, where Team Two should be loaded up and ready to go.
“Let’s go!” Martinez yelled. “Wheels up in,” he checked his watch, “three minutes!”
As the team clambered back on the helo, Sergeant Frank Able, Martinez’ Assistant Team Leader, leaned in to shout in his ear. “Did you see the Colonel’s rifle?”
“Yeah,” Martinez replied. Brannigan had been carrying an ancient, battered M4, with a lot of the bluing worn off. It stood out in a unit that had already mostly transitioned to the newer M27s. “That’s the way the Old Man rolls. The word going around the Lance Corporal Underground says that he threatened to throw any officer overboard if he caught them with an M27 before all of the shooters had ‘em.”
“Damn,” was all that Able said, before he scrambled up and over to get into the CH-53. He did a quick head count, then gave Martinez the thumbs up. Martinez passed the same signal to the crew chief, and a moment later the big helo was surging up off the deck and into the East African night.
Brannigan watched the three CH-53s, each carrying a Zodiac and a Force Recon team, dwindle into the night, and checked his watch. All on schedule, so far. He pressed his mouth into a thin line. “I never should have gone to the dark side, Carlo,” he said to his short, stout Sergeant Major, who was standing at his side, just outside the Boxer’s superstructure.
“Hell, sir,” the other man replied, his thick Boston accent noticeable even when he had to raise his voice to be heard over the racket of the flight deck’s operations, “if you’d stayed on the enlisted side, you’d be right where I am right now, probably working for some stick-in-the-mud careerist who wouldn’t even have stepped out of the COC to see the teams off.”
“Colonel Brannigan?” a familiar voice called from the hatch. Brannigan grimaced as he turned around.
“What is it, Colonel?” he asked.
“Sir, are you really going through with this?” Lieutenant Colonel Eikenberry asked. “Shouldn’t you be in the COC to coordinate?”
“No, I should not,” Brannigan replied. “And that’s the last I want to hear on the matter, is that clear?”
Eikenberry stiffened. Brannigan supposed he shouldn’t blame the man. He’d been brought up in a command climate that had stressed “management” over “leadership.” Brannigan had been determined to buck that trend ever since he’d “gone to the dark side” and gotten a commission. It was a minor miracle, not to mention the fruit of some serious cunning and careful ass-covering of his own, that he’d managed to get pinned as a Colonel at all, with his attitude. But he had, and he’d be damned if he let somebody like Eikenberry make him change his ways.
“Is that all, Colonel?” he asked.
Eikenberry looked like he had a lot more to say, but he apparently thought better of it, especially with both Brannigan and Santelli staring at him, and more of the Marines and sailors nearby beginning to take notice. This wasn’t the place for such a confrontation, and Eikenberry, as much of a stuffed shirt as he might have been, was enough of a professional to know it.
He also probably suspected that if he overstepped his bounds, Brannigan was not above laying him out. There were stories.
“Yes, sir, that’s all,” Eikenberry said.
“Good,” was all Brannigan said, as he turned back to where the deck crews were beginning to get the Ospreys into place for the next phase.
The crew chief looked back at Martinez and held up a hand, fingers spread. Martinez nodded, then turned to the rest of the team and mimicked the gesture, yelling, “Five minutes!” He could barely hear himself over the scream of the helicopter’s engines, and he knew that most of the team couldn’t hear him, either. But they could see the signal, and they returned it, as one. It had been a long flight, but it didn’t look like anybody had nodded off. They were too keyed up. This was everything Colonel Brannigan had said it would be.
The briefing had been succinct. The Gama’a al-Mujahidin had taken twenty of the International Medical Aid Society’s doctors and aid workers hostage, and were presently holding them in a village ten kilometers south of the coast. The local government wasn’t lifting a finger, in large part, it was suspected, because they were in bed with the radicals. Which was also why they had their air defenses placed along the coast and active, though they claimed it was to defend their nearby Army base. The fact that the ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns just so happened to be sited directly between the MEU and the hostages—and several dozen miles away from that same Army base—was not lost on anyone.
The Force Recon Platoon had gotten the fun job. They got to sneak in and take out the air defenses ahead of the main assault force that would be going in after the hostages.
With the five-minute warning having been passed, the Marines stood up and started getting ready. Everything securing the Zodiac except for the quick release at the bow was removed. Fins went on wrists. Everything was quickly double-checked; nobody wanted to be “that guy,” and lose any of his kit in the ocean.
The crew chief held up two fingers. They were almost there; two minutes to the drop point. Able took his spot on the ramp, to act as cast-master.
Then they were down to thirty seconds.
The bird swooped in low, flaring and coming to a hover. The pilot was good; Martinez had done this with some who weren’t that great. This one held the helo almost precisely rock-solid at ten feet above the water, slowly creeping forward at ten knots.
Martinez yanked the quick release. With the Marines helping it along, the Zodiac slid down the ramp and into the midnight-black water. Immediately, Able started waving the rest of the six-man team out after it.
Martinez and Able went out together, each jumping off at an angle to either side of the ramp, throwing their hands and their swim fins over their heads as they went. The warm salt water briefly closed over Martinez’ head as he hit, then he was up, dragging his fins on, and kicking hard for the boat. Behind him, the CH-53 was pulling for altitude, banking away to avoid getting too close to the coast and the deadly 23mms waiting in the dark.
It was quick work to get all six Marines on the Zodiac, inflate the boat the rest of the way, mount the engine, and get it started. Then, carefully checking the compass, Martinez took the tiller and started them in. They had four klicks to go, and they had a deadline to hit.
Half an hour later, the coast was a dark line on the horizon in his NVGs, and he was cold. Despite the warm night, the sea breeze against his wet cammies was sapping the heat from his body. Martinez was quietly thankful that they’d be making landfall soon, so he could start moving around. Being wet and cold sucks, even in the tropics.
He slowed the boat as they got nearer, scanning carefully for any sign of the enemy on the shore. They were still too far out to see anything but the slightly blacker outline of the land, though. “Bailey, Moen, go!” he hissed.
The two junior men on the team rolled backward into the water without a word, and were soon lost in the gloom as they kicked out for shore. Two scout swimmers could get ashore and look around a lot more easily and stealthily than a Zodiac could. They’d go ashore, make sure it was clear, then signal to bring the boat in.
They were on too tight a time schedule for the two Marines to swim back out to the boat. The raid force would be inbound in another two hours.
The wait still seemed to take forever. The boat drifted and bobbed on the waves, as the Recon Marines silently stared toward the dark line of the beach. Both Bailey and Moen were strong swimmers, but it still takes time to cover five hundred meters, let alone get through the surf zone.
There. An IR flash blinked three times on the shore. Either the swimmers or the boat had drifted a little, but they were close enough. Martinez cranked the throttle on the Zodiac’s engine, and started the boat puttering in toward the shore.
The beach was smooth sand, and it was quick work to get the boat pulled up and into the grass just beyond the high-tide line. Bailey and Moen were both in the prone in the grass, holding security.
Martinez looked around. There wasn’t a lot of brush, even after they got off the beach. There were a few acacia trees, but their utility for concealment on the beach was minimal. And there wasn’t time to bury the boat. “We’ll have to pull it up into the grass and cover it up as best we can,” he whispered. “Pull up some of the clumps of grass farther away.”
He knew he really didn’t have to say that. He knew his team well from the two years they’d been in the schools and workup phases. Dozens of training patrols and inserts meant that they knew what to do like it was second nature. Plus, even the junior guys had a couple of Battalion deployments under their belts, even though those had been Marine Expeditionary Unit floats not unlike this one—a few training ops, liberty ports, and lots of boredom at sea.
They took as long as they dared to get the boat as concealed as possible, especially while maintaining security. If the locals were patrolling the coast, things could get ugly before they even got close to their target Shilka. But there was no sign of any movement near the beach, though they did see headlights go past on the Coast Road a couple of times.
“Good enough,” Martinez finally decided. He pointed to Bailey. “Lead out.”
Bailey had taken a few moments to get his bearings, and he nodded and started moving. Spreading out, the rest of the team fell into formation behind him, NVGs mounted on bump helmets and suppressed M27s ready. Martinez and Sheldon each carried one of the AT-4s that they had brought along, zipped into waterproof bags to keep the salt water out. Both anti-tank weapons were presently out of the bags and slung across their backs.
In planning, Martinez had deliberately set their landing site about halfway between two of the Shilka positions, in order to, hopefully, minimize their chance of detection. After assessing their position, he was pretty sure that they had ended up a couple hundred meters closer to their target than he’d planned. He didn’t bother to get angry about it, though he knew more than one team leader who would. Tides, currents, and an unfamiliar beach would have their effects, and it was a waste of mental energy to concentrate on anything besides taking that AA position out and exfilling out to sea again.
Movement should have been relatively easy; the terrain was about as flat as it could get. The devil, as always, was in the details; the ground was mostly soft sand, which made for treacherous and difficult footing, especially in combat gear. It took every ounce of self-discipline not to just start slogging away, head down and teeth gritted, after the first half-klick.
Twice Bailey had to throw up a hand to call a halt, the entire team sinking to the ground as another car passed on the Coast Road. There was a lot of traffic on the road for East Africa in the middle of the night, but there was nothing to be done about it at that point but do what they had to do to stay out of the headlights.
They had gone about a kilometer when Bailey raised his hand again, sinking to a knee in the sand. Martinez moved up next to him.
The younger Marine pointed. Martinez followed the line of his arm, and just made out a building, about two hundred meters ahead. The moon was down, so even through NVGs, there wasn’t a lot of detail readily visible, but it looked like a simple, square, cinder-block structure with a flat roof. Pretty standard for that part of the world, which meant it could be somebody’s storage shed, or it could be somebody’s house. There was no way to tell.
Martinez pointed down toward the beach. They had to give the building a wide berth. They couldn’t afford to risk detection, not at that point in the game. Bailey nodded and led off again.
There was a bit of a drop-off at the upper limit of the beach, where the high tide had worn away the sandy ground. It was enough to provide them with some concealment, so Bailey stuck to it, at least as far as it went. Each step was still getting painful, as they had to shuffle through the sand with the weight of their gear and weapons trying to push them down as they went, but they made decent time anyway.
Finally, Bailey stopped and sank to a knee again. He didn’t have to point. Martinez had seen the distinctive silhouette ahead at the same time he had.
The ZSU-23-4 is a squat, tracked monster, with a wide, boxy turret and four bell-mouthed 23mm, radar-guided cannons clustered together in front. It can be hell on vehicles and personnel as well as aircraft. And this one was sitting on a jetty, sticking a hundred yards out into the ocean, its cannons angled up and out to sea, its radar dish elevated and scanning.
The vehicle’s position was a problem; their AT-4s had a limited range, and they were going to have to get pretty close to that jetty to fire accurately. And there was a good chance that the Shilka’s crew was not alone. From where they knelt, Martinez couldn’t see anything besides the hulk of the self-propelled AA gun itself, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t local soldiers hunkered down somewhere close by, providing security.
He looked back and gave the signal to rally up. In moments, the team was in a tight circle, weapons and eyes trained outward.
“We’re going to have to get close,” he whispered. “Best bet right now is to crawl. It’s gonna suck, but if we can get within a hundred yards of that jetty, we can hit the Shilka at the same time we take out any outer security they’ve got set up.” The time crunch was starting to chafe; he wanted more time to recon the objective. But the Colonel had made a good point in the initial briefing; they only had so many hours of darkness, and the whole thing had to happen quickly. It was audacious and risky, but Brannigan had decided that the risk of compromise was too high to insert the teams early, just to hunker down for a day before hitting the Shilkas. And now that he was looking at the mostly-barren terrain of the coastline, Martinez had to admit that he’d had a point. Hiding places would be few and far between.
The word was that the Colonel wasn’t just a mustang, but had been a Recon Marine in his enlisted days. Which suggested that he knew what he was talking about. Martinez, like most enlisted Marines, was inclined to think that that had been a long time ago, but at the same time, if Brannigan was going to be on the lead bird, he wasn’t like most officers, including most mustangs. The point that the Colonel’s ass was going to be on the line along with the rest of them went a long way with the team leader.
Spreading out on-line, the team started to creep forward. Not everyone on the team had made it to the Scout/Sniper Basic Course, but Martinez and Able were both HOGs, and had made sure that their team knew how to stalk. They didn’t have recon rucks on for this mission, so that made it easier, and there were spots where there was enough bunchgrass in the sand that they could high crawl on their hands and knees, but crawling for distance is just miserable, no matter how you cut it. With sand working its way into every crevice, fold, and orifice, it becomes even worse. If they hadn’t been sugar cookies before, they certainly were by then. Keeping the grit out of their weapons was getting to be next to impossible.
The closer they got, the more Martinez tensed up, and he knew that Able and Simmons, at least, were doing the same. There had to be security out. The bad guys hadn’t just parked that Shilka on the jetty and left. They had to run into something, sooner or later.
But as they closed in, passing about a dozen boats pulled up on the beach, they still didn’t see anything. No lights, not even any cigarette glows, which would gleam like stars in their NVGs in the dark.
Martinez turned, to see Bailey motioning to get his attention. The point man saw that he had succeeded, and pointed toward the end of the jetty. Martinez had to raise himself up, slowly and carefully, to peer over the dune in front of him and its crown of bunchgrass.
There was a two-and-a-half-ton truck parked on the end of the jetty, about seventy-five meters from the Shilka. So, there was security in place. Or some semblance of it. There was no movement around the truck, and no sign that anyone was up on sentry duty.
Martinez crouched back down and circled his hand over his head. Rally up. Bailey and Simmons passed the word, and soon the team was back in a small, tight knot, barely concealed by the sand dunes.
“Sheldon and I will move up to take the Shilka,” he murmured, subvocalizing into first Bailey’s, then Simmons’ ears. He didn’t want to take any chances of being overheard.
In a way, as much as it sucked, this was more exhilarating than any other op he’d ever been on, and he’d been to Afghanistan, just before the drawdown. They were doing Recon shit. The kind of Recon shit that they had listened to stories about, stuff the old Vietnam guys had done. They were alone and unafraid in enemy territory, about to wreck house. It didn’t get any better than this.
Still, Martinez was a pro, and a combat vet. He knew all too well how easily this could go pear-shaped. He wasn’t taking it lightly.
“Simmons, you and Able have the truck. If anybody starts jumping out of it with a weapon, waste everybody.” He got acknowledgements and finished up with, “Bailey, Moen, you guys have rear security. Make sure nobody sneaks up on us and shoots us in the back. And Moen, get that radio up and get ready to send the brevity back to the Boxer. The Old Man wants to know just as soon as this Shilka’s down.”
It took a few more seconds to establish the rest of the contingency plan, including their fallback rally point in case they had to break contact and run. Then it was go time. Martinez briefly checked his watch, careful to shield the green glow with his hand. It was 0147. The raid force’s go time was 0230.
Then he was up and moving, crouched behind the beached boats, his eyes on the ominous silhouette of the ZSU-23-4 up on the jetty. Sheldon was right behind him.
The boats would have provided good concealment, a good place to take the shot, but they were still too far away. There was a chance they could hit their target as far out as five hundred meters, but it was too risky. The AT-4 wasn’t that accurate. Martinez wanted a hard kill. Fortunately, Simmons and Able were working their way through the darkened beach shanties, about fifty yards inland from them, in a good position to provide covering fire if they got spotted. Because they were going to have to go down onto the beach, where they would stand out like bugs on a plate, sugar cookie treatment or no.
The closer they got, the more Martinez felt the urgency to just get set and take the shot. If somebody stuck his head out of that Shilka’s hatch and spotted them before they were in AT-4 range, they’d be pink mist. A 23mm wouldn’t leave much in the way of remains.
Finally, there were no more boats or dunes to hide behind. Getting up and slinging his M27, Martinez pulled the AT-4 off his back, prepped it, came to his feet, and sprinted out onto the sand.
The sand shifted and dragged at his boots, slowing his dash. His rifle swung and beat against his legs. He heard a shout from the truck, immediately cut off by the muted, but still harsh snaps of Simmons’ and Able’s suppressed M27s. Then he was in range. He didn’t dare try to close any farther. He dropped to a knee in a shower of damp sand, brought the AT-4 to his shoulder, cocked it, took the safety off, and triggered the PEQ-16 mounted on the forward rail.
The AT-4’s iron sights were going to be next to useless in the dark, so they had fitted the 84mm recoilless weapons with the lasers, though Martinez wasn’t too sure of the process to zero them. After all, it wasn’t like you could fire the AT-4 to check the zero. It was a one-use weapon.
The IR laser painted a faint beam through the humid coastal air, but splashed a brilliant spot in his NVGs on the Shilka’s flank. He waited a second, until Sheldon’s dot joined it. Then he mashed the firing button.
The projectile roared out with a flash and slammed into the Shilka’s hull, just above the tracks. Sheldon’s rocket hit the turret ring, so close to Martinez’ shot that they made one tremendous thunderclap as they hit. The two impacts formed a single, blinding flash.
The turret didn’t go flying, somewhat to Martinez’ disappointment. But in a few moments, thick black smoke began to belch out of the vehicle, above a sullen orange glow of flame that shone brilliantly in the dark. The Shilka was dead.
There was a sudden rattle of AK fire from behind them, quickly silenced. His ears rocked by the AT-4s, Martinez couldn’t quite make out Simmons’ and Able’s suppressed gunshots in reply, but as he slung the tube and brought his own rifle to bear, he saw a gomer with an AK fall out of the cab of the truck up on the jetty. Another one was crouched around the far side of the cab, out of the other two Recon Marines’ line of fire, but as he started to come around to spray rounds at where he’d seen the titanic flashes of the rocket fire, Sheldon spotted him and double-tapped him.
The man fell, but then started to get up. He still had one hand on his AK’s grip, and blasted a long, wild burst out at the beach. Martinez and Sheldon dropped flat as the bullets snapped overhead, and Martinez put four fast shots in the man’s general direction. When the AK fire stopped, he heaved himself up to a knee and fired four more times, until he was sure the enemy soldier wasn’t going to be moving again.
“Break off,” he snapped. “Back to the rally point.” Their job was done; they needed to get the hell out of Dodge, and get word back to the Boxer.