Anatomy of a Mortar Attack
Specialist Shannon Kelley being taken down the back ramp of the combat aid station to a waiting Gator.
US Army Private First Class Brian Wintering and Specialist Shannon Kelley were hanging around their heavily armored vehicle known as an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) when the round hit.
It was the early afternoon on Friday, July 19, and it was already hot. The back ramp was open and so was the driver’s side door. The two soldiers were standing by as part of a quick reaction team in case the Combat Outpost (COP) Soltankhel in eastern Afghanistan came under attack, which it frequently does. But this time, they were the ones in the impact zone.
“I was playing Temple Run [the video game] and moved inside the vehicle so I could see [the screen] better. Shannon went out for a smoke,” said 21-year-old Wintering. “When the mortar hit I just went to the ground. I felt a piece of shrapnel hit my neck. I was pretty much in shock. But then I heard Shannon screaming outside. He was on the ground, his face all bloody. I picked him up and he said, ‘We gotta get to the combat aid station, and we just ran. That’s about all I can remember.”
This is the tailfin of 82-millimeter mortar round that landed on the base. The head of the mortar is packed with explosives and detonates on impact.
The single 82mm mortar landed inside the gates right next to Wintering and Kelley. At remote outposts like Soltankhel, soldiers know when it’s time to take cover.
They also now how to retaliate. Like many other American bases around Afghanistan, Soltankhel utilizes a high tech “eye in the sky” blimp, which is tethered above it. The blimp is known by the military acronym PTDS, which stands for Persistent Threat Detection System. The PTDS is mounted with a 360-degree video-camera platform that can scan for miles. But the technology also had its drawbacks. While the blimp offers a constant view of the surrounding terrain, one officer confided in me that it provides an aiming reference for Taliban mortar and rocket fire onto the base.
Still, the system archives the locations where previous attacks were launched so it can quickly acquire them if they’re used again. In this case, they were. The PTDS locked on to two men, one carrying what looked like a mortar launching tube.
“We scanned the area and we saw the POO [point of origin of the attack] and two guys, one carrying the tube which he covered up in a red cloth," said Lieutenant Zachary Peterson. Peterson is a fire support officer and the battle captain on duty, which is a military version of a police watch commander who monitors events from a tactical headquarters.
Using the PTDS, they watched the man try to make a getaway on the back of a motorcycle driven by another.
“We tracked them back to their staging area, which we’ve seem them use before, a local mosque,” said Peterson.
But along the way, the men passed behind some buildings and out of view of the PTDS. Somewhere on the route to the mosque, the man on the back tossed the tube.
Meanwhile on the COP, Wintering and Kelley scrambled to get to the combat aid station, both bleeding, but still able to compose themselves and make the 100- to 150-yard dash within just minutes of being hit.
“Your training just kicks in after something like that,” said Wintering.
The Gator headed to the helicopter landing zone.
My colleague, Alex Penna of Stars and Stripes, and I were on the other side of the building when the mortar hit and we actually felt the tremble of the ground and saw the men running to the aid station. Kelley’s face was streaming with blood, his hand pressed against the wounds on his neck. Wintering following right behind him.
Inside the aid station, medics quickly assessed the injuries of the two soldiers. Concerned whether the shrapnel may have penetrated vital organs, they quickly bandaged Kelley’s head and chest and within just 26 minutes had him plugged with a saline IV drip, wrapped in a mylar coated (space) blanket to help prevent shock, and packaged on a stretcher on the back of a Gator (a golf cart on steroids) heading to the helicopter landing zone for a medevac to the more advanced medical facility at Forward Operating Base Shank (15 to 20 minutes away by chopper).
Wintering was kept on base, treated for the blast concussion and monitored for any hidden, internal injuries.
While the injured soldiers were being treated, Lieutenant Peterson had American artillery teams standing by to respond to the attack with mortars of their own, but since the local men had disappeared from view, they couldn’t be certain the two were responsible for the attack.
Peterson called up two A10 Warthog aircraft on station. The pilots located the dropped tube and using an IR camera, which detected a white-hot heat signature that likely indicated it had been used to fire the mortar round.
“In an immediate show of force we dropped two, 500-pound bombs on the tube,” Peterson said. “It was an open area without potential for collateral damage and we destroyed the weapon. That’s a victory for us.”
And a message for the Taliban, or EOA (Enemies of Afghanistan) as the military now calls them.
Specialist Kelley was bandaged, packed and ready for transport to a more advanced medical facility within 26 minutes of the mortar attack.
As far as the two wounded soldiers, Kelley’s injuries were not life threatening. He was treated and is expected to return to COP Soltankhel within the week.
As for Wintering?
“I still have a headache and ringing in my ears, but I guess I’m OK.”
Mortar attacks are obviously expected in a war zone and the current frequency of these attacks signal how dangerous Afghanistan remains. But regardless, Wintering does wonder, as others must who survive lighting strikes, shark attacks, and other acts of spatial violence, how, out of all the real estate on COP Soltankhel, this mortar fell so near to him.
“You’re shocked and ask yourself why me. I’ve seen them before but you never expect it to be you,” Wintering said, “When you get knocked down, you have to get back up again. But when I hear the explosions, I still get scared.”
Watch Kevin's video of the events:
All video, text, and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
More on VICE from Kevin Sites: Afghanistan's Game of Drones
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