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Inside Military Special Ops

The Special Operators You’ve Never Heard Of

The Navy SEALs get all the ink. The Army Rangers all the glory. The Marine Recons all the babes. Meet the Airmen who bring them all together
By Bob Drury, Posted Date: March 13, 2012

November 2001. Squatting in a trench not far from the dusty Afghan market town of Khodja Bahauddin, just south of the Tajikistan border, the chill of the high desert afternoon seeped through my pores. A little more than a mile away, across the Kowkcheh River, the Taliban held the heights, dug in along the Chagatai Ridge. The Northern Alliance “general”—round as a beach ball, face like a Klingon, warlord to the bone—spread a topo map in the dirt, preparing his attack. This is when I heard the soft Texas twang crackling over his translator’s handheld. He was communicating with an invisible pilot using a dizzying stream of U.S. Air Force acronyms. I understood only a few. Lat-long coordinates. Wind conditions. Position of the “friendlies.” Us.

In the weeks since September 11, American fighter-bombers had pounded Taliban positions with uncanny accuracy, breaking bodies and wills. Over the same period, CIA spooks with duffel bags full of cash and Delta and SEAL teams had been prowling the Afghan hills and valleys. But there were also rumors of mysterious U.S. Airmen known as forward combat controllers somewhere on the ground, popping from their hidey holes like prairie dogs to laser-guide B-52 bomb drops from above. Some had even heard their voices. None had ever seen them.

The Texas twang crackled again, and the warlord’s translator grinned like a pirate turning into the wind. He caught my eye and hitched his thumb to the east, where the Hindu Kush rose like a granite fortress. He said the American Airman was operating from somewhere in those crags. He said his call sign is azadi, the word for freedom in both Persian and Arabic.

Suddenly, the ridgeline across the Kowkcheh River erupted in a carpeted conflagration of 1,000-pound bombs. The frozen soil I burrowed into reverberated and heaved and wobbled my organs like Jell-O. And as the pounding continued my imagination took flight. I had never actually seen a laser target designator, or LTD, but I envisioned the lonely Airman, crouched high on a mountain ledge, deftly aiming his laser at the Taliban bunkers as if sighting with a rifle scope. Gunga Din redux, with an infrared light in place of a bugle.

I carried that memory with me for a decade, and not long ago during a visit to the Air Force’s Special Operations Command Center, I’m finally able to relay it to the forward combat controller Staff Sergeant Schaffer R.*, just returned from Afghanistan himself. He listens politely until his smile morphs into a tight laugh, and from there an unintentional snort that I am afraid will shoot the water he has just slugged from his nose.

“You know how heavy those suckers are?” he says. His tone is not patronizing; more like a teacher instructing a slow student. “It’s not some little handheld, pen-light thing. Those lasers weigh 60 pounds. That’s in addition to the 60, 70 pounds of kit and weapons we’re already carrying.”

Now he swivels and points to a three-story building on the grounds of Hurlburt Field, outside of Pensacola. “Naturally, with the LTDs we need some height. But, depending on where the target is, that building’s elevation over there’ll just about do it. Nice little hilltop, is what I’m saying. Beats dragging one of those babies up into the Hindu Kush.”

The staff sergeant puts his arm around my shoulder and shakes his head knowingly. And with that my education into the mysteries of America’s least known Special Operators continues.

(* Like all Special Operators, the men I interviewed for this story—there are no female Forward Combat Controllers—asked that their last names be withheld.)

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