A bold yellow sun has burned off the heavy morning air when Landry, with Grant riding shotgun, pulls a Humvee up to Camp Grayling’s OP (Observation Post) 4, located on a bluff several hundred feet above the scrubby plain that the Air Force uses for bombing practice. This is where Sergeant Ted Dykstra, of Traverse City, is overseeing the snipers of Charlie Troop.
His soldiers are clad in their Army-issued beige T-shirts and ghillie pants—part of a suit covered with camo-colored jute to which they will tie vegetation—a combo that appears casual, even tribally festive given the costume-like ghillies. Yet, these soldiers recently passed a special psych evaluation to determine if they can handle the close-up view of killing that they’ll get through their rifl escopes.
Besides rifles, each sniper is equipped with a sketch kit—drawing helps the shooters to scale the landscape to the range of a rifle and to memorize every nuance of a scene that they will watch for hours, days even, before taking a shot. As Grant surveys the training, Sergeant Shawn Menard, 37 years old and originally from Sugar Island, near Sault Sainte Marie, sits in the low brambles just below the lip of the bluff, painstakingly sketching and labeling the scene below him. His printing is careful and crisp. The tree canopies he draws are worthy of an architectural rendering. “He’s one of our best artists,” Dykstra says.
As Menard draws, his dark eyes moving back and forth from the valley to his paper, he talks with Grant, beginning in a calm, soft voice. But as the conversation progresses the sniper’s smooth, bronzed complexion tightens. He puts down his pencil, reaches for a Camel, lights it, the jagged blue lines of the tattoo that blazes across his forearm pointing to the sky. He puffs long at first. But the drags soon shorten and quicken. His facial muscles are taut now. He is one of the few soldiers of Charlie Troop who has already been to Afghanistan, and he is talking to Grant about the battle of Bari Alai, on May 1, 2009.
During that battle Menard and a couple dozen U.S. coalition and Afghan Army soldiers watched helplessly from their observation post, 2,000 meters across a rocky valley from Op Bari Alai, as 200 Taliban attacked the vastly outnumbered band of U.S., coalition and Afghan army soldiers stationed there.
“I could hear them on the radio; I could see the OP shot to hell,” he says in a low, controlled voice. Two Latvian soldiers, one male and one female, were the only non-Afghan soldiers to survive, though wounded. The male, says, Menard, “had a big beard—we all had big beards—and they must have thought he was a Taliban so they didn’t shoot him.” Eleven of the Afghan soldiers that had been stationed at OP Bari Alai with the U.S. and coalition soldiers left with the Taliban after the battle. “It turns out they actually actively or passively assisted the bad guys with destruction of the OP,” Menard says.
The next night, May 2, 2009, at least 150 Taliban attacked Menard’s post, OP East, manned by just 25 U.S., coalition and Afghan soldiers. In Menard’s words:
“When our trip wire went off they were probably only as far away from me as that tree and the sandbag wall [about 30 feet]. It was raining. They were trying to get real close to us. Luckily the squad of guys I had up there was pretty wired, and the first 10 minutes of that fi ght we put over 50 hand grenades over the sides. We beat them back. There was fire coming down on us, too. No safe place to be. I was black on ammo [almost out]. I was down to a magazine-and-a-half by the time air showed up about 35 minutes into the fi ght. It was a hell of a fi ght. We held on by the skin of our teeth. We didn’t lose a single guy.”
The Arabic news network Al Jazeera filmed the May 1st attack that Menard watched from across the valley. Menard has the DVD. The footage shows a U.S. soldier being shot as he struggled, on his knees, wounded. Several nights ago, during this Camp Grayling training, Grant showed the DVD to Charlie Troop. “I want them to know as much as possible,” he says.
Down from OP 4 and back at the camp, talking about the dangers of their upcoming deployment over a beef enchilada MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) assembled on the hood of his Humvee, Grant says, “I just don’t want to lose a soldier.” He says it softly so that two young men working to camouflage their nearby hooches with beech boughs won’t hear him.