Blasted high into a cloud of heat and dust by an errant, 2,000-pound guided missile, the Air Force sergeant thought he'd left earth behind for good. Unable to see or hear, he felt himself lofting over a chaotic Afghan battlefield into a quiet, numbing blackness.
"It was just a floating feeling of being pulled upward ... total sensory deprivation," said the sergeant, Mike, whose full name was withheld by the military. Sgt. Mike landed alive inside an ancient Afghan fort filled with armed, rioting Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners.
It was late last November, and Sgt. Mike a member of a highly specialized, little-known group of elite US fighters known as combat controllers (CCTs) and his team were at the prison uprising near Mazar-e Sharif trying to recover the body of slain CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann.
If the war in Afghanistan has showcased a lethal partnership of US Special Operations Forces and precision air power combat controllers are the critical go-betweens, the most sophisticated human ground to air link.
Now on brief rotations back home from Afghanistan, some of the first CCTs on the ground in the Afghan war are telling their stories. They are stories of bravery and ingenuity, of spotting targets from horseback using laptops and laser goggles, of melding 19th century Afghan warfare with 21st century US military technology in unprecedented ways.
"Nobody out there knows more about the ground plan and the air plan, so when things go bad we are the ones who try to pull it all together," says Senior MasterSgt. Robert Rankin, commandant of the Combat Control School at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. "Our main job is to bring calm to chaos."
A TINY force of less than 400 men, CCTs are in such demand that the Air Force has imposed a "stop loss" order, barring any from leaving or retiring. Experts in setting up remote landing strips and drop zones, guiding warplanes with radios and radar, and calling in strikes for ground troops, their motto is "First There." Indeed, in Afghanistan, CCTs were among the first to arrive behind enemy lines, infiltrating the country with US special operationsteams about a month after Sept. 11 to begin spotting targets for the Northern Alliance.
One of those spotters, Sgt. Calvin, landed north of Kabul and within 30 hours called the first airstrikes on Taliban positions, according to an Air Force account released last month.
Northern Alliance officers were so impressed that during an intense firefight with Taliban forces, one of them moved to shield Calvin.
"He said if something happened to him ... someone else would step in," Calvin said. "But if something happened to me, the planes could not come."
Round-the-clock bombing followed. Calvin and others directed more than 100 sorties by B-52s, F-18s, and other US warplanes, shattering Taliban defenses. The battle for the capital that military planners estimated would last six months took 25 days.
Key to the success was the precision with which Calvin and others helped pilots miles above to steer the "smart bombs." Using binoculars, laser target-designators, Global Positioning Systems devices, and radios, the CCTs helped ensure the pilots "saw" the correct targets.
In the battle for Mazar-e Sharif and other towns, CCTs like Sgt. Mike took positions on hilltops, using tripods and laser goggles to pinpoint strikes that coincided with calvary charges by Afghan fighters. "The timing was so precise that, as the soldiers described it, hundreds of Afghan horsemen literally came riding out of the smoke," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of the Mazar assault.
Mike's Afghan odyssey began in early November, when his special forces team infiltrated Afghanistan by helicopter 30 miles south of Mazar-eSharif to work with a Northern Alliance general.
"At first we stayed in caves," says Mike. By day, the Americans worked on battle plans with Afghan commanders.
At night, temperatures plunged, and they bundled in sleeping bags on cave floors. Soon, Mike's group of US and Afghan troops broke camp, heading out to capture a string of Taliban villages leading to Mazar-e Sharif. Mike, however, faced a more immediate challenge: learning to control the large white horse the Afghans had heaved him on.
"It was pretty intimidating," said Mike, whose training included free-fall parachuting, escapes from sinking helicopters, and "drownproofing" with bound hands and feet but no equestrian course. In open fields, the horse would run off with him in the saddle, but the airman was relieved to learn it "was basically on auto-pilot" on narrow mountain paths.
On the battleground, success came more smoothly. The Northern Alliance general would climb a hill with the US team and point out the Taliban-ruled villages below. "We would bomb-strike it, and once the NA [Northern Alliance] general felt there was nothing more they could do with air power, he would call on his radio and the [Afghan] troops would rush the town on horseback...and push out or wipe out the Taliban," recalls Mike.
The series of defeats hastened the fall of Mazar-e Sharif. "The Taliban knew we were coming ... and as we got closer, they pretty much hopped in their cars and left," says Mike. The victory was followed in mid-November by the pell-mell retreat of the Taliban from cities across the north, including Kabul.
But for Mike, the most intense combat was yet to come.
Late on the night of Nov. 25, his commander told him that several hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners had broken out of a holding cell at the nearby fort of Qala-e Jhangi. They had killed a CIA agent who was interrogating prisoners, taken over an ammunition dump, and were wiping out many Northern Alliance troops. Mike and his team were tasked with recovering the agent's body.
Early the next morning, as they approached the dusty fort in Toyota pickups, Mike could hear gunshots and mortar rounds exploding. Taking up a position on the fort's northwest wall, he set up his radios as other team members fired their M-4 machine guns.
Quickly, they began to draw heavy enemy fire, and Mike's commander decided it was too risky for the team to enter the fort.
"There were mortar rounds dropping all over us," recalls Mike. "We had to do something big or we were going to get hit."
"Something big" meant air power more specifically "close air support," the riskiest kind. Something went badly wrong. Instead of striking the enemy grouped at the south end of the fort, the satellite-guided missile hit a Northern Alliance tank, killing five Afghan fighters, and injuring five members of Mike's team.
WHEN Mike hit the ground, he was buried in dirt and surrounded by rubble. As light pierced the dust he found himself and his injured comrades inside the fort, vulnerable to Taliban fire. The group scrambled back over the north wall carrying an unconscious Army captain and drove to safety. Mike was evacuated the same day, and later awarded the Purple Heart.
Recovering now at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Florida, where he is a member of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, the young combat controller is awaiting his next assignment.
He says he's ready, but admits Afghanistan sobered him. "Being in a combat zone," he says, "... is a big eye-opener to see how real war is."