Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan

Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan

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by Michael Golembesky, John R. Bruning

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A New York Times Best seller!

In Level Zero Heroes, Michael Golembesky follows the members of U.S. Marine Special Operations Team 8222 on their assignment to the remote and isolated Taliban stronghold known as Bala Murghab as they conduct special operations in an effort to break the Taliban's grip on the Valley. What started out as a routine mission

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A New York Times Best seller!

In Level Zero Heroes, Michael Golembesky follows the members of U.S. Marine Special Operations Team 8222 on their assignment to the remote and isolated Taliban stronghold known as Bala Murghab as they conduct special operations in an effort to break the Taliban's grip on the Valley. What started out as a routine mission changed when two 82nd Airborne Paratroopers tragically drowned in the Bala Murghab River while trying to retrieve vital supplies from an air drop that had gone terribly wrong. In this one moment, the focus and purpose of the friendly forces at Forward Operating Base Todd, where Team 8222 was assigned, was forever altered as a massive clearing operation was initiated to break the Taliban's stranglehold on the valley and recover the bodies.

From close-quarters firefights in Afghan villages to capturing key-terrain from the Taliban in the unforgiving Afghan winter, this intense and personal story depicts the brave actions and sacrifices of MSOT 8222. Readers will understand the hopelessness of being pinned down under a hail of enemy gunfire and the quake of the earth as a 2000 lb. guided bomb levels a fortified Taliban fighting position. A powerful and moving story of Marine Operators doing what they do best, Level Zero Heroes brings to life the mission of these selected few that fought side-by-side in Afghanistan, in a narrative as action-packed and emotional as anything to emerge from the Special Operations community contribution to the Afghan War.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Motivated by the 9/11 attacks, Golembesky enlisted in the marines in 2002, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan until he was honorably discharged in 2010. Here, along with Bruning (Outlaw Platoon), he recounts the battles he and members of "Dagger 22," a special operations team, fought in the Bala Murghab Valley in 2009. Harrowing battlefield descriptions capture the dangers of fighting a war in which your ally could also be your enemy and one mistake could cost the lives of hundreds of civilians and the friendly fire deaths of fellow marines. These sophisticated and devastating bombs were unprecedented in previous wars. The author vividly shows that the fighters were placed in harm's way owing to Taliban forces hiding among Afghani citizens without fear of retaliation as well as corrupt Afghan National Police who would readily sell intelligence to the enemy. The events of Operation Good Morning, the largest offensive in Bala Murghab at the time, will grip readers with its stories of individual and group bravery as this band of brothers fought for survival and out of loyalty toward one another. VERDICT Readers who enjoy first-person accounts of battles laced with nonstop action will have a tough time putting this one down.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Publishers Weekly
Former U.S. Marine Michael “Ski” Golembesky tells the engaging story of his unit, Special Operations Team 8222, in action on the ground in Afghanistan from October to December of 2009 and while it’s not quite military propaganda, it certainly paints an overwhelmingly positive portrait of the U.S. Marines. Golembesky kept a journal in Afghanistan and he wrote this book “as a sort of catharsis.” But his project soon evolved into a mission to showcase the wartime service of his fellow Marines in Afghanistan. To do so, he focuses on a mission in which his 23-member special-ops team (call sign Dagger 22), operating out of Forward Operating Base Todd in the mountainous Bala Murghab River Valley in northwest Afghanistan, went after an entrenched Taliban stronghold. Golembesky vividly depicts the engagement, which became known as Operation Hero Recovery and involved vicious ground combat. There are military acronyms galore and plenty of reconstructed dialogue in this paean to the Marines on the ground doing the grunt work in America’s longest armed conflict. But Golembesky’s condemnation of the “rules with which our nation’s leaders have decided to fight the war in Afghanistan” will prove controversial. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
Grim account of wearying combat in Afghanistan by a Marine Special Operations unit. Co-writing with prolific military writer Bruning (Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan, 2012, etc.), Golembesky presents himself as an unlikely Marine, a spiritual bohemian type who joined following 9/11. After multiple tours in Iraq, he still wanted to serve in Afghanistan. His specialty was also unusual: as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, he was "authorized to control aviation ordnance," utilizing GPS and other technologies to direct devastating airstrikes. Despite the Marines' superior firepower and training, they appeared alienated from their mission due to restrictive rules of engagement, callous military bureaucracy and their sense that the brutal culture of Afghanistan could not be changed. The narrative focuses first on a rescue mission in which the Marines witnessed a horrific friendly fire incident involving American air power. Later, they deployed for an extended combat tour on a remote mountain spine, meant to divide a Taliban-heavy region in half yet compromised by a clique of powerful local Afghans who played both sides. As the battle unfolded, Golembesky noted that his comrades had "grown bitter and had given up on our role in Afghanistan….the way we were fighting bordered on the ridiculous." The author writes perceptively about the complex social environment of Afghanistan, as when the Marines realized they were fighting in old Russian trenches against enemies whom the U.S. once armed. Similarly, they understood that most civilians would collaborate with vicious Taliban cells simply to survive: "[T]he margin between working with the locals and inadvertently providing intel to the enemy seemed razor-thin." The depictions of combat are precise regarding weapons and tactics but also jargon-heavy, giving the action a video game feel. Golembesky clearly admires the valor of his fellow Marines, but a conviction that the Afghan war has long been a costly, corrupted quagmire pervades this military memoir.

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Level Zero Heroes

The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan

By Michael Golembesky, John R. Bruning

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Michael Golembesky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-07029-6



OCTOBER 29, 2009


The chow hall line moved with interminable slowness. We stood together as a team, waiting with our trays in hand for the Filipino cooks to serve us omelets on Styrofoam plates.

George had been in a foul mood. His humor could be abrasive and sardonic, and he’d been complaining so much that the other day Rob had finally asked him, “Is anything you’re saying going to help our situation here?” He quieted down a bit after that. But his mood simmered below the surface.

Truth is, everyone was edgy. Herat was garrison hell. Clean uniforms and M4 carbines being used as accessories abounded. The closer to the flagpole, the more the little shit matters, and Herat was our flagpole. Not only was our MSOC headquarters element here, but the command element from Special Operations Task Force–West (SOTF-W) had set up shop right next door since we were only about a hundred kilometers from the Iranian border.

The chow line began to move. We shuffled forward and made small talk among ourselves. The uniforms around us reflected the diversity of the NATO effort here, which made us feel even more like strangers in a strange land. A sprinkling of Spanish, a few Italians, civilian contractors, a Dane or two mixed in with our Marine SOF (Special Operations Force) team and some Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Each group kept to themselves like little islands in a sea of unfamiliar allies.

Four days in country and we were already sick of the mind-set here. We’d been busting ass to prep for the movement to our permanent home about 180 klicks northeast of Herat. Zeroing weapons, prepping gear, modifying our GMVs with homemade metal side racks so we could carry more gear had dominated the last few days. While we worked to get into combat, the headquarters culture back here was cast straight from the peacetime stateside mold. Officers chastised us about the state of our uniforms and choice of footwear. Paperwork inundated us. The people here seemed out of touch with where they were and what we were supposed to be doing. And while Camp Stone was probably one of the safest places in Afghanistan, all of the personnel here drew combat pay and hazardous duty pay.

Fortunately, this would be our last breakfast in Herat. I’d jumped through all the administrative hoops and had been approved in theater as a JTAC, complete with my own call sign, HALO 14. Our gear was prepped and good to go. We’d be done with our final tasks later today, which included mounting a 7.62mm minigun onto one of our GMVs that would give a significant boost to our team’s firepower. Tomorrow morning, we’d be linking up with a convoy from the 82nd Airborne that would make its way to the Bala Murghab Valley, which would be our home for the rest of the deployment.

The chow line inched closer to the Filipino cooks, who seemed to be the only people in the place in a good mood. They chatted and tried to joke with the men they served. The language barrier was a challenge, but a good breakfast is a universal language we all speak.

I stood in line next to Jay, the only black guy on our team. The guys lovingly referred to him as “Token” after the lone black kid in the television series South Park. His mood mirrored George’s. He’d been grousing on and off all morning as he worked to get the team’s radios up and running for tomorrow’s departure.

Ahead of us in line, another black soldier, wearing an 82nd Airborne patch, glanced over his shoulder at us. He caught sight of Jay, who was the only other black guy in the chow hall. The soldier looked away quickly and fiddled with his tray.

Jay was a squared-away Marine. Meticulous with his gear, he wore an air of confidence that made him seem a little larger than life. He tolerated no fools, and he had zero social filter. He would have been a disaster in the Diplomatic Corps. As a Marine, he was first-rate, a man you could depend on to get shit done.

During our final weeks in the United States as we finished our training together, I began to watch Jay closely. He was a Recon Marine like Mark, Billy, and George, as well as our team’s commo guy. He had a real love-hate relationship with his communication duties. Every down moment we had, I saw him fussing over the radios and comm gear. He also made a point of taking care of everyone’s crypto changes. Our radios had encryption codes that were swapped out for new ones every few weeks as a security measure. Jay would hound everyone on the team, reminding them of upcoming crypto changes and telling them to bring their radios to him so he could take care of the swap for them.

Several times back in the States, somebody had forgotten, and I’d seen him sigh in frustration. “Dude, I told you to get your radio to me last night,” he’d scold them, but would take the radio and make the changes for him anyway.

The 82nd Airborne soldier glanced back at Jay again. What was going on here?

“Hey Jay?” I asked him.

“Yeah?” he asked. Well spoken and highly intelligent, he had a deep voice that could project like a drill instructor’s when he got fired up.

“You think you can show me how to load crypto properly in my radio and how to use TEKs?”—Traffic Encryption Key.

“No problem. I’ve seen you watching me do it.” Like Mark, he hailed from Texas, but you’d never know it by the way he spoke. Both our team’s Texans sounded like Yankees.

I’d learned a long time ago in the Corps that it never hurts to bag a new skill. If I could handle this, it’d make Jay’s life a little easier. Plus, I was anal about my own gear. I wanted to make sure I knew it inside and out, from the radios to the computer I carried to the M4 I slung over my shoulder. If something was fucked up, I wanted it to be my fault and no one else’s.

The 82nd Airborne soldier looked back at Jay a third time. Jay was waiting for that. Their gazes met, and the soldier nodded at him knowingly.

Jay’s eyes widened. His nostrils flared and he suddenly shouted, “Hey, nigger! I don’t know you!”

Everyone in earshot froze. The place went dead quiet. The 82nd Airborne soldier appeared stunned. Around Jay, the rest of us wanted to find a fighting position and dive for cover.

The 82nd guy couldn’t tear his eyes away.

“Why you nodding at me?” Jay demanded. I swear his voice could have been heard in Kabul.

The man shook his head and turned his back to us. A tense moment passed, then gradually the hubbub usually resident in the chow hall returned.

We got our food and sat down at a table not far from the 82nd Airborne soldier and his buddies.

It took a bit for me to screw up the courage to say, “Jay, I think he was just trying to identify with you a little.”

Jay scoffed, then bellowed, “I don’t know that fuckin’ nigger!”

Ducking, I said, “Okay! Relax man.”

“Dude, no need to start a race war with the only other black guy in here,” George remarked.

Andy sat down next to me and shook his head. He’d been around Jay enough to know that trying to say anything to him was a waste of time. Besides, Jay did this sort of thing all the time just to fuck with us white guys and make us uncomfortable.

There was also something more significant at play here. Jay had joined the Marines at nineteen back in 2004, and had served with Recon battalions in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to this deployment. The commonalities that exist in civilian life back home meant nothing to him now. Common race or gender, it had no impact. His loyalty, attention, and the friendship he offered came only in the context of his team and fellow Recon guys. That bond transcended all others. He seemed genuinely offended when somebody presumed to be his brother just because their skin color happened to match.

His brothers were Recon Marines, team guys and nobody else. And the scene in the chow hall that morning was a reminder to me to tread carefully. I was still outside the circle. Presume and pay.

We started eating in silence. Gradually, a conversation grew from the favored topic du jour: our future home. We knew little about Bala Murghab, so we pounced on any rumors or scraps of intel that came our way.

Andy took a sip of coffee, then passed along the latest tidbits he’d picked up. The Spanish army originally established the FOB, the Forward Operating Base. There’d been some sort of firefight while their engineers were building a new bridge across the river that ran through the area. After that, the Spaniards pulled out and turned it over to an Italian mechanized infantry unit to take control of the area. NATO politics sucked, and the word around Herat was that the Spaniards had absolutely no heart for this fight.

“How about the Italians? Any word on them?” Rob asked Andy.

“Fucking NATO. Pussies,” somebody said.

“Not sure yet,” Andy told us. “They have different rules of engagement than we do. We’ll find out more when we get up there.”

The NATO force in Afghanistan operated under a general set of rules of engagement. Under those, each nation had its own ROEs. Some countries were there as a token effort to show unity with the NATO Alliances. The Poles were like that. Their troops and aircraft were not allowed to engage unless they personally got shot at by the enemy. Even if other NATO elements nearby were being shot up, the Poles could not respond as a result of their national ROEs. The Brits were the most aggressive and had been fighting ferociously in the south for the better part of the decade.

Our own ROEs had undergone a radical revision now that General Stanley McChrystal had taken over as theater commander (COMISAF). Where once our troops had flexibility on the battlefield, in my opinion McChrystal’s feel-good tactical directives had clipped the wings of our aggressiveness and ability to effectively kill the enemy in a timely manner.

We’d spent hours talking through them as a team since most of the limitations he’d placed on American troops struck right at the heart of what Special Operations units do best. Night raids had to be specially approved at the SOTF commander level now, which was a challenge since that was when Special Operations units operated. We weren’t allowed to drop bombs on enemy fighters in civilian compounds. We also could not open fire unless the enemy clearly possessed weapons. We’d heard from returning teams how all this had affected combat operations. The Taliban had quickly adapted to the ROEs’ restrictions and figured out ways to use them against us. They’d shoot at American troops, then drop their weapons and run, knowing that since they were no longer armed, our forces could not return fire. Where would they run? Into compounds, of course. They used civilian homes as ambush positions, knowing we couldn’t bring our superior firepower to bear. McChrystal’s new directives were designed to better protect the civilian population, but from what we were hearing, they’d made it easier for the Taliban to infiltrate communities, then terrorize the locals into collaboration.

You practically needed a master’s degree to figure out who could shoot at whom and under what circumstances. It was a crazy way to fight a war. Even crazier was the lack of knowledge we had of our assigned AO. Eight years into the war and we were about to go into action as blind as the first SOF units had in 2001.

I asked Andy, “Are we going to get any better maps of the area?”

He shrugged. “So far, no luck.”

The only one we had of Bala Murghab was a Soviet Red Army topographical map printed in the 80s during their Afghan war. It had appeared up in our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) one day while we were training at Fort Irwin, California. It showed a valley surrounded by massive, steep hills, accessible by only a couple of dirt tracks, or by helicopter. That quarter-century-old Communist map drafted by a regime long since swept into history’s dustbin was the best imagery we could find on Bala Murghab. Needless to say, we all found that a little depressing.

For most of the current war, the valley’s sheer remoteness had shielded it from most of the post-9/11 violence that had engulfed the rest of Afghanistan. Until a few months before our arrival, the area had not even been patrolled by NATO forces.

Pat spoke up. “I was talking to a guy in the 82nd Airborne. He said when they first went up there, the people thought they were Russians.”

“Russians?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, like they thought the 80s war had never ended. They had no idea what was going on elsewhere in country.”

“That’s fucking unbelievable,” said Jay as he took a bite of scrambled eggs.

Pat added, “The guy told me that they had never heard of bin Laden. He and his unit were the first Americans they’d ever seen.”

Heads shook around the table. It sounded like we were rolling into the land that time forgot.

Andy checked his watch. “Rob, Ski—we’ve got that convoy briefing we need to get to.”

We finished up and dumped our trays. The rest of the team headed back to finish loading up the GMVs. Rob, Andy, and I walked over to a large plywood hut to meet the troops we’d roll out with in the morning. The room inside had raised bleachers for seats. We climbed onto them and sat in back, stealing glances at the people gathered for the briefing.

There were too many clean uniforms in this room. Meat eaters can smell their own kind. Andy and Rob—meat eaters. The rest of the room? Not so much. These people had “NOT ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL” practically stamped on their foreheads. Cooks, clerks, headquarters castaways, and slackers, all of whom looked lost and nervous, sat around us. I wondered if they’d even fired their rifles on a range since arriving in country. The bleachers gradually filled up until there were perhaps twenty-five people in the room. I counted three women in the group.

This was not an organic unit from the 82nd. This was a collection of random people thrown together for an ad hoc, temporary assignment to convoy duty. People who haven’t worked together before have no common procedures, contingency plans, or tasking. There’s no telling what the person next to you will do in a scrap. These people weren’t even Marines, so we didn’t even have that in common with them.

This didn’t bode well. At least the convoy commander would iron out some basic procedures and plans during the brief.

A staff sergeant walked in with a second lieutenant in tow. The lieutenant, a slight kid, looked just as lost as the rest of the crowd. He was so young I wondered if he could even legally drink. Not a meat eater.

This is the guy we’re going to have to follow to the middle of nowhere?

The staff sergeant conferred with the lieutenant quietly for a minute, then moved to the front of the room.

“All the way, troopers. This is Lieutenant White,” he said as he gestured to the young lieutenant.

The staff sergeant flipped on a projector, connected a laptop, and started a PowerPoint presentation. It lasted all of about five minutes.

The 82nd Airborne had only sent one other convoy to Bala Murghab. It set out a month before and got ambushed on the way up while the vehicles passed through a small village of mud huts in a valley. The staff sergeant showed us the exact location and walked us through what had taken place. The convoy blew through the ambush and made it to Bala Murghab intact, barely.

Our convoy would use the same exact route. In fact, from Herat, there was only one way to get to Bala Murghab, which meant any Taliban lookouts in the area would have a fairly good idea of where we were going.

The staff sergeant said, “We’ll stop for the night at Qal-e-naw, a small city about ninety klicks northeast. The Spanish have a PRT site (Provincial Reconstruction Team) there near a small airstrip. We’ll fuel up in the morning and make it to FOB Todd by nightfall of day three.”

He continued. “We’ll be escorting a group of tanker trucks with fuel for the FOB. We’ll also have with us some flatbed trucks carrying containers for the MARSOF team”—gesturing toward us. “They’ll all be driven by local national contractors.”

He finished up the brief, and Lieutenant White stepped before the group. In a reedy voice, he said, “Be ready with your gear. Be ready to execute. See you all in the morning.”

As the soldiers got up and headed for the door, Rob and Andy shared worried glances.

“That’s it?” Rob said, incredulous. “You hafta be fucking kidding me.”

The brief had not included a commo plan, any standard operating procedures, no discussion on what to do if we were attacked, nothing about air cover, Quick Reaction Forces, or even where to go to get help if we needed it. There’d been no intelligence component to go over which villages we’d be passing through were friendly or hostile. There’d been nothing on enemy activity along the route. We hadn’t even gone over what our formation would look like. This was no way to do business, especially with the slapped-together crew on this convoy.

At least we’d had our own internal discussion on these things the previous night. No matter what these 82nd Airborne guys ended up doing, at least our team would be on the same page should the situation go to hell. Andy had made sure of that.

We left the briefing room feeling very unsettled. No good can ever come out of lack of preparation and planning. This had all the makings of a first-class disaster. And we had no choice but to be a part of it.

Copyright © 2014 by Michael Golembesky and John R. Bruning

Foreword copyright © 2014 by Fred Galvin


Excerpted from Level Zero Heroes by Michael Golembesky, John R. Bruning. Copyright © 2015 Michael Golembesky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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