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Despite the efforts of the Assad government and its Russian and Turkish allies, Syria is succumbing to the Islamic State. While Crocker and his SEAL Team Six comrades try to help a small Kurdish border town organize a resistance army, he finds an unexpected connection with Severine, a French epidemiologist working for Doctors Without Borders.
As Severine and her colleagues establish a makeshift hospital in besieged Aleppo, Crocker counsels caution. He knows too well that their NGO status will be no protection from the Viper, a notoriously vicious ISIS general with a deeply personal hatred of the West. When the Viper's men kidnap one of Severine's American colleagues, Crocker will pull every string at his disposal to launch a rescue mission. But in a situation where the US has no official business, he'll push every boundary of how far he's willing to go -- and how far his SEAL brothers in arms will follow him -- to save innocent lives.
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About the Author
Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning playwright, screenwriter and journalist. His books include Jawbreaker (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen) and Zero Footprint (with military contractor Simon Chase).
Read an Excerpt
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi
The six heavily armed U.S. Navy SEALs watched the battered pickup approach on Highway 47 in Iraqi Kurdistan as rockets, artillery shells, and mortars exploded in the distance. Team leader Tom Crocker had a lot on his mind today — the fierce fighting to dislodge ISIS from nearby Mosul, the mental welfare of one of his men, who had just learned that his father had gone missing, and his own future.
As he stood along the two-lane asphalt road, his HK416 automatic rifle pressed again his right bicep, using his left hand to shield his eyes from the dust that swept up from the gently undulating plain, an alert came over the radio. A French AS532 Cougar helicopter had crashed south of the town of Sinjar, approximately fifty klicks (kilometers) from the Syria border.
Other concerns quickly vanished from his head. "Survivors?" he asked into the mike clipped to the top of his camos as he waved the pickup to the side of the road.
Davis, the team's comms man, seated in the second Flyer-60 Advanced Light Strike Vehicle answered, "CC [coalition command] is reporting six aboard the Cougar including pilot and co. Several casualties. It came down in contested territory, so medevac can't land until the ground is cleared."
Crocker's eyes never the left the pickup, which slowed to stop — a sorry looking bag of bolts if he'd ever seen one, with a front bumper held on with string and mismatched colored hood and right windshield perforated with bullet holes. Another part of his mind remained focused on the downed French helo. "How far?" he asked into his mike.
"How far ... what?"
"How far is the Cougar from where we are now?"
"Southwest, maybe twenty klicks," Davis answered. "Take us fifteen ... twenty minutes to get there depending on the roads, which are probably shit."
Most of the land in this part of Iraqi Kurdistan was flat, with the exception of the Sinjar Mountains, north. Fresh fields of wheat, cotton, and tobacco interrupted by primitive villages and dirt paths. So off-road travel was an option; so were the presence of mines and IEDs.
"Tell CT to get on the SAW and cover this pickup," Crocker barked into the mike as the vehicle rattled onto the shoulder and stopped.
He was referring to the gas-operated Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) that sat in the bed of the Flyer-60 — a light machine gun with a rapid rate of fire of two hundred rounds per minute and effective range of eight hundred meters, which had been a mainstay of the U.S. Armed Forces since the 1980s.
The six men — Crocker, Akil, Mancini, Davis, Rip, and CT — were members of Black Cell (a special unit of SEAL Team Six/DEVGRU). African American, six-two, and ripped, CT was a former T-6 Red Squad member and before that an NCAA Division II wrestling champion and martial arts specialist who had grown up in Compton, California. He'd left, he joked, because he got tired of being shot at without combat pay.
He'd recently joined Black Cell and was training to replace Davis as the team's comms chief, as Davis was planning to tranfer to an intel job at ST-6's base in Dam Neck Naval Base at the end of the month. Said he wanted to spend more time with his family, and surf. Crocker would miss him. They'd survived all kinds of catastrophes together — helicopter crashes, enemy attacks, captivity, even an avalanche.
Now his right-hand man Mancini (a.k.a. Manny, or by his radio alias Big Wolf) pointed his MP7A1 submachine gun at the driver and used his left hand to indicate to the occupants of the pickup to get out.
"Refugees," he said sympathetically as a squat woman with a long burgundy scarf tied over her head kicked open the passenger door, and the door slid off its hinges and crashed to the ground.
"Nice ride," Akil commented.
"At least they made it out," Crocker said.
The SEALs had stopped dozens of similar vehicles so far, six weeks into their deployment in Kurdistan. Untold thousands of other Syrian refugees hadn't gotten safely out. Instead, they'd been robbed, raped, and murdered and hung from lampposts and trees by Syrian Armed Forces, gangsters, or one of the myriad armed opposition groups to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Around ten million of them had fled that country since the start of the civil war in 2012, creating a human rights disaster of epic proportions. Crocker had seen the teeming, sprawling refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, and the kids playing in dust-filled alleys between prefabricated Pods that served as temporary shelters. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. Kids in the most difficult situations found ways to amuse themselves.
"Let's get this over quick and go help the Cougar," Crocker growled. He'd grown to loathe Syrian President Assad for committing genocide on his own people, and couldn't fathom why the rest of the world had watched this catastrophe unfold for years without doing anything to stop it.
Out of the cab of the truck stepped a middle-aged woman, two teenage boys, and a five-year-old girl clutching an unclothed plastic doll. They all shared the same thick dark crescent-shaped eyebrows and looked like they'd slept in their clothes. The teenagers stood behind the woman, who Crocker assumed was a relative, with their hands in the pockets of their jeans.
Crocker said to Akil, "Tell the boys we need to see their hands."
The team's operational terp, Zumar, was currently honeymooning with his bride in Beirut, Lebanon on the Mediterranean Coast, so they were relying on their teammate Akil, an Egyptian American SEAL who spoke Arabic and some Farsi, which were the chief languages in this part of the world, along with various Kurdish dialogues.
Akil addressed the boys in Arabic and they responded by bowing their heads and then holding their hands up for the SEALs to see. They appeared to be brothers. The older of the two had a few wisps of beard and a fresh, jagged scar on his head and trembled from head to toe.
"What happened to him?" Crocker asked.
Akil spoke to the woman and as she answered she waved her arms dramatically and contorted her face, indicating objects falling from the sky, and something landing on their heads. Her voice shook with emotion until it broke and she started weeping and sunk to her knees.
Crocker pulled her up. He didn't need to hear the translation from Akil to know the story. He saw the pain in her eyes, and for a second felt the buzz of her desperation reach into his chest.
Akil relayed the details: They're Christians and have been hiding in the suburbs of Aleppo. Her husband had once been a bus driver. They were living in a garage, when it was bombed, killing her husband and burying her son. Rescue workers dug the boy out, but he hadn't been the same.
They'd sold practically everything they had to buy the truck. Militiamen and roving gangs had stolen most of what was left. And they hadn't eaten in days.
All this was communicated while CT kept watch with the SAW and Mancini and Rip inspected plastic bags, which were piled in the pickup bed.
"Household stuff and clothing," Mancini reported.
"All right, let's get 'em some MREs and bottles of water and send them on their way. Alert Colonel Rastan's men that they're coming. Hopefully they can find them some cots in the Red Cross camp outside Erbil."
Colonel Rastan was the commander of a ragtag but hard-fighting company of Peshmerga soldiers who were trying to wrest this part of their native Kurdistan from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) control. Erbil was the sleek modern capital of Kurdistan, where oil deals were negotiated by French, British, and U.S. executives luxuriating in brand-new five-star hotels and entertained by Russian and Uzbek hookers.
The refugee mom hugged Crocker and muttered some sort of prayer of thanks as Rip, Mancini, and Akil set armfuls of bottled water and MREs into the back of the pickup.
"Safe travels," he said, as his teammates helped the family back into the truck and lifted the passenger door in place.
The wind picked up, sending a piece of brown paper twisting east toward twin trails of garbage and waste that paralleled the highway to the edge of the horizon.
"Peace!" one of the boys shouted out the pickup window as it passed.
"Peace!" Crocker shouted back, wondering where they'd end up and if they'd ever return home.
Standing with one foot on the lead Flyer runner looking up at the darkening sky, he was already thinking ahead to the fears of another set of victims — the Frenchmen aboard the Cougar — who he imagined were terrified of being captured, tortured, and having their heads cut off by Sunni ISIS militants. The Geneva Conventions of humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war hadn't reached this part of the world.
No small exaggeration. He and his men had witnessed ISIS savagery first-hand in parts of Mosul and other towns and villages in Kurdistan and northern Syria that had been liberated recently. Mass graves filled with mutilated bodies, human heads lined up on walls, naked bodies hung upside down from street lamps. All of it disgusting and inhuman, and done in the name of Allah, or God.
"Let's go help the Frenchmen!" he shouted as he spit the bitter taste out of his mouth and climbed into the lead Flyer.
Every day of this three-month deployment had been like this. Battles to fight, messes to clean up, militia groups to sort out, and masses of civilians to try to help one way or another. It wasn't a war, per se, it was human tragedy played out on multiple levels with scant resources, and with little concern from the rest of the world. It was the violent destruction of society and the first primitive attempts to put it back together. Realities that people living in New York, London, and Paris could barely fathom.
Where's the outrage? Where are the Hollywood celebrities raising money? Fuck....
It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you down. It's the pebble in your shoe.
— Muhammad Ali
Wind moaned through the opening of the passenger window as Davis read the coordinates of the Cougar crash site, and Akil, at the wheel, punched them into the vehicle's GPS.
Dark and brooding behind three day's growth of black beard, Akil muttered, "Pisses me off ..."
"What now?" Crocker asked back. Akil wasn't a laid-back, take- things-as-they-come guy.
"The fact that Coalition medevac can't land until the crash site is secured."
"Policy," Davis countered.
"The policy sucks bones," Akil growled.
Crocker shared his teammate's frustration. The coalition opposing ISIS in western Kurdistan was disorganized and changing all the time. At its best, it was an attempt to coordinate military and support units from different regions and countries, including Shiite militia groups from Iraq, military contractors from Colombia, the UK, and U.S., pilots from France, the U.S., and the UK, medical teams from Europe and Japan, and special operations forces from the U.S., the UK, Poland, and the Netherlands who came and went according to political contingencies back home, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and YPG (People's Protection Units) militiamen from the west — a collection of young anarchists, drifters, idealists, Christian evangelists, and whack jobs from the States and Europe who had come to join the fight.
At its worst, it was a mess of clumsy rules and regulations, and incompetence.
"Whole damn thing gives me a big pain in the ass," Akil barked as pushed down on the accelerator.
A former Marine sergeant, and Black Cell's navigation specialist, Akil hailed originally from Egypt, loved women and any kind of action, and had been a mainstay of Crocker's team for five years now. Fourteen months ago the two of them had barely escaped from North Korea after a top-secret mission that claimed three other SEALs including an SDS (SEAL Delivery System) pilot and copilot — each one etched in Crocker's memory so strongly that he sometimes imagined they were still alive.
"I mean, somebody's got to be held accountable for this disaster," Akil continued. "Assad, Obama, the Iranians, Putin, other Arab countries. They fuck around and what happens? A half-million dead, ravaged cities, and millions of refugees. Someone's gonna shoulder that karma."
"I didn't know that Muslims believe in karma," Davis commented from the backseat.
"I don't know, either." Akil laughed. "I'm a shitty Muslim. But there's gotta be some kind of greater justice. Right?"
"Right." Crocker agreed.
Two combat jets tore through the orange haze to their right, the flames from the afterburners lighting up the sky. Crocker strained to see if they were American, British, French, Turkish, or Russian.
Mancini's voice came through Crocker's earbuds. "Yo, Deadwood. Big Wolf here. This crash site near anything we're familiar with?" Deadwood was Crocker's radio alias. Mancini, his second-in-command, was seated in the passenger seat of Truck Two.
"It's a few kilometers south of Sinjar," Davis answered.
"Sinjar, no shit...." Mancini said. He was their resident expert on anything ranging from fractals and thrust ratios to ancient history and geography. "That's the town Zumar hails from."
"Zumar, our terp?" asked Crocker.
Zumar's recent wedding in Erbil had been the highlight of the deployment so far. Three days of nonstop partying, feasting, dancing, and celebration, capped off with hours of songs and tributes to the bride and groom. "Epic," Akil had called it.
"Yeah," Mancini answered. "Zumar told us that Sinjar was the ancestral home of the Yazidi religious sect, and he was Yazidi himself. And how the Yazidis were one of the oldest tribes on earth and weren't Muslims, but followed the teachings of Zoroaster."
"Zoroaster, an ancient Persian prophet who saw the human condition as a mental struggle between truth and untruth. He preached good thoughts, good words, good action."
"Like the Franz Ferdinand lyrics," Akil offered.
"Which is why ISIS has branded his followers devil worshipers, rape their women, and are trying to wipe them out," Crocker added.
"Makes sense, right?"
"It's complicated," commented Mancini.
"What isn't in this part of the world?"
The tribal and religious hatreds rife in the region were a muddle to Crocker. Sunnis loathed Shiites, though they both followed the teachings of Mohammad. Muslims hated Christians and Jews and vice versa. Personally, he believed in God, but all the arguing over how to name him or how he wanted you to worship seemed absurd.
Wasn't it obvious that we were all children of the same creator and meant to treat one another with kindness and respect? What happened to the Golden Rule: treat your neighbor or your brother the way you'd like them to treat you.
Davis interrupted his train of thought. "Boss, I've got Colonel Rastan on the satellite phone."
"Rastaman vibrations, man. Patch him in."
The colonel's deep, British-accented voice resonated in Crocker's ears. Twenty years ago the Peshmerga colonel had spent two years studying at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. "Crocker, my brother. Tell me some good news. All I hear are problems, problems, more problems. What's the good word?"
Crocker maintained a minute of silence. Rastan got the joke and chuckled.
"Colonel, two things ..." Crocker said, turning serious.
"Yes. Hold on a minute...."
Akil steered the Flyer-60 around a deep crater in the asphalt road, which appeared to be the result of a recent air strike.
He heard heavy ordnance launching in the background. "Still here, Colonel. Where are you?"
"Outside Mosul. Sorry. It was my wife. She's at the hospital waiting for the results of the tests."
Aside from the warfare, people still suffered from regular problems like illness — a troubling mammogram in the case of Rastan's missus.
"How's Lyla doing?" Crocker asked. He remembered a tall, dignified woman with large, dark, soulful eyes.
"Nice of you to ask, but let's talk about that later. What did you want to tell me?"
Crocker switched channels in his head: back to business. "Two things, Colonel. First, we stopped a pickup filled with refugees heading toward the checkpoint at Mosul. A woman, her young daughter, and two sons. They should arrive there soon. See what you can do for them."
"Second, we're on our way now to relieve the downed French helicopter."
"Approximately ten minutes away."
"I hear it came down in the vicinity of Qabusiye."
"What's that?" asked Crocker.
"A farming town. The mayor has reported ISIS activity in the area recently."
Excerpted from "Seal Team Six: Hunt The Viper"
Copyright © 2018 Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo.
Excerpted by permission of Hachette Book Group.
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