Overcoming fear: Muscle Memory takes over in time of danger
Airman’s training takes over during firefight
KABUL, Afghanistan — It was just after 4 a.m., July 17. Many on the base at Kabul International Airport, and Forward Operating Base Oqab nearby, were still catching a last hour or two of sleep before the day would begin.
The bad guys, however, were not sleeping. Under the cover of darkness, a small force determined to attack the Kabul Airport and Afghan Air Force Base next to it, took over a multi-story building under construction just north of the target. Armed with multiple rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, suicide vests, and a vehicle rigged to explode, the attackers crept up to the rooftop and prepared to unleash hell.
Fortunately for the coalition members living and working on base, a small group of Air Force security forces defenders were not sleeping - they were paying very close attention to their duties. Those who weren’t on shift would be ready to go within minutes - from a comfy bed to slinging lead.
Senior Airman Julian Rangel, deployed from the 30th Security Forces Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., was in bed on his day off when he heard what sounded like indirect fire and indiscriminate mortars, followed by the more unusual sound of small arms fire.
Dressed in shorts, skater-style shoes and his body armor, Rangel rushed to see how he could help. Soon, he was assigned as gunner for one of two Air Force quick reaction force teams. The teams would be sent outside the forward operating base in mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to try and gain a closer and more advantageous position from which to engage the enemy.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions for me,” Rangel said. “When I was in that vehicle waiting for the gate to open so we could go out and fight from closer, I was scared. I was breathing fast, almost hyperventilating. That’s when Tech. Sgt. (Rafael) Melendez (the vehicle commander) turned to me, made eye contact, and told me to slow down; to take deep breaths. He calmed me down.”
Once the vehicle left, the Airmen maneuvered to a position between two buildings on the Afghan air force’s Kabul Air Wing, which surrounds FOB Oqab.
“Almost immediately, I spotted two guys on the rooftop firing and then my training automatically kicked in,” Rangel said. “I started laying down 6 to 9 round bursts (from the M240, 7.62-mm machine gun), just like I’d been taught. In fact, it actually felt like training to me at the time.”
Maneuvering to a new position, Rangel and his teammates were dangerously close when the attackers detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near a checkpoint.
“That was my ‘oh [shoot]!’ moment, and I got scared then,” Rangel said. “But it didn’t get a whole lot better. We moved up near a gate and an RPG hit just 35 meters away from us. When we moved to some other buildings, another RPG hit the building above us. I still remember the glass shattering and blowing outward.”
Throughout this time, Rangel, from the gunner position in the vehicle, was sending a lot of lead downrange as suppressive fire. He estimates he went through about 400 rounds in total during the firefight. Eventually, fear for his life gave way to frustration.
“My particular weapon isn’t necessarily meant for precision so much as suppressive fire,” Rangel said. “But still, it was frustrating me that I kept hitting the building right where the guy was and he’d duck, then pop up and shoot more, and then run to a different window.”
Eventually, the operations center called out a cease-fire. The majority of the attackers were eliminated and the rest were about to meet a quick reaction force of Afghan Security and coalition members who had surrounded the attack position and began clearing the building from within.
For a period of time that seemed to last forever, the Air Force defenders had to hunker down, as the attackers who had not encountered the QRF yet continued firing. Finally, the QRF cleared the last of the attackers and after some additional procedures, the firefight finally ended.
The attack and defense had taken over four hours overall and for the first two it was constant action for the Air Force security forces.
“When it was done, I was truly glad it was over,” Rangel said. “Shooting at someone and being shot at is not a good feeling.”
“As we were driving back to our FOB, through the Afghan Air Force base, the Afghans were coming out to see us drive by - giving us thumbs up, smiling, giving us applause,” Rangel said. “I felt very proud and felt truly like we were a part of a team.”
Looking ahead, Rangel said he will approach the rest of the tour with a different perspective than he had prior to the attack.
“Although it is done, it really isn’t; because every time I go into a tower, every time I get in a vehicle, it replays for me in my head,” Rangel said. “To be honest, I’m scared. I think most of us are. We don’t want to go through something like that again. But if we have to, I’m confident we’ll get through it again.
“In training, they preach to us about muscle memory,” Rangel said. “Actions are very repetitive and seem redundant. It was very frustrating at the time. But Thursday morning (July 17), I finally understood what that meant, why it was important. When it mattered most, the training took over and we got through it with no serious injuries to our side.”