I crawled through the mud, a G3K carbine in one hand, a handful of slimy, suspect topsoil in the other, as the rain poured down. The corner of a spare magazine cut into my hipbone as I slithered over a small clump of rocks, and back into a small coulee that led me up the slimy, festering hillside.
The ridge above the airfield at Tuzla was dotted with trees, most of them blasted bare by years of shelling and mortar fire from the Bosnian and Serb sides alike. With only scrubby, ugly shrubs to hold the soil in place, the hillside was slowly eroding down into the valley below. It was as ugly a place as I’d seen – recently.
BANG. A loud rifle report split the rain-drenched quiet ahead of me. “Back on the ball, Mitch“.
I looked down the ridge to the tarmac 1000 meters away, and my mission was re-clarified; the C130 transport plane, with the crowd of troops and civilians huddled behind a Humvee behind it, pinned down by sniper fire. Fire from the snipers I was hunting.
Down on the tarmac, I saw a man in camouflage make a run for a dugout by the runway; a couple of SVD sniper rifles, unseen in the scrub not far in front of me, barked almost simultaneously, again and again. The man zigzagged between the geysers of mud that the 7.62mm shots spewed into the air as he dove, head-first, into a slit trench. He made it, miraculously.
“This is Stain Six…” an out-of-breath-sounding voice yelled over the radio, “Vulture and Vulture Chick are pinned down on the tarmac. We need to get the snipers…”
The snipers’ rifles cracked again, and the voice cut off a second later. Stain Six – the Secret Service mission leader – was pinned down hard.
I had to find the snipers, and I had to find ’em fast. I was hoping my backup would get there soon.
“Golfball Two One” crackled over the radio, in a thick scandinavian accent – Gohlfboll Turr Vonn. It was Sergeant Janssen, leader of the Danish squad that was my backup, “this is Golfball Tree Two. Ve’re pinned down. Ve can’t help“.
Crap. My backup was backed up. I was on my own.
I crawled through a shallow depression behind the wreckage of an old Serb T-55 tank whose turret had blown off and sat on its roof twenty feet away – and saw my target. Two Serb snipers, they and their long, menacing-looking rifles swathed in ghillie netting, taking their aim. Another man, serving as their spotter, peered into binoculars, muttering in guttural, clipped Serb.
One of them fired a shot, the report echoing across the valley as I used the noise to cover my movement. I slowly crawled around the rear bogey of the wrecked tank, sizing up the Serb position. Something wasn’t..quite…right…the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
I looked around, my senses heightened by enough adrenaline to restart Keith Richards’ heart…
…there. In the woods – another Serb, covering the snipers’ rear, his AK47 at the ready, turning…
Our eyes locked. For a split second, we hesitated. I was quicker; my first round caught his AK47 right in the receiver, sending shards of stock and metal slicing into him, slamming his rifle into his stomach like Mike Tyson in his prime. He grunted in pain as he fell behind a log, his rifle twisted and useless.
The snipers and spotter turned, alarmed. The spotter lifted a WWII-vintage MP40 “Burp Gun” toward me as I spun; instinctively, I double-tapped him with two more rounds. He dropped out of sight over the lip of the hill, his peaked Serb army-pattern cap flipping crazily through the air, as I turned to the sniper on the right. Two more shots finished that business. The other sniper, overcome with panic as he tried to turn his bulky SVD toward me, rolled over the lip of the hill, chased by two more rounds that dug up big divots where his chest had been a thousandth of a second earlier, rolling out of sight. I dove for the lip of the hill, to make sure he didn’t come back up, when every muscle from my butt to my neck clenched tight at the jarring racket of Sergeant Janssen’s squad’s MG3 machine gun, sounding like a jackhammer set to “puree”. They’d got him.
And suddenly, the hill was secure.
I ducked back behind the wrecked tank and grabbed my radio. “Golfball Two One…”, I started…
…and caught the end of another transmission. “…Jaguars eencomeeng; ten secohnds. Ten secohnds. Ten secohnds” a voice in a French accent repeated, seeming oddly disconnected.
Crap. They called in air support!
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the glint off the canopy of the French Jaguar fighter-bomber, and a yellow flash…
…which I didn’t have time to process. I leaped instinctively toward the first hole I could see, diving into a shell crater just as the air around me was rent by the impact of a dozen 2.75 inch rockets, their detonations joining together like ripping metal, thousands of steel fragments lacing the air above my boots in a maelstrom of angry metal that drowned out the French jet roaring overhead.
I poked my rifle out of the crater as the smoke roiled around me. Under cover of the smoke, the radio squawked “Vulture and Vulture Chick are safe. Good job, all”.
“Sergeant Janssen“, I thought, peering over the edge of the crater and down the hill, teeth clenched in fear…
…which relaxed when I saw Sergeant Janssen and his eight squaddies; they’d ducked, too. Janssen waved. “Indskrænkette fransker!” he yelled.
I slithered down the slope to his position. “Er der en anden skrive i Fransker?” The squaddies laughed – as much from my atrocious Danish as from the release of tension – and, after they shook off the concussion and the close call, formed up to continue their patrol up the ridge.
Me? I walked back to the base. I safed my rifle as I got to the cut through the barbed wire around the Ukrainian position, waving to the Ukranian UN troops that guarded the perimeter. One of the privates manning a machine-gun gave me a thumbs-up; they’d been taking fire from the snipers, too. I returned the gesture as I walked toward the cluster of huts that was the Ukranian enclave, on my way back to the US area.
Their company sergeant-major, Yevgenii Batiukh, a crusty fortysomething who was hard-boiled enough a soldier to make R. Lee Ermey’s “Gunnery Sergeant Hartman” in Full Metal Jacket look like Andy Dick, who’d spent more time in Afghanistan than some Afghans I’d known, stepped out from behind a quonset hut, holding a bottle.
“Доброе утро, Михаил Павлович”, he grunted, his never-smiling face nodding approval.
” Добрbl Джин, сержант батюх”, I nodded back. The faint outline of a grin creased his leathery jawline.
“В снайпера исчезла, и вашим “первой леди” была в состоянии ходить из самолета в аэропорт!”, he said, with the lift of an eyebrow and a quizzical, ironic smirk that seemed incongruous on his hawk-like sergeant-major face. Batiukh poured shots of slivovitz into two tin, Russian-pattern canteen cups, and handed me one. “Как ЧТО происходит?”, he said, eyeing the G3 that hung from its jungle sling around my shoulder.
I grinned back as I slammed the shot. “Я не знаю! Действительно!”.
“поп!”, he said, drawing his finger across his throat, smiling fully this time.
We shared a laugh, and I left him, walking back to my hooch, a converted Serb bureaucrat’s office, looking forward to clearing a couple days’ buildup of mud and worse off of me.
I unlocked and opened the door…and stopped short. Something wasn’t as I left it. My hand instinctively reached toward my pistol, and I checked out the corners of the room.
I relaxed second later, as I noticed a silk blouse lying on the floor.
I cocked an eyebrow, and walked toward the back room. A pair of jeans hung from the doorknob. I opened the door.
“Hi, Hon”, Marisa said seductively, covers pulled up around her neck. “How’s your day?”
“Rough one”, I grinned, feeling not so rough at all.
She took a bottle of Croatian merlot, poured a glass, and dipped her finger in, licking it suggestively as she set it back on the chair. “I heard the First Lady and Chelsea had a hard time getting out of their plane today”.
I grinned. “Yeah, I heard that, too. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be filming?”, I said as I cleared my rifle’s action and reached to turn down the light.
“I had a day off. And it looks like you’ve been a…dirty boy…”
UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: I’m informed that video footage shows I was actually working as a technical writer at at a retail shelf space brokering company during Hillary and Chelsea’s trip to Tuzla, was not in fact a freelance “minder”, did not interact with the Ukranian or Danish armies – indeed, have never been to Bosnia – and had no involvement with Ms. Tomei.
I guess I miswrote…