There were a lot of boring days. For every minute of excitement, there were fifty minutes of mind-numbing boredom. We’d check in with ground forces, sometimes begging for something to do. We took a lot of pictures of potential targets, oddly enough. On the days that no one was getting shot at and there wasn’t much else to do, we threw smoke grenades. The lead aircraft picked the target, which early on was rather large, but over time got smaller and more precise. An airspeed and altitude were chosen, the lead aircraft would go first and trail would follow. Sometimes, we were too close to call.
It wasn’t all fun and games. The smoke-grenade-out-of-the-cockpit-throw was not a technical task we trained as Kiowa pilots. It wasn’t anything I practiced before deploying. Once downrange though, it was clear: accuracy with a smoke grenade could be vitally important. On a particularly heated day supporting a special operations team, my smoke grenade throwing skills came in handy. The guys on the ground and the stack of aircraft above couldn’t agree on a target. I came on the radio, suggesting that our little single engine helicopter could solve the problem. My right seater flew us as fast as we could go, dropped us down over top of this building, and I dropped smoke. Everyone saw the plume billow, agreed it was the right building, and we moved on with more important events of the day.
One of the problems we encountered frequently was as pilots we had a large overlap in the Venn diagram between being a “tactical” and “strategic” asset. Tactically, we were important to anyone in contact with the enemy. Strategically, we carried more weight because our munitions were bigger. We could make bigger mistakes, which always made bigger news.
Sometimes, we were assigned missions purely because of optics. If a very important Afghan official was going somewhere by helicopter, we supported that flight. The threat could be incredibly low, but we went anyway – it just looked better. On election day, we were tasked to fly, but had to be 3,000 feet above the ground. Normally we flew much lower, but no one wanted us in the background of any pictures above polling stations. We had to show the Afghans were in charge of these elections.
One afternoon, we saw something odd. There was a school building we’d seen kids running in and out of before – a building we recognized. However, on that day there were no kids. What we saw instead were a bunch of motorcycles parked outside of the building, and what looked like the Afghan version of rent-a-cops standing outside. This looked, in a word, suspicious. We wanted to get a record of what we saw. We decided to drop a smoke grenade so we could take pictures at a distance, in order to give a good idea of where the building was. This smoke grenade would set off bombs in other areas.
The next morning, my Battalion Commander came by. “We need to talk about the school children you targeted yesterday.” Clearly, this smoke grenade had taken on a life of its own. I explained what actually happened the day before, pulling up the pictures we submitted in our report. He looked everything over and said, “Well, what it looked like to the rest of the world was that you were marking a target, and the target was a school. I know you didn’t shoot anything, I see from your pictures there aren’t any school children around. But let’s just keep the smoke grenades in the cockpit for a while.”
That wouldn’t be the last incident we encountered where optics created a bit of an issue between what was tactically important and what was strategically important. What I learned most in my time slinging smoke grenades about the battlefield is that optics and opinions cannot be discounted when determining the outcome. If we want to better prepare our future leaders in National Security, we must do a better job preparing them to analyze how to use optics and opinions in their favor. We cannot always rely on our public affairs teams to spin the story for us – we have to get better at understanding the story before it happens so we can take steps to win both tactically and strategically. I thought optics were my enemy for a while. I loathed the restrictiveness of them. But in the end, I learned that by creating good optics, by playing within the restrictive bounds of what “looks good,” we could help our brothers on the ground be more successful in their tactical endeavors.
Eventually, the ban on smoke grenades was lifted. We lived to billow another day.