0238 Hours Local Zone Time, 17 January 1991. Baghdad, Iraq.
It is dark and Mike Smith’s clothing is wet.
Mike Smith is an athlete, an elite athlete in fact. He is a triathlete, has done Ironman several times, a couple adventure races and even run the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco- a 152 mile running race through the Sahara done in stages.
Mike has some college, is gifted in foreign languages, reads a lot and has an amazing memory for details. He enjoys travel. He is a quiet guy but a very good athlete. Mike’s friends say he has a natural toughness. He can’t spend as much time training for triathlons as he’d like to because his job keeps him busy. Especially now. This is Mike’s busy season. But he still seems very fit. Even without much training Mike has managed some impressive performances in endurance events.
It’s a big night for Mike. He’s at work tonight. As I mentioned his clothing is wet, partially from dew, partially from perspiration. He and his four co-workers, Dan, Larry, Pete and Maurice are working on a rooftop at the corner of Jamia St. and Khulafa St. across from Omar Bin Yasir.
Mike is looking through the viewfinder of a British made Pilkington LF25 laser designator. The crosshairs are centered on a ventilation shaft. The shaft is on the roof of The Republican Guard Palace in downtown Baghdad across the Tigris River.
Saddam Hussein is inside, seven floors below, three floors below ground level, attending a crisis meeting.
Mike’s co-worker Pete (also an Ironman finisher, Lake Placid, 2000) keys some information into a small laptop computer and hits “burst transmit”. The DMDG (Digital Message Device Group) uplinks data to another of Mike’s co-workers (this time a man he’s never met, but they both work for their Uncle, “Sam”) and a fellow athlete, at 21’500 feet above Iraq 15 miles from downtown Baghdad. This man’s office is the cockpit of an F-117 stealth fighter. When Mike and Pete’s signal is received the man in the airplane leaves his orbit outside Baghdad, turns left, and heads downtown.
Mike has 40 seconds to complete his work for tonight, then he can go for a run.
Mike squeezes the trigger of his LF25 and a dot appears on the ventilator shaft five city blocks and across the river away from him and his co-workers. Mike speaks softly into his microphone; “Target illuminated. Danger close. Danger Close. Danger close. Over.”
Seconds later two GBU-24B two thousand pound laser guided, hardened case, delayed fuse “bunker buster” bombs fall free from the F-117. The bombs enter “the funnel” and begin finding their way to the tiny dot projected by Mike’s LF25. They glide approximately three miles across the ground and fall four miles on the way to the spot marked by Mike and his friends.
When they reach the ventilator shaft marked by Mike and his friends the two bunker busters enter the roof in a puff of dust and debris. They plow through the first four floors of the building like a two-ton steel telephone pole traveling over 400 m.p.h., tossing desks, ceiling tiles, computers and chairs out the shattering windows. Then they hit the six-foot thick reinforced concrete roof of the bunker. They burrow four more feet and detonate.
The shock wave is transparent but reverberates through the ground to the river where a Doppler wave appears on the surface of the Tigris. When the seismic shock reaches the building Mike is on he levitates an inch off the roof from the concussion.
Then the sound hits. The two explosions are like a simultaneous crack of thunder as the building’s walls seem to swell momentarily, then burst apart on an expanding fireball that slowly, eerily, boils above Baghdad casting rotating shadows as the fire climbs into the night. Debris begins to rain; structural steel, chunks of concrete, shards of glass, flaming fabrics and papers.
On the tail of the two laser guided bombs a procession of BGM-109G/TLAM Block IV Enhanced Tomahawks begin their terminal plunge. The laser-guided bombs performed the incision, the GPS and computer guided TLAM Tomahawks complete the operation. In rapid-fire succession the missiles find their mark and riddle the Palace with massive explosions, finishing the job. The earth heaves in a final death convulsion.
Mike’s job is done for tonight. Now all he has to do is get home.
Mike and his friends drive an old Mercedes through the streets of Baghdad as the sirens start. They take Jamia to Al Kut, cross Al Kut and go right (South) on the Expressway out of town. An unsuspecting remote CNN camera mounted on the balcony of the Al Rashid Hotel picks up their vehicle headed out of town. Viewers at home wonder what a car is doing on the street during the beginning of a war. They don’t know it is packed with five members of the U.S. Army’s SFOD-D, Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta. Or simply, Delta.
Six miles out of town they park their Mercedes on the shoulder, pull their gear out of the trunk and begin to run into the desert night. The moon is nearly full. Instinctively they fan out, on line, in a “lazy ‘W’ “. They run five miles at a brisk pace, good training for this evening, especially with 27 lb. packs on their back. Behind them there is fire on the horizon. Mike and his fellow athletes have a meeting to catch, and they can’t be late.
Twenty-seven miles out a huge gray 92-foot long insect hurtles 40 feet above the desert at 140 m.p.h. The MH-53J Pave Low III is piloted by another athlete, also a triathlete, named Jim, from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He is flying to meet Mike.
After running five miles into the desert Mike uses his GPS to confirm his position. He is in the right place at the right time. He removes an infra-red strobe light from his pack and pushes the red button on the bottom of it. It blinks invisibly in the dark. He and his friends form a wide 360-degree circle while waiting for their ride home.
Two miles out Jim in the Pave Low sees Mike’s strobe through his night vision goggles. He gently moves the control stick and pulls back on the collective to line up on Mike’s infra-red strobe. Mike’s ride home is here.
The big Pave Low helicopter flares for landing over the desert and quickly touches down in a swirling tempest of dust. Mike and his friends run up the ramp after their identity is confirmed. Mike counts them up the ramp of the helicopter over the scream of the engines. When he shows the crew chief five fingers the helicopter lifts off and the ramp comes up. The dark gray Pave Low spins in its own length and picks up speed going back the way it came, changing course slightly to avoid detection.
The men and women in our armed forces, especially Special Operations, are often well-trained, gifted athletes. All of them, including Mike, would rather be sleeping the night away in anticipation of a long training ride rather than laying on a damp roof in an unfriendly neighborhood guiding bombs to their mark or doing other things we’ll never hear about.
Regardless of your opinions about the war, the sacrifices these people are making and the risks they are taking are extraordinary. They believe they are making them on our behalf. Their skills, daring and accomplishments almost always go unspoken. They are truly Elite Athletes.
I wrote this fictional, based on fact, article a few days after the start of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In the days that followed its publication it went “viral” with over 1 million hits per day. Almost every major news agency contacted me about the article and my sources; CNN, MSNBC, Knight-Ridder and others.
I got an e-mail and a phone call from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division for Intelligence at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They were interested in hearing my sources. I told them to check my service records. They did, and advised me to be more careful about what I wrote about.
Following the publication of “An Elite Athlete” in 1991 several literary agents contacted me to submit book proposals. At the time, I was advised not to do this for a long list of good reasons. So I never did.
Recently a friend asked me to repost “An Elite Athlete” in its original form to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. People still tell me, “You should write a book.”
I still haven’t. Not yet.