Death Was His Only Extraction Point
Thomas Calabrese — In military slang, downrange is a term for being deployed overseas, usually in a war zone. It can also refer to the direction of fire or the direction of the target.
Donald Serrano was a freshman at Palomar Junior College and living on Camp Pendleton when terrorists flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. His father, Commander Joseph Serrano, was an orthopedic surgeon at the base hospital and the family was living in San Luis Rey base housing.
Even though the attack occurred in New York City, it had a devastating effect on Donald and his family here in California. His mother Catherine’s twin sister, Charlene and her husband Peter, owned a media production firm that specialized in documentaries and infomercials. They were on the 60th floor in the North Tower when it was struck by an airliner at 8:46 am on that fateful day. Their bodies were never recovered.
Catherine and her sister were extremely close, a connection that only twins possess and they spoke on the phone several times a week. The two families vacationed together and alternated Christmas holidays between the east and west coast. In fact, the Serranos and Braxtons were so close, it almost seemed like one extended family. Don’s cousins, Katie and Emily, who were also twins, were more like his sisters.
It was a devastating time for the Serranos. Catherine was inconsolable and nothing seemed to help her. She began taking anti-depressants, and Joseph took emergency leave from the Navy to take care of her. Don was filled with a rage that came with that helpless feeling of watching his mother fall apart before his eyes and not being able to do anything about it.
Don awakened one night to the sound of his mother crying and an idea came to him. It was a longshot, but at this point, there weren’t many options left. When morning came, his mother was still asleep and his father was lost in thought at the kitchen table. Don said to his father, “I’ve got something I want to run by you,” and explained his idea.
After listening, Joseph responded to his son, “If they’re willing to do it.”
“I’ve already been in contact, I’ll tell them to book their flight,” Don smiled.
His cousins, Katie and Emily, were staying with friends since the death of their parents. Don thought that the girls being around would provide his mother with a connection to her deceased sister. After picking up his cousins at the San Diego Airport, Don explained how badly his mother had spiraled into depression, “I appreciate that you are doing this.”
“It is kind of strange that helping Aunt Catherine deal with the loss of her sister just might help us with our own grief,” Katie said, “I’m so confused, but I’m willing to try anything.”
“So am I,” Emily sobbed.
As the days passed, Catherine slowly came out of her depression. Her nieces reminded her of the relationship she had with her sister when they were growing up. It had a profound and positive influence on her.
When the girls saw their aunt, the physical resemblance and her mannerisms were so similar to their mother’s that it filled a void in their lives as well. The sisters moved permanently to California and Joseph and Catherine became their legal guardians. When Don saw his mother smile and laugh for the first time since the death of her sister, he knew that it was because Katie and Emily were there. He told his father about his plan, “I was going to join the military after 9/11, but I put it off until mom got better. That time has come.”
Joseph extended his hand, “It would be hypocritical for me to try and talk you out of it, so if this is what you want to do, then you have my full support.”
Don joined the Navy and made it through Seal training. Over the first ten years of his career, he had four deployments of various lengths to Afghanistan. He became an instructor at Coronado Naval Training Center for the next two years before being assigned to Team Seven. Over the next six years he had three more tours of duty in Afghanistan. Don just reached his 19th year in the Navy and during that time, he was wounded six times and had a long list of non-combat related injuries that included sprains, broken bones and concussions. It would have sidelined a lesser man. His citations and decorations continued to accumulate, but that wasn’t why Don served. Glory and acknowledgement meant nothing to him. He did not particularly like Afghanistan, but he hated the Taliban with an intense passion, so he kept going back. Don lost several teammates to the enemy and that made the war even more personal for him. He fought with a rare combination of professionalism and a thirst for vengeance against a merciless enemy.
In the early 2000’s, the United States thought that nation building was the solution to bring Afghanistan out of the dark ages. They pumped tens of millions into the infrastructure and when that didn’t work, they increased it to hundreds of billions, before realizing that it was a money pit. It didn’t take Don long to realize that totally misguided strategy wasn’t working.
He was a ‘doorkicker’; (a fighter who goes from house to house kicking down doors and storming entrances.) However, nobody was asking for his opinions on diplomacy or strategy, so he kept his mouth shut and kept his focus downrange. One particular Afghan leader earned Don’s respect. He hated the Taliban even more than he did…if that was possible.
Chief Petty Officer Donny Serrano conducted seven missions with Ata Mohammad Noor, the influential Afghan warlord. Noor had been a key U.S. ally, going all the way back to the 2001 defeat of the Taliban. The two warriors became friends and Donny learned to speak Dari and Pashto, the most widely spoken languages in the country, so that he could communicate with Noor and local fighters in their native tongue When not on a mission, the Navy Seal would sometimes visit the warlord at his heavily fortified Mazar-e-Sharif home to share valuable Intel and socialize.
During one of these get-togethers, Noor confided in Donny about the deteriorating situation in the country. He was extremely harsh in his criticism of the fractious Afghan leadership, “They don’t have reinforcements when they go into battle and are always short of food and money to pay soldiers’ salaries, but the leaders never seem short of necessities and luxuries for themselves.”
Donny smiled, “That’s one thing that’s pretty consistent around the world; politicians lead by exception rather than by example.”
“President Ashraf Ghani has four people in his inner circle and they are as about as useless as a liberal at a 4th of July picnic.” Noor quipped.
Donny laughed, “I see that you’ve been listening to my teammate, Mike Weston.”
“What are you hearing about the withdrawal?” Noor asked.
“They told us to be ready to leave by the end of August, but that is subject to change.”
“You know what is going to happen when American forces leave?” Noor already knew the answer.
“I’m afraid so?” Donny sighed.
Over the next couple months, Afghan soldiers began deserting at a rapid rate, many escaping into Pakistan or to Iraq. Donny saw the writing on the wall and knew that the massive amount of equipment brought to the country would eventually fall into the hands of the enemy, and then be used against the Afghan people.
Donny requested an extension to his deployment and Commander Roberts reminded him, “You’re getting mighty close to retirement, why do you want to stay?”
“Let’s say that I’ve grown attached to this place,” Donny responded, “I’ve got a few local friends I’d like to say goodbye to.”
Commander Roberts pondered the situation, “Your team is leaving next week, I guess I could assign you to one of the last security details. Do you ever stop looking downrange?”
Donny had seen enough fraud, waste and corruption from American and Afghan leadership over the past 19 years to fill several whistleblower manuals. While Afghanistan appreciated the manpower and hundreds of billions of dollars that America invested in the country, it did nothing to make the country self-sufficient. They needed factories to produce their own ammunition and workshops to repair the aircraft and other vehicles that were given to them. But the international coalition did not build a strong foundation for Afghanistan, choosing instead to build a house of cards. Donny knew that the country needed stronger militias who believe in the cause, not more Afghan soldiers who would run at the first sign of trouble. The current Afghan military was also logistically unprepared to fight off the rush of insurgents.
Donny bid farewell to members of his team at Bagram Air Base. Petty Officer Jim Macklin commented, “I can miss my flight if you want me to stick around?”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I won’t be far behind. When you get back to San Diego, have a cold one for me.”
“Roger that,” Petty Officer Macklin said as he boarded his flight. Donny watched the plane disappear into the skies before leaving the base.
His next stop was the massive supply depot where his friend, Gunnery Sergeant Randy Vasquez, was trying to figure out what to do with the all the equipment, “I’ve been told we’re leaving most of this stuff behind…what a colossal waste.”
“We’re in the military, don’t take it personally. This mission is not accomplished and just because we’re leaving the country doesn’t mean the war is over,” Donny editorialized.
Gunny Vasquez shook his head in resignation, “Why should I care, by the time I get back to Pendleton, this place will be probably overrun by Taliban fighters and it will be like I was never here in the first place. I’m beginning to understand how the Marines in Vietnam felt when they were pulled out.”
Donny smiled, “You don’t mind if I fight a little bit longer?”
“Still looking downrange?” Gunny Vasquez inquired.
“What can I say…I’m a creature of habit.”
The next day, Donny, Noor and 50 trucks arrived at the base and while Gunny Vasquez was conveniently absent from the supply depot. They loaded everything that could still be of value in the fight against the Taliban and left base.
When the last security detail got ready to leave Afghanistan, Donny told the officer in charge, “I’ll catch the next flight.”
The officer responded, “There isn’t a next flight.”
Donny shrugged, “Really.”
Marne Corps Captain, Curtis Mendoza said, “I could order you to get on the plane, but then you would just disobey the order, then there would be a lot of paperwork for me to fill out. I sure hope you know what you’re doing, Downrange Donny.”
“I do too…take care,” Donny said.
Three days later, Donny made contact with his command back in Coronado and Commander Roberts read him the riot act, “Why is it that I knew you would do something crazy.”
“I don’t see nothing crazy about killing our enemies.”
Commander Roberts disagreed, “Your job is to follow orders… in case you’ve forgotten, you’re in the military.”
“Not for long, I figured that with the leave I have on the books, I’m eligible for retirement,” Donny said.
Commander Roberts quipped, “With all the places to retire, you pick scenic peaceful Afghanistan. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Just submit my paperwork, will you?” Donny asked, “Maybe I can get the Taliban to make pickleball the national sport.”
“Take it easy, Downrange,” Commander Roberts said.
Donny responded, “The only easy day was yesterday.”
In a matter of days, warlords and militias all over the country began stepping in to fill the security vacuum. In one 24-hour period, 19 districts of Badakhshan surrendered to the Taliban without a fight. The insurgents now claimed control over more than a third of the 421 districts and district centers across Afghanistan. They also captured several border crossings with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, opening up potential revenues for the Taliban and cutting key transportation routes. The Islam Qala border crossing with Iran was the latest to fall to the Taliban.
U. S. President Jim Tilden defended America’s withdrawal. He couldn’t have been more wrong when he stated in his speech from the White House oval office that the Afghan government possessed the forces, weapons, training and various tools to sustain itself. He should have just said, “Our strategy was faulty, we failed to adjust to the situation and now we’re leaving Afghanistan, but that would not have been the politically correct thing to do.
The Afghan National Security and Defense forces’ leadership has overused its elite commando units. They were sent into battle without preparations then not given enough rest between missions. The Afghan air force had well-trained pilots, but the fleet was overused and under-maintained.
Two miles from Noor’s home, he maintained a political office in a lavish compound, protected by armed guards and barricades. Hallibullah Rahman Orfan, was second in command to Noor and followed his commander without reservations. When Donny showed up at the front gate, he was escorted to see the Afghan warlord.
Noor was pleasantly surprised and at the same time, a little disappointed to see his American friend, “Are you sure that you want to do this? You should be home in America. You’ve given enough to my country already.”
Donny responded with his usual easy-going smile, “I appreciate your concern and your gratitude, but I do agree with my President on one point, “Mission not accomplished.”
“In my world, most men have no choice what life they live, it is thrust upon them and they have to accept it. In America, you are given more choices, but there is one very important thing that we have in common. We have both chosen to fight, which means we accept death as a possibility. If you wish to leave this earth battling your sworn adversary, then who am I to stand in the way of that noble quest.”
The two men raised their glasses of beer as Donny toasted, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Noor toasted, “You will be my honored guest tonight, but when tomorrow comes, we’ll be back to being comrades in arms again. One thing will remain constant, Chief Petty Officer Serrano, I am honored to call you, my friend.”
“I’ll be a civilian soon, so we can dispense with my rank designation,” Donny said.
Noor responded, “As you wish, what should I call you then?”
“Downrange is good enough.”
Downrange Donny took command of a contingent of Noor’s militia and with Hallibullah Rahman Orfan, as his second in command. Their first mission was against Taliban units in the Balkh province. They took back all the districts, while inflicting serious damages on the insurgents. Over the next six months, Donny conducted missions all over the country. Noor got permission from his fellow warlords to allow American and his fighters to go into their areas to attack the Taliban. It was one of the few times that the Afghan leaders had a common goal. Downrange Donny had a unifying effect on the warlords.
Sometimes, Donny would find a strategic location with his trusty 50 caliber sniper rifle and pick off Taliban fighters while also directing the attack by radio. Noor approached Donny as he lay on his bed after a particularly harrowing mission and commented, “You don’t have to be the ‘tip of the spear’ on every mission.”
Donny responded simply, “So little time…so many enemies,” and dozed off.
Not every mission goes exactly as planned, however. Donny and his men were ready to attack a firmly entrenched Taliban stronghold. It commenced with a barrage of rocket propelled grenades and smoke to obscure the attack. Donny observed the target from his position and was prepared to lead the attack when an enemy mortar round hit ten feet from where he was standing. The sound was deafening. It killed three men standing next to him, but somehow Donny wasn’t hit, but he knew something wasn’t right with him.
He touched his face and blood was streaming from his nose. There was no time to worry about that now, Donny spit out a mouthful of blood and continued with the attack. By the time the battle was over, he was so weak and dizzy that he could barely stand upright. Once the adrenalin stopped pumping through his veins, he collapsed.
A cascade of disjointed hallucinations flowed through his mind and when Donny opened his eyes a week later, he was looking up at his family. The first thought that came to him was, “Am I dead?”
His doctor father smiled, “It was touch and go for a while.”
Donny asked, “How did I get here?”
Catherine tearfully explained, “When you were injured, your Afghan friend contacted your former Seal Team. A civilian contractor volunteered the company jet to come pick you up in Kabul.”
“You’ve been unconscious for five days,” Emil embraced her cousin in a gesture of relief and love.
Katie handed a sealed envelope to Donny, “We were supposed to give this to you when you came to.”
Donny tried to open it, but his hands just wouldn’t work properly. His mother volunteered, “I’ll get that for you.” After she opened it, Donny asked, “Can you read it for me, I’m having a little trouble focusing.”
Catherine looked at the note and her eyes filled with tears, “It’s from your friend in Afghanistan. He says, the people of his country thank you for your service.”
Donny asked, “Is that all he wrote?”
“There is one more thing, I don’t quite understand what it means; ‘Home is downrange for you now.’
Donny smiled, “Just military slang.”
To Downrange Donny, who thought that death was his only extraction point, the Commander-in-Chief in the sky had other plans for this American warrior.”
– This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.