“GROM operators may not be ideal, but they are certainly efficient.”
Col. Piotr Gąstal, GROM Commander
18. The brave wins
There is a big commotion in the hangar. SEALS clean up the perimeter, and, which is not a frequent sight after all, they also take out the garbage and bottles filled with urine. But it’s not customary among us. When you want to pee, you just get up and trot along to the loo, situated only 200 meters away. Brotherhood in arms has a way of burdening us with a major historical injustice, namely that we have to clean up our entire Mouseland ourselves. In this very instance the special occasion is that the Doha base commander wants to pay us a visit, so the hangar must shine. Not that I myself like such pomp and ceremony, but it seems that all army’s regulations contain a relevant point, or may be that is only a custom – and that is that.
So it finally happened, none other than the Sergeant Major arrived; there’s no such rank in the Polish armed forces, which is a pity indeed, because sergeant major is someone who was promoted not because he graduated from a particular academy or university, but just for his working knowledge and experience gained throughout years of service, at least such is my opinion. Everyone in the military, with no exception, holds a Sergeant Major in high esteem (although he is actually not an officer); as the saying goes, the officers have bow in their belts. His visit is a significant event, because, as other SEALS explain, this doesn’t happen too often, but so the more honor for us. Mig was a little astonished, as he probably expected a colonel of some sort, but instead a sergeant arrived and he talks with him on equal terms, and even, as it were, seems to slightly patronize him. But the Sergeant comes from the world of officers and NCOs who indeed have a high respect for him, listen to him and obey him.
He disapproved of our conditions of living; he said that he couldn’t accept that we, the SEALS and GROM operators, have no proper place to take a solid rest after hard work. So he ordered fiberboard, wooden beams, screws and nails to be delivered the next day, and he burdened us with the task of rebuilding a part of the hangar into a several room suite, so that everyone of us could have his own space; a common activity room was to be set up as well. The SEALS picked up the slack immediately; corridors and rooms were outlined on the floor, and it seemed like from now on we were going to live in a palace. But such construction work takes time and we have to travel from assignment to assignment; when we return and are free from duties, the SEALS are already in beds after their duties, so when and how on earth can we stop being soldiers and turn into construction workers?
Alas, not everyone has sympathy for our need to rest and sleep. After a tough night we were woken up already at eleven a.m. and ordered to turn up at the briefing. Colonel Roman Polko, Commander of our unit, has arrived. He started from confiding to us that he himself was also on the military mission to Yugoslavia. He was very much valued there, he continued, then we were able to backtrack his entire career, to hear anew how he was valued from a start and then, as soon as he became valued more than ever, how he was promoted to the rank of GROM Commander. I memorized only that much, maybe I just overslept something of importance, sitting in the last row against the wall. After the briefing the Commander raced to the capital, maybe to buy presents and souvenirs from a trip to this exotic country. As we were concerned, he only hurried to wish us a soldier’s luck and to ensure us that we needed not to worry at all for our unit in Poland, as it remains under the highly esteemed command.
So we continue to sail on, while on duty each of us feels much better, leaving ashore, at least for several hours, his entire civilian life. Homesickness and domestic problems are left behind somewhere on the coastline, as while on the job one’s mind has to be free of any worries or concerns. We have been out of Poland a good few months already, a trip of that sort is definitely not on par with the usual two weeks training ground, even though for us every training ground appeared too short. We are conscious that we live in a different space, that something keeps on going off forever, irretrievably. Our children go to school, our wives go to work, and our mates– well, our mates are here and now.
I began to measure my passing time by books that I read; I have already amassed a nice heap of them, finishing the twentieth. I swear I hadn’t read through my entire life as many books as during those several months of my mission service. Apart from anything on the Warsaw 1944 Uprising that I could get hold of and read, Sergiusz Piasecki and his sweethearts spread on the trail of the stars of the Big Dipper captivated my mind the whole way. The seven brightest stars make only a part of that constellation, and who knows what was really going on in the soul of Piasecki the soldier, Piasecki the smuggler, or Piasecki the spy? What is really going in minds of people like him, or maybe also like us who are now rushing headlong through waves of the Persian Gulf? What is that we are chasing, instead of sitting on a sofa and waiting until the wife prepares dinner and then allows you to slap her plump ass? This seems to be nothing short of some form of sexism. Being here we deprive ourselves of the joy of staying together with our wives and children, we give up on life, which includes family parties and going out for a few beers with friends; today we deny ourselves anything, which can be departure from the busy reality of our daily life in a normal country. But none of us complains, this is just our job, every one of us has what he dared to. Maybe not tomorrow, not in a month’s time, but in a year, in a few years, we shall experience something which has been written in the stars of the Big Dipper. Maybe we shall be given a chance for not to fall asleep far from home.
My thoughts on Piasecki’s mistresses are abruptly interrupted by Mig’s whisper.
“Come on, guys, let’s get to work.”
I don’t know how it is, but sometimes Mig doesn’t finish the sentence but we are already on our knees, locked and loaded, waiting to board our RIBs. Lengthy waves keep on swaying rhythmically across the Gulf, not a storm, but the tide is high. It behoves us to try its taste before the fight, as that would show if destiny favors us at all, and if we prevail over the enemy. But it isn’t a proper time for romanticizing as clouds obscure the Big Dipper stars; it’s time for us to prove and demonstrate our skills, but definitely not for conjuring the reality.
Our RIB dashes forward; it is we today who are leading into battle. Our radio man is doing plenty of talking, feeding us with the object’s measurements and informing of its name. Our radio guys are really invaluable in this kind of job as it is their duty not only to ensure that the equipment works infallibly, but they also have to maintain contact with an American who badly slurs the words. Now they are feeding us with the intelligence on the ship that is of the kind we never encountered before. Our target is a mini-tanker with some Arabic name, rather hard to pronounce. No one has succeeded in capturing her so far. The Australians failed, so did the SEALS who didn’t make it either and failed to board her. Our five minutes for readiness to strike changes smoothly to one minute, which but slightly exceeds the mere sixty seconds. We chase the bastard which seems to care nothing for our pursuit and speeds through the choppy water towards the Iranian coast. At last her strangely rounded shape emerges in sight, it is not even necessary to imply by gestures to one another that we aren’t doing enough.
But the helmsman finally draws our RIB alongside the dhow, which seems slightly bigger than the ships we encountered before, but immediately we are pushed off by waves a good several meters, soaked wet with seawater. Our second approach ends with the same effect, as our helmsman is unable to steady the RIB because the sea is heavy. The helmsmen debate for while how to approach the ship that is now zigzagging very rapidly.
For even a second we don’t keep our eyes off the ship’s sides, which are oddly rounded, as if the dhow were a wrapped birthday present, in fact it only lacks a ribbon on top. Anyway we continue our job. This time the helmsman approaches our target at the further end, we are not being bounced off, but waves are flooding the RIB. I am holding Tylut with all my strength; again and again he tries desperately to grapple the ladder on anything, but with no success. Finally he and Lech rise on tiptoes to grapple that bloody ladder. They try this or that way, but all the time in vain. Meanwhile the helmsman struggles with the RIB, Tylut with the ladder, and we try to hold Tylut vertically. Tylut serves usually as my breakwater, but not today – we are all flooded by waves and he spits out seawater.
But then our helmsman seems to let it go for a moment and we pulled away a meter or two towards the dhow’s stern, which is becoming dangerous, but just then the hook catches ground, and I’m taking hold of the ladder, stretching it tight to check if it is stable enough for me to climb aboard. But the helmsman fails to keep the RIB steady and alongside the enemy ship, so I am forced to let the ladder go as we again sail several meters off. Fucking dhow, are we supposed to botch the task just as the others did?
Meanwhile the operator warns that we have only two minutes left and ebb-tide begins now, so everything is in our helmsman’s hands now. We approach the dhow again, it is our last chance. The ladder’s hanging loose and dragged behind the ship it resembles a slightly tautened bow. It is really hard to get so close that we could grasp it, as big waves keep tossing us about. I am a meter or so away from the dhow, she gets nearly within my reach I jumped– What a fool am I. I jumped– And how I’m hanging, tossed by waves, clutching the aluminum rung. I climb the ladder, thinking, what a hothead am I, or how I’ll whoop the fellows upstairs if only I could catch them… I’m not even trying to find a hold for my feet on the rungs, as they moved somewhere away, dragged by the ship, but I clutch the ladder so tight that I feel my nails literally stick into wet gloves, there is no room for error here. I bump on the ship’s rotten wooden side, two more rungs and I am at the level of a tarp covering the ship’s entire desk. With my last strength I am pushing my fingers under the rungs, which are now pressed to the tar and I desperately look for any hold for my feet. Finally I am encountering something more stable, something I can clutch on. It turns out to be a line holding the hook, the ladder and me.
I clamber on the board, oh, how they are screwed! But in such moments there is never malice in us, nor in me. Their job is smuggling, ours is capturing them. A MP5 in hand, I am switching on my hand torch, directing the light onto their wheelhouse, screaming: “engine stop, engine stop”. The pressure of wind on my back weakens, an infallible sign that they obey my orders, no place for negotiating here, not this time anyway. I see our RIB moving alongside the dhow and a chopper circles over us, so I am not alone. By some miracle the ladder’s hook finally caught up in the cable, so I’m putting it to a more stable position, a place where several cables are fastened together. It is the only appropriate point to anchor the hook, but there was no use in trying to perform such action to grapple the ladder from the board of our swaying RIB. Now the guys can get aboard the ship, no risk at all. However the desk is wet and slippery, so I have to step carefully, otherwise I might easily slide off. Kaśka is next to me but our RIB moved off again. So it is only two of us who approach the skipper. He slowed down the ship but had her turn starboard, so it’s clear that he is trying to screw with us till the end. He is even mouthing off, but Kaśka’s firm “uscut” shuts him at once. Some of their crew members began to make whispered comments, but our “mam-new-ah-al-kalam” gets them stunned. The skipper abandoned the helm and sat in a corner, seemingly offended. It took some time until the rest of us got aboard the dhow. Our “Nadszyszkownik” is also with us; he takes the helm, which means that we assume full control.
When I looked back and realized what I had done, I felt chills running down my spine; what is more, Tylut’s glare leaved no room for doubt as to his opinion on my stunt. Does the brave indeed always win? I can’t answer this question now. When I read memoirs of the Warsaw 1944 insurgents, I learn that many who were at that time definitely braver than me and more courageous than me, were not lucky enough to see the end of the Uprising and the war. On the other hand, the bravery of many helped them survive. However, along with experience, one gains the knowledge that bravery alone is not enough to win. It is skills, abilities, tactics, fraternity and luck, yeah, a lot of luck, that has to support audacity, or in other words, courage.