Dead Legs, Deep Breathing & Dulling The Pain

Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.


We lined up in front of the Huey helicopter that was about to insert us 60kms North into Helmand Province; the most deadly province in Afghanistan.


These Huey helicopters were beefed up versions of the ones that flew many, many missions in Vietnam back in the 60s and 70s and they were awesome machines. Twin engine, 4-blade helicopters with plenty of grunt and manoeuvrability.


We grabbed one of the Huey door gunners to take the team photo. A 6-man Commando Sniper Team in full kit, heavily armed and ready for action.


It was go time.


We loaded up into the Huey. As I was lead scout for the team I went on last. The Huey isn’t a big chopper, especially compared to the Chinook and CH53s we had been flying around in, but it was sufficient for a 6-man team... just.


I crammed in, pack on, with my sniper rifle secured to the top and M4 with grenade launcher gripped firmly in my hands. I attached my strope (quick release rope that secures the soldier to the helicopter).


We lifted off.


It was just after midnight on a pleasant October night and the temperature on the ground was around 20 degrees Celsius. As the chopper began rising into the sky for the 20min journey, higher and higher into the Afghan mountains, the temperature dropped dramatically.


I did not have a fun insertion that night.


As the chopper was full with my team and I was last on, I wasn’t totally within the aircraft skin. With the chopper screaming through the air at about 100kts, I was receiving the full lashing of the cold mountain air. I tried turning into the middle of the chopper even more and was subsequently leaning on my left arse cheek. My leg started to go numb and I began to shiver.


This was going to be a long flight.


As the flight continued and we rose higher into the mountains, the temperature dropped even further, but there was nothing to be done. My leg was now totally asleep; I was freezing cold and very uncomfortable.


I concentrated on the one thing I could control – my breathing. I began breathing deeply and focusing on each breath as I exhaled. Big deep belly breaths. I got into a nice rhythm, which was almost meditative.


While it certainly didn’t take away the fact I was freezing my arse off and I could no longer feel my leg, it helped get me through the situation quicker than if I’d simply sat there stewing over the shit time I was having.


Finally, after what seemed like an age, my team leader held up two different coloured cyalumes together… the 3min call.


Then came one blue cyalume… the 30sec call.


We came into our drop-off point and the pilots manoeuvred the helicopter into position.


We hovered 3–4 meters from the ground. The door gunner looked across at me, raised his arm and gave me the thumbs up. That was the signal for me to jump off the helicopter.


F#ck off, I yelled. Mainly to myself as he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the Huey.


I shook my head at him and motioned downwards, signalling that I needed the chopper closer to the ground before I jumped. A 10-foot jump with all of my equipment wasn’t going to cut it and I would no doubt sustain an injury.


I could see the door gunner talk on his radio headset to the pilots. I looked down as the pilots manipulated the helicopter controls and we moved a little closer to the ground.


I looked up again at the door gunner. He smiled and gave me the thumps up signal. It’s hard to tell your exact height with night-vision goggles on as your depth perception is compromised.


I looked down again, pausing momentarily…


3, 2, 1, jump.


I hit the ground hard. It was probably only a 5-foot jump, but it was onto a rocky creek bed. I rolled over and tried to stand, but fell over.


My leg was asleep.


I commando-crawled away from under the chopper so my teammates wouldn’t land on top of me. They all piled out. Mostly fell, recovered and moved away from the chopper.


I looked up. The door gunner was looking down, smiling and giving me the thumps up.


I returned with the one-finger salute. The chopper rose, banked upwards and began to fly away. I could see the door gunner laughing as the Huey took off.


It reminded me of Adam Sandler in the movie Happy Gilmore when he’s playing mini golf and the big clown keeps laughing at his attempt to sink a putt… “He’s laughing; he’s having a good time.”


I lay on the ground for a few minutes shaking my leg awake. Finally I regained the use of it and stood up. A few comments from my teammates and we were away.


We began our ascent to our predetermined position to provide overwatch to the rest of the company, which had simultaneously landed a few clicks up the creek line.


As always, the position wasn’t ideal, but it never, ever was. We picked two sniper hide locations and split the callsign.


My team second-in-command and myself moved up into our location. We were limited with options, surrounded by high ground and the sun starting to rise.


We weighed up the risks of being able to conduct the mission, get eyes on the target area, being supported and providing support to the other team and the ability to facilitate an effective withdrawal.


5 out of 6 wasn’t bad.


We established our position and I got behind the glass (spotting scope) for the first watch as the sun rose. As the sky filled with daylight we could fully evaluate our position.


Although we were hidden, it was obvious we couldn’t move around freely. I would have to stay in the observer’s position the entire day.


All 14 hours of it.


Usually we rotate every 1–2 hours behind the spotting scope to avoid fatigue and ensure that a high degree of focus and attention is maintained.


Today it simply wasn’t possible.


It definitely wasn’t an ideal situation, but I dealt with it. I accepted there was nothing to be done, except my job. I got behind the spotting scope and stayed there the rest of the day.


Like I did the previous night in the chopper, I used deep breathing to ensure constant and much needed oxygen was getting to my brain and, in particular, my eyesight.


I took short, regular breaks to refocus, relieving the strain on my eyes, dulling the headache, sipping some water and staving off complacency.


It was a long, long day, but it finally came to an end. We completed our mission by providing valuable intelligence, battlefield commentary and precision fire support and were extracted that evening without incident.


I learned a couple of things that day…


  1. Breathing can help you through tough situations. The 4-count combat or tactical breathing method or deep, rhythmic, belly breathing. Concentrating on the actual inhale and exhale of the breathe will help you focus, relieve stress and help you cope by providing the body with a constant supply of oxygen.
  2. Sometimes situations aren’t ideal and you can only do the best with what you have. You weigh it up, calculate the risks and make a decision based on the information and situation at hand.
  3. Shitty situations always come to an end. As much as it sucks at the time, time itself will continue without fail and the suboptimal period you may find yourself in, will eventually dissipate.


When you find yourself in a less than ideal situation…


  1. Breath.
  2. Do the best with what you have.
  3. Know that it will end… it always does.


Rhys Dowden

Operator Edge

Mindset is a choice

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About the Author

Rhys Dowden is the owner of Operator Edge, a company through which he provides to his clients extensive mental conditioning along with military, self-defense, and physical training.

Growing up in Queensland, Rhys enlisted in the Army as soon as he was 18 and then served a little more than four years in the Royal Australian Armored Corps. Later in his career, he served on Steve Irwin’s personal security detail at the Australia Zoo for six months and then worked as a private security contractor in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 before re-enlisting in the Army and going through the Commando Selection and Training Course in 2008.