“Do US troops ever “police” their brass after a firefight in Iraq or Afghanistan? Why or why not?”
Unless at a range, there is no need to – we had better things to do.
“Story-time” long answer:
However, there are two occasions where the collection of brass was noteworthy.
The first took place in Asadabad, Afghanistan. We had landed not too long before, dropping off whatever VIP to do whatever they needed to do: meet with the troops, negotiate with the local imams, conduct routine checks of their folks… that sort of stuff. Our UH-60s had been shut down for about 10 minutes and we were chatting with some SF folks by the nose of the aircraft when all hell broke loose in the valley just beyond the refueling points. Small arms fire – calibers ranging from 7.62×39 all the way up to 12.7×108 – as well as RPGs and AGS-17’s… all of it opened, without warning… all at the same time.
I am not ashamed to admit that I found myself prone with a quickness – belly-down on the large rocks and weighing the merits of using our helicopter as cover or risking a sprint towards whatever more suitable cover in the opposite direction of the cacophony of violence. I took a quick glance at the others to see if they were safe and noted the bearded SF guy, standing and thoughtfully looking at the valley.
I followed his gaze. The Afghan soldiers associated with the outpost were in the process of conducting live-fire movement training. The percussive reports of the RPGs had initiated the iteration, the heavy machineguns provided suppressive fire, and the AKs were staccato punctuations indicating movement.
Our SF guy looked back at us with a smile – I suppose he purposefully neglected to warn us to enjoy our reaction – and returned to watching the evolution. We picked ourselves up and joined his observation, but I noticed a lot of kids were on the ridgeline behind the start point for the mock ground assault. They squatted, sat, or stood with varying degrees of interest ranging from excitement to disinterest. Posted with the kids were older Afghan soldiers – affecting the armed versions of bored babysitters.
The firing stopped, and after a moment, the bored soldiers shouted a command. Immediately, all of the kids sprang into action. They scurried over the ridge and toward the start point of the ground assault. From where the ground troops started firing to where they ceased, these kids frantically collected the brass, which was still probably hot, and piled it into their pockets, caps, and folds of their clothing. We couldn’t watch for much longer to see the entire collection process – our passengers radioed that they were inbound and ready to head out.
The other event was a more frequent one, but more interesting.
We would periodically do gunnery training in an area backstopped by the mountains a few miles from base. Our targets were old hulks of Soviet vehicles left behind after they pulled their troops out in ’89, old metal containers deposited there by Chinooks years before we showed up, or whatever other man-made objects previous units had emplaced. After doing a sweep to ensure there were no nomadic people in the impact zone, we would start gunnery training or function checks of our trusted, but old, M-60Ds.
After a few months, we noticed that our actions drew an audience. From out of nowhere, there would be a handful of kids watching us from behind berms far from the non-firing side (we only engaged from one side in this location for training purposes). Initially, they kept fairly far from our track; once they figured out our routine, however, they would progressively get closer as kids are liable to do.
We would note their location and take care to ensure that they were never in harm’s way, but eventually they became braver in their curiosity. They would start to encroach on our track, placing themselves underneath where we would fly over, and it became apparent that they were eagerly looking to collect the brass casings that were ejected from our weapons. Every pass, we would have to alter closer and closer to the targets as these kids were fast in getting to where they saw the brass fall.
One day, I had enough. These kids were getting too close to where questionable ordnance lie. We weren’t the only ones to use this range – Apaches, Kiowas, and possibly some of the fixed-wing attack aircraft were known to fire all sorts of munitions in the area. Being an evaluator/trainer, I had an obligation to the safety of my crew as well as those in the vicinity of my training; being a decent person, I had no desire to see kids hurt due to their own wonder.
My crew chief on the non-firing side had given an update on the location of the kids as we were midway through a pass and the firing side had to depress their muzzle significantly to engage the targets I was pointing out.
“Cease fire. Left rear – safe your weapon. Sir – bring her to a hover,” I told the pilots.
They obliged, and I slid across the three forward-facing seats to the right side of the cabin. “Right rear – hand me your M-4. Right cabin door coming open… I’m going to ‘push’ these kids back a bit.”
In thinking about this, 15 years later, it is remarkable that no one even thought of harming kids when I made this request. I think that we had the same idea and once I announced my actions in the back, the pilots understood what the intent was. I sat in the open door, with the rifle resting over my right knee and pointed in the general direction of the tail of the helicopter – left hand on the pistol grip, finger off the trigger, and right hand holding the partially open door.
Clicking the ICS, I made a simple request: “Slide right 100… slowly.”
The kids were about 100 feet to the right of our track. The maneuver would have the hovering helicopter start to move sideways, 100 feet above the terrain, towards the kids. As we slowly crept towards them, I took my right hand and made a pushing motion – gesturing “get back.” Regardless of how non-threatening we were trying to be, the kids were probably freaked out at the sudden focus of the attention of a large helicopter slowing moving towards them.
They got the idea, slowly, and started to move in the direction I wanted them to, but their rate of departure was much more casual than desired… until the rotor wash hit them. The mixture of noise and flying sand got them moving with a bit more purpose, though I am sure that the hurricane-force winds we produced assisted them considerably. They stumble-ran a bit until the wind was manageable… stopped and turned around to watch us – having moved not too far from where they started.
“Slide right slowly until I tell you stop.” These kids were starting to piss me off. I needed them out of the way, and we didn’t have the time to chase them 50 feet at a time all afternoon.
This time they got the idea. Perhaps our increased rate of closure gave them the impression necessary, and perhaps the fact that we were effectively blowing them along helped. We “pushed” these kids a good 200 feet from where this odd chase had started before breaking off and resuming our gunnery. As a consolation, after we finished and the crew chiefs were clearing their weapons, I collected up all the spent brass in the cabin – we didn’t use brass bags since they created more problems than benefits – and as we departed, waving at the kids, I dumped whatever brass I had a good safe distance from them.
We never had a problem with those kids after that, but they were there – watching us from a respectable distance.