It was madness.
At Jalalabad Airfield, in eastern Afghanistan in the summer of 2006, a young intelligence analyst named Jacob Whittaker tried with great difficulty to understand exactly what he was hearing.
The 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army wanted to do what?
Whittaker had to choose his words carefully. He was just a low-ranking “specialist” with the Idaho National Guard, a very low man on a very tall totem pole. A round-faced twenty-six-year-old, Whittaker had simple tastes—Boise State football, comic books—and a reputation for mulishness belied by his innocent appearance.
Whittaker stared at his superior officer, Second Lieutenant Ryan Lockner, who was running this briefing for him and Sergeant Aaron Ives. Lockner headed intelligence for Task Force Talon, the Army’s aviation component at Jalalabad Airfield, in Nangarhar Province, adjacent to the Pakistan border. Military leaders considered this area, officially designated Regional Command East, the most dangerous part of an increasingly dangerous country.
Lockner had an assignment. Soldiers from the 10th Mountain—a light infantry division designed for quick deployment and fighting in harsh conditions—had recently come to this hot corner of Afghanistan and would soon be spreading throughout the region, setting up outposts and bases. More specifically, they would be establishing a camp in Nuristan Province.
The members of the intelligence team led by Lockner didn’t know much about Nuristan, as U.S. forces had generally been focusing their efforts on Kunar Province, which had become a haven for Taliban insurgents and foreign fighters sneaking in from Pakistan to oppose the American “infidels.” During one operation in Kunar the previous summer, in 2005, nineteen U.S. troops—Special Forces—had been killed by such insurgents, and since then, the United States had increased its presence there. Helicopters flying in and out of Kunar Province were fired upon at least twice a week, every week, with small arms and/or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
Nuristan was farther north, a province so mythically untamed that one of the greatest writers of the English language, Rudyard Kipling, had chosen it as the setting for his 1888 novella “The Man Who Would Be King.” One of Kipling’s British adventurers, Daniel Dravot, describes Nuristan as a place where “no one has gone… and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King.” “You’ll be cut to pieces before you’re fifty miles across the Border,” warns Kipling’s narrator. “The people are utter brutes, and even if you reached them you couldn’t do anything.”
The region’s previous brigade commander, Colonel Pat Donahue, hadn’t thought Nuristan had much strategic value, so conventional forces hadn’t been posted there, and no one had troubled to find out much about the native people, the Nuristanis, a distinct and outlying ethnic group within Afghanistan. In a departure from his predecessor’s policy, Donahue’s replacement—Colonel John “Mick” Nicholson, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade, known as the Spartan Brigade—ordered the establishment of small outposts throughout the area in the summer of 2006, in an attempt not only to stop the Taliban fighters who were streaming in from Pakistan, often with bushels of weapons, but also to win over the locals, who were predisposed to a suspicion of outsiders.
Lockner had just returned from Forward Operating Base Naray, in Kunar Province, where he’d met with officers of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, or “3-71 Cav.” They’d told him of their plan to set up an outpost in the Kamdesh District of Nuristan Province, for which he would be in charge of identifying suitable helicopter landing zones. The new base would sit adjacent to the Nuristan hamlet of Urmul. A small settlement missing from most maps, Urmul was home to fewer than forty families of Nuristanis, or roughly two hundred people, who lived in houses made of wood and rock and mud sealant. The residents were primarily subsistence farmers trying to eke out a living through both crops and livestock, but the U.S. Army knew little more than that about them. Coalition forces likewise had next to no intelligence about the enemy in Nuristan—its numbers, its location, its intentions, or, most important, its capabilities—which was one of the reasons the brass was pushing to build a base there. This was the essential difficulty of the task at hand: the higher-ups in the U.S. Army needed to know about the enemy in this unexplored province, so in order to learn as much as they could, they were going to stick a small group of troops in its midst. For all Lockner knew when he flew over Urmul to reconnoiter, the hamlet might have been Osama bin Laden’s secret compound.
“They’re going to build another outpost,” Lockner told Whittaker and Ives back at Jalalabad Airfield. “So I need you to take this terrain analysis I started, finish it, and make it pretty so I can brief it in the morning.” Many troops were far more proficient in PowerPoint than they were with firearms, so Whittaker understood just what Lockner meant by “make it pretty”: the slides for the presentation needed to look crisp and to make a compelling case.
“Where are they going?” Whittaker asked.
Lockner gestured at the topographical map. “Right over here, northwest of Naray,” he said. “Where the Darreh ye Kushtaz and Landay-Sin Rivers meet.”
Whittaker looked at the spot, stunned. “Right there?” he asked.
“Right there,” confirmed Lockner. “Can you do it?”
“I can do it; I have all night,” Whittaker said. “But sir… that is a really awful place for a base.” This new camp in the Kamdesh District would, like the dangerous Korangal outpost that their pilots knew too well, be surrounded by higher ground. But whereas the base in the Korangal was situated about halfway up a mountainside, in a former lumberyard, the one in Kamdesh would sit in a cup within the valley’s deepest cleft, ringed by three steep mountains that formed part of the five-hundred-mile-long Hindu Kush mountain range. Blocked off on its northern, western, and southern sides by rivers and mountains, it would moreover be a mere fourteen miles distant from the official Pakistan border—a porous boundary that meant little to the insurgents who regularly crossed it to kill Americans and Afghan government officials before taking refuge in caves or in the mountains or returning to their haven across the border. The camp would be one of the most remote outposts in this most remote part of a country that was itself cut off from much of the rest of the world, and the area all around it would be filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there.
“So it’s located at the base of a mountain peak?” Whittaker asked. It didn’t take a Powell or a Schwarzkopf to know that as a matter of basic military strategy, it was better to be at the top of a hill than at the bottom of a valley.
“And it’s flanked by a river on the west and another river to the north?” Whittaker continued.
“And there’s no good road to get to it—they’re still building that,” Lockner volunteered.
The Army had been coordinating efforts to build up the vulnerable and narrow path from Naray to Kamdesh, but rain, steep cliffs, insurgent threats, and high turnover rates among local construction workers had led to frequent delays. The road, often running along the edge of a cliff that spilled into the Landay-Sin River, was a mere thirteen feet wide at its widest, and in some spots only half that—narrower than many military vehicles. A soldier could be killed just driving on that road, without ever coming into contact with a single enemy fighter.
“And it’s an eternity away by helicopter if something goes wrong,” Whittaker said.
“Yup,” agreed Lockner.
“Sir, this is a really bad idea,” said Whittaker. “A. Really. Bad. Idea. Anyone we drop off there is going to die.” As he said it, he thought he saw Lockner’s eyes glaze over.
Whittaker was known for being inquisitive and sometimes downright melodramatic, but even for him, this was an outsized response to a mission briefing. Those who worked with him understood that he always believed he was the smartest person in the room. He knew it put people off and made them less likely to listen to him when he had something especially important to say, but he was still young and had not yet learned how to check his behavior.
“What’s the point of this base?” Whittaker asked. “It’s on the low ground. It can’t be supported in any meaningful way. The troops there will be horribly outnumbered by potential bad guys in the town next door. They can’t even really go out and do anything because the rivers, the town, and the mountains will block any patrol routes.”
He couldn’t stop himself.
“All they can do is die,” he added.
Lockner, too, had been surprised to learn where the 3-71 Cav officers wanted to put the camp. He understood their logic, at least in theory: with so few air assets, they’d have to rely on the road as the main way to resupply the outpost. And anyway, the troops couldn’t just sit on the mountaintops; they had to go to the towns and make friends with the locals. But Lockner himself wouldn’t want even to visit there.
Still: it wasn’t their job to question where the 3-71 Cav officers had decided to put their camp and their men.
“Noted, bitch,” Lockner told Whittaker with a smile. “But do it anyway. We just need to find a place to land the helicopters.”
The lieutenant stopped smiling.
“Whittaker,” he said, now angered. He mocked the other man’s staccato: “Fucking. Focus. I. Need you. To make me. Some. Slides. We need. A place. To land. The helicopters.”
Lockner had already spotted one location atop the mountain that seemed perfect for landing helicopters, a rarity in the jagged topography of Nuristan. The second landing zone would need to be down nearer to where the outpost itself would be constructed, close to the local headquarters of the Afghan National Police.
The specialist from Idaho spent that hot night carrying out Lockner’s order. The task per se wasn’t particularly difficult; it was just a PowerPoint presentation. But Whittaker kept staring at the map, hoping that the logic behind it would suddenly be revealed to him, as if it were one of those Magic Eye posters containing a hidden image. He thought about what he would do if he were a commander of one of the local insurgent groups. The hours passed as Whittaker war-gamed attacks on the new outpost. His mind played a cinematic loop of the fate of the camp, one that always ended in disaster. In scenario after scenario, positing one defensive strategy after another, every single time he completed an exercise, everyone at the outpost died.
Ives arrived in the morning to relieve him. Even without the all-nighter, Whittaker hadn’t slept well in months; he was the only day-sleeper in a tent that would hit 120 degrees before noon. He looked a mess: razor blades were scarce, and he didn’t entirely trust the on-base Pakistani barber and his jerky technique. With all of that, on top of the stress and the dust that coated everyone and everything in Jalalabad, he figured he must resemble a mentally ill homeless person.
Whittaker’s fears about the new base were intensified by the memory of a previous scouting mission, Operation Tall Mountain, which he hadn’t protested against as aggressively as he now thought he should have. Tipped off by an intelligence report suggesting that a high-value target was using a small trail east of a combat outpost named Ranch House, a team of scouts had gone to a nearby mountain peak to survey the area and try to spot insurgents. At fourteen thousand feet above sea level, the temperature on the peak was just above freezing. Because the helicopters were already overloaded with men, equipment, and supplies, the cold-weather gear and water were scheduled to follow on a second flight—which in fact never left Jalalabad, having been grounded by thunderstorms. The scouts were now trapped on a remote mountain peak without critical supplies. Everyone survived the three-day ordeal, but it was harrowing. In the end, even though the scouts saw nothing of note, the mission was believed to have accomplished something—for some officer somewhere, at least. Whittaker—who had offered up a halfhearted argument that the plan didn’t make sense—suspected that the operation had turned into a positive bullet on someone’s officer evaluation report.
Now the whole idea of the Kamdesh outpost seemed to be propelled by the same shallow Army logic: Push forward! Move ’em on! Head ’em up! Achievement was what mattered, even if the achievement itself was worthless, whereas delays or a cancellation could be seen as a failure of leadership, which would look bad on an officer’s record during the next round of promotions. Whittaker told Ives that he felt he should have fought harder against Operation Tall Mountain; he would never be able to live with himself, he said, if they couldn’t find a way to stop the construction of this new base. But by that point he’d learned that in the military mindset, it was usually preferable just to carry out orders and then investigate later, if necessary, rather than to raise questions beforehand about whether a plan might be flawed.
The aviation group named the helicopter pad at the future location of Camp Kamdesh “Landing Zone Copenhagen,” after the crew members’ favorite brand of chewing tobacco. The one atop the southern mountain was christened Landing Zone Warheit, for Staff Sergeant Dana Warheit, an Air Force staff weather officer who happened to be sitting in the briefing room at that moment and whose surname sounded kind of cool.
Over the next few days, Whittaker would come to call Camp Kamdesh the Custer Combat Outpost. He figured people would ask him what the nickname meant, giving him an opportunity to carefully explain the problems to anyone who would listen; he intended to keep doing that until someone in command finally came around and canceled the mission. Eventually, Lockner had to tell him to knock it off.
Whittaker’s fears would be realized more than three years later. Before dawn on October 3, 2009, hundreds of insurgents scattered throughout the village of Urmul and the mountains surrounding the American outpost. The U.S. base had been there since 2006, and insurgents had attacked it from day one. The newest company of U.S. troops had arrived less than five months before, and during that period, the enemy had increased his attacks threefold over the number launched against previous units. But this would be the big one.
The enemy fighters faced Mecca and conducted their morning prayers. Then they grabbed their guns and got into position to attack the Kamdesh outpost.
At 5:58 a.m., as the sun started to rise over the valley, the assault began. Five U.S. soldiers manned five guard stations, near the entrance of the camp and on four Humvees. Those spots were obvious targets for the enemy, as were the command center and the various barracks. Strategically, the Taliban fighters focused on the mortar pit, the location of the only guns at the outpost that could return fire with any effectiveness against their positions on the mountainside: one 60-millimeter and two 120-millimeter mortars, the big guns.
“Allahu Akbar!” the insurgents cried, seemingly with the blast of every rocket and the crash of each mortar fired into the air: “God is great.”
After a short and intense assault, Taliban fighters began spilling down from the mountains, through the wire, past the Americans’ defensive positions, and into the camp.
“Mujahideen have entered the base!” rejoiced one such “holy warrior.”
“The Christianity center is under attack!” another of the Taliban cried.
“Long live the mujahideen!” yelled a third. “No helicopters are here yet! Let’s just hit them!”
He was right about the aircraft. The Americans at the outpost had called for air support—they had little hope of surviving otherwise—but the Apache attack helicopters had not yet arrived, and they wouldn’t get there for more than another hour.
The Americans fought. Over the past three years, U.S. troops had died on their way to construct the outpost; they had died clearing the path to establish the outpost; they had died patrolling the area that surrounded the outpost; they had died driving from the outpost; they had died commanding the outpost; and they had died pursuing the mission of the outpost. Now, as the enemy burst through into their camp, a small group of just over fifty American soldiers had no alternative but to do whatever they could to stay off that grim list. There was no more time for them to wonder why they were there. It was time to fight—and for some, it would be time to die.
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) January 2006–June 2007
Colonel John “Mick” Nicholson, Commander, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 10th Mountain Division
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cavoli, Commander, 1-32 Infantry Battalion, 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty, Squadron Commander, 3-71 Cavalry Squadron (“3-71 Cav”), 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard, Squadron Commander, 3-71 Cav
Command Sergeant Major Del Byers, 3-71 Cav Command Sergeant Major
Major Richard Timmons, 3-71 Cav Executive Officer
Captain Ross Berkoff, 3-71 Cav Intelligence Officer
Captain Pete Stambersky, Delta Company Commander, assigned from the 710th Brigade Support Battalion
Captain Dennis Sugrue, 3-71 Cav Headquarters Troop Commander
Able Troop, 3-71 Cav, 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division
Captain Matt Gooding, Troop Commander
First Lieutenant Ben Keating, Troop Executive Officer
First Sergeant Todd Yerger, First Sergeant
First Lieutenant Vic Johnson, 1st Platoon Leader
Sergeant Jeremy Larson, 1st Platoon Section Leader
Sergeant First Class Milton Yagel, 2nd Platoon Sergeant
Staff Sergeant Adam Sears, 2nd Platoon Senior Scout
Specialist Shawn Passman, 2nd Platoon gunner for platoon sergeant
Private First Class Brian M. Moquin, Jr., 2nd Platoon scout
Private Second Class Nick Pilozzi, 2nd Platoon scout
Specialist Moises Cerezo, medic attached to 2nd Platoon
Staff Sergeant Matthew Netzel, Troop Headquarters Platoon Sergeant
Sergeant Dennis Cline, M60 mortarman attached to Able Troop
Barbarian Troop, 3-71 Cav, 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division
Captain Frank Brooks, Troop Commander
First Lieutenant Erik Jorgensen, Troop Fire Support Officer
First Lieutenant Aaron Pearsall, 2nd Platoon Leader
Cherokee Company, 3-71 Cav, 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division
Captain Aaron Swain, Troop Commander
Captain Michael Schmidt, Troop Commander
Staff Sergeant Chris “Cricket” Cunningham, sniper and kill team leader
Staff Sergeant Jared Monti, fire-support and targeting NCO attached to Cherokee Company
Sergeant Patrick Lybert, recon team leader
Private First Class Brian Bradbury, fire-support specialist attached to Cherokee Company
Lieutenant Colonel Tony Feagin, team head
Master Sergeant Terry Best
Sergeant Buddy Hughie
Kristen Fenty, wife of Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty
Gretchen Timmons, wife of Major Richard Timmons
Ken and Beth Keating, parents of Lieutenant Ben Keating
Heather McDougal, girlfriend of Lieutenant Ben Keating
Note: These Roll Call lists throughout the book are by no means intended to be complete lists of those who served or even those mentioned in the book, but rather as a resource for the reader, a way to keep straight some of the people in the book within their heirarchy.
The bad dreams began long before the troops of 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, or “3-71 Cav,” pushed north in March 2006. The troops blamed the vivid nightmares on the Mefloquine, the pills they were required to take each “Malaria Monday” to guard against that disease. Some Army doctors argued that the pills should stop being distributed, convinced they could cause far worse side effects than just restless nights, including depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and even mental breakdowns. Of course, such symptoms could be tough to detect in a place where depression and paranoia might just be the most appropriate reactions to the surrounding reality.
On March 12, 2006, hours before the first leg of the convoy pulled out and began its nearly four-hundred-mile trek north from Forward Operating Base Salerno, in southeastern Afghanistan, insurgents had already made their presence known. Enemy fighters detonated an improvised explosive device, or IED, in Kunar Province—where First Lieutenant Ben Keating and his men were heading—as another U.S. convoy drove through. The explosion destroyed a Humvee and killed four Army Reservists from an Engineer Battalion out of Asheville, North Carolina.
But Kunar was hardly the only danger zone. Before Keating and the other men from 3-71 Cav could even get there, they would have to stop in Kabul, where, on that very day, two insurgents wearing explosive vests killed four civilians and severely wounded two more, one a young girl. (They missed their target, an Afghan politician who ran a government reconciliation commission.) On the same day, other insurgents attacked a convoy of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers on the Kabul–Kandahar Highway. Nobody was killed in that attack, but not for the Taliban’s lack of trying.
To help his men deal with these kinds of horror stories and with the fear they all felt about moving to an area widely reputed to be barbaric and deadly, Keating tried to keep the mood light as the medium-sized convoy—eight Humvees and two trailers—headed toward possible danger. He joked that this, the lead Humvee, with a Mark 19 grenade launcher in its turret, was only the second brand-new vehicle he’d ever owned. As Able Troop pushed north, the lieutenant held the microphone of his MICH ranger headset up to the speaker of his CD player and provided his men with a sound track:
She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman that I ever seen…
“You Shook Me All Night Long,” from AC/DC’s album Back in Black, was the sort of head-banging anthem that flicked a switch in the minds of young men and set them on a course toward conquest. Keating, at twenty-seven, may have looked the part of an Army stud, but what few knew about him was that he was deeply devout, disapproving if not sanctimonious on the subject of the hedonistic pursuits of the young. The drinking and carousing he’d witnessed as a student at the University of New Hampshire had disgusted him, and shortly after 9/11 he’d delivered a guest sermon at his parents’ church, in a small town in Maine, in which he’d lambasted the vacuous immorality of his college peers. He’d mellowed since then, but he had remained chaste and was convinced he walked the path of righteousness.
Neither Keating nor any of the other men of 3-71 Cav had much of an idea of what their mission would entail, or for that matter even where they were going, in anything but the vaguest sense. While prepping for the trip north from Forward Operating Base Salerno, they’d heard the whispers, the military gossip:
“Oh, you’re going up north,” soldiers would say. “It’s bad up there.”
Now off they went, 3-71 Cav, in four different convoys, with additional supplies to be ferried via helicopter. For Able Troop’s journey, Keating—his Humvee in the lead—rode shotgun in the truck commander seat as his driver, Private Second Class Nick Pilozzi, steered the vehicle over both paved highways and gritty gravel roads. Sergeant Darian Decker, their gunner, sat on a strap in the turret, holding his Mark 19 grenade launcher. Sergeant Vernon Tiller, Able Troop’s chief mechanic, was in back.
A few Humvees behind them, in the command-and-control truck, sat Captain Matt Gooding, the leader of Able Troop. Gooding had planned every part of this trip, coordinating logistics and making sure the convoy would have enough fuel. En route, he would keep the mortarmen on the ground apprised of the convoy’s position at all times and alert the pilots of the choppers and planes above whenever ground fire support was out of range.
Keating—the executive officer, or second in command, of Able Troop—took note as the convoy steered through the pass on the road between Khost and Gardez. As he wrote to his parents, the “weather wasn’t great—rain in the foothills turned into snow in the mountains. The soil in most of Afghanistan is a heavy clay, rock-hard when dry, but slick as ice after rain or snow. The road has no guardrails or boulders to clearly define its edge, which falls off several hundred feet to the valley floor.” The sight of a truck speeding by would make everyone’s heart skip a beat. As they rolled through the pass, the temperature changed from a freezing chill to almost 90 degrees within a half hour. The bizarre weather shift was just one of the road trip’s surprises, in a journey full of nothing but—especially considering that before their deployment to Afghanistan two months earlier, in January, many 3-71 Cav troops had never been outside the continental United States.
Keating made sure to take pictures all along the way to show to his beloved parents, his older sister, Jessica, and his new girlfriend, Heather McDougal. Although he had spent three years after high school working at her father’s apple orchard, picking McIntoshes and Honey Crisps while trying to figure out what to do with his life, Keating hadn’t actually known Heather all that well back then. She was just fourteen when they first met, almost a decade ago now, and they’d lost touch after he left the job at the orchard. But the previous fall, Keating and McDougal—now a college junior—had struck up a conversation online, and at Christmas they’d met up again at his parents’ church in Maine. They were both surprised by how strong their feelings were for each other. They exchanged intense emails and instant messages whenever they could. It was an unusual way to fall in love, but it was their only option at the moment.
Ever a creature of the modern Army, Keating would later turn his snapshots into a PowerPoint presentation that he sent to McDougal and his family, titled “ROAD TRIP.”
As they traveled, Keating and his men, wary of insurgents who might be hiding among the locals, stopped to set up temporary defensive perimeters that would allow civilians to pass them. Herds of camels ran alongside the convoy where the road flattened out and the danger of slipping off an edge declined. When they reached a rocky plain, further evidence of civilization emerged.
“If you’ve ever wondered what a people do when they’ve lived in a place with nothing but rocks and sand for five thousand years,” Keating wrote to his friends and family, “wonder no more. Walls, they build walls. There are rock walls everywhere, without rhyme or reason.”
Afghan males, mostly boys and elders, would come to the edge of the road, smiling—even laughing—as if they were all in on some joke that the recent arrivals had yet to get. They wore hats, tunics, and loose-fitting trousers, which the U.S. troops referred to as “man-jams.”
The gear worn by Keating and his men was more sophisticated: combat uniforms, pixelated grayish camouflage “go-to-work” suits; bulletproof vests; mesh vests with pouches and compartments for canteens, grenades, and ammunition; military combat helmets; and kneepads. This all amounted to no less than fifty pounds per man, and that was before adding a rifle, a supply of water, or an assault pack, not to mention the things they carried, the letters and photographs, the chewing tobacco, the cigarettes, the talismans.
The drivers slowly steered their Humvees and trucks as the flat, barren landscape gave way to densely forested mountains. With the exceptions of the enemy weapons and the cheap Toyota Hiluxes clanking along the roads, this part of Afghanistan did not look to Ben Keating to have changed much since the war with the USSR in the 1980s, or even since the British were felled there almost a century before. Not that his own passport matched his scholarship: aside from a weekend trip to Montreal for a hockey tournament at around the age of ten and a family trip to the United Kingdom when he was twenty, Ben Keating hadn’t been outside the United States until this deployment.
In December 2005, Keating had visited a Portland, Maine, bookstore and bought a Christmas present for his father. Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day to Die detailed Operation Anaconda, the bloody campaign undertaken by the United States in March 2002 to flush out an Al Qaeda stronghold in southeastern Afghanistan. In an inscription in the front of the book, Keating wrote that the contents would give his dad, Ken, “a pretty clear picture of what the enemy threat looks like.”
I want to thank you for all that you’ve taught me. I have excelled thus far in my short career because of what I learned from you on all those afternoons in the woodlots and fields of southern Maine. Even for me, a “Big-Picture Guy,” the idea of dying for one’s country is a little too abstract. I have no desire to meet my end in Afghanistan, but it’s a commitment to family (that I learned from you) which compelled me to join and serve.
Your dedication as a faithful father and pastor taught me to extend my definition of family to my men. I assure you that my men are the answers to the questions you so often ask. I have felt called to this job and blessed by the challenges. I am continually rewarded when I see eighteen-year-old boys bear up under pressure and carry themselves with the newfound pride of men. They fully understand that they are the face of America in the world.
For the men in my command, I have worked very hard to make that your face. Because it is the one that has always represented respect, integrity and love for me. Thank you for all you have given me. I am confident that it will see me through this next challenge as faithfully as all those in the past.
With love and continued admiration,
Ben Keating was destined for greatness, of this he was sure. After finishing ROTC at the University of New Hampshire, where he was president of the Young Republicans, he had joined the military because he expected someday to be a U.S. senator from Maine, charged with voting on whether or not to send American troops into harm’s way, and he didn’t think it would be right to ask those future troops to fight if he had never done so himself.
Assigned to something of a ragtag platoon at the Army post at Fort Drum, New York, home of the 10th Mountain Division, Lieutenant Keating had thrown himself into his job, putting overweight soldiers on diets, counseling service members who were having marital problems, and mediating disputes with landlords for those of his troops who didn’t live on base. He loved leading his men, and he wasn’t particularly happy about being taken away from them when he was promoted to be the executive officer, or “XO,” of Able Troop, responsible for administration, logistics, and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Platoons consist of anywhere from sixteen to forty soldiers, and Keating missed his joes; he preferred mentoring them to serving in what was often an administrative job, even if the paper-pushing was done on the front lines.
As 3-71 Cav’s resident warrior-poet, Ben Keating seized any opportunity he could to lecture, and he spent part of the convoy’s northward journey teaching the troops about the history of this land they were in and the foreign forces that had invaded it over the centuries. He’d brought along a number of books to Afghanistan that he’d read for college history classes. He was thrilled to be in the country where Alexander the Great had taken an arrow to the leg and almost died, but he was concerned, too, by the stories of how challenging this place had been for both Alexander and Genghis Khan—to say nothing of the USSR, which had withdrawn ignominiously in 1989 after nearly a decade of bloody battle with fierce Afghan warriors, having suffered an estimated fifteen thousand casualties.
Nomadic, self-contained, and agile, the enemies whom 3-71 Cav would face were similar in many ways to the people Alexander had tried to put down here. Because they didn’t have much of an organizational structure for him to exploit—unlike the Persians, whom he had decapitated at a stroke by attacking their king, Darius the Great—Alexander believed that the only way to defeat them was to trap them with overwhelming force and either kill or capture them. There was no jugular in their decentralized society. One academic has noted that in Bactria (part of modern-day Afghanistan), Alexander found to his dismay that “allies and enemies were often indistinguishable until it was too late.” The confusion worked both ways: Alexander’s troops were asked to juggle “awkwardly the jobs of conquerer, peace-keeper, builder and settler. One minute they were asked to kill with ruthless and indiscriminate intensity, the next they were expected to show deference to the survivors.” Then as now, moreover, the difficult turf provided the natives with a significant home-field advantage, allowing a rebel force of just 10 percent of the population to pose a serious threat to a better-armed and much larger occupying force.
The nickname that the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (to which 3-71 Cav belonged) had adopted—the Spartans, after the legendary Greek fighters—was used by the unit’s officers to build up their men and themselves, likening them to the fierce warriors of yore. They’d even co-opted as their motto “With your shield or on it,” which was said to have been a directive from Spartan mothers to their sons, an order to fight to the death in battle, a reminder that dying was preferable to retreating. Beyond that tenuous historical link, however, the direct relevance of Alexander the Great’s experience to Ben Keating’s mission was debatable, and the problem was, there weren’t many people in the Pentagon or the State Department who were capable of engaging in that debate. The military had been focused on hunting down Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban for almost five years now, and yet the enemy was still thriving. Some Pentagon leaders were beginning to worship at the altar of COIN, shorthand for “counterinsurgency,” a strategy designed to divide the general population from the insurgents through cooperation with local leaders. Under such a program, U.S. troops would offer economic assistance, implement development projects, and expand local government and security forces. The thinking behind COIN had been around for decades, but as a military theory, this population-based approach had only recently begun to regain momentum. Although the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual was still being revamped, by a team headed by Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus and Marine Lieutenant General Jim Mattis, ideas about this new way of looking at war in general and at the Afghanistan war in particular had already started to flow throughout the command structure.
The 3rd Brigade commander, Colonel Nicholson, was a believer. Step one, he would say, was to separate the enemy from the people. Step two: link the people to their government. Step three: transform Afghanistan. Because the 3rd Brigade Combat Team was an entirely new command, formed from scratch back at Fort Drum in 2004, its leaders—Nicholson and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty among them—wanted counterinsurgency to be a part of whatever they, and it, did.
Even as the Americans pushed into Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, though, they knew astonishingly little about the region. The citations for the briefing written by one intelligence officer for 3-71 Cav included Wikipedia, from which he drew heavily. As another officer later put it, while there were smart individuals throughout 3-71 Cav, in eastern Afghanistan, “we might as well have been going to the moon.”
Few had any doubt that Mick Nicholson would soon make general. He was intelligent, devoted to his troops, and carrying on the family business. His father, Brigadier General John “Jack” Nicholson, was a 1956 graduate of West Point and had spent two and a half years in Vietnam several decades before serving as an undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for President George W. Bush; Jack’s brother Jim, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was Bush’s secretary of Veterans Affairs. By 2006, there were four from Mick’s own generation of Nicholsons on active duty, three in the Army and one in the Air Force. Three of them were deployed to the same region simultaneously, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
Jack hadn’t been too happy when his son left West Point after two years to pursue premed studies at Georgetown University, but after graduation Mick changed his mind and returned to the Academy to finish his degree. Since then he had served in Grenada and Sarajevo, among other hotspots. He was working for the chief of staff of the Army when that hijacked plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001; given the location of his office, he almost certainly would have been killed if he’d been at his desk, but he and his wife were moving into their new house that morning, so he hadn’t yet gone in to work.
Nicholson was aware that it took an average of fourteen years for a counterinsurgency program to succeed. After five years of war, the United States had just started to expand its presence in this part of Afghanistan. And though he would never say it out loud, Nicholson knew that the whole country was being shortchanged on troops and resources.
If the concept of counterinsurgency was nothing new, it was nevertheless new to this particular administration. Before being elected president, George W. Bush had expressed disdain for “nation building”: “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders,” the then-governor said in the first presidential debate of 2000. The goal of the military was to fight and win wars, he asserted, and U.S. troops had been spread too thin policing conflicts in the Balkans, Somalia, and Haiti. But then came 9/11, and, as Bush said after leaving office, “I changed my mind.”
In a speech he gave in April 2002 at the Virginia Military Institute, Bush laid out the new mission: “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.” He believed the United States had a moral obligation “to leave behind something better,” as he later wrote in his memoir. The U.S. “had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society. The terrorists took refuge in places of chaos, despair, and repression. A democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.”
The president’s idealism would not, however, immediately be matched by overwhelming success. In the view of many generals, this was due to the fact that he sent fewer than twenty thousand troops into a country the size of Texas, after which both he and his administration began focusing on a new war, in Iraq. By 2006, the Pentagon was still working on establishing a minimal presence in parts of the mountainous country, trying to expand into areas where even the Afghan government was barely visible—especially those regions in which insurgents were able to thrive or at least travel unhindered, such as Nuristan.
And that was where 3-71 Cav would come in.
“This is going to be tough,” Keating told his men as they pushed north in the convoy. “It’s going to be a struggle and a long fight. But we’re going to do it because it’s our job.”
Keating reveled in both learning and sharing the history of the land. He enjoyed a brief stop he made at the U.S. base at Jalalabad, located on the former site of a Rest-and-Relaxation “resort” built and used by the Soviets during their invasion—though it didn’t escape his notice that the swimming pool he walked past on the way to chow was rumored to have served as an execution ground for Taliban firing squads. Jalalabad had also once been home to Osama bin Laden: the Al Qaeda leader moved into a mud-and-brick structure there in 1996 with his three wives and their children, but he was long gone by the time an American missile destroyed the residence in October 2001.
Accompanied by an interpreter, Keating headed to a bazaar, where he delighted in parrying the aggressive sales pitches of the merchants. The salesmen all but fell over themselves to get their items—whatever they happened to be—into the American officer’s hands.
“Mister,” one said, “very nice jewelry, very good. Good knives, mister. Great blankets, sir, good price.”
“Is that from Afghanistan?” Keating asked, pointing. “Did you make it?”
Reliably, the merchant would offer almost frantic confirmation or, even better, insist with a look of shocked reproach, “Oh, no, sir, this very old—given me by my father, who got it from his grandfather….”
Keating bought his own father an old brass Kelvin & Hughes sextant, used for navigation. In change, he was handed a Russian five-ruble bill from 1908. After purchasing some chalices, he received in change some coins that might have been older than the country for which he was fighting.
“Roman, sir, this one and this one,” the seller said. “Greek, this one, and this one, and that one.” Such remnants were charming, yet they might also inspire foreboding: many empires had been here before.
Before their convoy pulled out, intelligence officer Captain Ross Berkoff briefed Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty on the incidents that had just taken place along their route: the U.S. troops killed in Kunar, the Afghan politician attacked in Kabul, the convoy of Afghan soldiers hit in Ghazni. It wasn’t Fenty’s style to show fear or even concern, so to Berkoff, his reaction seemed to be, “Okay, so the country is swarming with enemy fighters who are trying to kill Americans. Well, that’s why we’re here.” That was classic Fenty: not glib, not nonchalant, just all business.
Beyond Fenty, the other senior officers of 3-71 Cav tried to seem likewise unconcerned. Their private emotions, however, were another matter. Berkoff felt as if they were driving through the valleys encased in a big tin train emblazoned with the words “IED Me.” Early on in the journey, as Fenty’s twelve-truck convoy was pulling out from Forward Operating Base Salerno, the local Afghan intelligence chief was targeted by a remote-controlled bomb fitted on a bicycle. He survived, but two children were wounded in the attack.
As an eight-year-old boy growing up in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, Joseph Fenty had made mock dog tags for himself that read “Major Joe Fenty, hard worker.” He was forty-one now, and while he was no longer a major, that second part still held. In 3-71 Cav, he was widely admired and considered a true gentleman, though he was perhaps best known for his fanatical physical discipline—the supermarathons he ran, his 3 percent body fat. Earlier in his career, when he was stationed in Alaska, he had become a cross-country skier, and was eventually approached by one of the coaches of the 1992 Olympic team, who asked if he wanted to try out. In Bosnia, he would get off work at three in the morning and go hit the treadmill; it was how he relaxed.
Fenty was relentlessly focused, even compulsive. As part of his continuing education after college, he had studied exercise physiology and kinesiology, the science of human movement, at Troy State University, where he’d learned that wearing a different pair of shoes every day could help guard against lower-leg injuries. When he was in Bosnia, he had a dozen pairs of size 9½ ASICS running shoes, all lined up and rotated daily. This habit amused his roommate, Chris Cavoli, who routinely shuffled Fenty’s shoes out of order to mess with the mind of his anal-retentive friend.
He never stopped running, whether back at the home of the 10th Mountain Division, at Fort Drum, New York, where he and Command Sergeant Major Del Byers had run five to ten miles together daily, or on this deployment in Afghanistan, where the two men took advantage of any opportunity to do the same on U.S. bases.
Fenty always tried to work his brain as much as he did his muscles. He made a great effort to educate himself, reading three newspapers a day when he was at home, taking graduate courses, ordering professional journals, attending lecture series, reading books on military history and critical thinking. He was the kind of self-made man and commander whom a general could trust to assemble a new unit from scratch, as he’d done with 3-71 Cav.
As the convoy slowly traveled the hundreds of miles from Forward Operating Base Salerno, Fenty sat in the front truck commander’s seat of his Humvee, with Berkoff behind him.
Fenty made it his job to know about his troops and their lives. As they rolled closer to their final destination, he asked Berkoff about his new girlfriend, Rebekah. How had they met?
Actually, Berkoff replied somewhat sheepishly, they’d met online. She was at Syracuse, and he’d been an hour away at Fort Drum, but they both wanted to marry someone Jewish, so they were introduced through J-Date, a website for Jewish singles.
Fenty smiled. He’d met his wife, Kristen, during a spring break in college, he told Berkoff, at a campfire on the beach in St. Petersburg. Fenty and his friends had lost their car keys in the sand, so Kristen and her friend gave them a ride back to where they were staying. She sat on his lap during the drive. Both were students at Belmont Abbey College, and they officially became an item shortly thereafter, on Saint Patrick’s Day. Within two weeks, they knew they would be husband and wife. That’d been twenty years ago.
Fenty talked to his troops to get their minds off the forbidding landscape they were entering. Berkoff described the scene in an email home: “Imagine if you can, driving the road distance equal to driving from Richmond to NYC, but instead of 95 North, you are switch-backing over landscape similar in size to our own Rocky Mountains the entire way, oh yeah, not to mention there are no barriers on the roads keeping your truck from tipping over the cliff.”
Fenty’s chatter also served another purpose: it got his own mind off what he was seeing. This was his second deployment here; in 2002, he had been stationed in northern Balkh Province, where, among other challenging tasks, he’d helped put down a Taliban riot in a detention facility. He knew that some of his soldiers wouldn’t make it home; he accepted that, too. He was all business, yes, but in this place, nobody could be all business all the time.
The Special Forces troops who’d been operating in these provinces since 2002 hadn’t found any of the senior leaders of Al Qaeda, though they had killed or rounded up some lower-level facilitators. The enemy fighters here belonged primarily to three different groups: the Haqqani network from Pakistan, Mullah Omar’s Taliban, and an entity called HIG. Five years earlier, when the Pentagon was planning to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11, HIG wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Even just one year before this deployment, when Fenty heard the term being bandied about, he didn’t really know what it signified: “HIG”? he thought. Huh? During a May 2005 meeting with 3-71 staff, Fenty—probing his team for information relating to operations and intelligence—bluntly asked his intelligence officer, “Can you tell me exactly what HIG is?” The man—whom Berkoff would soon replace—stared back at his commander. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, especially to ask of an intel officer. But the fact that no one in that room knew what HIG was, almost four years into the war, indicated how poor a job the U.S. Army was doing of preparing its officers for the enemy they would soon have to face.
Berkoff was from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and had gone through ROTC at Tulane; he was the expert in the room. Indeed, he had learned everything he could about HIG. After all, the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin led insurgent operations in the region 3-71 Cav was headed for—Kunar and Nuristan Provinces—and Berkoff figured he and his fellow officers, at least, should know who was going to try to kill them.
For Berkoff, working in intelligence provided not only an intellectual challenge but also something of a rush. Deciding where to bring the fight to the enemy, setting his brain to the problem—it could feel like a more muscular exercise than doing a bench press or a curl. Yes, sometimes he felt as though he might as well be throwing darts at a map or shaking a Magic 8 Ball. But if the intel was good, it would mean that shortly thereafter, far fewer insurgents would be hunting him and his friends.
Berkoff explained to Fenty that HIG was an extremist group formed more than a decade before Al Qaeda, during the chaotic years of internal struggle for control of Afghanistan, beginning in the 1970s. After the Afghan government started arresting and executing Islamists in 1974, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a young extremist who had been part of the Muslim Youth organization at Kabul University, fled to Pakistan and founded an Islamist group called Hezb-e-Islami, while also establishing ties with the Pakistani intelligence service ISI. By 1979, Hezb-e-Islami had split into several factions, including Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, or HIG.
HIG was among the many groups of mujahideen, or Islamist holy warriors, that had received aid from the U.S. government for their fight against the USSR. Hekmatyar’s faction had in fact evolved into one of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s favorite Soviet-killing proxies, receiving more money from the U.S. government than any other single group during that period. The funds were not spent on lollipops; the Soviets considered Hekmatyar to be “the bogeyman behind the most unspeakable torture of their captured soldiers,” as George Crile would later write in Charlie Wilson’s War. “Invariably his name was invoked with new arrivals to keep them from wandering off base unaccompanied, lest they fall into the hands of this depraved fanatic whose specialty, they claimed, was skinning infidels alive.”
If the mujahideen groups shared a common Soviet enemy, they often fought one another just as fiercely. After the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, the country became unsafe for Hekmatyar, and he fled to Iran. Although he wasn’t invited to join the interim Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Iranians kicked him out, so he returned to Afghanistan anyway. Hamid Karzai and Hekmatyar were longstanding enemies, but Hekmatyar initially extended an olive branch to the new Afghan leader. Within weeks, however, Afghan officials claimed to have uncovered a plot by HIG to overthrow Karzai’s government, and more than three hundred fighters loyal to Hekmatyar were arrested. That was the end of the rapprochement. Soon Hekmatyar was targeted—unsuccessfully—by one of the first CIA Predator drone attacks, in May 2002. He subsequently issued a statement: “Hezb-e-Islami will fight our jihad until foreign troops are gone from Afghanistan and Afghans have set up an Islamic government.” In December 2003, tipped off that Hekmatyar and one of his top aides were in a small hamlet in the Waygal Valley in Nuristan, U.S. warplanes pounded the area. Six civilians were killed, including three children. Hekmatyar had left the village hours before.
Berkoff’s briefing was for the benefit of only a select few officers, not the entire squadron; the great majority of the troops had no clue as to what HIG was or how deep ran its fanaticism. They also had no idea that soon enough, members of this group they’d never heard of would be trying to kill them.
As Fenty’s team pushed north, the view became lusher and more scenic, with raging rivers and tall mountains. Along the way, the convoy traversed the infamous Khost–Gardez Pass, where Soviet troops had been regularly ambushed two decades before, a tradition now extended to include Americans. Upon reaching Forward Operating Base Gardez, Fenty and his men stopped for the night.
On day two, Fenty’s convoy traveled from Gardez to the outskirts of Kabul and then headed toward Jalalabad Airfield, more than 150 miles total. It was not an easy trip. Berkoff was told that a section of the main road was out between Kabul and Jalalabad, near the Surobi Dam. Not damaged, not under repair, just… out. No further explanation was forthcoming or even needed. This was Afghanistan; this was how it was. So the next day, the convoy set off on a long alternate route, switchbacking over mountains, back and forth, back and forth. It took eighteen hours, but everyone made it to Jalalabad alive.
Afghanistan was not a nation known for its robust infrastructure. Summer rainstorms could wash roads out, and even under optimal conditions, a road might be so narrow that a convoy would have to take detours via riverbeds just to get through. If staying dry was a priority, the only other option was to brave the steep cliffs, but that involved no small risk. On the same day that Fenty’s convoy left Khost, a Marine was killed in one of the provinces they would be stopping in—Nangarhar—when his Humvee accidentally rolled over the edge.
In Nangarhar, at Jalalabad Airfield, Fenty and his men linked up with a battalion from the 10th Mountain that was headquartered there, the 1-32 Infantry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cavoli—he of the scrambled running shoes. Loud and gregarious, Cavoli was yin to the reserved Fenty’s yang. Fenty could go for hours without speaking; Cavoli was as restless as a hyperactive child at Mass. During their assignment in wartorn Yugoslavia, Fenty had considerately played country music at low volume, whereas Cavoli had blasted the Clash and Springsteen. And now both men were in Afghanistan. Cavoli and his best friend were excited to see each other, but Cavoli was most interested in the well-being of Fenty’s wife, Kristen.
For years, Kristen Fenty had been unable to conceive a child. That had been okay with her husband: the two of them moved around a lot, and their lifestyle wasn’t conducive to parenthood. They were pretty satisfied with things the way they were. All of that changed in the summer of 2005, however, when Kristen Fenty—at the age of forty—got pregnant. Their little girl was due in April.
From: Joe Fenty
Sent: Friday, March 17, 2006
To: Kristen Fenty
Dear, hope all is well. I’m traveling but sure would like to get a note from you. Please let me know how you’re feeling. The timing is awful. I’m going to be at the most remote place on the due date….
Miss you and love you,
From: Kristen Fenty
Sent: Friday, March 17, 2006
To: Joseph Fenty
Dear, did you get the note I sent you yesterday and in the middle of the night before?…
As part of the book club, [we’re] going to hold a “kite run” in May in recognition of the Taliban ban on kite festivals and their resurgence after the U.S. liberation of Kabul. We’re going to try to hold a “build a kite for your soldier” craft day and then hold the festival on the parade field….
The house is now spotless and I’m ready to pack for the hospital. I don’t want to go through labor, though. I think I’ll opt for drugs. Do you have any thoughts?
Do you like Lauren as well as Kelly? I think it will need to be Kelly if she’s born today (St. Patrick’s Day)—our twentieth anniversary since our hookup….
On their runs, Fenty would confide to Del Byers that he was worried about how old a dad he would soon be. He was already forty-one.
“Shit, Joe,” Byers would say to him, “you can already outrun ninety percent of the U.S. Army—what are you worried about?”
Byers reminded his friend that nothing was easy in the Army, including parenting. Byers’s own kids were teenagers, and he was missing most of their high school years.
“You’ll get to see her grow up,” Byers told Fenty.
In the 1-32 Infantry briefing room, Cavoli introduced Fenty to his staff and commanders. “Give him and his team all the support they need while they’re here,” he instructed.
Before moving on to their final destination, Fenty and his team took the opportunity afforded by this brief pit stop in Jalalabad—the new headquarters for the brigade in charge of this area of operations—to begin face-to-face planning for a pending operation in Kunar Province, the one that would put Joe Fenty in “the most remote place on the due date.” Troops from 3-71 Cav, 1-32 Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, would all participate in what was being called Operation Mountain Lion, after which Fenty and 3-71 Cav would move with full force into Nuristan. On March 19, Fenty’s convoy pulled out of Jalalabad.
The road they took followed the Kunar River, which bestowed life on the surrounding country, transforming it from a dusty brown into a lush green. They stopped at Camp Wright—an outpost that was on their way—and hiked eight hundred feet up to a former mujahideen observation post. From there they saw the ancient Nawa Pass leading into Pakistan. It was the same corridor used by Alexander’s cavalry twenty-three hundred years before, Berkoff said. Again, the uncomfortable history of empires in this land hung like a noose.
The ultimate destination of the 3-71 Cav convoys was a small Special Forces base established in 2004 in Naray District, Kunar Province, near the provincial border with Nuristan. Fenty’s men were tasked with building the camp into a fully functioning forward operating base. They would be the first conventional troops to be stationed there.
Soon after their arrival, the 3-71 Cav troops moved into barracks just vacated by what were called ASGs, or Afghan Security Guards—locally hired contractors who were not directly affiliated with either the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police. Special Forces Captain Steve Snyder, whose team had been the only U.S. military force at Naray until 3-71 Cav got there, had ordered the Afghans to move into tents, but the locals had left their mark: the barracks reeked of body odor, rotting food, and what smelled like feces. One of the 3-71 Cav officers, Captain Pete Stambersky, smeared Vicks VapoRub under his nose just so he could breathe. Snyder knew it stank in there, but the sting from the enemy rockets in the area was far worse. Better to have a roof over your head, he thought.
Berkoff found the sparse conditions demoralizing. It wasn’t just here at Naray; throughout their tour of U.S. bases in Afghanistan, from Khost to Jalalabad, he and others in 3-71 Cav had been stunned by the enforced austerity whereby soldiers could be simply jammed against one another in rows of green cots. The Iraq veterans among them couldn’t believe how grim their Afghanistan quarters were compared to U.S. bases in Iraq—especially since Iraq was the more recent of the two wars, with the United States’ having gone into that country more than a year after entering Afghanistan. But then again, the officers reminded themselves, Iraq had long been the favored war of their commander in chief, and Afghanistan the one that would be fought on the cheap.
Snyder had been running his twelve-man Special Forces team out of Naray since January. He conducted his operations with a palpable intensity, haunted by the ghosts of nineteen Americans—fellow special-operations troops—who’d been killed before he even arrived.
In June 2005, as part of a mission designated Operation Redwing, a four-man team of Navy SEALs on the trail of an enemy leader named Ahmad Shah was dropped into the mountains of Kunar. There the Americans were attacked by insurgents, who killed three of the four team members and also shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing even more SEALs as well as the special-operations Nightstalker crew and pilots, for a total of nineteen U.S. casualties in all. For the men of Naval Special Warfare, that day marked the largest single loss of life since World War II.
By mid-2005, the commander of special operations in Afghanistan was considering shutting down the base at Naray. Instead, U.S. military leaders went the other way, sending in conventional forces—3-71 Cav—in part to help Snyder, who welcomed the arrival of Fenty and his squadron.
Snyder’s task was to disrupt and/or kill what were then called ACMs, or anticoalition militias—in short, anyone who didn’t like the U.S.-led coalition. He knew that the Taliban had been using Pakistan as a safe haven, so his team’s first operation was to trek to a length of border reputed to be particularly porous. Dokalam, Afghanistan, was adjacent to Arandu, Pakistan. It was clear that the Afghan Border Police and Pakistani border guards were turning a blind eye on those seeking passage; anyone who wanted to cross could do so anywhere he liked. That changed only when the Afghan Border Police became aware that the Americans were watching. Then the gates suddenly closed, and everyone got to work.
As they made the rounds in their area of operations, Snyder and his men visited hamlets and communities so isolated they could be reached only on foot. The mountain peaks here were more than twelve thousand feet high; even many mountain passes were at ten to eleven thousand feet. When the Americans reached each village, they would ask the elders if they could enter; unfailingly, the locals would welcome the big men with guns, just as they and their forefathers had welcomed so many other men with superior weapons before them. To Snyder, they did not seem of the twenty-first century. Many of them initially mistook the U.S. troops for Soviets, returning after the USSR’s withdrawal nearly a generation before. Some were evidently unaware that the USSR had ceased to exist; others hadn’t heard about 9/11; still other locals thought 9/11 had been a retaliation for the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Most of them didn’t know how to read; few knew anything of modern medicine. One Afghan came to the base needing medical attention after trying to use wet concrete as a salve for a wound. Snyder noted that the Afghans appeared to have no comprehension of time; they didn’t even seem to know how old they were. He would inquire about a certain insurgent, and the Afghans would say they hadn’t seen him in two or three days, two or three weeks, two or three years. Everything was in twos or threes.
These Special Forces troops had been asked to operate in a world they could not fathom.
Snyder and his intel officer briefed the 3-71 Cav troops on their new home and its bad-guy neighbors. Residing in the village of Kamdesh was a local HIG commander who had gone underground but was believed to shuttle back and forth routinely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Taliban leader lived in Pitigal, and another HIG leader in Bazgal; the hamlet of Sedmashal was reportedly home to a bomb-maker known as the Engineer—a nickname often bestowed, in that region, on anyone thought to be educated. In Gawardesh, a local timber smuggler–cum–HIG commander reigned.
And then, in the Kotya Valley, there were the Ayoub brothers. In June 2004, a group of Marines had returned to their small firebase after thirty-six hours on observation patrol. When he checked his gear, one Marine realized he was missing his night-vision goggles. The next day, word came from higher up that he had to go back to the makeshift observation post with the other two members of his fire team to recover the goggles. They didn’t find them there, but on their way back, the Marines stumbled across a group of Afghans who were preparing to ambush a U.S. convoy. The Afghans instead attacked the three Marines, killing two of them. The Ayoub brothers—Daoud, Sardar, Mohammed, and others—were presumed to be responsible for the deaths, Snyder said.
As the new commanding officer of the base at Naray, Fenty decided to make getting rid of the Ayoub brothers his first priority. In order to do this, however, he needed to secure the cooperation of the elders of Kotya, so he invited them to Naray to participate in a shura—a consultation with village elders that is an important aspect of governance in many majority Muslim countries. The elders accepted the invitation and came to the base, but they were not receptive to Fenty’s overtures; indeed, they asked him to stay away from the valley. They also claimed not to know anything about the Ayoubs.
One U.S. official would later suggest that the Kotya elders had acted cooperatively just in coming to the U.S. base at Fenty’s request. “It is not a trivial thing from the perspective of Afghans to respond like a dog when someone whistles,” the official explained. “That’s especially true for prominent individuals in a community. To look like they’re responding as servants to the foreign occupier diminishes their stature in their peers’ eyes. So it’s not a small thing that they came. That we don’t see it and instead get upset when they don’t behave in ways that reflect our interests is shortsighted.” But to Snyder, it seemed like more of the same “see no evil, hear no evil” bullshit he’d been dealing with for the past three months. They come in, they lie, they want money for projects, he thought. “Get out of here,” he told them. He was disgusted.
The sun had yet to rise on the morning of March 29 when roughly one hundred members of 3-71 Cav piled into Humvees and light medium tactical vehicles (LMTVs) and began driving north. Fenty was accompanied on this expedition by Command Sergeant Major Del Byers; Captain Matt Gooding and Able Troop; a kill team—snipers and reconnaissance officers—from Cherokee Company; and a smaller group called a quick reaction force, or QRF, which would stay on the periphery as an emergency reinforcement should more military might be needed.
Before they left, Berkoff handed out photographs of the Ayoubs to the snipers and scouts. He figured the odds were slim that the brothers would show their faces, but you never knew.
Cherokee Company commander Captain Aaron Swain was at the head of the twenty-five-truck convoy on its forty-minute trip to the mouth of the valley, a drive that would be followed by a four-hour hike from the road up to the village of Kotya. The floor of the valley itself was only half as wide as a football field; the stream that ran through it was about the width of a two-lane road. On the second leg of the journey, Snyder and his team led the way on foot, ready to fire at any enemy threat at any moment. It was a show of U.S. force such as the valley had never seen before.
Whereas Snyder was there to capture or kill the Ayoub brothers, Fenty also hoped to befriend the people of Kotya and convince them to partner with 3-71 Cav and the Afghan government. If those two missions seemed at odds—helping some Afghans while killing others—that was just a reflection of the complicated nature of the U.S. mission, not to mention the sometimes contradictory relationship between Special Forces and conventional troops.
As Fenty and Byers finished climbing the path and arrived at the edge of the village, atop a steep mountain, they were greeted by elders. Other village leaders were summoned. Fenty and Byers whispered to each other, agreeing that it had all been too easy. Four hours walking through the Kotya Valley, and they hadn’t seen a single person. Now, here at the village, they saw only elders and children. The women were obviously indoors, hiding—or more to the point, being hidden—out of religious modesty, but where were the fighting-age men? Were they all out working, tending to their animals? Were they just staying out of sight of the Americans? Or was something more nefarious going on?
The elders sat with Fenty and Byers, who had a translator with them. They briefly chatted. No, the Afghan men said, they didn’t know of any insurgent forces in the area. No, there wasn’t any intimidation. The Ayoubs? They hadn’t been seen in the village for a long time. It was “see no evil, hear no evil” all over again.
For Fenty, there was something discomfiting about the whole situation. Byers had the same feeling. The two thanked the elders for their time and prepared to go. Fenty told the leaders of a Cherokee Company security team, Staff Sergeants Matt Cusson and Nicholas Platt, and a sniper attached to them, Sergeant John Hawes, to mingle with the rest of the 3-71 Cav troops as they left the village and started walking eastward back to the road. Once they all got around the bend and appeared to be on their way out, Fenty said, the security team should split off, stealthily scramble up the mountain on the other side of the valley, take cover, and keep watch on everything.
Fenty picked up his radio and gave his orders: they were leaving. The ruse commenced. Cusson, Platt, Hawes, and the other members of the security team made the turn and then disappeared into the southern mountainside. Once he’d ascended, Hawes hid in a bush. He had grown up shooting in competitions in upstate New York, where his family regularly hunted deer, turkey, and small game. He had won local competitions and coached a junior rifle team, and by his senior year of high school, he was shooting four or five days a week. But he had never actually shot a person, never killed a man. Now he held his sniper rifle with its powerful scope and prepared to do just that.
And then they came.
Just as Fenty had anticipated, about half an hour after the American troops had departed, the fighting-age men of the village started popping up on ridgelines all over the hills and heading back to the settlement. Hawes’s radio line was promptly abuzz with the voices of scouts reporting locals jumping out everywhere in front of them—or behind them: the new arrivals were all over both the southern and northern ridgelines. None had weapons. While a local carrying either a weapon or a radio was considered to be a “positive identified threat” and could thereby constitute a legitimate target, the U.S. Rules of Engagement prohibited soldiers from firing upon anyone simply for acting in a suspicious manner. For now, all Hawes and the others could do was stay focused and wait for trouble.
About an hour after the 3-71 Cav troops had left the village, three men started walking along the trail heading east. One carried an AKM—a Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle, a modernized version of the AK-47—under his arm. They entered a four-building complex across the valley from where Hawes was hiding.
The security team radioed to the other 3-71 Cav troops to make sure there weren’t any Afghan Security Guards who had stayed behind in the valley. There weren’t.
Four reconnaissance troops from the security team quietly moved about fifty yards east to check out a vacant building. As they did so, the man who’d been carrying the AKM suddenly appeared on a roof within the housing complex. He was talking on a radio whose antenna was extended. Not spotting the Americans, the man went back inside, only to emerge from another building lower down in the complex. Now he had the AKM and the radio.
Cusson placed a call to the squadron’s operations center, asking for permission to shoot. “Sounds like PIT to me,” Berkoff said—meaning a “positive identified threat.” Permission was granted.
The word came back to Cusson: Take him out.
The man with the AKM went over to a rock wall and removed a stone, behind which he had evidently hidden something.
A scout with the security team, Sergeant David Fisher, projected an infrared laser on the man. He was 167 yards away.
Hawes set his scope.
He pulled the trigger. The first shot hit the Afghan in his right pectoral and spun him around. Hawes put two more rounds in his chest, and the man fell down on his back.
There it was: his first kill. To Hawes, it felt like just another day on the range.
Afghans ran from the house. A boy sprinted west, back toward the village, followed by an older man. Other young men now bolted out of the complex and began scrambling over the mountain. Some members of the security team were already on their way to check out the man Hawes had shot when a woman rushed out of the house, snatched the radio and the AKM off the body, and ran back into the complex.
The security team members photographed the dead insurgent and recovered the AKM from inside the house. One of the Americans heard an Afghan man’s voice talking over the radio, but because the team didn’t have an interpreter along, there was no way of knowing what was being said. Just then, on a different frequency, in English, came word from the scouts in the valley that dozens of men were heading their way from the village. This wasn’t good.
While the leaders of the security team had been able to radio their commanders before Hawes took his shot, once the men moved down to the valley floor, communication became intermittent at best. Fenty and Swain both tried to tell the team leaders to find a piece of territory to defend so Swain could lead the quick reaction force into the valley to support them and start a fight; he had mortars and attack helicopters at the ready and was eager to use them. But they could never get that message through to the team leaders, and then it began to get dark and hence too dangerous for two friendly forces to try to link up without good communication. The QRF ran to watch over the valley, while the security team leaders decided on their own that it was time for their troops to leave.
All of the members of the team got out safely, with no exchange of fire. It wasn’t clear whether the insurgents just gave up or the security team outran them, but soon enough, the chase had ended. The next day, the local Afghan police would confirm that U.S. troops had killed Daoud Ayoub, the leader of the insurgent cell.
Thus, in a sense, the first-ever operation by conventional U.S. forces in this part of the country had been a success. But the bigger picture was not reassuring. The insurgents hadn’t seemed to care that the Americans had them outmanned and outequipped; they’d hidden from them and then brazenly planned an ambush on them. After their leader was shot, his family’s first impulse had been to try to grab his weapon and his radio for future use. They didn’t seem afraid of the U.S. troops.
And what of the elders of the Kotya Valley? They had demonstrated how their ancestors had survived for centuries in these mountains: by being practical, saying what they needed to say to whoever happened to be in front of them at any given moment.
Berkoff worked with translators to craft a message to be sent to the remaining members of Ayoub’s gang: Reconcile or die. The threat was apparently of limited value: a week or so later, intel came in that the Ayoub brothers’ cell had returned. Fenty had Cherokee Company commander Swain fire repeated illumination rounds—basically giant flares–into the valley from the base at Naray. It was his way of letting the Kotya elders know that he knew the enemy fighters were back.
At the base itself, meanwhile, Fenty ordered the buildup of showers, laundry facilities, flush toilets, and new picnic benches. A hot meal was served once a day. Resupply air drops began, though not without a glitch: the first ones missed the mark and ended up in the adjacent Kunar River. Locals looking to make a quick dollar jumped into the water, hauled the goods out, and delivered them to the front gate.
A couple of days after Swain began firing the illumination rounds, about a dozen Kotya elders came to Naray and asked to talk to Fenty. He wasn’t there, so Swain, the ranking 3-71 Cav officer on the base at the time, met them at the gate.
“Please stop firing the flares,” the elders asked. “The rounds are scaring our children and animals.”
“I’ll stop firing,” Swain said. “But I don’t want to hear about you guys supporting the Ayoub brothers anymore.”
About a week later, the elders returned to Naray. “We’ve thrown them out of the valley,” they told Swain.
When Aaron Swain graduated from West Point, in 1998, the idea that he would one day find himself devoting much of his time and energy to tending to the needs of a band of Afghan elders in an obscure valley would have struck him as being highly improbable. His training had been focused not on dealing with civilians but rather on killing bad guys, and back in the 1990s, the threat of a U.S. war in Afghanistan had seemed slight.
But Swain was now essentially the U.S. ambassador to the Kotya Valley. Deciding he would take an approach different from that adopted by Snyder, whose impatience often manifested itself as hostility, he invited all of the elders to Naray. When they arrived at the base, Swain showed them deference by ordering up a banquet for them.
When they all sat down, he thanked them for throwing the Ayoub brothers out of the valley. “I’m grateful,” he said. “I want to get a road built for you, into the valley, to make it easier for you to get in and out.”
More than a month later, when reports came in that the bomb-maker known as the Engineer was in the Kotya Valley, Swain lit up the flares again.
The experience of 3-71 Cav in the Kotya Valley would be repeated time and time again across Nuristan as American troops tried to establish a foothold through the policy of counterinsurgency.
Even within a country that could sometimes seem to U.S. troops to be far removed from the twenty-first century, Nuristan’s valleys and villages were truly in a class of their own. More than 99 percent of the population of the province was ethnically Nuristani, a profound distinction in Afghanistan, where elsewhere Nuristanis made up only a tiny minority—just 1 percent or so—of the total population. (Some Nuristanis had blue eyes and/or red hair, and a number had physiognomic features that made them look European, feeding the long-discredited myth that as a people, they were descended from the Greeks and Macedonians left behind by Alexander the Great’s army.) Even in the hardscrabble context of Afghanistan, those who lived in Nuristan were legendarily tough. All that most Afghans knew about them was that their ancestors had been non-Muslims who were brave and determined warriors, famed for their lethal raids on Muslims in the lowlands. This had inspired the Nuristanis’ reputation as mountain-dwelling fighters—tough, effective, and uncivilized. Whether that reputation was still accurate or up to date in 2006 was almost beside the point.
Berkoff had studied Nuristan before he deployed and noted that rebellion seemed to be an important part of its culture. Fenty gave him a copy of an out-of-print book about the region, The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, written by an English army major named George Scott Robertson after he visited there in 1890–91. Because at that point they were the only ethnic group in Afghanistan that had refused to convert to Islam, instead practicing a religion that seemed to have ties to a primitive form of Hinduism, the Nuristanis were known as Kafirs, or “infidels,” and Nuristan was called Kafiristan—literally, the “land of the infidels.”
In 1896, however—just five years after Robertson’s visit—the Kafirs finally accepted Islam, many at knifepoint. Kafiristan then became Nuristan, or the “land of the enlightened.” Many Nuristanis became quite devout, even as they maintained their reputation for fanatic rebelliousness. They were said to have been among the first to take up arms against the Communists who brought down the Afghan government in 1978. Some Nuristanis told stories of dramatic and bloody attacks on these intruders, though what was reality and what was myth could be difficult to discern.
During the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, part of eastern Nuristan became a semiautonomous state referred to as the Dawlat, or the Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan. Adhering to extremist Salafi Islam, and officially recognized by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Dawlat was run by an especially fearsome warlord who chased off or killed his rivals. Among those rivals were fellow Nuristanis.
Northern Kunar and eastern Nuristan were home to at least four major ethnic groups—Mushwani Pashtuns, Salarzai Pashtuns, Nuristanis, and Gujjars—all of whom had argumentative histories with one another and among themselves. Just about the only matter the first three groups could agree upon, in fact, was their disdain for the fourth, the Gujjars, a destitute population of migrant workers whom the others often characterized as thieving squatters.
Each group was further split into subdivisions that carried their own potent political implications. The Nuristanis consisted of Kom, Kata, Kushtoz, and Kalasha communities. These four subgroups were themselves given to feuding, and each subdivision had its separate subpopulations, with accompanying disputes and rivalries. The Kom people, for instance, saw themselves as being organized by different lineages, with each claiming descent from a distant ancestor. They did not count themselves part of the Dawlat. Significant religious differences also divided the populace, as each group practiced a type of Islam that varied in important ways from the next group’s. Even within a single group, there might be multiple divisions. The residents of Kamdesh District observed an Islam that differed from others in that its mullahs—the Muslim clergymen—were expected to interpret the holy text and were, therefore, much more apt to introduce their own political bias.
For Nuristanis to take up arms against one another was not uncommon. The Kom had historical tensions with the nearby Kushtozis, and the spark was reignited in the 1990s when the two clans began battling over water rights, among other issues—a clash that inspired such acts of aggression as the planting of landmines on enemies’ property. In 1997, the Kom burned down a Kushtoz village, displacing at least five hundred families.
Considering all of this, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that these villagers, while welcoming enough to visitors, didn’t immediately cooperate much with the Americans. They were survivors, and they continued to do what had worked for them in the past: withholding information and playing both sides. They had learned long ago from the British, and from the Soviets more recently (though still before many troops from 3-71 Cav were even born), that intruders always, eventually, left. A presentation by the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth about the decade-long occupation of the area by the USSR noted some “eternal truths” about Afghanistan. One of them was “Switching sides is common.” Another was “Loyalty can be rented for a small bag of gold.”
Private Nick Pilozzi gasped.
Oh my God, I can’t breathe, he thought.
It was April 2006, and Pilozzi and others from 3-71 Cav’s Able Troop, led by Captain Gooding, had been choppered in and dropped atop a twelve-thousand-foot snow-capped mountain on the southern slope of the Hindu Kush for Operation Mountain Lion. The air was so thin he felt as if he were being slowly, almost subtly, strangled.
Pilozzi, who was eighteen, came from Tonawanda, New York, not far from Buffalo, so he knew from cold. But there was something devastating about the combination of the deep snow, the chill, and the lack of oxygen to be found here on the roof of these mountains. His driving skills were not needed up here; there were no cars or trucks. There wasn’t anything except for rocks and snow—anywhere from two to six feet of it. Most of the snow was packed, so the troops were able to walk on it, but they exhausted themselves digging down to rock to position their mortar tube—the cannon from which they would aim and fire explosive rounds—lest the weapon sink into the powder.
The Americans had had no idea it was going to be so cold—just one more indication that they didn’t know much about the land they were supposed to be controlling. The troops hadn’t packed appropriate cold-weather gear and had just fifteen sleeping bags for thirty men, including the handful of Marines who had joined them. They ended up dividing the bags—some got the Gore-Tex outer layer, others the thick black inner layer—and laying them atop the rock formations that jutted out of the snow. Troops clung to one another for body heat. Everyone survived, but it was the roughest night many of them had ever known. And that was how Private Pilozzi met the Korangal Valley.
The Korangal Valley was tough to get into and even tougher to get out of. The region was home to roughly twenty-five thousand Afghans, an insular community with its own particular dialect. Some Korangalis trafficked in illegal timber, selling lumber from the Himalayan cedars that grew in the valley; such traffickers were sufficiently ruthless that their influence far exceeded their numbers. The combination of this criminal culture with its geographic, cultural, and linguistic isolation had made the Korangal an inviting sanctuary for insurgents fighting the USSR in the 1980s, and then later again for those fighting the United States in the 2000s. (The Korangal was close to where those nineteen SEALs and Nightstalker pilots and crewmen had been killed in 2005, during Operation Redwing.)
Now 3-71 Cav had been diverted to the region because Colonel Nicholson wanted to take advantage of the temporary overlap, in Kunar Province, of 3-71 Cav (commanded by Fenty), 1-32 Infantry (led by Cavoli), and the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, which was scheduled to leave the country in late May.
Nicholson, who commanded the parent brigade, ordered 3-71 Cav to flank around the valley to the east while 1-32 Infantry blocked the valley from the north. The Marines, along with the brigade tactical command post—Nicholson, the ANA brigade commander, and a small staff—would be dropped by chopper onto mountaintops and were to clear the enemy down into the valley. Their ultimate goal was to set up the Korangal outpost, reach out to the villagers, help establish an Afghan government presence, and kill the enemy: intelligence sources claimed that the insurgent leader Ahmad Shah, thought to be behind the Operation Redwing disaster, plus a known Al Qaeda operative named Abu Ikhlas were in the immediate area.
Fenty had sent Gooding and Able Troop to watch over the southern Korangal Valley while Captain Franklin Brooks and Bravo Troop—who called themselves the Barbarians—moved south into the adjacent Chowkay Valley. Most of Cherokee Company remained back at the base at Naray, with the exception of the kill team, which was also ordered into the Chowkay Valley to patrol for enemy fighters.
The Chowkay Valley was the most popular exit route used by the Korangali Taliban to escape over the border into Pakistan; indeed, Berkoff had briefed Fenty and the 3-71 Cav troop commanders that when confronted by the consistent presence of U.S. troops, the local Taliban leader was likely to “squirt” into Pakistan, after first pushing his team of insurgent fighters into the Chowkay to clear the way for him. The Americans hoped to be waiting there for him.
After they all almost froze to death at twelve thousand feet, Gooding sent Staff Sergeant Matthew Netzel and more than a dozen soldiers from Able Troop’s 2nd Platoon down the Korangal to watch over a lumberyard. Among the troops with Netzel was Private First Class Brian Moquin, Jr., a nineteen-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, whom Netzel had kept an eye on since the beginning of their deployment.
When Moquin first arrived at 3-71 Cav, it was clear to Netzel that the private had been a problem child growing up—just like half the Army, in Netzel’s estimation. Back at Fort Drum, Moquin was late to formation one morning at 0630, so Netzel went to his room and banged on his door.
“What’s up, Sergeant?” Moquin said after he finally came to the door, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“You’re fucking not at formation, that’s what’s up,” Netzel said. “Get your uniform on and get in fucking formation.”
When the slipups continued, Netzel instituted some “corrective” training, ordering Moquin to do pushups, situps, laps—anything to make his whole body hurt for a few days so he wouldn’t ever again forget what a mistake it was to slack. Netzel knew Moquin could potentially be a good soldier; he would always ask questions. After an exercise in which the troops had to disassemble and reassemble their weapons, everyone else in the platoon dispersed, but Moquin remained, repeating the drill.
“Yo, dude,” Netzel said. “It’s time to wrap shit up.”
Moquin smiled at him.
“Out of curiosity,” Netzel asked, smiling back, “what are your thoughts about how you’re hammering down on your weapon?”
“I don’t know about the rest of these guys,” Moquin said. “But I plan on coming home. And if it comes down to a weapons system working, I’m going to make sure there are no problems.”
Fuckin’ A, thought Netzel.
Born and raised in upstate New York, the twenty-five-year-old Netzel understood Moquin in a way that was hard to explain to anyone who hadn’t peered into the chasm of drug dependency and mustered the strength to walk away—in both of their cases, into the welcoming arms of the U.S. military. Back home, Netzel had dabbled in a little bit of everything, without much effect. By the age of eighteen, he’d started to sense that if he stayed in his hometown for too long after graduating from high school, he’d end up in jail or in a coffin. This wasn’t just a working-class cliché; one day, a friend of his, tripping hard, flying around a room like an airplane, dove out the window of a second-story apartment, landing on the pavement. He survived the fall but was never quite the same. Netzel headed for the military not long after that.
“I have a pretty good idea why you joined the Army,” Netzel once said to Moquin at Fort Drum. “But why don’t you tell me why.”
“My life was pretty much going to shit,” Moquin replied. “It was either the Army or end up in jail or dead.”
Netzel had known he was going to say that.
Moquin was a talented artist, and at Naray, Netzel asked him if he’d design a tattoo for him. “This is what I want,” Netzel told him. “A tattered American flag with an Afghan knife. It should also say, ‘The price we pay’ ”—this was the unofficial motto of the 10th Mountain—and should include the designations “OIF 1 and 2” and “OEF 7,” referring to Netzel’s time with the first two deployments in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and their current stint in Afghanistan, with the seventh rotation for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Moquin drew it all out on a piece of paper and gave it to Netzel a few days later.
“Do you mind if I get it, too?” Moquin asked as he handed over the sketch. “Without ‘OIF One and Two,’ of course.”
“Hell yeah, do it,” Netzel replied. “You drew it up, it’s your artwork. We’ll go get tatted together when we get back. So hang on to it.”
“No, I want you to hang on to it in case anything happens to me,” Moquin explained, “because I made it for you.”
“Roger,” said Netzel. “I’ll hang on to it, and we’ll get it tatted together.”
Moquin wrote to his mother:
How’s everything, I’m doing good. I’ve done a lot of thinking while I was here. I know I haven’t been a great kid and have put you through a lot of things that you didn’t deserve. I haven’t been a good person to many people and I regret a lot of the things I’ve done. But I finally found a place for me. I love it here more than anything. I’ve wanted to get away for so long, I was trapped in my own misery and selfishness. I’ve grown up a lot here, and I’m going to try my damn hardest to make you proud of me. I’m sorry if you don’t hear from me much. I’m very busy and I’m going to be for the next couple years. I love you and I just wanted you to know I haven’t forgot about you.
I’m doing the best I can to be the best soldier.
I miss ya,
Love, your son,
And now here they were in the Korangal, Netzel and Moquin, in four feet of snow. Almost none of the other soldiers had been in combat before, so Netzel, having been in Iraq, took the lead as they began their trek.
For nearly all of the troops, the steep mountain descent—during which each soldier carried eighty pounds of gear and ammo at a minimum—was one of the toughest physical challenges of their lives. (And these were young men in top physical condition, trained for just such a challenge.) They had to worry constantly—about falling, about the enemy, and about the clumsy morons up above them (someone up top would accidentally kick a rock loose, and then everyone would shout “Rock!” and try to dodge getting hammered by a mini-boulder). It was a painful, full-day hike down. Climbing up the mountain would have been easier.
On the fifth night, the members of the platoon reached one of the most difficult points so far in their journey, confronting a cliffside so steep they couldn’t descend. They decided to call it a night. In the morning, they’d figure out where to go next.
Sergeant Michael Hendy was on guard duty; he sat behind a rock wall in the pitch black, staring at the path. He heard a hissing.
“I think a battery’s leaking,” Hendy whispered to Moquin. Batteries for the thermal scope were stacked up for the night; filled with a gas, they would make a “Ssssss” sound if they cracked. Hendy turned on a thermal light so he could fix the problem. A four-foot-long pit viper was angrily staring him in the face, raised as if it were coming out of a snake charmer’s basket.
Holy shit, Hendy thought.
He jumped back and bellowed for the lowest-ranked private, Taner Edens, to get the snake. Edens snatched up a KA-BAR combat knife.
“Attack!” Hendy yelled from behind Edens, pushing the private toward the snake. The viper turned toward Edens and hissed.
“Abort! Abort!” yelled Hendy, running.
Edens swung. Although the viper was nicked by the KA-BAR knife, it managed to slither off into the brush. The snake’s escape didn’t make it any easier for the men to get to sleep, but sheer exhaustion soon took over, and they slumbered.
That is, until later that night, when Moquin shook Sergeant Jeremy Larson awake.
“There’s contact in the woodline,” Moquin whispered. The enemy was out there.
The men got ready. Specialist Shawn Passman crawled over to them in his underwear.
They sat and waited.
Larson peered through Moquin’s thermal sight, a camera that picked up infrared radiation, including body heat. He saw the same thing Moquin had seen but caught one detail the other man had missed: the “enemy” was sitting about thirty feet up, in a tree that grew off the cliff.
That can’t be the enemy, Larson thought.
He grabbed a blue light and shined it toward the tree.
It was a monkey.
While much of Afghanistan was known for its barrenness, monsoon rains from the subcontinent reached the eastern part of the country, filling the northeastern region with stands of cedar, walnut, fir, oak, pine, and spruce trees. Combined with the clear, untamed streams and rivers of Nuristan and Kunar Provinces, the trees made for gorgeous vistas that reminded some troops of luxury fishing spots in Wyoming or Montana, the kind they’d read about online or in brochures. The one disconnect—other than the insurgents trying to kill them—was the variety of animals they encountered: rhesus monkeys and leopards, horned vipers and wild cats, six-foot-long lizards. More than once, the men stopped to watch as nasty porcupines beat up feral dogs; it became something of a spectator sport. Even more disconcerting were the insects and other critters, including centipedes that were longer than a man’s foot, three different types of ants (little red, little black, and crazy-fast tall red), a giant red bee of some sort, scorpions, wolf spiders, and infestations of grasshoppers.
Most terrifying of all, though, were the enormous camel spiders, which were technically not spiders and really didn’t look as if they were even from this planet. They were typically the size of a soldier’s hand, sometimes even bigger, brown in color and with metallic, helmetlike bodies and hairy legs on which they could run as fast as ten miles per hour. Camel spiders were fully capable of eating lizards, scorpions, or birds for dinner. Although not venomous, they could inspire quite a jolt by falling on a soldier in his tent or deciding to seek shade in his sleeping bag. To pass the time during dull stretches, some of the troops would put two of them in a box together and watch them fight.
A few days later, Netzel and his men finally arrived at their destination. Those troops not pulling security were allowed to eat and rest. Netzel and Moquin made small talk about their small-town pasts. Moquin had moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, from nearby Shrewsbury and had to switch high schools, eventually obtaining his GED from a local community college. His parents had split when he was just a year old, he said, and his dad, who wasn’t a part of his life, had spent time in prison because of his problems with drugs. Moquin himself had wrestled with drugs; he had been hooked on heroin at one point, before he joined the Army. He had tried it for a simple reason: “I wanted to see why my father loved it more than he loved me,” he said.
Originally the plan had been for the 2nd Platoon to watch over the valley from its post for two days and then return, but over the radio, Sergeant First Class Milton Yagel told Netzel that his orders now were to push to the next mountaintop and head down the side to link up with Frank Brooks and the Barbarians, who were planning to meet with the elders at Chalas.
This would end up being a twenty-six-mile haul. During the day, the sun would beat down on the troops oppressively, but after dark, it was bone-chilling cold. One night, Netzel and Moquin shared a hollowed-out tree in which they slept standing up. Before drowsing off, they talked about Moquin’s girlfriend; just before arriving at the base at Naray, he’d changed his life insurance policy to make her his beneficiary.
“Hey, Sarge,” Moquin said. “What do you think about this?”
Netzel grunted. He was exhausted.
Moquin went on about how, on R&R, he was going to surprise his girlfriend.
“Surprise her with what?”
“I’m going to ask her to marry me,” Moquin explained. The plan was that he would buy an engagement ring, slip it onto a dog collar, put the collar on a puppy, and give her the pet as a sort of double surprise.
Fenty was focused on his men, focused on their missions, but there was something else that occupied his thoughts as well. His wife, Kristen, was one week overdue with their baby. In the green commander’s notebook he carried with him everywhere, in the midst of his penciled notations about intel—“New personality in Waygal: Diyan…. Has supplies to equip 10X Suicide Bombers”—he had highlighted in black Sharpie “Kristen’s Contact Info,” with phone numbers for the Samaritan Medical Center near Fort Drum, including Daytime Triage and Evening Maternity, as well as his wife’s friends.
“Don’t you want to go back for the birth of your child?” Colonel Nicholson had asked him.
“Kristen and I talked about it,” Fenty replied. “Right after the baby’s born, she’ll be tired and off her feet.” It’d be better if he waited just a little bit, giving her some time to recuperate. “I’ll fly back after Mountain Lion,” he said. “My mom’s there for her.”
As her due date got closer, and then passed, he would call Kristen for news—also speaking to his mother, Charlee Miller, who had driven up to Fort Drum from New York City—but each time the answer was the same: nothing yet. On Friday, April 7, Kristen paid an ambitious visit to a midwife who, hoping to speed things up, expanded her cervix in an attempt to bring on labor.
Early on the morning of April 8, through the unofficial but often far more efficient lines of communication run by military wives, Fenty, in a tiny broom closet of an office at Jalalabad Airfield, heard the news via emails and other messages: Kristen was in labor and about to deliver their baby girl. Her water had broken, and with the aid of her mother-in-law and Andrea Bushey—the wife of Lieutenant Colonel Dave Bushey, also in Afghanistan—she had gotten into a car, in which the three women had then driven through a blinding upstate New York snowstorm to get to the hospital.
Heart racing, Fenty called her cell phone. Kristen answered.
“They said it’s going to be a long time,” she informed him. They spoke for a little bit before he told her he’d call again as soon as he could. It was after midnight her time.
At 8:09 a.m. on April 8, the phone rang again in Fort Drum. Fenty was calling back.
“I’m going to take this,” Charlee Miller told the nurse.
“Joe,” she said as she answered Kristen’s phone.
“Mom,” he said, obviously desperate for any news.
“Joe, your baby is going to be born right now!” she told him.
At that moment, Kristen let out a bellowing scream, and Lauren was born.
“Stand by,” Fenty’s mother said. “You’re going to hear your baby cry.”
Within seconds of the medical team’s suctioning baby Lauren’s windpipe, she started screaming, and her skin flushed with a beautiful pinkish hue.
“Is she all right?” Fenty asked.
“She’s all right,” his mother told him.
“Is that the father on the phone?” asked the doctor. “From Afghanistan?”
“Yes, Doctor,” Charlee Miller said.
“She’s beautiful!” the doctor shouted to Fenty.
“How much does she weigh?” asked Fenty.
“I don’t know yet,” said his mother.
“I’m going to lose you,” Fenty said. “I only have seven seconds left.”
The line went dead.
He got through to Kristen herself later in the day. She was weepy. She was worried about him; he was worried about her.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked her, unaware of how difficult childbirth could be and used to his wife’s being lucid—not exhausted, hormonal, and recovering from an epidural. Kristen explained her condition.
“What does she look like?” he asked.
“She’s beautiful,” Kristen said.
On April 19, Staff Sergeant Willie Smith led three other soldiers from Bravo Troop to the Korangal Valley’s Abbas Ghar Ridge, where they were put under operational control of the 1-32 Infantry Battalion. Their job was to watch the valleys, the villages, and those sections of the road that were considered particularly vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
They were using a long-range advance scout surveillance system, or LRAS, which allowed thermal-optical surveillance up to fifteen miles, meaning that troops not only could see bodies from a long distance away but also could use the device to confirm enemy deaths, watching bodies lose life as heat from them was slowly—or not so slowly—released into the air. The LRAS in and of itself made obsolete other systems that required scouts to position themselves within the range of enemy fire. This technological advance came with strings attached: it was a terribly expensive and unwieldy machine, weighing about 120 pounds and difficult to haul across inhospitable mountains. The sight—through which scouts would look for the enemy—was as bulky as a medium-sized safe or a 1980s-era living-room television set, at seventeen inches high, twenty-seven inches wide, and thirty-one inches deep. And yet, by 2006, the Raytheon Corporation was closing in on selling its thousandth unit to the Pentagon.
There were just two spots where the LRAS could be set up to cover the first “named area of interest” to which these soldiers from Bravo Troop, 3-71 Cav, had been assigned. One was on a ledge above a steep precipice. The other option would put the LRAS on more stable ground, but trees and other vegetation would interfere with its field of view. Staff Sergeant Smith and his team concluded that the ledge was the only feasible choice.
On April 21, Sergeant Jake McCrae had been scanning the assigned area as instructed for about half an hour when the LRAS’s batteries began to die. As he was in the process of replacing them, a gust of wind hit the LRAS, pushing it over the cliff. McCrae tried to hold on to the right-side handle, but there was no stopping the heavy machine once physics became involved. The half-million-dollar piece of equipment crashed at the bottom of the cliff.
In the larger scheme of possible disasters in a war zone, the loss of an LRAS meant very little. But the Pentagon bureaucracy did not see it that way: soldiers were routinely required to account for every tax dollar spent, and the threat of having the cost of any lost equipment docked from their paychecks could loom large. The subsequent investigation into the loss of this LRAS would cause strife among the leadership of 3-71 Cav and, in the end, beget a tragic irony.
It began at 3-71 Cav’s new logistical base in Kunar, where Fenty assigned Ben Keating to figure out what had gone wrong and whom to punish for it.
Keating did not want this job. He wasn’t eager to punish enlisted men. He identified with them; he felt like he was there to serve them. As a member of the youth leader corps in his parents’ church, Keating had taken to heart the notion of leading as a servant, as Jesus had done. He would tell his mother that he’d learned more about how to lead a platoon from youth leader corps than from any of the training he’d gotten at boot camp.
Keating’s easygoing veneer masked a complicated mix of self-righteousness and actual righteousness. The intensity of his religious faith was of such an order that even his parents, both of whom were Baptist ministers, sometimes found it jarring. When he was a child, they’d joked that he knew more about the Old Testament than they did. Keating had been something of an odd kid, to be sure, spending hours reading his David C. Cook Picture Bible, a 766-page comic-book version of all the texts from Genesis through Revelation. He was particularly taken with the stories of King David and the tale of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, as rendered in the comic book:
After Jesus has washed all of the disciples’ feet, he sits down at the table again.
And that was Ben Keating. “You don’t ever ask your soldiers to do anything you wouldn’t do,” he would say. “You have to serve them to get the best leadership out of them.” Other soldiers might have come to the same conclusion in their own ways, but it was a safe bet that Keating was the only member of the 10th Mountain Division who’d brought with him to Afghanistan a copy of The Confessions of Saint Augustine—in Latin.
Keating had a true sense not only of service but of mission as well—and not the small kind, either. During college, after one young woman made it clear that her feelings for him were more like those of a sibling than those of a potential wife, Keating talked it over with his mother. He was very close to both of his parents.
“So how are you with that?” Beth Keating asked him.
They were walking in the woods behind his parents’ house.
“I’m okay, Mom,” Keating said. “I think I’m supposed to be doing something bigger with my life anyway.
“I need to do this,” he went on, referring to his military commitment. “So I guess this isn’t the time for me to be thinking of a long-term relationship anyway.”
What Keating was now doing in eastern Afghanistan wasn’t what he’d had in mind when he talked about serving his troops. All the paperwork made his head hurt, and he’d be in a bad mood all day as he solved problems for people who seemed to him incapable of doing anything for themselves. He would personally sign for some four to five million dollars’ worth of equipment daily—money he could never possibly pay back if something got irresponsibly damaged or mislaid. This man whose knowledge and devoutness rivaled those of a cleric was being consumed by work almost entirely clerical.
Now Fenty had ordered him to look into whether Willie Smith and Jake McCrae should have their pay docked for the loss of the LRAS. Keating found the very idea maddening; he saw this as one more instance of the typically myopic Army-brass sensibility that got underneath his skin and irritated him like a rash. He emailed his father, seeking guidance. The maximum pecuniary charge that Smith and McCrae faced was forfeiture of two months’ pay. Keating figured that penalty would add up to about one fiftieth of the cost of the LRAS, barely enough to buy one of the system’s power cables. He also reasoned that if the Army hit the two men that hard, neither would be likely to reenlist. Taxpayers had every right to seek an accounting for the lost LRAS, but was it really worth losing these two soldiers over? Had there truly been gross negligence? They were at the end of the Earth here, and for the love of God, the mountains of the Hindu Kush were windy. He was inclined to give the soldiers letters of reprimand—still a slap in the face, but one that might keep them in uniform.
Keating discussed his investigation and his thinking with Fenty, who pushed him to make a tougher ruling. Keating suspected that part of what motivated the squadron commander was a desire to impress his bosses, and he resented Fenty for putting him in that position. He resented him even more when he overheard him telling Major Richard Timmons—the squadron XO, and thus the middleman between Fenty and Keating—that he wondered if Keating had the “moral courage” to render such a judgment.
It would be hard to imagine a remark that could have insulted Keating more.
They set us up, Captain Frank Brooks thought to himself.
On April 29, Brooks had led the Barbarians into Chalas, a village in the Chowkay Valley. They’d been inserted at dawn a few days before, near some colorful poppy fields, their bright flowers all ready for the opium harvest. After surveilling the area for a couple of days, the Barbarians were ready to engage with the elders. Netzel and his men from Able Troop were watching their backs, having trudged half a mile east of the Barbarians’ observation post to get a better view of the village.
Brooks and a handful of men from his headquarters element—fire-support officer Lieutenant Erik Jorgensen, his radio man, and two troops who were pulling security—walked down from the observation post to the edge of the hillside village. An Afghan man met them there and took them to the middle level of Chalas, where the buildings were on stilts and looked like oversized steps, to see the seven or so elders. They were all so weatherbeaten and sunburned that it was impossible to guess which of them might be forty years old and which seventy. Sitting on logs and chairs in a spot where a pair of trails converged, the two groups talked for about two hours with the aid of an interpreter. The elders provided some basic history of their village.
“Are you Soviets?” one of the villagers finally asked.
The Barbarians looked at one another.
“No,” they explained, “we’re Americans, and we’re here on behalf of the government of Afghanistan.”
“The government of Afghanistan?” the elders remarked. “What is that?”
The Barbarians spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes going over everything from the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks to the Northern Alliance to the new Kabul government. After that, they moved on to the topic of the cultivation of poppy, used in opium production. The village elders denied growing any poppy, even though the surrounding hillsides were blanketed with it. The Americans noted that there was nothing wrong with their eyesight, and they weren’t idiots. The Chalas elders ultimately admitted that they grew the stuff but insisted they didn’t sell it to the Taliban—just to “normal” narco-traffickers, they said.
The Americans accepted this.
They next talked about the insurgents in the valley. The elders took the general party line: “Security is good here, we keep the fighters out ourselves, we don’t need your help.”
Before leaving, Brooks had his interpreter ask one of the elders if he could recommend a better route for them to take up the mountain to return to their camp. The trip down had taken them three hours. The elder told them to follow a drainage ditch up the hill and even offered to guide them. They ended up sucking wind up the trail as they watched the elder, who looked to be about sixty years old, churn along as if he were out on a Sunday stroll. The ditch turned out to lead almost directly back to their observation post. When they arrived there, they thanked the old man, who quickly disappeared.
Home again in their temporary digs, Brooks and his men started to unwind. They put down their weapons, removed their gear, took off their shoes, guzzled water, and lit up their smokes. Erik Jorgensen peeled off the T-shirt he’d been wearing for four days straight. It was pretty ripe.
Jorgensen had been drawn to military service in high school, after reading Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. When he signed his ROTC contract in 2000 at Northeastern University in Boston—obligating him to complete four years of active duty following graduation, in exchange for having his tuition paid—he was hoping he’d get lucky and be deployed to Kosovo or Bosnia so he could see some “action.” He now chuckled whenever he recalled his gung-ho pre-9/11 naïveté.
As dusk began to settle over the Chowkay Valley, Jorgensen tried to relax, yet he kept thinking that something felt a little off—like that old movie cliché about its being “quiet out there, almost too quiet.” And then, as if right on cue, there came a series of explosions, followed by yelling. A salvo of rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, had been fired at the Barbarians. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
Right away, Brooks noticed one thing about these RPGs: they were aimed just south of their position, hitting the path they’d used earlier in the day to walk down to Chalas. The enemy had assumed they were going to take the same route back. Brooks suspected that the elders had known that he and his men would be targeted—except for, perhaps, the one who had escorted them home.
The bangs of the RPGs were immediately succeeded by the rapid DADADADADADA of machine-gun fire. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to think that firepower should sound spectacular, maybe even otherworldly, like the lasers in Star Wars. But in truth, the sound of armaments is industrial and mechanical, underlining the factory nature of war and armies: this machine kills that worker, a new worker replaces him; this worker uses his machine to destroy that machine; a new machine needs to take its place.
Shit, thought Brooks. That was no ordinary machine-gun fire; it was from a Russian Dushka, a heavy antiaircraft machine gun, belt-fed with a tripod. This was no small thing, the fact that the enemy had a Dushka: it meant that besides having the territorial advantage, they might be able to outgun the Americans, too. The Barbarians had M240s but no .50-caliber machine guns, the only real match for the Dushka’s rate of fire and its 12.7-millimeter round, which could be propelled almost three quarters of a mile and through any type of body armor.
The Dushka raked the entire hillside with bullets, the rounds hitting the building that the Barbarians used for cover with a deadly thud. Jorgensen and the rest scrambled for safety, though they had no idea at first where the fire was coming from.
Before the shooting began, Netzel and four others from Able Troop—Sergeant Michael Hendy, Private First Class Levi Barbee, Private First Class Taner Edens, and Private First Class Brian Bradbury—had been sitting at the tip of a ridgeline overlooking the Barbarians’ outpost. They were chatting about how best to prepare for night operations when Netzel looked below them—down to where Brooks and his team had just been breaking down for the night—and saw rocks the size of basketballs exploding.
Everyone dove for cover.
For many of the troops, this was their first experience of having someone actually try to kill them. It wasn’t clear who their antagonists were, what group they were affiliated with, what was motivating them. Frankly, none of those things mattered.
The platoon from Able Troop and the Barbarians determined that the position the enemy was firing from was about half a mile away, on a parallel ridgeline to their west. They were slightly higher up than the Americans, maybe a hundred yards or so. Netzel and his men began firing back at the enemy, as did Brooks and his troops, using their M4 carbine assault rifles and M240 machine guns. The M240s were their only major weapon system, and the insurgents were just outside its effective range. The M240 gunners did their best to put fire on the larger Dushka, but it just wasn’t working out. Jorgensen was charged with coordinating outside firepower—artillery, mortars, helicopters, or jets—if it was needed. It was. Some two miles away from their position, 3-71 Cav had set up a 120-millimeter mortar team, and Jorgensen now radioed the mortarmen to give them an update, but he was unable to see the target and so couldn’t provide a grid coordinate for the enemy’s location.
In the middle of the observation post was an abandoned house that Brooks had designated as Barbarian Troop’s command post. The lower floor was vile, coated with filth and insects and infested with rats, so the men used only the roof. They called the building Chateau Barbarian.
A rickety ladder led up to Chateau Barbarian’s roof, and Jorgensen now scaled up to the top and tried to get into a position from which he could better see the valley. He was followed by Specialist Kraig Hill, whose classification as a “forward observer” meant that he was responsible for serving as the eyes on the ground for gunners, telling pilots, artillerymen, and mortarmen where to fire. Vulnerable, the two men crawled to a spot where they had a view of the Dushka’s location.
It was dusk. Jorgensen and Hill called up to an adjacent ledge where others from Able Troop had camped and were using a laser to pinpoint the enemy position. (Some others from Netzel’s patrol, including Brian Moquin, had relocated there as well.) They called back down, giving Jorgensen and Hill a grid coordinate, which they then called in to the mortarmen. Jorgensen looked toward the mortars, saw lights flash as the rounds left the tubes, and watched them crash near the Dushka’s position. The troops on the ledge could see more than a dozen figures on the mountain moving back and forth from the Dushka to a nearby shelter of some sort—perhaps a cave?—presumably hauling out ammo. The Dushka fired again.
Netzel was about to call in corrections to the rounds when on the radio he heard his lieutenant calling for a grid correction that would have dropped the rounds right on top of him and his men. Few officers had much confidence in this lieutenant.
“Stay the fuck off the radio!” Netzel barked, then offered the correct adjustments. The mortars fired again. The Dushka went silent, though other enemy fire continued.
Night fell on the Chowkay. Two Apache helicopter pilots checked in with Jorgensen and Kraig Hill, who gave them the relevant grid. Almost simultaneously, a call came in over the radio instructing all friendly positions to turn on their infrared strobe lights so that the Apaches would know which spots to avoid. Netzel and his four troops didn’t have a strobe, so he told his men to get behind cover, and he stood, exposed, pointing his rifle at the ground and hitting the button on its laser intermittently, hoping that this would be visible to the pilots. His heart was pounding out of his chest. Ultimately, whether the idea worked or they just got lucky, the Apaches avoided them, opening fire on the Dushka position and the enemy shelter.
Low clouds slid into the area, restricting what the crews of the Apaches could see and where they could safely fly. Fearing that a helicopter might plow into a hillside, the pilots raised the Apaches and left. The troops on the ledge, using an LRAS to track the heat signatures of the insurgents, reported that some of the enemy fighters were still moving in and out of the suspected cave, while others were heading down the back side of the parallel ridgeline.
Now the A-10 Warthogs rolled in. The Warthog is a single-seat straight-wing jet aircraft with superior maneuverability at low speeds and low altitudes. It was designed specifically to provide close air support for troops on the ground. Jorgensen had one crew put a five-hundred-pound bomb right into the enemy’s base. Then came another American plane with a two-thousand-pound bomb aimed at the same spot.
The fight was over.
Jorgensen suddenly realized he was freezing. He looked down and saw that under his gear, he was wearing only an undershirt. The enemy had caught him in midchange.
“We were lucky,” said Brooks to his men. During that four-hour firefight, the Barbarians had not sustained even a single injury. If the enemy had hit them earlier, when they were on their way down to Chalas, or if they had come back from the village using the same route, things would have gone down quite differently.
The next day, a Barbarian patrol cleared that parallel ridgeline and found blood trails, bits of bone and flesh, and bloody bandages. The insurgents’ refuge, whatever it had been—shelter or cave—no longer existed. Intelligence would later report that radio intercepts of the enemy’s communications from that day indicated that the fighters were foreign, possibly Chechen, based on a voice analysis.
Brooks and his crew returned to the village days later, wanting to know why the elders hadn’t warned them of the attack. The villagers insisted they hadn’t known a thing about it. Gooding then went down to meet with the Chalas elders a third time. He wanted to explain to them that the Americans were there to help, but that they could rid the area of the extremists only with the aid of the village. The men served Gooding rice and goat. There were more black flies than grains of rice on the plates. Gooding left the meeting with food poisoning and not much else.
In early May, Colonel Nicholson directed Fenty to begin extracting his troops from the Korangal and Chowkay Valleys. Operation Mountain Lion was complete; now 3-71 Cav’s mission to push into Nuristan was to begin. On May 3, Fenty ordered his staff to come up with a plan for Operation Deep Strike, comprising five helicopter extractions of his troops from the Chowkay: eighty-two soldiers waiting with their equipment to be picked up at five different makeshift landing zones by one large helicopter, accompanied by two Apaches, making several trips and dropping off troops and equipment at the temporary base Timmons had set up. The mission would be a go on May 5; the troops were already running out of water and food.
The presence of the Dushka machine gun in the Chowkay Valley had unsettled Fenty, Berkoff, and others at headquarters. Because the Chowkay was so remote, Berkoff had anticipated that the Taliban fighters there would be armed at most with assault rifles, RPG launchers, and a few light machine guns—certainly not with a seventy-five-pound heavy machine gun that could take down a Chinook. In addition to the Dushka attack in the Chowkay Valley, insurgents had shot at three Black Hawk helicopters in the same area just days earlier with small-arms fire and RPGs. Fenty decided that this level of enemy aggression dictated that the Americans should fly only after sundown, since U.S. troops and their night-vision goggles still owned the night. But nighttime flight in the mountains, of course, carried its own set of significant risks.
Fenty had other misgivings about this mission. The air-support group Task Force Talon, based at Jalalabad, was the most familiar with Kunar Province, but it had been scheduled for a safety stand-down day—a mandated twenty-four-hour period on the ground, to be spent reviewing policy and procedures and conducting safety training or briefings. Task Force Centaur, headquartered at Bagram Airfield, had been assigned to Operation Deep Strike instead. The fact that its personnel didn’t know the area worried Fenty. Some within Task Force Centaur had their own doubts as well. One officer felt that the Army had done Centaur’s men “an injustice by sending them to war before they were ready,” adding that the “proficiency of crew members is not up to standards.” Task Force Centaur, the same officer concluded, was “at best marginally prepared to conduct air operations” in Afghanistan.
The commander of Task Force Centaur, a forty-one-year-old lieutenant colonel named William Metheny, disagreed, though he did suggest that Chief Warrant Officer Third Class Eric Totten and Chief Warrant Officer Second Class Christopher Donaldson, the command pilot and copilot, respectively, take along an extra pilot to sit in the jump seat, to help reduce their workload and enable them to focus their attention outside the aircraft. He also recommended that an additional crew member accompany them to spot through the center cargo door and shout directions. It wasn’t as if Chinooks had rearview mirrors, and backing the aircraft onto the improvised landing zones would be tough. The strip for Able Troop, for example—designated PZ (for “pickup zone”) Reds—was so small and so perilous that Gooding had nicknamed it Heart-Attack Ridge. Not only would the Chinook likely manage to land only one or two wheels there, the general area was crowded with trees and other obstacles. Plus, they would be flying at night, wearing night-vision goggles.
Totten considered Metheny’s advice and opted to bring along another crew member but not a third pilot. With that decision made, he and Donaldson went through the checklist and assessed the mission as posing a moderate risk. Totten was a seasoned pilot, Donaldson was on track to becoming a pilot in command himself, and the two worked well together. The planning, preparation, crew selection, and training for this mission were all good. It was true that the pilots were unfamiliar with the area, and these would be some of the tightest landing zones they’d seen, but they could handle them, Metheny thought.
In the meantime, Fenty flew to Jalalabad Airfield to talk with Colonel Nicholson about where 3-71 Cav would go after all of its troops were back at the base at Naray. The next day, the lieutenant colonel, Timmons, Berkoff, and other officers huddled in a small brigade operations center to brief their commanders on the plans to extract their men from the Chowkay Valley. Online, Brigadier General James Terry, deputy commander of the 10th Mountain Division, participated from Bagram, as did the leadership of the aviation brigade.
It was just a few hours before the Chinook and two accompanying Apaches were scheduled to take off, and Terry said that Operation Deep Strike looked like a high-risk mission to him. “Who’s going to be in charge of this?” he asked Fenty.
“We’ve got Frank Brooks, the troop commander, on the ground out there,” Fenty said.
“What are your concerns about the risks?” Terry asked.
“Sir,” Fenty said, “I believe the real enemy out there will be the terrain.”
Staff Sergeant Adam Sears, of Able Troop, had missed most of the action during Operation Mountain Lion, having caught a wicked stomach bug that—combined with the thin air atop the mountain—required him to be evacuated back to a temporary logistical base that Timmons had rented for this mission, an empty compound surrounded by twelve-foot walls, just south of the Chowkay Valley.
On May 5, after recuperating for a few weeks, Sears was transported by a resupply chopper to the landing zone where Brooks and the Barbarians were set up. Moquin and a couple of others met him there and accompanied him back on a goat trail around the mountain ridge to PZ Reds, where Sergeant First Class Yagel directed him to prepare the pickup zone for the helicopter that would be arriving that night.
The twenty-four-year-old Sears had been to air-assault school, so he had some expertise when it came to helicopters. He’d assumed that the bird coming to pick up the troops would be a Black Hawk—a less imposing craft with a smaller rotor-blade span—and was stunned to learn that command was in fact sending a Chinook. Apart from the size differences between the two choppers, Sears’s view was that Black Hawk pilots were generally combat pilots, whereas Chinook pilots—while undoubtedly nice enough guys—were more the kind of soldiers who did supply runs from one safe landing zone to another. This landing zone, by way of contrast, was covered with dry, sandy soil and sloped 45 degrees downward to the edge of a cliff. And as if that weren’t challenging enough, command also wanted to do this at night?
“This is crazy,” he told Yagel.
The Chinook’s larger rotor-blade span—two rotor systems, each with a sixty-foot diameter, compared to the Black Hawk’s one big rotor with a diameter of fifty-three feet eight inches—made Sears’s task that much more difficult: he would have to get rid of anything the blades might hit if a sudden gust of wind happened to come up. Just five feet from the area where the Chinook would hover stood a tree, a gnarled claw of wood about ten inches in diameter.
“That needs to come down,” Sears said. But the only tools they had were two KA-BAR knives. For the next several hours, therefore, they all tried to chop down the tree with the knives—Yagel, Sears, Pilozzi, Moquin, Justin O’Donohoe, Specialist David Timmons, Jr., Sergeant Dave Young, and a new guy, Staff Sergeant Richard Rodriguez. Without any water to drink, the men had trouble building up the energy to keep going. They would razz one another as each took a turn trying to make a dent in the seemingly indestructible timber. Eventually, under the scorching sun, the group surrendered to the futility of the task.
Sears worked to make the zone as safe as possible in whatever other ways he could, setting up an infrared strobe light to indicate the landing area, close to the tire marks from where a Chinook had landed once before. He and Pilozzi added infrared chemical lights to flag hazards that the pilots should steer clear of. The lights would be visible only to the U.S. troops and pilots, all of whom would need to be wearing night-vision goggles.
Excerpted from The Outpost by Jake Tapper Copyright © 2012 by Jake Tapper. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.