The steady drumbeat of the helicopter rotors was the best sound 2nd Platoon had heard all day. Coming from the southwest, the three dots quickly turned into two Apache attack helicopters escorting a medevac Black Hawk. The medevac stood off until the Apaches, with 30mm cannons blazing, made sure that any insurgents left in the area would flee or at least hide and stop shooting. It's strange how that sound can bring joy or dread depending on which side of the fight you're on.
Sgt. Brent Roberson, an intense, quiet young man from Houston, made his way to a clearing at the top of the mountain, where, if he'd cared to look, the border of Pakistan and its warren of smuggling routes were visible less than a mile away. He threw a yellow smoke canister to signal where the helicopter should land. Forty-five seconds after the chopper set down, soldiers had loaded Specialist Josh Sommers' stretcher and handed over the "casualty card" that would tell doctors back at OE - Forward Operating Base Organ E - what combat medic Gus Griechen and Sommers' buddies had done to save the 23-year-old's life. The Apaches headed back to OE, where the gunners, all women, would refuel and rearm and start the hunt again for more insurgents to kill.
Back on the gray, scrub-covered mountaintop, Lt. Adam "Moose" Jarmuz knew his platoon, part of the 101st Airborne, was still at risk. A mere 10 minutes after the Black Hawk lifted off, a bomb from an F-15 had taken out almost 40 of the enemy. But if the Americans stayed where they were, it would only be a matter of time before the insurgents would muster a larger force to oppose them. So as the afternoon waned and turned into the absolute darkness that is night in Afghanistan, the platoon made its way - tripping, stumbling, out of water and food, with cliffs all around them - back down the mountain in a 10-hour push to safety that some of the men later described as more terrifying than the firefight.
It was just another mission out of Combat Outpost Margah, one of the most remote U.S. posts in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. Another bloody firefight for the part of the company that's taken some of the heaviest casualties in this conflict. Just another day in America's longest war.
The United States has now been in Afghanistan for more than nine years - longer than the Soviets, who left in utter defeat after a conflict that turned into what many consider their version of Vietnam. When this war began, as a result of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only Afghanis living in large cities even knew those attacks had occurred, let alone participated in or approved of them or had even heard of a man named Osama bin Laden.
On 9/11, Gus Griechen was sitting in Ms. Larson's sixth-grade class in Dillingham, Alaska. Sgt. First Class Stephen "Smoke" Peacock, a career soldier from Portland, Ore., had just finished a deployment in Kosovo. That day on the mountain in Afghanistan in June 2010, Peacock would help save Sommers', Griechen's and all of 2nd Platoon's lives with the skills he'd honed for 22 years.
The U.S. now has about 98,000 troops in Afghanistan, and as of this week, 1,493 had been killed in action, about a quarter of the totals from the war in Iraq. Almost as many soldiers died in 2010 in Afghanistan as died in Iraq in three years. After all this time, when pundits and politicians talk about winning the war, they have yet to define what winning is.
In 2001, sending troops to Afghanistan seemed, for many, to be a just response to the terrorist attacks - more so than sending troops to Iraq would be. Afghanistan was where bin Laden, founder and spiritual leader of the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks, was widely believed to be in hiding and planning other attacks. But as in some other wars that the United States has fought, progress is hard to detect. The measure of success can't be the number of enemy dead or the extent of public works projects completed. As fast as the enemy are killed, their ranks are refreshed by young men from Pakistan and the Middle East. No sooner are the projects completed than they start to fall into disrepair and ruin. Success in Afghanistan is a fleeting notion.
In 2011, most Americans might be hard-pressed to say who the enemy is in Afghanistan, or what - beyond finding and killing bin Laden - our objectives are there. The people of Afghanistan might have the same difficulty. For them, Americans are merely the latest in the list of foreign powers - including bin Laden's al Qaida - who have come to their mountainous, tribal-dominated country in the last half-century for reasons that, intrinsically, have little to do with Afghanistan itself. Taking a longer view, Afghanistan has been a crossroads for commerce, politics and power for centuries - a place that's been called the graveyard of empires.
The men in Jarmuz' 2nd Platoon have distinct personal opinions about a lot of those things, as do the cooks from New Orleans at OE, where soldiers go for transport on their way out of Afghanistan, and the gunners - both women - whose mastery of the Apache cannon took out 80 enemy combatants in June alone. But at the end of the day, for the soldiers and the cooks and the pilots and the gunners, their opinions on those things don't matter. What matters is getting through the day, getting through the mission and covering one another's asses the best they can. The goal is that all your friends and "brothers" come back safe.
Abu Company's two platoons take turns manning Margah. When one unit is at Margah, the other is at Forward Operating Base Boris, which is larger than Margah and about four kilometers farther from the Pakistan border. FOB Boris, like many U.S. military facilities, is named after a fallen soldier, Captain David A. Boris, killed in Afghanistan in November 2007.
Abu Company is part of a unit known as the Rakkasans, which in turn are part of the storied 101st Airborne. The Rakkasans got their name during the occupation of Japan after World War II; loosely translated, the word means "falling down umbrella men," not a bad moniker for an airborne unit. Generals William Westmoreland, Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. and David Petraeus all served in the Rakkasan. The unit was deployed three times to Iraq, once to Kosovo and twice thus far to Afghanistan.
Abu Company's mission, under the command of Captain Chris Watson, was to disrupt the supply lines and stop Taliban and foreign fighters from coming into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Their other task was to provide security for giant convoys supplying U.S. Army outposts all over eastern Paktika province.
The war here is a game of cat and mouse. The Americans patrol on foot and in vehicles, trying to draw the enemy into a fight or disrupt enemy operations by their mere presence. Rocket and mortar attacks hit Margah and Boris almost daily. The rockets are announced by a distant rumble and shriek on arrival, but mortars are silent death. You don't even realize you're under attack until the first one explodes. Then experienced gunners can adjust their fire and "walk" the deadly shells onto their targets. In the meantime, men run for the cover of bunkers.
The troops generally mistrust local Afghans - Pashtuns, whose only real allegiance is to their tribe. Even during shuras - regular meetings with village elders - the tension is palpable. Those who want to cooperate don't dare, for fear of a knock on the door late at night from the Taliban. The bazaar just outside of Boris is an example. The people simply glare at the Americans when they patrol there, barely concealing their disdain and hatred. Many of the young soldiers lump all Afghans into the group that supported bin Laden and treat them with equal contempt.
Even with Abu Company at full strength, theirs would be a daunting task. Abu Company these days has 85 men, compared to its full strength of around 150. At full strength, the company might be able to go on longer missions and take the initiative in bringing the war to the insurgents.
Abu Company's mission is greatly complicated by tribal politics. Most of the smuggling routes in the region are controlled by the powerful Haqqani tribe. Through the generations, tribal groups like the Haqqanis have alternately fought and collaborated with the foreign powers and central governments that tried to control them. Clan and trade alliances go back centuries. When legitimate trade didn't bring in enough money, the clans turned to smuggling and drug running.
Watson, who as an enlisted man fought in the "Black Hawk Down" rescue in Somalia, was no novice to combat action. And as in Mogadishu, he was used to fighting with a unit that was not at full strength and on the enemy's home turf.
A key part of fighting under those conditions is artillery and air support. And for Abu Company at Boris and Margah, artillery meant Stephen Peacock, whose gun crews operated 155mm howitzers from Boris.
"Smoke" Peacock joined the Army right out of Portland's Fort Campbell High School in 1985. He initially enlisted in the National Guard and then joined the regular Army in 1987.
The Army sent him to Fort Sill, Okla., for basic training, and he stayed for artillery school. He initially trained on 105mm howitzers but would eventually be proficient in all of the gun systems the Army uses. Three deployments in 12 years - two in Iraq and one in Kosovo - would eventually cost him his marriage. He was divorced in 2005. Now he's married to Lisa, who works helping families of soldiers. Peacock's son Brian turned 18 in May and has followed his dad into the Army and the artillery. The sergeant hopes that they'll get to serve together someday.
Peacock didn't get his nickname from his chain-smoking habit. It's the traditional nickname for platoon battery sergeants, dating back to the Civil War, when battery commanders had to walk in front of the guns, in front of their smoke, to observe shell impacts.
Troop strength problems affect Peacock and his gun crews as well. With the end of the hated "stop loss" orders that forced soldiers to keep serving beyond the end of their enlistments, the Army forgot to subtract departing soldiers when they figured his unit's needs. Before leaving for Afghanistan, he got to train his new gun crews for only two weeks. Weathered and tan, he demands perfection from his soldiers and is merciless in his criticism of them. In Afghanistan, lives depend on them getting it right every single time.
Gus Griechen had already signed up for classes at the University of Alaska when he changed his mind and joined the Army, headed for the infantry. His dad was very proud, Griechen said, but his mom was sad and worried. So he relented and told her he would become a medic instead. She died from cancer on his birthday in 2009, six months before he deployed to Afghanistan - never realizing, he suspects, that a combat medic's job put him in the thick of any fighting.
In the two Apaches that provided crucial air support on the mountain that day in June, both gunners were women - two of four women in the Apache squadron, based about 30 minutes' flight time from Boris. All four take turns with their crewmates at piloting and operating the 30mm cannons. And while the women in the unit are particularly known for their deadly gun skills, they take exception, not surprisingly, to being picked out for their gender. In one way, though, their gender does matter: They give out minimal personal information because they've been told that their gender would cause them to be targeted by the insurgents. Of the two gunners that day, one was a short, slim brunette; the other a tall, blonde, snuff-dipping single mom. When they talked about their work in the Apaches, they both talked with the passion of those dedicated to jobs they love.
Josh Sommers, a rifleman on his first deployment, loves rap and hip-hop music and has no use for ignorant people. According to friends, he has "mad skills" at the Diablo and World of Warcraft computer games.
When 2nd Platoon arrived at Margah from Boris, they got a too-warm welcome. A mortar exploded about 400 meters away while the two huge Chinooks were still unloading the troops. As the troops ran for cover and the birds lifted off, another round hit where the helicopters had just been, destroying some equipment.
On this trip, 2nd Platoon would just stay overnight, using Margah as a jumping-off point for their mission. Whichever platoon was there on 30-day rotation patrolled day and night and pulled guard-duty shifts with boredom broken by frequent rocket attacks.
Well, at least the accommodations were luxurious. Margah is a stone-walled compound about 600 yards long and half that wide, with watchtowers at each corner, manned by the Afghan National Army or Afghan Border Police. Inside are three buildings: a living and operational space for the Americans, a vehicle storage building with heavy weapons emplacements on the roof, and a third with barracks for the Afghan military. "Primitive" and "austere" don't come close to describing the conditions.
Chow is almost exclusively MREs, with the occasional feast of steaks. There is no heat or air conditioning, no telephone or Internet connections. Inside, the bare concrete walls are crowded with cots where the soldiers sleep in shifts, if they can sleep at all. Every square foot of floor space is covered with personal items and weapons.
Ammunition is stacked in the halls, and the operations center is full of communication and video gear. There's plenty of free time, and the soldiers use it to sleep, listen to music, play computer games and work out in the gym.
There is a very distinctive odor to the combat outpost and everyone in it. Many of the soldiers don't shave every day, or change their uniforms. The "facilities" are two Portacans; the output is collected in bags and burned. Showers are ice cold - if the tanks have been filled. Many soldiers warm water in bottles out in the sun, if they take a shower at all, and most don't. By the time the soldiers finish their rotation there, they look a bit like well-armed homeless people.
On its second morning, 2nd Platoon struck out for Hill 2600, near a mountain called Patrón (like the tequila - the American military has named local mountains for liquors and local roads for vehicles). Their mission was to lie in ambush on a site from which the enemy has often launched rocket attacks. The Americans have shot so much artillery at the site that the ground is covered in the steel fragments of shells. Tripod holes in the ground showed where insurgents had set up their rocket launcher, time and time again. This time, if the enemy walked into the "kill box," the platoon would destroy them.
It was an exhausting climb, but the first few hours were uneventful. Then around 3 p.m., the platoon began to take mortar fire. The first round hit far away, but the enemy gunner made a fast adjustment, and the next two rounds exploded within 100 meters of the troops. This was not part of the plan.
Jarmuz immediately called for artillery support from Boris and air cover from the Apache gunships. When the helicopters arrived overhead, the insurgents tried to shoot them down with a heavy machine gun.
The Apaches fought for almost three hours, making runs to OE to refuel and rearm. The day ended with a spectacular air strike. The 2,000-pound bomb stopped the fight long enough for the platoon to continue up the mountain another 500 meters, where they settled in for the night. While there was no longer much chance to plan an ambush, their presence would certainly draw the insurgents into a fight.
The next morning, Jarmuz had spread his platoon across a north-south ridgeline, facing east. Pakistan was less than two kilometers away, and chatter from enemy radios made the unit uneasy.
Besides the basic fighters, the platoon included Pfc. Griechen, the battlefield medic; Sgt. Erik Butler, a forward observer responsible for calling in artillery; and a soldier wielding the 60mm mortar. Sixty yards behind them, two Air Force specialists were there to call in air strikes, along with two men from Army intelligence and an interpreter.
As soon as the sun came up, Butler called in information to pinpoint the most likely avenues from which the enemy might attack - it would make artillery strikes faster and more accurate.
Around 2:30 p.m., all hell broke loose. The platoon started taking rocket-propelled grenade fire from the northeast and rifle fire from the east and southeast. The firing was intense, and mortars began to fall nearby.
A single grenade hit a tree at the platoon's command position, nicking Jarmuz in the neck and damaging Butler's eardrum. But it did the most damage to Sommers, who'd been closest to the impact. A fragment penetrated his helmet and skull, laying open his brain. He was also bleeding heavily from neck and thigh wounds. The whole platoon began to return fire. Roberson started doing what he could for Sommers, and the call went out for "Doc."
Butler, at Jarmuz' order, immediately called FOB Boris, asking for its long-range artillery to lay down suppressing fire. But the platoon knew it could take as long as 30 minutes to get that started - a lifetime in battlefield terms. Not because Peacock and his gun crews were slow, but because of the peculiar rules of engagement that the Americans fight under in Afghanistan. Higher-ups in the battalion command structure had to check maps to see whether the insurgents' position was too close to any buildings. If it had been, permission to fire would have been denied. Abu Company knew that, in this case, there were no buildings around.
In the meantime Griechen had heard the medic call. He was about 100 yards from the command post, and as soon as he started moving, it felt like every insurgent in the hills started shooting at him. He was pinned down, along with two others.
Finally there was a lull, and all three broke cover and ran for the command post. Griechen fell down several times - but the last, at least, was a lucky move. One of his buddies said later that the last time the medic fell, machine-gun fire whistled right through where his head would have been.
Luck on the battlefield is a good thing. Had Griechen and the two others not moved when they did, they likely would have been killed. The enemy mortar team had indeed adjusted their fire to target the medic's original position. Less than a minute after the three ran for the command post, their position took a direct hit from a mortar.
The command post, shielded from direct fire by a boulder, was a hive of activity. Every rifle and machine gun in the platoon was firing. The mortar carrier had fired all 13 of his 60mm rounds in about two minutes and had switched to his rifle. As soon as Griechen had bandaged Sommers' head, the decision was made to move 60 yards up the hill to where the Air Force controllers and intelligence crew were posted.
Griechen and three others put Sommers on a litter and set off up the hill, under fire. When they reached the new position, Roberson started an IV, but the incoherent soldier, flailing about, dislodged it, and it had to be done again.
Suddenly a gigantic explosion sent a couple of soldiers flying through the air - unharmed, as it turned out. Peacock's crews back in Boris had gotten the OK to fire, but their first round, though accurate, had hit too close for comfort. Butler called in a correction, and the long guns shifted their pounding fire to the opposite slope, closer to the insurgents.
Back at Boris, Peacock worked feverishly to keep the wall of steel between the Americans and the enemy. His crew's guns have fired more counter-fire missions than any other guns in eastern Afghanistan. With the size of the American patrols being so small, artillery and air power often make the difference between life and death. Peacock's job was twice as difficult as it should have been that night: An accident had put one of his two guns, along with its crew, out of action. A bad fuse apparently had allowed a round to explode as it left the barrel of the gun, and six crewmembers were wounded. Had the explosive gone another 30 feet, it would have killed everyone in the other gun crew.
On the mountain, Jarmuz was calling for a medevac and air strikes. The medevac would take at least another 20 minutes to arrive. The air strike would get there first. A French Mirage jet made contact with the air controllers, and Butler directed the pilot where to drop the 500-pound laser-guided bomb.
Unfortunately, the pilot pulled up on his first approach and went around, giving the insurgents time to take cover. On his second run, he released, and the bomb hit close to the target Butler had aimed him at. Only about seven minutes had passed since the fight started, but it seemed like a lifetime to those men on the mountain.
In the ensuing lull, it was the insurgents' turn to regroup. They knew that they were in danger: Peacock's guns were already finding their mark, and aircraft were on station, making escape much more difficult. They knew that if they were caught on the mountain after dark, they would almost certainly be killed by the Apaches that stalk them in the night.
By this time, Roberson had laid down the smoke canister to mark the landing zone for the Blackhawk, and the Apache pilots gave the go-ahead. Less than a minute later, Sommers was on his way to OE.
Griechen had won the battle on the mountain to keep Sommers alive, and Peacock had kept the enemy at bay with withering fire. The exclamation point came when an American F-15 delivered its 2,000-pound bomb on the enemy fighting positions. Later assessments would show that Butler's targeting for the bombs and artillery had killed almost 40 fighters.
Still to come was the terrifying 10-hour march off the mountain for 2nd Platoon. Jarmuz figured that getting his men off the mountain was the better part of valor: Even though they had not been able to set up their ambush on the insurgents who'd been shelling Margah, they had engaged a large enemy force and inflicted significant casualties.
When they finally hit the road, two trucks, commandeered by their compadres back at Margah arrived to pick them up and drive them back. As bad as Margah was, there's no place like home.
The battle by Jarmuz' platoon on the mountain did nothing to change the overall strategic picture in Afghanistan. But those kinds of actions continue to take their toll on the enemy. It is obvious that more and more "green" insurgents are in the battle. The veterans are taking more of a leadership and training role and putting the "new guys" out to do battle with the Americans. Combine that with a dramatic increase in missile strikes in the tribal region just east of Margah and Boris, and the generals in Kabul will tell you that we're making "significant progress" but that it will be a long, slow fight.
When the platoon flew back to Boris, they were haggard, exhausted and emotionally drained. What was to be a routine mission had turned into a life-and-death struggle, with one of their friends gravely wounded. For days no one in the platoon wanted to talk about it. They just wanted to get clean and eat and sleep.
And Jarmuz and Watson let them do just that.
Seven months later, Abu Company left Afghanistan in bits and pieces. Most of the unit had gone home by the end of January.
Sommers is in Florida. His prognosis is good, but his head injury was so severe that his doctors' predictions for his long-term recovery change from day to day.
After Abu Company left Margah for FOB Salerno and points north, a force of 120 insurgents foolishly decided to try and overrun the 20-plus Americans at Margah on Halloween. At the end of the fight, 92 insurgents had been killed and two captured. Five Americans were lightly wounded.
Nasiruddin Haqqani, son of the infamous insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, has reportedly been arrested by Pakistani authorities. Following his arrest, there were an unprecedented four drone strikes on one village in 24 hours, a clear indication that Americans know where the Haqqani leadership is and that they're going after them.
Don Jones can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
Bill Putnam can be reached at [email protected]. More of his work can be seen at billputnam.net.