Be forewarned. There is no deployment badassery here. This is only a story of an ordinary lieutenant leading ordinary men in difficult circumstances. I hope its lessons are of use to you.
We were about seventy-five Americans out on a small combat outpost (COP) in northeast Afghanistan. Because of the regularity and intensity of enemy IEDs, we didn’t make routine trips back to our forward operating base. If we weren’t on a bird or on foot, we didn’t usually go out.
My platoon operated in support of a larger maneuver element. We were MPs. Because our trucks were mounted with automatic grenade launchers and large machine guns, we were gladly welcomed by our sister dismounted elements.
The man in charge of our COP was CPT Flenly (not his real name). He was a good man, who authentically cared about his men. He was Ranger-tabbed, but he was not an infantryman familiar with battlefield maneuver. Neither were his soldiers. Yet, because he was the battlespace owner, we followed his lead – which sometimes led us into precarious situations.
A few weeks previous, he and his soldiers had conducted two separate “disruption operations” in the local area. They marched out of the front gate of our COP and moved about three kilometers to a Guardian Post (GP) used by the Afghan Local Police (ALP).
Each time, they went the same route. Each time, we responded as their quick reaction force (QRF). The general plan was that their larger element would march out of the gates to pick a fight. If something hairy happened or they took casualties, we would swoop in like cowboys with our gun trucks, pick up the injured, and provide any necessary support-by-fire.
On both occasions, two teams from one of my squads dismounted to retrieve casualties. The GP sat on top of a hill that was about two hundred meters from the road. For those two hundred meters, there was nothing. No cover – just open ground.
Each time we climbed the hill, my soldiers were gassed. They could barely walk up the thing – I couldn’t imagine them running up it. However, on both occasions, we were lucky. After the enemy made their initial attack, they left, and our responding force received very little fire, if any.
Then another mission came down: another movement to the GP – in the same fashion as the first two.
I didn’t like it. Neither did my squad leader. Our training taught us to avoid repetition. Otherwise, the enemy would pick up on our pattern and exploit a weakness.
Still, I didn’t want to bring up my concerns to CPT Flenly. I was afraid that I would give off the wrong impression – that I couldn’t hack it out there. I was worried about how he would see me.
My inaction was the wrong answer. It was symptomatic of larger vices I had and my men would pay for them all later.
One of Flenly’s lieutenant’s, 1LT Baker (not his real name) was to lead the mission. He held the mission brief that night around 1800. I didn’t attend because I figured we had done this two times before. How much different could it be third time out?
The problem with this was that my absence from the planning process removed my ability to speak about the mission. And if I couldn’t speak about the mission, how could I affect it as a leader? Because I failed to attend the brief, not only was I not informed of the latest intel, but I undermined any sort of rapport I could have had on the battlefield.
Baker’s element departed early the next day, around 0300, making their way to the GP in the dark. Their movement out went without incident. As we listened to their relaxed radio chatter, I thought that we wouldn’t have to leave the wire.
Around 1200, we heard a distant pop. The fight was on.
A few minutes later, our COP operations cell activated our QRF. The maneuver element had taken a couple of casualties that required MEDEVAC. We mounted our trucks and left the wire.
I remember listening to my squad leader brief the squad as we drove. He mentioned that two of Baker’s soldiers required CASEVAC to our COP HLZ and that he needed half the squad to dismount and move up the hill. He ended his message that the enemy was engaging our friendly elements at the GP with heavy suppressive fire and that we should expect the same in our movement.
We got out of the trucks and moved to consolidate in a protected position at the bottom of the hill. We moved up in two groups, spread out to limit damage from mass casualty producing weapon systems. About halfway up, I was exhausted. I looked around and saw my guys stopping and walking. I shouted for them to keep moving. Still, I remember literally walking up the hill, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, and hearing the rounds impact all around me.
We were physically unprepared to move up the hill.
Two fire teams made it to the top. One of our M249 gunners had a weapon malfunction and had fallen behind. My squad leader and his team leader were with him. They made an easy target on the side of the hill and they still had another hundred meters to go. Eventually, the gunner took a ricochet to the foot. A few moments later, my squad leader was shot in his upper leg. There was no way they were going to make it up the hill, and because we were gassed, there was no way we were going to be able to help them. Realizing this, the exposed soldiers literally threw themselves down the hill, rolling and rolling, until they reached the bottom and made it back to the trucks.
My mistakes became real to me on top of that hill. We were surrounded on three sides. No one was coming to rescue us. It was us against them – and we alone would decide if we made it home.
I realized my complacency. I didn’t pack my NVGs. Like some made-for-T.V. mistake from Blackhawk Down, I thought it would be a daytime mission like the other two before it. Worse, I only had three full magazines and a half-filled camelbak because I didn’t go through my gear before we left. I remember checking my mags and seeing them empty, realizing that I had failed to refill them before we left.
At the top, Baker had two seriously wounded men that needed MEDEVAC. Because of our inability to get them out on the trucks, a pilot risked his life to land a helicopter for extraction. Before taking off, an enemy RPG flew just over the helicopter. It was a bad day, but if that UH-60 had been shot down, it could have been much worse.
While in the GP, I caught up on the intel I should have learned at the brief the night before. Enemy numbers had grown significantly in the last week – and they had added another weapon to their arsenal: Dragunov sniper rifles. After removing fragments later, we would discover the rounds used were probably from a Dragunov.
We waited, holed up in the GP, for hours. The enemy would fire – we’d fire back. Eventually, air superiority saved us. Apaches and Kiowa helicopters responded. Even an A10 Warthog. It was a legitimate fight.
After enemy fire significantly subsided, 1LT Baker organized our movement out. The MPs would lead the dismounted column back to the COP. Yet, because we were still under fire, we conducted team bounds across another 100 meter open area to a small qalat (a kind of mud compound), just north of the GP. The idea was to pull security at the qalat until the rest of the element caught up. Once everyone got there, we’d move out.
When we all got to the qalat, the mass of soldiers started bunching up. Worse, the qalat was surrounded by open ground, like the GP. About fifty meters below the qalat lay a forest of trees and brush – a perfect place to launch a sniper attack from.
1LT Baker didn’t want us to hole up in the qalat, and we were spread out on the open hill. I knew we were not in a good position, but again, because of cowardice and a lack of rapport, I failed to speak up. As we waited to leave, I dreaded the first shots of an ambush.
Finally, we headed out. I told my guys to move out quick. We had been in the open too long and I wanted to get off the hill as soon as possible. Yet, my good intentions were hyper-focused.
As we moved down the hill, an explosion rocked my two teams and I, knocking us to the ground. The lead man had stepped on an IED or mine.
As we scrambled for cover after the explosion, my medic began evaluating injuries. Our man needed a MEDEVAC. While not a piece of shrapnel hit him, he was going into serious shock and could not be moved far.
Instead of taking cover off the hill, 1LT Baker kept most of the force at the top, in the open while calling for a MEDEVAC. After hours of waiting, a UH-60 landed and carried my soldier off.
We finally made our movement back to the COP near dusk. Miraculously, no soldier died that day.
I had failed in ten thousand ways. I was fundamentally selfish: I had been more worried about my personal status than the good of my soldiers. I was too afraid to confront contrary ideas, even though they were dangerous. I was lazy. My complacency left me exposed: I didn’t have the right equipment and my men were not prepared physically for their mission. Finally, I didn’t pay attention to my circumstances – in a rush to get off the hill, I allowed my emotions to control the situation.
After that day, I began carrying nine magazines instead of just seven – and they were always full. I kept an extra camelback ready. My NVGs were on me at all times. And after gathering some courage, I confronted CPT Flenly on the repeated missions – which he recognized as foolish and ended from that day forward.
I am thankful for those mistakes. They showed me who I really was – and where I needed to go. I must be humble. I must be vigilant. I must have courage. And though I fail ten thousand times, I must change myself to overcome.
A view of our gun trucks and the local terrain.
A short biography…I’m a farm boy from northern Wisconsin. After spending too many years studying at a desk, I decided to make something of my life in the U.S. Army. I branched Military Police and led a platoon in Afghanistan. Later, I attended SFAS and was selected (thanks to Military Athlete programming). After almost a year in the SFQC, I had to leave for family issues. I am now an attorney with the U.S. JAG Corps. I have five kids and a wonderful wife who puts up with my unceasing thirst for adventure and physical training.
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