The Last Patrol

In September 2009, the second platoon of Charlie Company arrived in Afghanistan with 42 men. Ten months later, nearly half had been killed or wounded, mostly in the Arghandab Valley—a key to controlling southern Afghanistan. Now these 82nd Airborne troops were getting ready to leave the Arghandab behind. They had one more dangerous job to do: a joint mission with the untried artillery unit that would replace them patrolling the fields, orchards, and villages they called the Devil’s Playground.
July 11, 6:05 a.m.

The day had just begun, and already there had been problems. The planned joint patrol left late from the combat outpost because radios weren’t loaded with the right frequencies, and the three dozen soldiers—12 from 2 Charlie, 23 from the 101st, and one Navy dog handler—moved slowly in the darkness, crossing grape fields and canals, hopping over mud walls, and stumbling through orchards, led by Dix, the bomb-sniffing dog. We arrived at the abandoned compound that would serve as a staging area just after dawn, so we had surely been observed.

The compound’s residents had been driven away by mines and fighting. A counterinsurgency falters when people don’t feel safe in their homes, but at the moment, this held some benefit for the Americans: no civilians would be in the crossfire. In the overgrown courtyard, six-foot sunflowers towered over marijuana plants. The rooms were strewn with a few old sleeping mats, and little else. As soldiers climbed onto the roof and set up machine-gun positions, to cover the northwest and northeast corners, they watched four Afghan men run away along the second canal, about 400 meters north.

Mike, the platoon’s interpreter, held the radio to his ear, and worry fell across his face. “They’re moving in to attack,” he said.

Gerhart leaned against a mud wall. “I hate this part,” he said, “waiting for it to start.”

Twenty minutes passed, and a single bullet snapped overhead. Stillness, then a few more shots. “Here we go,” Knollinger said. Soldiers on the roof ripped open the morning with long bursts of machine-gun fire. “They’re just harassing us,” Knollinger shouted up to them. “When we start taking effective fire, you’re not going to have any ammo left, so calm down.”

Staff Sgt. Anthony Farnsworth, head of the battalion’s sniper section—and Moon’s boss—had climbed onto the roof, where a series of humps corresponded with the rooms’ rounded ceilings below. He nestled between two humps, with his M-24 sniper rifle. He poked his head above the crest of one and searched for the source of the gunfire. He saw a large plowed field hemmed in by a five-foot mud wall, just east of the compound, and beyond that, an orchard. He squinted into the morning sun, still low on the horizon.

Bits of hardened mud sprayed his eyes as he heard the shot, a sharp crack from the orchard, 100 meters away. The bullet tore a hole in the roof. Had it been two inches higher, it would have gone into Farnsworth’s mouth and through his skull. Private First Class James Luke, next to him on the roof, gaped. “Goddamn, Sergeant, you almost got shot in the face,” he said, his words stretched by a deep Tennessee twang. He’d come to Afghanistan two weeks earlier as an 82nd Airborne replacement, with his close friend, the soldier who had been blown up on July 4. “Luke,” Farnsworth snapped, “shut the fuck up and fire your weapon.”

This was effective fire. More rounds zinged over their heads, from several directions. A half-dozen rifles and machine guns responded, ripping the tree line. Lachance, talking to the pilots of a pair of two-seat Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters, summoned a storm of rockets and bullets. Farnsworth climbed down a half hour later and marveled at what nearly was. An Irishman who had immigrated to the United States at 16, he’d served four deployments with the Rangers, most of those as a sniper. He’d had a few near-misses, but none that close. “My wife told me not to come out on this one. She said she had a bad feeling,” he told Lachance. “The last time she told me that, I spent three months in Walter Reed.”

Incoming fire built up through the morning, from the west, north, and east. A mortar round or rocket boomed outside the compound wall, and soldiers answered with tube-launched grenades. Over the handheld radio, Mike heard the Talibs call for reinforcements.

“They’re trying to get us outside, so we’re not in cover and they can lay waste to us,” Lachance said. This was true, but confrontation was also the point, to deny Taliban fighters the freedom to move through the area and, if possible, kill them. “If they keep probing us, and all we do is let them,” Gerhart said, “then we’re letting them set the conditions.”

11:22 a.m.

Gerhart, Lachance, and the dozen soldiers from the 101st charged out the door. They moved east through a long, dense orchard south of the compound, then turned north into another orchard—the one from which Farnsworth had been shot at and nearly killed. The pomegranate trees gave way to an open field, and the patrol moved across it under the sun, the temperature now well over 100 degrees. Already some of the new soldiers, unconditioned to the heat, terrain, and weight of their gear, were falling behind. Gerhart turned to Lachance. “Dude, I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared,” he said. “Naw,” Lachance said, “this isn’t too bad.”

The two Kiowas circled overhead and the Talibs watched. “We’re right on top of them,” one Talib radioed. “We can’t do anything, because of the helicopters.”

Lachance asked the pilots to fly just out of earshot. When the Talibs attacked, thinking the helicopters had left, he’d bring them back. The birds vanished and the patrol settled into a grape field, a series of three-foot-deep trenches with grapevines on the raised ground in between. This would provide good cover from which to fight. But before the trap could be sprung, the plan fell apart.

A new soldier, underhydrated and overheated, passed out. Then another.

Compared with bullets and bombs, heat usually causes only minor injuries, but this was severe. The two soldiers were unconscious—one had stopped breathing—and if their temperatures rose much more, their brains would bake. The 101st medic who had helped treat Moon started IV fluids, and others in the patrol gave up their water to douse and cool the casualties. They would soon be dehydrated too. Soldiers ate handfuls of grapes, heavy with juice. Lachance brought back the helicopters for protection. Gerhart radioed up a third heat casualty. The soldier lay on the ground and moaned, his muscles racked by heat cramps. Gerhart fumed. “Hey, bro,” he said, “I’ve got friends who have been hit by IEDs and didn’t bitch this much.” He called to Knollinger over the radio: “I need you out here, man.” Soon after, a fourth 101st soldier collapsed. Knollinger and the quick-reaction force filed out the door.

But the situation at the compound wasn’t much better. Two soldiers brought another man, barely conscious from heatstroke, into the dirt-floored room being used as an aid station. Spc. Clayton Taylor, 2 Charlie’s medic, cut a slit up his sleeve and searched for a vein as the soldier’s breath faded. “You gotta help me out here. Breathe,” Taylor shouted, inches from his face. “Blink if you understand me. Blink. Good job. Keep breathing. That’s your main concern.” Two more 101st soldiers were brought in, dazed and dehydrated. With the patrol and quick-reaction force gone, soon too few soldiers would be left to defend against attack. The gunfire continued, and panic started to spread through the compound. Staff Sgt. Bradlee Peltier, a 101st squad leader, seeming unsure what to do, stood next to his platoon leader, Second Lieutenant Zak Pantaleo. “Sir,” Peltier said, “I’m actually starting to get fucking scared.” More shots cracked overhead. “Our guys weren’t ready for this,” he told me later. “I knew we were going to be sucking, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

From the concealment of the orchards, Taliban gunmen watched Gerhart’s patrol in the grape field. “They have three casualties, and there’s another group moving toward them,” one fighter radioed to another. “We’ll wait until they’re together, and then we’ll hit them.”

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Brian Mockenhaupt, a former infantryman, is a writer in Detroit.

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