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.
“I’ve Never Been a Fearful Guy”

Gerhart’s squad should have had two more 2 Charlie soldiers for the last trip to the Devil’s Playground, but they had been refusing to patrol. One of them was Spc. Matthew Emmite. Lean and strong, with ropey muscles, Emmite had once wanted to be a Special Forces soldier. Instead, after months in the Arghandab, he just wanted out of the Army.

The turning point, Emmite told me back at the combat outpost, began on June 3, during a daylong firefight. As he crossed a field, an AK-47 burst sounded up ahead, and a moment later, soldiers cried: “Medic! Medic!” Trained as an emergency medical technician, Emmite treated casualties on the occasional day when Doc Taylor, the regular medic, didn’t patrol, or when there were multiple casualties. He sprinted forward and found Pfc. Justin Loveless facedown on the road. Blood pooled near his mouth as more bullets cracked down the road. The round had punched through his chin, skimmed along his jaw and down his neck, clipped his lung, and torn through his back, leaving a billiard-ball-size exit wound. Emmite dragged him off the road and bandaged the wounds—for which he’d be recommended for a valor medal—as Loveless talked to him through broken teeth. Emmite and others loaded him onto a farmer’s cart and wheeled him to the medevac helicopter. For the first time during this deployment, a nauseating thought came to Emmite: I may not make it.

Four days later, he and his squad raced to help another 2 Charlie squad that had been hit by an IED that wounded four, near the second canal. Emmite saw Spc. Brendan Neenan lying in the rubble of the mud wall he’d been thrown through. His legs were gone. He then treated Spc. Matthew Godard, missing one leg and part of another. That night they learned that Neenan had died, and Emmite couldn’t recall ever crying so hard.

His slide continued. On patrol, he constantly envisioned IEDs exploding, and at the outpost, his anxiety attacks grew from a few minutes to an hour or more. His chest tightened and he hyperventilated. His hands shook. Just looking at his body armor and weapon, propped against the wall of his room, fanned panic. He worried that he’d freeze up and endanger others, or that he’d be called upon to treat more mangled friends. He started taking antidepressants. “It’s almost embarrassing. I’m 27 years old. I’m supposed to be a leader in the platoon, and I’m losing it,” he told me. “I’ve never been a fearful guy. But this fear would grip my whole body.”

Emmite wasn’t alone in this. “All I know is, I’m sick of seeing people laying there without their legs,” another soldier told me. “That shit’s fucking with my head.” Many seemed to recognize at least a bit of themselves in Emmite. “See this?” Doc Taylor asked me one afternoon as he showed me a few of his many tattoos. He held out his right arm. Muscle fibers in his biceps twitched just under the skin. “Ever since the first IED,” he said. His left hand was steady, but he couldn’t stop the right from trembling. “I’ve got this little box in the back of my mind,” Taylor said, “where I put all these thoughts and emotions.” Several other soldiers told me the same. They’d open that box another day, back at Fort Bragg. For now, they said, they couldn’t afford to dwell on the fear and sadness.

After Neenan’s death, Army mental-health specialists came to Combat Outpost Tynes. Several soldiers spoke privately with them. They were all told roughly the same thing: I know what you’re going through. I know it’s tough, the nightmares and the fear. They’re all normal. You just have to get out there and keep going for your guys. That wasn’t what Emmite had expected; he wanted to leave the Arghandab, at least for a short break at the main airbase in Kandahar. His squad leader, Staff Sgt. Edwardo Loredo, gave him several days off at Tynes, then tried to coax him back. For the squad’s next patrol, in late June, they would drive to an intersection near the second canal. “Can you go?” Loredo asked. He assured Emmite that the day would be mellow, and he’d stay inside the heavily armored truck. Emmite went, and near the intersection, he watched Loredo step into the road to guide the other trucks into position. Loredo raised his rifle to peer through the scope. He took a step. And then his body went flying through the air. Loredo lay in the road, his legs mangled. “The one day I try to come back, and I watch my squad leader blow up in front of me,” Emmite said. At first, Loredo was alert and talking, but shrapnel had pierced his abdomen and sliced through his organs. He died a few hours later during surgery.

Another soldier in Gerhart’s squad, Spc. Phillip Churchill, had seen these same incidents and refused to go back to where they took place. After Loredo’s death, another mental-health specialist came to Combat Outpost Tynes, listened to Emmite and Churchill, and said their reactions were normal. They could patrol. If they still refused, they could be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which could mean a court-martial and prison time, or, at the least, a loss of rank and several weeks of extra duties.

The leaders I spoke with told me Emmite and Churchill had been good, reliable soldiers; it was understandable that they’d be shaken and scared. But everyone was scared, they said. “Every time they’re not willing to go out on patrol, someone else has to go out and could lose his life,” said Sergeant First Class Robert Cartwright, who had replaced 2 Charlie’s platoon sergeant, killed in March. The threat of punishment was meant to motivate Emmite and Churchill, deter others from following their path, and appease the anger of other soldiers who had continued to patrol. But it also left 2 Charlie’s leaders in the uncomfortable position of punishing men because they were afraid to die.

July 11, 12:49 p.m.

Out in the grape furrows, the sun beat on the patrol, and the four heat casualties lay with IV tubes stuck in their arms. The medevac helicopters were en route, and Gerhart needed help securing the far side of the landing zone, a grassy field to the east. He looked around the group for volunteers. “Fuck it,” said Spc. Ethan McDaniel, who’d just arrived as part of the quick-reaction force. “If you’re going, then I’m going.” When Gerhart and Knollinger had gathered the squad earlier in the week and told them about the last patrol south of the second canal, McDaniel’s stomach had turned sour. “Is there anyone who doesn’t want to go?” Gerhart had asked. After all the losses, he wanted to know how his men felt about the patrol. “It’s okay,” Gerhart said. “You can tell us.” Only McDaniel’s hand had shot up. But here he was. He picked up a 27-pound M-240 machine gun—its owner unconscious and near death—and ran with Gerhart into the field. They dove into the high grass and fired east into a vineyard and north at some abandoned buildings. Bullets tore up the dirt around them, and when the first medevac helicopter arrived, it beat the grass flat, further exposing them to Taliban gunfire as three of the heat casualties were loaded on board. Gerhart called out targets and McDaniel worked the muzzle back and forth, squeezing off short bursts.

Pfc. Luke, the newcomer from Tennessee, launched a smoke grenade onto a building 200 meters north, from which they were taking fire. Red smoke billowed from the roof, marking the building for the Kiowa helicopters, which pounded it with rockets. The patrol loaded the fourth heat casualty into a second medevac helicopter, then started the long jog back to the compound. Gunfire followed them as they ran across the field and through a vineyard. They threw themselves down and took cover at an orchard’s edge, except for Knollinger, now carrying the M-240 machine gun. He stood and fired it from his hip, belts of ammunition slung over his shoulders. “Get down!” Farnsworth yelled, and then he laughed, so hard he couldn’t fire his own weapon. “That’s fucking awesome,” Farnsworth called to him, as Knollinger sprayed the tree line to the west.

The patrol ran south, faces red and slick with sweat. Temples throbbed, lungs burned, leg muscles trembled. A new soldier slowed down and fell behind. “They’re shooting at us!” Knollinger yelled. “We ain’t got time for this shit. Keep moving!” Just ahead, Spc. Paul Drauszewski saw a rifle barrel poke from a small window 40 meters away and fired a grenade, a perfect shot that glided into the opening and exploded with a deep, dull thud.

The patrol headed through the orchard, toward a break in a six-foot mud wall that led onto a narrow dirt road. Spc. Adam Jackson stepped into the road and turned right, rifle raised, to secure it so the others could pass. The path exploded in gunfire, and a half-dozen rounds snapped past, inches from his face. As he fell backward into the orchard, he saw a gunman 15 feet away, behind a bend in the wall on the other side of the road. He collapsed against Luke and McDaniel, directly behind him. Luke stepped into the road, fired several rounds, and popped back into the orchard. McDaniel lifted his machine gun above the wall and sprayed into the road. The Taliban machine gun fired again. “We’re pinned down,” Jackson called back to Knollinger. “Frag it,” Knollinger said.

Pfc. Larry Nichols pitched a grenade to McDaniel, who was so exhausted from running that he had trouble pulling the pin. He propped himself on one knee and lobbed the grenade like a basketball hook shot. He watched it arc up, over a pomegranate tree, and wondered whether it would clear the wall, or drop on their side. “Oh shit, it’s close!” he yelled. “Get down!” They jammed their faces into the dirt, as the grenade thundered in the road and shook the ground beneath them. The group stumbled across the road and into the next orchard. As he crossed, McDaniel saw two legs sticking out onto the path, one foot bare, the other still clad in a sandal. Luke took point. Jackson, his muscles weak from dehydration, nearly collapsed. McDaniel vomited and kept running. Bullets cracked and zinged and kicked up bursts of dust at their feet.

And then the fight was over. The patrol poured back into the compound, panting, faces flushed and twisted with anger. McDaniel threw his helmet across the courtyard. “Fuck those guys,” he said.

Gerhart gathered his men. They shook with adrenaline and wore crazed, ecstatic smiles. They hugged each other and marveled. “I don’t know how we’re not dead,” Jackson said. Gerhart told them how proud he was of their actions. “Every last one of you did the right thing out there,” he said. “And we’re never going out with these guys again. Ever, ever, ever again.”

Presented by

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

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In