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.
1:51 p.m.

The 2 Charlie soldiers sat guzzling water under a tree in the compound, and on the radio the Talibs were once again coordinating an attack. “Kill everyone,” a commander said. “Don’t let any of them leave alive.” Aircraft overhead had seen more Taliban fighters moving toward the compound. While it was unlikely the Talibs could successfully storm the compound, they could cause devastating casualties if they dropped mortar rounds into such a small area. The soldiers had already overheard Taliban fighters asking for a supply of rocket-propelled grenades.

Gerhart and Lachance wanted the nearby empty buildings from which they were taking fire to be hit by an airstrike, but the rules of engagement limited the use of heavy firepower for fear of killing civilians, an outcome to be avoided above all others in counterinsurgency. For new soldiers, unfamiliar with the terrain and the Taliban’s tactics, deciding to call for an airstrike is a nerve-racking task. Misplaced bombs can end careers.

But the 82nd paratroopers, steeped in months’ worth of close calls, losses, and near-constant anxiety, had reached a breaking point—so much so that self-preservation and concern for comrades now outweighed protocol and rank. Staff Sergeant Gerhart called over 2nd Lt. Pantaleo, the 101st platoon leader. “I don’t know if you know this or not, but everyone around here fucking hates us,” Gerhart said. “The birds are clear to engage. And if you don’t clear them, I will take your radio and take the battery out so you can’t talk on it anymore. You’re not putting my guys at risk anymore. You dudes need to think about my guys, who have been out here for 11 fucking months.

“Are we good?” Gerhart asked.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Pantaleo said.

“No one is going to get in trouble, sir,” Gerhart said. “They’re fucking shooting at us. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but this is supposed to be a partnered mission, where I advise you guys on what to do out here, and instead it’s turning into a search-and-rescue for a whole platoon. Good?”

“We’re good, Sergeant,” Pantaleo said.

“Then tell them to engage these goddamn fucking faggots that are trying to kill us right now,” Gerhart said.

The patrol had run out of IV bags, was nearly out of water, and was low on machine-gun ammunition. Over the radio, a Taliban fighter said his men were low on ammo and needed a resupply. The soldiers laughed. “Them and us both,” one said. With another medevac helicopter en route to pick up the worst of the heat casualties from the compound, five 2 Charlie soldiers ran into the field east of the compound to secure it. They traded shots with gunmen firing on the helicopter, and a second bird dropped off two black body bags packed with water bottles and a box of medical supplies.

Video: The author discusses the challenges of reporting on the military with this story’s editor, James Gibney

3:51 p.m.

The 82nd paratroopers retreated to the relative cool of a compound room, stripped off their body armor, and vented. “We’ve gotten medevac birds in here, we gave them IVs, we’ve done everything for them,” Knollinger said. “We shoot for them, we carry their weapons and gear. What else can we do?” Gerhart lay on a cement bench along the back wall. “All I can say is, when we’re here, we’re together,” he said. “Let’s keep it that way. We’ll hunker down in this room, and it’ll be our last stand if it has to. I’m not anticipating that. I’m just letting you guys know, I’ll die with you.” And then they were back in the landing zone, along with a few 101st soldiers, shooting and being shot at, as three Black Hawks brought in reinforcements. A bullet grazed Farnsworth’s right arm as the helicopters landed and emptied. Eight more 101st soldiers, weak from dehydration, climbed aboard. Throughout the day, 13 of the original 23 soldiers from the 101st were evacuated, along with two 82nd paratroopers, one with a twisted ankle and the other with an injured knee.

Knollinger moved back into the compound and shouted at a 101st sergeant to rotate his men on guard on the roof, to prevent more heat casualties. A 101st captain who’d just landed in one of the Black Hawks grabbed his shoulder. Knollinger spun on a heel. “Get off me!” Knollinger snapped, and shoved him.

“You’re out of control,” the captain said.

“Your decision-making is out of control,” Knollinger said.

Later, in the room where the squad had holed up, the captain tried to ease the tensions that had built through the day. “You need to exhibit calmness,” he told Knollinger and Gerhart.

“It’s not a calm situation, sir,” Knollinger said. “We’ve been out all day saving this platoon’s ass.”

“The situation isn’t as bad as you think,” the captain said.

“No,” Knollinger said. “It’s a whole lot worse than you think.”

Had the 2 Charlie soldiers not come on the patrol, many of the new soldiers could have been killed. From Gerhart and Knollinger’s vantage, the situation certainly seemed dire. But out in the fields and inside the compound, taking fire all day, they had limited perspective on what had been happening elsewhere in the Arghandab. Capt. Christmas later told me that a high-level Taliban leader had been sheltering in a nearby village, so the Taliban had been intent on pinning down the patrol in the compound and surrounding orchards. He and the 101st commanders had wanted to send in a helicopter-borne strike team to capture or kill him, but the mounting heat casualties and tenuous position at the compound had muddled those plans.

The Taliban leader escaped, but several of his men didn’t. As darkness settled over the orchards, a Taliban commander called to his men over the radio. Several didn’t respond. “There’s no better morale boost than that,” Jackson said. “We’re still here, and they’re not.”

10:47 p.m.

An enormous blast a couple hundred meters north shook the ground. “That’s why I don’t want to walk out of here,” Knollinger said.

“Devil’s Playground, man,” Lachance said. “This place is hairy.”

We listened for radio reports from patrols in the area, but heard none. An hour later, another blast, also unexplained. Lachance and Farnsworth theorized that Taliban fighters had blown themselves up while planting IEDs, and the thought cheered them.

Convinced that they’d be attacked on the walk home, 2 Charlie wanted helicopters to pull them out, a plan debated and then ruled out. The helicopters were tied up elsewhere. We would walk out, in darkness. The bombs would still be a threat, but the fighters, at least, would be sleeping. With the reinforcements pulling guard, the men who had been on the patrol lay on the concrete and slept, then left before dawn with Dix, the bomb-sniffing dog, once again leading the way. We hopped across grape furrows, climbed walls, waded along canals, and cut paths through orchards. There may have been bombs beneath us, but we were lucky, and soon we walked into Combat Outpost Tynes, 25 hours after we’d left, everyone still whole.

Last Rites

That morning, after the soldiers had stripped out of wet and stinking clothes and eaten a breakfast of waffles, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and fried chicken, a foot patrol left Combat Outpost Nolen, a mile away. For one of the first times, the 101st soldiers were operating alone, without on-the-ground guidance from the 82nd paratroopers. The patrol walked down a trail, and a soldier stepped on a pressure plate. The quick-reaction force came to help, and another soldier triggered a pressure plate. After medevacing the casualties, the patrol hit a third bomb on its return trip. Two soldiers lost their legs, another lost a leg and some fingers, and shrapnel peppered two more in the face, all in less than an hour. By week’s end, a 101st soldier at Nolen would be dead, killed by a single shot to the head from a Taliban sniper while manning a guard tower. The bloodletting would continue for weeks, with nearly every patrol shot at or blown up, and Talibs sneaking in to plant bombs 30 feet from the outpost.

The day after the joint patrol, the 101st leadership met with Gerhart, Knollinger, Farnsworth, and Lachance for an after-action review, to discuss what had gone right and wrong during the mission. Gerhart flipped through index cards on which he’d prepared notes. His suggestions were sound—better hydration, classes on patrolling techniques and using radios, pre-patrol inspections of soldiers’ equipment—but his delivery was abrasive and accusatory. Why, he asked, had it taken the reinforcements from Combat Outpost Tynes six hours to show up after the first casualties were reported?

The IED threat was extreme, Tom Banister, the new unit’s first sergeant, said, and he hadn’t wanted to risk more heat casualties while trying to reach the compound on foot. So they ended up waiting for helicopters.

“I guess I’m just used to being out there with hard-charging guys,” Gerhart said.

Since arriving at Tynes, Banister had found himself in the bizarre situation of deferring to men who weren’t yet born when he’d joined the Army, 24 years earlier. He accepted that his and his soldiers’ learning curve was steep. But he couldn’t tolerate Gerhart’s near-constant impertinence, and the general condescension from the 82nd paratroopers toward their replacements. “We appreciate all you guys have done, we really do,” he said. “What I don’t appreciate, what gives me the ass, is your holier-than-thou attitude that we’re incompetent and unprepared for this mission. Roger. I got that. We’re a field artillery unit tasked with an infantry job. Are we going to take casualties? Hell yeah, we are. We know that.” His vocal cords tightened with emotion. He paused. “Don’t count us out,” he said. “We’re a fighting force. We’re not going to leave you hanging. We evacuated our guys, but we brought you 20 more.”

The room fell quiet, and emotions settled. The soldiers seemed to have tired of both blame and anger. Any unit has trouble adjusting to a new area, especially one as dangerous as the Arghandab. In a few weeks, the 101st soldiers would be unrecognizable as the men who had walked into the valley days earlier. They would learn how to lead patrols, where to walk, and how to fight. And with an influx of additional men and aggressive clearing operations, they would push into areas that had become de facto no-go zones for 2 Charlie, killing dozens of Taliban fighters and even establishing an outpost south of the second canal and taking the town of Babur, near where Moon was hit. They would pay for these lessons and victories with gunshot wounds and amputations and soldiers so mangled they couldn’t be saved. And they would learn on their own, because 2 Charlie was leaving.

The next day, the war leveled a final blow at the paratroopers. For the past week, Moon had lain unconscious at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, still too unstable for the flight to Walter Reed. Doctors saved his arms, but took more of his left leg, to mid-thigh, and more of his right leg too. His hip, fractured in the blast, had become infected. Moon was strong, the strongest soldier most of his buddies had ever seen, but his body couldn’t beat the infection. Their last patrol at Tynes over, their year of bloodletting in the Arghandab Valley nearly finished, 2 Charlie lost another man.

Farnsworth heard the news first. He sat in a darkened room, on the edge of his cot, elbows on his knees. He stared at the floor. Two hours later, as a late-afternoon sun cast long shadows, Farnsworth was on Moon’s old perch. He sat on an MRE box atop the earthen barrier outside Guard Tower 2, his right cheek nestled against the stock of an M-24 sniper rifle. Through the scope, he saw a man with binoculars half a mile away, at abandoned buildings near the second canal, watching a U.S. convoy approach the combat outpost. The determination was simple and clear: farmers don’t use binoculars. Talibs do. Farnsworth’s right finger rested gently, barely, against the trigger. The soldier on tower guard spoke into the radio, and the radio responded: Clear to engage. And Farnsworth squeezed.

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

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