Brian Mockenhaupt

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.

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July 11, 2010, 11:09 a.m.

Staff Sergeant Christopher Gerhart’s stomach rolled, queasy. He stood alone under a trellis heavy with fat bunches of white grapes, planted his hands against a mud wall, and stared at the ground, head rocking as “Love Lost in a Hail of Gunfire,” by the heavy-metal band Bleeding Through, blasted from his headphones. Gerhart had already deployed three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Promoted 10 days earlier, he was 22, brash and outgoing. “You grow up quick out here,” he’d told me. “You’ve got to. You can’t be a little kid when your buddy gets blown up next to you.”

But Gerhart’s time in Afghanistan was nearly finished. He and his comrades from 2 Charlie—2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 2-508th Parachute Infantry

Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division—would soon turn over their stretch of Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley to their replacements. This morning, the two groups were patrolling together, the weary guiding the uninitiated. Before dawn, 36 soldiers had left the relative safety of Combat Outpost Tynes, a mile away, and walked into the lushness of the Arghandab’s grape fields and pomegranate orchards, land controlled by the Taliban. They took over an abandoned compound, a high-walled courtyard with two buildings along the north and east sides, each with several small rooms. The men of 2 Charlie knew what waited outside the compound’s walls. Their replacements, from B Battery, 1-320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, didn’t.

Video: Watch the soldiers of 2 Charlie on their final, harrowing assignment in Afghanistan

By 11 a.m., the temperature had climbed to a humid 100 degrees that soaked the soldiers’ uniforms with sweat and summoned a nagging thirst. In a few minutes, Gerhart and Sgt. Adam Lachance, the platoon’s forward observer, whose job was to coordinate rocket and bomb runs from helicopter gunships and jet fighters, would lead a dozen of the new soldiers through the nearby fields and orchards to find and kill the men who had been shooting at them in the compound all morning. Gerhart and his squad mates huddled over a map and plotted possible patrol routes. “It doesn’t matter which way we go,” he said, “because we’re going to get in a firefight, and we’re not going to get far.” He gathered the 101st soldiers. “I need you to have your game faces on,” he said. “This is what we do here every day. Welcome to the Arghandab.” The soldiers stared back, silent.

The paratroopers figured that the Talibs had zeroed in on the compound’s two entrances, at the southeast and southwest corners, and would shoot at the soldiers when they exited. To distract them, the soldiers would detonate a Claymore mine, which they had set up 30 feet outside the door—and, if the gunmen were close enough, maybe hit them with a few of the mine’s 700 ball bearings. Sgt. Dale Knollinger, a 22-year-old team leader in Gerhart’s squad, thick with muscle from daily workouts in Combat Outpost Tynes’s outdoor gym, picked up the clacker and squeezed it three times, sending a current down the wire. The mine roared, the ground shook, a dust cloud floated through the compound, and the soldiers whooped. But the laughter stopped a moment later. Mike, the platoon’s Afghan interpreter, intercepted a transmission over a handheld radio similar to those used by the Taliban. “Was that your bomb?” an insurgent asked, confused by the explosion. “No,” another answered. “I don’t know what that was.” So the area around the compound already contained at least one bomb, and probably many more.

Gerhart sighed, cursed, then sucked in a deep breath. He hugged Knollinger. “If I don’t have any legs, don’t let them save me,” he said, their faces close. Knollinger, seven other 82nd paratroopers, and one 101st soldier would be the quick-reaction force if the patrol found trouble. “I’m serious,” Gerhart said.

The men lined up at the southwest door and Gerhart charged out, firing his M-4 rifle. Lachance and 12 others followed, disappearing into the tangled greenery that lay outside the compound’s walls.

Into the Devil’s Playground

The replacement unit from the 101st had the misfortune to arrive at the height of fighting season in one of the most contested patches of Afghanistan. The Arghandab Valley, 60 miles northwest of the Pakistan border, in southern Afghanistan, stretches a mile and more on each side of the Arghandab River, to the north and west of Kandahar City. Lush by Afghan standards, it is dotted with farming villages and country homes of city residents. The mujahideen controlled it during the Russian occupation, and the Taliban have owned it for much of the time since. And for American soldiers, the Taliban have sown the land with bombs: hundreds, maybe thousands, triggered by pressure plates, trip wires, radio control, or 100-meter extension cords touched to a battery terminal at just the right moment. The Taliban shoot at the Americans too, with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. The dense orchards and mazes of grape furrows and canals give the Taliban ample cover to hide weapons and send fighters into Kandahar City. The more of the Arghandab the Taliban control, the more freely they move. If the Americans want to protect Kandahar City—a critical location for pacifying southern Afghanistan—they must first tame the Arghandab.

Along the northern edge of the valley, on a patch of desert about 200 meters from a canal, sits Combat Outpost Tynes, a former school now surrounded by earthen barriers, guard towers, and concertina wire. The Americans, together with a small contingent of Afghan National Police, controlled everything north of the canal, because it is flat and open. Everything south of the canal—the roads and fields, a second canal, and the villages on toward the river—was up for grabs. Since their arrival in December 2009 at Tynes, the men of 2 Charlie, like all soldiers in Afghanistan, had been tasked with counterinsurgency operations: protecting the population, building schools and markets, mentoring local security forces, and empowering local government. But those are mostly wintertime activities in the Arghandab, when the trees are bare and soldiers can see farther than 100 meters, when they can bring blankets and coats to the villagers, talk to the elders, and elicit promises of cooperation. The warm weather brings battle. “It’s not a COIN fight here at all,” Lachance told me, referring to the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. “We can’t get past the second canal. It’s a chess game with the Taliban, only with bullets and IEDs.”

Lachance and his platoon mates called the area “The Devil’s Playground.” I’d seen the ledger of their time there, tallied in photographs. “He was killed. He was shot in the face. He broke his back,” Staff Sgt. Edward Rosa told me one night, pointing at pictures on a laptop screen in a small plywood-walled room at the outpost, part of a motel-like warren of sleeping quarters that 2 Charlie had built to augment the school’s half-dozen classrooms. “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone,” Rosa said. His voice trailed off. 2 Charlie first came to Afghanistan in September 2009 with 42 soldiers; nearly half had been killed or wounded, mostly in the Arghandab.

But with the losses came experience. After months of patrolling the valley, the platoon had learned bloody lessons about where to walk, which areas to avoid, and how to spot an ambush or a hidden bomb. Even an infantry unit would have trouble adapting in the middle of fighting season, but the incoming 101st artillery unit, trained to fire cannons that can lob 100-pound shells up to 20 miles, had the added burden of learning a new job. They had trained for several months on infantry tactics before deploying. Now the best 2 Charlie could do was walk through the area with them, and pass on scraps of accumulated knowledge.

They started by taking several 101st leaders to the town of Babur, a mile away, where 2 Charlie had been repeatedly shot at and ambushed. Late on the afternoon of July 6, a column snaked out of the combat outpost and moved east; at a crossroads, the group split. I went with the 15 soldiers who continued east on Route Red Dog, toward Babur. A dozen others cut south 100 meters and walked along the canal, just inside the tree line. While one group of soldiers moved, the other would cover them, a leapfrog tactic called “bounding overwatch.” The split patrol moved forward, in parallel. Ahead, farmers bent at the waist and worked in their grape fields, pastoral and timeless. They’d soon leave for home to wash, pray, and eat. Some saw the patrol and stared. Others merely glanced up and then returned to their work.

A thunderclap rocked the tree line, and the concussion punched our ears and rolled through our chests. Beside us, along the canal, a cloud of smoke and dirt billowed 100 feet into the air, far above the trees, against a cloudless blue sky. “IED! IED! IED!” a soldier barked over the radio. Knollinger, leading the element along the road, ran into the field between the road and the canal, toward the explosion, yelling into the hand mike clipped to his vest. “I need a sitrep! I need a sitrep!” Soldiers answered, one by one, save for the two snipers with the patrol. “Viper 4,” Knollinger said. “Are you okay? Viper 4!” Sgt. Christopher Rush responded, dazed, his voice slow. “No, I’m not okay.” Beside him, his partner, Specialist Christopher Moon, lay in a crater five feet wide and two feet deep, his legs missing. The triggerman, hidden in the pomegranate orchard, had blown the bomb under Moon, the last man. Gerhart was 75 feet ahead on the canal trail. He ran back, past a few soldiers who had been knocked to the ground, uninjured. He knelt beside Moon, 20 years old, a high-school baseball star who had been courted by the Atlanta Braves, but had chosen the Army. I’d met Moon the day before, atop an earthen barrier beside Guard Tower 2 at the combat outpost, where he had squatted on two ammunition cans and barely moved, perched like a monk for a two-hour stretch. He rested his rifle on an iron beam and watched a compound a half mile south. He’d killed two fighters there earlier, as good at sniping as he’d been at baseball.

Now his right leg ended above the knee in a thick mass of muscle, skin, and shredded pant leg. His left leg ended in a piece of jagged, shockingly white shin bone. Blood drained into the dirt. Gerhart slipped black nylon tourniquets around the stumps. The 101st medic stood nearby and stared at his first battlefield casualty, stunned. “Ah, it hurts so bad,” Moon said. Gerhart cranked the tourniquets tight. “You’re going to be okay, buddy,” he said. Much of Moon’s gear had been torn away by the explosion. Soldiers removed the rest. Shrapnel had ripped through his arms, breaking the bones in so many places that his forearms bent and sagged at terrible angles. The medic slid a needle into Moon’s arm and started an IV drip of fluids, to replace the lost blood and keep him from slipping into shock. “I’m gonna fucking die,” Moon said. Soldiers wrapped bandages around his arms. Bright blood seeped through. “No, man, you’re going to be okay,” Gerhart said. Moon winced. “I got no legs,” he said.

Knollinger called for a medevac, and soldiers lifted Moon onto a stretcher and carried him into a plowed field, away from the crater and any secondary bombs. Back at the combat outpost, a dozen soldiers piled into four armored trucks and sped down Route Red Dog to provide added firepower against follow-on attacks. Moon lay in the sun. The bleeding had stopped. A half-dozen soldiers stood or knelt around him. “Where are the medevac birds?” Moon asked. He faded toward unconsciousness. “Wake up, Moon!” a soldier yelled. “Stay with me!” Gerhart, blood smeared across his uniform, stepped away from Moon and toward me, his voice low and quivering. “He’s gonna fucking die, man.” The trucks arrived, and soon after, the helicopter could be heard on the horizon, beating toward us. “Water,” Moon said, his voice a low moan. “Water, please.”

Shooting at medevac helicopters had become standard procedure for insurgents, so as the bird approached, low over the fields, soldiers in the gun trucks and on the ground opened up. In a rising racket of machine-gun and rifle fire, bullets shredded trees and kicked up dust in the grape furrows. The helicopter settled into the field and soldiers shielded Moon as dirt swirled over them from the rotor wash. They loaded Moon onto the bird, and his partner, Rush, climbed in beside him. The helicopter lifted and the gunfire ebbed. Knollinger crossed himself. For the next two hours, soldiers scoured the pomegranate orchard, the canal, and a marijuana field for pieces of Moon’s equipment, weapon, and legs, all of which had been scattered across a 100-foot radius. They found some of each, and walked home.

This had become a near-daily occurrence for Charlie Company. “The enemy knows if he punches you in the nose, and you sit down, he’s won,” Charlie’s commander, Captain Ryan Christmas, had told me two days earlier, on the Fourth of July. “But if you come back with a strangle move, you’ve won.” As I stood with Christmas in Charlie’s command post, more grim news crackled from the radio. A bomb had ripped through a foot patrol, wounding two soldiers and killing one, Specialist Clayton McGarrah, who had been in Afghanistan eight days. He had set down his backpack on a hidden mine’s pressure plate. “Another tough day,” Christmas said, and pressed his fingers to his temples. “I can’t even see his face. That sounds terrible, but he just wasn’t here that long.” Christmas had done three other Afghanistan deployments and one to Iraq, but this had been the most trying. Every day since he had taken command of Charlie a month earlier, his men had been sniped at, ambushed, or blown up. “All our family and friends are home right now eating hamburgers and shooting fireworks,” he told me. “And that’s good. I’m happy for them. But they need to understand the price of that freedom.”

By the time 2Charlie returned to Combat Outpost Tynes, Moon was in surgery at Kandahar Airfield, where doctors tried to repair the destruction. The soldiers gathered in the cavelike meeting area where they ate meals and prepared for patrols. The platoon’s cook had dinner waiting. Steaks, homemade mashed potatoes, and green beans. He’d put a sign on the plastic serving containers: “No one eats until EVERYONE is back.” Most soldiers sat quietly, alone in thought. “Moon’s alive,” Gerhart told them. “He’s conscious. They said he’s doing good.” Men nodded and smiled, buoyed by the news.

Knollinger stood amid them. 2 Charlie had been here many times. The newcomers would surely be here again. Both groups needed reassurance. “It sucks. It’s fucking scary,” he told them. “But we can’t let that deter us. We have to keep going.” If they stopped pushing into the fields and orchards, the Taliban would only come closer to the outpost, and the soldiers’ influence over the local population—already meager—would dwindle further. The new troops would need to patrol the fields and roads farther south, along and past the second canal, an area far more dangerous than where Moon had just been blown up. 2 Charlie had suffered two dead and five wounded there in recent weeks; many of its members had no interest in going back.

Two days later, on July 8, a dozen soldiers, the platoon’s noncommissioned officers, crowded into the outpost’s tactical-operations center, a 12-by-six-foot room jammed with computers, radios, and maps, to talk about the situation they faced. They passed an empty water bottle, their version of Ralph’s conch shell in Lord of the Flies, so each man could speak without interruption. Earlier in the deployment, this scene would have been unthinkable. Infantrymen volunteer to enter dangerous environments, a task many of them enjoy. And they know a hard truth of war: that they or some of their men must sometimes die to accomplish objectives. But with so much loss, and with the end of their time at Combat Outpost Tynes so near, the worth of a single patrol had been thrown into question. If the men of 2 Charlie walked south, some of them would likely not come back. But if they didn’t go, then their replacements would likely suffer for it.

“I don’t want my guys going,” Sgt. Andrew Bragg said. “I’ll go for them.” He passed the bottle to Knollinger, one of 2 Charlie’s most aggressive soldiers. “I want revenge,” he said, in a plain, deep-throated speaking style that reminded me of Rocky Balboa. “It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.” Knollinger passed the bottle to Lachance, who seemed to thrive on the battlefield, exposing himself to enemy fire to call in airstrikes with a surprising calm. “I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks,” Lachance said. “I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”

The bottle traveled, hand to hand, deeper into the debate: could they explain a soldier’s death to his family, days away from his leaving the Arghandab? But could they live with unprepared 101st soldiers dying, if they could have helped prevent their deaths? And if they stopped pushing into Taliban-held areas, the Taliban would gladly, and quickly, come to them. That morning, an IED had blown up on a foot patrol 200 meters from the combat outpost. Somehow, no one had been injured.

Staff Sgt. Rosa, 2 Charlie’s senior squad leader, took the bottle and looked around the room. Soft-spoken but regarded as the toughest soldier in the platoon, he’d won an 82nd Airborne boxing title. “This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties,” he said. “My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there.”

His voice betrayed both pride and resignation. “If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me.” He held the water bottle in both hands, elbows propped on knees, his massive shoulders hunched. “When we cross that second canal,” he said, “I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”

A patrol would indeed go south—a decision that ultimately was made at levels above those in the room. But the platoon’s noncommissioned officers had themselves concluded the same: the 101st needed to see the area and, on what would be its last mission to the Devil’s Playground, 2 Charlie needed to take them.

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.”

“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.”

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.