Sunday, November 22, 2009

For 'Chosen Few,' victory at Wanat came at a high price

From the Honolulu Advertiser....A tribute to the brave men who fought at the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan

November 22, 2009

For 'Chosen Few,' victory at Wanat came at a high price

By William Cole Honolulu Advertiser Military Writer

On the morning of July 13, 2008, the men of Chosen Company hauled themselves up before dawn, preparing for another hot and sweaty day of labor constructing a new combat outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

After more than a year of fighting a resurgent enemy, the American platoon was tantalizingly close to going home.

All that remained between them and a flight out was this last-minute mission in the tiny village of Wanat, home to 50 families and a handful of brick and mud structures.

Unknown to the 49 U.S. troops, a force of up to 200 well-armed and well-trained enemy fighters had encircled the American camp and was about to spring a deadly trap.

The Americans spotted the movement of five to 10 enemy fighters and prepared to fire a 120 mm mortar into the hills.

"We better kill these guys before we get hit," Sgt. Brian Hissong, one of the "Chosen Few," remembered saying. But the enemy beat the Americans to the punch.

At 4:20 a.m., a torrent of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire cascaded down on the U.S. camp from the surrounding hills. The intensity of incoming RPGs was so great that the U.S. soldiers wondered how the insurgents could have stockpiled so many.

"Allahu Akbar!" (God is great), an enemy fighter shouted in a shaky video taken by the militants of the attack from higher ground.

First Lt. Jonathan Brostrom of 'Aiea, commander of Chosen Company's 2nd Platoon, was at a rudimentary "command post" the soldiers had built in the five days since they arrived in Wanat.
Hearing calls for help on the radio from soldiers being hit at "Topside," an observation post about 300 feet up a terraced hill, Brostrom left the cover between a Humvee and a wall, and along with one of his soldiers, Cpl. Jason Hovater, 24, made a dash for the lookout.

"We have to do something We have to reinforce them!" Brostrom had said. On the way up, Brostrom was hit by enemy fire but still made it to the lookout to back up the soldiers who were fending off a storm of RPG and machine-gun fire.

At Topside, Spc. Tyler Stafford, who had joined the Army just a couple of years before and was on his first deployment, had taken shrapnel in his stomach, legs, arms and face, and was fighting to stay alive.

Stafford couldn't see where Brostrom was but remembers hearing the desperate communication between Brostrom and another soldier, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey.

Rainey, from Haw River, N.C., was a big guy, a wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter. At one point, Rainey shouted that they needed air support.

Brostrom "was screaming at Rainey and I could hear them shouting back and forth together," Stafford recalled. "I don't remember who said it, but they said, 'They're inside the wire!' And then I heard a bunch of gunfire and Rainey screaming, 'He's right behind the f------ sandbag! He's right behind the f------ sandbag!' "

Soon after, Brostrom and Rainey were dead. Brostrom had been shot several times.
His father, David, who lives in 'Aiea, said his son could have saved himself by staying at the more protected command post near the village center. But that just wasn't his nature.

"When (Topside) called that, 'Hey, we're taking casualties,' nothing was going to stop my son from going up there," David Brostrom said. "He would not be able to live with himself today if he hadn't gone up there."

Rainey, nicknamed the "gentle giant," was dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
Hovater, who charged up the hill with Brostrom, was lying on his stomach at Topside, likely trying to load a new magazine into his rifle, when he was shot in the head, the bullet traveling through his body and killing him.

Brostrom and Rainey may have been killed while trying to operate an M-240 machine gun. They were likely taken by surprise from the side or rear by an enemy fighter who breached the Topside defenses, according to an Army report on the battle.

The three young Americans were killed in the first 30 minutes of the Battle of Wanat. By the time the major fighting was over in just two hours, six more Americans would be dead.

Brostrom, a University of Hawai'i graduate, was the platoon leader and a surfer who won the respect of his men while not losing his ability to joke around with them. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.

Hovater, known as Hovy, was a deeply religious man who had married just six weeks before going to Afghanistan. He was "one of the best people I have ever met," recalled Stafford, now a sergeant and an Army recruiter in Colorado. He was "one of those people that you just look up to because of their kindness and genuineness."

Hovater was a nutritionist and a fitness trainer who gave the other soldiers weightlifting advice. Hovy could crack up his fellow soldiers with his imitation of comedian Will Ferrell and the battalion leader, Lt. Col. William Ostlund.

Rainey, who had hoped to become a teacher, had collected about $15,000 in winnings playing poker on the deployment. The 22-year-old was on the same basketball team in Italy with Stafford, and Rainey once racked up nine consecutive three-point shots to bring the team back from a 30-point deficit.

Withering fire

Once the quiet was broken on the morning of July 13, 2008, the enemy swiftly executed a plan to overwhelm the 49 Americans and 24 Afghan National Army soldiers at Wanat. They targeted a Humvee mounted with a missile launcher in the main encampment, slamming three rocket-propelled grenades into the vehicle and setting it on fire with three soldiers inside.
The soldiers escaped the Humvee and took cover at the command post.

When their Humvee exploded, two burning TOW missiles were lobbed into the air. They came down amid a group of Americans hunkered in the sandbagged command post. One rocket, whose motor was hissing as if ready to fire, landed in a soldier's lap. Another of the Chosen soldiers used a burlap sack to grab the heated rocket and toss it away.

A Chosen soldier manning a .50-caliber machine gun on top of one of the Humvees was ankle deep in spent shell casings; he had fired his way through 10 ammo cans, each holding 100 rounds.
Enemy forces fired from a bazaar, a hotel and a mosque in the village, and from the hills surrounding the Americans. The soldiers' rifle barrels turned red hot, weapons jammed and ammo ran low.

Several Humvees and a 120 mm mortar pit were hit by RPGs. U.S. positions and vehicles were on fire.

Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips was pouring out fire and went through three rifles until each jammed, according to a 248-page Army Combat Studies Institute report on the battle.

An exploding RPG hit Spc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, in the shoulder and legs as he manned the mortar pit. Another soldier helping the incapacitated Abad to the command post was shot through both legs and also went down. Soon after, Abad died, leaving a pregnant fiancee back home.

At the Topside observation post, soldiers were being battered and bloodied by RPGs that arrived in volleys of up to three at once. Eight of nine fatalities that day occurred at the observation post.
A tree directly above the post was being shredded by incoming fire. Branches, leaves and chunks of wood rained down on the Americans.

As the RPGs and machine-gun fire continued to tear their defenses apart, more and more men were getting hit and screaming for help.

Stafford, the soldier who had heard Brostrom's desperate warnings of an insurgent right behind the sandbags, started to respond to the incoming fire. He swung his machine gun up toward a house to the east, "and that's about all I got done," he recalled.

RPGs hit at least every three seconds for the first five minutes, he said.

"I got hit in the first volley, and then right after, no more than four to five seconds after the first one, I got hit again, and then I got thrown down into the lower terrace," Stafford said. "My helmet got knocked off. I put my helmet back on and I looked up and saw (Cpl. Matthew) Phillips get hit by an RPG."

Phillips, 27, suffered a perforating wound from shrapnel that went in one side of his chest and exited another. He died slumped over with his chest on his knees. Stafford had watched helplessly, screaming, "Phillips! Phillips!"

"It really freaked me out, scared me a lot," Stafford said. "Then, after about 10 seconds of me freaking out, I snapped out of it, and I was like, s---, if you don't do something, you are going to die, too."

Stafford's hands were "just mush," and he had shrapnel wounds in his stomach, legs, arms and face.

Even with injuries and death all around them, the Topside soldiers never wavered in the fight.
"(Cpl. Jonathan) Ayers was just going perfect, and Rainey was trying to control his rate of fire," Stafford said. "We were just trying to get suppression down on them, because that's the whole point in the first part of the battle — win fire superiority."

Stafford, now 25, remembers the concussive effect of the RPGs, whose Poof! and Shooo! noises as they were fired meant more deadly explosions coming his way.

He said it was like the scene from "Saving Private Ryan" where Tom Hanks lands on the beach in Normandy and is stunned into momentary deafness and disorientation by exploding shells.
Machine-gun fire poured in from several sides, and enemy fighters climbed trees to fire at the Americans over sandbags and dirt-filled barriers. The fighting was so close in, hand grenades were being hurled by both sides. At one point, enemy fighters tossed rocks at the Americans, hoping they would be mistaken for grenades in a bid to draw the soldiers out of their semi-protected positions.

The Chosen soldiers kept their positions from being overrun. But the odds were stacked against them.

Near the beginning of the Topside battle, Ayers and Spc. Christopher McKaig would pop up in unison from behind sandbags to fire at the insurgents.

Ayers' helmet stopped one glancing round. On another volley of return fire over the sandbags, he wasn't as lucky, and the 24-year-old was killed instantly.

McKaig found that in the moment, time did strange things.

"Ayers got killed next to me," McKaig said. "When he got shot, I was staring at him and it seemed like an eternity, but I know it was only like 30 seconds."

Now a 35-year-old sergeant, McKaig thought he would have to use his knife to fight back. He thought he, too, was going to die.

"There was no doubt in my mind they were doing everything they could to overrun us," said McKaig, who is still with the 173rd Brigade in Vicenza, Italy. The unit is preparing for a return to Afghanistan.
"They just would not break off. We shot everything we possibly could at them, and they just kept coming," McKaig said.

As Topside continued to endure a withering enemy fire, another attempt was made to reinforce the tiny lookout.

Sgt. Israel "Ira" Garcia, 24, was in a second group of soldiers fighting their way into Topside. Garcia made it to the lookout, where he was punched through the gut below his body armor by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Garcia, who had grown up in Long Beach, Calif., and was an avid soccer player, was on his third deployment and was a very savvy sergeant, Stafford said.

"He had the most infectious laugh but was all business when the bullets started flying," Stafford recalled.

Garcia was mortally wounded by the RPG but didn't die right away.
Sgt. Ryan Pitts, a 6-foot-4 soldier described as the "ultimate badass" of the unit, crawled over to Garcia and held his hand until he died.

Pitts, who found himself momentarily alone at Topside with the enemy so close he could hear them talking, fired his M-203 grenade launcher straight up in the air so the explosives would land just yards away. Although wounded, he survived.

The 24 Afghan soldiers fighting with the Americans stayed in their positions in the middle of the outpost and to the south of a traffic control point — out of the direct RPG fire — and four were wounded.

Some of the Chosen soldiers questioned the defensive support provided by the allied Afghan soldiers, but there is no evidence they turned on the Americans.

Chosen Company began to receive artillery support from Camp Blessing, about five miles away, almost immediately after the attack began, and a total of 96 155 mm shells were fired, some landing "danger close" to U.S. troops.

But the Chosen soldiers began to regain control only when Apache gunship helicopters started to arrive. The first two copters to reach Wanat started gun runs at 5:23 a.m. — just more than an hour after the attack began — and a four-Humvee "quick reaction force" arrived at 6:01 a.m. from Camp Blessing, the Army's Combat Studies Institute report said.

The worst of the fighting was over in two hours, but skirmishes continued for two days. An Army timeline shows just how quickly things went bad:
• Within five minutes of the attack, Abad was wounded.
• Within eight minutes, the TOW missile Humvee was destroyed.
• Within 10 minutes, the Topside observation post had reported four casualties.
• Twenty-five minutes after the attack, Brostrom and Hovater attempted to reinforce the observation post.

Military historian Douglas Cubbison, who wrote the Combat Studies Institute report on Wanat, said not a single Chosen Company soldier faltered. The Army estimated that 21 to 52 enemy fighters were killed, and at least 45 were wounded.

"The individual exploits of bravery are too numerous to document," Cubbison said.
"I don't know if they (the enemy) didn't think we were going to be that stubborn, or if they didn't think we'd put up that good of a fight," McKaig said. "But thank God we did."

Cubbison said the American higher command in Afghanistan, Combined Joint Task Force-101, "transformed this tactical victory into an operational and strategic defeat" by abandoning Wanat and the Waigal Valley two days after the fight.

The U.S. has not occupied the valley since.

Additional Facts

The Wanat Study

The Battle of Wanat is the subject of a 248-page study — still in draft form — by Douglas Cubbison, a military historian with the Army's Combat Studies Institute, a military history "think tank" based at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas

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