A topographical map was displayed with all the Brigade’s outposts and forward operating bases. We gleaned over this map for several moments in silence then out of nowhere, as if it were rehearsed, our three man team in the B-Hut looked at one another in disbelief and said aloud, “These guys are screwed.”
Whoever the wizard was placing at least half of the posts where they were was an absolute fool. Terrain can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. In this case, placing posts on any low ground or area where it would be next to impossible to receive re-supplies or immediate quick reaction forces, would prove catastrophic.
Earlier that morning as I walked across the flight line, I watched several medical choppers touch down with a large team of medics waiting to offload injured service members. It was a sight I will never forget—uniforms torn, faces bloodied, IVs, and stretchers of bodies being moved into medical tents.
The firefight these men engaged was one long-lasting form of what could be considered a modern version of “Custer’s Last Stand.”
How could a technically advanced, fire power supreme, disciplined fighting force take such a beating from a rag tag group of insurgents? I thought of that question and realized the answer the moment my team and I reviewed those topographical maps with all our post’s positions: We failed to use the terrain to our advantage.
Something needed to be done about the current situation. Someone or some group of people needed to become the bad guys and say what Command did not want to hear. We were that team of military advisers.
As a military adviser, I, along with my team, was often praised for the assistance we provided. A simple “thank you” in war goes a long way. Unfortunately, no matter how many pats on a back one may receive, it’s really easy feeling like your services were true failures.
A select few outposts were in desperation. Troops would go days and even weeks without re-supply. Their only back-up came from fixed wing air assets. No help support. No artillery. No quick reaction forces were capable in reaching them in any timely manner all due to the terrain—especially during the horrific winter months experienced in places like Nuristan or Kunar provinces.
We did our best as a team to advise top brass on current situations. We did our best to give advise on Intel we collected from assets. And, we did our best to advise against those ridiculously positioned outposts mentioned. For the most part, everything we advised about received positive feedback—excluding the outposts.
We would often hear how it was one or two commands before the one we worked alongside who put those posts where they were located. We, as a Command, could not move them solely for that reason. The excuse infuriated our team—we found the excuse as mere laziness.
N2KL, the region we advised, took many bloody noses during our duration of stay. The movie Restrepo was created during that time and in that area of operation. The depiction of how things went down in that documentary is as accurate as anything I have seen to date pertaining the fight we witnessed in Afghanistan.
I live with the thought that we could have done more, but how? Our assets were impeccable. Our team had guys outside the wire every single day for weeks on end doing what was expected to gain atmospherics and to build networks for intelligence collection. So where did we really fail?
We failed by insufficient articulation and persuasion.
If only we would have articulated our thoughts and persuaded Command to do the right thing and move those outposts, we could have potentially witnessed much less bloodshed. My teammates may see things differently than I, however, these are some thoughts I have lived with since my return almost seven years later.
Medal of Honor recipient Ryan Pitts was the sole survivor positioned in the outpost where he fought during the Battle of Wanat. The vehicle patrol base being established was one our team vehemently advised against creating. In fact, we advised to turn over all outposts in that specific region to the Afghan National Army to allow them to face the brunt end of the Taliban’s stick instead of our own brothers-in-arms.
Those lost that day, in my opinion, were unnecessary. Leadership heard our ideas, but they didn’t want to listen. But why?
Again, we failed in our duties as advisers to articulate and persuade.
I have beaten myself up over these thoughts for many years. I am sure others feel similar with their own past experiences. I have had nightmares varying in what I see in them—including that team of medical choppers landing on the airfield that day watching medics do their job to render aid. But what hurts the most? My belief of failures and thinking my failures led to American deaths.
Recently, I have come to grips with reality. I did not fail and nor did my team. We did everything ever asked of us and much, MUCH, more. I am incredibly proud being a part of such military endeavors. And I know, my brothers killed in battle would not want me to continue to kick myself over what was something I had little to no control over.
If you have similar thoughts as I once had thinking you failed while down range, please let those thoughts go. You didn’t fail. And live in peace knowing our brothers and sisters who have fallen would never in a million years want you to live with such mental anguish.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on 12 June 2015.