By Mark Memmott
Last Thursday in Jelewar, Afghanistan, near Kandahar, two U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives.
Spc. Gary Gooch Jr., 22, of Ocala, Fla., and Spc. Aaron Aamot, 22, of Custer, Wash., died after their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
Seven of their colleagues from Fort Lewis, Wash., will be remembered today at the post. They died in an Oct. 27 IED attack on their vehicle. Vice President Joe Biden is due at the memorial service.
Specialists Gooch and Aamot will be remembered at the post next week. (Note at 12:45 p.m. ET: Earlier, we mistakenly said specialists Gooch and Aamot would be honored today.)
Graham Smith, a producer on All Things Considered, was with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, when Gooch and Aamot were killed and saw the aftermath.
Here is some of Graham's description of the incident:
Charlie company has been based there at the center for over a month now, sending out patrols and setting up a small patrol base a couple kilometers away. Because the guys from second platoon were still reeling from the loss of those seven guys a week before, they were on light duty. ...
Meanwhile, another group would go across the river to an area where they'd had a lot more "contact" (meaning firefights and IEDs) to check out a school built by the Japanese in 2004, but now abandoned, for possible use as another patrol base. I asked if we could tag along and they said sure. We headed out in a convoy of about 5 Strykers.
I rode at first down inside the vehicle, but with no windows you couldn't see anything, and the only sound was the rumbling of the engine and chat over the intercom. I popped my head up through an unmanned hatch and asked the gunner there if I could look around. He said, "Just keep your head down."
Rumbling along away from the main base, we went between freshly-harvested open fields and over the dry riverbed. The people we passed didn't seem hostile. Lots and lots of kids were smiling and waving and motioning for the soldiers to throw some candy or pens. Adults seemed more skeptical. But it wasn't the people that made me nervous -- it was the road. A narrow dirt run between pomegranate orchards, leaves yellowed and dropping, much of the fruit still hanging red on the branches -- high mud walls running along the road on either side. There could have been a bomb anywhere along our route. So much cover.
We got to the school OK. A group of Afghan army soldiers were already set in, using classrooms as bunkhouses and kitchens. Desks and schoolbooks were stacked in a couple of the rooms. The Americans scouted around in the yard and on the roof. They pushed one Stryker through a mud wall, trying to create an opening to the main courtyard big enough for the vehicles.
Just then, they got the call. There had been an IED attack. The guys on the roof heard the boom and saw smoke rising. Just about a half-mile away. The guys from second platoon, returning from their supply run.
As everyone scrambled into the vehicles to go over and help out, another call -- two killed in action. ... The First Sergeant was up in the front, and I saw him smack his hand against the hatch, saying "Goddammit."
It only took five minutes to get back across the river -- then we drove in over the fields. With my head up through the hatch, I could see the column of smoke and the Stryker -- twenty-plus tons, flipped over onto its top, the front four wheels blown off, half-way in a crater, burning in the middle of the road.
Almost immediately, we started taking fire from a treeline just to the east. I guess it was mostly AK-47s and there might have been a machine gun. The soldiers opened up, returning fire with everything they had -- M-16s, 50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers and 120mm cannons. I hunkered down for a minute, then stuck my hand up, holding the microphone, then got my dumb head up again to shoot some pictures.
Gunny Wilkins says not to worry too much in a firefight with the Taliban, especially at a distance. They're terrible shots, for one thing. "Big sky -- little bullets." Still, it was scary. Sgt .Burrows went out the back for a minute to orient himself and then came back in to fill in the crew. He said he was headed up to do triage at the hit Stryker. ... Up opened my mouth, "Can I come with you?"
He didn't seem too happy, but said yes. ... He asked if I was ready and I said I was -- they opened the rear hatch again, and I followed him -- running across the road and up along the drainage canal and past the burning Stryker to where second platoon was working on two survivors. They'd been trapped, but their buddies climbed down inside the crater to dig them out. One had a broken leg, and the other a broken ankle and a bruised back. They were lucky.
The two other guys -- the ones who were up front -- were killed instantly. ... Attack helicopters overhead. Sporadic fire from the treeline.
After the firefight died down, Charlie company set up a perimeter, and began gathering parts of the broken Stryker and recovering the bodies of of their dead comrades. It was awful. ... I gave out some cigarettes, fetched water and helped carry one of the bodies back across the road to the field where he would be picked up by a helicopter for an "angel flight."
We stayed for hours. The Strykers might be great on the hardball in Iraq, but going across the fields of Afghanistan's river valleys they got stuck again and again and had to be towed out by sister vehicles that struggled for traction.
Two more dead for second platoon. Eleven now in total over the course of three months. Plus several sent home badly wounded. That's out of just over three-dozen guys. ... They are operating in an incredibly dangerous area.