Afghanistan

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, a sense of the challenges troops face, close-up. Were going to hear about one Army unit which is on patrol in Afghanistan on dirt roads, across fields, past rugged brown cliffs in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. It is the Arghandab Valley, a Taliban stronghold outside the southern city of Kandahar. Last week, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman went along with the Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Washington, and came upon a, horrific scene: an armored vehicle struck by a roadside bomb.

Unidentified Man #1: two casualties, two KIA and a Stryker on fire.

TOM BOWMAN: The call crackles over the radio: a Taliban attack, casualties with 2nd Platoon.

1st Sergeant CHARLES BURROW (Charlie Company, U.S. Army): Lets go (unintelligible) up.

BOWMAN: So 1st Sergeant Charles Burrow with Charlie Company orders the soldiers to mount up in their eight-wheeled armored vehicles, called Strykers. They race toward a plume of smoke, rising above the trees just a half-mile away.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, man. Hey, when we get there, I need you to bring your medic and link up with me. Bring whatever first aid stuff you got, and a smoke grenade.

BOWMAN: The Strykers cross a bridge. A cluster of Afghan men and children look nervously at the passing convoy.

Unidentified Man #3: Find a way to get into the field and travel through the field.

BOWMAN: The Strykers bounce through a wide and barren field alongside a dirt road. In the middle of that road, every soldiers nightmare: a Stryker flipped over, flames and thick black smoke pouring out. Its been hit by a roadside bomb.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #4: 11 oclock or so. 11 oclock.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: Other soldiers are crouched in a drainage ditch, firing their weapons toward a tree line about 300 yards away. The Taliban has mounted whats called a complex attack: a roadside bomb followed by a wave of fire from AK-47s. Now, rounds crackle from both sides as the Strykers open up with their machine guns and grenade launchers.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: The 1st sergeant and others move up the road, under fire, toward the wounded.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

BOWMAN: Two Kiowa helicopters come over the mountains and buzz angrily just above the tree line, keeping watch for the soldiers on the ground, looking for enemies to strike. Some of the soldiers have already jumped into the bomb crater and dug out two survivors. This platoon was supposed to be on light duty back at their base. They lost seven men just a week before in another roadside bomb attack. On this day, they were out on a routine resupply mission down a road they often use, and got hit again. They are still taking fire, but Sergeant Burrow tries to bring some order, telling some of his soldiers to shoot toward the tree line, while directing others to take care of the wounded.

1st Sgt. BURROW: You doing okay?

Unidentified Man #5: Im good, yeah.

BOWMAN: One of the wounded is Lieutenant Brian Giroux. He was riding in the back of the Stryker when it flipped over, leaving him partially trapped in a crater seven feet deep and some 28 feet across. Giroux has two broken bones in his leg.

Lieutenant BRIAN GIROUX (U.S. Army): Oh, oh. Oh.

BOWMAN: Burrow still doesnt know how many people were in the Stryker that was hit, so he asks the other wounded soldier, Sergeant Marquel Mendiola, whos face down on a stretcher, a trace of blood crusted on his lips.

1st Sgt. BURROW: How many total were in the truck?

Sergeant MARQUEL MENDIOLA (U.S. Army): There were four of us in that truck. There was Sergeant Gooch and Specialist Aamot, LT(ph) and myself.

BOWMAN: Gooch, Aamot, two soldiers who were in the front of the Stryker. The body of one is trapped under the burning vehicle. The other body is nowhere to be seen.

Sgt. BURROW: Gooch, Aamot, you and LT thats it, right?

BOWMAN: While some soldiers look for their missing comrade, others attend to the wounded. Sergeant Mendiola is lucky, he just has a broken ankle. A medevac flight lands in the field, and soldiers carry the sergeant and Lieutenant Giroux to the helicopter.

Unidentified Man #6: All right, here we go. Pick them up. Mendiola first, lets go.

BOWMAN: Back at the vehicle, soldiers desperately work to put out the flames around the body of Specialist Gary Gooch. They pry a piece of metal away and pull him out into the open. The other soldiers find the body of Specialist Aron Aamot out in a field.

The soldiers here are scouring the fields for the remains of the two who died here. One of the soldiers they put in a body bag and another soldier climbed over, touched the bag and said, God bless you brother.

Some of the soldiers are in a ditch, pointing their weapons toward a mud hut in the distance, probably about 500 yards away. And we hear the rounds of ammunition basically cooking off inside the Stryker popping every few minutes. And the soldiers are collecting pieces of the Stryker. Theres a transmission sitting in the dirt road, it was blown about 50 yards away.

Unidentified Man #7: Hey, theres (censored) fire over there with other pieces of Stryker. Youre not moving it.

Unidentified Man #8: Yeah, thats kind of (unintelligible) worry about it later, I guess.

Unidentified Man #9: Its going to be dark here soon.

BOWMAN: More than an hour passes. The firefight is over. The soldiers move quietly through the fields, carefully gathering - another piece of engine, a helmet, a single combat boot. The sun begins to set.

Unidentified Man #10: Hey, X-ray(ph) you will work. Probably time to call that Angel flight for the two KIA.

Unidentified Man #11: Roger. Well send that to the (unintelligible). Over.

BOWMAN: Angel flight is the term for a helicopter flight to carry away the dead the first step that will bring these men back to their families.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BOWMAN: And the Stryker continues to burn, it took off ammunition. The helicopter lifts off with the bodies of the two soldiers from the Stryker brigade.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Chaplain GARY LEWIS (Battalion Chaplain, Charlie Company): All right, lets pray for our brothers now.

BOWMAN: Later that night, back at their base on a hill just above the road where the Stryker was hit, Battalion Chaplain Gary Lewis gathers soldiers from Charlie Company.

Chaplain LEWIS: Couple of more minutes.

BOWMAN: The soldiers huddle together in twos and threes, sharing a prayer written on slips of white paper. Their faces are illuminated in a circle of flashlights.

Chaplain LEWIS: We just saw them today, having fun with them, with the puppies and that and now we have to let them go. God, the Father.

Unidentified Group: Have mercy on your servants.

Chaplain LEWIS: God, the son.

Unidentified Group: Have mercy on your servants.

Chaplain LEWIS: God, the Holy Spirit.

Unidentified Group: Have mercy on your servants.

BOWMAN: In the morning, many of the soldiers will arise before dawn and make their way down the mountain to recover the Stryker, which continues to burn.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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