MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
Yesterday on the program, we brought you the story of what was supposed to be a routine combat patrol in Afghanistan. Instead, a massive bomb tore apart an armored vehicle. Two American soldiers were killed. They were members of a platoon from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Washington.
NORRIS: A day later, surviving soldiers returned to the scene. The Stryker armored vehicle was still burning. Their job was to recover it.
NPR's Graham Smith went with them.
(Soundbite of armored vehicles)
GRAHAM SMITH: It's pitch black when the Stryker armored vehicles roll out of their hilltop compound. They know the Taliban are still out there, watching. So they're using the cover of darkness to begin this recovery mission.
Private Dylan Higden bounces along inside the tight crew compartment of his Stryker. Along the way, we talk about his company and the attacks its endured in the first three months of its yearlong deployment. It was just over a week earlier, he says, when another huge bomb hit their unit in a dry riverbed less than a mile from the latest attack.
Private DYLAN HIGDEN (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): Hell, October 27th, that's whenever we lost those seven guys. We're fighting IEDs. We can't do that (Beep).
SMITH: Higden is 21, a soldier from North Carolina who says military service is a family tradition. But with the repeated bomb attacks, he regrets even joining the Army. He just wants to go home.
Pvt. HIGDEN: I guess I mean, it's like all of us are dying here, let them run their own country. That's my opinion.
SMITH: It's an opinion shared by many of these soldiers. The night before this recovery mission, Private Demetri Handerhan poked his head through the hatch of his vehicle, keeping watch and gazing at the burning Stryker.
Private DEMETRI HANDERHAN (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): I guarantee if you asked one of these - any of these guys about going home, they would take the first flight. They would take the first flight to go home.
SMITH: Already, the battalion has lost more than 20 men.
Pvt. HANDERHAN: It's scary. It's really scary.
SMITH: It must be scary every single time you guys...
Pvt. HANDERHAN: Yeah, I get scared all the time just driving the Stryker. I never know when I'm going to get blown up, whether am I going to survive or the people inside are going to survive.
SMITH: Two soldiers didn't survive this bombing.
(Soundbite of radio transmission)
SMITH: Now, the task comes down to this: How do you remove a 20-ton vehicle on its back from inside a muddy crater? The rubber of the massive tires has burned away, leaving only the steel belts still glowing orange.
Sergeant CHARLES BURROW (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): I don't know how we're going to get it out. This may be beyond my level of expertise.
SMITH: Sergeant Charles Burrow considers the problem. He's tired, having spent the night in the field.
Sgt. BURROW: There's the lift point down there that they can access. If they come up the road, put the Stryker straight up in the air, but I dont know how you get it out of the hole.
SMITH: Standing nearby watching is Sergeant Josh Stokes. He was right behind the Stryker that got hit, watched it fly into the air and then jumped into the crater to pull out his wounded comrades. He's fought before in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sergeant JOSH STOKES (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): I'm a soldier. I know how to fight. I've done it before. I've been in plenty of situations where I needed to fight, but I hate being a mine detector.
SMITH: He questions whether the Strykers are right for Afghanistan. They did well in the cities of Iraq on well-paved roads. But in Afghanistan, they often get stuck in loose soil or muddy fields.
Sgt. STOKES: In my opinion, Strykers don't need to be in this country. You look from here all the way up to Bagram, if you drive up Route One, you see nothing but littered Russian vehicles from when the Russians were here. This has to be air power.
SMITH: Air power. The problem is that there aren't enough helicopters or crews to go around, which forces soldiers to drive. And while the Strykers are more mobile, without the heavier armor of a tank or a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, they're more vulnerable to the massive bombs buried under the roads here.
Military officials say improving the security situation here can only happen if they can win over the population, or at least get them to tell the Americans where the bombs are. That's the view of the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Neumann. It's his job to make sure his troops stay focused on the mission: protecting the Afghan people here in the lush Arghandab Valley, north of the City of Kandahar. He admits it's hard right now.
Lieutenant Colonel JONATHAN NEUMANN (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): Just in the last week, weve seen companies really taking a beating here.
SMITH: The 2nd Platoon of C Company has suffered the most, with 11 killed and a handful seriously wounded, about 30 percent of 2nd Platoon is gone.
Lt. Col. NEUMANN: Yeah, we have I mean, that platoon's done for. Theres really - doesn't even exist really anymore. I mean, just so many guys. We moved some folks around, but we got to kind of absolutely scramble those guys.
SMITH: And that's one more thing making it hard for these soldiers to keep focused on their mission.
Lt. Col. NEUMANN: And one of the challenges is to keep demonstrating or showing them the successes we're having. All the caches in the world and those kinds of things, don't make up for losing our brothers on the battlefield. But you've got to be able to show them that we are accomplishing our mission as assigned to us, and that we are making things better a day at a time. And after a day like today, it's tough, and you know they're wavering and questioning that.
Unidentified Man #1: We're down to two Strykers now.
SMITH: Yet, the soldiers out in this field say they get it. They know protecting the Afghan people is the way to fight the insurgency. They also know it's tough.
Staff Sergeant MATTHEW SANDERS (Stryker Brigade Combat Team): You ask a 17-year-old kid to hand out blankets one day and then, you know, a couple of hours later, his buddy's guts are strewn all over the place. And a couple hours later, he's got to go back and hand out blankets again. Like, I think that's what's going to take the real psychological toll on these guys.
SMITH: That's Staff Sergeant Matthew Sanders. He watches as two armored tow trucks finally pull the Stryker from the crater. He's amazed these soldiers don't go on a rampage after something like this, where local farmers must have known that a massive bomb had been planted.
Staff Sgt. SANDERS: I can't cite another army in history that is more disciplined than the American Army now. The stuff we've been through that this platoon, you look back, it would just be retribution. Like, it would be wholesale slaughter.
SMITH: Now on his third tour here, Sergeant Sanders says he wants to help Afghans, but keeping that feeling of compassion alive is a struggle.
Staff Sgt. SANDERS: It's really hard. It's really hard. I mean, I just gave a eulogy last week for one of my guys, you know. But I know the way not to win this war is to kill everybody. I mean, come on. Didn't Vietnam prove that? You know what I mean? Like, it's not just genocide, it's inch by inch. But it's (Beep) like this that makes it very, very, very, very difficult to keep that line of thought.
Unidentified Man #2: I think 1-3 has the most room, if you guys want to chill out. You know?
SMITH: After several hours, the destroyed Stryker is being dragged down the dirt road, carving a wide gash. It will be placed on a flatbed truck and make its way to Kandahar Airfield, a half hour down the highway.
Are they taking (unintelligible)?
Sgt. STOKES: Not yet. We're just (Beep) right now.
SMITH: Stokes and others from his squad are asked to hop aboard a Stryker and roll back to the district center. He decides against it.
Sgt. STOKES: I'd rather walk. When we leave this field, I'm going to walk.
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, Im going to send these dismounts from 2nd down your way.
SMITH: Sergeant Josh Stokes and several other soldiers from 2nd Platoon head across the open field, keeping a safe distance from the road and their vehicles.
Graham Smith, NPR News, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: And you can see photos that Graham Smith took at the scene and hear the story we aired yesterday, about the moments after the vehicle hit the roadside bomb. You'll find that at NPR.org.