A Final Patrol Of The Devil's Playground
NEAL CONAN, host:
This year's seen the toughest fighting and the most serious casualties of the long war in Afghanistan. In an article in The Atlantic, former infantryman Brian Mockenhaupt reports on one platoon from the 82nd Airborne as it neared the end of a tough 10-month deployment and prepared to turn a dangerous sector near the Pakistani border over to a unit fresh from the States. Men that the Second Platoon of Charlie Company knew were not prepared for the heat and the IEDs or Taliban attacks and for the knife-edge decisions of counterinsurgency warfare. Arghandab Valley is the name of the place. If you've served in combat in Afghanistan, call and tell us how it's changed. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You'll also find a link there to the article.
Brian Mockenhaupt is now a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He served two tours in Iraq and joins us now from a studio in Royal Oak, Michigan. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT (Fellow, Alicia Patterson Foundation): Hi, Neal. Thanks for putting me on the show.
CONAN: And your piece in The Atlantic is called "The Last Patrol." This is a platoon just about to leave, but needs to accompany the new guys into the most dangerous part of their area.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah. That typically how it works. You know, you have a unit that goes in and spends a year on the ground, familiarize themselves to the terrain, and their replacements are going to come in after their tour is up. And these guys need to show them around, familiarize them with the terrain, sort of give them - what their techniques and tactics have been for dealing with the area. And it happened to be that that's the time that I was around when the new unit was coming in, and they were getting ready to switch out and these guys who have been there for - by that time they'd been there just a little over 10 months. They would be leaving a short time after that.
CONAN: And almost half the men who had arrived 10 months earlier had been sent home, either killed or injured.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah. They had 42 men that they deployed with six - by the end of their tour, six were killed, and 14 were wounded.
CONAN: And the experience of deciding to go on this last patrol, you describe a scene that, well, you invoked "The Lord of the Flies," the senior sergeants gather around debate whether it's a good idea to take the new guys out.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: You know, they have had such a brutal deployment up to that point and they're so close to the end, that a lot of the noncommissioned officers, the sergeants, in the platoon, they got together because they wanted to - they want to hear what, you know, each other thought about this. You know, in the - the feelings varied pretty widely. You know, one guy said, you know, I want to go. I want revenge for the people that they had lost. Other guys said they didn't want to lose anymore of their men. And one of the senior squad leaders said that he felt like they owed it to the new guys to give them a good handoff, because if they weren't familiarized by the people that have been there and had deep experience in the area, he said they could get slaughtered out there. The one thing that they all agreed on, they thought that when they went down to this area, which was beyond two canals in this sort of lush, deeply vegetated area, someone is going to step on an improvised explosive device, which were laced throughout this area. So they were pretty much convinced that someone was going to either get maimed or killed on this patrol.
CONAN: So they knew the consequences or thought they knew the consequences that would be severe, and they also suspected - and as it turned out, probably correctly - that the new kids would make mistakes.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah. And that's something to be expected, no matter how well you train, back in the States, for these missions, things are going to be different when you get on the ground. Things are - especially in that area, it's a very difficult place to operate. And in addition to that, the 82nd Airborne paratroopers, when they had came in to the Arghandab, it was in late fall. The vegetation was already off the trees. Fighting season had ended. So they had the advantage of having several months to get accustomed to the area before fighting season started again.
The guys from the 101st Airborne, they came at the height of fighting season. And even for those - you know, for the 82nd guys who were familiar with the area and who have been doing a lot of fighting in the area, they were still losing people. In the weeks prior to my arrival there, they had lost they had had two more soldiers killed and several wounded from stepping on bombs.
CONAN: And these new troopers were, yes, from an elite unit, but they were not infantry.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: They were not. They were from a field artillery battery. They had been re-tasked to do - as many field artillery units have been in Iraq and Afghanistan - they are re-tasked to do a general infantry job of counterinsurgency, patrolling areas, meeting with locals, mentoring local security forces. They had been training on that for several months beforehand, so they were familiar with the job - probably not to the degree that the 82nd Airborne paratroopers were, certainly. But they knew, several months beforehand, that this was going to be their area. And they were going to have a pretty tough go of things.
CONAN: And this area, the Arghandab, near Kandahar, near the Pakistani border, absolutely vital to the operations that are going on in Afghanistan right now. But we think of it as, well, desert, mountainous. That's not the way it looks like in that valley.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: No. And that was a big surprise to me. I had spent time in Afghanistan last year up in the mountains in Kandahar province. This is obviously very different from that, but also very different from other areas of Kandahar.
This is a river valley. It's I think it varies from two to four miles wide. It runs west of Kandahar. It's a really lush area of pomegranate orchards, grape vineyards, plumb fields. There's canals everywhere that the soldiers have to cross. And during the summer, with all the vegetation on the trees, there's places that you can't see 30 feet in front of you so...
CONAN: And given that kind of cover, it's a very difficult area and it's easy to place mines, improvised explosive devices, at various places where it looks like, you know, you're going to cross from one field to another.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: It is. And that's why this has been such a critical area. Because the Taliban have been using this place for a long time to store weapons, to shelter fighters, to plan attacks. And so the soldiers would try to stay off the roads, (unintelligible) try to stay off the trails.
But then the Taliban would adjust to those changes. They'd start putting bombs in the middle of fields because they knew that the soldiers would keep patrolling, they had to walk somewhere. And sooner or later, they were going to pass close enough to a bomb and they could get some of them.
CONAN: It was fascinating to me that throughout this the American soldiers are listening to the Taliban as the Taliban communicates on the radio.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah, that's right. The Taliban use hand-held radios. They're not encrypted like the radios that the U.S. forces use. And I think they make the determination that it's still worth it for them even though they know the Americans are listening. That's the best way for them to communicate. And they do know they're listening, at times they'll use that, you know, they'll say, oh, we're moving in with 100 men and it's not. It's two men.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: But they you know, they use that to their advantage. But, you know, throughout the day we would listen to the platoon's Afghan interpreter who would translate. He would listen to the Taliban all they day. And they would say, you know, we're brining in men. We're going to move in for and attack. And then when they send a small patrol out from the savannah compound that we had occupied for the day, the Taliban, you know, you knew that they had eyes on the patrol. They said, okay. They're leaving right now. They're moving out, but there are helicopters overhead. And the Taliban said we can't do anything because of the helicopters.
The patrol talked to the pilots and they'd push them out of audible range so that the Taliban would think they had left. The idea was to initiate a fight, have the Taliban attack, then they would call back the helicopters and then to kill the gunmen. But before they could sort of, you know, spring this trap, some of the new soldiers, who were pretty unaccustomed and, you know, they weren't acclimated to the heat and humidity, started passing out on the field. And it just became a prettytense and chaotic scene. They had to call in medevac birds to get them out of there.
And then on the way back to the compound - a quick reaction force went out of the compound to help these guys. They all returned to the compound and they fought a running gunfight. At times, they were shooting at people 15 feet away. They were throwing grenades at them. It was pretty hairy for them for about an hour.
CONAN: And you were out there with them. I have to say you're a former infantryman yourself. Were you not tempted at some point to say, hand me one of those M4s?
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: You know, I was in the compound at that time. I did not go out on the small patrol when they fought this running gunfight. There were two 82nd Airborne paratroopers and 12 of the new soldiers who went on this patrol. There was in originally, they were going to be running these patrols all day. And I was - honestly, I was kind of wary of going out with the new soldiers. I had been out with the 82nd paratroopers who were incredibly proficient at their job. But I wanted to see how the first one unfolded before I went out with the small patrol throughout the day. That ended up being the only patrol that went out.
They came back. And then they had to bring in more medevac birds for some people in the compound who passed out. They had to bring in resupplies of medical IV fluids and more ammunition. So the fight continued through the day because every time the birds came in and landed in a field behind the compound, they would shoot at the helicopters. And so the paratroopers would go out there to secure the landing zone, they'd trade fire with them.
CONAN: We're talking with Brian Mockenhaupt. His article, "The Last Patrol" appears in the November issue of The Atlantic. And there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And let's get a caller on the line. Reynold(ph) is calling from Winchester in Virginia.
REYNOLD (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? Thank you for taking my call.
REYNOLD: I was in I just recently returned from Afghanistan. We left at May of last year, came back this past March. And when I first got there - this was my first deployment - it was crazy. We were stationed in Kabul and it was just it was like nothing I ever seen before, you know? It was just chaotic. You know, we got I think it was a couple of months after we were there, we were in the process of doing the chains of commands with the outgoing unit. And so we were two brigades strong and they still took a chance and hit us at the ECP, and it was just crazy.
And I thought, you know, so what's wrong with these people, you know, that they would try to attack with that many, you know, different soldiers right there, you know? But that's how it was. And, you know, every now and then, on a regular, every morning, you'd get waken up to a VBIED going off outside of the wire, really close to the base. A lot of them made the news before we even, you know, had a chance to contact families and tell them we're all right, you know? It was like, holy cow.
But one of the things I noticed is while I was there is during the progression and during the, you know, doing the different missions and stuff like that, whether a humanitarian type or training because I did the training with the AMP and I noticed changes. Because when we first got there, every time you rolled out the gate, you know, it's a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, a lot of tension, you know? And you never know what's going to happen. And then towards the end, things died down a lot. I mean, a lot of the VBIEDs that would go off and stuff like that, you know? I think they get used to, you know, different units being there.
But, you know, one of the things I also noticed is when we did a change of command with the unit that we replaced, it was crazy, like, they knew newbies were coming and they were ready for it.
CONAN: That's seemed to be the case - just let me ask Brian Mockenhaupt. That seemed to be the case in the Arghandab.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: You know, that's a really good point. Well, it's the case everywhere. It was the case in Iraq, it's the case in Afghanistan that they spend so much time watching U.S. forces. And, you know, U.S. forces have no choice. They're sort of on display all the time. They can, you know, make note of when they go on patrol, how they operate. And, yeah, it stands out when new soldiers come in. So they know when a new unit comes in.
That's one of the most dangerous times is during those transitions because in those early weeks when the new troops don't know the area, they're not familiar with the local leaders, with the geography and all that kind of stuff, that's the most dangerous time for them. And it's also a time that the enemy is watching. And, you know, it's quite likely that they're going to hit them hard at that time.
CONAN: Reynold, thanks very much for the call.
REYNOLD: Thank you.
CONAN: And Brian Mockenhaupt, there was a very tense scene at the end of that patrol where in an after action report, the sergeants from the 82nd Airborne Platoon were very critical and also their attitude was difficult for the men of 101st to accept.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: You know, these guys had had a long tour and that's when you could really see the mental strain. And they felt that this new unit's lack of preparedness had really endangered some of their men when they were so close to the end. And in this after action review, one of the soldiers in particular, Chris Gerhart, was a squad leader who was basically in charge out in the ground that day, he had some good comments for these new soldiers about things that they could improve on. But he also said, you know, I guess I'm used to being out there with more hard-charging guys. You know, and he is, by nature, he's a kind of abrasive, very aggressive soldier.
But the new soldiers, you know, that was a little bit too much for them. And there was this exchange. And he said, you know, he was just tired of this attitude that he thought the paratroopers had, that the new unit was incompetent and couldn't do anything right. And that, you know, in a lot of ways, that's just the problems that new units face.
You know, everyone figures things out eventually, and this unit was no exception. They took some really heavy casualties in the weeks and months after the 82nd unit left. But there were some areas that were essentially no-go zones for the 82nd paratroopers. The 101st guys came in with more people, and they very aggressively went into these areas. They fought some vicious battles. And now, they have, I think, five or six new combat outposts south of that second canal. So they've taken a lot of land away from the Taliban that was firmly in Taliban hands during the 82nd Airborne's time there.
CONAN: And had been, indeed, for some years.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Oh, yeah, back to when the Russians were there. I mean, this has been held by the Taliban for a long, long time. And you can see why, because it's such a great place to kind of operate with impunity. It gives you, you know, some real safe havens. And now, they're presumably - they - a lot of them have been killed but then a lot of them have been squeezed out to other areas. I think some of them have gone to Kandahar City and to other parts around Kandahar. But there's a pretty strong vice that's been tightening in that area over the past couple of months.
CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt, a former infantryman who served two tours in Iraq. His article, "The Last Patrol," ran in the November issue of The Atlantic. Again, there's a link on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a conversation about science and advocacy, plus new photos of a small, hyperactive comet. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.