Life has a crazy way of working out, something that Gwenie’s arrival here in Oregon underscored for me. This is the story of how a chaotic moment in combat four years ago led to a warrior’s rescued pup reaching my family this Fall.
September 19, 2010:
That summer and fall, I was embedded with TF-Brawler, 3rd CAB, and with Bravo Det 168 GSAB, an Oregon and Washington National Guard CH-47 Chinook company. On the 18th of September, which Afghanistan’s national election day that year, I was aboard a Chinook tasked with carrying a platoon of Polish infantry from FOB Ghazni to COP Ajerestan. The Afghan National Army and Police defending the district capital there had been surrounded by hundreds of Taliban fighters. Helicopters going into the COP’s landing zone had been taking fire, so the Chinook crew had been briefed to expect contact. En route, however, the Chinook I was aboard suffered catastrophic mechanical failure. The aft transmission overheated, and the pilots put the bird down on a dry lake bed at the foot of the Hindu Kush. The following day, the 168’s crew was ordered to attempt the run to Ajerestan. This time though, instead of troops, the Chinooks were filled with water and food for the besieged garrison. This article is how that mission forged a lasting friendship, and ultimately resulted in an addition to my family.
Ajerestan was so far from TF-Brawler’s base at FOB Shank that it did not even appear on the map in the 168 GSAB’s company CP. At the time, all I knew was that it was way, way south of Ghazni up in the Hindu Kush. We’d been there once before, and the Chinooks had to climb above their rated altitude to get over the mountain ridges there. When I wrote a piece about that, 168’s company commander, Captain John Hoffman, told me to delete the altitude reference, lest somebody Stateside see it and get everyone in trouble. Operational realities sometimes demanded pushing the aircraft beyond their acceptable performance envelope. That was just the reality of the harsh Afghan terrain.
We left Shank that morning, delivered some ANA troops to another remote valley to the west (I think) of Ghazni. Then we returned to Ghazni to fuel up and have lunch. Polish M24 Hinds were buzzing around, and I took a few photos of them until Eric, our co-pilot, came over to tell me that we’d been ordered to Ajerestan. I turned to see a forklift offloading palettes of bottled water into the back of the Chinook. When the operator finished, I climbed aboard and sat down. A moment later, we lifted off with our #2 and an Apache gunship flying escort in our wake.
It had been a long morning, and as we climbed above twelve thousand feet, I started to get tired and cold. I wonder now if part of it was hypoxia. The Chinooks had no oxygen system for passengers in back, and I don’t think they even had oxygen for the crew. Anyway, I went out like a light.
I woke up as the Chinook suddenly slewed into a tight bank. Grabbing my camera, I picked my way up to the right door gunner and peered over his shoulder. Ahead, I could see COP Ajerestan, a tiny base with such poor force protection that two burned out cars served as a obstacles against speeding vehicle suicide bombers at the otherwise open front gate. The COP was too small to support a helicopter landing pad, so the LZ was outside on a finger of flat ground a short distance from the overturned car.
There were two Blackhawks sitting in the LZ– MEDEVAC birds that had been called in to extract wounded ANA. As we closed on the LZ, a Taliban RPG team lit off a rocket. The RPG shot between the birds and exploded perhaps a hundred meters away from them.
Right then, our Apache escort came into sight. Thirty mike mike blazing, the gunship swept over the treeline where the RPG had originated then pulled off its run directly toward us at our one o’clock. The bird was low–I mean right on the deck, and the pilot chose to go right under us before pulling up. I snapped several photos of it as it came toward us, then quickly moved over to the left door gunner’s window and shot a few more of it as the Apache pulled up.
Moments later, the Blackhawks sped away from the LZ, and we came in to land. A mad scramble ensued to get the pallets of water off the back ramp. There was no wall between us and the Taliban RPG team’s last position, only a few gnarled strands of barbed wire. A lone ANA sentry hugged the ground not too far away from us, clutching his AK and looking terrified. The gunners helped the crew chief offload the supplies, and looking back, I feel guilty I didn’t help. I was at the right door gunner’s window, scanning the treeline with a 500mm lens on my Canon 7D, looking for anyone shooting at us.
The pallets split open, and water bottles cascaded out into the dirt as the guys struggled frantically to get the load off the Chinook. Nobody from the COP risked coming to help, so the stuff just piled up. Finally, they got the last of the water pushed off the ramp. Eric and Joe, our pilots poured on the coals and we soared up and over the COP. I could see the Afghan flag fluttering from a sandbagged bunker as we clawed for altitude.
Right behind us came the #2 bird, piloted by a pair of Washington National Guard aviators, Bob and Carmen. Their Chinook touched down just as the Taliban dropped a ranging round from an 81mm mortar. It landed long. As they offloaded their supplies, a second round exploded much closer. The mortar crew was walking fire right onto the LZ. The third one landed danger close, but the Chinook’s crew cleared the cargo bay and sped aloft, the Apache covering its escape.
It had been a tense moment, but none of the helicopters had been hit, thanks in large part to the strafing run the Apache executed.
That night, I was looking at the photos I took that day. The sequence I shot of the Apache included some of the best photographs I’d ever taken, and I was struck by how clear the shots came out despite the maneuvering our pilots had been doing. Then, when I zoomed in on the Apache’s cockpit, I saw a bomb sticker on the co-pilot’s helmet.
I remembered seeing that bomb, along with a decal of Rosie the Riveter on the helmet of a female Apache pilot whom I had photographed at FOB Ghazni the day before. I was blown away, and hurried over to the Apache Company to ask who she was, and if I could interview her. I had no idea women were allowed to be Apache pilots, and it turned out she was only one in Task Force Brawler.
That’s how I met (then) 1LT Cassie Wyllie. Cassie impressed me from the outset when I interviewed her the next morning. She walked me through what she and her pilot, CW5 Scott Reagan, had done over Ajerestan, and when she finished, I thanked her profoundly. It felt to me as if Scott and Cassie had saved a lot of Coalition lives with their timely gun run. At very least, it gave the Blackhawks time to get off the LZ, and us in and out of it before the Taliban had recovered and opened fire again.
Over the course of the next two months, I ran into Cassie several times in the Shank Defac. I would usually be sitting alone, playing Scrabble on my ITouch and eating when she would come over to say hello and sit with me. I was far from home, terribly lonely and missing my family enormously. I’d gone over as an embed without representing any media outlet or news organization, and the financial strain that was causing was pretty significant. I went four months writing nothing but articles for local newspapers about their hometown Soldiers, gratis as sort of a one-writer IO campaign to counter the intense flood of negative press the military had been getting after the McChrystal Rolling Stone piece. So to see somebody like Cass take time to talk to me did wonders for my morale.
We stayed friends after we both got home. And that friendship deepened and grew as we both went through some rugged times. I know I missed being out there every day, and right now writing about those experiences chokes me up. It was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done. For those months I was out there, I was among the most dedicated, intelligent and resolute humans I’ve ever known–American, Afghan, Czech, Polish and Jordanian. They’d come together in common cause and purpose, and to be a tiny part of that as an observer and recorder, felt bonding. Staying in touch with Cass kept that bond alive for me.
We saw each other at the Reno Air Races in 2013 and had a wonderful time. I met Cass’s mom and some of her friends. We saw a theatrical production of Grease, and then promised we’d see more of each other. But life has a way of getting in the way, and before we could link up again, the Army sent Captain Wyllie overseas again.
At the end of September, 2014, between 700-2,000 Taliban fighters swarmed Ajerestan in a determined assault. The Afghan forces defending the area were overrun. At least a hundred were killed along with fifteen civilians whom the Taliban beheaded. Ajerestan is now in Taliban hands. It is a very, very difficult thing to take after seeing all the effort put forth by so many dedicated warriors–American, Polish and Afghan–to keep Ajerestan free.