Afghanistan

The Supply NCO Artist

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Task Force Brawler was full of interesting and dynamic characters.  From Brawler Six to men like Andrew Alvord—the unit’s fighting quartermaster—to Cassie Moore (the unit’s only female Apache pilot) and C-17-flight-engineer- turned- Blackhawk-pilot Hunter Lescoe, this unique aviation task force marched to a different beat thanks to is remarkably diverse and talented members.

Sergeant Scott Tant, an Arkansas native, ranks as one of the most unique individuals I met at FOB Shank. Scott is a supply NCO who has a passion for photography.  Lieutenant Colonel Ault recognized that talent and gave Sergeant Tant Task Force Brawler’s  Public Affairs Office.  For a year, Scott essentially served as one-man operation to document TF Brawler’s operations in theater. IMG_1329

Scott went out on dozens of missions with the Ground Combat Platoon. I was amazed at Scott’s attention to detail.  His mind was a catalog of all things normal or abnormal in each village we visited. His eye for detail caught things that I never would have noticed—a few carved letters in a door, a new paint job on a building, the nuances that certain known leaders displayed as they interacted with Lt. Mace (Brawler’s S9) or Captain Alvord (PL for the GCP). Nothing escaped Scott’s eye. At one point, I told him he’s got a career waiting for him as a Pinkerton Private Eye.

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His photographs  reflect that attention to detail. Years ago, I collected about 40,000 photographs from World War II, including vast numbers taken by US Army Signal Corps cameramen. It is easy to distinguish those photographers who loved their craft from those who simply considered it a wartime job and nothing more. Scott transcended both extremes this past year in Afghanistan. He is an artist in uniform, and his photographs rank as some of the best I’ve ever seen emerge from a combat theater, and several of his photos have won awards. Those are considered to be some of the best images of Army Aviation ever taken during the war in Afghanistan.
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One thing I noticed within TF Brawler is a sense of humbleness. It started at the top with Brawler Six, whose modesty and discomfort in the media spotlight was a refreshing change from some of the things I’ve experienced since I swiched to writing about current military affairs. There was no “me too” in Brawler Nation, just a quiet pride in the entire task force’s accomplishments.

Scott Tant reflected that sense of humility. In his tiny office across from the XO’s, he created an archive of photographs that document the task force’s year in Afghanistan better than almost anything I’ve ever seen for a unit in the Global War on Terror. His artistic eye, his skill with his equipment (even if he is a Nikon guy), and his love of the craft ensured that every image tells a unique and powerful story. Someday, I hope to see his work in print; our nation needs to see the war through Scott’s eyes.

 

Photo below by Sgt. Scott Tant

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Photo of the Day

Flares over Helmand Province, Afghanistan. November 2010.

Flares over Helmand Province, Afghanistan. November 2010.

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Brawler Six

IMG_1496In my twenty-five year career as a military historian and writer, I’ve  been very fortunate to have met and interviewed some incredible leaders—men and women who inspired those under their command to feats well beyond the norm. I’ve interviewed men who airdropped into Normandy, NCO’s who fought room to room in Fallujah, pilots and crew from the Doolittle Raid, two of the four men who formed the “Killer Flight” who shot down Admiral Yamamoto. Generals, admirals, Marine Corps legends like Marion Carl—these are the people who have composed the best of my professional experience since I left graduate school. I have been blessed with such associations, and my life’s work has been a source of pride and strength. Then I encountered Robert Ault, and everything I thought I understood about leadership changed.

In early September 2010, I met Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ault, Brawler Six, and it took about five minutes for him to blow my hair back. There on the edge of the world at FOB Shank I had encountered a character who could have stepped from a Nelson DeMille novel.

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LTC Ault in cockpit at left. Taken at FOB Gahzni, October 23, 2010

Walking around Task Force Brawler, interviewing his air and ground crews, it became clear to me that LTC Ault was one of those rarest of leaders—a man universally admired and whose people would do anything for him. As he went about his day, I was amazed at the reaction his presence had on those around him. He’d blow into a room like a northeaster and light up everyone with his enthusiasm and energy. He has an infectious personality, one that he is careful to use in a positive manner.  If he had an off day—if something at home troubled him, or the stress of command and constant missions ever got to him—he never revealed it. He was a force of his own, and in his wake he always seemed to leave people grinning from ear to ear, be they under his command, Jordanian officers or local Afghan elders.  His effect transcended culture and difference, and he used that power to unite and forge relationships that most would have never been able to pull off. For Rob Ault, it was as natural as breathing.

Born in Southern California, LTC Ault grew up always wanting to fly. When he was sixteen, he used the money from his after school job as a box boy to take flight lessons. He earned his pilot’s license a year later. He somehow managed to conceal this achievement from his parents. When his dad finally found out, I suppose astonishment aptly covers his reaction.

When other high school kids were out living it up, tinkering with cars and hitting the 80’s-era SoCal mall scene, Rob Ault and his pals went flying. On one flight, he took his friends to Catalina Island off the coast in what became one of his favorite memories of his youth. Other times, he and his buddies would mock dogfight each other in Cessna 152’s.IMG_3597

Some of his high school teachers totally misunderstood the sort of man developing inside Robert Ault. One cynically told him he’d be well suited for a job in the construction industry. They missed the intellect behind the Puckishness; their loss.

Ault moved on to college and earned his first degree from Cal State San Bernardino. He joined the Army and became an aero scout, flying OH-58 Kiowas. Later, he transitioned to Blackhawks.

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LTC Ault with a village elder, listening as the Afghan explained how the Kabul government had neglected his people. He complained non-stop about what he had not been given. Ironically, not a single vote had been cast in his village in the national election a few weeks before this photo was taken.

Before coming to Afghanistan, LTC Ault served in Iraq in two non-flying staff slots.  While meeting with local Iraqi security officials and political leaders, he was nearly killed by a suicide bomber. Dozens of Iraqis were killed or wounded in the blast, but somehow LTC Ault survived despite the fact that he was not wearing body armor at the time of the attack.

In July of 2008, Ault took command of 4-3 Air Assault Battalion, part of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade. The 3rd ID is known as the Rock of the Marne for its role in blunting the Ludendorf Offensives in the spring of 1918, and the 3rd CAB is known as “Marne Air.” Originally composed entirely of UH-60 Blackhawks, 4-3 was turned into a unique task force a few months later with the addition of an Apache and Chinook company. The new task force became known as “TF Brawler” and their motto said everything about their attitude: “Here to Fight.”IMG_0328

From the outset, Ault ensured that things would be different in his command. He wanted to create a totally new culture for an air unit, one that could set the conditions for an “exponential” effect on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Most air assault battalions function as sort of an airborne taxi service. The local ground units they support send over Air Mission Requests (AMR’s) for the battalion to execute, and the Blackhawks will run around day and night moving troops from base to base, inserting them in air assaults, or lugging supplies from one point or another. It is an important job, but it is a reactive one, and does not tie the air unit into the ground war in anything but an ancillary role.IMG_2027

Lieutenant Colonel Ault had a different vision. He wanted his task force to be right in the middle of the fight with a much more proactive and aggressive part to play. Here, he combined his leadership skills with a powerful and creative intellect. In the process, he transformed Task Force Brawler from just another air asset into a revolutionary force on the counter-insurgency battlefield.

First Rule of Brawler Nation: everyone’s a warrior. For a year before their deployment, Ault’s men and women trained relentlessly in three key areas: marksmanship, medical skills and physical fitness.  The constant live fire exercise reinforced the point that everyone in the task force was expected to be

a rifleman first.

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LTC Ault (left) and Captain Andrew Alvord on patrol.

Colonel Ault reorganized his support company and created what became known as the “Ground Combat Platoon” from his fuelers, motor T guys, clerks and quartermaster. In the year before they arrived in Afghanistan, the GCP trained furiously in every aspect of infantry tactics. They worked on MOUT ranges, practiced air assaults and downed aircraft recovery missions. In the process, they worked side by side with the air crews and developed almost instinctive cooperation over the course of many realistic field exercises.

In Afghanistan, all this paid off handsomely. Instead of merely flying the AMR’s as expected, Task Force Brawler set out to gain its own slice of the battlefield.  Lieutenant Colonel Ault sought  to expand his unit’s role by  forging unlikely alliances with coalition units that could help him achieve his goal of being “exponential” on the battlefield. With the daily AMR’s covered, Ault sent out airborne patrols in Blackhawks filled with the GCP. These missions were dubbed Average Guy Engagements (AGE’s), as opposed to the COIN-standard “Key Leader Engagements. “  Using their aerial mobility, the GCP would roll around Logar Province looking for unusual activity. When they spotted something, they’d drop down, dismount the GCP and check it out. In these early patrols, the GCP made its first contacts with the local population, who had never been policed from the air like this before.  In most cases, these sudden appearances ended up generating good will. On one memorable occasion, the GCP landed next to a doctor whose car had broken down. The Americans offered to help fix his flat tire!IMG_3625

Always looking for new ways to get into the battle space, Colonel Ault gradually expanded the role of the GCP. From aerial patrols, his fuelers-turned-warriors served as outer cordon for Special Operations missions, interdicting traffic around the perimeter of these crucial raids.

To get ever deeper into the fight, Ault established what TF Brawler called “COIN Head Start” seminars. Bringing in experts at counter-insurgency warfare every week, his officers underwent an almost collegiate-level crash-course on how to stabilize and befriend local populations. After weeks of this on-the-fly intellectual training, they put ideas into practice with mock shura meetings where local Afghans taught them the customs and cultural sensitivities needed to engage successfully with village elders.

IMG_1211In the spring of 2010, Brawler went into the counter-insurgency business. Colonel Ault convinced his brigade commander, Colonel Don Galli, to give his task force two long-neglected villages that sat astride a unit boundary south of FOB Shank. These two locales had not been visited by ISAF forces for months, if not years.  Using their Chinooks and Blackhawks, Brawler’s GCP flew to these tiny hamlets where Colonel Ault, Lt. Evan Mace, Captain Gray, Captain Pruitt and Captain Alvord forged contacts with the local village leaders.

Later, TF Brawler absorbed several more villages and a key valley into its ad hoc Area of Operations. For the rest of the summer and fall, when not flying missions with his men, Brawler Six was out with the GCP meeting with Afghan sheiks in an effort to win them over to the coalition’s side.  Brawler jump started numerous projects around the region, ranging from school construction, fresh water pipelines to mosque renovations and agricultural assessments.

IMG_1224During the summer of 2010, roadside bombs virtually closed down stretches of Highway One in Logar Province. Brawler stepped in to help combat the IED menace. Using innovative new tactics, Colonel Ault put together an offensive airborne package known as Falcon Strike. Each night, a combined force of AH-64 Apache Gunships, a command element in a Blackhawk, and the GCP mounted in several UH-60’s would patrol along Highway One in search of insurgents laying IED’s. The Apaches would engage these bad guys, and the GCP would then land nearby, dismount and police up weapons and intelligence from the bodies (and body parts). It was tremendously effective, and after the first Falcon Strike missions, IED placement along this stretch of Highway One virtually ceased for weeks.

IMG_3607In a year of operations in Afghanistan, Brawler broke the mold for air units. Instead of being an airborne bus service for the local ground units, Ault’s dynamic leadership and aggressive desire to get more involved in the fight led to a revolutionary method of employing an army aviation asset. His task force joined the COIN fight in a unique and effective way. And while they were kissing babies and making friends by day, they killed scores of bad guys by night, saving countless civilian and military lives on Highway One. In the end, not only did Brawler Nation have an exponential effect on the battlefield, the men and women under Ault’s command had forged a new way of air-ground warfare in a counter-insurgency environment.

IMG_1248When I asked Captain Andrew Alvord, the GCP’s platoon leader, how much of this was due to LTC Ault’s leadership, he replied without hesitation, “All of it. “ Captain Joe Pruitt, the Echo Company commander, said the same thing. Ault’s indelible leadership stamped Brawler from the outset and created a unique culture that blended a warrior’s aggression with intellectual creativity and a can-do spirit that ultimately created friends out of enemies throughout Logar Province. And for those irreconcilables? They paid the price for their continued resistance.

Task Force Brawler will be the standard by which all other army aviation task forces will be judged. Lieutenant Colonel Ault’s leadership will serve as a model for others to follow and develop. And Brawler Nation will have an exponential effect on its own service for years to come.

Not bad for a Southern California boy.

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Beer Bombing in B-17’s

b17 buzzing base late 1942 swpa099 5x7Over the years, I’ve come across interesting things American air crews have thrown out of their planes during bombing missions. One of the more famous was a donkey that was a B-17 group’s mascot. They’d picked the donkey up in North Africa and brought it back to England, where the local kids were given rides on it. The donkey kicked the bucket one day, so the guys in the bomb group somehow put it in an NCO’s uniform, gave it a set of dogtags and dropped it over Germany during their next mission. You know that somewhere, in some archive, is a report of finding a flattened, uniformed donkey in some poor German farmer’s field.

In 2010, while I was with TF Brawler at FOB Shank, Afghanistan, I was on a Chinook that was near-missed by an RPG as we were coming into land at COP Tangi. The village by the COP was pretty hostile, and aircraft often took fire getting into that outpost. I wanted to take pee-filled Gatorade bottles and drop them on that village the next time we had to get out to Tangi Valley. Unfortunately, the prudent Chinook company’s commander nixed that idea. Apparently, raining pee down on the populace doesn’t really lend itself to the whole hearts-and-minds thing. Still, it would have been good for morale.IMG_7484

Anyway, I was reminded of that suggestion today while reading through a Boeing tech rep’s report from the SWPA.  He’d been hanging out with the 43rd Bomb Group “Ken’s Men” in Australia and New Guinea, and had written a report home on how the B-17’s were holding up in the tropics. The author of the report, R.L. Stith took detailed notes on what was one of the largest heavy bomber raids launched in the Pacific to date.

On February 13, 1943, the 43rd Bomb Group put aloft thirty-five B-17’s so heavily laden that Stith remarked, “How can one talk balance when they get away with this and worse?” The main force of thirty-three Forts carried sixteen three hundred pound demolition bombs that had been wrapped with wire to create more shrapnel when they detonated. Alongside those three hundred pounders, the ground crews stuffed the bays with sixty incendiary clusters each weighing twelve pounds. In the radio compartments of each plane, four twenty-two pound flares were stashed. And just forward of the waist guns, the Forts carried more than a dozen twenty pound fragmentation bombs. Somehow, another three hundred pounds of emergency gear was stashed throughout the fuselage of each aircraft as well.

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Rabaul and Simpson Harbor.

The plan called for a night attack on Rabaul with the intent of setting parts of the town afire with the incendiary bombs. The main force would hit the target area sometime after 0300 on February 14th. Two other B-17’s had been assigned to go in ahead of the main force, and it was their load-out that got my attention.

The two B-17s were supposed to keep the Japanese awake and in their slit trenches for hours so that by the time the main effort reached Rabaul, they would be worn out and demoralized. To do this, Stith noted they had been loaded with a mix of incendiary clusters, fragmentation bombs–and beer bottles.5th af b17 at port morebsy 1943 4x6

Americans. Piss us off, and we’ll rain our empties down upon you without remorse. Go us.

5th af series swpa b17 rabaul raid january 43 374I did a double take when I saw that in an official report. Beer bottles? They seriously dropped Coors Light on the Japanese at Rabual?  Then it dawned on me: an empty bottle dropped from 6,000 feet has got to make the mother of all whistling sounds. That kept with the mission profile for those those B-17’s–keep the Japanese awake and in their trenches. The beer bottles were a cheap, field expedient noise maker that didn’t take up much space or weight and could be hurled out of the waist positions at the crew’s leisure. In a theater known for its innovation, this small one was nothing short of brilliant.

That night, the first two Flying Forts reached Rabaul and began trolling back and forth over the target area. Searchlights speared the sky around them, anti-aircraft fire peppered the night’s sky, and the the American pilots changed the pitch on their propellers to maximize their noise signature. They gradually released their bombs. Between them, the beer bottles came shrieking down on the Japanese.

At 0340,  main effort arrived in four waves, flying at altitudes ranging from four to nine thousand feet. Over the next several hours, the 43rd Bomb Group dropped sixty-nine tons of bombs on Rabaul, sparking a massive conflagration among known supply dumps around Rabaul, destroying searchlights, food stockpiles, oil tanks and grounded aircraft. The 3,700 incendiaries dropped on the target created a sea of fire a half mile long and a quarter mile wide. The flames were estimated to be two hundred feet tall, and the plume of smoke from the attack towered ten thousand feet over the target area. The conflagration could be seen from the air for a hundred miles.5th af series swpa rabaul367

Surviving Japanese documents describe the attack as a costly one and very damaging. Some fifteen aircraft were destroyed, as were ammunition dumps and other installations. Total casualties have been lost to history, but the Japanese sources mention a heavy loss of life.

There is no record of their response to the beer bottle barrage, but the attack (and another one the following night) clearly had an impact on the garrison’s morale. Bruce Gamble, in his outstanding work, Fortress Rabual,  notes that one illness-plagued petty officer assigned to Air Group 705 later wrote, “I felt beaten physically and emotionally. I tossed and turned to ease the suffering, but the nightmares kept possessing me with no break.”

One has to wonder if he heard those beer bottles shrieking earthward in his nightmares.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve heard about dropped during a bombing raid?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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War at the Edge of the Ramp

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Chinook crew chief keeps watch beside his M240 machine gun during a mission in Eastern Afghanistan, legs dangling in space and attached to the aircraft only by what the aviators call a monkey line. TF-Steelhead, Oregon National Guard and Washington National Guard, September 2010. Bravo 1-168 GSAB.

 

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Hunters

TF Brawler AH-64 Apache, FOB Shank, 2010.

TF Brawler AH-64 Apache, FOB Shank, 2010.

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The Franco-American Air Connection

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By the fall of 1918, most of the U.S. combat fighter squadrons flew the French-made Spad XIII in battle.

In 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, the Army Air Service was a tiny, primitive and incapable force. In the span of a year, the AAS went from backwards and poorly equipped to a state of the art, modern organization that went toe to toe with the best aviators and aircraft in the world during the final months of the war. That incredible transformation only happened because of massive French assistance. The French helped train American aviators, provided advisors and equipped most of the USAAS squadrons that saw combat on the Western Front. That free-flow of knowledge, experience and material support laid the foundations for American air power.

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French Nieuport 17’s trained America’s first generation of fighter pilots.

In the early 1930’s, French military aviation was considered to be the most advanced in the world. But in the span of about five years, all that changed. The Great Depression hammered budgets, and poor policy decisions on the part of the French government played havoc with the French aircraft industry. Production rates plummeted. Suppliers and contractors to the major aviation companies went out of business. Construction techniques became outdated, and factories were not modernized.

 

 

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French ground crews re-arm an American-built Hawk 75.

 

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A French naval air force ceremony in front of an American-made Consolidated PBY Catalina.

As the threat from Nazi Germany grew, the French made a furious effort to modernize and catch up in 38-39 after watching many nations surpass their once great L’Armee De L’Air. While the nation initiated a crash effort to modernize and increase production of a new and formidable generation of aircraft, including the LEO 451 and the D.520, France turned to the United States to help fill the gap. American firms began churning out aircraft for the L’Armee de L’Air, including the Curtiss Hawk 75, the Martin 167 Maryland bomber, and the Douglas DB-7 (A-20 Havoc). The Hawk 75’s and Martin 167’s saw combat in 1940 with the French, but most of the DB-7’s ended up with the RAF after the Fall of France.

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A French Martin B-26 Marauder. Several medium bomb squadrons flew these in both the MTO and ETO.

In 1942, the U.S. began supplying the Free French with a whole new generation of fighters and bombers. French squadrons went into combat in the MTO and ETO in American-made Martin B-26 Marauders, Bell P-39 Airacobras and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts.

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French ground crews working on a P-47 Thunderbolt during the winter of ’44-45.

After the war, as the French sought to rebuild their military as the Cold War intensified, American designs once again played a crucial role in the L’Armee de L’Air until France’s aviation industry could get back on its feet. American F8F Bearcats, B-26 Invaders and jets such as the F-84 carried the French cockade through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. That support helped establish  post-war French air power.

In the years since, French and American combat aviators have served alongside each other over Iraq, over Serbia and Afghanistan, carrying the hundred year aerial alliance into a new century against new and pernicious threats. I was fortunate to see the French in action while I was in Afghanistan in 2010. I remember watching two of their Eurofighters take off from Kandahar and thinking, The spirits of all those Spad and Thunderbolt pilots rides on their shoulders.

 

The birth of America's bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

The birth of America’s bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

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Game Faces

IMG_7523While in Afghanistan, I tried to accomplish two things with the photos I took. First, I brought along a 500mm zoom lens so I could capture unusual moments and bring them in really, really tight. The lens proved to be perfect for the aerial work I did, and was well worth the extra weight and space it took to cart it across the globe.

More important to me though, was to try and convey the emotions and experience of the men and women I met over there. So, during the weeks I spent in the back of CH-47’s, I tried to focus on the faces of the warriors, civilians, and prisoners who came aboard our helicopter. These photos were some of my earliest attempts to do this. IMG_4386

Bravo Det, 168 had been carrying men of the 173rd Airborne into landing zones throughout Logar and Wardak Provinces in early September, then extracting them after their patrols. These photos are from both the infils and exfils.

Brave men, doing a thankless job with the utmost professionalism, skill and heart. Whether Afghanistan will ever be truly free from oppression and violence is an open question, but the men I encountered on these flights were doing everything they could to inch Afghanistan toward that day of liberation.

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At times, as I saw them through my viewfinder, I wondered how on earth our country could be so disinterested with what its sons and daughters were trying to accomplish, and all that they were going through in the process. Life changing, sometimes life shattering moments were experienced by everyone, and once home, few here in the States could really understand. It leads to a disconnect between warrior and home, one that is not new–Civil War vets wrote of it often after 1865–but creates a chasm nonetheless.IMG_5409

I was there for only a few months, but it became the biggest dividing line in my own life. I gravitated toward those who’d been out there and distanced myself from friends who had not been. Four years later, that balance has yet to shift, and I doubt it ever will. It is hard to watch somebody in a coffee shop throw a tantrum because their latte wasn’t made just right after watching twentysomething Americans bringing food, fresh water and school supplies into destitute villages whose people could be tortured and killed by the enemy just for accepting such help.

IMG_5382It was that experience and that disconnect at home that led me to write Outlaw Platoon with Sean Parnell, The Trident with Jay Redman, and Level Zero Heroes Michael Golembesky with one objective: to bring the war home to our readers as unvarnished and raw, and honest, as we could make it. That was the only way to do justice to those who have left their souls on the distant battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. I thought by doing so, perhaps we could bridge that disconnect, if just a little bit, between warrior and those who remained at home.

Though I never met them, never knew their names, seeing these men of the 173rd changed my life forever.

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Air Insert with the 173rd Airborne

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Joe S, one of the 168’s most experienced pilots was on his second consecutive tour in Afghanistan when I embedded with the unit in late summer 2010. His experience later played a key role in saving a Chinook crippled by mechanical failure over the Hindu Kush.

On September 12, 2010, I was with a CH-47 Chinook crew that executed an air insert mission with elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and an ANA unit. This was the height of the Surge in the Afghan campaign, and the mission was part of a major effort around Logar Province to provide security in the lead up to the national elections, which took place about a week later.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunrise over Logar Province, September 12, 2010.

 

 

IMG_6836I took these photos during that morning insert while with two of my favorite 168 pilots, Joe and Carmen. Joe was one of the most experienced aviator’s assigned to the det. He’d been an Apache pilot prior to switching to Chinooks, and was on his second consecutive tour in Afghanistan. He’d volunteered for his second one and was attached to the 168 from the Georgia National Guard. I only flew with Carmen a few times, but it was always a comfort knowing she was in the cockpit. Young, eager to learn and capable, she was a complete professional and always reassuring to fly with during those days I was embedded with TF Brawler.

I’d love to hear from anyone from the 173rd who was on this mission that day. I’ve often wondered what happened on the ground after we departed the LZ.

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En route to the LZ.

 

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Setting down.

 

 

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Into harm’s way.

 

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Gwenie’s Story Part 1: Action over Ajerestan, 2010

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First Selfie. Gwenie about to get her first round of vaccines since her arrival in Oregon. I have that same look on my face whenever a doc comes at me with a needle. Photo by Gwenie’s dad (that would be me).

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.

 

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FOB Ghazni, September 18, 2010. The first step in a long path that brought Gwenie to Oregon. Photo by John R. Bruning

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.

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Loading bottled water aboard the 1-168 Chinook, bound for Ajerestan. Photo by John R. Bruning.

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.

 

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Climbing over the spines of the Hindu Kush on the way to the outpost at Ajerestan. Photo by John R. Bruning.

 

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.

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Smoke rises from the treeline (at right) where the Taliban RPG team had been concealed. The smoke at left is rising from the edge of the LZ. Scott and Cassie’s Apache can be seen at the bottom of the frame starting their gun run. Photo by John R. Bruning

 

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Scott & Cass coming off the gun run, passing under our Chinook. I took this over the left door gunner’s shoulder. Please don’t repost this one without permission, thank you! Photo by John R. Bruning

 

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.

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The lone ANA sentry hunkered down by the LZ, scans the treeline for incoming. Photo by John R. Bruning.

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.

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Bob and Carmen, piloting the 2nd Chinook in our formation that day, gets airborne from the LZ while under mortar fire. Photo by John R. Bruning

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.

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Scott and Cass at Ghazni, September 19, 2010. Scott returned for another Afghan deployment and died in a non-combat incident at Kandahar on March 29, 2013. Photo by John R. Bruning.

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.

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Cass in her office. FOB Shank, September 2010. Photo by John R. Bruning

 

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.IMG_2364

 

 

 

 

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