- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here, passed along by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, is an account of the recent battle in Nuristan in which eight American soldiers were killed.
Here are the facts, without revealing sensitive information. I feel compelled to write this because I heard some very fine, brave Americans foght for their very lives Saturday, 03 OCT 09. They fought magnificently.
Eight of them made the Ultimate Sacrifice. I don’t know their names, only their call signs. Though it may have been smaller in scale, and shorter in duration, their battle was no less heroic than the exploits of their ancestors, in places like LZ Xray or Fire Base Ripcord in Vietnam. I want people to know that there are still some GREAT Americans who serve in the US Army, fighting for Freedom, who will probably never be given the due they deserve. I don’t know ALL the facts, only what I overheard on the satellite radio.
COP Keating was (past tense) located on low ground, near a river, surrounded by mountains – a poor place to have to defend to begin with. The village of Kamdesh was nearby, as was a mosque. About two platoons and a cavalry troop headquarters occupied the COP – Combat Outpost. If you Google COP Keating, you will find a Washington Times article describing the austere conditions there, written earlier this year. I was on duty from 0600-1800 (6 a.m. until 6 p.m.) on Saturday, 03 OCT 09, and heard, first-hand, the events I am about to recount transpire. I took notes as the battle unfolded.
Things were relatively quiet when I came on shift at 0600. Not too long afterward, I heard a call sign describing taking small arms fire at his position. (That in itself is not alarming – I hear that frequently because I hear satellite radio transmissions from all sorts of units who operate in Nangahar, Kunar, Laghman (where I am) and in Nuristan Provinces, where this happened.) The situation, then began to deteriorate. The Troop Commander – urgently – requested rotary wing gunships to support him. He was told they were 45 minutes away, and that he should use his 120 mm mortars. He replied that the mortar pit was pinned down, and that the could not employ his 120 mm mortars. I did not know until I saw an aerial photo later that day, after I got off shift, that the COP was located in a “bowl,” surrounded on nearly all sides by high ground. The insurgents were shooting down into the mortar pit from above. The 120 mm mortars from OP Fritshe, a few kilometers away were able to help a little, but it was not enough. Not too long after the fight started, the Troop Commander said that he had a KIA, and several wounded.
Uh-Oh – now this is getting serious. Not too much longer after that, the Troop Commander, in a voice that was not panic’d, but which had a sense of urgency said, “We’ve got people inside our wire!!!” He said that he had lost communications with some of his elements at different places on the COP. He had had to abandon his Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and all the various means of redundant communications there (MIRC Chat, Blue Force Tracker, tactical FM radios, etc.) His only means of communication was the satellite radio he was using. He said he urgently needed air support. The number of KIA began to climb.
He kept asking about the helicopters – his higher headquarters said they were “30 minutes out…” He said that if he did not get help soon, they were going to be overrun. He had consolidated the Soldiers he had, to include dead and wounded, in a tight perimeter on part of his COP. He advised that the Afghan National Army (ANA) side of the COP was completely overrun and was on fire. The insurgents had gotten into his perimeter where the ANA latrine bordered his perimeter, after they had overrun the ANA camp. His Entry Control Point (ECP) where some Afghan Security Guards (ASG) had been had been overrun.
The ANP Police Checkpoint had been overrun and he was taking a heavy volume of fire from that. He was taking a lot of RPG fire from the mosque. His Ammunition Supply Point (ASP) was under insurgent control. He kept asking about the helicopters.He was told, “Passing Checkpoint 12…” He said, “I’m telling you that if they don’t get here f***in’ soon, we’re all going to f***in’ die!!!” Shortly after that, his Squadron Commander came up on the radio and told him that he was going to be OK, that help was on the way. The SCO said that he needed to come up on FM and talk to the helicopters, who should be ariving very soon. The Troop Commander said that the Harris was all he had at the moment, and asked that the Squadron relay. It was, obviously, a very anxious time. I was afraid that at any moment, the Troop commander would just stop transmitting, and that would mean that they were likely all dead and dying. Someone asked the Troop commander what his target priorities were, and he said that “anything outside the wire” was controlled by bad guys. He mentioned that he needed gun runs at a particular wall, and mentioned certain Target Reference Points (TRP’s) such as “the putting green” and “the diving board.” Finally, the helicopters arrived and began killing insurgents. It became clear, however, that it was such a target-rich environment that much more air support was needed. The helicopters gave the defenders enough breathing room to better position themselves, reload, etc. Under the umbrella of the gunships, the Troop Commander said that he was going to try to re-take some of his camp. The SCO calmly encouraged him to “fire and maneuver.” As they regained some lost ground, the Troop Commander said that he was finding some of his unaccounted for Soldiers, and that they were KIA. He gave their battle roster numbers. Things were looking better, but it was still a fierce fight. I could hear a cacophony of machine gun fire when the Troop Commander keyed that microphone to talk. The mortars were still pinned won, with one KIA and wounded in the mortar pit. After only a short time, gunships had to leave to rearm and refuel, heading to FOB Bostic. (FOB Bostic was hit with indirect fire, also, throughout the day.) The weather in the high passes interfered with the helicopters. Close Air Support in the form of jets were on the way, and the Troop Commander was asked to provide Target Numbers, which he did. He was still being pressed on all sides, still taking a heavy volume of small arms fire and RPG’s. He had regained some buildings, but had not been able to re-capture all his perimeter. He found at least one MBITR and was able to communicate with aircraft a little better.
Once the jets arrived overhead, they began to drop bombs on the masses, the swarms of insurgents. Usually, the insurgents conduct a raid at dawn, do their damage, and flee. Not this day. I looked at my watch, and it was after 1000 and the insurgents were still attacking, even though it should have become clear to them after the close air arrived that they could no longer hope to completely overrun the camp. The Close Air was on station continuously after that, and as soon as one plane dropped its bombs and strafed, another came down to hit targets – some very close to camp. The mosque was hit by a Hellfire, and open source now reports that a high profile insurgent named Dost Mohammad was killed there. A target described as a “switchback” was bombed repeatedly and the insurgents seemed to simply re-occupy it only to be bombed out of it again. (Several pieces of weapons and equipment has since been found there.) The “North Face” was also repeatedly bombed and strafed.
A plan was developed to get reinforcements to COP Keating. Because it was still “too hot” to land helicopters, they were flown to OP Fritshe and had to walk to COP Keating. Asked about his ammunition (Class 5) at about 1300, the Troop commander said that he was “red” on 7.62 link and MK19 ammunition. Not too long after that, he stated that he was “black” (supply exhausted) on 7.62, but still had a lot of .50 caliber. More KIA were found, and the Troop Commander said that they were missing their sensitive items (weapons, night vision, MBITR radios – things like that.) The KIA number rose to 5. There were constant updates on a particular wounded Soldier who had a broken leg and a crushed pelvis. They said that he had lost a lot of blood, but was on an IV, and was “hanging in there.” The Troop Commander said that he had two ANA KIA, and several wounded, still with him. He said that a lot of the ANA – about 12 – had broken and run when the COP began to be overrun. (Some of their bodies were found nearby the next day, along with some ASG who were wounded.) The Troop Commander said that the insurgents had made off with the ANA’s B-10 Rocket Launcher. Throughout the day, the air support targeted a B-10 launch site, but it was unclear if it was the same system that the ANA had lost of not.
The SCO got on the net and said that there was a plan to bring in a CH-47 Chinook as soon as it got dark, with attack helicopters overhead, and that they would bring in ammo and Soldiers and evacuate the wounded and dead. The SCO said that he would fly in, also. During the battle, the SCO always seemed calm and gave a lot of encouragement to the Troop Commander on the ground. He asked for updates (Situation Reports – “SITREPS”) but he did not nag the Troop Commander for it every 5 minutes. He let the Troop Commander fight the fight, frequently asking him what he needed and asking him how he and his Soldiers were doing, offering encouragement, but not micromanaging.
The fighting continued all day, even though it was not as intense as it had been in the early morning. As the relief column approached from OP Fritshe, it got into a brief fight, quickly killing two insurgents and capturing their ICOM radios and RPG’s. Then, they continued on toward COP Keating. The fire that had completely leveled the ANA side of the COP was spreading from building to building, and was setting the COP on fire. The Troop Commander and his Soldiers had to evacuate their TOC again, because it caught on fire.
Many of the barracks buildings caught on fire and burned, taking the Soldiers’ possessions with them. Only one or two buildings were left by the time it was over. As night approached, the Troop Commander told someone (S-3? FSO?) that if the air cover were lost, and if they were attacked again, they were “done.” The Troop Commander was assured that he would have adequate air support. The CSM came up on the net and asked the Troop Commander to try to expand his perimeter in order to try to get accountability of everyone. The Troop Commander said that he “just can’t do it, I just don’t have enough people. I have too many wounded.” The CSM said that he understood, but that he was looking at a cold body on the Predator feed near the maintenance building, and thought that that might be the final missing soldier. (It was later determined that that was not him.) The Troop Commander said that there were “a lot” of dead insurgents lying dead inside his perimeter, and he could be seeing one of those.
I went off shift at 1800. At that time, there were 6 US KIA, and one missing, later found and determined to be KIA. I do not know where the 8th KIA came from: either one of the wounded died, or earlier there was a mistake in regard to accountability.
The next day (Sunday, 4 OCT) when I came to work, I learned that they had found the unaccounted-for Soldier(s) and had made it through the night. During the late morning, the SCO came up on the net and briefed someone about the situation. He said that of five (5) HMMWV’s, only one was still running. They had counted eight (8) RPG impacts on one HMMWV alone. He said that the HMMWV’s were shot all to pieces. The camp Bobcat had a window shot out, but was still running, and they were still using it to move things.
There was a lot of UXO’s (unexploded ordnance) that made the area hazardous, such as unexploded US mortar rounds that had been scattered, as well as AT-4’s and Javelin’s. Most of the Soldiers on the COP had lost all their possessions except for what they were wearing. A plan was already being developed to get them new TA-50, uniforms, boots, toiletries, etc. once they were extracted. There were a lot of sensitive items that needed to be lifted out, because they are serial numbered items that needed to be accounted for, but most everything was ruined. They discussed whether to insert engineers with a lot of explosive to blow everything up, or whether to call in air strikes after everyone was evacuated and try to destroy what was left that way. Even at this point, they were still taking the occasional odd, angry shot or rocket fire. As I type this, I am still listening to the folks who are left at COP Keating, figuring out what to destroy, how best to destroy it (demo vs. aerial bombs or rockets) what to fly out, and making a plan on how best to get that done so they can abandon and close the COP.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amber Robinson via Flickr