AMBUSH AT GARDEZ
Looking back on it, I got my job as team sergeant for Operational Detachment Alpha-391 (ODA-391) as the result of an enemy ambush. It was a bloody business, but the good guys, with one exception, all lived, and the bad guys, from what we could see, were killed or captured.
I was assigned to Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, and I was the company medic at the time. We were operating out of a "safe house" near Gardez, Afghanistan. Along with the other guys on the B-team, I had the job of providing support for the A-teams running patrols and operations in the Shah-e Khot valley in the weeks following Operation Anaconda. Home for us all was a walled compound typical of the area, and inside were two ODAs from 3rd Group, one from 20th, and another from 5th Group; we had set the place up with a little mess hall, a tactical operations center (TOC), a supply room, and my clinic.
I was having breakfast when a small convoy left our compound early on the morning of April 8, 2002, heading downtown to buy supplies at the local market. There were about twenty local AMF (Afghan Military Forces) and a few Special Forces guys from ODA-395 along for the ride, all mounted in pickup trucks and Land Rovers. The AMF soldierswere from the Eastern Alliance, a faction led by Gen. Zia Lodin. In the lead was a four-door Toyota Hilux pickup truck with two AMF men in the front seat, two in the back, and another six or so in the bed of the vehicle. There were two or three of these trucks in the lead, the Land Rovers followed.
There was only one practical route into Gardez, and that was over a bridge crossing a dry streambed. It was an obvious choke point and an ideal ambush location. The enemy knew this, and so did we, and the convoy approached the location with caution.
As the driver of the lead vehicle rolled up to the bridge, he saw what appeared to be a taxicab broken down on the road, with another vehicle parked alongside, apparently trying to help with repairs. The driver of the first truck responded in typical Afghan fashion by beeping his horn, yelling, and gesturing at the drivers to clear the road. The cab driver shrugged and indicated by gesture that he couldn't move the taxi.
The AMF driver was somehow convinced that this was an innocent event, and that turned out to be a bad mistake. The cab driver ambled over as if to talk, and he must have been a good actor because he got as far as the driver-side window, then dropped the first of several hand grenades inside. Before it detonated, he tossed another in the back of the truck among the half-dozen AMF. About the same time that the first grenade detonated in the cab, two Taliban popped up from the side of the bridge and opened up with AKs (as the AK-47 assault rifle is called) from close range, spraying the whole convoy with machine gun fire. The blast from the grenade blew out the windows of the cab, showering the bridge with millions of tiny shards of glass and severely injuring the four men inside.
The lead actor in this little play, the apparent cab driver, must have known he would not survive, but he stood there on the bridge throwing grenades at all of our vehicles for a few seconds. The AMF troops riding in the second vehicle cut him down almost immediately, with dozens of bullets hitting him in the head and chest. Then the AMF troops hosed down his accomplice, who was standing near the taxi on the bridge. When the AMF focused their fire on the two Taliban at the side of the bridge, their overwhelming fire forced the Taliban to flee into Gardez. The unharmed AMF quickly dismounted and took chase afterthem. On the bridge lay close to two dozen of their fellow AMF soldiers, wounded and dying.
Back in the safe house, we all heard the detonations of the grenades and the chatter of the automatic weapons and knew something must have gone wrong. Then the radios came alive: "Phoenix Nine-Zero, Phoenix Nine-Zero, the AMF have been hit! AMF have been ambushed at the bridge and have taken casualties. No American casualties. We're going to assist the AMF."
I looked up from my breakfast and across the table at Jeff Hull, but before I could get a word out, Jeff was making a beeline for the door. We grabbed our weapons, body armor, and an aid bag, ran outside, and jumped on ATVs. We were roaring out the front gate when Maj. Mike Hopkins, my company commander, ran out and stopped us, yelling, "Stop! Frank, Stop! I need you to set up a casualty collection point here. I'm going down there to find out what's going on."
Of course the whole compound was in controlled chaos. Mike took ODA-394, the quick-reaction force (QRF) , and they roared off in their Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs) to support Nine-Five and the AMF.
After a quick look around, I discovered I was the only medic in the compound. I told all the remaining guys to start collecting cots from our hooches and setting them up in the courtyard. With their help, I started setting up a little MASH operation. While the cots were being collected, the first truck rolled in the gate.
Jeff Hull was on the truck. "Casualties, casualties!" he called, and I ran over to begin dealing with the victims. In the back was the poor soul who was in the front seat of that first vehicle, clearly already dead. All the flesh on his left leg had been cleanly removed and the bone revealed; he had a gaping hole in his side, and his right hand was gone. The grenade had apparently detonated in his hand while he was leaning over, trying to pick it up to throw it back out of the window of the pickup. "This guy is gone," I told Jeff. "Let's put him to the side and make this the start of the dead pile."
Then I asked the interpreter to find out how many more were coming in. "Twenty!" he said.
"Holy cow!" I said. "If we get twenty more like this, we're in trouble!"
The next truck that pulled in was literally a meat wagon, with about half a dozen wounded in the back, some sitting up, others lying down. The guys started taking them down, and I got to work on the one who seemed to be the most seriously wounded. He already had that ashen gray look and was unconscious, but he still had a pulse. It was hard to tell who was bleeding and who wasn't because the bed of the truck was covered in blood, and it had gotten on all of them, so we started cutting their clothes off. One guy had a major chest wound; another had lots of grenade fragments peppering his torso and head. Some were conscious and screaming.
When medics assess wounded for injuries, part of the inspection we do is by touch, and while I was running my hand down along the back of his head, two of my fingers disappeared into a hole at the base of his skull just behind the right ear. I carefully turned his head over and saw this gaping hole, definitely a major injury, thinking, This guy is toast--he will never make it. Although I didn't expect he'd survive, I called over the company sergeant major, Gary Koenitzer, and told him, "Take some of this Curlex [an absorbent bandage material] and start working on the rest of this guy's wounds."
Chris Manuel, our company operations warrant officer, asked me what he could do to help. "Chris, get on the radio and get us some helicopters," I said. "We're going to need at least two medevac aircraft, possibly more." Chris and one of the company commo guys ran back to the TOC and put in the call to the JSOTF ( Joint Special Operations Task Force headquarters) at Bagram Airbase for help.
Even though the other guys were not medics, they had all been through the Combat Lifesaver program and had plenty of medical training to deal with just this sort of mayhem. And even though most of them had never had a chance to put that training to work before, they all dove in and performed brilliantly--a perfect example of why we all cross-train on each other's skills. They were clearing airways and putting on dressings, and I didn't have to show any of them what to do.
This let me deal with the most seriously wounded, and there were enough of them to keep me busy. One was a guy with a huge shrapnel wound to his back about the size of my fist; it was centered in thevicinity of his kidney. The wound was bleeding badly, so I started shoving Curlex into the hole, then slapped a dressing on it and told one of the guys to hold pressure on it as I moved to the next guy.
Both medics from Nine-Five arrived with the next truckload of casualties, so now there were three SF medics to deal with the worst cases: Matt Duffy, Jason Adams, and myself. "Matt, you grab the guy with the chest wound; Jason, you work on the guy with the head injury; and I'll take the kidney wound."
"Frank, we've got some more serious ones coming in," one of them said. A few minutes later, two more medics showed up from the 20th Group team who had been out on patrol but had hustled back to the compound when they heard the shooting. That brought the total of SF medics to five--literally a miracle for the Afghan soldiers. Because of the high level of difficulty and the long duration of Special Forces medical training, SF medics are usually in short supply. Many times, teams would be forced to deploy with only one medic instead of the standard two. Teams usually operate on their own when deployed, and if they are unfortunate enough to face a mass casualty situation, there will probably be a single medic handling all the chaos of both triage and treatment. This large number of medics at the compound would be the first of many miracles our wounded allies would be fortunate enough to experience.
We now had thirteen seriously wounded. Five of them were in critical condition, and if they did not receive immediate surgical attention, they would soon die. In addition, there were some others who were lightly wounded and would have to wait.
Jason's head-wound patient suddenly became the top priority. He began to have a seizure as a result of the head injury. His jaw locked shut, and then he vomited. Within seconds, his breathing stopped. Jason was a rookie medic just out of the course, but he knew what to do: the soldier needed a cricothyroidotomy, or "cric" (pronounced cr-ike), as we call it. This involves cutting a small hole in the front of the neck and inserting a tube into the trachea (windpipe), a technique that Jason had never used on a human previously but that he used now with textbook precision. Immediately, the man began to breathe, and hislife was, for the moment, saved. For the next thirty minutes, we all worked like demons to stabilize all the casualties while waiting for the medevac helicopters.
The AMF soldier with the kidney wound had lost so much blood that he no longer had a pulse. We rapidly infused a blood expander called Hespan, and within minutes his pulse returned.
The soldier with the large chest wound now had a special dressing with an air valve in it, preventing the air leaking from the injured lung from building up pressure that would cause the other lung to collapse--a lethal condition. Three of the worst injured were literally brought back from death.
A UH-60 Blackhawk arrived first, complete with a flight medic and our 3rd Group surgeon. They immediately took charge of the three worst as we loaded them into the rotating carousel aboard the UH-60 medevac. The crew chief then told us a CH-47 Chinook was right behind them.
The Chinook's timing was perfect. Just as we finished loading the most critical guys into the Blackhawk, it took off, making room for the huge Chinook. We quickly loaded the remaining casualties into the back of the Chinook, and within minutes it, too, was in the air, on its way back to the expert care of the FAST (Forward Area Surgical Team) located in Bagram. Within thirty minutes, the wounded Afghans would be receiving the best medical care in all of Afghanistan.
You might not think so, but these wounded AMF guys were really lucky. They were lucky that they had SF medics nearby who could easily handle their severe wounds. They were lucky that the Army's best surgeons from Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg provided stabilizing emergency surgery. Finally, for our guy with the severe open head wound, the Spanish army had a field hospital set up at Bagram, with a neurosurgeon on duty. The Spanish doctors operated on the guy for eight hours, repairing the injury to his brain; he woke up three days later, and a week later he walked out of the hospital with a cane. He had been clinically dead on the battlefield, with no pulse at all, and a bunch of Spanish surgeons, SF medics, and others saved him.
The man with the kidney wound lived, too, much to our surprise. The Afghan soldier with the massive chest wound had a collapsedlung, but the surgeons fixed him up and released him from the hospital after only a few days.
With the exception of the two worst cases, the head wound and the kidney wound, all the other AMF soldiers were flown back to our compound only a week after the event. We saved every single one of them who had arrived at our compound alive. When the helicopter brought them back to Gardez, their company commander, Hoshkiar, was there to meet them with hugs and tears. He and his staff dismounted from their vehicles, allowing the recovering wounded to ride in comfort while he and his officers walked back to the compound.
After the helicopter lifted off, we all walked back together, with Hoshkiar walking alongside us. He had been told by the returning AMF soldiers that all of his men were doing well; even the two critically wounded men had survived and would recover. With tears in his eyes, he said to me, "Those men would never have lived had you not been here to care for them. I want to thank you for this." With that he hugged me. So on behalf of all the Americans who gave their best to save the lives of our Afghan brothers in arms, I hugged him back.
This is the sort of thing that puts the "Special" in Special Forces, and it was one of many experiences that cemented the bonds between all the Afghan soldiers in the AMF and us Americans.
Gary Koenitzer worked as hard as anybody else during this mass casualty event, but that didn't keep him from doing his job as our company sergeant major at the same time. That job involves, among other things, evaluating the duty performance, particularly in stressful situations, of his subordinate noncommissioned officers, of whom I was one. While Gary didn't say a lot about it at the time, he apparently approved of how I managed the mass casualty situation, as I would find out later, when we got back to the States.
ERIC WRIGHT TAKES COMMAND
It was also during our tour in Afghanistan that Eric Wright was given his opportunity to become part of ODA-391. Eric had been assigned to the company only a few weeks before we deployed to Afghanistan. There wasn't enough time to get Eric up to speed enough to take anA-team into combat, so he was assigned as our company executive officer (XO). As the XO, Eric had to grow up extremely fast. He assumed responsibility for compiling the company's Statement of Requirements (SOR) and oversaw many of the preparations to deploy an SF company into combat. He also managed the logistics associated with the initial "launching" of the teams involved in Operation Anaconda. His performance did not go unnoticed either. About six weeks through our tour, just after the completion of Operation Anaconda, our commander, Maj. Mike Hopkins, decided it was a good time for Eric to take over ODA-391. Normally, the command of a team is a two-year slot--enough time for an officer to become proficient at leading a team before he moves on in his career. The previous commander had his two years and a bit more. The problem was that the team was deployed and conducting "real-world" combat operations.
Changing commanders while deployed to a combat theater is not normal. A deployed team conducting combat operations needs to be one perfectly integrated unit that functions automatically during a crisis. All the members of the old Three-Nine-One had trained up together, understood each other's virtues and vices, and knew they could depend on each other. Good teams who have worked together for a long time can communicate without words, like a football team after the ball is hiked.
Even so, Maj. Hopkins decided to move Eric in to replace Three-Nine-One's commander while the team was still deployed in Afghanistan and conducting combat operations near the Pakistani border. Commanding a team in combat helps to advance an officer's career, and Maj. Hopkins was doing Eric a well-deserved favor with this assignment. At that time none of us knew that we would be fighting in Iraq, and we did not know how much longer we would be in Afghanistan, so this move was a precautionary one. The previous commander had done a fine job, but he already had his "trigger time" on his OER (Officer Evaluation Report), and it was time for Capt. Wright to get his.
Maj. Hopkins was a great commander and made the move with the best of intentions, but it immediately created problems within the team. Their old commander knew the ropes and was a vital member ofthe detachment, while Eric was considered by the members of ODA-391 as an unknown and untried leader. The members of ODA-391 were not happy, but they soldiered on and completed their tour.
MELTDOWN OF ODA-391
ODA-391 returned to the States in the spring of 2002, cleaned their gear, and then fell apart as a team. Special Forces detachments have the same problems and issues as any kind of team--people work well together for a while and then need to move on, and that is what happened at this time. Soon after their return, the team sergeant and most of the senior members of the team applied for other assignments and left. Capt. Wright suddenly had a detachment with no team sergeant and only five guys remaining. You do not want to do a mission with just five guys.
To add insult to injury, ODA-391 was scheduled to deploy to Africa for a month to train members of the Botswana armed forces in closequarters battle (CQB). It was during those first few weeks after we got back that Gary Koenitzer called Jeff Hull and me into his office without saying why.
"What's up, Sergeant Major?" I asked. As the company sergeant major Gary had to fill Nine-One's vacancies, and he had to find suitable people in a hurry. Gary, remembering the ambush at Gardez, along with the way Jeff and I worked together that day, decided to offer us the opportunity to go back to an A-team.
"As you guys know, a lot of guys on Nine-One are leaving the team to go to schools or up to the group staff. Frank, I was thinking you could be the team sergeant, and Jeff, you could be his assistant Ops sergeant. What do you think?" Gary asked.
"Hell, yes," we both said.
And that's how I found myself as team sergeant of the "Roughnecks" of ODA-391.
ROUGHNECK NINE-ONE. Copyright © 2006 by Sgt. 1st Class Frank Antenori, US Army (Retired), and Hans Halberstadt. All rights reserved.No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.