In February 2011, novelist and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson embedded with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Regiment, of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He spent much of his time with Alpha Company, nicknamed the "Hard Rocks," at Combat Outpost Senjaray in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. This is an excerpt from Lost in Kandahar, his reflections on the embed, which is available from Amazon as a Kindle Single.
Nov. 1, 2010, was the day that defined the battalion's tour. Before then, despite all the grenades and firefights and IEDs, the Hard Rocks hadn't lost a single soldier. But as a patrol returned to the outpost just before sunset that Monday, a young Afghan approached on a motorcycle. Spc. Felipe Pereira ordered him to stop and patted him down.
"I make him get off the bike, I get close to him," Pereira said, speaking in the present tense, reliving the moment. He was in his hutch as he spoke, his squadmates around him. "He's making eye contact with me. He's absolutely smiling. Very nice." Pereira patted the motorcyclist down, didn't find anything. He decided the man wasn't a threat and turned and jogged up the hill to Highway 1 and the base.
The bomb was hidden in the bike's gas tank. Its blast threw Pereira onto the highway. As he hit the asphalt, he thought he'd stepped on an IED, wondered if he'd lost his legs. He hadn't. He stood, got his bearings. The motorcycle had vaporized in a cloud of gray dust and black smoke. Three men from Pereira's squad—Sgt. Ryan "Lou" Louviere, Spc. Jonathan M. Curtis, and Pvt. 1st ClassAndrew N. Meari—lay helpless on the hill below. Pereira ran for them.
Then the ambush began in earnest, as insurgents opened up with AK-47s from a half-dozen positions inside the town of Senjaray. "You hear the big mosquitoes going by," Pereira said of the bullets. Pereira reached Curtis, who had been standing next to the motorcycle. Curtis wasn't moving, but Pereira hoped he might be alive. He tried to pick Curtis up, carry him to safety. But shrapnel had cut through Pereira's right leg, sapping his strength. He couldn't move Curtis. With his leg bleeding and numb, Pereira stumbled up the hill, looking for help.
Meanwhile, Pvt. 1st Class Philip Wysocki sprinted to cover Louviere, who was moaning in agony. Louviere had been standing behind the motorcycle when it blew. The bomb took out chunks of his legs. "Lou said, 'Wysocki, tell it to me straight, are my legs gone?' " Wysocki said. But Louviere's pants had been blown off, and Wysocki saw that despite the wounds, his legs were intact. And something else too. "I was like, 'Sgt. Lou, nice cock.' Everything was hanging out.
Then the insurgents opened up and the joking stopped. Wysocki lay atop Louviere to protect him, while another soldier fired back at two Taliban on a nearby roof, killing them. A few seconds later, Pereira returned. He hadn't given up on Curtis or Louviere. He'd commandeered an armored truck from outpost. Now he skidded the truck toward Louviere and Wysocki as they watched in awe. Despite his wounds, Louviere hadn't forgotten that he was the sergeant commanding the squad. He thought Pereira was purposely hotdogging down the hill. "Lou was yelling, 'Stop fucking around, Pereira, stop fucking around,' " Wysocki said. In reality, Pereira was struggling to keep the heavy truck from flipping over.
The soldiers loaded Curtis and Louviere into the truck, and Pereira drove back up the hill to the outpost. As Pereira's adrenaline faded, he realized he'd been seriously wounded. "I was actually having difficulty breathing," he said. He would find out later that he had suffered a partially collapsed lung besides his leg wounds. Unfortunately, Curtis had already died, but Louviere was alive. He was evacuated to surgery at the hospital at Kandahar Air Field.
Back on the hill, the ambush intensified. Wysocki and the other soldiers could have retreated to the outpost. But falling back would have meant abandoning Meari's corpse to the Taliban. Instead Wysocki led the squad into a narrow ditch, where they battled the insurgents in a pitched firefight that lasted half an hour.