Courage Under Fire
It was a quiet day in Afghanistan … until the explosion.
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.
"We weren't leaving until we got Meari's body," Wysocki said. "We were taking fire from just about the whole city." The soldiers shot through nearly all their ammunition before help finally arrived. After bringing Meari's body to safety, Wysocki and the other soldiers asked if they could rejoin the fight. "They wouldn't let us go," Wysocki said. "I think they knew if they let us go back out, we'd raise hell. I was fucking pissed. I was ready to kill everyone in Senjaray."
Four months later, the squad hadn't lost its desire for revenge. Wysocki: "There is never one day when we don't want to take it to the Taliban." Pereira: "I want to stay and fight for the guys who died."
Their actions that day had not gone unnoticed. Wysocki had received a Silver Star, the Army's third-highest commendation, for courage under fire. Pereira was waiting to hear whether he would be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, which ranks second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Just seven DSCs have been given to soldiers in Afghanistan. Other squad members received Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars.
Hearing their stories, I envied these men. For them, all the clichés were true. Facing death, they refused to retreat. They fought for the men beside them. They proved themselves as warriors. They acted more bravely than most civilians could even imagine.
And yet … their courage hadn't saved Curtis, 24 when he died, or Meari, 21. Their deaths were no one's fault, least of all their own. They simply happened to stand next to a man who believed that self-destruction offered its own path to glory. I couldn't forget how Pereira described the bomber. He's making eye contact with me. He's absolutely smiling. Very nice.
Alex Berenson is an author and journalist. From 2000 to 2010, he worked as a business and investigative reporter for the New York Times. His seventh novel, The Night Ranger, will be published in February.
Photographs by Alex Berenson.