When the Earth Touched the Sky
How eerie calm led to sudden death in the Afghanistan war’s final months
- This story was updated on June 16 to include comments from Richard Newton
Pvt. 1st Class Cody Towse believed the fighting in Afghanistan was all but over. He was wrong — deadly wrong — but he wasn’t alone.
Across Zari district in southern Afghanistan this spring, many of the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment — part of the Texas-based 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, deployed to Kandahar province in December — believed the Taliban had more or less given up, clearing the way for a relatively painless departure of American forces scheduled for 2014.
Then on May 14 everything changed. A series of devastating blasts, part of an apparent Taliban trap involving multiple Improvised Explosive Devices, began a chain of events that claimed the lives of five soldiers, mostly from 3rd Battalion’s Alpha Company, and injured a dozen more — some severely.
In a matter of minutes the better part of a platoon was wiped out — one of the greatest single losses for a U.S. unit in Afghanistan in more than a decade of war. Far from winding down, the war in Zari has potentially entered a bloody new phase.
The Zari trap, loosely reconstructed from interviews, official statements, news reports and the author’s own recent experiences in the district, appears to confirm complex and effective Taliban tactics that U.S. and coalition troops have been unable to entirely counter despite years of effort and billions of dollars in new technology.
Army public affairs officers did not cooperate in reconstructing this narrative, rebuffing multiple attempts to gain more and better information. Richard Newton, an Alpha Company lieutenant who was at the scene of the attack, also declined to offer more than a few details. “I obviously can’t (nor for that matter do I want to) discuss the chain of events that occurred on that day,” Newton said in an email.
Jerome Fones, an Alpha Company soldier, also refused to provide information. “The story is not yours to tell,” Fones said.
The deaths and injuries of so many soldiers all at once could point to a dangerous trend in the final months of the U.S.-led war. With America’s exit from the Afghanistan conflict already penciled on the Pentagon’s calendar and many of the remaining 60,000 U.S. troops steadily packing up their gear and closing down forward bases, complacency could become as big a danger to American lives as Taliban explosives. “You are entirely correct that complacency in a combat zone is a killer,” Newton said.
The war might be ending for the U.S., but it’s not ended. Tens of thousands of Americans are still in harm’s way. Thousands of insurgent fighters and IED-makers still stalk them across Afghanistan’s deserts, mountains, valleys and teeming cities. Until the last American soldier steps leaves Afghanistan, mortal danger looms just a bomb blast away. To believe otherwise could invite explosive death’s thunderous, mutilating embrace.
In a long-distance conversation sometime this spring, Cody Towse told his father — at the family home in Elk Ridge, Utah — that he thought the war was “winding down.”
“He wasn’t scared,” Jim Towse said of his lanky 21-year-old son, in a combat zone for the first time. Cody, a decorated combat medic nicknamed “Candy Doctor” for his habit of giving out treats to Afghan kids, said the insurgents were “too chicken to come out and fight,” Jim recalled.
Towse’s assessment of his unit’s corner of southern Afghanistan would turn out to be tragically, horrifically wrong. But it was a common misreading among the roughly 1,000 soldiers of 3rd Battalion, scattered across Zari and neighboring districts in northern Kandahar province, an arid expanse of poppy fields and vineyards crisscrossed by steep mountain peaks. Through the winter and spring months, Zari was quiet — especially considering the district’s recent past.
The birthplace of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, Zari was once one of the most violent districts in a violent country. 3rd Battalion’s second-in-command Maj. Thomas Casey, who had deployed to Zari on an earlier rotation, estimated 10 percent of all the people killed in combat in Afghanistan in the last decade died in the roughly 100-square-mile Zari or neighboring Panjwai.
Thousands of ghosts haunt Zari’s hot, rough landscape. And to 3rd Battalion, that’s what the district appeared to be — a ghost town. The years of brutal fighting had driven out most of the district’s 80,000 residents. They left behind artillery-pocked fields, crumbling earthen compounds and graves, lots of graves, each marked by a fluttering, sun-bleached flag.
The Americans had not been spared the earlier bloodletting. In the Army brigade that preceded 3rd Battalion in Zari last summer, 80 soldiers lost limbs to buried bombs over the course of just 60 nightmarish days. Nearly 30 soldiers from the unit died during the yearlong deployment.
Up until early May, 3rd Battalion had been lightly hit compared to its predecessor unit. Firefights were few and far between. Only a handful of bombs struck. The battalion had its first amputee in early April and a few more after that. No one from the unit had died. It was as though the Taliban had simply abandoned the district alongside all the farmers and their families.
“This is not the Zari I remember,” Casey said in April.
Zari’s comparative calm seemed to be part of a nationwide trend. Compared to 2012’s spring-to-summer fighting season, Taliban attacks on the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force were down, way down. Just 42 ISAF troops died between January and April 2013, compared to 138 for the same four-month period a year before.
Brigade leaders proposed that maybe, just maybe, the insurgents had been defeated in Zari. “Gains by units before us and the Afghan National Security Forces significantly changed the terrain there,” said Maj. Jeremy Click, 1st Brigade’s top intelligence officer.
But a few 3rd Battalion officers and NCOs were convinced the Taliban was still in Zari, lying low, planning something. “Fighters are here, I have no doubt,” 1st Lt. Christopher Gackstatter, from Bravo Company, told his soldiers before one mid-April patrol. He reminded his young troopers to stay alert, stick to established procedures and be mindful of buried bombs.
Not everyone was so hyper-cautious. Spec. William Gilbert, a 24-year-old Californian from 3rd Battalion’s Alpha Company, wrote his mother to tell her how quiet it was in his area. “He was comfortable with that and he felt very secure in what he was doing,” Jodi Gilbert recalled. William Gilbert had a young wife and a baby on the way.
Gilbert and four others from Alpha Company or attached to the unit would perish on May 14 as bombs exploded and the pulverized earth rose to meet Afghanistan’s turquoise sky.
Death from below
Since the height of the Iraq war the Army has spent tens of billions of dollars developing and acquiring special, bomb-resistant trucks with blast-deflecting, v-shaped undersides and top-secret armor formulas.
But the vehicles are all but useless in Zari. Mostly roadless and laced by thick grapevines, rivers and irrigation canals that run deep with fast-flowing water that streams down from the mountains, Zari is best traversed on foot.
Sometimes U.S. troops in the district simply leave their trucks on base and march right out the front gate, walking the entire duration of their patrols. Other times they ride until the road ends, then dismount for the final, most difficult miles.
In other, less rugged regions of Afghanistan, the Taliban targets the coalition’s vehicles with massive roadside IEDs weighing hundreds of pounds and triggered by radio signals, copper command wires or infrared beams. But in Zari the bombs are tailored for killing men on foot.
These so-called “dismount IEDs” are usually smaller — 10, 20 or 30 pounds — because they can be fairly diminutive and still maim or kill. Usually pressure-activated, they tend to be buried under foot paths favored by U.S. troops. In Zari, every step a soldier takes could be his last. If the bomb is big enough, he will never hear or feel the blast that snuffs out his life. If on the smaller side, the IED may only rip off a man’s limbs in a ear-shattering convulsion of earth and sky.
So dire is the buried bomb threat that the American platoons in Zari have revised their tactics to defend themselves from this one menace. Where once the infantry might have sprinted across the battlefield in widely-spread formations, now they travel in a single tight line behind men carrying handheld sensors tuned to detect concealed explosives. The sensors don’t always work, but they’re better than nothing.
These men — “minehounds,” they’re called — sweep the path inch by excruciating inch, advancing at slower than a walking pace as the rest of the platoon snakes behind them, pausing every couple steps to let the minehounds do their lifesaving work. If the minehounds detect a possible bomb, the platoon leader decides whether to edge around it or halt and let the attached Explosive Ordnance Disposal team carefully dig up and destroy it with C4 charges.
On May 14 a platoon from Alpha Company set out to patrol the village of Sanjaray. Spec. Mitchell Daehling and Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Baker, an EOD technician, were on foot near a river when one of the men took a wrong step and triggered an IED. 24-year old Daehling, married and on his first tour, and Baker, a 29-year-old Californian with nine years in the Army, apparently died instantly.
“Losing one soldier, for whatever reason, is already losing one too many,” Col. Ken Adgie, the 1st Brigade commander, wrote on Facebook. In this case the losses quickly multiplied as Alpha Company soldiers rushed to the scene of the initial blast, possibly disregarding defensive tactics as they hurried to reach their fallen comrades.
Radios crackled to life in the Alpha Company command post, 30 minutes by road from the scene of the bombing. It was the patrol leader asking for help. Alpha Company’s Quick Reaction Force, always on standby at the austere, walled compound, flew into action.
A dozen or more soldiers — among them Newton, Gilbert, Towse and a 22-year-old medic from Pennsylvania named Adam Hartswick — piled into their Stryker eight-wheeled armored vehicles and roared out the gate.
Reaching the blast site, the Stryker crews dropped the rear ramps and Newton, Gilbert, Towse, Hartswick and the other soldiers leaped out. Survivors of the initial explosion directed the newcomers down a path to the riverbank, where Daehling and Baker’s bodies lay.
One of the Taliban’s deadliest tactics is called the “complex ambush,” in which one bomb will disable and confuse a coalition patrol, opening it up to follow-on attack by gunfire, rockets or additional explosive devices. Having learned the hard way, experienced Army sergeants advise their soldiers to never rush into a blast zone to reach dead or wounded friends. Instead, they should move carefully in order to avoid becoming casualties themselves in an unfolding complex attack.
But on May 14 by the river in Sanjaray, members of the QRF might have partially ignored that advice. When Gilbert went to check one of the bodies for booby traps, a second IED went off, killing the stocky young Californian. “He was going to be a dad,” his mother said. “He was so excited about it.”
Other soldiers were injured. Towse ran to the riverbank where one wounded soldier lay. “He didn’t hesitate. He knew he was exposing himself to danger,” said Brig. Gen. John Charlton, from Towse’s home station of Ft. Bliss.
A third bomb went off. Towse, the Candy Doctor, seems to have disappeared in the blast. Apparently unable to find a trace of the young medic, the Army would initially list him as missing in action. Back home in Utah, Towse’s family would spend sleepless nights waiting for, and dreading, more information.
Hartswick, just 30 feet from the blast that killed Gilbert, also rushed to the river to help the wounded. “He ran to the fight, right into the mix,” said his father Sean, himself an Army first sergeant. A fourth and final explosion severed the young man’s index fingers, part of one thumb and his legs above the knees.
Newton ran to Hartswick’s side. The medic was bleeding out — and the officer didn’t know what to do. So the severely maimed Hartswick, somehow resisting the pain and shock, talked him through it. “I was able to instruct the lieutenant on how to treat me,” Hartswick recalled later. “I told him to put the tourniquets high and tight on my legs.”
In an email, Newton disputed Hartswick’s account, which the medic originally told to the Pennsylvania Centre Daily Times. “I have the utmost respect for Adam Hartswick,” Newton wrote. “He is an incredibly brave soldier, and his actions that day were extremely heroic. He did in fact talk me through his treatment; however, you wrote something that makes it seem like I was incredibly lost and incompetent — quite frankly, I am extremely offended.”
Within 45 minutes Hartswick had been evacuated — by helicopter, most likely — to a coalition facility. He was soon stable enough to call his parents. “I lost my legs,” he told them. “I’m going to get new legs. I’m going to do rehab, and I’m going to be all right.”
As the smoke and dust settled, the devastating toll became clearer: a dozen soldiers hurt, some severely. Four dead. One missing. Alpha Company, numbering just over 100 people, had lost nearly a fifth of its strength in one of the biggest complex attacks in memory.
With the known dead recovered and the injured safely evacuated, Alpha Company’s traumatized survivors apparently focused their efforts on locating the missing Towse. Exactly what happened next is not totally clear, as multiple Army spokespeople plus Newton either declined to offer detail or said they simply don’t know.
The same day as the explosions, a team of Military Policeman working with Alpha Company rode out on a mission “in support of operations associated with the Zari mission,” according to brigade commander Adgie. Among the MPs was a 33-year-old Kansan named Trenton Rhea. The experienced sergeant first class, married with three daughters, climbed into a river while “trying to find a fellow soldier,” according to one news report.
Though unclear, it seems Rhea was looking for the missing Towse, possibly believing the young medic’s body had been carried away after being thrown into the river by the blast.
But it was Rhea that got swept away. He drowned, compounding the tragedy of Alpha Company’s bloody day.
While Adgie stated that Rhea’s patrol was “associated” with the Alpha Company mission, Newton again disputed published statements. “I am fairly confident that [Rhea] had never even been to Zari district,” Newton said. “He died miles away from the incident.”
In days that followed, Hartswick was evacuated all the way to Walter Reed hospital in Maryland, where many military amputees receive their prosthetic limbs. Towse’s remains were eventually located and on May 18 the Army told the medic’s family that he was dead.
The bodies of Towse, Daehling, Baker, Gilbert and Rhea were flown home in coffins draped in American flags. Combined, thousands of people attended ceremonies honoring the soldiers’ sacrifices.
A man named Ryan Payne was at Rhea’s funeral in Sedalia, Missouri. “We walked out of the church and formed the procession that would drive to the cemetery and immediately noticed the streets leading away from the church were lined with townspeople all holding flags while either saluting or placing their hands over their hearts,” Payne wrote on Facebook.
“We went a few blocks, and they were still there,” Payne added. “We went a few miles and they were still there. In fact, on the 30-mile drive to the cemetery, I doubt there was any stretch of over a mile in which there wasn’t someone standing along the side of the highway holding a flag or a sign.”
At Walter Reed, Hartswick watched a broadcast of Towse’s June 1 funeral. He sent his uncle to the ceremony with a message for his dead comrade. “I salute you, dear friend,” Hartswick’s statement read. “May you rest peacefully for the good you have done.”
On May 21, Gilbert’s wife gave birth to a baby girl.
Back in Zari, the attack on Alpha Company was still under investigation as of the first week of June, according to 1st Brigade spokeswoman Capt. Jen Dyrcz. It remains to be seen whether Alpha Company’s troops could, or should, have done anything differently the day the ground burst beneath them.
While refusing to offer specific details, Newton insisted the above recreation of events in Zari is inaccurate. “Nobody asked you to write this [and] I am not going to ask you to retract it,” he said. “You can continue to write whatever you like, but I just wanted to let you know that it’s wrong.”
In any event, an eerie calm has reportedly returned to much of Zari district, although violence is up elsewhere in Afghanistan. “Still relatively quiet around here,” Bravo Company’s Capt. Dennis Halleran said.
But 3rd Battalion’s soldiers likely know, now more than ever, that the quiet can be fleeting in the waning, potentially explosive months of America’s 13-year war.