KUNAR RIVER VALLEY, Afghanistan — Ryan Krowlicki attributed his apprehension that June day to the fact that he was new to combat.
The 2nd Platoon first lieutenant couldn’t shake the feeling that the bomb patrol hadn’t cleared the route ahead of the convoy, along the narrow mountain road over the Kunar River.
He glanced in his rearview mirror, confirming that the Humvees behind him were in line, then pressed the accelerator.
Seconds later, there was a long, low roar. When he looked in his mirror again, everything had changed.
Krowlicki stared at the reflection of the Humvee two vehicles behind as it rocked inexplicably on its front wheels. It took him a moment to realize that the front of the vehicle was all that remained.
They called it a “catastrophic IED,” because the bomb demolished the Humvee and its occupants. Among them were the company’s first sergeant, Robert Barton, long the glue of Company A, 1st Battalion, 327 Infantry Regiment, and several members of the mortar team.
In an instant on June 7, the men at Combat Outpost Monti in the northern Kunar River Valley lost their equilibrium. And the blows — devastating, brutal acts of war — would keep coming, driving home the force of a constantly replenishing insurgency in this border region, where U.S. forces have made few concrete gains in nine years of war.
Eight days later, a fatal bullet would find its way into a turret and under a gunner’s vest. One of the few female suicide bombers on record in Afghanistan would kill two more men from Monti on June 21. Then, a soldier would die where he slept, when a rocket — one of the seemingly endless supply that insurgents fire down into this low-lying base surrounded by Taliban-riddled mountains — hit a B-hut. The wooden structure was swallowed by flames.
Across 31 days, a staggering nine men at COP Monti were killed in insurgent attacks. Several more were wounded, and still others were pulled from the theater, succumbing to the psychological strain, before death finally released its grip on the embattled base.
“This is the hardest, far and away the most kinetic fight I’ve ever had,” said Capt. Jeffrey Hinds, the battle-savvy commander of the “Gator” company, who has served two tours in Iraq.
Fueled by anger at the insurgents’ attacks, Hinds and his company of infantry men grew increasingly eager to confront the enemy.
“We are still going on patrol every day, still exposed to that threat,” said Staff Sgt. Jesse Wertz, the 27-year-old sergeant of the mortar section that lost three mortarmen and a gunner to the IED blast.
“You can’t sit there and think that every time you roll out you are going to die.”
Soldiers at COP Monti now joke like only survivors can about the inevitability of seeing combat and the undeniable possibility of getting wounded.
“Welcome to COP Monti,” quipped Sgt. Michael Franks, 31, the company’s intelligence officer. “Here’s your Purple Heart, here’s your CIB (combat infantry badge) and here’s the chow hall.”
June 7: Catastrophic IED
The night of June 6, company executive officer Capt. Cody Grimm heard Barton, the company’s first sergeant, belting out a song by the band Tonic — “If you could only see (the way she loves me, maybe you’d understand)” — and joined him in singing.
Barton, 35, was Grimm’s longtime battle buddy, the wise leader who became mentor to Grimm, 26, when Grimm was still a platoon leader at Fort Campbell, Ky. He knew Barton to be a strong soldier and marksman who upheld a strict standard but also had a great sense of playfulness.
The song led to a conversation about the men’s wives. Barton told Grimm he missed his wife and loved her a lot. He said that “she was awesome. She’d just sent him a huge box with heart-shaped notes attached to each item,” Grimm recalled.
The next day, Grimm was supposed to join the patrol but was bogged down in paperwork. Barton said he would go instead. When the call came over the radio a short time later, silence filled the operations room.
“They said catastrophic IED, first sergeant is dead,” Grimm recalled a month later. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.”
Wertz had never seen a truck so destroyed. The bomb tore it into four pieces, throwing them in all directions. Vehicle and body parts were strewn onto the craggy mountain face and down into the river.
All that was left was from the steering wheel forward, Wertz said.
Men spent the next six hours scouring the mountainside and the riverbed, collecting body parts in trash bags. Three of the men would not be found until the river washed up their limbless torsos over the next month.
With four men under his command in the wreckage, Wertz tried to keep the rest of his team away. But they were at the site all day, pitching in with the recovery. Wertz can only hope it won’t turn young men bitter.
“We had to pick up their pieces and see them disfigured,” Wertz said. “Eight hours before, we were joking around.”
Krowlicki had arrived late to Kunar Province after his mother was diagnosed with a fatal illness as his platoon was about to deploy. He stayed home, buried his mother, and had arrived in country just a few days earlier. This was his second patrol on his first deployment, and it had gone terribly wrong.
“It turned into making sure my soldiers were doing something, making sure they were focused on getting the job done instead of just sitting in their vehicles thinking about what happened,” said Krowlicki, whose close friend, Sgt. Joshua A. Lukeala, was among the dead.
Spc. Dominick Doria, 22, was supposed to be in that spot in the convoy that day. But at the last minute, Wertz changed the routes, sending the first sergeant’s truck carrying Doria’s mortar buddies on the convoy instead.
Gone in an instant were Spc. Charles “Scott” Jirtle, Doria’s roommate and his friend since basic training; Lukeala, a soldier married to his high school sweetheart, who came into the platoon after the soldiers came back from their last deployment in Iraq, a stranger who wormed his way into their hearts. Lukeala was “a great leader and a great friend,” Doria said. Gone, too, were Spc. Blaine Redding, 22, a newlywed Doria thought was “a smartass who made me look like an idiot” the first time they met but soon became Doria’s best friend; and armorer Spc. Matthew R. Catlett, 23, attached from another unit.
“Those guys were like my best friends,” Doria said. “When we came back, I sat in my room. I thought maybe this was a dream, this wasn’t really happening; that I’d wake up tomorrow and go on a mission.
“It wasn’t a dream. So I went over to my buddies in 3rd [Platoon], my other close friends, and I just lost it.”
June 15: It only takes a bullet
Eight days later, one of Doria’s 3rd platoon buddies, newlywed Cpl. Benjamin Osborn, 26, was gunner in a convoy at Shin Kowrak, farther south along the road, when insurgents opened fire from both sides of the river.
Osborn was hit in the first volley of what became an eight-hour firefight. Rocket-propelled grenades came flying at the men, disabling one vehicle after another.
“They were skipping RPGs off the ground under the trucks into the transmissions,” said 1st Sgt. Kenneth Bolin, 37, who’d been with the company for five days.
Bolin, the battalion’s only promotable sergeant first class, had stepped in after Barton was killed. It wasn’t the way he’d ever wanted to get the assignment. But he took the job, and, through the string of tragedies that had only just begun to unfold, slowly helped glue the broken team back together.
Coming so soon after the IED, the loss of Osborn hit 3rd Platoon hard. One soldier, a close friend of Osborn’s who held his body until he died, had to be pulled out of theater. A squad leader who was on his fifth deployment suddenly couldn’t do it anymore, and the platoon sergeant, on his first deployment after 16 years in the Army, also left.
“One bullet took out four men,” Hinds said.
June 21: Suicide vest
The men of 4th Platoon, an attachment from Company D, were finishing a meeting with elders in the village of Lar Sholtan when tragedy struck again.
A woman had approached them and detonated a suicide vest under her burqa. Four men were hit. Two — Sgt. Anthony Looney, 22, and Pfc. David Miller, 20 — were killed.
Krowlicki and a team were the first to arrive at the scene. They pulled up on the road nearby, helped evacuate the wounded and the dead, then headed back to Monti. Only later that night did they find out chilling intelligence.
“Apparently, we were parked near an IED with a command wire,” Krowlicki said.
They learned that while they were out there, insurgents were on their radios saying “blow it now” because there were troops standing on it.
Later that week, a sergeant took a bullet in the buttocks during a batallionwide offensive, and Doria tore a groin muscle trying to carry him to safety.
Two days later, soldiers fended off an attempt by insurgents to overrun COP Monti. One soldier was shot through the shoulder and chest. His comrades fired 152 105mm artillery rounds, 40 mortar rounds, 8,000 50-caliber machine-gun rounds, 3,000 40mm grenade rounds, and an additional 8,000 .762 assault rifle rounds.
July 8: A deadly rocket
A month and a day after that first deadly IED, COP Monti was attacked again.
As rockets, small-arms and machine-gun fire slammed into the outpost on July 8, men took positions to fire back. It took time before they realized that one rocket had hit its mark.
It landed on a B-hut, the last in a row of three, setting the wooden structure ablaze. The men tried to douse it, but the attack had taken place first thing in the morning and the water tanker had not yet been filled.
Inside was Pfc. Anthony Simmons, 25. Men grabbed water jugs and fire extinguishers. Commander Rassool, a favorite Afghan National Army commander whose company was training with the Americans at Monti, jumped on the roof of the next hut, standing side by side with his American mentor trying to fight the engulfing flames with small fire extinguishers.
A soldier tried to run in for Simmons, but others held him back. By then, the flames had consumed the structure and had jumped the roofline to the next B-hut.
It was too late.
Since then, COP Monti has continued to be hit with insurgent fire, the men getting into head-on fights with the enemy. But the long stream of devastating kills was finally over, leaving the soldiers to grieve — and, maybe, begin to heal.
They still itch for a fight. Hinds jokes each time they go out that it’s time “to party,” to get into it with the enemy. They keep busy, try not to dwell on their losses, and welcome the months since then in which they weren’t burying their own.
“It can always be worse,” Bolin said. “I could be on a landing craft going into Normandy. I can be in Korea on a hill. I can be in the jungles of Vietnam. At least I am not losing a whole battalion in a day.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I am not minimizing the casualties,” he said. “But this is how I get through it in my mind.”