Part one of a two-part Stars and Stripes series, "Devastation and Endurance."
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The soldier knew something was wrong when the Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopters tore sharply into the compound. Their landing, skittish and odd, made Sgt. Jon McMillen’s gut turn.
Several of McMillen’s teammates, all with Team 3 out of Kandahar Airfield, were on a reconnaissance mission in the Shorabak district near the Pakistani border while he and other Pathfinders from the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade were staged as backup at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak.
Upon landing, the crew chief jumped out and waved in McMillen’s platoon leader, 1st Lt. John Runkle. Moments later, Runkle returned to his soldiers and told them to grab their kit and get the [expletive] on the bird. Now he knew there was trouble; Runkle never cussed.
McMillen sprinted toward the Black Hawk. His closest friend, Spc. Adam Patton, was in Shorabak, completing his final mission before leaving the Army.
When the helicopters lifted, the platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Ergin Osman, gave his men the news: Six killed. Which six? Taliban? Our guys?
No one knew.
As the Pathfinders flew east toward the border, McMillen repeated a silent prayer, “Please let Patton be all right.”
Five minutes out, Osman told McMillen to chamber a round in his sniper rifle. They expected a firefight.
“Anything that moves, pull the trigger,” Osman said.
When they landed, Pathfinders with 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division bounded from the aircraft with their Afghan partners. They knelt and readied for the fight as the helicopter lifted. But when the brownout settled, they were met with desolation and an eerie silence.
The soldiers had been dropped into a sophisticated and deadly trap. Near them lay the bodies of two Pathfinders, two Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians and two Afghan National Civil Order Police officers.
The deadliest of days
In a dark corner of the plywood building where he lived on Mustang Ramp, McMillen, 22, recalled the worst of days. A profound sadness lingered in his voice; his brown eyes revealed immense pain.
His company is a highly trained and versatile fighting force, and one of only three standing Pathfinder units in the Army. Most are Ranger-qualified, many are sniper trained. All of them are paratroops. Like their World War II and Vietnam counterparts, they work behind enemy lines and are used to being surrounded. The storied company, whose history was forged as a Long Range Surveillance unit, still refers to their small platoons as teams. They live on call, evacuating personnel and treating the wounded from downed aircraft, then recovering sensitive items and protecting the aircraft until it’s moved or destroyed.
Their specialized training and dedicated air assets also allow them to work on other missions, and in spring 2011, Pathfinders with Team 3 had worked with Special Forces to pull 49,000 pounds of homemade explosives — the equivalent of nearly 2,500 IEDs — off the battlefield in southern Afghanistan.
On the morning of May 26, company executive officer Capt. Tom Buller led a team of Pathfinders, ANCOP and EOD techs to investigate a suspected homemade explosives cache in a remote area near the Pakistani border. When soldiers arrived by helicopter, they spotted a rusty trailer covered with a white tarp, abandoned in a small valley and surrounded by rolling hills.
“I had a bad feeling … you just know,” Buller said later as he recalled the mission from Fort Campbell, Ky. “When you’ve gone on enough combat operations, you know when things are going to go bad.”
A feeling can’t stop a mission, so they pushed forward. As they neared their target, part of the team moved toward the trailer while the others took cover and set up security in a nearby canal.
As they closed in, Buller saw an orange flash. Within a second, the earth ripped open with a violent explosion. Pieces of shrapnel and dirt tore into his flesh as the blast wave threw him on his back.
When he opened his eyes, he could see the sky, and for a second he was surprised to be alive. He looked down and saw a gaping hole where his left knee used to be. His leg was broken and his patellar tendon was severed, but he didn’t know it. He could walk, and he had to get to his men.
Fearing an ambush, he checked his rifle and was relieved it still worked. As he hobbled toward the blast site, the heinous reality of what had happened took hold.
Two of the Pathfinders — Staff Sgt. Edward Mills and Sgt. Thomas Bohall — were killed instantly, along with two Air Force EOD techs — Tech Sgt. Kristoffer Solesbee and Staff Sgt. Joseph Hamski. Two ANCOP officers were also dead, with catastrophic injuries. They had been closest to the blast.
“There’s really no amount of training that can prepare you for that, to evacuate one of your friends,” Buller said. “Every additional guy I came across, it was more and more heartbreaking.”
Their interpreter and an agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency were also injured. The team’s medic, Sgt. Louie Ramos, had been hit with shrapnel but went to work treating the wounded.
Buller called for a medevac, but soldiers decided it was faster to evacuate the injured on one of the Black Hawks circling nearby. A second Black Hawk was dispatched to Spin Boldak to pick up Runkle’s squad, while Patton, Ramos and a third EOD tech stayed behind to protect the fallen.
When Runkle’s team landed in Shorabak, they charged from their aircraft, expecting to hear gunfire. When the helicopter pulled away, the sound of the rotors was replaced by silence.
Osman sent McMillen, Sgt. Brian Evans and Spc. Lynn Schell sprinting up a hill to provide security while he and Runkle went to find the team from the earlier mission.
As McMillen neared the summit, he was relieved to see Patton on an adjacent hill, overlooking the blast sight. For the first time since he left the FOB, McMillen’s hands stopped shaking.
He set up his sniper rifle, and through his scope he could see the relief in Patton’s eyes. For just a moment, both men eased up.
Patton smiled and waved at his best friend, giving him a goofy little half wave that McMillen loved so much. Moments later, as Patton went to lie prone to set up his rifle, an IED ignited beneath him.
The massive explosion sent a plume of smoke and debris 600 feet in the air. McMillen and Schell, nearly 100 feet away, were covered in dirt.
“The dirt settled down and I looked at Patty,” McMillen said. “He wasn’t moving anymore.”
Ramos and Runkle, who were nearest Patton, were killed instantly. Osman was thrown 30 feet in the air, then tumbled 100 feet down a hillside into a crevice that fed into the valley.
Soldiers would later learn that the valley and surrounding hills were laced with more than a dozen IEDs. Many of them were connected to a spider box, a control center that can fire multiple IEDs at once or individually. Though investigators suspect a spotter triggered both detonations, soldiers would never know whether their perpetrators watched the suffering they had inflicted.
Word came from pilots circling in gunships overhead that they could see someone trying to sit up in the crevice. It was Osman. He was alive, but badly wounded.
The EOD tech had warned the soldiers that the hillside was covered with secondary IEDs.
“There was no way in hell that I was not going to get to him, no matter how unsafe I felt,” Evans said later.
Evans pushed toward Osman while McMillen and Schell tried to re-establish security with the few men they had left. Minutes later, Evans called for help.
McMillen climbed down the hillside, stepping on rocks and bushes — anything that looked like it couldn’t conceal an IED.
He took over first aid while Evans radioed for the medevac.
Osman’s face was badly burned, and he couldn’t see. Most of his ribs were broken and his chest and stomach had turned dark purple. Both legs were broken, and his left foot lay dangling. Evans had used Osman’s M4 rifle to splint his right leg.
Ramos had been thrown nearby, and his medical bag landed only a few feet from Osman. Even after Ramos’ death, the soldiers figured, he was taking care of his guys.
“Are my legs still there?” Osman asked repeatedly. McMillen told him they were broken, but they were still there.
“Am I going to die?” he asked, “Mac, am I going to make it?”
Air Force helicopters had been dispatched from Kandahar Airfield with a pararescue team, but they were 45 minutes away.
McMillen followed his first-aid training and went through his checklist repeatedly. The bruising around Osman’s midsection, indicating massive internal bleeding, worried him most. He knew he needed a surgeon, and time was running out.
“It was just a battle trying to keep him comfortable, trying to keep him coherent. I kept on talking to him,” McMillen said.
Fear turns to anguish
For more than 40 minutes McMillen held his friend, “Daddy Oz,” the toughest soldier he’d ever known, the former Force Recon Marine who called him “Baby Ranger” and pushed his soldiers to be the best.
When the helicopters arrived, McMillen used his body to cover Osman and protect him from the dust and debris while a litter was lowered using a hoist. One by one, Osman and McMillen were lifted into the first helicopter. Evans was evacuated in the second. Schell stayed behind with three ANCOP officers to meet the rest of Team 3, who were on their way from Kandahar to recover the fallen.
As the helicopter charged toward the military hospital, McMillen was comforted when he saw Osman fighting with the medics, trying to sit up and pulling off his heart monitor and blood pressure cuff. As long as he was being his usual stubborn self, McMillen thought, everything would be all right.
Then Osman went still. The medics fought to get him back. He’d come to, then fade again.
“It started settling in,” McMillen remembered thinking. “I knew he probably wasn’t going to make the flight.”
Ten minutes out, Osman’s warrior heart stopped beating.
By the time the flight arrived at the hospital, McMillen’s fear had turned to anguish. He was angry — with Osman for not holding on, and with himself for not being able to save him.
A few hours later, after company commander Capt. Mark Herlick and other Pathfinders had identified the bodies, a hospital worker read the names of those killed. When McMillen heard Patton’s name, he broke down. He’d seen him die, but somehow he still had hope. He leaned against a wall and slid to the floor. He wanted to be alone, but he didn’t want to leave his buddies. The tears wouldn’t stop. It would be four days before he would sleep.
Their losses would tie for the fourth-deadliest day for U.S. forces since the war began in late 2001.
For McMillen, who was born in Ukraine and raised in a Russian orphanage near Moscow, it’s the family you choose that matters. When he was 9, a family from North Carolina adopted him. He knows how lucky he was to have been chosen by loving parents.
Patton was like that for him — the brother he chose. For months after the blast, Patton’s final wave haunted him.
“That image right there is kind of what keeps me up at night,” McMillen said.
Like the rest of the Pathfinders, he’s changed. While the company is a sturdy lot, they grappled with a baneful emptiness for the remainder of their deployment. To a man, they love being in the infantry, and most have lost soldiers before, but to lose so many at once cut deeper, leaving the wound more wretched and slow to heal.
“We’re taught to accept the realities of war,” McMillen said. “They don’t teach you what it does to you.”