'Nothing prepares you for that'
Apache helicopter pilot Capt. Matthew Kaplan had been up to this particular valley many times and knew the scene well. But when his two-Apache team arrived early one October morning in 2009 to respond to an attack on a combat outpost, he said, every building except one was burning, blanketing the entire area in smoke.
“The whole valley was covered,” Kaplan said. “It made it almost impossible to see anything.”
Within minutes, the other Apache was hit and had to retreat. A second team of two helicopters went in, immediately took fire, and also had to pull back, leaving men on the ground under fire. Another apache already had been hit before Kaplan’s team arrived.
“As soon as we showed up, we knew it was a bad situation,” he said.
One of the Taliban’s most notorious and well-planned ambushes against U.S. forces during the Afghanistan War had begun. The reverberations from it would be felt for some time. In the months following the Taliban’s attack on Combat Outpost Keating, an Army investigation found that because the base was one of several in the region set to be closed, it was improperly ignored — two officers received administrative punishments — and the enemy exploited it. After the fight on Oct. 3, 2009, Keating was evacuated, abandoned, and later intentionally destroyed by aircraft.
In the five preceding months to the assault it had been attacked 47 times, including probing hits to see how the Americans would respond.
As many as 500 Taliban fighters attacked the 60 Americans at Keating on Oct. 3. They’d also set up three positions to attack support aircraft coming to the fight through the usual valley pass. Within hours, they’d disabled three helicopters and fighters breached the outpost’s perimeter walls. By the end of the day, eight Americans were dead, 24 wounded.
For Kaplan, there were other days, other firefights, even hairier situations that year. But none matched the duration of this fight or ammunition expended.
Kaplan had been in country with the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, since December 2008. They inserted air assault troops, covered troop movements and heavy-lift Chinooks resupplying troops in some of the more dangerous valleys. They launched quick-reaction teams to support troops under attack.
“We were pretty busy,” Kaplan said. “I had flown quite a bit by that point.”
Kaplan was asleep when the ambush began, right at the end of the night shift. But he was acting company commander, and so was awakened to relieve the initial team.
Combat Outpost Keating was overrun. A Black Hawk was sent in to retrieve some of the men pinned down. Two Apaches must go with it to provide cover.
Kaplan scrambled to the helicopters within 10 minutes, taking the front seat, which controls missiles and guns and does most of the shooting. By the time he arrived, an hour away, one of the Apaches on scene already had taken fire from DShK (pronounced DISH-kah) Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns.
“Pretty severe damage,” Kaplan said.
The Apache pulled back to make an emergency landing at Forward Operating Base Bostick.
When Kaplan’s team arrived, they’d left their Black Hawk hovering atop the mountain to relay what was happening below. Kaplan’s pair of Apaches went in and immediate his wingman was hit by DShK fire. They could not leave just one helicopter, so they both pulled back to Bostick to regroup.
As they landed, a backup pair of Apaches arrived above Keating and almost immediately took heavy fire. They, too, had to retreat to Bostick.
Two and a half hours had passed since Americans inside Keating first called for help. After some regrouping and repair work, Apaches and Black Hawks were back in the air, this time with a new plan: Insert 150 air assault troops to join the fight.
It took five return passes to insert all the reinforcements. With everyone taking heavy machine gun fire, Kaplan fired on two Taliban teams launching rocket-propelled grenades.
He’d flown nearly eight hours, by then. When they were done, they returned to Jalalabad to brief the next crews heading in.
But Kaplan didn’t quit. They needed an aviation officer to liaison with the ground. He volunteered to go back up, packed a quick bag, hopped on a Black Hawk for the rest of the night’s air assault, inserting special operations forces.
“It ended up being a pretty long day,” Kaplan said.
Later, back at Bostick, he pitched in and helped move casualties off aircraft arriving from Keating. Everyone, including Kaplan, was giving blood.
“Not a fun part of it, for sure,” Kaplan said. “I really don’t know how to put it into words.”
For that day, Kaplan received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“The actual fight, seeing the COP on fire, hearing guys on the radio,” he said, “nothing prepares you for that.” Kaplan pauses, unsure what else to tell.
Kaplan, originally from Ohio, was a freshman at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college when 9/11 happened. Today, he is in training at Fort Campbell to be a special operations pilot. He likely will deploy to Afghanistan again sometime this fall.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Gary Wingert, Kaplan’s co-pilot, along with the crews of the three Apaches, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ross Lewallen, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Randy Huff, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chad Bardwell, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chris Wright, also received a Distinguished Flying Cross.