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Army company listens to suicide bombing unfold over the radio

Soldiers gather around a radio on Sunday, listening for reports from the scene of a nearby suicide car bombing in Zhari, Afghanistan.

MEGAN MCCLOSKEY/STARS AND STRIPES

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2010

ZHARI, Afghanistan -- A little before 9 a.m. Sunday, a massive explosion shook the soldiers awake. The Company D commander and first sergeant launched out of their sleeping bags, quickly laced their boots and jumped up running from their cots, calling for the medic as they went.

“The explosion sounded like it was in our front yard,” Capt. Timothy Price said.

They calmed when they realized it was farther away, and went to check the radio chatter. At first, the only report was that an improvised explosive device had gone off nearby within the  2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment’s area of operation.

Without more information, the soldiers went about their morning business, shaving and brushing their teeth. Peering over the fence with a bullhorn, a translator sent home nearly four dozen local residents who had shown up for the cash for work program, not wanting to take a chance that something else might happen that could endanger them.

Pfc. Aaron James shook his head at what he described as the “Taliban wake-up call.”

Then word came that the explosion had been from a suicide car bomber hitting a small combat outpost a little less than a mile away which was manned by a platoon with the battalion’s Company B. That was followed by short reports about medevacs and then, a communications blackout – an ominous sign that there were U.S. casualties. The names of soldiers and their battalion have been withheld pending notification of the families.

Huddled around the radios in the company’s command post, soldiers listened for bits of information about their sister company’s fate. They were not even a mile away, but soldiers with Company D could do little more than increase security at their own combat outpost and wait.

More soldiers started filtering into the command post, a narrow mud-walled bunker-like room with a low wood ceiling that the soldiers put up to help trap the heat. They busied themselves at the map, talking about what they knew of the recently built combat outpost that had been hit.

Sgt. 1st Class Willis Kuykendall said that just the day before, instead of patrolling, his platoon had added another layer of wire about 200 meters out from the compound they were living in.

“I’m getting happier and happier about our concertina wire,” he said.

“Yeah. ,,, You can’t drive a car wrapped up in wire,” Price responded.

The radio crackled with news that three American soldiers were wounded, one was urgent surgical.

“We need to get tools down there for the rubble,” Price said.

With the realization that fellow soldiers were buried under a collapsed roof, the room grew tense.

Someone asked whether Company B was sending guys out to the scene from their larger combat outpost, which was about a quarter mile from the explosion.

“I’m sure,” Price said.

“I’d be running down there,” 1st Sgt. Eric Allen said.

Price had called the battalion on the radio and told them he could swiftly have a platoon down there. He was told to sit tight.

So they waited.

The tense soldiers sat crowded by the radios with the receivers up to their ears or resting on their shoulders. Others leaned against the desk or wall around the room, mostly in silence, staring down at the dirt floor.

A voice came over the radio with the first detailed casualty report: six U.S. wounded, four ambulatory; 2 U.S. KIA; three U.S. unaccounted for; 2 ANA KIA. Two soldiers had gone on the first medevac helicopter, four on the second. Air Force surgical medics were dropping in to help.

“They’ve got a platoon that’s gone,” Price said, leaning back from the radio.

A warning went out about intelligence on a possible second suicide car bomber. Price got on the radio to his 1st Platoon, which is blocking traffic along a direct route from the main highway south to Company B’s area.

“Nobody comes past you,” he told them.

At 9:59, more than an hour after the explosion, a broken transmission came over the radio: “We’ve uncovered additional bodies ... he didn’t make it ... the other is waiting on medevac.”

Three soldiers had been identified as killed.

Kuykendall tapped into some sort of footage of the scene, and James hooked the computer up to the flat-screen TV. Everyone turned to watch, getting a look for the first time at the wrecked outpost. The video feed froze, but everyone kept staring at the screen.

And then another casualty report: 10 U.S. casualties, four KIA. Eight ANA casualties.

“Damn,” one soldier said.

The radio kept lighting up with intelligence reports about potential suicide bombers -- in cars, on motorcycles, two here, three there. The captain decided his 1st Platoon, pulling security on a major route, needed reinforcements.

Relieved to do something – anything – to help, his soldiers suited up and sprinted out the door.

Later they would learn the death toll was worse than they had thought: Six American soldiers had been killed.

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

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