Specialist’s sacrifice spurs soldiers to reach out to Afghan villagers
By LAURA RAUCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2011
COMBAT OUTPOST NALGHAM, Afghanistan - Spc. Preston Dennis didn’t have to come back just yet. It had been less than a year since he had left Afghanistan, and the Army owed him more time with his wife before he had to return.
But his new unit, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, was deploying to the Kandahar province. At just 23, he was a veteran and a team leader, and he couldn’t let his men go without him. He and his wife, Heather, signed the official paperwork allowing him to return three months early.
“It’s kind of hard. You want to be there for your family, but once you become a leader, you’re supposed to be there for your military family, too,” said Staff Sgt. Chuck Stevens, Dennis’ squad leader. “That’s what he chose to do.”
A month had passed since Company C arrived in the Nalgham region, just southwest of Kandahar city and about two miles from Sangsar, home of Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Patrols were going out daily, and most were taking small arms fire. Several improvised explosive devices had been uncovered, and a few had blown. More than 10 soldiers had been wounded.
Just before dusk on April 28, soldiers from the third platoon set out on a night patrol near the village of Sarkilla. As they made their way from a poppy field onto a road, an insurgent spotter was perched nearby, quietly waiting to kill them.
Dennis was at the end of the column and one of the last to leave the poppy field. When it was his turn to step into the road, the silent attacker tripped a device, which sent a current of electricity down a wire to a buried IED. The earth beneath Dennis ripped open in a violent explosion of debris and smoke.
Spc. Patrick Lay, who was ahead of Dennis in the road and knocked unconscious by the blast, recounted the attack a week later for Stars and Stripes.
When Lay came to, the platoon’s medic, Spc. Matthew Sovine, was trying to help him, but Lay waved him on. “Go,” he muttered.
He wanted to tell him to help Dennis, but he couldn’t speak. His hearing was gone in one ear and there was ringing in the other. He tried to stand, but collapsed onto a pressure plate of a second IED.
It failed to detonate.
Stevens got to Dennis first. Sovine arrived soon after. Both men applied tourniquets.
“You’re going to be all right. You’re going to go home and see Heather,” Stevens told Dennis repeatedly.
Fifteen minutes later, two Black Hawk helicopters hovered overhead, ready to evacuate the wounded. As one started to land, insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the helicopter, but the RPG missed, hissing past its target.
Soldiers carried Dennis to the landing zone and Sovine started CPR. Insurgents were shooting from a nearby poppy field and third platoon’s first squad returned fire as they loaded Dennis into the helicopter.
Still reeling from the blast, Lay stumbled aboard and sat next to the flight medic who had taken over CPR from Sovine. The bird carrying the wounded weaved and bobbed as it lifted, dodging bullet fire. Both helicopters fled northeast into the night sky.
Lay looked over at Dennis and saw that both of his friend’s legs were gone.
“Just open your eyes, Dennis,” he remembered thinking. “Just open your eyes, buddy.”
When the helicopter landed at Forward Operating Base Pasab, a medical team rushed Dennis to the trauma bay. Lay followed. Then he fell to his knees and prayed, “God, if you’re listening, pull him through this.”
Medics were trying to give Lay care, but he was angry. He didn’t want to be examined. And he didn’t want to leave Dennis.
“I was on the bird with him. I was in the blast with him. You can at least let me go in there with him,” he said. They refused and seated him in a triage room nearby.
It wasn’t long before the chaplain walked in. He didn’t need to speak. Lay could tell that Dennis was gone.
He followed the chaplain into the trauma bay.
For the next few minutes he talked to his friend. The soldier who rolled his own cigarettes and cried when he read letters from Heather.
When Lay was finished, he looked up and realized he wasn’t alone. The surgeon, the medics and the chaplain were still there. Some were crying, all were moved. He was angry again.
“You weren’t there,” he recalled thinking. “You don’t know what happened. You don’t know us. You don’t know what we go through.”
Weeks later, Lay wanted to call Heather, but he couldn’t. He felt like somehow, he let her down when he survived.
A job to do
Back in Nalgham, third platoon held the position in Sarkilla until Company Commander Capt. Dennis Call arrived with more soldiers. Some of the younger guys were taking Dennis’ injuries pretty hard. They had yet to learn of his death. Call and the platoon leaders gave them a moment to collect themselves.
Then they became determined to find their attackers. They pushed through a few more compounds in the village, found some IED making materials and detained a suspect who was later released. They finished their patrol in the early morning hours. Within 30 hours of the explosion, soldiers fortified an outpost in Sarkilla. Soon, they began calling it Strong Point Dennis.
“It’s when they die that you have to show resolve so they don’t die for nothing,” Call said.
A week later, soldiers were finishing dinner at the rented mud hut they had turned into a command post at the strong point when they learned that more than 30 men, most of whom they didn’t recognize, had gathered at the nearby mosque. The scores of children who played in the street had also disappeared, a telltale sign that something bad was about to happen. The troops readied themselves for an attack and made their way toward the mosque.
But instead of a fight, they were greeted with curiosity.
The locals wanted to understand why the soldiers were staying in the village. No one had done that before. The soldiers sat on the ground in the dark just outside the mosque and, through a translator, discussed the future of Sarkilla. Call arrived soon after and spoke privately with the group’s elder.
“We have the stronger tribe,” Call said, “but because it’s not just a fight with weapons, we need you and your village. Who you side with wins.”
U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers, along with Afghan local police, man checkpoints and provide security at the strong point while others engage the locals and help with community projects.
Afternoon temperatures hover near 110 degrees. Most of the soldiers sleep on pads in the dirt. They return from their rotations filthy, flea-bitten and sunburned. Working showers and laundry have only just reached COP Nalgham; before, soldiers bathed using water bottles left to warm in the sun and washed their uniforms in ammunition boxes.
But they are determined to change life in the area.
“We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it right for Dennis. We know that’s what he would want,” Stevens said. “His death has made everyone in our platoon want to make sure that things go the right way.”
Company C’s rapid success has gained regional notoriety. Kandahar District Governor Niaz Sarhadi and 3rd IBCT Commander Col. Patrick Frank attended a Shura at Strong Point Dennis on Sunday.
“Without those small little steps, one village at a time, you’re never going to have success nationally,” Call said. “They see that we bring goodness.”
Their efforts were tested last week when the Taliban attacked Strong Point Dennis from the northwest. Four insurgents and two ANA soldiers were killed in the firefight along with a 10-year-old boy from the nearby village of Haji Abass. His younger brother was wounded.
Scout platoon leader 1st Lt. Corey Walker was assigned to do a battle damage assessment after the attack. As news of the child’s death spread, Walker found himself surrounded by grieving villagers. At first he was reticent to speak with them, fearing they were angry at coalition forces. But he soon learned that their hostility raged toward the Taliban. The locals made their wishes clear, they wanted a strong point to secure Haji Abass.
Three days later, the traditional period of mourning in the Islamic faith, the father of the boy who had been killed pushed his wounded son in a wheelbarrow to COP Nalgham. Though the boy had been evacuated by helicopter after the attack, he was returned to his village and still needed medical care. After his son was treated, Call spoke to him about the boy he had lost.
“I’m deeply sorry for what happened to your son,” he said.
The father took Call’s hand and through a translator said, “You lost people next to my son. If you offered me all of Afghanistan, it would not be enough. But you ask for my forgiveness and that is enough.”
The father asked the commander to bring security to Haji Abass. He couldn’t know that Call was already working to move soldiers into the area.
“Anytime you kill the Taliban anywhere, I am happy for that. If the Taliban weren’t here, there would be peace everywhere,” he said, not letting go of Call’s hand. “There’s no gold or diamonds or oil. You do this for our safety.”