Vanguard of Valor excerpt

Posted: 2012/05/29 in General Military

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The following write-up of Strong Eagle 3 was done by Dr. Wadle of the Combat Studies Institute Press, it’s not 100% accurate but it has the parts that I wasn’t physically present for.

 

Objective Lexington

Cougar Company under Fire in the Ganjgal Valley

by

Ryan D. Wadle, Ph.D.

In late March 2011, the men of Cougar Company, 2d Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment (2-327 IN), also nicknamed Task Force No Slack, had nearly completed their year-long deployment to Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Over the past year, 2-327 IN conducted numerous operations throughout the province with several focusing on the rugged and remote regions of Kunar along the border with Pakistan. By the end of March, some Soldiers from the battalion had already returned to the United States and within the next three weeks, the remaining men would also leave Afghanistan. Still, the unit was ordered to launch a major offensive against insurgents concentrating in the Ganjgal Valley near the Pakistani Frontier. Some of the men of TF No Slack disliked the notion of starting a new operation so near to the end of their deployments but in spite of these reservations, they understood the necessity of continuing to pressure insurgent forces in their Area of Operations (AO). This final push against the enemy, Operation STRONG EAGLE III, would take the men of No Slack deeper into the remote and insurgent held Kunar Province than any American unit had operated before.

Background

The plan for Operation STRONG EAGLE III entailed nothing less than a direct assault on the home areas of insurgent leader Qari Zia Rahman and his subordinate, a man known only as Tamidullah. Since 2001, Coalition forces had only rarely entered the Ganjgal Valley. In 2009, insurgents had ambushed and killed four Marines and nine Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers at the head of the valley. Rahman, known by the abbreviation “QZR,” used the area as a base of operations from which he dispatched fighters and weapons to other parts of Kunar Province. QZR had also established a clandestine radio station managed by Tamidullah through which he communicated with the local populace to discredit coalition activities. No Slack’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joel B. Vowell, hoped that neutralizing the insurgent headquarters in the Ganjgal would grant No Slack’s replacement, 2d Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment (2-35 IN) – dubbed Task Force Cacti – time to fully establish itself in Kunar without facing the prospect of a major summer offensive from QZR’sforces.1

 No Slack had engaged QZR’s insurgents at several points during its deployment, most prominently during Operation STRONG EAGLE I in June 2010, but STRONG EAGLE III aimed to deal the deathblow to QZR’s command group and establish coalition control over the Ganjgal Valley and the southern reaches of the nearby Ghakhi Valley, an area collectively codenamed Objective VIRGINIA.

To neutralize an isolated and hostile area such as Objective VIRGINIA required a complex operation involving all four of the battalion’s maneuver companies. No Slack planners devised a deception operation to the north in the Sholtan Valley in order to draw fighters out of the key villages of Barawalo Kalay (Objective RICHMOND) in the southern Ghakhi Valley and Sarowbay (Objective LEXINGTON) at the eastern end of the Ganjgal. The battalion’s Alpha Company would establish a blocking position to the north of the two villages to intercept and destroy any fighters who attempted to re-enter the main objectives. Meanwhile, one company would search and clear each of the villages, hoping to seize QZR, his leadership, and the radio station. The plan tasked Cougar Company with clearing Sarowbay. To manage the operation, planners placed a command and control node called the Black Tactical Command Post (TAC) and platoon-sized blocking positions on the ridgeline separating the two objectives. The size of the operation and the physical remoteness of the AO required the marshalling of extensive aviation assets for lift and support drawn from other areas of Afghanistan. An Afghan commando unit advised by an American special operations detachment served as the only official reserve force for STRONG EAGLE III.

To complete his portion of the operation, Captain Tye Reedy, Cougar Company’s commander, had only two organic rifle platoons at his disposal to maneuver on Objective LEXINGTON. No Slack’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) had received its own battle space for the duration of the deployment, a decision that resulted in the transfer of Cougar Company’s 1st Platoon to HHC. That move reduced the number of “trigger-pullers” in Cougar Company to approximately 43 men, not including the company HQ element of Captain Reedy, a Radio Telephone Operator (RTO), the Fire Support Officer (FSO), and a Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC). The 2d Platoon counted 22 infantrymen and 3d Platoon had 21.

 Each platoon had two Mk48 machine guns, three M249 Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs), and three M320 grenade launchers. To provide immediate indirect fire support, Captain Reedy also had a 60mm mortar crew led by Staff Sergeant Jason McDaniel. Although down one platoon, Cougar Company received a number of assets to ensure mission success.

 First and foremost, the company partnered with a full platoon of 25 soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA). Sensitivity to the local population and the lack of a Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) presence required that the ANA platoon take the lead while searching for weapons and insurgents in Sarowbay. In addition to the ANA soldiers,

 Captain Reedy also received 15 additional personnel that included three interpreters, a military working dog, a combat camera crew, a Low Level Voice Intercept (LLVI) team, and an eight-person squad of Military Policemen. The large number of support personnel led Captain Reedy to remark that, “There were more attachments than I had trigger pullers, it seemed like.”

The village of Sarowbay is located in the narrow Ganjgal Valley running from west to east with high ridges on every side (see Figure 1). A small creek bed runs through the valley to the south and west of the village itself. Sarowbay sits in a U-shape with significant elevation changes and terracing within the village itself. Reedy’s plan called for Cougar Company to be inserted at a helicopter landing zone (HLZ) called Bee Eater approximately 500 meters from Sarowbay.

 Both infantry platoons would then traverse the steep mountainsides and move into the valley. The 3d Platoon, led by First Lieutenant Jacob Sass, would then ascend into an overwatch position on the ridgeline to the south of Objective LEXINGTON.

 Reedy believed that securing the ridgeline would accomplish the dual purpose of keeping it out of enemy hands while affording 3d Platoon a position from which it could cover the entire village with supporting fire. The plan left the ridgeline to the east unoccupied because its distance from most of the qalats (clay houses) in Sarowbay meant that it was far less important than other terrain.

Reedy ordered 2d Platoon, led by First Lieutenant Jason Pomeroy, to clear the village. For 2d Platoon’s maneuver, Staff Sergeant Jonathan Wray’s Weapons squad would bound ahead of the rest of the platoon to assume a second support-by-fire position on the northern ridgeline with its two Mk48 machine guns and other weapons. From its position, Wray’s 10-man squad could also monitor the movements of the villagers during the operation.

Intelligence estimated the enemy strength in Objective LEXINGTON at two squads of approximately six insurgents each and potentially two additional enemy weapons teams of approximately 10 insurgents as reinforcements. This gave Reedy’s company a significant numerical advantage over projected insurgent manpower.

Captain Reedy decided to place McDaniel’s mortar crew at HLZ Bee Eater, where First Lieutenant Andrew Rinehart’s 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, assumed the task of securing both the landing zone and Cougar Company’s mortar crew.

The Operation

Operation STRONG EAGLE III officially began just after midnight on 29 March as CH-47 Chinooks with helicopter gunship escorts began transporting coalition troops to the various HLZs on Objective VIRGINIA. Cougar Company’s 3d Platoon with Reedy’s headquarters element arrived first on HLZ Bee Eater, approximately half a kilometer to the southwest of Sarowbay.

These first landings were delayed by several minutes because gunships had spotted approximately 15 individuals in the vicinity of the landing zone. Later flights by the Chinooks brought in 2d Platoon and the additional assets needed to the clear the village. After the insertion of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, on HLZ Bee Eater, 3d Platoon set off down the mountainside. Since Sass’ platoon had the farthest distance to travel, it left the HLZ first so it could reach its elevated support-by-fire position before dawn.

Sass and Specialist Brett Kadlec, the point man, attempted to find a suitable path down the ridge but the terrain proved a significant challenge for the platoon. The steep and rocky landscape made it difficult for Soldiers to get their footing.

Often, the only available handholds for Soldiers to grab onto consisted of limbs and roots from the moderately sized trees in the area. The extremely low levels of nighttime illumination in the valley further complicated their movements as the Soldiers’ night-vision goggles only partially compensated for the darkness. In addition, each Soldier carried more than 50 pounds of equipment including extra ammunition for their personal weapons as well as ammunition for the platoon’s machine guns.

 The combination of these problems forced Soldiers to noisily “slide on [their] butts” as they moved down the mountainside. Although the straight line distance was perhaps 300 to 400 meters, it took 3d Platoon approximately two hours to complete the move.

Unbeknownst to the Soldiers of Cougar Company, enemy forces quickly detected the American presence and began converging on their positions. The 3d Platoon’s Sergeant Dana O’Connor and Specialist Rick Jacobs reported seeing flashlights moving through the trees lower down the ridgeline even before his unit had left HLZ Bee Eater.

Meanwhile, officers in orbiting helicopters as part of Vowell’s airborne command post first spotted three and then five suspected insurgents leaving from the northwest side of Objective LEXINGTON. Believing one of the unknown men to be Tamidullah, Vowell radioed Reedy and ordered him to take 2d Platoon and intercept the men before they fled the objective area entirely. By this time, Captain Reedy and 2d Platoon had already moved off HLZ Bee Eater heading north toward the southern end of Objective LEXINGTON.

 Reedy quickly returned to HLZ Bee Eater to drop off the MPs and the other support assets so that the platoon had a better chance to catch up to the fleeing figures. As 2d Platoon set back out in the darkness, AH-64 Apache gunships flying in support of 3d Platoon’s movement to the east came off their stations and began to aid Reedy in the interception.6

At approximately 0230 hours, 3d Platoon reached the creek bed at the valley floor. Lieutenant Sass did not immediately see a suitable crossing point so he called a short halt to confer with Sergeant Bryan Burgess, the leader of the 3rd squad. After a brief discussion, Sass decided to move northward parallel to the creek bed and search for a better crossing where they could begin their climb up the opposite ridgeline. The Soldiers moved through a series of terraces west of the creek bed and flanked to the left by a densely wooded area. During the movement, the point man, Kadlec, began hearing hushed voices speaking in a foreign language.

 Kadlec considered the possibility that a portion of their ANA detachment was close by, so he radioed Sergeant Burgess to move to his position. At this point, Kadlec stood at the head of the formation followed by Specialist Dustin Feldhaus and Sergeant Dana O’Connor, the latter of whom was situated five meters behind Kadlec.

Just before Burgess reached Kadlec, gunfire erupted from the treeline. Enemy fighters had climbed into the trees and opened fire almost immediately hitting Burgess, Feldhaus, and O’Connor. The insurgent rounds struck Burgess in his thigh and Feldhaus received multiple gunshot wounds on the left side of his body. The fighters engaged at such short ranges that O’Connor, who took a gunshot wound to his stomach, later found rounds poking through his individual body armor. Several other soldiers in the ambush zone later reported finding bullet holes through their pant legs that miraculously missed hitting flesh.7

Almost instantaneously, someone yelled, “They’re in the trees!” and the remainder of the platoon opened fire on the suspected insurgent locations. Even with this knowledge, the poor illumination levels made it difficult for Private First Class Bryan Smith to spot the enemy with his night optics device (NOD). In the darkness, Kadlec helped O’Connor move to an impromptu command post several meters from the ambush site. Meanwhile, Smith focused his efforts on tending to Burgess’ wound.8

Using its small arms, 3d Platoon quickly neutralized the insurgents who had unleashed the ambush but survivors from this same element of fighters regrouped and were spotted preparing to attack the platoon from the east. In fact, these insurgents appeared in the same area where 3d Platoon intended to establish its support-by-fire position later that morning. Lieutenant Sass, farther to the rear, radioed Captain Reedy that enemy fighters had opened fire on 3d Platoon from positions to the north and east and requested support from 2d Platoon. Simultaneously, Sergeant Jonathan Prins, the Fire Support Non-Commissioned Officer, requested support from Close Combat Aviation (CCA) to secure the area.

Immediately, Captain Reedy ended the interception mission and took 2d Platoon back to HLZ Bee Eater for a second time and ordered his men to drop their rucksacks so that they could move more rapidly. In anticipation of their arrival, the leader of 3d Platoon’s Weapons Squad, Sergeant James T. Schmidt, ordered his and another squad to take up positions to the west and the southeast of 3d Platoon’s position while awaiting the linkup.

Sergeant Eric North, the leader of 2d Platoon’s 3d Squad, found it very difficult to locate Sass’ trail down the ridgeline but he and the rest of the platoon rapidly closed the distance with 3d Platoon by taking a direct route and foregoing standard noise and light discipline.

As 2d Platoon moved, Apache gunships arrived on station to the east of 3d Platoon’s position and made several runs firing their 30mm chain guns that blunted the enemy advance and killed 15 insurgents. The 2d Platoon arrived at the ambush site as the gunships attacked, and Sergeant North reported that he could clearly hear the ejected brass cartridges from the helicopters’ cannons falling all over the area.9

Approximately 10 minutes after the initial ambush while the Apaches were making their gun runs, Specialist Rick “Doc” Jacobs arrived to tend to the three wounded Soldiers. Burgess drifted in and out of consciousness but Jacobs managed to stop the bleeding from his thigh wound.

Feldhaus, despite having sustained several gunshot wounds, remained conscious and alert throughout the brief engagement. O’Connor’s stomach wound appeared stable and non-critical. Unfortunately, it took considerable time for the MEDEVAC helicopters to arrive at the scene. Before the operation, Cougar Company was briefed that MEDEVACs could reach their objective in approximately five minutes from Forward Operating Base (FOB) Joyce. Instead, it took nearly 30 minutes before the MEDEVAC helicopter arrived to evacuate the wounded. As the now linked up 2d and 3d Platoons provided security, the UH-60 MEDEVAC hoisted the three casualties aboard and immediately set off for the hospital.10

With the tree line cleared and the casualties evacuated, Captain Reedy reconstituted the company at approximately 0400 hours and briefly conferred with Lieutenant Sass to decide how to proceed with the mission. Sass’ 3d Platoon had only 18 riflemen remaining, and the casualties significantly reduced its capability to hold its planned overwatch position on the southern ridgeline.

Reedy also believed that the loss of three men, including Sergeant Burgess, whose experience as a squad leader made him a key leader in the unit, would have negative psychological and morale effects upon the remaining Soldiers. With those two factors in mind, Reedy altered his initial plan for clearing Sarowbay. He still planned for 2d Platoon to clear the village with Staff Sergeant Wray’s weapons squad providing local support-by-fire on the ridgeline above Sarowbay.

 The biggest change to the plan affected 3d Platoon. The unit would now provide local-support-by-fire from the ridgeline to the southwest of Sarowbay during the initial phase of clearances. Reedy believed that the risk of leaving an under-strength unit in isolation outweighed the threat posed by potential enemy control of the surrounding terrain.11

With the new plan in place, Captain Reedy and his men set out once again for Objective LEXINGTON. Cougar Company marched back up the ridgeline and recovered both their dropped rucksacks and support units.

The military working dog and its handler stayed on the LZ due to concerns over the security situation following the ambush of 3d Platoon and the ability of the dog crew to keep up with the fast moving company as it maneuvered towards the objective. By 0700 hours, the company reached a position above Sarowbay.

The 3d Platoon assumed a support-by-fire position near a graveyard below HLZ Bee Eater while 2d Platoon and the support assets set about clearing the western end of Sarowbay. When dawn broke on the morning of 29 March, Cougar Company was poised to clear its primary objective.12

As the initial clearing operations proceeded during the morning, the women and children of Sarowbay set about accomplishing their daily chores seemingly oblivious to the fighting that occurred just a few hours prior. The Soldiers of 2d Platoon found neither significant caches of weapons nor military aged males, who had presumably fled long before the arrival of American Soldiers.

They did, however, find much evidence confirming an insurgent presence in Sarowbay. Most significantly, the Soldiers discovered that the local civilians tuned their radios to the frequency of Tamidullah’s propaganda radio station that the scout platoon of TF No Slack had found and destroyed on the northern ridgeline that morning.

One house in particular yielded significant items of interest. Intelligence had located the home that they believed belonged to Tamidullah or at the very least, functioned as his hiding place. When searching the qalat, Soldiers discovered an elderly Afghan later identified as Tamidullah’s father.

They also located some weaponry in the structure, including Light Anti-Armor Weapons (LAWs) and other US issued equipment carried by the Marines killed in the Ganjgal Valley in 2008. To the insurgents, these reminders of battlefield success conferred respect in war torn Afghanistan where victory against foreigners constituted a means of attaining prestige and social mobility.13

As the morning progressed, 2d Platoon cleared the western end of the village and began circling the U-shaped turn towards the qalats on the south side of the northern ridgeline. The village of Sarowbay contained between 150 and 200 qalats, enough to potentially house hundreds of Afghans, although it was not clear how many were occupied at any given time.

 Additionally, Reedy and his men had discovered earlier in their deployment that clearing operations in Afghanistan took much longer than similar operations in Iraq. Reedy therefore decided that morning to begin scouting potential locations for his troops to rest during the night. One elderly Afghan woman offered to let Lieutenant Pomeroy and 2d Platoon stay in her home for the evening but Reedy decided to press on to a series of qalats further to the east.

Once 2d Platoon reached this group of qalats, the Soldiers of 3d Platoon left their support-by-fire position near the graveyard to the southwest and began moving toward qalats at the bottom of the valley beneath those previously searched by 2d Platoon earlier in the morning. While these searches were underway, Reedy received a radio message from Major William Rockefeller, the TF No Slack executive officer, asking him to turn on his Thuraya satellite phone so they could have a conversation off the battalion communication channels.

Dreading what Rockefeller would tell him, Reedy picked up the phone and was informed that Sergeant Burgess died from the wounds he sustained in the morning ambush. Reedy decided that the men of 3d Platoon deserved to know this news as quickly as possible, so the company commander, his JTAC, and his Radio Telephone Operator, left 2d Platoon’s position and went to the valley floor at approximately 1000 hours.

 After gathering 3d Platoon together, Reedy told them of the death of their respected squad leader. “You could immediately feel the impact of losing him,” Reedy said adding, “I told the men they had five minutes to pray, think, cry, or punch a wall.”15

At this point in the morning, just before 1100 hours, the men of Cougar Company were separated into three groups. The 3d Platoon was at the bottom of the valley, 2d Platoon occupied a multi-room qalat above and to the east of 3d Platoon’s position, and Wray’s weapons squad was farther up the northern ridgeline (see Figure 2). The 2d Platoon’s strongpoint qalat was larger than nearly all of the other structures in the village but the structure was built directly into the side of the ridgeline and had no clear view northward up the ridge.

 Wray’s squad had shifted positions throughout the morning to maintain their support-by-fire position over 2d Platoon and now they focused their attention on protecting the flank of the strongpoint qalat. To accomplish this task, Wray’s squad took up a position on the ridgeline above and to the east to guard the trail through the objective.16

The clouds gathering in the skies above posed yet another problem for Captain Reedy. The mountains of eastern Afghanistan caused erratic weather patterns with significant temperature swings and the rapid appearance of thick clouds and precipitation, particularly during the afternoons.

 The mountainous terrain interfered with communications systems and the bad weather threatened to force Close Air Support (CAS) and CCA out of the area thus depriving Cougar Company of one of its most important sources of fire and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. Reedy, still with the men of 3d Platoon at the bottom of the valley, decided to consolidate the company at 2d Platoon’s position to prevent the enemy from cutting off a portion of his force if weather conditions deteriorated further.

 Unfortunately for 3rd Platoon, the terrain prevented the men from moving directly towards 2d Platoon’s qalat. Instead, the terraces within the village forced 3d Platoon to move in a U-shaped pattern thus stretching the walking distance between the two halves of the company to approximately 500 meters.17

At approximately 1100 hours, Cougar Company’s CAS and CCA assets left their stations over Sarowbay because of the drop in visibility. The thickening clouds brought heavy rain and hail into the valley. This same weather system affected every TF No Slack position on Objective VIRGINIA from Alpha Company’s position eight kilometers to the north to HLZ Bee Eater at the southern end of the objective.

With the departure of the aircraft, Cougar Company’s fire support was reduced to its 60mm mortar on HLZ Bee Eater and the 105mm howitzers stationed at FOB Joyce approximately nine kilometers to the west. Insurgents, many of whom likely moved out of Sarowbay once they detected the American presence, had covertly occupied fighting positions on the surrounding ridgelines over the previous several hours.

 The enemy had monitored the movements of Cougar Company from the ridgelines and clearly understood that the departure of the aviation assets left the Americans exposed. Taking advantage of this sudden drop in the Americans’ fire support, they decided to strike.18

Almost immediately after the aircraft left the area, Reedy and the men of 3d Platoon heard sporadic fire to the south aimed at HLZ Bee Eater as they were moving toward 2d Platoon’s position. Knowing that the enemy would soon direct their fire at the exposed 3d Platoon as it moved through open ground, Reedy and his men broke into a trot or the “airborne shuffle” as they described it, in hopes of reaching the strongpoint before that could happen.

 However, by the time 3d Platoon traversed roughly half of the 500-meter distance, enemy insurgents had opened fire with RPK and PKM machine guns on the platoon from multiple locations on the ridgelines to the north, east, and south.

The volume of fire suggested the presence of far greater numbers of insurgents than previously anticipated. Prior to the start of the operation, intelligence estimates pegged enemy strength in and around Objective LEXINGTON as approximately squad-sized. Unfortunately for Cougar Company, the actual number of insurgents on the objective likely numbered between 100 and 150 fighters.

 Given Cougar Company’s losses sustained during the ambush before dawn, the insurgents now held an approximate two to one advantage over the Americans in numerical fighting strength. When the enemy opened fire, 2d Platoon’s Corporal John R. Nesse and his team left the cover of the qalat and laid down suppressing fire. With Nesse’s team providing cover, Reedy and the trailing third of 3d Platoon picked up the pace and managed to scurry up the ridgeline into the strongpoint qalat.

Meanwhile, the leading two-thirds of 3d Platoon had pushed forward on the trail forcing them to take cover behind a two-meter high rock wall 100 meters due south and two terraces below the strongpoint. Sergeant Joshua Bostic, along with Private First Class Jeremy Faulkner and Specialist Joseph Kintz, positioned at the eastern end of the wall and returned fire against the enemy positions to the east.

Meanwhile, toward the rear of the group of Soldiers strung out along the rock wall, Lieutenant Sass found himself almost completely exposed to enemy fire. He, Specialist Jacobs, and Specialist Matheson moved back a few meters to a small defilade position in hopes of finding more cover. The enemy fire, extremely heavy at this point, poured onto this position and left the bulk of 3d Platoon with few options.

At the strongpoint qalat, the Soldiers of 2d Platoon worked to return fire against the many enemy positions. With all of 2d Platoon, the ANA soldiers, and the support assets inside the structure, crowding quickly became an issue. Making matters worse, the qalat only had one window from which the Soldiers could effectively return fire.

 From this window facing the south, 2d Platoon’s Soldiers returned fire as best they could but many of the known enemy positions were outside of the field of fire offered by the window. Because the trapped elements of 3d Platoon lay to the south, the Soldiers in the qalat directed their fire carefully in an attempt to avoid any friendly-fire incidents. Unfortunately, these precautions further limited the platoon’s freedom of action.

 In spite of this, the Soldiers in the qalat managed to restore some measure of fire superiority over the insurgents, thanks due in part to Nesse and his team leaving the cover of the qalat to return fire. Inside the qalat, Specialist Michael Patterson fired his M4 rifle and M203 grenade launcher through the window at enemy positions on the ridgeline to the southeast. The volume of fire increased when 2d Platoon brought an Mk48 machine gun into action.21

For the trapped Soldiers of 3d Platoon, the situation had worsened. The enemy PKM positions to the north, south, and east kept the Soldiers under heavy fire and within a few minutes the enemy increased the pressure when another machine gun suddenly opened fire from the west. Lieutenant Sass assessed his position as no longer tenable and began plotting his movement to the strongpoint.

By this time, 2d Platoon had regained fire superiority from the qalat above. Over the radio, Sass told his men to wait for the cloud cover to thicken further to provide cover for a rapid movement up the ridgeline. When the weather cooperated a short time later, a group of Soldiers including Sass, Kadlec, Jacobs, Matheson, and Sergeant Clint Lyons, made a mad dash to the strongpoint.

All of the men from this group reached the qalat safely but their relief quickly dissipated when they realized that several Soldiers including Bostic, Kintz, Faulkner, Smith, and Specialist Enrique Gonzalez remained trapped behind the rock wall farther down the slope. For some reason, this element had not received the order to move to the building.22

With most of the platoon now in the strongpoint, the remaining Soldiers trapped outside took the brunt of enemy fire. As the men of 3d Platoon sat crouched behind the wall, one enemy round struck home. Faulkner received a gunshot wound that his fellow Soldiers believed hit his arm and expended its energy against his armor plating. Moreover, Bostic sent a radio message to Reedy reporting that Faulkner’s wound was not serious.

Unfortunately, the enemy round actually struck just above Faulkner’s plating and pierced his chest. Kintz and Bostic realized that Faulkner had suffered a serious wound and tried to provide medical care while still exposed to enemy fire. Despite their best efforts, Faulkner died on the battlefield barely 30 seconds after being struck. While Bostic tried to perform first aid on Faulkner, an enemy round struck him in the buttocks.23

The situation in the strongpoint had improved somewhat while 3d Platoon endured its hellish ordeal on the terraces below. The Soldiers in the qalat continued to bring their own weapons to bear against insurgent positions. Enemy rounds hit and sometimes entered the qalat, but no members of 2d Platoon suffered any wounds.

These rounds, however, made it easier to determine the enemy’s positions by allowing First Lieutenant Steven Craig, the company’s fire support officer, to perform some back azimuth calculations. They relayed this information on the enemy positions via TacSat (tactical satellite) back to Sergeant McDaniel’s mortar crew on HLZ Bee Eater which began dropping rounds on the insurgents.

The mortar, however, remained the company’s sole source of fire support because communications difficulties prevented Reedy from making continuous contact with FOB Joyce. In any case, the beleaguered company had no access to the 105mm howitzers at the FOB because the sheer volume of fire mission requests coming from every unit in TF No Slack had overwhelmed the battery.24

While all of these events transpired below, Staff Sergeant Wray’s squad found itself undergoing its own trial farther up the ridgeline. Wray had 10 Soldiers under his command and his squad carried two Mk48 machine guns, a SAW, and M14 sniper rifle. At his squad position to the northeast of 2d Platoon’s strongpoint, Wray had deployed his machine guns to cover the eastern and southern approaches respectively with the SAW protecting the rear of the squad’s position to the west.

When the insurgents opened fire at approximately 1100 hours, Wray initially ordered his squad to maintain concealment so that they could better determine the origins and the targets of enemy fire. He quickly realized that his squad’s position was receiving heavy fire from the tree line across the valley to the east/southeast. The squad then began responding to the enemy fire with Wray moving between his Soldiers’ positions to help them more accurately aim their fire.

 The insurgents proved extremely aggressive, maneuvering in the open to take clear shots at the squad, causing Wray to shift his men’s position to maximize their cover. Wray attempted to radio Lieutenant Pomeroy to share information, but he encountered the same communication problems bedeviling the rest of Cougar Company and could only maintain sporadic contact.

During the firefight, the squad’s designated marksman, Specialist Frederick Hutterli, took notice of a spotter a few hundred meters away and across the valley gesturing to his rear and pointing directly at the squad’s position. Although not a formally trained sniper, Hutterli relished the chance to fire on a target from long range and sighted his M14 on the spotter. Just as he fired, Wray dropped a magazine near Hutterli, causing him to miss the target. Fortunately, the shot still had a deterrent effect and the spotter slipped inside a nearby qalat and gave up his mission.26

At approximately 1140, the SAW gunner, Specialist Travis Bland, noticed a pair of enemy fighters manning a machine gun and trying to outflank the squad’s position from farther up the ridgeline. After receiving word from Lieutenant Pomeroy that there were no friendlies anywhere on the ridge, Wray asked for two volunteers to help him neutralize the machine gun.

Specialists William Dempsey and Matthew Neal answered the call and the three Soldiers began maneuvering towards the enemy position with Bland covering them with his SAW. During the maneuver, a second machine gun on a nearby hill opened fire, pinning Dempsey and Neal down. With Bland trying to suppress both machine guns, Wray closed on the first machine gun. He never laid eyes on the enemy position but he lobbed a grenade in the vicinity which, after it exploded, caused the gun to stop firing.

The most significant action occurred when Wray’s squad brought an enemy PKM crew under fire. Lieutenant Pomeroy informed Wray via radio that at least eight insurgents were on the ridgeline near Wray and ordered him to gather his squad and move toward the 2d Platoon strongpoint. As Wray carried out these movements, the second machine gun crew continued to pour fire onto the squad.27

While Wray protected 2d Platoon’s northern flank, the Soldiers inside the strongpoint qalat in the village worked to relieve 3d Platoon’s Bostic, Gonzalez, Kintz, and Smith farther down the ridgeline. As the Soldiers organized a rescue mission, a large blast knocked everyone to the ground. The qalat occupied by the old woman who had tried to persuade Lieutenant Pomeroy to bunk there that night exploded when an improvised explosive device with a cell phone trigger detonated inside the structure. Fortunately, the blast was too distant to cause any Coalition casualties. Everyone picked themselves up and resumed their focus on their besieged comrades.28

Lieutenant Pomeroy organized a small rescue team comprised of himself, Specialist Nathan Allen, Specialist Jordan Anderson, and Nesse to provide cover so that the trapped men from 3d Platoon could scramble up the ridgeline to safety. Pomeroy’s rescue team darted from the strongpoint and made for a group of smaller qalats to the west but his group quickly ran into trouble.

 Barely 15 meters outside the door, enemy fire struck Allen when a round penetrated a small rock wall that he tried to use as cover, piercing Allen’s arm and lodging in his liver. Seeing Allen wounded, Pomeroy halted the rescue mission and focused the team’s efforts on saving the wounded Soldier. Pomeroy tore apart the rock wall to reach Allen and Pomeroy and Nesse dragged their wounded comrade to safety.

In order to allow Pomeroy’s men to return to the cover of the strongpoint, Sergeant James Nichols gathered two MPs and left the safety of their qalat to provide covering fire. In spite of his wound, Allen moved quickly under his own power back to the strongpoint. His uninjured comrades also made it back to the strongpoint safely.29

Once the team returned to the qalat, Reedy made yet another wrenching decision and cancelled any further rescue missions until CAS and CCA could help the company suppress enemy fire surrounding the village. The situation outside was too dangerous and the hail of insurgent gunfire too heavy for Soldiers to risk exposure to an enemy force superior in both numbers and tactical position. In spite of these problems, the men of Cougar Company worked systematically to suppress enemy fire emanating from locations that could also threaten Bostic’s group below. Bostic, Gonzalez, Kintz, and Smith had by this time endured a constant fusillade of fire focused on their position for the better part of an hour.

 With cover provided by the men in the qalat, the four Soldiers darted from their meager cover and made their way as a group up the ridgeline to the strongpoint. Unfortunately, the need for haste prevented the group from taking Faulkner’s body or any of his gear with them.30

With the surviving members of the company now consolidated in the qalat, recovering Faulkner’s body became their priority. At this point in the fight, Wray’s squad had completed their move down the ridgeline and quickly cleared and occupied a qalat 100 meters to the west of the 2d Platoon strongpoint.

Only now as the communication problems began to ease did Wray learn of the ordeal endured by the rest of Cougar Company. He volunteered his squad to try and recover Faulkner’s body but Reedy’s edict against further rescue missions stood. The men of Cougar Company continued to defend their position and wait. Finally, after more than an hour of rain and hail, the cloud cover began to dissipate enough for CAS and CCA to return to their stations over Sarowbay. Almost immediately, CCA initiated gun runs against enemy positions scattered across the various ridgelines surrounding Sarowbay.

With an exponential increase in the amount of fire support, the men of Cougar Company formed a new team to retrieve Faulkner’s body.

Specialist Kintz left the strongpoint qalat and provided suppressing fire for the rest of the team that included Nesse, Sergeant James Nichols, and Patterson. The four made their way down to the terrace where Patterson assumed the task of recovery. In spite of the attacks from the aircraft overhead, the enemy continued to fire on the American Soldiers. Patterson briefly searched the area where 3d Platoon had found cover to retrieve any essential equipment left behind before the different groups of Soldiers made their mad dashes for the strongpoint. After completing this first task, Patterson picked up Faulkner’s body and, while protected by the rest of the team’s suppressing fire, made his way back to the strongpoint.31

Soon after the recovery of Faulkner’s body, a MEDEVAC helicopter finally arrived to bring the wounded off the battlefield. Patterson brought Faulkner’s body to the helicopter and then helped the wounded Allen climb aboard. With Faulkner and Allen extracted, the Soldiers of Cougar Company could remain sheltered in their qalats until the security situation improved outside.

 Enemy fire continued throughout the day but slackened enough for Sergeant Wray and another Soldier to collect ammunition from the strongpoint qalat. Noticing the crowded conditions in the strongpoint, Wray decided to keep his squad at their current location and Reedy sent a fire team led by Sergeant Nichols to reinforce their position. The enemy still continued to press into the evening hours and one enemy element ventured close enough to the qalat that the JTAC called in a bomb strike that neutralized the insurgent force.32

That night, Captain Reedy spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Vowell about the status of Cougar Company’s mission. The clearing operations that morning had only accounted for a roughly 50 of the qalats in Sarowbay and Reedy estimated that between 50 and 100 dwellings remained. The status of 3d Platoon’s men also weighed heavily in Reedy’s thoughts.

Third platoon had lost three killed and two wounded and sustained all of the company’s casualties on Objective LEXINGTON. In addition to these physical losses, at least two of the other Soldiers showed signs of significant mental strain. The combined effect of the predawn ambush and the midday ordeal had rendered the platoon unable to function as a maneuver element for the remainder of the operation.

The firefights had also left the company short of water and ammunition. Reedy had two options. These were to continue the mission with his company crucially short on combat power or ask for reinforcements that could complete the clearance of Sarowbay. With all of these factors in mind, Reedy made a decision that he characterized as the “hardest but easiest” choice. He requested that Vowell dispatch additional forces to Objective LEXINGTON. Early on the morning of 30 March, the battalion commander sent Charlie Company, 1-327 IN also nicknamed Cold Steel, to HLZ Bee Eater. Once the helicopters completed their lifts, Cold Steel moved down and secured the western end of Sarowbay more than doubling the number of Coalition forces and promising to improve the security situation in the village.33

Even though the new units dramatically reduced Cougar Company’s burden, the second day still proved dangerous. At 0700 hours, Reedy learned that Feldhaus had succumbed to the wounds sustained during the ambush coming off of HLZ Bee Eater. Just as he had done when notified of Burgess’ death, Reedy gathered the men in the strongpoint qalat and gave them several minutes to reflect.

That morning, Cougar Company fortified their strongpoint by building makeshift walls with rocks and sandbags. Soldiers in the qalat heard a mysterious noise behind a closed door and discovered several women and children hiding in the small space behind it. These villagers had stayed in the house throughout the chaotic events of the previous day and managed to escape detection. After the lone female military policeman searched the women and children, they were allowed to go about their daily routines unobstructed.34

Like the first day on Objective LEXINGTON, the weather began to turn against Cougar Company that afternoon. Heavy clouds reduced visibility to less than 10 meters and brought rain and hail that drove aviation assets away from the area. This provided a new window for enemy fighters to attack. Unlike the first day however, no American unit lay completely exposed to enemy fire.

Since Wray’s flanking element no longer guarded the northern flank of the strongpoint qalat, the Soldiers of Cougar Company fired and lobbed grenades up the ridgeline to disrupt enemy movements. They hoped that using their stock of grenades would conserve ammunition for Sergeant McDaniel’s mortar on HLZ Bee Eater, their most consistent fire support element throughout the operation.

 In fact, the rules of engagement for the mortar expanded on the second day when the men of Cougar Company noticed enemy fighters occupying qalats at the far eastern end of the village. After some of McDaniel’s mortar rounds struck near the occupied qalats, the insurgents responded by trying to gather civilians in qalats occupied by their spotters. By doing so, insurgents hoped that Americans would withhold their fire rather than risk inflicting civilian casualties. In any case, the mortar rounds caused these insurgents to stop firing on Coalition forces for the remainder of the engagement.35

Later that afternoon, weather patterns held course and the cloud cover dissipated, allowing for the return of aviation assets. That night, Cougar Company received even more reinforcements when an ANA commando element arrived on the objective to resume clearance operations to the east of the strongpoint. On the morning of the third day, Reedy linked up with the leaders of the commandos to give them a situation report and information on suspected enemy positions on the surrounding ridges.

As the Afghan Commandos moved to the east, 2d Platoon left the strongpoint qalat and assumed a support -by-fire position during the clearances. At some points, the presence of CAS and CCA allowed Captain Reedy to dispatch small patrols into the surrounding area. The situation did not allow for an extended battle damage assessment but the men of Cougar Company discovered several destroyed enemy positions that demonstrated the accuracy of their CAS, CCA, and indirect fires.

Although the exact number of enemy casualties remained unknown since the insurgents often removed their dead to hide their numbers, Cougar Company estimated that they inflicted between 50 and 100 casualties on the enemy surrounding Sarowbay. Cougar Company also detained two military aged males and sent them back to FOB Joyce for processing.36

These missions allowed for some breaks in Cougar Company’s routine but the bulk of the unit spent most of their time from 30 March into the evening of 1 April occupying the strongpoint. The presence of the support assets kept conditions in the qalat crowded and the ANA unit present for the mission provided little additional combat power. The ANA proved extremely useful during the initial clearing operations but when the weather turned poor and the insurgents attacked, they had done nothing to defend the coalition positions in Sarowbay.

 In fact, during the afternoon firefights, the Soldiers of Cougar Company almost invariably appropriated ammunition from their ANA counterparts because, as Corporal Nesse put it, “we figured we could use their ammo better than they could.” Cougar Company received only intermittent resupply during the four days on the objective, and the US Soldiers began to view the Afghans as a drain on their stocks of water and ammunition.37

Finally, on the night of 1 April, after four days out in the field, TF No Slack’s mission changed. What had started as an effort to neutralize QZR’s command and control structure in Kunar Province turned into an active manhunt for prominent insurgent leaders. As a result, the focus of the action shifted southward and Lieutenant Colonel Vowell retasked most of the company to accommodate the changing mission requirements. The Soldiers of Cougar Company had recovered from the ordeal of the first day and became stir crazy within the strongpoint qalat. As Reedy himself put it, he was willing to do anything to “get me the f— out of this house.”

Despite a significant loss of effective strength during the previous four days of fighting, Cougar Company soldiered on through the remainder of STRONG EAGLE III. After the company walked back to HLZ Bee Eater, CH-47s transported the Soldiers to HLZ Mallard which overlooked the village of Shirugay, codenamed Objective NORFOLK-EAST. For the remaining four days of the operation, Cougar Company provided overwatch while the ANA commando detachment cleared the village.

At no point did the men of Cougar Company make contact with the enemy. On the night of 5 April, Operation STRONG EAGLE III came to an end and the Soldiers from the company boarded the Chinooks and returned to FOB Joyce. By the time they returned, Sergeant O’Connor had resumed his duties after his stay in the hospital. Over the next three weeks, the Soldiers of Cougar Company ended their deployments and left Afghanistan.39

Aftermath and Conclusions

Reedy and his men believed that STRONG EAGLE III destroyed QZR’s command and control node and made border crossing by enemy fighters much more dangerous. Unfortunately for Cougar Company, their imminent departure from Afghanistan meant that they would not see the results of their work. Reedy hoped that the lethal and aggressive nature of the operation would serve as a model for “continuous disruption” and shape future operations conducted in the border regions of Afghanistan.

To Reedy, only the destruction of insurgent networks would allow the government of Afghanistan to expand its influence and ensure the security of the local population.40

The fight for Objective LEXINGTON clearly highlighted the difficulties of operating in mountainous eastern Afghanistan. More than any other single factor, terrain influenced the conduct of the operation. The rugged natural landscape significantly slowed troop movement and the high altitudes caused the sudden onset of weather that eliminated the American advantage in aerial fire support for hours at a time.

The location of villages, such as Sarowbay, at the bottom of valleys dominated by high ridgelines presented military leaders with operational and tactical challenges. Captain Reedy tried to forestall enemy control of the high ground by establishing one of his platoons in an elevated support-by-fire position. The enemy, however, inadvertently disrupted this plan by successfully executing the pre-dawn ambush.

 Inside the village, the man-made terraces complicated movements between qalats. The loss of Private Faulkner during the midday firefight on 29 March demonstrated the extreme to which the mountains and weather can effect military operations but Cougar Company successfully employed their own small arms to neutralize the enemy’s positional advantage on the ridgelines long enough for the remainder of 3d Platoon to reach cover.

Cougar Company showed remarkable resiliency and adaptability throughout STRONG EAGLE III in the face of a tough and determined enemy which knew the terrain well. Much of this success came from the able leadership of the company at all levels. At several points on the first day of the operation alone, circumstances dictated complete revisions to Cougar Company’s plan for clearing Objective LEXINGTON.

When the early morning ambush of 3d Platoon reduced its combat capability, Reedy quickly changed his plan for clearing the village that took this into account yet still provided 2d Platoon with the appropriate support-by-fire. The weather completely disrupted the clearance of Sarowbay and resulted in more harrowing moments for much of 3d Platoon. The unknown strength of the enemy in the Ganjgal area disrupted the fires priority for the entire battalion and resulted in Cougar Company not receiving the desired artillery support at crucial moments of the engagement. As Lieutenant Craig joked, “We’re still waiting on word from some suppression missions.”

 In spite of these complications, Cougar Company successfully established a strongpoint in the village, defended it from determined enemy attacks, and provided the necessary suppressing fire to allow the exposed Soldiers of 3d Platoon to reach safety. Reedy himself displayed remarkable loyalty and respect twice by personally informing his men when one of their comrades had died.

 He further displayed courage and integrity when he requested reinforcements after recognizing that the mission had grown too large for his under strength and battle weary company to complete alone. Through it all, even after four days of contact with the enemy, Cougar Company accepted the change in mission and remained in the field for the duration of the operation.41

The Soldiers of Cougar Company believed that Operation STRONG EAGLE III proved the hardest of all of the operations they conducted during a very active deployment. The company made a significant contribution to the operation’s success but realized that they had survived a dangerous ordeal. As Corporal Nesse said, “I saw more action in the [Ganjgal] valley over ten days than I did in an entire year. I’ve seen, you know, things that will put you in the fetal position and make you cry. I saw some amazing things in ten days.”

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