Combat and compassion
By Phillip O'Connor
Of the Post-Dispatch
02/22/2004


 

Afghan surgery
Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Morehead (second from right) and other members of a Special Forces team help during surgery in December 2001, along with Dr. Sharon Frey (center, background) of St. Louis University.
(Andrew Cutraro/P-D)

 

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"A commander in chief sends America's sons and daughters into battle in a foreign land only after the greatest care and a lot of prayer. We ask them to leave their loved ones, to travel great distances, to risk injury, even to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. They are dedicated. They are honorable. They represent the best of our country, and we are grateful."

- Remarks by President Bush announcing the start of hostilities in Afghanistan in an address to the nation from the Treaty Room in the White House, Oct. 7, 2001.



Midmorning on Oct. 26, 2001, John Bolduc and Kevin Morehead stood in a forward observation post in northeastern Afghanistan and looked in the distance at a five-kilometer stretch of trenches and bunkers held by the Taliban.

The repressive Islamic regime with close ties to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden rose to power amid the anarchy that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. By late 2001, the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, controlled most of the country, aside from a few Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast.

Less than 36 hours before, Bolduc and nine other Green Berets had landed by helicopter in one of those strongholds. The soldiers were some of the first U.S. combat troops deployed in the war against terrorism. Next to them stood Gen. Atiqallah Baryalai Khan, the Northern Alliance's deputy defense minister. He claimed to command an 80-mile front with his 5,000 fighters.

When they'd met the day before, Bolduc found it hard to believe this was the man he was expected to assist in the coming battle. Most Afghan men wore light billowy pants, knee-length shirts, poor-fitting plastic boots or sandals on their bare feet and carried a tattered blanket to protect them from the cold.

Baryalai, (pronounced Berry-allah) on the other hand, looked like a military leader straight out of Hollywood central casting, Bolduc thought. He dressed in shiny black military boots, pressed camouflage pants and a short, black field jacket. He wore aviator sunglasses and a colorful Afghan scarf draped around his neck. He had thick black hair, kept his head cocked back at an imperious angle and reeked of cheap cologne. He said he was 38, nearly the same age as Bolduc. He was of Tajik descent and hailed from the Pansjir Valley. He'd earned a reputation as a fierce mujahideen fighter against the Soviet Red Army before taking up arms against the Taliban.

Baryalai had seemed uneasy on meeting the team.

"But Commander John, there are only 10 of you," he'd said in a soft voice. "When is the U.S. Army coming?"

"We're here," Bolduc replied. "This is it."

"This is not good," Baryalai said. "We need many soldiers."

"You don't need many soldiers," Bolduc said. "Wait and see what we can do."

Until now, Northern Alliance leaders were skeptical of U.S. promises. They'd begged unsuccessfully for guns, ammunition and equipment. They'd complained about the limited and inaccurate bombing along the northern front during the air campaign that began two weeks before, on Oct. 7.

Eventually, the Afghans hoped to maneuver their rag-tag forces south to the provincial capital of Taloqan and then west to Kunduz, a major Taliban stronghold in the north. But they seemed in no hurry to attack, willing to wait until spring or maybe even summer. The Americans held other ideas. A new phase of the battle was about to begin.


Several thousand Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fighters manned the enemy trenches and held mountain peaks that allowed their artillery to control the valley that led south toward Kunduz.

At the observation post, Bolduc and Morehead and four others soon came under fire from heavy machine guns, mortars and tank rounds.

Bolduc thought: "Here was the chance to convince Baryalai what a few Americans could do."

While enemy bullets and shells cracked and whistled over their position, struck sandbags, kicked up dirt and left small smoking craters, the men calmly plotted the enemy positions. The first air strike they called for missed the target and sent harmless plumes of oatmeal-colored dirt skyward.

"What is wrong with your planes?" Baryalai asked.

"I don't know," Bolduc said. "We're going to find out. We've got some more coming."

On top of the distant hills, a half-dozen Taliban stood on their bunkers filling sandbags. On the radio, the pilot called bombs away. The incoming projectile sounded like the whoosh of an over flying jet. Through his binoculars, Bolduc watched an object that looked like a football strike directly in the center of the lead bunker covering the valley.

When the dust settled, Bolduc saw bodies scattered on the hillside. Beside him, Baryalai shouted and leaped with joy. "Allahu akbar!" (God is great) he shouted. "Inshallah!" (God willing).

The day's bombing runs marked a great victory for the Northern Alliance and for Bolduc. He had earned Baryalai's trust.

For the next three weeks, Bolduc's men brought the bombs in day and night, often under enemy fire. At times, Morehead would stack as many as six fighter jets and a B-52 above the battlefield and then direct them on attack runs. At one point, Taliban almost overran their position, and the men barely escaped.

In a letter to his wife, Morehead wrote that he hoped the American people were still behind them.

"In a year, this will all be a memory and at least we can say we helped our country in its time of need. Not a lot of Americans can say that. People don't appreciate freedom until they have to fight to save it."

 

Coping at home


Back home, the team's families struggled without their husbands and fathers. Bolduc's wife, Sherry, and daughter, Holly, busied themselves with work, school, church and other daily routines, oblivious to the team's exploits. Sherry Bolduc avoided the news. In the rare notes and even less frequent phone calls home, the men spoke little of their mission. Instead, they tried to absorb all they could about life at home.

Sherry thought often about things she wanted to tell John, but then the phone would ring and she couldn't remember any of it. She was just happy to hear his voice. And then the call would end.

"I loved talking to you, but hated letting you go. That is the hardest part," she wrote to him in November 2001.

Thanksgiving and Christmas proved especially difficult. Sherry immersed herself in work and then came home and spent hours on the phone or sending e-mails to keep the team members' families informed as best she could.

"That way, she doesn't have to think about you being gone," Holly wrote to her dad. "She said she doesn't want it to be Christmas time because you're not here."

Holly told her dad that just days before, her mother had broken down in tears while the two were out for dinner. "I miss you. Mom misses you, too." Half a world away, Bolduc continued to miss moments that become lifetime memories for many fathers. Holly's piano recital, her basketball games and even the 13-year-old's first attempts at driving. "Leave the driving to me," Bolduc wrote to his wife in an e-mail after one close call. "I will teach her all she needs to know. Don't let Holly drive any more."

Morehead's wife, Theresa, buried herself in her work and in finishing construction of their house. She wrote Kevin almost daily with updates. It bothered her that their few telephone conversations usually ended up in arguments about the house.

At night, Sherry Bolduc and Theresa Morehead would often commiserate on the phone. They shared their worst fears and talked about the chance that their husbands might never return.

"I love you so much," Sherry wrote to John. "I just want to make sure you come home because I can't bear the thought of a life without you."

By the first week of November, the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif stood on the edge of falling in the west. In the south, the Taliban were on the run. Now, U.S. commanders wanted action along Bolduc's section of the northern front.

Baryalai seemed less than eager to attack. He often added to the list of targets he told Bolduc must be bombed before he could advance. Baryalai said he wanted the enemy eliminated to the point where he could easily overrun their hilltop positions. But to some team members, it seemed as though he wanted a bomb dropped on each Taliban head.

At a meeting Nov. 9, Baryalai assured Bolduc he would give him at least two days' notice before he advanced. That night, Bolduc reported Baryalai's cautious timeline to his commanders. At noon the next day, without telling Bolduc and before any bomb runs, Baryalai launched a frontal assault, possibly in the hope he would find only conscripts manning the trenches. Instead, he met seasoned Taliban troops and lost hundreds of men and several tanks before he retreated.

For Bolduc, the attack not only indicated Baryalai's lack of basic military skill but also provided a troubling glimpse of what he considered the Afghan's giant ego. Bolduc believed Baryalai kept the attack secret from him because Baryalai wanted to claim credit among his Afghan fighters for having alone led them to victory.

For Baryalai, like many Afghan men, saving face meant everything, even if that meant the death of more of his men on the battlefield. As the sun was about to set, Baryalai attacked again. This time, Bolduc's men called in what limited U.S. air support they could muster. Baryalai's tanks and personnel carriers rolled forward and breached the enemy lines.

Days later, besieged Kunduz, the final northern stronghold, fell. The Taliban now controlled less than a quarter of the country, mostly around the southern city of Kandahar. Back at the base, known as K2, commanders tracked the progress of Tiger 03, the code name for the Special Forces team. During the bombings and breakout from the north, the team recorded the most days under fire, called in the most airstrikes and killed more enemy than any Special Forces detachment, receiving credit for the death of 1,300 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The men of Operational Detachment Alpha 585, the Special Forces detachment, had bombed themselves out of a job.

Their valor in combat would earn Bolduc and Morehead the Bronze Star with a special notation for valor. The eight other team members won regular Bronze Stars. For days after the bombing ceased, Bolduc watched a flood of humanity pour south to reoccupy the bombed-out villages and flattened, dirt rubble that used to be their homes. The huddled masses carried their meager possessions on their backs, on camels or on wooden-wheeled carts pulled by donkeys.

Even before the Taliban, Afghanistan stood as one of the poorest, least developed and most isolated places on earth. Average life expectancy spanned a little more than 40 years, and one in four Afghan children died before the age 5.

But America was here to help, Bolduc thought. That's what great nations did. Over time, Tiger 03 would direct the delivery of more tons of grain, wheat flour, clothes, tents and blankets to help the residents through the harsh Afghan winter than any other Special Forces detachment.

"If you could see these people's faces every time the bundles get dropped and on target it makes you proud to be an American," Bolduc wrote to his superiors.

But often, pilots' fears of surface-to-air missiles would cause them to drop their cargo from a high altitude, and bundles landed off target. One bundle crashed through the roof of a house and killed an elderly woman and injured a child. The team compensated the family with food, clothes and money. The team traveled throughout the region to meet with provincial leaders, mingle with the villagers and buy items in the markets.

Along the roadways, the soldiers handed out small amounts of money. Some graciously accepted the gift with thanks and hugs while others refused, part of the Afghans' sense of honor, Bolduc suspected. In towns, crowds gathered at the team's arrival and offered gifts of beads, sweets and food. They reached to shake the men's hands and to say thank you.

Bolduc noticed more children and women in the streets. Under the Taliban, women had been forbidden to leave their homes. Most would cover their faces and turn away as the Americans approached, but Bolduc still glimpsed the occasional smile.

Many district commanders thanked the Americans for liberating their country. In some areas, team members saw brutal evidence of the previous regime. In one town, the team came across a school destroyed by the Taliban. On the chalk board, someone had written, "Stay out or be punished."

Bolduc recognized the importance of their work. "Killing is part of the job," he would say later. "Helping people is far more rewarding. We're not a barbaric people. We don't wage war to wage war. It's a means to get a better life for the people that you're trying to help."

On the day after Christmas, the men were resting in their compound when two doctors from a nearby German clinic appeared at the gates. They told Bolduc that two young boys had been injured when a shell they were playing with exploded. Bolduc sent Morehead and several others to help. They found one boy with his intestines spilled through a hole just above his navel where a quarter-sized piece of shrapnel had struck his belly. The other boy's thumb was a mangled jumble of torn skin and shattered bone.

The doctors asked if a helicopter might be available to evacuate the boys to the nearest hospital in Taloqan or Mazar-e Sharif. Bolduc relayed the request to his commanders but was denied. At that point, the doctors and soldiers decided they could wait no more. Morehead, the doctors and several other team members spent the next six hours hunched over a makeshift operating table determined to repair the damage. Even then, the threat of infection remained. The boys needed to be in a hospital where they could receive antibiotics. But no one believed they would survive the hours long trip.

By late the next afternoon, both boys registered high fevers. Infection had set in. Without help, death seemed imminent. Bolduc told the doctors that the team had been scheduled to be resupplied that night, and he'd do what he could to get the antibiotics.

That night, two dark, nearly invisible silhouettes landed in a low depression in a barren plain about a mile and a half outside of Dashte Qaleh. Team members on all-terrain vehicles rushed toward the two Chinook helicopters and began unloading supplies. Less than four minutes later, the Chinooks lifted off to the southeast. A journalist asked Bolduc at the landing site if the supplies included the antibiotics.

"I'm not sure," he said. "We'll have to go break it down and see."

Back at the clinic, the boys' condition had worsened. One complained of being cold, even though the temperature in the room was stifling. His father stroked the boy's hand and face.

"Enough, enough," he said. "Don't cry."

On a nearby cot, his brother lay silent, a tube inserted in his nose leading to his stomach. In the distance, the sound of finely tuned engines, a rarity in Afghanistan, began to grow louder. In moments, two ATVs roared up outside the clinic. Bolduc walked in and held out a box of the hoped-for antibiotic.

"We brought him everything, I think," Bolduc said. The boys would make a full recovery.

Riding back to his compound that night, Bolduc answered a journalist who'd asked if it felt good to do something so different from the combat mission for which they trained.

"This is what we train to do - help people that need help," Bolduc said. "It makes us all feel good."

Other events would have the opposite effect. On an unseasonably warm New Year's Day, the team gathered in a circle in a small orchard in the courtyard of their compound to bury a thumb-size shard from the World Trade Center.

Bolduc took out the small Bible he carried and read passages from Psalms 91 and 23. Lips quivered and eyes watered. The ceremony lasted less than 10 minutes. Several said later they would have broken down had it had gone any longer.

On Jan. 20, the team reassembled at the landing zone they'd dropped into three months before. The night before, in Kunduz, they'd shared an emotional goodbye of long embraces, watery eyes and blessings with Baryalai.

Despite initial misgivings, Bolduc had grown close enough to the Afghan to consider him a friend and a man he hoped to see again someday. Lifting off into the night, Bolduc again sat in the back of the helicopter directly across from Morehead. They glanced at each other.

Bolduc exhaled a sigh of relief. They'd accomplished their mission. They all were alive. And they were going home. He looked out the open rear ramp at the dark landscape below. They were just 10 men, but they'd represented the hopes of a nation. They'd brought the revenge of America to bear.

But they'd also brought the promise of a better way of life. They'd made a difference. They'd provided the Afghans with food, blankets, clothes, but maybe most important, a chance at a fresh start.

Still, Bolduc had doubts. He'd listened to too many Afghans tell their stories about previous invaders who'd come making promises only to end up taking from the Afghan people. He'd seen the death, misery and near famine.

He'd toured the bombed-out villages and seen the thousands of refugees wandering the countryside. He'd seen the starving families and the poorly clad children shivering in the mud protected only by shelter made of tarps and sticks.

He had lived among them, overcome their skepticism, worked hard to earn their trust. Now he wondered: Would America's promises be fulfilled?

His pledges to help had been genuine. His regret is that he'd no longer be around to ensure they were carried out.

But at least his men were safe. For now.


Andrew Cutraro contributed to this report.

Reporter Phillip O'Connor
E-mail: poconnor@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8321

Part III