On the front lines of war against terror
By Phillip O'Connor
AFGHANISTAN, OCTOBER 2001
"Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts. The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test. God bless."
Remarks by President George W. Bush upon arrival at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Sept. 11, 2001
AT 2 A.M. ON OCT. 24, 2001, two blacked-out Chinook helicopters carrying Master Sgt. John Bolduc and nine other Green Berets dropped from a star-packed sky into northeastern Afghanistan. The men carried six months of supplies and simple orders: Link up with the Northern Alliance and deliver the vengeance of America.
In many ways, their secret mission represented the aspirations of all Americans reeling from the previous month's terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. The nation stood united. Patriotism soared. An angered nation spoiled for revenge.
Now, here stood soldiers from the Army's 5th Special Forces Group ready to inflict some of the first and most significant blows against those who dared strike at the United States.
Like many Americans, Bolduc entered the new conflict with a deep belief in the cause.
He hoped that Osama bin Laden would be captured or, better yet, killed, the oppressed of Afghanistan freed and terrorists gone from the world.
For him and his fellow soldiers, Operation Enduring Freedom -- the war in Afghanistan -- wouldn't be just some catchy code name, but a calling for which they were now willing to fight and, if necessary, die.
Today, more than two years later, the main battlefront has shifted to Iraq, Afghanistan is off the front pages and many Americans are weary of war.
Bolduc remains proud of his service and the courage of his men, and he continues to believe in the fight against terrorism.
But he wonders whether his team's efforts made any long-term difference in Afghanistan's future. He thinks often of the fate of many of the Afghans he met and befriended.
He wonders if America will live up to its promises to bring a better way of life to the Afghan people or whether it will abandon them as have so many other previous invaders.
The Taliban and warlords are reasserting control in many provinces. Bin Laden remains unaccounted for. And the world is still a very dangerous place.
Bolduc has no doubt about the cost of the war on terrorism. He can measure it in lost friends, men he considered brothers. Men like those with him on the two Chinooks.
An unexpected opportunity
Bolduc had been sitting in his office at Fort Campbell, Ky., when terrorists turned airliners into suicide missiles, the opening salvo in the new war.
In the days that followed, the nation's armed forces geared up to respond. First President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum: close the terrorist camps and deliver Osama bin Laden. When it went unanswered, Bush announced on Oct. 7 a military strike, with the full backing of America's most important allies and tacit support from many other countries.
The first reports told of attacks from the air but the Army's 6,500 active-duty Special Forces troops would also be infiltrating the country on the ground.
Like many of the hundreds of Green Berets based at Fort Campbell, Bolduc itched to deliver some of the payback.
He carried a muscled 155 pounds on a taut, 6-foot frame. He wore his thinning brown hair short and combed back off his high forehead. His piercing brown eyes dominated a long, narrow face.
Bolduc had dreamed from a young age of being a soldier.
He grew up in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, in the town of Laconia, in a household that preached support for America, right or wrong. He joined the infantry after high school, became a Ranger and then qualified for Special Forces. At 37, he'd reached what he considered the pinnacle of his 19-year military career.
He commanded Operational Detachment Alpha 585, one of the Special Forces' elite A-teams, considered among the military's best fighters.
As team sergeant, Bolduc had invested three years of his life honing the skills of ODA 585. The men considered him a tough, level-headed, by-the-book leader who was fair. He was the type of soldier they would willingly follow into battle.
But Bolduc never expected to get the chance.
On the day of the terrorist attacks, the Army had delivered written orders granting his retirement.
For Bolduc, it would mean the end of a career he loved, but he had no regrets. He knew his daughter, on the verge of her teenage years, needed him more than the Army. Sooner than he could believe, she would be off on her own and, at times, it seemed he'd barely got to know her.
For Sherry Bolduc, John's retirement would mark the beginning of what she jokingly called "grown-up life."
They'd fallen in love 14 years before when both were based at Fort Lewis, Wash. She'd just returned from duty in Korea when John first spotted the 21-year-old blonde at a club. A rebellious kid who had enlisted to get away from her stern father, who was a Baptist preacher, she was halfway through a two-year Army hitch.
They were married less than two months later.
Given his frequent absences, Sherry Bolduc had raised the couple's 12-year-old daughter, Holly, mostly on her own. Now, after years of enduring her husband's long deployments, she looked forward to a slow-paced civilian life in a small Mississippi town, where Bolduc was expected eventually to take over his in-laws' Western Auto store. The family would be together every day, and she and John would sleep in the same bed every night.
Those plans changed on Sept. 18, the same day the U.N. Security Council demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden and close all terrorist training camps.
A 5th Group colonel summoned Bolduc to his office and told him he'd been recommended as the best man for a dangerous assignment about which little was known.
"When do I go?"
"Tonight," the colonel responded.
Retirement could wait.
Bolduc called his wife at the school where she taught second grade. She'd been through the departure drill many times before over the years.
Bolduc told her he was leaving immediately for a conference in Florida. Normally, she might have bought the cover story, but this time, with the attacks only a week before, Sherry knew better. Still, she could coax no more information from her husband.
She felt uneasy, but pushed her fears to the back of her mind.
That night, Bolduc crouched along a deserted airstrip at the base. He wore civilian clothes but also carried body armor, six grenades, two Claymore mines, his M-4 rifle, a 9 mm Beretta pistol, night-vision goggles and 440 rounds of ammunition.
The last time he'd been ordered to report with full combat gear, the entire 400-man battalion shipped out to chase down Gen. Manuel Noriega in Panama, which the United States invaded in 1989. This time, the only people around were two Special Forces helicopter pilots. They were equally in the dark about what lay ahead.
Out of the distance, the whine of engines pierced the quiet and a Learjet swept in just above the tree tops. The plane taxied to where the small group stood. Out jumped two scruffy-looking pilots who looked as if they'd been flying all night. They clearly weren't military.
Most likely CIA, Bolduc thought. The agency frequently teamed with Special Forces troops on secret missions.
"This is your ride," one of them said.
The men scrambled aboard and the plane lifted off above the countryside.
Bolduc was headed to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, one of dozens of countries that had rallied to America's support as part of a global coalition against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.
There, he was to be among a small group of Americans who would convert what once had been the largest Soviet military facility in Central Asia into the secret base that would serve as the jumping-off point for special operations in the coming war.
The base at Karshi Khanabad became known as K-2.
He'd been at the base about two weeks when the radio room picked up a message: Bolduc's elite Special Forces team had been selected for a mission. Did he want to return to Fort Campbell to train with the men?
"Pack my bags, I'm outta here," Bolduc said.
He would spend less than 48 hours at home before he would head back to the secret base with the nine men who would be among the first American soldiers to land in Afghanistan and engage the enemy.
Togetherness and prayers
Bolduc arrived in Clarksville, Tenn., which is near Fort Campbell at midday Oct. 10 and, following orders, spent the rest of the day with his family.
Just three days before, U.S. and British forces had begun an aerial bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
Polls showed an angered American public strongly in support of the military response. A satisfied nation followed the televised coverage with patriotic fervor.
Sherry Bolduc understood the sentiment.
She also understood the dangers her husband faced and knew he might not come home. Still, she could accept that risk if the cause was to once again make America secure.
That night, the Bolducs and their daughter lay in bed and watched television like they did on many nights.
Sherry Bolduc had felt that their life together was just beginning. Now she tried not to think about what loomed. She wanted to cry but held her tears. She wanted to be strong for Holly. She prayed.
"Don't forget about me"
Plans called for the first three A-teams to enter Afghanistan on successive nights beginning Oct. 18.
Bolduc and his men would be the third team. Headquarters assigned the team the code name Tiger 03.
At K-2, some of the men wrote letters they hoped would never be delivered.
"If you are reading this letter, things are not well for me," Bolduc wrote to Sherry and Holly. "I had so many things I wanted to do with you both. I am in a better place, and I am waiting here for you."
Bolduc's closest friend and right-hand man on the team was Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Morehead, who served as second-in-command.
Not quite 6 feet tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes, Morehead, 32, had grown up in Arkansas and graduated from high school in Little Rock. He'd been a rowdy teenager. The regimented military life proved good for him. He graduated with honors from Army Ranger School and the combat divers course.
He and Bolduc had butted heads when they'd first met six years before, in part because Bolduc replaced Morehead as the senior medic when he transferred to the team.
While Bolduc was quiet, almost stoic, Morehead loved to laugh and joke.
But just as much, said those who knew them both, their differences came because they were so much alike.
Friends and co-workers described them as smart, energetic, aggressive, extremely competitive perfectionists.
Neither drank nor smoked. Both were active in their churches and took great comfort in their Baptist faith. Both were avid outdoorsmen.
Morehead loved the Army and especially Special Forces. But life, too, was pulling him in other directions. He talked often with his wife about retirement and the desire to settle down.
Theresa Morehead knew she would marry Kevin the night she first met him at a country music show in 1994. He'd looked so handsome in a blue, long-sleeve shirt with white stripes, blue jeans and roper-style cowboy boots. She offered to buy him a Coke. Seven months later they married.
They'd already been through so much.
In 1996, Theresa Morehead underwent several surgeries in an attempt to have children. A year later, she was pregnant with a daughter. She miscarried five months into the pregnancy. Doctors said their one chance at bearing children was gone.
He'd spent nearly half of the couple's marriage away on training and deployments and had grown tired of the extended separations. He longed to become a farmer, hunt and build houses.
The couple had just started construction of their dream house on 22 acres they'd recently bought about 20 miles from Fort Campbell. Kevin Morehead designed the sprawling Cape Cod-style home, with a large front porch and giant den to serve as his game-trophy room. Now it would be up to Theresa to oversee the construction.
In a letter, he told his wife he might be gone until spring or early summer.
"Please don't forget about me. I need your prayers for the operation ahead. I will not lie, it is dangerous and there is always a chance of things going bad. I hope everyone there is still supporting the war. We are going to win and win big. It is important work."
"We'll fight together"
The night before the mission, Bolduc gathered the men. He told them he didn't expect to return. In reality, he didn't expect any of them to survive.
They would be entering some of the harshest climactic conditions and most difficult terrain on earth, much of it laced with land mines that numbered in the millions.
They would be fighting with allies they weren't certain they could trust. They would be badly outnumbered by the enemy. And after seeing videotapes of how the Taliban tortured war prisoners, none of the men wanted to risk capture. In Bolduc's mind, they would fight to the last man.
"We have to get in our minds now that we're not going to be fighting against the Taliban or for the Northern Alliance, but for each other," he told them. "We'll fight together until we can't fight anymore."
After weather delayed their insertion for several days, the team, dressed in blue jeans and dark fleece coats, loaded their gear into two large, twin-rotored Chinook helicopters at K-2.
Tucked in the liner of his stocking cap, Bolduc carried a laminated prayer card with the 91st Psalm.
". . . his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee . . . ."
On a leather cord around his neck, he wore another good luck charm.
A tradition dating to the Vietnam War holds that each time the Special Forces enter a new combat theater, a ruby ring is passed down to the best man in the lead teams. Bolduc carried the ring into Afghanistan.
From their seats in the rear, Bolduc and Morehead looked through the open ramp only six feet away and saw tall grass swaying beneath a three-quarter moon and twinkling lights of small villages and scattered homes. An unseasonably warm breeze rushed through the aircraft's open doors.
Crossing over the Afghan border, the lights disappeared and the terrain turned pitch black. The lack of electricity made the landscape look as if someone had pulled a dark blanket over the country.
Bolduc saw the flicker of an occasional campfire.
Taliban positions, the pilot told him.
Bolduc's men dozed.
Three hours later, the two helicopters settled on what looked like a moonscape. Bolduc ran down the ramp first. He met three bearded men dressed in civilian clothes and armed with AK-47 assault rifles. One wore a Chicago Cubs cap. Bolduc recognized another as a Special Forces captain who had been detailed to the CIA to enter the country weeks before and make initial contact with the Afghan resistance leaders.
"How you doing?" Bolduc shouted above the roar of the rotors. "Isn't this an odd place to meet?"
The captain introduced Bolduc to his new allies, two Afghans, neither of whom spoke much English.
Although some of Bolduc's men were fluent in Arabic, none spoke Dari, the predominant local language. Communication would prove burdensome for weeks, until the team could find an interpreter they could trust.
With that introduction, the captain and one of the CIA agents ran aboard one of the choppers.
Bolduc watched both Chinooks disappear into the inky blackness.
"This is it," he thought.
He knew he had only five minutes to assess the situation before the helicopters would be out of radio range and unable to be recalled for a quick rescue. Still, he felt strangely calm.
"We're ready," he thought.
Reporter Phillip O'Connor