In One Moment in Afghanistan, Heroism and Heartbreak

Lynsey Addario/VII

EVE OF BATTLE Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, center,
before the fight in which Sgt. Joshua Brennan, far left, and Spec. Hugo Mendoza,
far right, would die.

November 13, 2010

 

 

In One Moment in Afghanistan, Heroism
and Heartbreak

 

 

Three years and three weeks ago. Dusk was falling fast on the Korengal
Valley. We were crouched on a shrub-laden plateau some 8,000 feet up in the
mountains. The soldiers were exhausted and cold. We’d been sleeping in ditches
for five nights. Insurgents were everywhere.

We could hear those insurgents on the radios saying things like: “They are
all the way on the end at the top sitting there.” Pfc. Michael Cunningham, a
deadpan Texan, said, “That is so us.”

Actually, it was much of Battle Company of the 173d Airborne Brigade, which
was spread across the mountains — First Platoon around Honcho Hill, watching
over Second Platoon in a village below called Landigal. And the Taliban
were itching to hit us again.

None of this had been part of the plan for Rock Avalanche, Battle Company’s
six-day mission to tame the valley before the onset of winter. But then again,
that is what war is, the mocking of plans. The reaction in those moments of
mockery is why we have Medals of Honor. But no one knew that Rock Avalanche
would be one of the defining events in the Afghan war. That Honcho Hill would be
Afghanistan’s Hamburger Hill.

Two days earlier, the Taliban had ambushed Battle Company in the forests and
spurs of the Abas Ghar ridge. At stunningly close range, they had shot and
killed Sgt. Larry Rougle, one of Battle Company’s best, toughest and coolest.
They had wounded Sgt. Kevin Rice and Spec. Carl Vandenberge, two of Battle
Company’s biggest. And they had stolen night vision goggles and machine guns.
That’s why, on this night, Dan Kearney, the 27-year-old captain, had sent Second
Platoon into Landigal — to demand their stuff back from the villagers, who
played dumb.

For a day or two everyone had been in shock and mourning and out for blood.
Now the fear was palpable. “If they can get Rougle, they can get any of us,”
said Sgt. John Clinard.

I was with Captain Kearney and his command group on the plateau and soon we
were helicoptered, in five minutes, to the Korengal Outpost. But First and
Second Platoons had to trek back through ambush country, under a full moon.

As our Black Hawk left us off, rockets and machine-gun fire echoed off the
valley’s walls. First Platoon on Honcho Hill was getting hit. I heard Lt. Brad
Winn on the radio, shouting. His boys needed help. Five were down. Captain
Kearney radioed commands to his other platoon. “Drop everything, cross that
river, help your brothers.”

Snippets of information hung in the air. “Urgent wounded Josh Brennan.” “Six
exit wounds.” “Needs a ventilator.” Kearney cursed and threw down his radio.
“Eckrode leg. Valles leg.” “Who is the K.I.A?” “I think it’s Mendoza.” Spec.
Hugo Mendoza was a medic from El Paso and Arizona, Sgt. Joshua Brennan a quiet
Gary Cooper type from Wisconsin. “We are in contact again. Enemy K.I.A. in
custody. Over.”

Kearney radioed back: “Keep bringing it on them,” and “Slasher is coming.”
Someone radioed they could see a man making off with Brennan’s rucksack and his
M4. In came Slasher, the AC-130, and the rucksack guy was dead. Captain Kearney
took a breath and told First Sgt. La Monta Caldwell: “Brennan’s probably going
to die. I would go and hold his hand and pray with him.” Which is what Caldwell
did.

As airpower took over, thunder and lightning lit up the sky while the two
platoons forded the river and climbed up to the Korengal Outpost.

They were drenched. Their eyes bulging and bloodshot. Their faces stained
black. Nearly everyone in First Platoon had a bullet hole in his vest or helmet.
Sgt. Chris Shelton dropped the belongings of an insurgent named Mohammad Tali.
Sgt. Salvatore Giunta had shot and killed him as he was dragging off Brennan.
“His face looked like a Halloween mask,” Shelton said. “No brains. I got them
all over my hands. I have to wash them.” The only reason they didn’t take more
casualties, he said, was Giunta and Gallardo.

Hunched over, elbow on his knee, head resting on his palm, Captain Kearney
began calling the families of the dead.

The next morning I found Sgt. Erick Gallardo outside and Sergeant Giunta on
guard duty. At just 23, Gallardo was the eldest in his squad and felt like the
father. “Best thing is for us to be a family, take care of each other,” he said.
“It’s five months in and we have five K.I.A.’s, couple platoons worth of Purple
Hearts. Not one person in my squad got out without a bullet round. It doesn’t
feel good at all.”

And they told what had happened. The platoon had waited until dark when the
Apaches were overhead before heading out, single file, Brennan in the lead.
(Brennan was always in the lead, without protest. Even after he’d been shot in
the calf two months earlier when their patrol was ambushed. He’d do anything for
his friends.) Not 300 meters on, they fell into the ambush. Gallardo remembered
running forward to get control of the fight, R.P.G.’s landing in front of him,
bullets hitting the dirt, and then one finally whacked him.

“When I fell, Giunta thought I was hit. He tried to pull me back to cover and
got shot and hit in the chest.” But body armor saved both of them. Gallardo got
Giunta and two other men and said, “On 3 we are going to get Brennan and
Eckrode.” They threw grenades, dropped down, prepped the second round, and
Gallardo shouted, “Throw them as far as you can.” They found Spec. Franklin
Eckrode wounded but trying to fix his weapon. Gallardo began dressing his leg
and suddenly heard Giunta yelling back: “Sergeant G, they are taking Brennan
away.”

Giunta told me: “I just kept on running up the trail,” he said. “It was
cloudy. I was running and I saw dudes plural and I was, like, ‘Who the hell is
up here?’ I saw two of them trying to carry Brennan away and I started shooting
at them. They dropped him and when I looked at him, he was still conscious. He
was missing the bottom part of his jaw. He was breathing and moving and I pulled
him back in the ditch.”

His voice broke. Everyone in the small observation post was failing to hold
back tears. “He was coming to and asking for morphine and I said, ‘You’ll get
out and tell your hero stories and come visit us in Florence,’ and he was, like,
‘I will, I will.’ ” Out of the sky dropped a hoist and a medic and they gave him
a trachea tube and Giunta kept squeezing the bag to keep him breathing. There
was silence and fidgeting.

And then Giunta said, “All my feelings are with my friends and they are
getting smaller. I have sweat more, cried more, bled more in this country than
my own.

“These people,” he said, meaning the Afghans, “won’t leave this valley. They
have been here far before I could fathom an Afghanistan.”

“I ran to the front because that is where he was,” Giunta said, talking of
Brennan. “I didn’t try to be a hero and save everyone.”

On Tuesday Giunta will become the first living soldier to receive the Medal
of Honor since Vietnam. He has said that if he is a hero then everyone who goes
into the unknown is a hero. He has said he was angry to have a medal around his
neck at the price of Brennan’s and Mendoza’s lives. It took three years for the
Pentagon to finalize the award. And it is puzzling to many soldiers and families
why the military brass has been so sparing with this medal during the last
decade of unceasing warfare.

As for the Korengal Valley, Giunta was right. The Korengalis would never
leave or give up.

Last April, after three more years of killing and dying in that valley, the
Americans decided to leave the place to the locals.

Copyright. 2010 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved
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