Red Fridays - Just Another Patrol

Red Fridays - Just Another Patrol
Credit: Sheriff Joe Tuso

It’s a typical day, a typical patrol, November 1st, 2010 outside a little village called Sanjaray. Make a loop through town, let the locals know we are here, guarding the school we rebuilt after the Taliban blew it up, of course while it was occupied. But, it was only girls, so as far as they were concerned, no loss. It’s occupied again, by both boys and girls as well as a unit of American and Afghan soldiers, guarding against another attack.

The patrol, as usual, takes a spin through the rough part of town, though it is hard to know one part from another. Rough here means there are bad guys known to be hiding behind some of those walls, often against the wishes of the families who live in the houses. The villagers’ choice is to allow them to stay there and hide their weapons or have their house blown up, with them and their children in it. If that Taliban leader wants to make a particular point, he will remove the adults and blow up the house with only the children in it. In other words, just another patrol on just another day.

Finally, coming through the last of the fields, the FOB (Forward Operating Base) can be seen on the hill like a medieval fortress of old, except this one is constructed of plywood and sandbags, ringed by concertina wire and more sandbags.

There is a 30 degree slope with an entrance path that zigzags up the hill from the road, Afghan Highway 1, which itself is up another 30 degree slope from the fields the patrol has to slog through. This is the most dangerous part of any mission, the leaving and returning of any time you step outside the wire. The bad guys know the soldiers have to get up this scree covered slope and cross the road, with absolutely no cover until the gate of the FOB.

Standard operating procedure is for two or three guys to go ahead while the rest take a knee in whatever cover exists in the field, to make sure there is no traffic on the road. If a vehicle is approaching, it is made to stop. It is checked, then sent on its way before the signal is given for the patrol to make its way up the slope, across the road and up the second hill and back to base.

Because the patrol is exposed entering and leaving the base, everyone is on high alert. Everyone knows that just because you can see it doesn’t mean you are going to get there.

On this patrol, on this day, the team leader and two team members that went ahead to secure the crossing see a motorcycle coming down the road. The driver is signaled to halt and he complies. The guy is a typical looking Afghan, bearded, wearing traditional clothes, not too clean and not too dirty. The bike is actually a little better than typical, meaning it is less than ten years old and seems to be in fairly decent condition with no loose wires and all its’ parts.

This is all important to note, as suicide bombers are usually very clean if not also clean shaven, a rarity but not unheard of among the locals. If they are very well groomed or clean shaven, you look for tan lines showing where they have just shorn their hair in preparation to meet Allah.

The vehicle is also checked for age and condition. Cars, trucks and even motorcycles are well out of the price range of most Afghan villagers, and if they are going to use one as an explosive delivery device they don’t want to use one that is brand new, which would be a waste of equipment. It’s not a waste of equipment to blow up a man, but it is to destroy a functioning, serviceable vehicle. Generally, vehicles which qualify for martyr deliveries are often lucky to make it to their destination but more importantly, have tell-tale wires where no wires should be. On rare occasions, the vehicle is a ‘gift’ and is new and in pristine shape; it is akin to making a fitting sacrifice for Allah, much as a prized lamb would be. The team leader of this patrol happens to be a motorcyclist himself, so he knows what he is looking at when he checks the bike over.

After making a couple circuits, with the other two point men taking positions to the rear and far sides of the bike, the driver smiles and shakes the hand of the team leader. The team leader signals the guy to go on his way. The guy starts his bike, the team leader starts heading up the second slope and all hell breaks loose.

At first, neither the team leader nor anyone else is sure what happened. Before all the shrapnel hits the grounds, there are cries of pain and shouting as guys scramble for cover and defensive positions. The initial thought is the first guy in the line, the guy who was halfway up the slope and closest to the road stepped on a pressure plate bomb. They know from experience, where there is one there is usually another waiting for a remote detonation. There is still too much smoke to scan the rooftops of the town less than a quarter mile away to see if there is a spotter with his finger on a detonator just waiting for the rest of the patrol to go rushing in to the aid of their fallen brothers. Soon it becomes clear that the motorcycle was the bomb, as there is nothing but pieces of it and the guy who was on it left.

The team leader went down, and went down hard. He knows he is hurt, he is bleeding bad, his leg doesn’t want to work right and he can’t catch his breath. He sees the first guy down, one of the two that was checking the road with him. Another team member got there first but he runs over and immediately helps, tying tourniquets everywhere, but there is just so much blood.

He runs to the next guy, the one who was first in line, the one who was halfway up the slope, walking right up to where the motorcycle was, and stops, barely pauses. He’s gone. He’s dead. He wants to stop, but he can’t because he hears moaning and finds the third guy that came up on the road with him to clear traffic. He too is in bad shape, but he is alive. His training kicks in: save those who are still alive, who still have a chance, get everyone back in the base and do not, no matter what, leave your fallen brother behind.

The explosion was the signal for an all-out attack on the base, hitting it from three sides simultaneously. Those inside the base are in their flip flops and boxers, running out of the barracks having stopped only long enough to grab their weapons. For the next forty five minutes, it is all out chaos, with the base taking fire from all directions, the team leader rushing inside with a cart he raced up to the gate to grab now loaded with the two wounded soldiers. Others are rushing outside the gate, taking cover wherever they can, returning fire, trying to suppress the enemy now perched on rooftops all around the base.

Meanwhile, the five guys who were still down in the field, below the highway are pinned down and exposed. They found the body of the soldier that took the brunt of the explosion; he had stood between the motorcycle and them, shielding them from all but superficial wounds, except for one very serious concussion. That soldier who acted as a human shield was the radio operator; the one with the concussion, who doesn’t even know his name at that point was the squad leader and he had the other radio. They can’t call for help. They could have made it back to the base, but that would mean they would have to leave the body of their buddy. No man left behind is more than just words. Finally, a nineteen year old private takes command from his squad leader whose brains are so rattled he can’t form a sentence and he fires off a flare. Back in the FOB, jaws drop and men scramble before the orders can even be given. There are men still outside the wire.

Many hours later and many thousands of miles away, a car with two smartly dressed soldiers pulls up in front of a house. “On behalf of a grateful nation and with heavy hearts we regret to inform you that your son, PFC Andrew Meari was killed in action.”

That was the last day of my life as I knew it.

It took many months and conversations with many people for me to get this full story, the story of what happened the day my son died. The most important thing I wanted to hear was that he didn’t suffer. I knew, in the way only a mother can, that he did not suffer. But, being told by the autopsy report and then later by those who were there that the force of the explosion killed him instantly and it was just his shell that fell to the ground gave me some comfort, as much comfort as can be had attached to this news.

The next piece, the one that has given me more comfort than I knew I needed, the question it took me a long time to formulate was answered when I was made to understand my son did not die alone. His friends, his brothers in arms risked their lives by remaining outside the wire, exposed, taking fire from all directions for more than forty five minutes because they would not leave his mortal remains. They knew he was gone, but they protected him as he had protected them. Miraculously, not a single one of them received so much as a scratch in that desperate firefight, despite thousands of rounds being thrown at them in their completely exposed position.

From that day, that battle, there were dozens of medals awarded. My son received the Bronze Star. The nineteen year old private that fired the flare and brought the troops running, literally, received the Silver Star. The team leader, the one who while gravely injured himself, with no regard for his personal safety, evacuated two wounded men from the field of battle, received the second highest award a soldier can receive, the Distinguished Service Cross.

I pray for each of these boys every day. I thank God for them. People can say what they would do in defense of another, these boys did it.

No Man Left Behind is more than just words, it is also the title of the video link below. The man referred to in the video is my son.

This link is a wonderful video of the horror and heroics of that day. Warning-there are graphic and disturbing parts as it contains segments of the battle of November 1st, 2010. It is also overwhelmingly, heartbreakingly poignant and bittersweet but still ultimately uplifting. This video, as much as the now obvious reasons from the story above, are why I write “Red Fridays – Til They All Come Home”.

There is one other comfort every mother who loses her son in war craves, that her child not be forgotten. Because of these brave, wonderful young men, because of this video, I have that comfort as well.

God Bless our Troops.

Red Fridays

The rest of the story –

It’s A Mistake

Coming Home

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