By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009; A01
The rocket-propelled grenade and rifle fire was so intense that most of the soldiers spent the opening minutes of the battle lying on their stomachs, praying that the enemy would run out of ammunition.
They had been in the tiny Afghan village of Wanat, near the Pakistani border, for four days. The command post of their remote base was still just a muddy hole surrounded by sandbags.
The radio crackled. About 50 yards from the base's perimeter, nine U.S. soldiers manning an observation post were on the verge of being overrun. Several soldiers were already dead.
"We need to get up there!" screamed 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, the platoon leader at the main base. He and Spec. Jason Hovater grabbed as much ammunition as they could carry and someone popped a yellow smoke grenade to cover their movement. The two soldiers sprinted into enemy fire.
It was a predictable reaction from the 24-year-old lieutenant -- courageous, reckless, impulsive. When Brostrom joined the military, his father, a retired colonel and career aviator, had tried to steer him away from the infantry and toward flying helicopters. "I don't want to be a wimp," the son chided his father.
Brostrom and Hovater dove into the observation post. A sergeant who was too hurt to fight handed Brostrom his M240 machine gun. As the lieutenant turned to set up the weapon, someone spotted an insurgent: "He's inside the [expletive] wire!"
Nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 were wounded during the July 13, 2008, attack, which raged for several hours and was one of the bloodiest of the Afghan war. Among the dead was Brostrom.
In recent months, the battle of Wanat has come to symbolize the U.S. military's missteps in Afghanistan. It has provoked Brostrom's father to question why Jonathan died and whether senior Army officers -- including a former colleague and close friend -- made careless mistakes that left the platoon vulnerable. It has triggered three investigations, the latest initiated last week by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And it has helped drive a broader reassessment of war strategy among top commanders in Afghanistan, who have begun to pull U.S. troops out of remote villages where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred. Senior military leaders have concluded that they lack the forces to wrest these Taliban strongholds away from the enemy and are instead focusing on more populated and less violent areas.
To some soldiers and their families, this decision amounts to retreat.
A few weeks before Brostrom was killed, a military historian asked him about the successes he had witnessed in Nurestan province, where he had spent most of his tour. He gave a prescient reply.
"It is almost a lost cause up in Nurestan," he said flatly. "There needs to be a lot more than just a platoon there if you want to make a big difference." He thought some more about his frustrating tour, leading the 40-man 2nd Platoon of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. "We killed a few Taliban," he said, "so I guess that is a success."
Brostrom, who grew up on Army bases throughout the United States, was charming, athletic and a little bit immature. He arrived in Afghanistan in July 2007 and spent a couple of uneventful months in a battalion staff job before taking over a platoon that occupied a small outpost in Nurestan's Waygal Valley.
The outpost's location, near the tiny village of Bella, was chosen in 2006 because it sat on a historic mujaheddin infiltration route from Pakistan. The idea was to stop enemy fighters in the remote mountains before they made their way to more populated areas.
This account of Brostrom's time in Afghanistan and his final battle is based on interviews with his troops and commanders, as well as the Army's 800-page initial investigation. It also draws from the work of an Army historian whose draft study of the fight was reported by ForeignPolicy.com and The Washington Post in July.
Brostrom entered the war at a time when the Taliban was gaining strength. Shortly after he became platoon leader, his unit was sent to recover the bodies of six U.S. soldiers and a Marine who were gunned down while returning on foot to Bella. One soldier had fallen more than 500 yards down a steep ravine, and it had taken Brostrom's troops and circling attack helicopters more than 15 hours to find him.
After the attack, the other soldiers rarely ventured far from their base. "We felt like we'd been backed into a corner," said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Benton, one of the soldiers from the platoon. "Nothing ever felt safe out there."
In January 2008, Brostrom's platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kahler, was fatally shot by an Afghan security guard as he returned to the outpost from a foot patrol. One of Kahler's jobs had been to teach Brostrom, who was technically his superior, how to lead troops in combat. On a cloudless day at the Bella outpost, Brostrom delivered a simple eulogy for his 29-year-old friend and mentor.
He talked about Kahler's love for his wife and 4-year-old daughter, his patience with young soldiers, and his passion for punk music. "I can't even begin to list all the good qualities Sergeant Kahler had, because it would be impossible," he said, squinting into the bright midday sun and fighting back tears. "I think Sergeant Kahler knew everything."'A Bloodbath'
Brostrom's battalion commander, Lt. Col. William Ostlund, had concluded months before Kahler's death that keeping troops at the Bella outpost no longer made sense. Enemy fighters coming from Pakistan had long ago learned to maneuver around the base.
But Ostlund wasn't ready to give up the surrounding Waygal Valley, which was home to a largely illiterate and deeply religious population. The isolated valley offered an ideal haven for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "It was a population I really had a hard time understanding and did not respect," Ostlund said. "But I really did believe that they needed to be connected to the central government and that would be the first step to making them better people, less of a threat to themselves and Afghanistan."
Ostlund, square-jawed and intense, had a reputation in the Army as a high flier. He enlisted at age 17 and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska in only four semesters. In the 1990s, he served as a platoon leader for then-Lt. Col. David H. Petraeus, who had risen to become the top commander in the Middle East. "Bill was one of those rare individuals who could truly inspire others," Petraeus recalled. "Whatever the task, his platoon stood out . . . and the tougher the task, the more they stood out." Ostlund went on to earn a master's degree in international relations from Tufts University and to teach at West Point.
He decided to relocate Brostrom's platoon from Bella to a new base at Wanat, which was home to the valley's district governor and police chief. The troops would establish a security bubble around the village and then win the support of local officials with $1.4 million in reconstruction projects.
Ostlund had lost eight soldiers in the Waygal Valley and had twice been ambushed there himself. But he thought that U.S. troops could win the allegiance of the people there. "Americans are hard to dislike for an extended period of time," he said. "I really believe that."
His plan was also animated by the same stubborn resolve that caught Petraeus's eye. "To accept defeat and have that population destroy my will to continue my mission just wasn't on the menu of options," he said.
Before Brostrom moved to Wanat, he went home on leave to see his parents in Hawaii, where they had settled after his father retired from the Army. One evening, he showed his father videos from Afghanistan. Most of the clips were of Brostrom and his troops under fire at the Bella outpost.
In one video, Brostrom's battalion fired artillery and white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon, at a distant campfire in the mountains where it had killed insurgents earlier that day. Someone had come to collect the bodies. The soldiers were determined to kill them.
"Here comes a mighty big explosion on this little candlelight ceremony that the Taliban is having for their buddies that died there earlier," one of the soldiers says on the video. "This is going to be glorious. It is going to be a bloodbath."
A few seconds later, the mountainside exploded with fire, and the soldiers let up a raucous cheer.
Human rights groups have criticized the United States for employing white phosphorus to kill enemy fighters, but this type of use is permitted under military rules. The elder Brostrom weighed his words carefully before he spoke. "How do you know those people dragging the bodies away weren't villagers coming to get their relatives?" he asked.
"They are all [expletive] Taliban up there," the son replied.
The father continued to press his doubts. The son maintained that the hard-nosed approach was the only thing keeping him alive in a hopeless corner of Afghanistan. Finally, the young lieutenant snapped. "You don't understand," he said.
"You're right, son. I don't," the father replied. "I don't understand it. But I am worried. I am really worried."Nothing as Planned
A few days later, Brostrom returned to Afghanistan. His platoon didn't get its final order to establish the Wanat base until early July. The battalion was only two weeks from returning home, but Ostlund and his superiors wanted to make sure that the outpost was in place for the next unit.
The day before he left, Brostrom confessed his doubts about the mission to Lt. Brandon Kennedy, his closest friend in the Army. Brostrom worried he didn't have enough men to hold off an enemy attack and complained that the proposed base's location, surrounded by mountains, would make it hard to defend, Kennedy wrote in a statement for Army investigators.
"He said he knew he was going to get [expletive] up, because the last four times he had gone up there, he had been ambushed every time, often with very good effects," Kennedy wrote.
Nothing about the Wanat mission went as planned. Brostrom and his soldiers were supposed to have 16,000 pounds of construction material to build defensive bunkers, big earthmovers to fill seven-foot-tall Hesco barriers, and a five-day supply of water, a senior military official said.
But the Afghan construction firm that was supposed to ferry the construction supplies and build the base refused to make the four-mile drive into the valley because it was too dangerous. A small Bobcat earthmover was delivered to the base by helicopter, but it ran out of gas after one day. Brostrom's soldiers, working in 100-degree heat, chipped away at the rocky soil with shovels to fill sandbags and dirt barriers.
The five-day supply of water also never made it to Wanat, and by their second day at the base, most of the troops were "mildly dehydrated," one soldier told Army investigators.
Two days into the mission, a Predator surveillance drone -- one of only two in Afghanistan -- was shifted from Wanat. No attacks had occurred there during the opening days of the mission, and U.S. commanders decided there were more pressing priorities.
"There should have been a lot more done to help us," said Sgt. 1st Class David Dzwik, who replaced Kahler as Brostrom's platoon sergeant. "The real problem was arrogance. Everyone thought they knew the enemy."'This Was Going to Be It'
A few days after the platoon arrived, a Wanat village elder gave Brostrom a list of Afghans who had been killed in a helicopter attack the previous week. The dead included insurgents but also several local medical personnel who had worked closely with U.S. soldiers. The incident had infuriated people throughout the valley.
On July 13, their fifth day at the Wanat base, Brostrom and Dzwik ordered all of the soldiers to rise at 3:30 a.m. and man their fighting positions. In Afghanistan, the hours just before dawn are typically the most deadly.
Shortly after 4 a.m., an estimated 200 insurgents let loose a torrent of rocket-propelled-grenade fire, destroying the base's anti-tank missile system and its mortar tubes. Then they trained their guns on the observation post.
The initial blast threw Spec. Tyler Stafford onto his back. He screamed that he was on fire. Next to him, Spec. Matthew Phillips was rearing back to throw a grenade when a rocket came roaring at them. The tailfin ricocheted off Stafford's helmet, leaving a jagged dent. When he looked up, Phillips was dead.
A few feet away, Spec. Christopher McKaig and Spec. Jonathan Ayers prodded each other to raise their heads above the observation post's sandbagged wall. "I am going to count to three and then we are both going to jump up and shoot at whatever we see," McKaig recalled screaming.
The two soldiers leapt to their feet, fired a short burst from their rifles and collapsed. When it came time to rise again, Ayers hesitated. So McKaig started counting. On three, the men rose and a bullet struck Ayers. He coughed up enough blood to fill a teaspoon and fell over dead.
A few minutes later, Brostrom and Hovater sprinted up to the observation post. They were killed within minutes of their arrival.
With the enemy closing in, Stafford, McKaig and Sgt. Matthew Gobble -- woozy from a loss of blood -- abandoned the observation post. In the chaos, they accidentally left behind Sgt. Ryan Pitts, who could hear the enemy fighters barking orders just a few feet away. He whispered into a radio that he was alone and out of ammunition.
"I knew this was going to be it," he later told an Army historian. Soldiers at the main base called to him over the radio, but Pitts didn't answer. The wounded sergeant couldn't afford to let the enemy hear him.
Another team of reinforcements sprinted to the observation post, pulled rifles and ammunition off their dead comrades, and fired back at the insurgents. An hour into the battle, Apache helicopters arrived and swung the momentum in favor of U.S. troops.
Brostrom's friend, Brandon Kennedy, arrived at Wanat a short time later to find soldiers coated in sweat and blood. Thick clouds of smoke spewed from burning Humvees. "I had been in firefights before, but this was totally different," he said. "It was like a movie."
It fell to Kennedy to escort Brostrom's body back to the United States. He asked a sergeant who had done it before what to expect.
"It is always the same," the soldier replied. "The moms just want to know about their son. They want to know what kind of man he was. The dads want to know how their son died. They want someone to explain to them what happened."
This series was researched partly in collaboration with CBS News, whose report on the battle of Wanat and its aftermath will air Monday on the CBS Evening News.