The Battle of Wanat | A Father's Pursuit
The Battle of Wanat | A Father's Pursuit
Monday, October 5, 2009
Even before the body of 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom reached the United States, his brigade commander was on the phone to the young officer's father in Honolulu.
"I'm so sorry," Col. Charles Preysler told retired Col. David P. Brostrom, his close friend and former colleague. He was sorry that the elder Brostrom's son was dead. He was sorry that he hadn't been able to do more to prevent it. And, although he didn't say so, he was sorry that he'd made an extra spot for Brostrom's son in his brigade. He hadn't wanted the additional burden that came with sending a good friend's son into battle, he recalled. But he also couldn't bring himself to refuse.
"At least he died fighting for a man I trust," the father replied.
As many as 200 Taliban fighters attacked Brostrom, 24, and his troops on July 13, 2008, as they were building a rudimentary outpost in Wanat, Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. More than three-quarters of Brostrom's soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle, one of the war's deadliest.
At first, the elder Brostrom felt a sense of shame. "I was embarrassed because Jonathan was in charge," he recalled. "This ragtag Third World force had rolled over his reinforced infantry platoon."
In the weeks that followed Preysler's call, Brostrom contacted his son's soldiers, who told him about a mission that was poorly supported by senior commanders and hastily executed in the last days of a 14-month deployment. He pored over hundreds of pages of Army documents, which convinced him that his son's commanders ignored intelligence about an impending attack by hundreds of Taliban fighters. His embarrassment turned to doubt and his doubt grew to anger.
Brostrom's campaign for a new investigation of the battle has put him at odds with senior Army officials who have been deeply reluctant to second-guess their commanders. Such battlefield postmortems, these officials caution, have a chilling effect on commanders who must make life-or-death decisions with limited information. As Brostrom has confronted the possibility that Jonathan died in vain, the retired colonel also has become estranged from longtime friends who were part of his son's chain of command.
Brostrom and Preysler first served together in Hawaii at U.S. Pacific Command, where from 1999 to 2001 Brostrom was a senior war planner and Preysler worked under him. They socialized frequently outside of work, and their wives grew close. Brostrom's wife, Mary Jo, suggested that their eldest son join the 173rd Airborne, Preysler's brigade in Vicenza, Italy. "I'd rather Jonathan deploy with someone I know will take care of him," she had said.
Before he left for Afghanistan, the younger Brostrom was a frequent visitor at the Preyslers' house. He arrived in Vicenza shortly after the brigade deployed and had to complete two weeks of training before he could join his fellow soldiers. Lisa Preysler, the brigade commander's wife, cooked him dinner and helped with his laundry. "My kids adored Jonathan," her husband recalled. "They acted like he was their older brother."
Before his son's death, the elder Brostrom spoke with Preysler only once during the Afghan deployment. In January 2008, an Afghan security guard killed Jonathan Brostrom's platoon sergeant at the small outpost they were occupying in the Hindu Kush mountains. The elder Brostrom asked Preysler to check in on his son, who was responsible for running the 40-man platoon by himself until a replacement sergeant was named. "I was a concerned parent," Brostrom recalled. "I didn't know what was going on."
Preysler, whose sector included 30 small outposts, said he would try to visit. But Brostrom could tell that his friend was busy managing an increasingly violent fight. "I hate to be cold, but for Chip it was just another casualty," he recalled.
When his son was killed, Brostrom worried that the Army would not thoroughly investigate. His son's brigade was just two weeks from the end of a grueling 14-month deployment when the attack occurred. He also took it as a bad sign that Preysler and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top officer in eastern Afghanistan, decided to pull U.S. forces out of Wanat and the surrounding Waygal Valley in the immediate aftermath of the battle. "I know they were tired and just wanted to wrap things up," Brostrom said.