The Battle of Wanat | A Father's Pursuit

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009; A01

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.

So on his own, he tried to piece together what had happened, calling some of the soldiers from his son's unit. "Did you see my son during the battle?" he would ask. "Did you see Jonathan fall?"

'You Have to Move On'

In early October, Brostrom asked Preysler to fly to Honolulu to brief him on the Army's initial inquiry of the battle. Because he had never been to Afghanistan, Brostrom wanted a friend, who had served as a general in the early years of war, to sit in on the presentation. Preysler, however, insisted he come alone.

"I wanted to talk to Dave Brostrom man to man, friend to friend," he said. "I wanted to grieve with him. I wanted that personal interaction that I had with him before."

Brostrom pressed his friend to answer detailed questions about the battle. "I could tell it was hard for Chip to look me in the eye," he recalled. "He wasn't the same person. He was burned out."

Preysler noticed a change in Brostrom, too. He was stunned by his friend's mastery of the details of the attack. He seemed to know where every soldier was standing and what he was doing during the first chaotic hours. "You cannot get consumed by this," Preysler told his friend. "You have another son you have to take care of. You have your wife. You have to move on."

Before he left Hawaii, Preysler handed Brostrom a copy of his brigade's Wanat investigation, which included more than 700 pages of handwritten statements, photographs and autopsy reports. The conclusions, summed up on a single PowerPoint slide, recommended paving the main road leading to Wanat, beefing up airborne surveillance for future operations and recognizing soldiers for "valorous acts." It warned troops not to become "risk averse" in the wake of the attack.

In the dining room of his home, perched on a cliff overlooking Pearl Harbor, Brostrom began to read through the soldiers' statements. Many were hard to decipher. Most of the men had written them while still in their hospital beds.

With each word he read, Brostrom became angrier. The soldiers repeatedly described equipment shortages and intelligence failures. An Afghan construction firm that was supposed to help the younger Brostrom's platoon build defensive bunkers declined to make the trip to Wanat before the battle. Without the contractor's help, the soldiers quickly ran short of basics such as water. "Every day we filled sandbags and made foxholes, trying to better improve our position," Sgt. Matthew Gobble wrote from a hospital bed in Germany. "However, due to limited supplies . . . we were only able to do so much."

Sgt. 1st Class David Dzwik, the senior enlisted soldier at the base, said that senior Army commanders seemed distracted before the platoon moved to Wanat. The operation occurred as the battalion and brigade headquarters were preparing to turn over the sector to a new unit that had just arrived from the United States. "This was the wrong time to start a new Forward Operating Base," he wrote.

Brostrom handed off the report to several retired officers he knew from his Army days. They homed in on the same oversights that had fueled his anger, he said. In November 2008, a few weeks after Preysler gave him the full report, Brostrom filed a formal complaint with the Defense Department's inspector general. The complaint didn't accuse any officers by name of negligence, but instead called for a more thorough review of the battle.

Brostrom also began feeding information to an Army historian, Douglas R. Cubbison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who had been directed to study the attack by Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV. Caldwell ran the Army's training centers and schools, and had been a brigade commander with the elder Brostrom in the 10th Mountain Division in the late 1990s. Brostrom's son had earned extra cash mowing Caldwell's lawn.

In May, the historian slipped Brostrom an initial draft of his report, which was harshly critical of Lt. Col. William Ostlund, the battalion commander who planned the Wanat mission, and Preysler, who oversaw it, accusing them of "unforgiving tactical error, momentary inattention and cultural ignorance."

Preysler declined to comment on the report's findings or his handling of the mission. Ostlund said that his troops encountered violence on a more regular basis in other valleys and that the risks they took were an essential part of any sound counterinsurgency strategy.

"In the back of my mind, I didn't know if I was right," Brostrom recalled. But Cubbison's report confirmed his worst fears, he said.

Army officials have said the draft will undergo major revisions before it is published. "The author lost objectivity," one senior official wrote in an e-mail. "In the chaos of a fight, not everything is that black and white."

'He Gave His Life for Them'

Early this summer, Brostrom submitted a new complaint to the inspector general. For the first time, he directly accused Preysler, Ostlund and two generals of negligence. "I didn't start out looking to go after anyone's career," he said. But the historian's findings, combined with the Army's refusal to consider a new inquiry of the battle, "made it personal," he added.

To help ensure his complaint would get attention, Brostrom also sought out a powerful patron. A friend put him in contact with a staff member in the office of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). When the staffer arranged a short office call with the senator, Brostrom immediately flew to Washington from Hawaii.

He had been told he might have only 10 minutes with the senator, so he quickly ran through the problems his son's unit had encountered in Wanat: the lack of water, airborne surveillance and defensive material.

When he was done, the senator began asking questions. Webb's interest in Wanat grew out of his own past as a platoon leader in Vietnam. His first novel, "Fields of Fire," chronicles the combat experiences of a Marine Corps lieutenant whose unit occupied an isolated outpost surrounded by enemy-controlled mountains.

An hour and a half into the meeting, Webb excused himself for a vote on the Senate floor. The next day, he sent a letter to the Defense Department's inspector general's office asking it to open an "independent examination" of decisions taken by commanders at Wanat. "This incident . . . speaks directly about the Army's ability to speak honestly to itself and to the American public," he later wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post.

On Sept. 30, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, appointed a three-star Marine general to investigate the performance of commanders at Wanat. He ordered the inquiry at the request of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Brostrom and Preysler haven't communicated since May, when the Army named a family recreation center in Hawaii after Brostrom's son. Preysler sent an e-mail that Brostrom read at the ceremony. In his short note, Preysler recalled Jonathan's "confident smile and "paratrooper swagger." He also tried to sum up his legacy: "Jon ran directly into enemy fire to help his men. He gave his life for them and in doing so saved many more."

This week Brostrom will fly to Fort Leavenworth to meet with the lead investigator in the new inquiry and press his allegations that leadership failures by Preysler and other senior officers caused the death of his son. Preysler recently assumed a new job on the Pentagon's Joint Staff, helping to oversee operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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