In memory of Captain Dan Whitten and First Lieutenant Chris Goeke, KIA in Afghanistan
What the military calls IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but which could also be termed mines, are notoriously the leading killer of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our tactics have evolved to combat this threat, with American troops traveling in heavy, and increasingly well-protected, armored vehicles that have limited mobility in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. This past fall, I spoke with a group of young officers of the 82nd Airborne who suggested a different approach, more mobile and more risky. Since insurgents often use remote-control mines to target convoy vehicles carrying commanders, it is worth listening to these officers’ views.
“Chris Goeke was an American warrior and he died as we all want to die, fighting for his country and his soldiers.”
Scott Haran paused and glanced around the kitchen table at the other officers. A newly promoted captain in the 82nd Airborne Division, Scott had been telling the story of a surprise Taliban suicide attack on his unit’s headquarters on July 13, 2010, in Kandahar, that took the lives of four paratroopers (as well as four Afghans serving as interpreters). One of them, First Lieutenant Chris Goeke, was just 23 when he was killed. (Scott conjectures that he was killed by a steel ball from one of the attackers’ suicide vests.)
Everyone around the table had heard this story before. Some had been present, and they had reviewed the events again and again, trying to figure out exactly what happened and why. We had been in Afghanistan together — the men fighting, I as an embedded journalist with their unit, the 4th Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 82nd Airborne Division. In November 2010, I’d spent a few days at a tiny combat outpost that Chris then commanded in Zabul, and I’d met his boss, Captain Dan Whitten. I’d have never guessed they would both be killed less than a year later.
It was September 11, 2010. We were at a party in the house of another captain, Steve Davis, and his wife Melissa, in a newly built subdivision close to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne. This morning, we’d all attended a memorial for another slain officer of the 82nd, Captain Dan Whitten, who was killed on February 2, 2010. Now, Steve and his wife Melissa were hosting a gathering for twenty or thirty friends.
In downtown New York, a similar bunch of men in their 20s or very early 30s might be drinking hard, the conversation turning to silly boasts and dirty stories. Yet these young men sat gravely and discussed the war they had fought in analytical terms. Scott’s analysis of the firefight that killed Chris Goeke was detailed and organized and he was careful to make plain what was speculation and what he had observed. When other officers spoke, they were respectful and equally analytical. About the only sign that this was not a gathering of seasoned military historians was that when Scott finished, one or two seconded him, “Yes, that’s what we all are, American warriors!”
The talk turned to the death of Dan Whitten in an IED strike in February of last year. “I don’t have closure on that,” Scott said. “If Dan had been in a firefight, he would have gone down fighting. But this way…”
No one wanted to pick up this theme. It’s one of the worst things about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: a soldier can be prepared to be a hero, can have everything it takes, and he can die at random. Another young West Point grad in the 4th BCT, Lieutenant Sal Corma, had been killed that way on April 29, 2010, in Zabul, and still another, Captain Paul Pena, a classmate of Dan’s, on foot patrol in Kandahar Province on January 19 of the same year.
“I hate that term, ‘IED,’” Scott continued. “They’re mines. Let’s call them what they are. Calling them IEDs makes it seem that they’re something new and they’re not. They’re an obstacle. If we were fighting a kinetic war, I could lead my men around them. But because we’re fighting among the population, I have to get rid of them.”
Some have suggested that there is nothing heroic about most IED deaths; one is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Scott objected: “I think even being killed by a mine is brave due to the nature of being on patrol, putting yourself at risk for the sake of protecting the population.”
The media and indeed the Army’s own focus on “IEDs” — which are responsible for more than half of American combat deaths in Afghanistan — can turn defeatist. They become a bogeyman, and the focus of the Army turns to protecting its soldiers rather than taking the fight to the enemy in the most effective manner.
Scott and a recently promoted major, Derek Hernandez, and a few other officers, talked about the way that mine-resistant vehicles hinder their mobility. Afghanistan is a country of rough terrain, and the insurgents often travel by motorcycle up and down hills and valleys that Humvees can’t maneuver in.
Scott recently e-mailed me to amplify his thoughts on the effect of IED-phobia:
The use of motorcycles and ATVs would allow us the range of vehicles, with the ability to strike out on new trails and avoid the mine belts. Occasionally we would make contact with a mine, but our choices would make the insurgents’ lives much harder. Live like the natives, fight like the guerrillas ... these thoughts are in our manuals, but are we implementing them? One of our big mine-resistant vehicles could pay for a fleet of ATVs and bikes. And with a fleet of these smaller vehicles we would have greater success against the mine threat and we would get after the enemy better and the population would not see us as space aliens descending from huge Mad Max like vehicles. Let’s leave the Thunderdome-esq vehicles for the major convoys and roll light. I think even the Afghan people would be happier with us not clogging the roadways.
Perhaps it’s a matter for an inter-generational dialogue in the American officer corps, but it seems that these less risk-averse voices have not been heard in the debate on the mine/IED threat.
Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, who led the 4th Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan and commanded all the young officers mentioned, commented via e-mail,
There are simple ways to defeat this that we implemented and as a result had a 74% find rate. Highest I have ever heard of. Scott is spot on with his suggestion to use the ATVs. I tried like hell to get these and even went around a lot of folks to try and acquire them but never got enough momentum behind the idea. We did buy a few motorcycles for the ANA to allow them to get into the more restrictive terrain but that was shut down because of restrictions on how we could use the money. The Navy SEALS and the SF we worked with in Zabul all used ATVs very effectively. I can’t stress the negative impact of the hardened vehicles enough. I used to tell everyone “the only think you dominate when conducting a mounted patrol is the space inside your vehicle!”