In May 2007, a company of US paratroopers nicknamed the “Chosen Few” arrived in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan with a seemingly straightforward mission—to extend the Afghan government’s reach into that remote region. They couldn’t have foreseen that their operation would turn into a fifteen-month struggle for survival that culminated on July 13, 2008 with the Battle of Wanat—one of the bloodiest battles of possibly the bloodiest combat tour any US troops had endured since jet planes flew into the Twin Towers.
In The Chosen Few, Gregg Zoroya chronicles the never-before-told story of the paratroopers who took part in this mission. Drawing upon official accounts and investigations, Zoroya puts us in the middle of the battlefields where, either at breath-robbing altitudes or in defenseless valleys, the roughly 150 men of the Chosen Few fought for their lives and became one of the most decorated units in America’s modern wars.
As a result of hundreds of interviews with former members of Chosen Company and family and friends of those who didn’t come home, Zoroya narrates not just the events of the deadly attacks, but also the stories of the men who endured them—like Jason Baldwin, who asked his mother to enlist him after watching Band of Brothers at the age of seventeen; Sean Langevin, who longed to make it home so he could meet his soon-to-be-born baby girl; Ryan Pitts, who wore memorial bracelets with the names of his fallen brothers; and Jason Bogar, whose passion for photography allowed him to see beauty everywhere, even in an ammunition belt glistening in the sun.
In their final battle at Wanat, they suffered a staggering sixty-seven-percent casualty rate; nine of them never returned home. Gregg Zoroya’s book honors their sacrifice, and that of their brothers in arms.
An Excerpt from The Chosen Few by Gregg Zoroya
From Chapter 11
They were up there on the ridgeline again.
This time it was Specialist Mathew May with the Destined Company TOW truck crew who spotted them. He was surveying the hills with the thermal-imaging ITAS device and saw three figures at 3:30 a.m., tracked them, and saw five total about twenty minutes later. The figures looked like they were carrying assault packs, and this time it seemed very possible they had weapons. At the command post company commander Matt Myer had been sleeping fitfully in one of the foxholes during his first night on the new base and awoke shortly before 4 a.m. to the news of the sighting.
Myer walked over to the TOW missile truck, where Staff Sergeant Justin Grimm explained that the figures were a little less than a mile away in an area high on the ridge where villagers had said no one should be.
They are definitely not sheep herders….
May was ready to fire the wire-guided missile, but the captain was worried that the target was too high on the ridge for the TOW truck to reach and thought it would be wiser to do a simultaneous double strike with both the missile and the 120mm mortar. Sergeant Erich Phillips’s mortar crew started working up targeting coordinates for the big launcher.
The entire base had come to alert status as they did every morning by 4 a.m. It was called stand-to, and it had been protocol since the Ranch House attack showed how these predawn minutes were the most likely time for an enemy assault. All across the new post were the small sounds of men assembling themselves with body armor and weapons as the sky, just less than an hour before sunrise, went from dark to a deep cobalt blue. Some paratroopers were queueing up for a patrol to scout out locations for a new Afghan National Army outpost up in the hills.
At the base outpost, nicknamed Topside, the guys started warming up the big green LRAS3 surveillance box to get their own eyes on the insurgents, but it was taking forever. Sergeant Ryan Pitts was impatient and told the missile-truck soldiers to give him coordinates so he could work up the fire mission for Erich Phillips’s team at the 120mm mortar position.
Back at the mortar pit, as they readied the mortar tube, the men were excited about leaving soon. This would be the mortar team’s last day living in the dirt in this wretchedly hot weather. A new team was coming in by helicopter, and Phillips’s people would ride the same aircraft back to Camp Blessing. Specialist Sergio Abad, whose girlfriend was expecting a baby girl—his “gummy bear”—was actually supposed to leave Blessing on a helicopter, fly to the sprawling US military installation over at Bagram north of Kabul, and take a jet home. He would be the first team member to head back to the States. Phillips reminded him that as soon as they touched down in Blessing he needed to grab his gear and get ready for the helicopter flight to Bagram.
Staff Sergeant Sean Samaroo wanted to wash up after four days of heat and muck. He was tired of “whore baths,” where they just sponged out their crotches and back sides. He wanted to get clean finally. There was a town water pump right next to 1st Squad’s position at the traffic control point. During the water shortage soldiers had drawn from the well and used iodine tablets to purify the water, even if it tasted like something out of a swimming pool. Samaroo asked one of his team leaders, Sergeant Brian Hissong, to stand guard so Samaroo could scrub and get a decent shave….
As the two men strolled to 1st Squad’s position, they and the entire force of forty-nine American troops and twenty-four Afghan soldiers were being watched. In the darkness of the night scores of enemy fighters had all but surrounded Combat Outpost Kahler. They had set up machine gun nests, piles of RPGs, and teams of fighters with automatic weapons, boxing every point on the compass except due south. They were in the hills and ridges that surrounded Kahler like an amphitheater.
And they had also succeeded in co-opting the entire village of Wanat. The perfidy was breathtaking. Villagers who had gone about their business, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers in the days since the Chosen Few arrived—tilling fields, selling food to the soldiers, inviting them to dinner—were now gone, almost all of them fleeing as militants came into their bedrooms and onto their balconies and rooftops, taking up firing positions. Insurgents had filtered into the area from the north along the Waigal River and from the east….
There was a machine gun set up in the home of Haji Juma Gul, and men with RPGs and AK47 rifles were in the trees and hedgerows right along the western perimeter of Kahler. There were even gunmen at the police station a few hundred yards to the northwest along the river. Militants were posted in the mosque just across from 3rd Squad’s bunker and in the two-story hotel structure in the village center. They were in buildings high up on terraces to the northeast and the southeast looking down on Topside and Kahler. And they had reached the base of the draw directly adjacent to the observation post in the dead space where the soldiers couldn’t see them. They had shown extraordinary discipline in fanning out to their sectors without making any noise or disturbance that might betray their strategy….
It all started with a single burst of gunfire at 4:20 a.m. A signal. And then the entire valley erupted…
Gregg Zoroya is an award-winning journalist at USA Today, where he covers the effect of war on troops and veterans’ issues. He lives near Washington, DC.