“We finally got the wounded out on the first day and uh, we’re like holy crap, when is this going to be over? When’s the mission going to be over? And we stayed there. It went on day after day. It just became so like, we’re never leaving this place. Just kill as much Taliban as you can. It never got better. I prayed to God, please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. And then it rains. And then it snowed and then it hailed.”
This is 23 year-old Thomas Dewar, Sergeant in the US Army 101st Airborne Division, 1st Brigade, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion. He fought two tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first, 2010-2011, the bloodiest year on record.
We’re sitting in a sunny café facing the San Gabriel Mountains. Patrons chat happily as they drink their cappuccino’s. Dewar could be any all-American boy. Sandy blonde hair, sun-tanned skin.
But look more closely and his body tells a different story. Muscles coiled, eyes darting, a double blink, an involuntary twitch. His injuries may not be visible, but they’re debilitating at times. A door slam makes him run for cover. Rain throws him into spasms of depression. When he looks at the mountains he once played in, he scans for Taliban. He never slept more than a two to three hours a night his entire two years of duty. When he wasn’t under enemy fire, he suffered torrential downpours, or oven-like temperatures.
The worst of it was Strong Eagle III. But we’ll get to that.
“I was the point man for every patrol except for one. You’re the first to engage the locals. You’re the first to see everything. You’re the eyes and ears in the front and you have to watch where you’re stepping. You’re trying to find signs of IED’s. If you let anything slip, you know it’s a lot on your shoulders. Because you can save someone’s life. Especially your own life. You see those IED’s everyday. IED’s are terrible. Someone’s gotta hit it. You just pray to God it’s not you.”
The Americans are weak. Use the weather to get close to them and kill them.
Up until his 20th year he hadn’t been touched by tragedy. Not personally.Unless you count what happened in New York on September 11th, 2001. Though Dewar was only 10, he took the attacks on the World Trade Center very personally.
He grew up fast after that. “I watched the invasion of Iraq. I was too young to join so I just continued going to school and lived life safe and happy.” When America invaded Afghanistan, war was all he thought about. He enlisted in the Army in October 2009 just as he turned 20.
Three months later, following boot camp he deployed to the Kunar Province and would go on to fight in the place people in the know called The Heart of Darkness.
It was an area men went to die. The Army awarded five Medal of Honors in that tiny province alone out of only nine total Medal of Honor recipients in the whole of the Afghanistan war.
“I agree that the title ‘Heart of Darkness’ is fitting for Kunar province.” Dewar said. “It is hell on earth. We lost 6 men on Strong Eagle III, 18 overall in our battalion.”
The goal of any soldier was to make it out alive. Dewar nearly didn’t. Just two weeks before the end of his deployment, Bravo Company went on what was supposed to be a routine mission. Many of the men looked forward to their homecoming parties. Some never made it.
Operation Strong Eagle III.
Charlie Company, the platoon nested within the valley, received intelligence that Taliban leader Qari Ziaur Rahman was operating there. Their mission was to disrupt Taliban operations then locate the Taliban radio station and destroy it.
Bravo Company secured the Helicopter Landing Zone to watch over Charlie Company and provide personnel, equipment and supplies.
Without warning, at 10’o clock on the first day, Taliban poured over the border surrounding both Bravo and Charlie Companies. They couldn’t retreat. They couldn’t advance. Bravo Company dug foxholes, filled sandbags and held their ground. It was a 360-degree ambush.
Dewar fought from his foxhole for nine days without relief.
“We’re throwing hand grenades to discourage them. They’re getting close, we can hear them yelling. ‘The Americans are weak. Use the weather to get close to them and kill them.’ And it was just hell. And then, it starts raining. And no air support. No artillery. No anything. Just what you got in your hands. We were running out of hand grenades. We were running out of ammo. And they’re still shooting at us, still getting closer. At one point we had our knives out. And we were saying, we’re going to get overrun, this is it. We have no help. No one’s here.”
On the ninth day Human Intelligence confirmed that QZR had been pushed back.
Dewar was bitter when he returned stateside, grateful to be alive, but bitter because of the lives lost. “All those guys died two weeks before they came home. I was mad. Yeah we got to discourage a bunch of Taliban. But at the cost of eight guys. Sometimes it feels like it’s not even worth it for even one casualty.”
And that’s just it. There are no easy answers here. Dewar fought to protect the U.S. from more terrorist attacks. But that’s not how war works anymore.
With the rise of ISIS and growing underground terrorist cells all over the world, war in the the Middle East is a game of wack-a-mole. Pound down one cell, a dozen more rise up.
Carpet-bombing, boots on the ground, drones strikes—these are the options Congress trumpets and presidential candidates debate. To the American people, it’s all an abstract exercise like choices in a video game. The consensus seems to be the most aggressive action.Innocent war zone victims and dead soldiers are inconvenient specifics in the war on terror.
Dewar is ready to go back to war, “and kill some more bad guys,” as he puts it. A lot times he feels rudderless. “Battle is exciting. You understand your importance and your purpose. You want to live.”
But he won’t go. At least not today. He attends Columbia University and studies History. He’s not sure what he’ll do with it. He’s not sure of anything anymore. “That’s what war does. You don’t think past the moment.” He said. “Because you don’t know if you’re going to make it out. You just get used to thinking that way.”