Matt Eversmann led an Army Ranger team in the Somalia rescue mission of downed airmen that led to the battle famously known as “Black Hawk Down.” He recently traveled to Afghanistan to shoot a new documentary. Here, he shares his impressions of the journey back to war.
It was a strange evening at home in West Palm Beach the night before I left for Afghanistan. My wife and daughter were in Orlando for a volleyball tournament, which gave me a few hours alone to pack for a week-long trip to the Middle East. It would be my first foray back to the military world I left a decade before. Strangely, of all the emotions I felt, fear wasn’t one of them. Not that I am that brave or cavalier; it just wasn’t scary for some reason. I was interested in seeing the advances we had made over 10 years, anxious to see what the battlefield was like (from a safe distance, mind you), and, most importantly, eager to see how our young warriors were supporting the national mission and advancing the fight in 2018, 17 years after the 9/11 attacks.
I am an Army infantryman—or was one, anyway. Twenty years, three months, and a few days of my life were spent in the briers and brambles, mud, snow, rain, and oppressive heat, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Thailand, from Mogadishu to Iraq, and other places too many to name. A member of one of the most visible clubs on the planet, I was surrounded by larger-than-life characters right out of central casting: Airborne Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and the elite of the elite, the Special Mission Units, were all companions. I began my career in the Army with the storied 10th Mountain Division; Senator Bob Dole is one of its more prominent alumni. Then, by a stroke of luck, I was admitted into the 75th Ranger Regiment, part of the Army’s Special Operations Command. I did some staff work at the Army’s War College, taught ROTC to some brilliant students at Johns Hopkins University, then finished my career back at the 10th Mountain.Combat is combat no matter where or who or why. It just is. Lives are put on hold, families are left behind, reality looms on the very near horizon constantly. Citizens of all ages still answer the call and agree to do this for little money yet palpable stress. They jump out of planes, dismantle bombs, move earth, build bridges, hunt really bad people, and save a lot of lives along the way. I think that was the reason I agreed to join this small crew traveling to Afghanistan: I was looking for war and the people whose job it was.
At Dover Air Force I was introduced to our liaison, Senior Master Sergeant Victoria Boncz, who explained the plan for the following week and gave us some history about the base. Next to Andrews, Dover is one of the more publicly known bases, unfortunately for the saddest of reasons. For the past 17 years, it is here that the remains of the fallen arrive to a somber ceremony called the dignified transfer. Thankfully there had been no need for that ceremony lately.
Enter the Memphis Mafia—the 155th Airlift Squadron, part of the Tennessee Air National Guard. They fly the massive C-17 Globemaster around the world—which, for us, meant to Ramstein, Germany, then on to Bagram, Afghanistan. As I sat in my jump seat with my feet propped on the palletized cargo that filled the center, it occurred to me that we really were on our way to war. The belly of this plane had various metal storage containers and several large machines labeled “C-IED support”: counter-improvised explosive device.
We touched down almost 40 hours later at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. If you have ever been to Jackson, Wyoming, and can recall the first time you saw the majesty of the Grand Tetons, multiply it by 10 and that describes the mountains surrounding the base. Snow-capped in the distance, I had a hard time imagining that evil could lurk below such a vista.
Our first stop was the Heathe N. Craig Joint Theatre Hospital. SSG Craig was an Army medic killed in action in 2006 when the hoist on a Black Hawk helicopter failed as he was recovering a wounded soldier from the battlefield. He had already retrieved one wounded solider and was on his way back with the second when the mechanical hoist failed and both soldiers were killed. He was 28. The Craig Hospital provides medical care on par with most American hospitals. In the medical evacuation cycle, a soldier wounded in action receives immediate aid administered by himself or his or her buddy. A trained combat medic assigned to the unit then gets to work stabilizing and assessing the severity of the wounds. If the medic determines the wounded needs the next level of care, he initiates a “9 Line” medevac request, with nine lines of information that the receiving medical team needs to continue care upon arrival. This report triggers a Dustoff, the designation of an airborne ambulance unit. The Dustoff team flies to the casualty, recovers the wounded, and returns to a base or outpost where trauma can be addressed. This is called Level 2 care (think the TV show M*A*S*H). If the casualty needs care beyond Level 2, an aeromedevac unit will arrive and transport the casualty to a larger hospital. In Afghanistan, the Craig Hospital is it. From there, the next stop is Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany, and then home to Walter Reed.
It’s a good day when combat-zone medics are bored. Despite the scenery, the reality of Afghanistan was a violent reminder to all of us who just arrived. On Sunday, April 22, a suicide bomber blew up a voter registration office in Kabul, killing 57 people.
I asked what the American soldiers were doing in the country these days and was told that the mission has transferred to the Afghan Army, which is now in front. This means that most American servicemen and women are in a supporting role to the Afghan Army; the only Americans who routinely “leave the wire” are the Special Operations Forces with their host-nation partners, and the Dustoff teams that support them.
Despite the bombing an hour’s flight away in Kabul, it was almost boring on this large base. A day later we were granted the clearance to jump on a civilian-chartered helicopter bound for Jalalabad. The hour-long flight over the 13,000-foot ranges was incredible. It was not lost on me how challenging it must be for a soldier with body armor and 100 pounds of gear to move, let alone fight an enemy at 12,000 feet above sea level. The landscape is desolate and harsh. No westerner could survive in that environment. I asked the crew chief if the enemy was “in there,” pointing to the mountain range. He pointed to the starboard side and said no, the enemy was all down there: the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
As it stated on a plaque at the entrance to Operating Base Fenty, we were “in the shadows of Tora Bora.” The 12-foot-tall Texas barriers protect the perimeter from enemy small arms and rockets. The technology I saw in our anti-rocket systems made me feel a bit more secure. An hour after our arrival, a call came in and soldiers started to move purposely—not a panic, not a sprint—just purposely to preplanned positions around the airfield. The men and women from the 3rd Infantry Division’s Marne Dustoff received a 9-line medevac request from a nearby unit. An Afghan commando had stepped on an IED and was in critical condition. One leg missing, the second leg almost severed, and a hand almost blown off.Within minutes the rotors from two Army Black Hawks began to turn. Down the flight line two Apache gunships spun into action. Armed with a massive 30-mm chain gun and Hellfire missiles, they would provide security for the Dustoff medics as the evacuation was clearly in a hostile area.
Sergeant First Class Jason Sigmon was the senior medic on the Marne Dustoff platoon. Wearing 50 pounds of equipment, he would have to evacuate the commando from one of the Black Hawks screaming over Jalalabad in broad daylight. Hovering 70 feet above the ground, SFC Sigmon was lowered by a winch exactly like the one SSG Craig used. In 1993 I slid down a rope from a Black Hawk that hovered 60 feet above the dirt. To say it was scary is an injustice to the word. Here, SFC Sigmon was lowered to get a quick briefing from the medic on the ground before managing to hoist himself and the wounded commando back to the helicopter hovering above. Within seconds, the four-ship armada headed back to OB Fenty, where the trauma team from the Army hospital on base was waiting.
Effortlessly the team raced the casualty from the helipad to the OR. SFC Sigmon, still wearing all his kit, raced with them right into the operating room. The handoff complete, he checked with the other medics to make sure they knew everything he knew, gathered his gear, then returned to the flight line to prepare for the next mission. All in a day’s work.
What might look like chaos is actually a dynamic execution of many specialties acting in harmony to save a life. American or Afghan, it doesn’t matter to them. They just want to save lives. As we were walking away from the clinic, there were dozens of soldiers from the other units moving to donate blood. “Everyone leaves here with a pulse,” they are fond of saying. It’s not bravado, it’s pride—and, most importantly, fact.
The team managed to stabilize the wounded commando. One leg was gone, but the other leg and arm were still attached. He would head to Bagram the next day for further surgery and care. Having seen the casualty in the OR, I was shocked he even survived. It was a gruesome scene, but these young men and women made it seem so easy, so matter of fact.
We followed the casualty back to Bagram and checked in with the surgical team at Craig Hospital. Unfortunately, the second leg had to be removed due to blood loss, but he was cogent and able to talk with the surgeons who saved his life.
This mission made it clear that there is a real war out there still, even if it is covered less and less in the press. The war in Afghanistan is every bit as dangerous as it was in 2001. The lead has shifted to the Afghan Army, with Americans there for support, whether at their side or, as I witnessed personally, from the rear, to ensure they will be taken care of as if they were Americans. As much as I like to kid myself that I still have some toughness in me, this trip made me realize I had forgotten that feeling where everything is boiled down to the most binary conclusion: life and death. The only things that matter to a soldier are taking care of a buddy on the left or right, finishing the mission, and getting home. We have been doing this for 17 years and these young men and women just keep doing it. Amazing is the word that comes to mind. Orwell said it best: we do sleep better at night because these young men and women stand a watch.
As I was packing my bags in Afghanistan on Monday, April 30, 22-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Gabriel Conde was killed by a sniper not too far from OB Fenty. He was on a mission to support the Special Operations Forces working in that area. His dream had been to become a Green Beret. I found the war. It reminded me how ugly it is and that the reality can be shattering. But I also remembered that we need these tough Americans to stand out in front—the Sigmons and the Condes, the Bonczs and the thousands of others who have stepped up and said, “Send me.” —By Matt Eversmann