On a moonless November night in 2001, five Blackhawk helicopters infiltrate southern Afghanistan, dropping a Special Forces A-Team—ODA 574—deep behind enemy lines in the mountains of Uruzgan Province. Captain Jason Amerine and the 10 men under his command are on a seemingly impossible mission: to destroy the Taliban from within and prevent a civil war from consuming the country. This lone team of Green Berets has just one ally in the south: Hamid Karzai, a little-known Pashtun statesman who has returned from exile and is being hunted by the Taliban as he roams the countryside raising a militia.
THEN ONE MORNING, not long after the team had set foot behind enemy lines, an urgent radio call for help went out over the airwaves.
At Camp Rhino, less than 100 miles south of ODA-574’s position near Kandahar, Master Sergeant David Lee was in his B-team’s tent when the request for emergency medical evacuation came over the radio shortly before 9 a.m. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, under the command of Brigadier General James Mattis, had occupied the “Rhino” airstrip since November 25. Two days later, Lee and his B-team had arrived; their primary role was as a liaison, coordinating the Special Forces’ actions in the area with those of the Marines.
Looking out the door at the parked helicopters—including four Cobra gunships, four transport CH-53s, and six dual-rotor heavy-lift CH-46s—Lee picked up the radio and informed Task Force Dagger that the Marines at Camp Rhino were the closest Americans in a position to respond, a 45-minute helicopter flight away. Meanwhile, Lee’s boss—Major Rob Cairnes, the B-team commander—was running across the flat, barren landscape to General Mattis’ command post, located in one of the few hard structures on the base, a single-story concrete building. He informed the Marine general, face-to-face, that a presumed mortar or artillery attack on a Green Beret position had occurred and that the wounded needed immediate evacuation. Mattis asked if they were still in contact and wanted more specifics, which Cairnes did not have.
“Well, if they’ve taken fire,” said the general, “and you can’t tell me definitively how they got all scuffed up, I’m not going to send anything until you can assure me that the situation on the ground is secure.” Mattis went on to explain that there were nearly a thousand Marines at Camp Rhino for him to worry about, and he was not willing to dilute base security and risk sending his air squadron on a dangerous daylight mission just to assist an unknown number of casualties.
Cairnes raced back to consult with Lee, who was his third in command, and his second-in-command, Chief Warrant Officer Tom Leithead, both of whom were infuriated. They could understand why Mattis wouldn’t send all of his helicopters, but no one in the tent could fathom why he wouldn’t do something to help their guys. “Where’s the love from the Marines?” said another member of the team. “They’re supposed to be frothing at the mouth for this kind of shit.”
The Green Berets continued to monitor the radio and berate the Marines: “These helicopters outside would be airborne already if it were Marines that were bleeding,” said the B-team’s communications sergeant.
“You know what,” said Lee, who had watched the Marines endure abysmal conditions at the base since they’d arrived. “It’s not the Marines. It’s Mattis.”
“Just heard,” said the commo sergeant. “One American KIA, three critically wounded.” For the past week, Lee and Leithead had been briefing Mattis and found him a fairly personable guy. He probably just needs a little prodding in the right direction, thought Lee. Turning to Leithead, he said,
“Let’s go have a little talk with the general.”
“I’m all for that,” said Leithead, and the two hurried to the Marine command post some 20 minutes after Mattis had declined Cairnes’ request. Inside, the expressions on the faces of Mattis’ staff showed their frustration and embarrassment. One Marine glanced away as they walked past, unable to meet their eyes.
Mattis greeted the two Green Berets at the heavy wood door that led into his spartan concrete-floored office. He held a military-issue canteen cup filled with coffee in his left hand and gestured them inside with the other. After closing the door to a crack, he sat down at a small writing desk where a map was laid out.
“Let’s hear it,” said Mattis.
“Sir,” said Lee, “we’ve got reports of mass casualties, and word is they expect the numbers to continue to rise. You are the closest American with the ability to respond.”
“Do you have an update on how they got all scuffed up? Are they still in contact?”
“With all due respect,” said Leithead, “we think that’s irrelevant.”
“I hear you, but no, I’m not sending a rescue mission,” Mattis said. “We. Don’t. Know. The situation.”
“The situation, sir,” said Lee, “is that Americans are dying. And they need your help.”
“Look, when I have fighters over the scene so that I’ve got air superiority, then I’ll send choppers. That, or we wait till nightfall.”
Exchanging a look with Leithead, Lee said, “That’s not good enough, sir.”
Standing up, the general cleared his throat. “Sergeant,” Mattis called to his sergeant at arms, positioned outside the office. “We’re done. Escort these men out of here.”
Without another word, Lee and Leithead walked out of the office toward the door to the command post, again passing Marines who wouldn’t make eye contact. Behind them, they heard Mattis say, “ Nobody gets into my office.”
Back outside, Lee said, “Who’s going to get our guys out of there?”
“Besides here, the only helicopters are at K2 and J-Bad. Uzbekistan and Pakistan. They’re at least three hours away, and that’s if they’re ready to launch.”
They looked to their left, at the rows of Marine helicopters parked along the desert airstrip.
“What a joke,” said Lee.
HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY IN UZBEKISTAN, Special Forces Major Chris Miller entered the unusually silent command tent of Task Force Dagger at the moment Colonel Mulholland began to speak into a microphone:
“Texas One Two . . . SITREP?”
Normally, satellite communications were broken or fuzzy, but the voice on the other end was clear, as if Amerine were there in the room. “We have established security,” he said. “I have one confirmed KIA; one missing, presumed KIA.” Amerine went down the list, “two expectant [expected to die regardless of medical treatment] four seriously wounded...” He continued his brief, then concluded with “Rambo Eight Five will send additional SITREPs on all casualties once they are tallied.”
Miller was stunned by Amerine’s composure; he might as well have been in a training exercise back at Fort Campbell. It reminded him of a legendary combat commander in the Korean War, “Iron” Mike McKallis, whose higher command learned that the calmer Iron Mike sounded on the radio, the worse the situation was on the ground.
There was a pause after Amerine finished his report, then Mulholland said, “What do you need from us, Texas One Two?”
“I am combat ineffective. We need to be relieved in place by follow-on units.”
Turning around, Mulholland spoke to the only person in the command tent wearing a helmet and holding a gun. “Chris, you look like you’re ready to go,” he said.
“Yes sir,” said Miller, “we’re good to go.”
“Take two A-teams down there with your team and figure it out.”
“Roger, sir, we are on our way.”
A path cleared in the crowded tent, and Miller ran down it and straight to ODB-570’s tent. He burst in, out of breath, and yelled, “Hey, get your shit on—we’re going!”
Heads swiveled from The Sopranos on a television in the back of the tent. A few men started laughing.
“No!” Miller boomed. “I’m serious, get your shit on. We’re going now!”
Somebody switched off the television. “You’re not kidding, sir?”
“Goddamnit, I’m not fucking around! We’re going into Afghanistan. Five Seven Four has taken casualties.”
Eric Blehm is the author of The Last Season, which won the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for best nonfiction book of 2006 and was a Book Sense bestseller; Outside magazine called it one of the “top ten adventure biographies ever written.” He lives in Southern California.