Life and Death Decisions Weigh on Junior Officers
by James Dao (21 December 2010)
[nb: articles in this New York Times series
(A Year At War: In Command) are chronicling the yearlong
deployment of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, based
in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan; this series follows the
battalion's part in the surge in northern Afghanistan, and the
impact of this war on individual soldiers and their families back
QURGHAN TAPA, Afghanistan
The hill wasn't much to behold, just a treeless mound of dirt
barely 80 feet high. But for Taliban fighters, it was a favorite
spot for launching rockets into Imam Sahib city. Ideal, American
commanders figured, for the insurgents to disrupt the coming
So under a warm September sun, a dozen American infantrymen
snaked their way toward the hill's summit, intent on holding it
until voting booths closed the next evening. At the top, soldiers
settled into trenches near the rusted carcass of a Soviet troop
carrier and prepared for a long day of watching tree lines.
Then, an explosion. "Man down!" someone shouted. From across the
hill, they could hear the faint sound of moaning: one of the
company's two minesweepers lay crumpled on the ground. The
soldiers of Third Platoon froze in place.
Toward the rear of the line, Capt. Adrian Bonenberger, the
33-year-old company commander, cursed to himself. During weeks of
planning, he had tried to foresee every potential danger, from
heat exposure to suicide bombers. Yet now Third Platoon was
trapped among mines they apparently could not detect. A medical
evacuation helicopter had to be called, the platoon moved to
safety, the mission drastically altered. His mind raced.
"Did I do the right thing?" he would ask himself later.
Far from the generals in the Pentagon and Kabul, America's
front-line troops entrust their lives to junior officers like
Captain Bonenberger. These officers, in their 20s and early 30s,
do much more than lead soldiers into combat. They must be coaches
and therapists one minute, diplomats and dignitaries the next.
They are asked to comprehend the machinations of Afghan allies
even as they parry the attacks of Taliban foes.
As commander of Alpha Company, First Battalion, 87th Infantry
Regiment, Captain Bonenberger was in charge not just of ensuring
the safety of 150 soldiers, but also of securing the district of
Imam Sahib, a volatile mix of insurgent enclaves and peaceful
farming villages along the Tajikistan border.
In his first three months of command, he had led soldiers in
bruising firefights, witnessed the aftermath of a devastating car
bomb, nominated soldiers for valor awards and disciplined others
for insubordination. He had put in countless 18-hour days writing
reports, accounting for $30 million in equipment and planning
missions, at least one of which he had to abandon when his Afghan
partners, the local police, unexpectedly declined to participate.
Captain Bonenberger, a graduate of Yale who protested the
invasion of Iraq before he joined the Army, had deployed to
Afghanistan once before, as a lieutenant in 2007, but had not
commanded a combat unit. Now he had the prospect, terrifying but
also thrilling, of shouldering greater responsibility than he had
"You have the ability, and the responsibility, to imagine and
implement the strategy that will turn your districts from red to
yellow to green," he said. "Taking command of Alpha Company was
one of the crowning achievements in my life."
Many officers fondly recall their days as platoon leaders and
company commanders as the most fulfilling of their military
careers. Yet the Army each year faces an exodus of captains from
the service. Burnout, second-guessing by superior officers and
the prospect of dull administrative jobs after deployment are
often cited as reasons.
Captain Bonenberger would soon face questions about the events on
Qurghan Tapa, from both himself and his superiors. But in the
relentless world of the front-line commander, he also had to put
them out of his mind and advance the battalion's mission. That
was best, he believed, for his company's morale — and for his own
"You don't have the luxury of letting yourself really feel," he
said later. "That is the part of me that I could very happily see
going away if I weren't in the Army. But in the Army, it is
absolutely essential. You can't dwell on it."
Imam Sahib is the northernmost district of Kunduz Province, an
ethnically diverse region of rice paddies and cotton and wheat
fields. Once considered secure, the province has seen a sharp
rise in insurgent violence and intimidation since 2008.
Soon after arriving in March, battalion commanders discovered
that a third or more of the province was controlled by insurgent
groups, a mix of Taliban supporters, criminal gangs and radical
separatists from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By summer, American
units were being ambushed almost every time they crossed the
invisible borders into those contested areas, including in Imam
Alpha Company stumbled into a series of fierce firefights in July
just a few miles east of Imam Sahib city, the district's
government center. The next month, a car packed with mortar
shells exploded near a convoy of American and Afghan trucks in
the village of Qurghan Tapa, killing eight Afghan police officers
and militiamen and wounding two American soldiers.
The bombing was devastating to the local police, who lost several
top officers. But it was also wrenching for Captain Bonenberger,
who had taken command of Alpha Company just weeks before. In the
following days, the company battled insurgents around Qurghan
Tapa, and the experience cemented his resolve to control the
"It's all related for me," he said in early September. "It all
started with that suicide bombing."
But the Taliban were not Captain Bonenberger's only concern. The
Afghan police could be unreliable partners, sometimes skipping
planned missions, sometimes fleeing when shooting began.
The allegiances of the district police chief were also unclear.
The Americans had received complaints that he was using the
police to help his brother, a member of Parliament who was
running for re-election. Other rumors connected the chief's
family to militias that smuggled drugs and weapons across the
Even more worrisome, the district governor was the brother of a
Taliban commander who controlled villages south of Imam Sahib
city. The governor claimed he had been trying to get his brother
to support the government, but the Americans assumed that
anything they told the governor's office would be shared with the
Captain Bonenberger had to consider those issues in early
September as he planned one of his first major missions, building
a checkpoint atop Qurghan Tapa hill that would be manned by the
Afghan border police.
On the day before the mission was to begin, he led a convoy of
nearly 20 vehicles carrying snipers, a mine-clearing team, a
mortar crew and two infantry platoons to Imam Sahib. All that was
needed was final consent from the district police chief, Col.
But Colonel Ibrahimi, who had supported the hill operation during
previous meetings, suddenly had a litany of objections. Captain
Bonenberger told him, "All I need is 10 men."
"I can't do 10," Colonel Ibrahimi replied.
"I'll take five," Captain Bonenberger said.
"I cannot help," the colonel concluded.
Captain Bonenberger walked out of the meeting deflated and
perplexed. Was the chief trying to protect his brother's
re-election prospects? Was he afraid of another car bomb? Or was
internal police department politics at play? (The provincial
police chief had just been fired.) The captain assumed that he
would never know what had changed.
The mission was scrapped, but Captain Bonenberger remained
determined to secure the hill. And so, just a week later, the
company returned to Imam Sahib.
This would be a scaled-back operation, without the Afghan police,
using two American platoons to hold the hill just overnight,
until polls closed the next day. "After that, we'll have to break
it down," Captain Bonenberger said.
"It's not my hill, it's Giroa's hill," he added, referring to the
government of Afghanistan. "If they want it, they'll have it. If
they don't, then we're not going to stay."
Early on the morning of Sept. 17, Sgt. First Class Dean Lee
huddled with members of Alpha Company's Third Platoon inside the
walled district police headquarters in Imam Sahib city.
Sergeant Lee, a 36-year-old from Buffalo on his third combat
deployment, took seriously his role as the platoon's father
figure, prowling the compound in his Red Sox cap looking for
unfinished work and undisciplined soldiers. He has three
daughters and is an evangelical Christian, but he can also tell a
raunchy story and defuse tense moments with a joke.
This day he urged the soldiers to be on the lookout for
antipersonnel mines. Then he said a prayer and sent them to their
trucks. "Make sure your boots are tied," he quipped, reminding
them that an officer recently lost an unlaced boot in the mud of
a rice paddy.
As the Alpha Company convoy approached Qurghan Tapa hill, Lt.
Nathaniel Bleier, the leader of Third Platoon, called Captain
Bonenberger on the radio and voiced renewed concerns about
antipersonnel mines. Could they pepper the hill with mortar
rounds or grenades to detonate buried explosives before scaling
the hill, he asked.
Captain Bonenberger told Lieutenant Bleier that he had considered
that idea but decided against it. There was no guarantee that
mortars or grenades would detonate all the mines, he said. Worse,
some of the rounds might not explode, leaving new dangers for the
soldiers. An explosives team from the Navy attached to the
battalion had assured him, he said, that they could find just
about any antipersonnel mine buried in the hill.
The mission went forward. Waving his mine detector in front of
him, Petty Officer First Class John Kremer, 27, of the Navy led
Third Platoon up a narrow path along the edge of the hill. He
listened intently to his device, calm as a man sweeping his front
porch, as it squawked and buzzed at hints of buried danger.
A boom broke the afternoon quiet, and suddenly Petty Officer
Kremer was on the ground, seriously wounded. Soldiers in the
trenches nearby at first thought they were taking mortar fire.
But when they learned that the minesweeper himself was down, a
sickening realization set in: they might be surrounded by hidden
explosives that the detectors could not sense because they were
made of plastic. "We're screwed," one soldier muttered.
Sergeant Lee's first instinct was to rush toward the wounded man.
But he knew there were probably other mines nearby, so he stopped
10 yards short, holding back a young medic, Specialist Donovan
Lovelace, who was also racing to the petty officer.
"Where do I walk?" Sergeant Lee shouted to a second minesweeper
who was bending over Petty Officer Kremer.
"In someone else's the tracks," the minesweeper replied.
Sergeant Lee took one step and then another before arriving at a
rut where the footprints ended. He looked left, glanced right
and, finding no tracks ahead, leaped across the rut. The medic
Within minutes, two other medics reached the scene, rapidly
applying tourniquets to both of the sailor's legs and giving him
morphine before carrying him by stretcher down the hill, walking
slowly behind the second minesweeper. A Blackhawk helicopter
swooped in and took the sailor away, leaving an eerie silence in
Near the middle of the hill, Captain Bonenberger was on the radio
explaining the situation to battalion headquarters while a
platoon leader began ordering the remaining soldiers off the
hill. At the top, Specialist Matthew Hayes shouldered his M240
machine gun and began stepping gingerly from his trench.
The specialist's parents had both died in a car accident when he
was an infant. He was known as the platoon's practical joker,
easily identified by the huge Mountain Dew tattoo on his left
forearm. "In my mind, I thought we were safe because there were a
lot of footprints," he said later.
But when he shifted the weight of his 28-pound weapon, a mine
detonated beneath his feet.
>From below the cusp of the hill, Captain Bonenberger watched a
dark cloud spiral skyward, trailed by chunks of debris. "That
guy's dead," he said out loud, knowing that this time, someone
from his own company was down.
Specialist Hayes would later recall waking up on his back several
feet from where he had stepped on the mine. "I just smelled
something burning and kind of opened up my eyes and I saw the
dust," he said. He looked at his right leg, spotted what looked
like bone and did not look at it again. "I thought for sure it
was blown off."
A few yards away, Specialist Lovelace could see Specialist Hayes
on the ground, his face taut with pain. Just a few minutes
before, the medic had been sitting beside the gunner, his best
friend in the unit, trying to collect himself after the first
mine explosion. Now their eyes met and Specialist Hayes called to
For the second time in an hour, the medics stepped carefully in
footprints to reach a wounded man. Sergeant Lee gripped his hand
as Specialist Hayes screamed for morphine to dull the intense
throbbing in his leg. But the specialist could also see anguish
in his sergeant's eyes and found himself trying to comfort him.
"Hey, I'll be able to buy shoes half price," Specialist Hayes
said as Sergeant Lee helped carry him down the steep path.
At the bottom, Specialist Lovelace tapped the wounded soldier on
the shoulder, bent to his ear and said over the roar of an
incoming helicopter, "Drinks on me when we get back." Specialist
Hayes touched his friend on the cheek. And then he was gone, the
chopper taking off in a hail of gunfire from insurgents a
The senior medic, Sgt. Jerry Price, wrapped an arm around
Specialist Lovelace in the whirlwind left by the departing
helicopter. "You did really good," the sergeant told him. But the
specialist wept anyway.
That evening, Sergeant Lee gathered Third Platoon inside police
headquarters in Imam Sahib city. A trash fire gave light to their
darkening corner of the walled compound as he tried to make sense
of the day. Specialist Hayes had a chance of keeping his leg, he
told the men, but he admitted later that he did not believe it
A soldier asked him, "Why was that hill so important?"
Sergeant Lee answered in a voice so low he was almost inaudible.
Because the Taliban could have used it to "rain hellfire" on Imam
Sahib, he said. But he also had doubts, which he had kept to
himself, about whether securing the hill was necessary.
"You don't always agree with the mission," he said later. "But
it's what you're paid to do when you are a soldier. We have a
mission to accomplish."
Captain Bonenberger rode back to the police headquarters lost in
thought about the injured men. But as his truck pulled into the
police compound, he learned that the battalion commander, Lt.
Col. Russell Lewis, had already arrived to check on the company.
Captain Bonenberger steeled himself for the meeting.
He had taken command of Alpha Company in July after spending the
first three months of his deployment behind a desk in the
battalion's planning cell, barely able to contain his desire to
lead a company. On his first visit to Imam Sahib, just days
before assuming command, he joined a squad of soldiers who
charged a machine-gun nest after their convoy was ambushed.
His new soldiers were impressed by his willingness to fight. "You
can see it in his eyes," one of the most seasoned ones said. The
soldier had a name for the look: "the dark relish of mayhem."
But the soldiers did not always know what to make of their new
commander. He could be bookish one moment — a biography of Lord
Curzon, British viceroy of India at the turn of the last century,
was on his nightstand — and proudly lowbrow the next ("Hot Tub
Time Machine" was a favorite movie). He listened to heavy metal
music as well as Stravinsky. Violence in sports bothered him, yet
here he was, planning missions to kill Taliban.
He was raised in Branford, Conn. His father was a corporate
lawyer who had opposed the Vietnam War and studied classical
guitar at Yale. His mother had been a painter who became a
librarian, teaching Adrian and his younger sister an appreciation
for gospel music.
But from childhood, he was fascinated by the soldiering life,
immersing himself in Homer's "Iliad" and, later, World War II
histories. In high school, he considered applying to West Point,
but was dissuaded by his father and grandfather.
He chose Yale, majoring in English literature and graduating in
2002. Early the next year, he protested near the United Nations
when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented the American
case for war in Iraq, believing that the Bush administration was
exaggerating the threat.
Yet by late 2004, he was talking to military recruiters, fueled
by a mix of idealism and outrage. The abuse of prisoners at Abu
Ghraib had made him wonder whether better leaders in the Army
would have prevented the atrocities. He burned to test his own
A year later, he was a second lieutenant, only the second person
from his Yale class to join the military, to his knowledge. (A
blue-and-white "For God, for Country and for Yale" banner hangs
over his desk at the company headquarters in Kunduz.)
On his first deployment in 2007, as a lieutenant with the 173rd
Airborne Brigade to Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan, he
carefully studied the leadership styles of his commanders. One
worked hard to build a sense of camaraderie among his soldiers.
Another berated subordinates in front of others.
He knew which one he would try to emulate. As Alpha Company
commander, he tried to keep an open door. And to build team
spirit, he ordered coins of his own design sent to Kunduz, where
he distributed them to his soldiers. Each bore the Alpha Company
insignia, a "gator."
To him, leadership could make the difference between a unit that
comes home "emotionally healthy" and one where everyone "just
goes crazy with drinking."
"I'm convinced that the only responsible way to be a leader in
this life is to be compassionate," he said. "That doesn't mean
you don't do hard things and set rules for people and enforce the
breaches in discipline when they happen."
In the days immediately after the minefield incident, he would
acknowledge wondering "if there is other stuff I could have
done." But as his truck pulled into the police compound in Imam
Sahib in the hours after it, he was deluged by reports of new
An improvised explosive device had been found in the shopping
district. A police checkpoint had received intelligence of an
impending Taliban attack. And his First Platoon, which had stayed
at the base of Qurghan Tapa hill, was bracing for a possible
Captain Bonenberger briefed Colonel Lewis, grabbed some food and
then headed back to his truck. "I'm done with my grieving," he
said. "There's work to be done."
Back Into the Fray
Third Platoon met for a group counseling session two days later
with the battalion chaplain and a mental health counselor.
Specialist Alan Bakula, a decorated young soldier who was injured
in the elbow and face by the mine that Specialist Hayes hit, told
the group he was "never so scared in my life" as when they
withdrew from the hill, calling it "the longest walk of my life."
Staff Sgt. Robert Kennedy, Specialist Hayes's squad leader who
was also injured by shrapnel from the blast, described the
helplessness all the soldiers felt when facing mines they could
not fight. "You're thinking you could have done more," he said to
the soldiers. "Thinking that is good. But doing enough is good,
Captain Bonenberger threw the company into new missions, telling
his platoon leaders that work would help the soldiers get past
the casualties. Within a week, Third Platoon was back patrolling
near the base of Qurghan Tapa hill while First Platoon visited a
village where American troops had not been before.
That village, Naghma Bazaar, bordered contested territory just
northwest of Qurghan Tapa. A village elder and a doctor at the
local clinic welcomed the Americans when they arrived. But then
the mission took a worrisome turn after a mine-clearing truck
fell into a ditch, stranding the platoon for hours.
When the Afghan police officers accompanying the Americans
received reports of insurgent fighters gathering nearby, one of
the officers challenged Lt. Matt Vinton, the First Platoon
leader, to chase them away. Estimating that there were at most a
dozen insurgents, Captain Bonenberger gave the effort his
Lieutenant Vinton led two squads across a rice paddy, and within
minutes a rocket-propelled grenade burst overhead. Gunfire
erupted, and the soldiers began to whoop.
They had wanted a fight, and they found one. The soldiers bounded
across a field and through an irrigation ditch, taking cover
behind fallen trees and haystacks. They cleared a small building
from which insurgents had been shooting, then moved to a second
compound across the road.
There, a terrified family emerged from a back room. As Lieutenant
Vinton tried to calm them, an old man wept uncontrollably in a
high-pitch wail while a young boy sang to himself, clutching the
bottom of his father's jacket.
Taliban fighters had forced their way into the house and demanded
food and milk, the old man told the Americans through their
Afghan interpreter. When the shooting began, the fighters fled
into the fields with barely a trace.
The soldiers searched for bullet casings and other telltale signs
of the insurgents, then returned to their trucks. They were
elated because they had chased the Taliban from the village, if
only for a day. "Schoolyard bullies," Captain Bonenberger called
More important, the soldiers felt a sense of catharsis in having
fought flesh-and-blood enemies for a change. The frustration of
Qurghan Tapa lifted, at least for the moment.
"After the minefield incident, the greatest feeling on earth was
getting shot at, because it gave you a reason to shoot back,"
Lieutenant Vinton said later.
Doctors amputated both of Petty Officer Kremer's legs in the days
after he was injured on Qurghan Tapa hill. He was eventually
flown to San Diego, where he lives with his wife and daughter,
who was born just weeks before the minefield incident. He has
re-enlisted, saying he wants to rejoin his explosives disposal
team after he finishes rehabilitation.
Specialist Hayes lost his right leg and headed to Walter Reed
Army Medical Center in Washington. He says he will probably leave
the Army when his rehabilitation is over next year. His wife and
20-month-old daughter have joined him in an apartment on the
The specialist was initially angry about his injury, but says he
came to grips with it while staring at the stump of his leg in a
German hospital. These days, he reassures his platoon-mates in
Afghanistan that he is improving, cracking jokes on Facebook
about his plight.
"It's got a hemi," he said in one post showing a photograph of
his new prosthetic leg.
Throughout the fall, Captain Bonenberger immersed himself in
missions. Some yielded successes: an insurgent commander changed
sides, villagers near Naghma Bazaar formed militias allied with
the government, and Third Platoon killed a Taliban leader in its
fiercest firefight of the year.
But there were also new frustrations: a major mission in Imam
Sahib was canceled just hours before it was to start, this time
because the battalion's resources were needed elsewhere.
"For now, it's jabs," Captain Bonenberger said of the
smaller-scale missions he was conducting instead.
He had again reviewed his preparations for the Qurghan Tapa hill
operation and concluded that he had done all he could to avoid
casualties. "Bottom line was, there wasn't any system that I had
that was going to increase our chances of having an effective
clearance of that hill," he said.
He was less certain about his future in the Army. His contract
will be up next year, and he was not sure he would re-sign. "I'm
definitely on the fence about that one," he said.
"Part of it is just the exhaustion of constant campaigning, and
part of it is the bad things that have happened that I take
ultimate responsibility for," he said. "I'm getting pretty well
tired of seeing dead bodies, that's for sure."
For now, though, he had many more missions to plan and a company
of soldiers to worry about. And he still had to decide what to do
about Qurghan Tapa hill. Should the battalion clear it of mines
and build that checkpoint? Or should they just level it with
So many decisions to make, so many reports to write. Captain
Bonenberger turned to his computer and began to type.