PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- It had been a quiet patrol, the three American armored trucks growling softly through the night along rural lanes between sleeping villages. Until a rocket whooshed out of nowhere.
It smashed into the cab of one truck, sliced across the face of the driver, and detonated in a bright flash where his lieutenant was sitting beside him. The explosion drove glass shards into the driver's face and into the legs of the turret gunner, a young private.
For the patrol's medic, 19-year-old Pfc. Randall Bone (pictured, bottom), this was his first time under fire. He ran up with his aid bag, wrenched open the door and gently drew the lieutenant down from the wreckage. He was barely conscious, his head covered in blood, his eyes swollen shut. Bone started work while Spec. Ryan Peterson (also pictured), 26, began calling for a medevac helicopter.
Concerned about a follow-on attack -- a common insurgent tactic -- the paratroopers of 4th platoon, Bravo Company, 82nd Airborne Special Troops Battalion, set up security around their vehicles, scanning the village walls and treeline with night-vision goggles, weapons pointed out into the dark. The wounded gunner climbed back into the turret of the smoldering vehicle to help.
Bone tended to the lieutenant, yelling questions at him to keep him conscious: What day is it? What's your name? Who's president? And the minutes ticked by while they waited for the helo.
So far, a horrifying and tragic story that is not uncommon here. But it was what happened afterwards that holds immense hope for this tortured country and for the American enterprise here. No air strikes were called in retaliation on the nearby villages. No punitive U.S. force arrived at dawn to rip down doors and rifle through peoples' belongings or to cuff suspects and march them off at rifle-point.
What happened was that the Afghan National Police (ANP) showed up almost immediately along with a quick-reaction force from the 82nd Airborne. The police spread out to question villagers, and two came forward immediately to point out a cache of AK-47 rifles and two IEDs, among other weapons. The villagers identified two suspects, who were arrested and taken to jail.
It wasn't until several days later that paratroopers came by to chat with village elders and drop off gifts of food and other supplies to the cooperative villagers. Meanwhile -- in a huge step for both Americans and Afghans -- the Afghan police are handling the investigation and prosecution. The suspects will be tried in an Afghan court and convicted, or acquitted, on the case that the Afghan police build.
Understand what this means: battle-hardened paratroopers, who had three of their own wounded, are handing over to Afghans responsibility to make sure that the enemy is caught, convicted and punished. Given that the Afghan police are struggling with low literacy rates, poor training, insufficient equipment and entrenched corruption, this seems like a long-odds bet.
"It is hard, a real juggling act,'' acknowledged Lt. Col. Chris Eubank, who commands the battalion.
Of course the paratroopers want justice done. But a key U.S. goal here is to help the Afghans get control of their own security, to be able to gather evidence and prosecute cases. The strategy is to help them learn by doing. That's the policy directive from the top echelons of the U.S. command. Down at the bottom, the decision doesn't go down so well.
It wasn't until much later, of course, that Bone and Peterson had time to think about retaliation. That night they were too busy. Bone had wrapped the lieutenant's head loosely in gauze and was still trying to keep him conscious through his pain. Peterson was guiding in the helo, making sure the landing zone was secure against attack, and figuring how to get the convoy back to base.
Days later, the agony of those hours was evident as I listened to Bone talk about his role as a combat medic. That job is to keep the wounded alive, in a situation of extreme peril, until help comes.
"It's extremely . . . tough when all you can smell is blood and people are suffering and there's not a lot you can do for them,'' he said. "You can't miraculously heal somebody with an RPG wound. When you get somebody with head trauma as bad as the LT, there's not a lot you can do for him in the field.''
Now, as that nightmare fades in the bright sunlight, Bone ponders the decision to have the case handled by the ANP.
"I get the fact that we are supposed to turn things over to the ANP," Bone tells me. He's a short, stocky guy with an easy smile and an intense devotion to his fellow paratroopers. "But you see people who are practically family get hurt, part of you wants blood, an eye for an eye. I guarantee that somebody paid those guys to shoot at us, somebody will pay to have them bailed out. I don't trust the ANP. I was pretty heated about it and so were a lot of the guys,'' Bone says.
Peterson says, "I'm glad the ANP got those guys,'' and lets it go at that.
I asked Eubank, the battalion commander, if he was comfortable having the Afghan police handle the case. He chooses his words carefully. "I am comfortable with how we are approaching this counterinsurgency strategy,'' he replied. "There are people out there who will do the right thing -- I mean, look, the villagers turned in two of these guys. You have to be comfortable in the way they do business. That's how they'll eventually learn."
There's more than just hope at work here, of course. Since the paratroopers arrived three months ago, they've focused on helping the ANP master every facet of law enforcement. Well before the 82nd even got here, Maj. Christine Whitmer, an MP who served a previous 15-month tour in Afghanistan, was driving the staff to develop a "concept of operations,'' a detailed military plan, for building the ANP's capacity.
Now she is operations officer here and the "con-ops" she ordered up is in full blossom, along with a police mentoring team in place to advise senior provincial police officials, a professional law enforcement agent on staff, a detachment of military police conducting joint patrols and helping train police in everything from patrolling techniques to radio procedures and emergency operations.
The paratroopers also have established an operations center where Afghan police, Afghan army and American troops work together. Its first assignment: coordinating security for the Aug. 20 elections. Eventually, the center will serve a "911" function, receiving calls from local Afghans and dispatching police, fire and rescue teams as needed.
This work has already paid off. Getting ANP cops on the street, doing the joint patrols, helping them with interviewing and evidence-gathering techniques has resulted in having 16 IEDs or arms caches discovered or turned in by villagers in the past 90 days.
The previous unit here had two IEDs turned in during its 15-month deployment. Moreover, joint analysis of IEDs turned up two distinctive bomb-making techniques, leading police to determine that there are two IED cells operating in the province. They believe they are closing in on both. All this machinery swung into action after the three Marines got hit. U.S. and Afghan investigators questioned more villagers. U.S. experts provided fingerprint and other biometric identification and tested suspects for explosive residue.
Four tested positive and were arrested by the ANP. I learned a lot of this from George Clay, who works with the ANP's intelligence officers on building cases by collecting and preserving evidence, and correlating information obtained from questioning villagers. Clay likes working with the ANP, and has seen first-hand the subtle value of having Afghan natives involved in the investigation. "They'll ask questions I'd never think of, like 'What mosque do you usually attend,' and 'Then why were you at this mosque over here?' "
He has a chart in his office that shows major and minor suspects, their relationships to each other, what they've said about each other, and what is known about their movements the night the three soldiers got hit.
"This is painstaking work anywhere," said Clay. "But multiply that by the language and cultural barriers here and the red tape between the U.S. military and the Afghan judicial system . . ."
On this case, he said, "I'd like to be able to tell the guys that got hurt, 'Yeah, we got the guys who did this.' It's not likely that's gonna happen. . . . I hope the legal system will be able to get the evidence to prosecute them. You just go through every possible step with them and hope it sticks."
As the case grinds forward, the three wounded paratroopers are recuperating at home. The lieutenant underwent brain surgery at Bagram Air Field, the sprawling U.S. base in central Afghanistan, before being flown out on a U.S. Air Force aeromedical evacuation plane equipped for intensive care.
When the damaged patrol had limped back into Bagram that morning, Peterson set about cleaning the blood out of the truck. Bone took the turret gunner to the emergency room to get his leg looked at. "They said the LT was in surgery, doing okay," Bone said.
"As soon as I made sure I hadn't lost anybody, I asked if there was a sink I could use. The sleeves of my shirt were soaked with blood, there were patches of blood on my pants and face and my hands were caked with blood. I probably spent a long time at that sink."