VICENZA, Italy - Eight months short of a decade ago, Paratroopers from 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, frantically employed their energy to erect Hesco barriers that would provide cover against enemy fire in a distant combat outpost in Wanat, Afghanistan. They arrived with intent to construct shelter as soon as possible. But, as soon as they began, a violent logistical riptide rife with misfortune stripped them of the resources necessary for immediate success. The direct route was plugged with road obstacles, preventing the passage of vehicles to and from the outpost.
Vital heavy-machinery, which would be used to construct fortifications could not access the outpost. All supplies would have to arrive via air, but planning mishaps pushed the resupply schedule to the right, leaving the unit with scarce water, supplies and food rations.
The setback seemed insurmountable, but because Soldiers are well trained in working with the meager straps given to them, they continued their mission. The Paratroopers, in the scorching heat, toiled day and night, filling sandbags, digging holes, stringing concertina wire, maintaining weaponry and pulling security along their designated sectors of fire.
Then, the levee, desperately attempting to contain the current of misfortune, shattered.
Rocket-propelled grenades pummeled the outpost, all at once. Like a laser fixated on the sole platoon, rockets and bullets seemed to converge together creating a wave of chaos, confusion and calamity.
Through the fog of war, determined team leaders rapidly brought their Soldiers into a state of action. Commands were given to fire rifles, machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles back at the enemy. "Gain fire superiority, at all costs!" It was their only hope of survival against such a collaborative attack.
The observation post for the platoon, nicknamed "Topside", located on higher ground, was armed with two machine guns. It was one of the premeditated targets the Taliban homed in on, due to its firepower and strategic position. First Lieutenant Jonathan P. Brostrom, 2nd Platoon leader, realized his men were up there, effectively pinned down and in imminent danger.
Disregarding his position of safety tucked in the middle of the outpost, he valiantly chose to move up the hill to "Topside" and retrieve his brothers in arms. Sergeant Ryan M. Pitts, the forward observer in charge of calling and directing indirect fires, briefed Brostrom, detailing the perceived enemy's position and events at "Topside".
Everyone in the over-watch position was severely wounded. Brostrom was presented with another choice between bad and worse possible outcomes. The Taliban was so close that indirect fires were not a viable option, so he set up another perimeter for the observation post with whatever soldiers he could muster. It was in doing this action, again attempting to save his men amidst inherently impossible odds, that he lost his life.
Today, we take time to remember his courageous acts, the heroic valor displayed by living Medal of Honor Recipient Staff Sgt. Pitts, and the eight other venerated souls from 2nd Platoon who lost their lives: Spc. Sergio S. Abad, Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling.
The event commemorating the fallen from this day is called The Brostrom's Challenge. It is a physical fitness chimera, with the intent to annihilate any shroud of weakness in today's Sky Soldiers. Only the toughest can make it through such demanding obstacles, because Brostrom and his men were the epitome of grit.
"It's an extremely rigorous PT event," said Brostrom Challenge Coordinator, 1st Lt. Leo E. Matthews. "It's about five hours long with a sustained rate of effort. There's not a lot of downtime between the events."
All platoons in 2nd Bn., 503rd Infantry Regiment and one from Brigade Engineer Battalion participated, but only one is worthy of donning the hallowed title of champion and receiving the Brostrom Challenge Gladius trophy.
"There are three components to this exercise," said Matthews.
First, the platoon must successfully negotiate 12 events ranging from purely physical tests such as a 200-meter bear-crawl with rucksack, and fireman carrying 200-pound dummies (Rescue Randy's) up 5 stories in the parking garage, to mentally challenging events like rigging a rucksack for Airborne operations to meet the specific requirements as judged by a Jumpmaster.
"Once the events are complete, everyone consolidates on the football field and conducts a 2.2-mile run around the perimeter of Caserma Del Din," said Matthews.
The catch is that the platoons must carry all their equipment with them, to include a casualty on a litter.
"After the run is complete, the top two platoons compete head to head in three mystery events for time," said Matthews. "The winner takes all."
The Brostrom Challenge is meaningful to all Paratroopers participating. There's no question that the actions of the leader and his men are deeply rooted in the core of the Soldiers today.
"No matter how tough of a PT competition they create for us here, none of it will come close to the challenges that Chosen Company faced in the Battle of Wanat and the entire deployment," said Spc. Payton T. Evans of Chosen Company.
"First Lieutenant Brostrom took over my platoon while I was deployed in Afghanistan, I did a couple months with him, then I went off and pulled TOW missile duties with Destined Company," said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua E. Sowells of 2nd Bn., 503rd Infantry Regiment.
At the time, Sowells was a specialist. Junior-enlisted members typically avoid interactions with officers, but Sowells had a unique experience with Brostrom.
"When he first came to us, came and introduced himself, I saw him, and he said, 'What's up bro?' You realized, okay, this is going to be a guy who you can just talk to. Someone who is going to be there as a brother right there with you", said Sowells.
"I think it's one of the best ways we can honor him," said Sowells. "We're bringing their names back. Not just letting them fall to the wayside."
Naming the event after Brostrom achieves this, because the event embodies his unyielding characteristics.
"He was a really happy guy, he really enjoyed PT and he enjoyed competition, so it's only befitting that it has his name," said 2nd Bn. 503rd Infantry Regiment Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne W. Wahlenmeier. "Because Wanat was such a big moment in the history of our battalion, we name it after the platoon leader who was in charge of the battle."
It is imperative to understand the name of the challenge does not give precedence over any other fallen Paratroopers from 2nd Battalion.
"We have workouts of the day for every fallen Paratrooper in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom," said Wahlenmeier.
In Chosen Company, every new member is educated on the unit's history and expected to recite the events which occurred in the major battles. He especially must remember the names of the departed, for the company places a high emphasis on its fallen Paratroopers.
Inside the Company Operations Facility (COF), there is a black mural emblazoned with a bone-white Chosen skull, accompanied by a list of all the fallen with dates inscribed next to the names. At the top of all this, lies a reminder of reverence, so that the current members never forget. In ominous white lettering, it reads "Immortals".
"As infantrymen, we join the Army knowing the inherent risks of our profession," said Evans. "We train hard every day. We push ourselves past where we think we can go, and we aspire to be as courageous as the 'Chosen Few' in the Battle of Wanat."