By Elizabeth CollinsJanuary 19, 2018
WASHINGTON -- The movie "12 Strong" arrives in theaters this Friday, and tells the harrowing story of the first U.S. special forces mission in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The following is the third part of an Army.mil exclusive three-part feature recounts the events of the Green Berets' first mission in Afghanistan, as they sought to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in that country.
One of the primary and most important functions of the Special Forces teams during the early days of Afghanistan operations was calling in air strikes, supported by combat controllers from Air Force Special Operations Command. The U.S. military had been bombing the Taliban for a couple of weeks, but in a land of caves and mountains and small villages, it was difficult to distinguish targets.
To help level the field and give the resistance forces a chance, the U.S. had to get rid of those tanks, armored carriers and antiaircraft guns. Once they got on the ground, Soldiers identified enemy targets, and skilled Airmen called in those targets and quickly began picking off the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They also called for resupplies and humanitarian assistance drops.
"The sole focus of that combat controller was to bring that air-to-ground interface, so to look for areas where we could establish an airhead, where we could land aircraft, where we could bring supplies where we could do airdrops," explained former combat controller and retired Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, who received a Silver Star for the operation.
"The other side of it was to bring that close air support expertise with our air traffic control background, having multiple stacks of aircraft … from fighters to bombers overhead," he said.
"It annihilated the enemy," he continued, noting that the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom was the first time B52s had been used for close air support since the Vietnam War. "I think it really broke their will to fight. You kill 10, 15 enemy combatants on the battlefield at one time, I'm sure it's a devastating blow to them, but when you're talking about hundreds of enemy combatants losing their lives from one strike, it makes the other guys think about what they're doing and that maybe they should retreat."
The success of the bomb strikes also encouraged other fighters, who were perhaps on the fence, to join the coalition.
"We fought for about a month and a half to two months, constantly air attacks, air attacks, air attacks on all of the Taliban positions, until it got to a point where we moved forward and took their lines and they just kind of went back to the populace," said Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, then a weapons sergeant on ODA 585.
"Once we started dropping bombs on the enemy, their [civilians] whole attitude changed," Gamble added. "They were loving us. A lot of (sodas) came out. A lot of really good food came out. We were their heroes."
AN ERRANT STRIKE
There were tragedies as well as successes. Fowers' team had a communications sergeant shot in the neck as they tried to advance across a heavily defended bridge. Then, the next day, Dec. 5, came one of the worst tragedies in those first months. A new GPS system resulted in some confused coordinates and a huge bomb -- a joint direct attack munition -- dropped inside his ODA's perimeter, killing three Americans and perhaps a dozen Afghan soldiers, and wounding almost everyone, including Fowers.
"I actually thought I had been hit with an RPG," he remembered. "I thought I had taken a direct round to the chest. I thought we were getting attacked. … I was thrown probably a good five or six feet and I think I went unconscious for a little bit. When I came to, the Afghans that had been perching near us had been killed. I remember crawling over and grabbing one of their AKs and going over by our little mortar pit. I remember just waiting for the advancing threat I thought was coming up over the hill."
Fowers and his team were eventually medically evacuated out of Afghanistan. (Operation Enduring Freedom was in its infancy and evacuation processes and local medical facilities had not yet been established.) He has received multiple Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart throughout his career.
Maj. Mark Nutsch's deployment lasted about three months and earned him a Bronze Star with valor, while Gamble was in country until the end of January. He was seriously wounded on a subsequent deployment to Iraq, and retired after a long career with multiple awards, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Like Markham, who has lost count of his deployments, all of the men have deployed multiple times. Nutsch has even returned to Afghanistan on charitable humanitarian missions.
Today, a 16-foot, bronze statue of an Special Forces Soldier on horseback, named De Oppresso Liber -- the Special Forces motto, "to free the oppressed" -- or the Horse Soldier, stands near Ground Zero in New York, watching over the 9-11 memorial and honoring those first special operations teams.
"Every time I go and look at it, it's pretty powerful," said Gamble. "It shows the bond between us and the first responders, the guys here in New York who went into Ground Zero, who rushed into the buildings to save as many people as they could, and then us, once we got the call, we were in Afghanistan taking care of the people who frigging decided to have this act of terror against us on our ground.
"Every time I see it, I get goose bumps, seeing the stuff we did over there, the good things we did, the response America had to what happened to us."