Jake Tapper’s Riveting Account of The Outpost
HH: We just had an election. It’s the third presidential election since America invaded Afghanistan in 2001. And that election probably made no real difference to the day to day lives of the soldiers on the ground at this moment, but this is a good moment on which to consider what they have been doing and what has not been done, and how they have fought and sacrificed. And now comes a book that brings it down to the level of privates and sergeants and platoon leaders, as well as generals and presidents. And that book is The Outpost: An Untold Story Of American Valor by Jake Tapper, who is of course ABC News senior White House correspondent. He joins me now. Jake, welcome, it’s good to have you back.
JT: Yeah, it’s been a long time, Hugh. Thanks for having me on.
HH: Well, this is a pretty amazing book, a very, very moving and deeply informative book. And I’ve got to ask, since I didn’t know anything about this battle or Kunar Province, when did you come to find out about this? And how did this book come to be?
JT: It was, I was in the recovery room of the hospital in Washington, D.C. My son had just been born. And I was holding him, he was a day old, and I looked up and out of the corner of my eye on the news was a story of this outpost that had been overrun, and eight other sons had been taken from the world while I sat there holding mine. And it was combat outpost Keating, this obscure outpost at the bottom of three steep mountains, 14 miles from the Pakistan border. And the media coverage was along the lines of why would anybody put a base there. It’s a horrible place for a base, which is true. It’s a horrible place for a base at the bottom of three steep mountains. And I kind of, just as a news consumer and American who followed the war effort, both as a reporter and just as a citizen, kind of just waited patiently for the answers to those questions, but they never came. The military did an investigation and concluded that the base had no strategic or tactical value. And that was, some people were disciplined, and that was really the end of it. But for me, it was not. It just kind of gnawed at me, and I started making calls, because that’s one of the great things about being a reporter is if you’re curious and nobody’s answering your questions, you can just call people and start asking questions. And I reached a few of the people, a few of the troops who had served there, a couple of, Sergeant First class John Hill and Sergeant Eric Harder, and I started talking to them. Eventually, it became a mystery I wanted to solve. It also became a story of heroism that I wanted to tell about these troops who served at this outpost, because eight Americans died, and that’s tragic and horrible, but 45 survived. 53 U.S. troops were there total, facing about 400 Taliban. And their stories of heroism, and the stories of the heroism of those who fell, were just unbelievable.
HH: And I want to promise y listeners that they will be repaid if they sit down with this and take a pen and follow it and chart it out. You will be amazingly moved. Jake, I don’t, I know a lot of military history. I don’t know of a battle with 53 people that received ten Silver Stars, a Medal of Honor nomination, and a Distinguished Service Cross nomination. I don’t, there might be other ones, I just don’t know of them.
JT: Yeah, I mean, it was remarkable, and I suspect that those Medal of Honor nominations, we’ll hear more about in the coming months and years, because some of the behavior was just unbelievable. And you know, I was interviewing, we’re going a piece on Nightline tonight about The Outpost, which you know, comes out today, and which is not a coincidence that we’re doing it Veterans Day week. And I was interviewing one of the soldiers, a guy names Zach Koppes, you might remember him from the book, Hugh.
JT: He’s was a good friend with one of the soldiers who fell, Stephan Mace, and he’s a Mennonite and had an interesting background, an interesting path to the Army, as did a lot of these guys.
HH: Many of them, yeah.
JT: Yeah, and Zach was talking about the heroics of the people who were running ammunition to him, and running into battle, and as if he had been cowering under, you know, the dining room table or something. He had been standing post in a Humvee for 12 or 13 hours firing back at the Taliban while his Humbee and the Kevlar tarp were shredded. Unbelievable bravery, but to him, it was nothing, because these other guys were running into bullets, in the light, delivering ammunition and returning fire. So it was just a, the bravery was unparalleled. I’ve never heard anything like it.
HH: I want to emphasize to the listener, we will be back to the particulars of October 3rd, 2009, in the third hour of our conversation. But I want to tell you, to get to there requires an incredible story, and that’s why it is such a moving account, because there are many other incidents of courage and heroism and dumbness throughout this thing. But I also want to, Jake, I appreciate greatly that you covered the home front throughout the book, but that of course means you were brought into contact with great reservoirs of sorrow and courage. Did that change you?
JT: Yeah, it did. It did. First of all, as anybody who knows members of the military knows first hand, these are some of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet. They’re just, I mean, a lot of them are just people you would want to hire to run your business or run anything, any enterprise. But they’re also just, there’s just this tradition of giving and selflessness that is just imbued in them. It’s, you know, one of the reasons I wrote the book is because I am apart from that. I did not serve. And I was just not raised in a generation or a socioeconomic group where that was expected, where that happened. I regret it. But these people give so much, and then so much is often taken away. And as you point out, the book is more than just the October 3rd battle, and the reason for that, Hugh, is that once I got a little bit of publicity for the fact that I had signed a book contract to write the story of The Outpost, of the attack, and the original working title of the book was Enemy On The Wire, because it was just going to be about the attack, and who these troops were, who were there October 3rd, 2009, is that other soldiers, other officers got in touch with me, because they wanted their stories told, too, because…not their own stories, but they wanted the stories of their squadrons, their troops, their fallen comrades, they wanted those stories told, too. And so because of people like Captain Ross Berkoff, who’s an intelligence officer now retired, and because of people like First Lieutenant Dave Roller, who’s now in law school, the book became broader, because they wanted the stories of their beloved commanders and their beloved comrades told as well. And so it ended up being a whole history of this one outpost. And in a way, it’s a good way just to see how the American experiment of war works and doesn’t work in a corner of the world, because it’s not all bad news as you know. There is some outreach that does work.
HH: Oh, and it’s a story of the war in miniature in one province. I’ve spent a lot of time with Joby Warrick about the CIA’s war, and I’ve talked to Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the Marines’ war in Helmand. But this is the Army’s war. In many respects, I think that the Army is going to be applauding that finally someone has told their story in detail, whether it’s…but preliminary question. Barbarians, bulldogs, bastards, Black Knights, this dizzying array of armaments and acronyms – how did you learn all this?
JT: It was very difficult. It was not easy. You know, I speak English. I don’t speak Army. And so it took a while for me to figure it all out, and become expert enough that I could, I mean some of the footnotes were, like, two years in the making in terms of my brain wrapping my head around the fact that well, if you’re a cavalry unit, you call a company a troop, but if you’re in infantry, you call a troop a company.
JT: And that sort of…and the fact that they all changed their names during deployments, and it got a little complicated. But I tried to write it for a non-military person to understand.
HH: Better than even chance I’ll mispronounce this, but we go from the 3-71 to the 1-91 to the 6-4, and then the 3-61. Different divisions are involved, but that’s going to be my shorthand. Is that how it’s referred to? I always get email from military when I mispronounce things. Is that how you refer to them?
JT: Well, they say 3-71. They don’t combine them. 3-71, 1-91, 6-4, 3-61.
JT: They just, yeah.
HH: Perfect. Those are the three cycles, the four units that cover Camp Keating as people understand, and they involve different divisions. And when you started this, Jake Tapper, the 10th Mountain Division begins, and it ends with the 3rd Infantry Division. Did you find any part of the Army more or less willing to work with you on this?
JT: That’s a good question. I mean, obviously the intelligence officers and the Special Forces are the most concerned about what they do. And you know, but generally speaking, once it became clear to skeptics in the Pentagon, and skeptics among the troops that this was really a very heartfelt project where I was really just trying to tell the story and understand what happened, and understand why certain decisions were made, people came to cooperate. And some were more cooperative than others. One of the things…
HH: Stay with me for a break, Jake.
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HH: That’s Back In Black by AC/DC, America. I’m Hugh Hewitt. My guest is Jake Tapper. His new book, The Outpost: An Untold Story Of American Valor is the story of three plus years of America’s effort to make something of a base in Kunar Province in Afghanistan, the far northern and western corner of the land. Music is throughout this, Jake. I’ll be using my bump music today from references that you have, but it’s amazing how much the music impacts the ordinary GI.
JT: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I saw Chris Jones is a soldier in the book who brought a guitar with him, and he would right funny songs about his colleagues, his comrades.
JT: And one of the, to me, one of the most vivid scenes in the book is after the attack when Captain Stoney Portis, the commander of the camp is walking around and the whole camp has been burned down except for one or two buildings, and people are sleeping on the ground. And he hears Private Jones playing Johnny Cash. And I saw, we had a book launch on Saturday night in Washington, and a lot of the troops and their moms and dads and wives and so on came to the book launch. And the mom, Chris Jones’ mom was there. Chris, he wasn’t able to come. And she was so happy about it, because you know, he’s this musician, so she was happy that was in there. And I told her, you know, I had to pay money out of my pocket to put in all these lyrics from Folsom Prison Blues, but it was worth it.
HH: Oh, it communicates the exhaustion of those men at the end of this battle. You mentioned Steven Pressfield in passing. He’s a friend of mine. He’s been in the studio off and on over the years talking about his books. And I was thinking of the Afghan Campaign before I first came across it. It’s in The Outpost twice. Have you read it?
JT: I’ve skimmed it. I’ve skimmed it. I liked it a lot. It was, you know, when I was writing the book, it was, my mind was focused on writing, not so much…
JT: So when I read, I tended to read more escapist things, because I was spending so much time in the blood and guts of Afghanistan that Pressfield’s book, what I read of it, was brilliant. But I couldn’t get too deep into it.
HH: But the troops read it, because it’s about the forlorn campaign of Alexander, and he gave up and he went away. And you have a picture at the end of this book of the camp as it is now, and I don’t want to tell people what it looks…it’s abandoned. I’ll tell them that. Everyone should know that. And it looks like as though it could have been an Alexander outpost high in the mountains of Kunar Province.
JT: There’s a lot of references to Alexander in the book, not from me, but from troops, and from soldiers who were, who served there.
JT: First Lieutenant Ben Keating, who is the namesake of the camp, he was, he had Pressfield’s book with him, and he was reading it, and it was a lesson to him. And he was becoming disillusioned with the possibility of what he thought. And this is a conservative Republican who was a big believer in the war effort, and a big believer in the power of America. And he just became disillusioned with the idea of what can we do in this part of the land. And you know, right outside the camp that ultimately bore his name was the hollowed out shells of former Soviet personnel carriers from the Soviet invasion. And that was a depressing part of the war for Ben Keating. And that book was, I had to figure out what book it was, because a journalist named Matthew Cole, who’s a friend of mine who was there embedded with 3-71 Cav, told me that Ben Keating was waving around this book, and I had to investigate with his dad, and with Matt Cole and others.
JT: Finally, I figured out it was Pressfield’s book, and that became more poignant.
HH: Now I also have to say the inside flaps of the book, I don’t think I’ve ever referred back and forth to inside flaps, but it took me only a few dozen pages to realize that whenever you’re looking at a forward operating base Bostick, or Combat Outpost Lybert, or, and tell me how to pronounce Observation Post, is it Fritsche?
JT: Yeah, Fritsche.
HH: Or Combat Outpost Lowell, and of course, Combat Outpost Keating…you’re talking about a hero. They don’t name these for people who are not in their hearts, and who have not given their all in these efforts.
JT: Yeah, and as they push north into this area of operation, into Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, the landscape becomes spotted with these outposts, these tiny outposts named after these heroes. And the goal of the book is for you to know some of the stories behind these heroes so that they’re not just names, because ultimately, you know, Combat Outpost Keating doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of the ones, a lot of them don’t exist anymore.
HH: Is Bostick still up and operating?
JT: As of right now. As far as I know.
HH: Now I called my friend in Hollywood who helped bring Act of Valor to the screen. I told him to listen today and tell all his friends, because I think this has got to be an HBO series so that non-readers understand what went on here. Is that under discussion? Have you optioned this so that someone will make a Band of Brothers for Afghanistan?
JT: Danny Strong, who is the screenwriter behind Recount and Game Change, I’m sure not two of your favorite HBO movies, but he also wrote this new butler movie coming out about the White House butler, a very talented guy. He has expressed interest, and he and I are talking. There aren’t any options as of now, though. But I agree, but I mean, the thing is, Hugh, and so many of the scenes in this book ring cinematic, but I mean, the ones…they’re so extraordinary, they almost feel like they’re not, that they’re fiction. They feel like they’re fiction, but they’re not. You know, the scene that comes, that is the most like that for me is after Lt. Col. Joe Fenty dies in a helicopter crash, and this is one of the big lessons of the book, and of this war, is that the land is just as dangerous as the enemy.
HH: Yeah, yeah.
JT: But after he dies, his wife, Kristen Fenty, is the head of the Family Readiness Group, and that’s the group ready to deal with all the wives or husbands if there is a death or a serious injury, a serious wound. And he gets permission, a guy named Major Timmons gets permission to call his wife from the mountain to tell his wife, Gretchen, to run back to Fort Drum to be there for Kristen. And so Gretchen gets in the car, she’s with her parents in Pennsylvania, she gets in the car, packs up with her kids, her mother-in-law zooms back to Fort Drum, runs up to Kristen Fenty’s door, and Kristen doesn’t know yet.
HH: Right. And for a day, she doesn’t know.
JT: For a day, she’s, and Gretchen spends the day with Kristen Fenty waiting for that knock at the door to come so she can help Kristen. Kristen has just had their first child, who’s Lauren, who’s about three or four weeks old, and the knock at the door never comes. And it’s just a surreal experience for Gretchen. And eventually, obviously, Kristen is told the next day. But it’s scenes like that made me say God, I have to make this into a much bigger project than I thought this was going to be, because that story is so incredible and moving and horrible and horrifying and inspiring, that this needs to be about more than just that one battle.
HH: Well, I hope someone is listening and doing that, because there are story after stories. I was going to say we’ll come back to it. For me, the loss of Captain Bostick in that moment is, I don’t know how you keep going with this book. And were there times, a minute to the break, Jake Tapper, that you were tempted to say I just can’t do this?
JT: It was emotional. I mean, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, professionally emotionally. Without question, it was just wrenching. And you talk to these really tough, super, brave soldiers, and they cry to you telling their stories. And it’s so humbling, and it just gnaws at your soul.
HH: It is also deeply inspiring, and not just for people inclined to military history, but to the ordinary reader.
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HH: When you’re done with The Outpost, you will know what Mortaritaville is, and I will perhaps come to that in our conversation. But Jake Tapper is my guest, senior White House correspondent for ABC. He’s not here talking about the news tonight. He’s talking about his new book, The Outpost: An Untold Story Of American Valor, linked at Hughhewitt.com, in bookstores everywhere. Jakes, before we go on, I made early in my notes for the outline of this, I want to talk a little bit about PTSD. My friends at the Semper Fi Fund have educated me over the years. I’ve had a lot of veterans on the show talking about how they’re recovering. But the story of Ed Faulkner is deeply arresting and sobering. And when you put the numbers down on Page 606, two million have served in these two wars, 20% estimated to have PTSD. Only half have been treated, and even some of those who were treated like Ed Faulkner don’t make it. And I hope people read The Outpost for a lot of reasons, but one is to let them know about PTSD.
JT: Yeah, and that was the story, that was the reason I told the story of Ed Faulkner, even though his parents obviously were very resistant for understandable reasons, just because it’s a very private matter. But Ed Faulkner was a survivor. He’d won two purple hearts, one for being wounded in Iraq, and then he was a survivor at COP Keating. He fought in COP Keating and survived again. But he developed an addiction to drugs after his first wound before he deployed to Afghanistan. And then when he came back home, the Army discharged him. They thought they were doing him a favor, because they thought that he was back on drugs, and it would be better to discharge him honorably than have him ultimately end up discharged dishonorably. That’s now how Ed or his father saw it. Ed came back to North Carolina where he’s from and his PTSD acted up in him in an incredibly dramatic way. And it was just, his mom would find him in the middle of the night aiming an imaginary rifle at imaginary enemy soldiers. It was around that time that the Taliban released the video of the attack on COP Keating, and Ed would spend his nights watching it. Eventually, he met up with a woman who had a drug problem, and he ultimately overdosed. And the story of how the Army and the VA failed Ed Faulkner, Jr. is an important one, because we, and I don’t only want to blame the Army and the VA. And my mom used to work for the VA, so I have a lot of respect for people who work at the VA. But we need to do more as a country. We need to make sure that we are protecting these people. You know, when these troops all came to the book launch on Saturday, you know, for a lot of them, and my mom noticed, and my mom was there, and she’s a former VA nurse, and she noticed that anytime she brought up Afghanistan with most of them, their faces would tighten up, or they would twitch. And a lot of them still have PTSD. And these are not, these are not even the guys who are, who have serious PTSD.
JT: We as a country need to do more for these people. We cannot stigmatize this problem, and we need to make sure that these people are cared for, and receive the help they need. And it’s a commitment. These people have this because of us.
HH: And when people experience the stress of COP Keating or the other COPs, they might understand it better, because it’s told in the detail. You understand that daily stress, attack after attack after attack. I also want to point out that though you deal with the Special Forces in the book, and I’ve got a lot of Special Forces friends who are listening and in the community. I know they’re very respectful, but you’re ambivalent almost of the amount of attention that’s been paid to them vis-à-vis the ordinary Joe as you call them, as they’ve been called through history, that the folks from Task Force Blue, and Captain Snyder, not his real name, they’re here and they’re active, and indeed they come to the relief of COP Keating at the end, in part, with others. But they’re not, this war isn’t about just Special Forces.
JT: Yeah. You know, Special Forces get a lot of attention, and rightly so, whether it’s a Team SEAL Six, or Army Green Berets. And Captain Snyder, not his real name, was at the…he snuck into the book launch.
HH: Oh, did he?
JT: He was there, and a couple of the other guys who…there were at least three or four Special Forces guys there. But they tend to, I mean, this book is more about the Joes. It’s more about the guys there day in and day out, the ones who get ambushed, not the ones who are necessarily looking for a fight. That’s not to say that Special Forces are looking for a fight, but they might be a little bit better prepared for military action when it happens. These are the guys who are doing outreach to the village. You know, the counterinsurgency doctrine of the U.S. going to parts of the country, parts of Afghanistan, and trying to connect these remote hamlets and villages to the Afghan government, provide them with economic development, and provide them with micro, hydro, electric plants.
HH: The theory of why we went to Kunar is the subject of the next segment. Don’t go anywhere.
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HH: Quite certain that’s the first Lil’ Wayne that’s ever been a bump on the Hugh Hewitt Show, but there’s an anecdote in The Outpost, Jake Tapper’s new book, that is very amusing, that…the debate over Lil’ Wayne among the lieutenants of COP Keating is well worth the time. Jake, I want to set this…
JT: These bumps are great, I have to say. I mean, they’re really well done.
HH: There’s a lot of music in the book. I’ve got to ask you to outline the mission. Why did we go there, and about…especially the original sin, the original err of putting COP Keating, Combat Operating Base Keating, where it was put, which goes back to 2006, a debate that you somehow got to the bottom of, and then Colonel Fenty’s tragic mission, if you could sort of set us up. Why did we go there?
JT: We pushed into Eastern Afghanistan, Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, because the thinking was, the feeling was that insurgents were pouring across the border from Pakistan and killing Americans or attacking Americans in other parts of the country using this route. So they put American outposts all over Kunar and Nuristan, including Combat Outpost Keating, to try to stop the enemy from doing that. In addition, there was these PRTs, provincial reconstruction teams, economic development going on, which were very trendy at the time, part of the counterinsurgency doctrine of empowering the Afghan government by having them being seen as helping to develop parts of Afghanistan that were not developed. Now they put Combat Outpost Keating at the bottom of the mountains next to the road for a few reasons. One, most of the helicopters were in Iraq, so to resupply the camp, they needed it near a road. Two, it needed to be near the road so they could monitor the road. And three, part of it was to be near some of the people in the region. Of course, up the mountain was a little bit more populous, but they didn’t know that at the time, because they didn’t know much about this area at all. Now what happens is within a year, well, within a couple of months, it’s obvious that it’s way too dangerous to set up a provincial reconstruction team there, so the PRT is cancelled and just moved somewhere else. They keep the combat outpost there, but within a year, the road is so dangerous, both because of the enemy and because of the fragility of the infrastructure, Ben Keating has died, others have come close, that they stopped using the roads. And so this is one of the issues I explore kind of at the end of the book about military thinking, which is instead of then moving the camp, because the reason for having it right there is no longer there, they’re not using the road, they’re only using helicopters, they keep it there. And but to touch on Lt. Col. Joe Fenty’s death, which is one of the most horrific moments in the book, because it wasn’t even combat. It was just the perilousness of flying a helicopter at night.
JT: These mountains are so jagged that they’re finishing up a mission, and Col. Fenty is the kind of guy, Lt. Col. Fenty’s the kind of guy who wants to be right there doing command and control. And he is in this helicopter, and the crew is not experienced in the area, and ultimately the winds are so strong that it crashes. And ten Americans die in this helicopter crash. And it’s horrific, and it’s not the last time in that deployment when the terrain grabbed a victim. It’s just the first time.
HH: And in fact, Combat Operating Outpost Keating becomes, COP Keating becomes named for another lieutenant who, like Lt. Col. Fenty, dies as a result of the terrain. When you covered these things, did you have a sense of these peaks and these distances until you actually went and looked in the area? And by the way, I’ve been saying Kunar. It’s actually Nuristan is where the base is.
HH: And…but did you have a sense of how immense these things were?
JT: I saw photographs and videos, but it wasn’t until a year ago when I went to the area, and I was embedded with the 2-27 Infantry Wolfhounds, and I was embedded with a medevac unit that I saw how unbelievable these mountains are. And the idea of, you know, we have the machinery we have – the immense Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, and the light, medium tactical vehicle trucks. And this is big, American, muscular machinery. And these…it’s not conducive to use these things in this remote area of the world with these incredibly high peaks. The mountain pass might be eight or nine thousand feet above sea level. And then, I mean, it’s just the land is so dangerous that it’s the kind of thing that actually doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the U.S., because it’s so difficult to understand.
HH: We’ll talk in the second hour. I am simply in awe of the medical corps, and what they will do to operate in these climbs, and how they will rescue people, details which are throughout The Outpost, but they have, they’re just bred, they eat heroism for breakfast when they go after victims of crashes and ambushes in these regions. It’s just amazing.
JT: And these medevacs don’t have guns.
HH: Right. It really is. I’ve seen M*A*S*H* a million times, as almost anyone listening has. It’s very different when you’re driving that. In fact, have anyone spoken to you yet as to whether or not they identify the Korean War with some of these incidents that you describe, Jake Tapper?
JT: They reached farther back than that. This is, you know, they were reaching back to Alexander, and they were reaching back to the Soviet War more. Where the Korean War came in, I think, had a lot more to do with some of the black comedy of being in a place like that that makes no sense, that there were references to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H*, the movie more than the TV show, just because so many things just seemed crazy. There’s a period in the book when the helicopters, because it’s so dangerous to fly there, now they’re not driving up to COP Keating anymore, so they’re flying. But they don’t want to fly, because no pilot wants to fly up there, because it’s so dangerous. And so there are all these contractors that start being hired to drop off not men or weapons, but just basic supplies. And a lot of them are, you know, seem drunk, they’re Eastern European, literally from Eastern Europe, not American Eastern European. And they swoop their helicopters in and they seem drunk, and they run off to the river and relieve themselves and then come back. And soldiers are just standing there like what world are we living in now where this is how we get resupplied?
HH: And convoys of jingle trucks, that’s another thing if there was a video, no one would believe it.
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HH: We’ll continue with a long segment on the other side of this break, Jake, but I wanted to ask you there are a lot of smells in The Outpost, a lot of hooches that you just don’t want to go into, and your nose crinkles, and a lot of people are wearing the same clothes again and again. Where did you get those details?
JT: Well, I interviewed more than 225 people for the book, most of them over and over and over again. And you know, it was important to try to bring people into the picture as much as possible since it’s…what I wanted to have happen was for people to feel like they were there, like they were sitting alongside of these soldiers as they experienced the outreach to locals. And smell, to me, is the most vivid sense. And so when a female intelligence officer goes and meets with a number of female Afghans, or Nuristanis, really, because they’re their own distinct ethnic group, it becomes, it became important not only to describe what these women and girls looked like, but what it smelled like, just so people would have a better understanding of what it was like to be there, not just look at pictures.
HH: It’s throughout the entire book, and it’s a very well done important detail right down to the smell of jingle trucks blown up and burned, containing chicken and steaks.
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HH: In the first hour, I tried to just give you a sense of how it got established. Jake Tapper, now let’s pick up with Lt. Col. Howard, who’s a very riveting figure. And he brings the news of Lt. Col. Fenty’s death to his wife, and then he takes command of COP Keating and the area. And it’s hard on him. This book is hard on Col. Howard. Tell us about him.
JT: Well, he was put in an impossible situation, and I tried to convey that. He, you know, it’s difficult to take over command for somebody as beloved as Lt. Col. Fenty was. But Mike Howard is a different breed of cat. He’s a tough officer, much more quick temper, much more no nonsense. And I don’t want to really, I hope I don’t take issue with him, but certainly people under him took issue with some of his command decisions. And the most significant one being the one to send a light, medium tactical vehicle truck, an LMTV truck, from the forward operating base, which is a much bigger base, to COP Keating. He wanted to do it, and people did not understand why he wanted to do it, people under his command. It seemed to be because he wanted to demonstrate American force and might, what’s called a show of force. He wanted to, because they could not resupply with helicopters, he wanted to show that it could be resupplied with this truck. And people underneath him in the command structure disagreed with the decision. Ultimately, it’s a decision that was dangerous, because getting the LMTV on that road, which is a very dangerous road even for a Humvee to drive on, much less a bigger truck, was a harrowing experience for the men who had led the platoon, and were wounded, seriously wounded, as they felt like sitting ducks driving very slowly in this truck, and the convoy with it. But then also, ultimately, the LMTV sat at the base, and Ben Keating is the one who drove it back, and that’s when he was in the rollover and was killed. Now it’s interesting, why did Ben Keating do that? Because in the military, the commander of a convoy, which Ben Keating was, Lt. Keating was, would never drive.
JT: And this is why his history as a Christian was very significant. He’s the son of ministers in Maine, and from a very early age was very spiritual. He read the Picture Bible, really identified with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, felt like he learned more in how to command from Christian youth camp than he ever learned in ROTC. And his method of leadership was to lead, as odd as it might seem, but to lead a platoon the way he thought Jesus might, which is you serve your men. And therefore, when it came time to make this decision to drive this LMTV at night on this unstable road, Ben Keating felt the need to drive it himself. He didn’t want anybody else to have to go through the pain or suffering of what might happen. It would need to be him. That’s how he lived. And that’s how he died.
HH: He, on November 25th, you quote him as saying, 2006, it’s stupid and it’s dangerous, so I’m going to drive. And the road gives out underneath him, because these roads are just not built for LMTV’s. It’s not the insurgency that kills him, although driving at night doesn’t make it any easier. Then, there’s the incredible story…he’s a very inspiring figure, and I’m glad his parents gave you his emails. I think a lot of people will identify with those emails, a lot of young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out there. But the recovery of his body and the saving of Sgt. Tiller is a testament again to the relentlessness of the band of brothers. I mean, they just, he’s…I don’t know how many feet that truck fell, but they did not give up until they had him and Sgt. Tiller, in his case, his body, but Sgt. Tiller rescued. And it’s amazing, actually.
JT: Yeah, I mean, and this was a difficult part of the book to research, because I had to ask these men, many for whom this was the worst night of their lives. They lost a dear friend and commander, or I guess he wasn’t a commander, but he was a leader. And yeah, the LMTV spills over, and people run, you know, it’s nighttime, and people run down this cliff to get Ben and to get Vernon Tiller, one of the chief mechanics. And Tiller’s ultimately okay, but Ben is in horrible shape, and barely hanging onto life.
HH: Staff Sgt. Heathe Craig of the 159th Medical Company rides something called a jungle penetrator. And I don’t know how they would ever put this on film. It’s just unbelievable what they do. And so people should read that, because Ben Keating deserves to have that read, but there are lots of other stories, including 2610, Hill 2610, where again, almost crazy happenstance ends up killing Americans. In this case, the delay of a day in the expedition strands a group on a hill and they need a speed ball, a drop of supplies, Jake Tapper. Tell people what happens next.
JT: Well, there was a kill team and some scouts led by Cricket Cunningham and Jared Monti. These are two working class guys from New England who had wanted to do a mission together for a long time. They were put there on Hill 2610 to look over this village called Gawardesh, which is kind of like the wild west. It was a border town right next to Pakistan, and a local timber gangster named Haji Yunus, I think his name was, was there. And before the 10th Mountain pushed in, before 3-71 Cav pushed into meet with the villagers, they wanted to do overwatch. They wanted to look out and make sure that they knew who was there, who the bad guys were. So they were there, and then there’s an incident with an IED in which a sergeant named Adonis Flores is wounded, and because of that, they have to delay the operation to push into Gawardesh by a day. As you say, they drop a speed ball, because Cricket and Jared Monti, and their men, they have a dozen men, are running out of water and food. They need that, so they drop it. And that alerts enemy fighters that they’re there. And they’re ambushed. They’re attacked. And ultimately, four Americans die on Hill 2610 – two in the attack, and two in a horrible incident afterwards. But Jared Monti was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which is the highest medal you can get…
JT: …because his act of bravery was so unbelievable. One of his men was wounded, and Cricket says I’ll go get him, and Jared says no, no, he’s my man, because he was a scout. He wasn’t a sniper. I’ll get him. And he runs out into danger, and this isn’t danger like one bad guy with a gun. This is dozens of insurgents firing RPG’s and machine guns. And Jared Monti is killed. It was a very difficult thing to write. I went over it a couple of times with Jared’s dad, Paul, who had some requests in terms of some details not being shared, and some of the other guys on the mission made that request as well. Generally speaking, as a matter of policy when it came to writing this book, I had to decide, Hugh, how graphic to be. And one of the things that was motivating me was I don’t know how bad this war is and how much…not bad in terms of whether or not it’s a just war, but how difficult it is to fight this war. I don’t know that, and I cover this thing. I need to share these details so that people know what sacrifices are being made. That said, there were some details that I withheld upon request of family members or just common sense.
HH: Jake, how often, a minute to the break, how often did this just stop you in your tracks and reduce you to tears?
JT: A lot. I mean, I didn’t have an abacus there for my weeping, but it was more just the kind of sorrow you feel in the pit of your soul. And also combined, to be quite candid, with a sense of worthlessness, just because these people do so much for us, and yeah, it’s nice that I took the time to write their stories, but I mean, what they do is so powerful and so meaningful and so selfless. And we are…we…all I could do was just be humble. And you know, honestly, it makes me a little bit mad. These guys thanked me for writing their story, and I’m like shut up. Don’t thank me. I don’t deserve your thanks.
HH: I get that.
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HH: Deep religiosity in the music one of the wives plays to her husband who ultimately doesn’t make it, is part of the story of The Outpost, following soldiers wounded in the war in their evacuation all the way back to Walter Reed and beyond, is part of Jake Tapper’s art in The Outpost. Before we go there, though, Jake, I want to ask you about…the angriest I was in the book is at the end when I read the report from Major General Guy Swan III, condemning people at COP Keating. I’m curious what your reaction was when you read that report.
JT: Well, I read it a few times. The first time I read it, I read it without knowing much about the COP, and knowing that it was disputed, but that…and these people were reprimanded – a colonel, lieutenant colonel and two captains, one who had served there, and one who had been serving there for a couple of weeks. After doing the research for the book, it made me very angry. All three of the four disciplinary actions, one of them I think was merited, and that was the captain who had already left, Melvin Porter…
JT: …who had not supported efforts by the men to…
HH: Increase defenses, yeah.
JT: …fortify the base. Though to be frank, and you know, probably it would not have made a difference anyway. The biggest problem with that base is it was at the bottom of three steep mountains.
JT: But I have now become friends with many of, well, I’ve become friends with Lt. Col. Brad Brown, who’s now a colonel, and Stoney Portis, Captain Stoney Portis who’s now a major. And these are guys, I mean, the most important thing is that Colonel Randy George and Lt. Col. Brown were trying to close this base.
JT: They had been trying for months to shut it down, because it was, in their view, not worth anything and too dangerous. And for many reasons having to do with all sorts of politics, both Afghan politics and American politics, and also because of limited resources, and this is in 2009, so President Obama was the president, and General McChrystal was the head of ISAF at the time, McChrystal did not approve the closure of the COP until it was too late, until October, and then the camp was…
HH: That is one of the maddening things that is the story. The Outpost does do generals. Mostly, it does privates and sergeants and lieutenants and captains, but it does do generals. And one of the things I think everyone in the Army is going to thank you for, or the military. I married into a military family, so I learned, I’m shocked that I didn’t already know this. When I hear about a four month addition to their time and place, I didn’t really quite get what that meant, but you describe that when the 3-71 is extended for four months. It’s devastating to people, Jake Tapper.
JT: I’m exactly the same as you. To me, it didn’t mean anything. Oh, they got extended. Well, they’re Army guys.
HH: Yeah, you’re going to be at the White House for four months, Jake, and then we’ll move you around or something.
JT: Yeah, I mean, what’s the big deal? But then you see these guys who have been in hell for a year, and then all of a sudden, all the rotations are extended. For four months for several of the guys who had wedding planned, that means that their weddings now have to be cancelled or rescheduled. But also, it’s oh my God, I thought I was going to get out of here alive, I’ve been counting down the days. And now I have four more months at this place. And it’s a horrible, horrible thing.
HH: Yeah. You also leave me with foreboding. On this very day, there’s a story in the New York Times about the tipping of Afghanistan back towards civil war. And the Afghan army and the Afghan police, I’m just filled with foreboding at the end of this that you know, they just utterly ran away. And throughout the book there, there are some good ones, and you talk about them. And our men treat them with great respect, and they sacrifice for them, and some of them sacrificed for our guys. But in the end, Jake Tapper, do you have any sense that they’re a reliable force at all?
JT: This was also something that I learned while writing this book, because you’re right. I mean, some of the Afghan troops and Afghan border patrol and Afghan police are great. Some of them are absolutely stupendous and the Americans were really happy about them and rally upbeat. But then towards the end, this, a kandak is a battalion with the ANA, with the Afghan National Army. And this last kandak in 2009 was a bad one, for whatever reason. And you see them with questionable behavior in an attack at this Afghan oupost, Bari Alai in Kunar Province in early 2009. And then you see it with the fact that these Afghan soldiers at COP Keating were awful when they were attacked. Many of them fled, some of them handed over their guns to the enemy as they were being attacked. Many of them hid, many of them pillaged the Americans’ rooms. It was, they were just worthless in battle, and it was horrific. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can tell you that when I was at Forward Operating Base Bostick a year ago, and I talked to the people with whom I was embedded, Major Edwards and Captain Schachman and others, Schachman actually came to the book launch on Saturday, I asked them what they thought. They felt good about the Afghan soldiers, they felt decent about the Afghan police, they were very concerned about the logistical backup for ANA and ANP.
JT: They were very worried about that. And as we know, and this is one of the lessons in the book, the logistical backup can be everything.
HH: And how in the world will they resupply people? I want to, before we lose this segment, get people into the most optimistic time of the book when the 1-91 arrives. You’ve got some amazing people – Captain Bostick, ten years as an enlisted man, very charismatic captain, Lieutenant Newsom, who’s nickname is Captain America. You’ve got Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, the big brain from Nebraska, you’ve got great Staff Sgt. Fritsche, and all these other people. They made progress. It was working for a period of time, Jake Tapper.
JT: That’s right, and that’s kind of part of the narrative arc of the book, is that they actually succeed. They, Col. Kolenda, who recently left the Army but is still working at the Pentagon, Col. Kolenda is a big believer in counterinsurgency, and a big believer in empowering locals. And it works. And they have a saying, the locals, form a group called the hundred-man shura. And the hundred-man shura convinces townspeople who have insurgents in their family to get them to lay down their arms, to get them to stop fighting. There is, when the U.S. pulls into Afghanistan, this part of Afghanistan in 2006, the bad guy is not the Taliban. The bad guy is what’s called the HIG, a local nationalist group. And under Col. Kolenda, and then subsequently, the HIG actually lays down its arms and works with the Afghan government. The problem is that there are still enough gangsters and insurgents and zealots so that when the Taliban then comes in, there is an army waiting for them to join up. And so ultimately, the enemy changes. There’s really no Taliban presence in Nuristan in 2006. But by 2009, it’s a strong one.
HH: And by the time we get to the battle for Forward Operating Base Keating, there are 300 Taliban surrounding 55 Americans.
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HH: Rascal Flatts, another of the selections played by one of the home front women who are so amazing in the book, The Outpost: An Untold Story Of American Valor by Jake Tapper, ABC News senior White House correspondent. The book is out now. Jake, one of the things that comes through in this book, again, I think we’ve seen so many pictures of big bases like Bagram, and I’ve read so many accounts of Special Forces, and the bases from which they operate in ordinary times when they’re not deployed. People don’t really understand the conditions under which the troops are living in these bases. You’ve got on Page 241 the 1-91 flying from Germany to Kyrgyzstan to Bagram to Jalalabad to Naray, to Bulldog Troop moving into Camp Keating. It got worse and worse. At one point, though, one of the soldiers is eating ice cream, and Bostick, the key captain says are you going to eat that, and the staff sergeant says no. And he says you should, because at Keating, there’s not going to be any blankety-blank ice cream. In fact, sometimes, there wasn’t any food except the MRE’s.
JT: Yeah, it got pretty tough at times, because resupplying was so difficult. And yeah, I mean, it certainly got better from 2006 to 2009. In 2006, it was flea infested hovels that they lived in, and mostly, they slept on the ground, maybe under their trucks just to be safe. But they built up the base, but it was still rather Spartan, and with no showers whatsoever, with no plumbing whatsoever, with very little to eat, very little to drink.
HH: And cold.
JT: And troops would get skinnier and skinnier, and folks back home would get worried, because they’d see these pictures of their loved ones wasting away.
HH: Now I want to talk about the day that Sgt. Fritsche and Captain Bostick were lost. Would you tell people about, that was a mission, and it was an assassination in essence.
JT: Yeah, this is what happens. So they’re there to do this outreach to local villages. Saret Koleh is this little hamlet on the road that in a few instances, when U.S. convoys have been gone the road, it seems like there is fire coming from that general area of Saret Koleh. And Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, who’s stationed at the local forward operating base, decides that they’re going to do outreach to this little town, to this little hamlet. So first of all, 1st Lt. Dave Roller sets up overwatch. And this is one of the, a comic moment in the book. Keep in mind they haven’t seem women in months, because anytime they go into an Afghan village, the women are hidden from them. I would say they hide, but it’s probably more accurate to say they’re hidden. And so Roller is there doing overwatch with his 1st platoon trying to figure out if they, the people of Saret Koleh have any idea that the Americans are coming. He looks down at the river and sees about two dozen naked Afghan women between the ages of like 20 and 30 or so, you know, splashing each other and having a fight, a fun fight. And he calls back into Bostick. He’s like you’re not going to believe this, but you know, I’ve got about two dozen Afghan women splashing each other here. It looks like a sorority pool party. It makes him feel confident that they don’t know that the Americans are there. But then ultimately, it ends up being the worst day of their lives. They go into the village the next day, Captain Bostick leading the way, with Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritsche is very new, very green. He’s been in the Army for five years, but never been in a part of the country, never been fighting. And they’re ambushed, and it’s a very intense, intricate, powerful ambush. And the troops from 1-91 are not ready for it. Ultimately, Ryan Fritsche is shot while trying to do overwatch with a group, and Tom Bostick is hit with an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. And they don’t make it. And so here you have the commander of this troop, this company, is dead. There are three lieutenants there, but they do not have a commander, and they are still in the middle of battle. So the people at headquarters start to panic a little, what are we going to do? Ultimately, they get out, but they leave Ryan Fritsche behind, and that becomes a whole other operation. Then they have to go back and rescue Ryan Fritsche.
HH: Oh, that is an agonizing decision. And at the end of it, on Page 286, you write Dave Roller, the lieutenant, was distraught at the loss of Bostick. Everyone in Bulldog Troop was. But for Roller, the hardest thing of all was the belief that even as he and his fellow soldiers were out there fighting for their lives, no one back home cared. 90% of the American people would rather hear about what Paris Hilton did on Saturday night than be bothered by reports on that silly war in Afghanistan. Of this, Roller was convinced that the people they’d been fighting for would never know their names. And that made the deaths of soldiers such as Tom Bostick and Ryan Fritsche all the more tragic. When I come back, I want to ask you a first question, Jake Tapper, if that is a widely held belief among the veterans of Combat Outpost Keating.
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HH: When we went to break, Jake, I had asked you do many soldiers share the view of Lt. Roller than nobody knows and nobody cares?
JT: I think they’re disappointed, a lot of them, most of the ones I’ve talked to. And not just the troops, but their moms and their wives about how little the nation seems to want to hear about what they’re going through, and how little the nation seems to want to know their names or respect what they did, or have any understanding of what they did. The…a woman who has become my friend, her son, Stephan Mace, was killed in that final battle, Vanessa Adelson, recently posted on Facebook that she was happy that this book was written. Maybe now people would know what happened at COP Keating. And she noted that at the time, October, 2009 and thereabouts, the media was more focused on Balloon Boy and the David Letterman sex scandal than they were on COP Keating. And just looking back on it as a member of the media, and you know, I don’t always agree with every decision made by my media outlet or any other media outlet. But it’s inescapable to conclude anything but the fact that I mean, that was a huge story, the Letterman sex scandal, and it wasn’t even really a scandal. I mean, it was two consenting adults.
HH: Yeah. Well, I was amazed. I read this after the election in the last week, and I’m amazed that the election did not deal with these issues. And I’m partly responsible. I talked to Romney a lot, and I just, I know what his policy is on Afghanistan, and I know what the President’s policy is on Afghanistan. But I wonder if either of them really get a sense of what is described here in The Outpost? And I don’t think the media writ large did much of a job of asking them to articulate what the plan is.
JT: No, I agree. I mean, I think there is a moment…I agree with you, and that’s certainly a failure of mine as well. I mean, I’ve asked the President about Afghanistan, but you know, the last question…
HH: But you brought their questions to him. I like that. I had forgotten that until I read it, but you might tell people. You brought questions to the President from these men.
JT: Yeah, the President had a press conference earlier this year in which it was at the NATO summit in Chicago, in which they were trying to, you know, they were going to lay out what the plan was for the next couple of years. And I solicited questions from, you know, I’ve become friends and acquaintances with a lot of these people now, and I solicited questions on Facebook and on email, and I picked two. Now to the White House’s credit, I told them I have questions from soldiers. I didn’t tell them what the questions were, obviously, but I said I have questions from soldiers. And so the President, he went to me. And that, I think, is probably testament to a guy who works at the National Security Council named Ben Rhodes, who has been, like me, somebody who never served, but has been moved and touched by meeting people who have and the sacrifices they made. And so I think Ben probably had something to do with making sure President Obama called on me. And the two questions I asked were from Lt. Stephen Cady and Sgt. Eric Harder. Cady wanted to know what happens if we withdraw and everything goes downhill. And the President gave his answer about you know, there’s a time to leave, and at a certain point, U.S. presence in some countries might end up doing more harm than good. And then Eric Harder, I mean, obviously you should read the book for the more comprehensive answer. I’m paraphrasing probably not entirely accurately. But Eric Harder, who was at the time, he’s back now, thank God, but he at the time was in Afghanistan having been redeployed there. He wanted to know if the President thought he was getting the straight story, if people were telling him the truth.
JT: And the President said, he alluded to having ways and methods of hearing from not just the generals and the colonels, but also from the NCO’s and the privates and specialists. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but Harder at the time was in Afghanistan thinking that you know, I don’t think the President is getting the full story about all this.
HH: Now I encourage people to read that, and to read the interplay between generals, colonels and majors and captains all the way up and down the chain of command, and they can conclude the answer to that. Before this break comes up, Jake Tapper, I want to turn to the 6-4, and Robert, help me with the name, is it…
HH: Yllescas. Robert Yllescas is lost. He’s severely injured, he gets back to Walter Reed. There’s one of the most moving pictures in the book is of his little girl, Eva, visiting his graveside. And Dena’s music is the music I’ve played this hour.
HH: I am curious if she thinks, and the spouses think, their husbands got the best medical care available.
JT: I think the ones, you know, speaking broadly, I think the ones whose husbands made it back to hospitals feel good about the care they got at the hospitals. But I think, I mean, one of the things that’s tough about a place like Combat Outpost Keating is they can’t rely on refrigeration, so they don’t have blood there. And there were triage decisions made during the battle of Kamdesh, the October 3rd, 2009 fight, that upset people when they found out that, for instance, Josh Kirk, Sgt. Kirk, one of the bravest guys in Black Knight troop…
HH: That’s the last troop. That’s the troop in the battle, the big battle.
JT: Yeah, they were the first guys to suit up whenever there was a bullet fired. They’d be the first ones to run into the line of fire. And Josh Kirk died incredibly bravely. But when he was brought into the aid station, he was not yet dead. He was on his way. He was doing agonal breaths, dying breaths, and he had lost so much blood. And the decision was made that they could have tried to keep him alive for another hour, but that ultimately, they didn’t think he was going to make it, or they knew he was not going to make it, and there were, the aid station was filling up with people, and they couldn’t devote two medics or a physician assistant and a medic to keeping Josh Kirk alive when he wasn’t going to make it. Ultimately, a triage decision was made that is a heartbreaking one, that they just needed to move on. And so in some cases, yes, but in some cases, no. I don’t think that the medical care was always what it needed to be, but that’s also what happens when you have these outposts on the front lines in obscure and remote corners of the world.
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HH: And Jake, let’s set it up. The 3-61 arrives, the 6-4 loses its captain, Robert Yllescas, to basically an assassination attempt, and a new unit arrives, the 3-61. But their colonels, Col. George and Lt. Col. Brown, they really don’t want this base. Tell people what happens next.
JT: Well, they had been, they had visited the base on the day of Rob Yllescas’ funeral. They went there ahead of time to survey the land and the area of operations. They get off the helicopter and COP Keating, and George turns to Brown and says what the hell are they doing here, because it’s this incredibly vulnerable camp.
HH: Doesn’t that, that reaction again and again through the book, people get off the helicopter or they look up the mountain and they say what in the hell are we doing here.
HH: Did anyone say hey, good idea?
JT: Well, Brown and George then try to close it.
JT: And the reason that McChrystal does not give approval is the following. One, McChrystal, who was then the commander of ISAF having replaced General McKiernan, who Bob Gates and Admiral Mullen, the Joint Chiefs Chairman at the time wanted, didn’t think was, well, they found his leadership lacking, so they fired him and replaced him with McChrystal, who is one of the new age leader-warrior poets, along with Petraeus. And interestingly enough, both Petraeus and McChrystal have not tragically fallen. Maybe they believed their own press clippings too much or something. But in any case, apologize for the editorial comment.
HH: No, that’s fine.
JT: But in any case, McChrystal is under pressure from Karzai not to shut the base, or any bases, before the August, 2009 elections, because it would be seen as weakness. In addition, there is a town called Barg-e-Matel, where Karzai is counting on receiving a lot of votes. And in fact, more votes come from Barg-e-Matel than there exist voters.
HH: Lots more votes, yeah.
JT: Thousands more. And in addition, then there’s fighting in Barg-e-Matel, and so they don’t have the helicopters to, that they would need to close a camp, because again, they still don’t have helicopters, even though President Obama ultimately did surge troops significantly. At that point, he had not, and so they were still lacking the basic supplies they needed, just as they did in 2006 when we talked about that Hill 2610 mission. And then in addition, McChrystal and the White House had gotten into a, you know, I don’t want, I’m not sure what, a urinating match.
JT: I don’t want to use any impolite words.
HH: No FCC fines, you’re right.
JT: Exactly, but they were embroiled in a back and forth, McChrystal and the White House. The White House thought McChrystal was trying to roll them, McChrystal thought the White House was, he didn’t understand what President Obama wanted in terms of his war. This was all while President Obama was forming his Af-Pak strategy, and there was a lot of back and forth. And ultimately, at this point in his dynamic with President Obama, McChrystal says to Col. George, I don’t want to get ahead of the President, meaning he doesn’t want to make these decisions that could be interpreted as him getting too big for his britches again. All of which is to say, plus also, Bowe Bergdahl, who is now a prisoner of war, had recently walked off his base and assets and air drones and such were being used to look for him. All of which means the decision to close Combat Outpost Lowell and Keating and some others was postponed. And ultimately, that decision meant that men died.
HH: Do you think that this book and the attention it pays to postponing decisions may in fact change Army doctrine about the rapidity with which such decision has to be made?
JT: I can’t say that the book will, but I certainly hope that there are lessons drawn from COP Keating, both in terms of having bases so far away from support, when a medevac would take an hour and a half to get there, 40 minutes at least for an Apache to come and help the camp if it was under attack. And then just in terms of Army thinking of well, you know this doesn’t make sense, let’s change it as opposed to well, this doesn’t make sense, so let’s fortify it more or double down on it. I don’t know that it will change anybody’s way of thinking, but I hope it does.
HH: Let me ask you about the one theme in the book which is the continuing critique that President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld undersourced the war from the beginning. And there’s a long argument there about which was the right war and which wasn’t, that we had won in Iraq where you could win, but you can never win in Afghanistan, so you don’t over supply it. But whatever that is, do you have a sense that either Rumsfeld or Bush regret their staffing decisions here? Or do they say, as I’ve heard it said, they did what the Pentagon told them to do?
JT: Well, Bush has said that he regretted not sending more troops into the country. He said that in his autobiography, Decision Points. I have not, I don’t think Secretary Rumsfeld has. But you know, it’s very clear that the troops, and I mean the soldiers there who worked hard, some of them died, complained all the time that they couldn’t do their job, not because they needed 300,000 soldiers there, but because they didn’t have the helicopters they needed, or they couldn’t be resupplied. It wasn’t just about what we really need to invade this country, and have a U.S. platoon on every hillside.
HH: Right, but here’s my…I walk away very sympathetic to that, but then I’m asking the same question. We don’t want Johnson picking bombing targets, right? You don’t want the president of the United States running a war.
HH: And Secretary of Defense has invaded Iraq, and he’s got, he’s running a war in Iraq, and he’s got things all over the world. Who is responsible for decisions like this where men are stuck out in a cavalry outpost waiting for Sitting Bull?
JT: Well, that’s a great question, because you’re right. And I say that in the book.
HH: Yeah, you do.
JT: Ultimately, you can’t expect Bush or Obama to be like making decisions about which combat outposts to occupy. That needs to be delegated to people beneath him. The question is does the information flow the other way? Does somebody say President Bush, President Obama, we need 20 helicopters there now? And if we don’t get them, people are going to die. I don’t know. I mean, I remember, obviously, how General Shinseki, the then-Chief of Staff of the Army, was marginalized. He was not fired. But he was marginalized after he testified before Congress that at least a couple hundred thousand troops will be needed in Iraq after the invasion. And he was marginalized for saying that, because there were people who did not think that that was the case, and he was not supposed to say that, and nobody really spoke out against command decisions like that since.
HH: And bipartisan failure as well. This is in The Outpost. The ISI, Pakistan, is behind this rat line. And it’s clear that the rat line got bigger and stronger as COP became weaker and more exposed. And it comes together on October 3rd, 2009, which we’ll talk about after the break. But I still hear bipartisan denial of the Pakistan problem, Jake Tapper.
JT: Oh, and I say this at the end of the book. Bin Laden is barely mentioned in this book. Al Qaeda is not a player in this book. It’s local groups, Taliban and HIG, and it’s Pakistan. And in fact, one Afghan border patrol commander, colonel that I interviewed, tells me that the ISI are the ones who basically sent in the fighters to attack the COP.
HH: Wow. Now is there concern on your part that if the United States withdraws as expected in the summer of next year, 2014, that the Taliban will welcome back al Qaeda into the regions that they will dominate? And they will dominate in some regions, correct?
JT: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re going to have, I know we’re going to have, and you know this as well, Hugh, that we will have a Special Forces component in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. I mean, I can’t imagine we’re not going to have Navy SEALs and Green Berets and the like, and CIA probably as well, in Afghanistan ready to take out any threat of that nature. But my concern is, and obviously I’m concerned about that, but I think what we might not be prepared for is what, are we going to have Special Forces there to go after forces that are threats to Afghans? And what if two tribes, or two different ethnic groups are fighting, and committing barbaric, horrific acts against one another? Do we get involved then? Or do our Special Forces let them fight it out as it becomes a very…
HH: That seems almost, from the very beginning as I learned about Nuristan and the outpost, I thought to myself the Hatfields and the McCoys are like cub scout groups compared to these people. And it will be something to behold when we are gone and that thin veneer of civilization is withdrawn after the ten years of bribes back and forth, and the money that poured in. I haven’t even touched on that. Three more segments with Jake Tapper, to the battle, to the battle itself when we come back, the one which launched Jake Tapper on The Outpost.
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HH: I play True Grit, well, you tell them why I played True Grit, Jake Tapper.
JT: Well, the last commander at COP Keating is a guy named Stoney Portis, a very, an excellent officer and a good man. And his father’s cousin, Charles Portis, wrote the book, True Grit. And Stoney, who’s from Texas, could be a character in the movie, True Grit. He may be one of the Texas Rangers, I don’t know.
HH: He stands out, and everyone at Forward Operating Base Keating on October 3rd, 2009, is etched in eternity here, and as long as books are around. But Portis’ wedding band has Isaiah 6:8 inscribed on it – Who will go for us, whom shall I send. And I said send me. The religiosity of many of these men, not all of them, Jake Tapper, is something I took away from this book.
JT: Yeah, there’s a lot of religion in this book. And as you know, Hugh, I’m a man of faith myself, and have nothing but respect for people of faith. And I respect agnostics and atheists as well, but it’s an important motivating force for a lot of these people, even when in their darkest hour, I mean, you talked about Rob Yllescas, who was assassinated and lingered in a coma for about a month before he passed away. And his wife and her mother and mother-in-law were very, very religious people. They were convinced when his bilirubin count went up it was because they had been praying for it. Ultimately, God had other plans for Rob Yllescas, and she prays and prays and prays, and I include those prayers in the book, because they’re part of who she was, and part of the powerful story of her saying goodbye to her husband.
HH: It is powerful. And the faith element of this book is throughout. People should read it aware that the whole story is told. Now let’s set the day up, because Stoney Portis, this charismatic captain who’s in charge of COP Keating, one of the accidents of war, he’s not there on the fateful day. Tell people why not.
JT: It’s incredible. I mean, finally, COP Keating, after having a commander killed, Tom Bostick in 2007, a commander assassinated, Rob Yllescas in 2008, a commander later described by the Army investigators as weak, Captain Mel Porter, who leaves, they finally get this guy, Stoney Portis, True Grit, who is ready to fortify the camp and be there for his men. And he, they’re about to close the base. They’re about to close COP Keating. So he wants to go up to the observation post to take inventory because of Army bureaucracy. It’s about a four hour hike up the mountain, so they have a helicopter there. So he and some of the other guys just get in the helicopter to go up to the observation post in a matter of 20 seconds as opposed to a four hour walk. And a sniper takes a shot at it. And luckily for Stoney and the others, nobody is hurt, but it damages the helicopter so much that it just speeds out of the valley and heads back to the forward operating base. And thus, again, the Taliban, the local insurgents, remove a captain, a commander, from COP Keating. And when they attack, although this is probably just good luck by them, not planned, but when they attack, the commander is not there. And it falls to one of the lieutenants, Andrew Bundermann, to take command and take charge.
HH: Bundermann does a hell of a job. I mean, this is riveting in the command post. He just is, his pulse doesn’t rise.
JT: No, he’s an incredible guy, and totally at ease and totally calm. And the helicopter pilots who later, the Apache pilots who later help save the COP credit Bundermann for being so calm and cool, and for passionlessly telling them what to do and sharing the grids. And ultimately, you know, the COP is saved. Eight men die, it’s horrible die, but 45 men survive. And it’s incredible, but Andrew Bundermann, he left the Army. I mean, incidents like these, what it means, ultimately, is that they, we lose a lot of good soldiers just because it’s such a horrifying and challenging thing.
HH: I want people to understand in the three months prior to the 3-61 arriving at Camp Keating, forward operating base Keating, 35 attacks on it had occurred. One person station there saying being at Camp Keating is like deer hunting, but we aren’t the ones in the deer…the deer, because of these mountains around.
HH: But there’s a base up on top, and would you explain the geography of the observation post up on COP Fritsche?
JT: Observation Post Fritsche has no direct line of sight Combat Outpost Keating it is the observation post for. It cannot observe. It is an observation post that cannot observe. And from Combat Outpost Keating, you cannot see Observation Post Fritsche. But Fritsche is in a safe and secure location, and nobody in the three and a half years of that camp, nobody dies up there. Nobody is killed up there.
HH: Now you know, I know my friend, for example, Col. Breslow is listening. He’s retired now, served in Iraq. His son is in Afghanistan as we speak. I’m sure he’s not believing, unless he knows the story of this, the idea that we would put people here. Do you get that reaction, Jake Tapper, from people who are professionals, but nevertheless read these details and look at you and say that can’t be true?
JT: Most of the people who I have talked with about this know the story. And you know, it hasn’t gotten widespread notice for a lot of reasons, some of which is, you know, one reason is because there was this horrific attack that was kind of like the attack at COP Keating. It was about a year before in the same province, Nuristan, at Wanat. And nine guys died there, but that was a combat outpost that was only like a day or two old. It had not really been able to form yet. It had not built up yet. And I tell the story of Wanat in the book to a smaller degree.
JT: But Combat Outpost Keating, the idea that this place could be there for three and a half years in such a vulnerable position, a lot of Americans don’t understand it, and a lot of troops don’t understand it. The people who served the previous years, they were able to fend off big attacks from the insurgents. Well, the 1-91, the second company there, they had all that success with winning over the locals. The next group, the 6-4, they had a couple of near misses, but they were there and they were on top of things, and lucky in a couple of instances. It was bound to happen sooner or later that the Taliban would succeed.
HH: And they, the Taliban put more than 300 of their fighters in the hills surrounding COP Keating. They also had enough to attack the observation post simultaneously. And their weapons, it’s a surprise to me, that their weapons are as sophisticated as they turn out to be in the attack on the outpost.
JT: Yeah, no look, I mean, this is Captain Chris Cordova, who was the chief medical officer at COP Keating, and I just saw him the other day, and I interviewed him for the piece that’s going to air on Nightline tonight. He said I hate to say it, but it was a brilliant attack. And it was. These are not cavemen. These are smart fighters, and ruthless, which is what you want in a fighter. They went after the observation post and pinned it down. They went after, they knew exactly where everybody was going to go. The first person killed was a private Kevin Thompson, a mortarman, who was there, ran out to his gun to shoot back at the enemy, and got killed. And then they pinned down the mortarmen. The mortarmen could not go out to the big guns. And the big guns are the only way to really respond when you’re in the bottom of a valley. So it was a brilliant attack.
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HH: How long does the attack last, Jake Tapper, total? And this is a six minute segment. Can you give people a sense of…they have to read the book. There’s no way to communicate 150 pages of combat, but what happened that day?
JT: It starts at 5:58 in the morning, and I actually have information about the attackers, because I was able to interview two of them, two of the insurgents. And there were videos as well of their attack. It starts at 5:58 in the morning, and it’s just an unrelenting hailstorm of machine gun fire, RPG’s and mortars at this very vulnerable outpost. They pinned down the mortarmen, so they can’t respond. They pinned down the observation post. They set up positions so that any helicopters that come there are also made, are also vulnerable and fired upon. And as the U.S. soldiers run out to return fire, or to bring ammunition to those at the guard posts, the snipers and insurgents know exactly where they’re going and exactly what doors they’re coming out of, and they just pick them off one by one. It’s a devastating battle. Ultimately, the words that nobody wants to hear, enemy in the wire, meaning there are insurgents, there are terrorists inside the camp, are shouted out. And there are insurgents inside the camp. Eventually, there are some incredible acts of heroism, not just in returning fire, but in taking the camp back. In the words of Sgt. Clint Romesha, who’s one of the Medal of Honor nominees. People who go right into fire, right into places where people were just killed moments before and run right into it. And there are some very inspiring stories of courage. Eventually, ultimately, the U.S. beats back the Taliban. A lot of the troops who were, Captain Portis and some of the others lead a quick reaction force down the hill, down the mountainside. They had their own adventure there. And they come across the camp, and the whole thing lasts more than 12 hours. I think it’s around 8:00, so roughly 14 hours before they can get a medevac helicopter safely onto the ground.
HH: And the Taliban don’t give up, either. They take A-10s, B-1s, Apache helicopters who are flying, I’m sure the helicopter service has never really received as much attention as they’re going to receive in this chapter, because they were relentless and fearless.
JT: And Stoney Portis describes coming down the mountain from O.P. Fritsche, which had been taken back by the U.S. with a quick reaction force looking into the valley from this thousands of feet up and seeing almost every kind of U.S. flying machine in the air trying to kill Taliban, trying to kill these insurgents, and just how other-worldly it was. And then as if all that weren’t enough, Hugh, the camp sets on fire.
JT: It catches on fire, and they have to start evacuating buildings, because the camp’s on fire. It is just one of these surreal experiences for these men that they can’t even believe they’re going through it.
HH: I wonder if it was like this in World War II, I think it’s Private Rasmussen asked, or is it Sgt. Rasmussen. And is there any doubt, Jake, looking back, that this was as intense as any combat during the war?
JT: It sounds to me, I mean, I’ve heard of other firefights that were as intense, but I have not heard of anything quite like this in terms of a 12 hour firefight with eight casualties in this very vulnerable place where the U.S. is playing defense for the most part. And the helicopters, I mean the pilots, I have a chapter devoted to them as well, because what they do is incredibly brave. They are fired upon in this valley, and their helicopters get hit over and over. But they need to return fire, or else the camp will, you know, the camp is overrun, but it will be completely overrun, and every American will be killed. And the other thing that’s going on at the same time is that there’s a group pinned down in a Humvee, they’re the mortarmen pinned down in Mortaritaville. They start losing communications. They think they’re the only ones left alive in the camp, the five guys in the Humvee, or the three guys in the mortar pit. They don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the camp.
HH: And there’s one translator trapped in the toilet for it seems like 13 hours when he comes back.
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HH: I made a note, Jake, that I wanted to make sure that we included a conversation about Captain Cordova and the battlefield transfusion, and just the amazing effort they made to save so many people, many of whom did make it. Specialist Mace did not. That’s one of the most touching things in here. But I mean, these are amazing men.
JT: Yeah, it’s, you just played the theme music from Band Of Brothers, which I admit I did watch while I was writing this book. Chris Cordova was the senior medical presence, senior medical officer at the COP, and he kept as many people alive as he could during this horrible, horrible day, the kind of day that no doctor, no…and he’s not a doctor, he’s a physician assistant, ever faces on average. And I’m reminded of Saturday night and one of the reasons why it was so meaningful to me. They did everything they could to keep this one guy, Stephan Mace, alive. Stephan Mace is just this incredible, funny, muscular, mischievous guy from Virginia who joined the Army, and was just everybody loved him. And he was shredded. He was one of the five guys in the Humvee. And when they finally made a break for it, he was severely wounded. One guy, Justin Gallegos, was killed trying to save Stephan. Finally, Ty Carter, who was one of the other Medal of Honor nominees, ran into fire to try to rescue Stephan. He and another soldier grabbed him and took him to the aid station. And he was in horrible shape. But Cordova, they don’t have blood, you know? So they tried to put in Hextend, which is, you know, provides nutrients and volume to those who have lost blood, but it wasn’t enough. They start doing person to person transfusions, which Cordova has never done before. But they do one, and it helps them, and then they do another, and it helps him. And finally, they keep him alive until the medevac arrives at about 8:00 that night after the U.S. has basically beaten back the Taliban, although there are still pot shots being taken. Stephan Mace is taken back to Forward Operating Base Bostick where there is a physician, Brad Zagol, who also came to the book launch on Saturday night, where he met for the first time Stephan Mace’s mom. He told Stephan Mace I’m going to get you home, I’m going to get you home. But ultimately, Stephan’s wounds were, they were too much. His body, with all the blood loss, had already started to shut down several times. And when that happens, what happens to the body is the blood goes to the heart and to the brain to keep you alive, and it starts depriving other organs of blood, so other organs in your body start dying, and that’s what happened to Stephan Mace. So by the time he got to the operating table, really, there wasn’t anything Brad Zagol could do. And it hit everybody hard, because they thought well at least we lost seven guys, but at least we got Stephan out of here, and Stephan’s going to make it. And ultimately, he didn’t. Saturday night, Brad Zagol was there, Chris Cordova was there, and Stephan Mace’s mom, Vanessa Adelson was there. Brad said to met that he thought Vanessa had made peace with Stephan’s death in a way that he hadn’t, yet. It’s just, you know, these people are touched and scarred forever because of this battle. And it’s just, these are just wonderful, wonderful people.
HH: Have you heard from Sgt. Gallegos’ family? He’s a pretty epic figure in this thing as well.
JT: He is. He’s large, and they call him Taco Truck, because he’s this huge Mexican-American. Gallegos’ widow, Amanda, was at the book launch. And in fact, just to give a little shout out to Congressman Barber, Amanda took her son and Gallegos’ son, Mac, to Tucson just last month, October, to visit his dad’s grave. And I just put out on Twitter does anybody know anybody, any leaders in Tucson could make a war veteran, a son who lost a father in Afghanistan, make his day for it. And Congressman Barber, who I believe is a Democrat but I’m not 100%.
HH: Yeah, and he won a very narrow race, yeah.
JT: Yeah, I think, and I didn’t say this before the election, but I feel like I can say it now. His office was unbelievable, and took such good care of Macaidan…
HH: That’s good.
JT: …and had him visit sports teams and the fire engines. And I mean, anyway…
HH: That’s terrific.
JT: Vanessa’s remarried, and she’s doing okay, and she was there Saturday night as well. But he is an unbelievable figure the way he runs into battle to save Stephan.
HH: Now last question, Jake. You cheer, I’m not sure it’s right to cheer, but it is that these sergeants Hill and Francis, they’re fundamentals. They target the sniper. And are these guys still in the Army?
JT: They are.
JT: Francis is in, he’s in Afghanistan right now, I think. Sgt. Hill, I believe, is in Louisiana. The sniper is the one who kills Michael Scusa. He’s the third guy killed that day. And Scusa’s mom, Cynthia, who was at the book launch on Saturday, she told me she loved the section. This is the section where Sgt. Hill and Francis spot the sniper, the sniper who killed Scusa. And Hill is trying to shoot at him, shoot at the sniper, and he keeps missing. Now Sgt. Hill used to be a drill sergeant, and Francis jokingly says come on, Sergeant, remember the fundamentals.
HH: Fundamentals, yeah.
JT: And he gets the sniper.
HH: Jake Tapper, thanks for spending so much time. It’s a very amazing book, and I salute you for doing it, and I think people in and around the military all over the world will thank you for doing it. And continued energy on your book tour. I know this has got to be hard to tell these stories again and again and again.
JT: Well, Hugh, you, this was a great interview. I mean, I say this as somebody who does this professionally, and not like a radio interview for three hours like you do, but wow, you read the book, you took notes. I mean, I just, journalistically, my hat’s off to you. That was a really good…
HH: Don’t we owe it to these men? I mean, that if you’re going to write their story, people tell their story? And I hope some screenwriter is listening and calls you up and says let’s go make this, because it deserves also to be seen. Jake Tapper of ABC News, thank you so much.
End of interview.