The Tragic Story Of Outpost Restrepo Sums Up The Whole Afghan War

pemble restrepo doc

Photo: Restrepo, National Geographic

Troops nicknamed Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley “Death Valley” for a reason.If it wasn’t the sheer amount of bombs dropped (more than in the rest of Afghanistan combined at one point), it was the number of American lives consumed during brutal, most often daily fire fights — usually for a matter of feet and inches.

The hard-fought swath of ground in this instance was Combat Outpost Restrepo, an offshoot of a bigger outpost, and more importantly, an offshoot won following a brutal fight in the wake of Juan “Doc” Restrepo’s death in combat.

Sadly, troops left Restrepo and the Korengal Valley without accomplishing much of anything. From a New York Times report:

Closing Korengal Outpost in Kunar Province, a powerful symbol of some of the Afghan war’s most ferocious fights, and a potential harbinger of America’s retreat, is a tacit admission that putting the base there in the first place was a costly mistake.

It cost 37 soldiers to be exact. Afghanistan has cost more than 2,100, and now America’s gearing up to leave, while citizens begin to openly wonder: was that a costly mistake as well?

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent several months filming the soldiers at Restrepo. What follows is a visceral take on combat in Afghanistan’s most dangerous strip of land.

Documentary filmmakers Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington had extraordinary access with the men of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company.

The airborne paratroopers moved out by helicopter to a remote Afghan outpost in 2007.

Located in the Korengal Valley, it may have been the most dangerous place on earth.

When they get off the bird and head up the hill to the combat outpost (COP), the altitude hits and they start sucking wind.

They were told by other soldiers that they would get shot at every day.

And it wasn't long before their first firefight. They responded with helicopter support.

And 120mm Mortars.

Captain Kearney gives the overview of what they are up against.

But they still go out there anyway, day after day.

And the enemy has the upper hand — often firing from above them, and running away at the sound of U.S. helicopters.

And their base is no sanctuary. They got fired on (and fire back at the enemy) frequently.

Sometimes the rounds are so close, all they can do is hunker down and cry 'Oh S---!'

Most fights escalate to air strikes — in fact 70 per cent of all U.S. bombs in Afghanistan were dropped in the Korengal during this period.

Kearney tries to get the locals on his side.

He has a meeting with tribal elders over tea. As usual, they tell him they aren't aware of any Taliban and accuse him of killing innocent people.

But the soldiers keep getting shot at, and they drop more bombs.

Two months after their medic, 'Doc' Restrepo (right), is killed, they adopt a new strategy.

In the middle of the night, they move up a hill to establish a new outpost.

Digging and filling barriers with sand, they name it OP Restrepo after their friend.

And now the Americans had taken the place where the Taliban often fired from and made it their own.

But fighting off attacks at OP Restrepo was a daily chore.

Often they'd have to use the big .50 cal machine gun to keep them back.

With big piles of brass ammo casings often littering the ground around the OP.

And sometimes they'd be so close, the soldiers would pursue them down the mountain.

But it wasn't combat all day. There was downtime.

A popular activity was to get some exercise when they could ...

... But most important was cleaning their weapons for the next engagement.

Reinforcing the defenses of the outpost was also a daily task.

And every so often, a guitar would come out and soldiers could relax.

But there were also the unlucky few who had to burn feces. No plumbing around here.

Captain Kearney's bosses wanted to hear what was happening in the valley.

At Restrepo, soldiers would have guard shifts behind the LRAS — the long range advance scout surveillance system — that gave them infrared imagery deep into the valley.

And the patrols continue as they try to meet with locals and find the bad guys.

But more often, they tell them they can't talk, 'or we will get killed,' one man says.

Frustration is a daily hardship here.

And the kids are the only ones that are more curious of Americans than afraid.

But the biggest operation for Battle Company was yet to come.

Operation: Rock Avalanche would take them somewhere they'd never been, so they had to plan for a big fight.

They applied camouflage paint before leaving to give them concealment, and for some — to make them look more badass.

Choppers dropped them off and they were on their feet for the next 3 days. They take fire early on from inside a village.

AH-64 Apache helicopters come in ...

... And pound the area with rockets.

But they learn that they didn't only hit Taliban fighters. They also killed 5 innocent civilians.

The soldiers continue with their search and find tons of weapons.

But the next day, they wake up and are told that the Taliban is talking about attacking them soon over their radios.

Kearney monitors his radio and stands by to call in air support.

And then a huge fight erupts on the mountain.

Forcing some to get so low they can't even shoot back. Some are wounded or killed.

The shooting is intense as soldiers run after the Taliban.

But they pull back and let the attack helicopters come in.

And keep scanning the area for any stragglers.

After Rock Avalanche and the loss of some of their brothers, morale was at a low point. But Kearney tells them to mourn, and then get back out there the next day.

That doesn't mean the Taliban gives them a break.

And the big guns of the OP continued to fire each day.

Adding to the hundreds of fighters they've already taken out in their 15 months.

Until they finally left the Korengal, only to have it abandoned by US forces a few years later.

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