Paktika Province is a wild and lawless region in the east of Afghanistan, a border crossroads with the west of Pakistan and home to a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda units. An article from Time magazine describes the U.S. base:
“The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there’s trouble, it usually comes from that direction.”
The morning of Thursday, March 16, 2006 dawned bright and clear, as a force rode out from the 10th Mountain Division. Their mission was to seek out a remote mountain village, and meet with village elders. They were twenty-four American soldiers in five Humvees and a handful of Afghan National troops, riding a pickup truck.
Paktika is a trackless wilderness of ragged hillsides and wadis, seasonal riverbeds flowing southwest from the mountains of Sar Hawza, to the north. The land appears custom made for an ambush, with dangerous high spots in nearly every direction.
Gunfire broke out from above, some four hours into the mission. First small arms, then came the rocket-propelled grenades. One gunner, twenty-three-year-old Private Channing Moss, remembered it sounded like rattling spoons.
RPGs were soon raining down. The pickup exploded, killing two Afghan soldiers. The rest scrambled to get out of the “kill zone”, as three rocket propelled grenades struck Private Moss’ Humvee. Staff Sergeant Eric Wynn, 33, felt one slice through his face. Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke. He looked down to see it was himself. He was smoking.
A rocket propelled grenade is exactly what it sounds like, a weapon roughly the size of a baseball bat, propelled at the speed of a bullet. Standing as he was, Channing Moss had taken one of these things in the hip, leaving nothing but the fins, sticking out of his body. The weapon inside of him was capable of turning everyone in the vehicle into a “pink mist”.
What happened next, is beyond belief. When every human instinct says “get the hell away from that thing”, Moss had a whole team by his side, throughout the ordeal. Company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, working to stabilize that thing for transportation. Lieutenant Billy Mariani came over once the fighting had died down: “I grabbed his hand and I just said, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re gonna get you out of here.'” Badly wounded himself, Wynn held his own face together while reporting casualties over the radio, and holding Moss’ hand.
The MEDEVAC crew arrived escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, they knew what they were dealing with. Army regulations say it’s too dangerous to carry such a human bomb. It could take out every man on the chopper and blow the bird out of the sky: four MEDEVAC crew members, and three wounded soldiers.
Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa spoke with his team: “I asked my crew, you know, ‘Are you guys comfortable with this? Because I wasn’t gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren’t comfortable with it.” Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the moment: “We all said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him on board and let’s get outta here.'”
It was the same thing, back at the aid station. Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown. Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station. Three surgical staff. All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.
Channing Moss was well beyond the “golden hour” with expectations of survival, growing dim. The man’s heart actually stopped and the surgeons administered epinephrine, knowing that physical heart massage could detonate the ordnance still inside the man’s body.
Private Moss survived, despite massive injury to his body. There were four more surgeries back at Walter Reed and an endless hell of physical therapy as the man progressed from bed to wheel chair to crutches, to a cane. Moss had a Purple Heart coming and then some and refused to receive it, until he could stand on his own two legs and walk to receive his medal, himself.
Explosives expert Dan Brown spoke for the whole team, I think, in explaining what they had done: “He was American, he was a solider, he was a brother and he was one of us. And there was nothing gonna stop us from doing what we knew what we had to do … We knew we did right. In that screwed up world we did something right.”
A Trivial Matter
While rare, unexploded ordnance has been lodged inside living human bodies on no fewer than thirty six occasions between WW2 and the modern era, requiring surgical removal. All but four, survived.