At twenty-four years of age, U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell was named commander of a forty-man elite infantry platoon, the 10th Mountain Division—a unit that came to be known as the Outlaws. Tasked with rooting out Pakistan-based insurgents from a valley in the Hindu Kush, Parnell assumed they would be facing a ragtag bunch of civilians until, in May 2006, a routine patrol turned into a brutal ambush. Through sixteen months of combat, the platoon became Parnell's family. The cost of battle was high for these men. Not all of them made it home, but for those who did, it was the love and faith they found in one another that ultimately kept them alive.
A magnificent account of heroes, renegades, infidels, and brothers, Outlaw Platoon stands with Sebastian Junger’s War as one of the most important books to yet emerge from the heat, smoke, and fire of America’s War in Afghanistan.
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About the Author
John R. Bruning is the coauthor of the critically acclaimed Outlaw Platoon (with Sean Parnell) and of House to House (with David Bellavia). He wrote dispatches from the field while embedded with an infantry unit in post-Katrina New Orleans, and received the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for Journalism from the Department of Defense for an article he wrote while embedded with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade’s TF-Brawler in Afghanistan. He lives in Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
By Sean Parnell
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Sean Parnell
All rights reserved.
Speedometer needles touching fifty, Outlaw Platoon's six armored Humvees blasted down the Afghan road, trailing plumes of dust that could be seen for miles. In an area that lacked even a single asphalt highway, this was the best dirt road we'd yet encountered. Smoothed and tempered by generations of passing travelers, it had no cart tracks to give our shock absorbers a workout, no drifts of desert dust to bog us down. After weeks of cross-country patrols so jarring they knocked fillings loose, our run south through the district of Gamal seemed as effortless as taking a lap at Daytona Speedway.
In Afghanistan, we Americans have to adjust our transportation expectations. We are used to traveling fast. The men of my platoon favored muscle cars such as GTOs and Mustangs, or suspension lifted pickup trucks. Out here, the terrain rarely allowed us to go more than fifteen or twenty miles per hour. It was like being stuck in a perpetual school crossing zone.
Today, when we turned onto this unusual stretch of road, our drivers capitalized on the opportunity. They grew lead feet and poured on the coals. The speed felt glorious.
The road bisected a broad valley six hours' drive south of our base at Bermel. In this flat, treeless area, the only sign of life we'd seen for miles was patches of rugged plants that had somehow thrived in an environment of extremes: heat and cold, drought and floods. To our left, a wadi veined through the ancient landscape. Earlier, we had tried to use it to traverse the valley in the hope of avoiding roadside bombs. As our rigs splashed through the trickle of water at the bottom, Staff Sergeant Phil Baldwin's Humvee sank to its doors in quicksand. So much for that idea.
Steep ridges defined the valley's boundaries. Even without a tree or a bush to give color to their slopes, these spines of the Hindu Kush still gave refuge to our enemy. They ceded us the low ground while they hid out in well-stocked caves that had been in use since the Soviet war of the 1980s.
The signs of that war lingered. During this drive south, we'd seen the skeletal remains of villages cratered by Russian bombs. In the surviving towns, the locals told us horror stories of the Soviet occupation. One farmer spoke of watching his son be thrown to the ground and stomped to death by laughing Red Army troops. After that, his entire village had braved the harsh mountains to escape on foot to a refugee camp in Pakistan.
This was our area of operations, a harsh and barren land whose people had known nothing but violence for decades.
I glanced over at my driver and radioman, Specialist Robert Pinholt. We'd been on the road since dawn, and his face was striped with dirt and sweat. His helmet rode low over his brow, his uniform and body armor powdered with Afghan dust. The only time we were ever truly clean was in the shower. When he sensed my gaze, he tore his eyes from the road to steal a quick look at me.
"What, sir?" he asked. His piercing blue eyes stood in contrast to the dull grime on his face. He was a broad-chested twenty-year-old with earnest good looks and an engaging smile. If he'd been in overalls instead of ACUs, he'd have looked like an extra on the set of Green Acres.
He'd been railing about the U.S. Postal Service again, and I couldn't help but laugh at his passionate hatred for this small section of our federal government.
"Pinholt," I said, "I don't understand where all this hostility comes from." "What do you mean, sir? Isn't it obvious? The government's violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. It has a captive monopoly and can cross subsidize to expand into other business areas, undercutting the private corporations that compete in those areas." Government waste was one of Pinholt's biggest pet peeves. So far, he'd managed almost an hour's rant on the post office. I was impressed.
"Sir, look: not privatizing the post office is just bad fiscal policy. They've got seventy billion in unfunded liabilities, they're running billions in the red every year in a business where everyone else is in the black, and they compete unfairly against UPS and FedEx." "They deliver the fucking mail, Pinholt. My shit gets from point A to point B quickly, and that's all I care about. What more do you want?"
He ignored me. "The post office is tax exempt. That's one advantage. It is free of SEC reporting requirements. Its accounting procedures would trigger an IRS investigation in any other American corporation. The postmaster can go to the U.S. Treasury and borrow money whenever he wants, at rates no private company could ever get."
"So?" I asked, goading him. Pinholt had the heart of a warrior, but the mind of an economist. I loved to provoke him, as he usually had very well thought out opinions. Plus, the more I got to know him, the more I realized he was a case study in contrasts, and that intrigued me. He was a Texas native who spoke without an accent. Dallas born and raised, he hated the Cowboys and loved the Don Shula–era Dolphins. He was a buttoned-down conservative who didn't touch liquor, didn't smoke or even drink caffeine, but in his spare time I'd catch him listening to hippie rock like Phish. He had a thing for opera, too.
"So?" he said in surprise. "Even with all those advantages the post office is a huge drain on the taxpayers! Even the European Union's privatizing their mail delivery. Think about that. All those socialist countries are going that route, while we let the federal government mismanage a business that would otherwise make billions. And those billions would be taxable. Instead of a drain on the budget, mail delivery could be a revenue enhancer."
With nothing else to do but talk or debate, those long vehicular patrols were like college road trips with heavy weapons.
We came to a slight bend in the road. "Hey, watch out, Pinholt." I warned. He was drifting a bit again, distracted by our conversation. This happened a lot. "Don't try to kill us twice in one day." That annoyed him, "Come on, sir. That's getting old already." "Hey, you almost drove us off a cliff. You're never going to live that down."
Earlier that day, we'd had to negotiate a treacherous mountain trail to get into this valley. It wound down a cliff in a series of switchbacks so sharp that our Humvees couldn't take them without our drivers executing three-point turns. On one, Pinholt had edged the nose of our rig over the cliff, shifted into reverse, and gunned the gas. Unfortunately, our rigs had been beaten up by months of hard use. The transmissions, which had not been designed for all the weight our armored Humvees now carried, sometimes stuck or jammed. In this case, ours didn't move out of drive. We lurched forward and almost went over the edge. The rig teetered on the brink as we all started to scream at Pinholt. I grabbed my gunner, Chris Brown, and yanked him inside the rig out of fear he'd be thrown clear if we did go over. Not that it would have mattered. The valley floor was at least five hundred feet below us.
Truth was, I was impressed by how Pinholt came through in the clutch. He stayed calm, shifted gears again, and waited to hit the gas until he was absolutely certain the transmission was functioning properly. When he heard a soft thunk as it finally shifted into reverse, he eased off the brake and backed us away from the brink. We'd been harassing him unmercifully ever since.
"Gettin' old, sir," he said again.
"Tell you what, I'll lay off when you give me my MREs back." Pinholt knew I was a picky eater. Before leaving on patrols, he made a point to purloin my favorite MREs - meals ready to eat - and hide them, just to get a rise out of me. We'd had a running battle for weeks over this.
"I'll think about it, sir."
"You're a hell of a radioman, Pinholt. But I swear to God, you drive like a blind old lady."
"Awww, sir, cheap!"
The late afternoon sun perched atop the ridge lines, spilling red-gold light across the valley. We sped along, each Humvee topped by an armored turret with a heavy weapon mounted inside. Our five machine guns and one automatic grenade launcher gave our gunners ready access to more firepower than any other platoon from any other war. Our dads in Vietnam could have used this much heat. When combined with the thirty men and six vehicles we had, Outlaw Platoon possessed muscle, mobility, and numbers to handle almost any challenge. Even if we got in over our heads, we had my radios. With them, I could call in artillery, unleash helicopter gunships, or target satellite guided bombs on our enemy. In the month since we'd arrived in country, the enemy had remained elusive and we had yet to encounter them in a stand-up fight. Yet the hills had eyes. I had a nagging sense that we were always being watched. Studied, really. We were the new kids in town, and they knew enough about the U.S. Army to know that units, like people, have their own quirks. Some are disciplined; some are lax. Some are aggressive; some are timid. Until they figured us out, they were content to observe. But sooner or later, I knew they would pick a time and place to give us our first test. The road curved slightly as it followed the lip of the wadi. As we came around the bend, I could see our destination rising out of the valley floor along the horizon. A hundred and fifty years ago, the British had constructed a redoubt atop a sheer walled mesa that dominated the entire southern half of the valley. From the base of the mesa, the slate colored cliffs rose almost straight up for a full kilometer before flattening to a narrow plateau. The mud walls of the old British fort ran along the edge of the plateau. Medieval style towers abutted the walls at regular intervals.
This was Bandar, the most important coalition base in the area. It towered over the valley road, affording the soldiers atop it a clear view of the traffic moving below. Because of that, it was a natural choke point, one that was virtually impregnable to attack thanks to its thousand meter cliffs. No insurgent force could ever scale them- hell, not even the Rangers who'd taken Pointe du Hoc on D-Day could have climbed them under fire.
We drew close, and our drivers eased off the gas. We reached an intersection and turned toward the mesa. The road narrowed and entered the northern cliff face. We could see how long dead British engineers had blasted through the sheer rock to build the track up to the fort. It would be an impressive feat today, let alone in the 1850s.
"Pinholt," I said as we stared at the steep road ahead.
Before I could continue he interrupted me. "Sir, I know. I know." We stopped, and one of my men jumped out to guide us forward. As we inched along, the clearance between the cliff on one side and the sheer drop on the other diminished until we barely had a meter on either side of us. I would not have even been able to open my door if I had wanted to. Pinholt stayed on the ball and did a good job.
The track snaked up the mesa, making regular forty-five degree turns, until we reached the fort's front gate. The original entrance had been destroyed long before and had been replaced by strands of concertina wire stretched across a metal framed gate.
A rusted conex box had been placed nearby to give the guards cover from the elements. I saw no fighting positions nearby, but in the distance a Soviet-era ZU-23 double-barreled antiaircraft cannon stood silhouetted against the twilight sky.
A teenage Afghan Border Policeman (ABP) wearing a green camouflage jacket, khaki pants, and a Chicago Bulls 1990 National Championship cap stepped out of the conex to greet us. His AK-47 dangled carelessly at his side. Flecks of rust marred its receiver; the magazine was dinged and scuffed.
Ancient gear, poorly kept. I made a note of that.
Our 'terp, Abdul, spoke a few words to the guard, and he waved us through the entrance, pulling the gate open as he eyed us with interest. We rolled into the fort. As we passed the ZU-23, I could see it was but a rusted hulk. There was no way it could be returned to firing condition. Hell, it had probably been there since the Reagan era.
Here and there, Afghan Border Policemen stood with their weapons slung haphazardly. Some smoked home-rolled cigarettes. All of them looked stupefied with boredom. They stared at us as we passed as if we'd come from a different planet.
Neglect and age had combined to leave the fort in a state of near ruin, something we could not detect as we made our approach along the valley's floor. Now we slid by crumbled guard towers, their wooden frames jutting out of the hardened mud like ancient bones. A few old buildings still had enough walls and roof left to be used to store equipment and supplies in. The rest of them were of little use to anyone except, perhaps, military archaeologists. The outer wall had many gaps, which had been haphazardly screened with strands of concertina wire. If it hadn't been for the thousand meter cliffs, the place would have been a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Excerpted from Outlaw Platoon by Sean Parnell. Copyright © 2013 by Sean Parnell. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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What People are Saying About This
“Outlaw Platoon is expertly told by a man who braved the heat of battle time and time again. An epic story as exacting as it is suspenseful, it reveals the bravery and dedication of our armed service men and women around the world.”
“Outlaw Platoon put me back on the battlefield again. It’s a heartfelt story that shows how very different people can be thrown together in combat and find a way to make it work. Parnell and the soldiers who fought beside him are all courageous heroes—real bad asses.”
“Outlaw Platoon is an exceptional look into the mind of a platoon leader in Afghanistan; Captain Parnell shares his experiences of leadership, loss, and aggressive military tactics. You can really feel the bonds forged between these brothers in arms as the battle plays out”
“At times, I forgot I was reading about a war as I was drawn up in the drama the same way you [are] when reading Krakauer’s Into Thin Air . . . This is a book of probing honesty, wrenching drama and courage.”
“[A] soulful story of men at war . . . Outlaw Platoon shows us that the love and brotherhood forged in the fires of combat are the most formidable quaities a unit can possess.”
“Two of the most intense tales of courage under fire I own are Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor. I now have a third, Outlaw Platoon. It’s an absolutely gripping, edge-of-your-seat ride.”
“Sean Parnell reaches past the band-of-brothers theme to a place of brutal self-awareness . . . [he] never flinches from a fight, nor the hard questions of a messy war.”
“Outlaw Platoon is an utterly gripping account of what our soldiers endure on the front lines—the frustrations, the fear, the loneliness. . . Here, in these pages, are the on-the-ground realities of a war we so rarely witness on news broadcasts”