Firefight at COP KEATING
It began at dawn on Saturday, October 3, 2009, at an isolated outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban had been harassing the troopers at COP Keating for months, attacking them three or four times a week. Most attacks consisted of a few bursts of small arms fire and a lobbed mortar round or a single RPG; nothing like what the soldiers at Keating were about to experience.
Combat Outpost (COP) Keating had become a thorn in the enemy’s side. The American cavalry troopers of Bravo Troop, 3d Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment had occupied the small COP deep in the Afghan mountains for some time and the American soldiers had been trying to win over the local civilians. It appeared that the Americans were there to stay. So, the enemy launched a massive assault on the isolated American stronghold.
First Lieutenant Andrew Bundermann, the Red Platoon leader, was still asleep, as were most of his men, when the attack started. “That’s incoming,” a soldier told Sergeant Eric Harder as they lay in their racks. Red Platoon’s troopers quickly responded to the attack. Soldiers on watch started returning fire as everyone dressed, grabbed their gear and ran to their assigned stations. Gunners ran to the Troop’s HMMWV gun trucks, infantrymen manned their fighting positions, leaders rushed to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), and mortarmen headed for their mortars to try to suppress the enemy fire coming from the mountains above.
The COP was taking a lot of indirect fire and RPGs were hitting everywhere on the compound. Sergeant Harder could hear rounds fired from the high ground hitting the roof of the barracks. The enemy attacked from three sides with RPGs, a couple of Russian-made B-10 recoilless rifles, accurate sniper fire, and machine guns. If American troopers went out in the open, they were vulnerable. The enemy had a commanding view of COP Keating.
The Afghan National Army soldiers wanted nothing to do with this fight. They cut and ran, leaving the COP’s main gate undefended and the Cavalry Troopers to fight off the attack on their own.
The American commanders could not have selected a more difficult spot to defend. COP Keating was set close to a small village in a deep river valley near the Pakistani border. It was surrounded on three sides by towering rocky mountains. The Americans and Afghan soldiers occupied a complex of nineteen buildings down in the valley. It was like being the away team in a football stadium where the angry fans had AK-47s, sniper rifles and machine guns. Bravo Troop’s soldiers hunkered down in the sturdier buildings surrounded by HESCO barriers, sandbagged fighting trenches and a concertina-topped chain link fence. A concrete bridge was just outside the Entry Control Point (ECP), connecting the small outpost with its Landing Zone (LZ) on the other side of the river. This was COP Keating’s only connection to the outside world. The entrance to the COP was the weak link in the defensive perimeter.
The soldiers had built a machinegun bunker on top of a small building that overlooked the entrance to the COP and the bridge. They had several HMMWV gun trucks with machine guns mounted in their armored turrets. They also had 120mm and 60mm mortars set up inside the compound that could reach high into the mountains with deadly, accurate indirect fire.
The Taliban had conducted recon-by-fire missions that seemed to be simply harassing fire. When asked, one of the troopers called it “general douchebaggery.” It is apparent that the harassing fire was much more than that. Enemy commanders noted how the troopers reacted to their attacks. They observed how the Americans responded with their mortars, timed how long it took for aircraft to respond, and counted the American’s heavy guns. They learned that the Americans could provide indirect mortar fire from nearby COP Fritsche.
One of the first incoming rounds took out Keating’s generator, leaving the soldiers in the dark and without some of their communications gear. Red Platoon was on batteries. When they died, there would be no communication with the outside world.
Task Force Pale Rider’s mortarmen rushed to the mortar pits in Keating and Fritsche at the first sounds of the attack. The Taliban were waiting. They had heavy weapons zeroed in on Bravo Troop’s mortars at both COPs. They opened fire on the soldiers, killing one and wounding another at Keating. The mortarmen at both outposts were pinned down, not able to get to their guns. The enemy had taken out Red Platoon’s indirect fire capability.
Red Platoon’s only effective fire came from the .50 caliber and 240 machine guns in their gun trucks and sandbagged fighting positions. Undaunted, Sergeant Jayson Souter called for fire from FOB Bostick and the Squadron zeroed in on Fritsche’s attackers with 155mm howitzer fire. Once the troopers at Fritsche could get to their 120mm mortars, they began pounding the enemy positions above Keating with high explosives.
With no artillery support, it was pretty intense for the first half hour. Soldiers were pushing out from their barracks to man their positions as the gun trucks fought back with their heavy machine guns. Everyone was laying down as much fire as they could, trying to repel the determined attack.
Air support was on the way but a fire had started to rage in the compound. Sergeant Harder was fighting from the cover of his barracks when he got the radio call. The gunners in the trucks were running out of ammo. Harder and several other soldiers answered the call for ammo and raced from the barracks toward the Ammunition Supply Point (ASP). Steps outside the door, they could feel the rounds hitting the building as they ran. Harder was the first to reach the ammo bunker. He started pulling out ammunition and giving it to his guys, ordering each soldier to a different truck. The soldiers raced the ammunition to the gun trucks and then returned to the safety of their barracks. Once the enemy noticed that Harder and his men were re-supplying the gun trucks, a sniper zeroed in on the door to their barracks. On the machine gunners’ next call for ammo, Harder had to pop a smoke grenade to push guys out again. There was no stopping. The guys on the trucks kept calling for more bullets. “We had to keep moving.”
On each call for ammo, Harder would pop a smoke at the barracks door and then he and his men would rush to the bunker, grab two more smoke grenades and more boxes of machine gun rounds and rush them to the HMMWVs. Then they would return to the relative safety of their barracks.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Carson Shrode, the Troop’s Fires Support Officer, had called for air support. Very soon, it was clear that this was no ordinary harassing attack. The enemy was making a deliberate attempt to overrun the outpost. Soon three of the five main buildings were in flames and the enemy was at the wire.
American jet aircraft were on station within 20 minutes dropping their bombs. But, the enemy continued the attack, completely overrunning the ECP and the abandoned Afghan National Army compound. The American soldiers fought gallantly, but they were severely outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded. They continued to fight, begrudgingly giving ground, feet at a time. Casualties started to mount.
On one of his trips to the ammo bunker, Sergeant Harder noticed that the trucks were getting hit with RPGs from very close range. Then, he saw the enemy advancing from point to point. They were inside the wire. They weren’t bounding, but they had a lot of covering fire. Rounds were impacting in the open areas from several enemy machine guns overhead in the mountains.
The aid station filled rapidly. The Doc triaged the wounded. He patched up lightly wounded troopers and let them return to the fight. Some were too severely wounded to return to the fight and others were so badly injured that he worried that they would not survive. When the aid station filled to capacity, some of the wounded were moved into the TOC.
Meanwhile, the fire slowly spread. The soldiers tried and failed to put it out with water and fire extinguishers. Almost an hour after the first shots had been fired, the TOC was filling with smoke. The troopers grabbed their maps, radios and laptops and fell back to the last two secure buildings in the compound.
Then Bundermann’s radio crackled, “Pale Rider, this is Black Knight.” Two Apache helicopters had arrived on scene. Chief Warrant Officer Ross Lewallen piloted one of the aircraft with Chief Warrant Officer Chad Bardwell sitting in front of him in the co-pilot/gunner seat. They quickly appraised the situation, identified friendly positions and then Bardwell opened fire with his deadly chain gun, killing dozens of the enemy fighters. But, the attackers persisted. The Apache pilots swooped low on gun runs and more Taliban fired on the helicopters from perches in the mountains. All the while, the enemy pressed the attack on the ground. But, the tide was turning. Fritsche’s mortars and the Apaches continued to pound the enemy in the mountains above Keating, taking some of the pressure off Bundermann’s troopers in COP Keating.
Knowing the enemy was inside the wire, Harder was much more careful on his next run for ammunition. He slowly moved up to the ASP with four other soldiers and stopped at the corner of the bunker. The enemy hadn’t taken the ammo bunker but they were close enough to let loose an RPG in Harder’s direction. The grenade whooshed toward them and impacted within five feet of Harder and his men. Ears ringing and shins peppered with small pieces of shrapnel, Harder fell back.
Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha led the counterattack to retake the ASP. Once their ammunition supply was secure, the troopers pushed out to clear the compound and take back the main gate. They secured the ECP and barricaded the bridge with plywood, concertina and anything else they could find to insure no one else could get into the COP.
With the entrance to the outpost secure, the soldiers pushed out to the outlying fighting positions where troopers had been stranded, rescuing Specialist Ty Carter and Sergeant Bradley Larson and a severely wounded soldier. They also recovered the bodies of their fallen comrades. The badly wounded soldier had a broken leg, a shattered hip, and was bleeding badly. He was rushed to the aid station where his fellow troopers volunteered to transfuse blood to keep him alive until a MEDEVAC helicopter could be brought in.
The Apache helicopters continued to pound the enemy in the mountains above COP Keating while Bravo Troop’s soldiers pushed across the bridge to secure the LZ for the MEDEVAC. It wasn’t until after noon that the wounded could be flown out. Reinforcements didn’t arrive until later that evening after the fighting had ended. By the time they were relieved, Red Platoon’s Troopers had been fighting for twelve hours. They were exhausted, but they had held. They had won the battle.
Bundermann’s Red Platoon, with the help of indirect fires, fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters overhead, had beaten back the attack against overwhelming odds. Over one hundred Taliban had been killed in their failed attempt to overrun an outpost that the Americans were preparing to abandon anyway. The battle had pretty much destroyed COP Keating, so the troopers collected their sensitive gear, weapons and ammunition and returned to FOB Bostick with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The shift in American strategy accomplished what three hundred armed Taliban could not. It left the remote outpost abandoned.
Bundermann’s troopers were broken hearted. They had lost friends that day. Eight of Bravo Troop’s soldiers were killed in the fight: Sergeant Justin T. Gallegos, Specialist Christopher T. Griffin, Sergeant Joshua M. Hardt, Sergeant Joshua J. Kirk, Specialist Stephen L. Mace, Staff Sergeant Vernon W. Martin, Sergeant Michael P. Scusa, and Private 1st Class Kevin C. Thomson.
Over a week later, Lieutenant Bundermann summed it all up. “Everybody on the ground that day did a fantastic job. They all need to be recognized as great Americans.” When asked what Americans at home can do to help, Bundermann answered. “Just remember what some of these guys do.”
Richard S. Lowry is a military historian and the award-winning author of Marines in the Garden of Eden and The Gulf War Chronicles. Watch for his new book: New Dawn: the Battles for Fallujah. It tells the entire story of Operation Phantom Fury and will be in bookstores in May of 2010. Visit www.RichardSLowry.com to learn more about Richard and his work.
 There is a complex enemy in Afghanistan, comprised of many warlords, drug dealers, religious fanatics, foreign fighters and just plain thugs. As a group, they are simply known as Taliban. The group attacking COP Keating was mainly composed of locally hired fighters.
 High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle.
 HESCO barriers, named after the British company that manufactures them, are made of a collapsible wire mesh container and a heavy duty fabric liner. Easily erected and then filled with sand, they provide semi-permanent protection against small-arms fire and shrapnel.
 Sgt Justin Puetz, U.S. Army 5th MPAD Interview with Sgt Eric Harder, 14 October, 2009.
 Sgt Justin Puetz, U.S. Army 5th MPAD Interview with 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann, 14 October, 2009.Read the full post and comments »