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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hawaii platoon leader died for his comrades at the battle of Wanat

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom of ‘Aiea charged Observation Post Topside to aid his overwhelmed platoon. He was killed.

U.S. Army photos

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The bazaar in Wanat was destroyed in the attack. A village of about 50 families, Wanat is surrounded by rugged hills in which the American troops saw groups of five to 15 enemy fighters moving in the days before the ambush.

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Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires — the British withdrew in defeat in the 1800s and the Soviet Union a century later.

The United States hopes to avoid a similar fate. But in the ninth year of fighting, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is only becoming more deadly and more costly.

Nowhere has that been more evident than along Afghanistan's 1,600-mile mountainous eastern border.

In October, two lightly manned U.S. outposts were attacked by 150 to 200 militants who pounded the Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.

Eight American soldiers died.

The official Army dissection of those events is yet to come, but the attack bears a worrisome resemblance to another deadly battle about 20 miles away.

Nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 were wounded in the Battle of Wanat on July 13, 2008 — the worst loss for the U.S. in the Afghanistan war, excluding helicopter crashes.

Among the dead in Wanat was 24-year-old 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom of 'Aiea, a Damien Memorial School and University of Hawai'i graduate and father of a 5-year-old son, Jase.

Brostrom was leader of Chosen Company's 2nd Platoon, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Just days earlier, he and his men were sent to establish a new outpost in Wanat in Kunar Province on the Pakistan border.

When up to 200 insurgents unloaded an arsenal on the Americans before dawn that July morning, Brostrom's men "fought a tenacious defensive fight," according to an Army analysis by the Combat Studies Institute.

The report goes on to sharply criticize Brostrom's commanders for actions it said were disastrously flawed.

The parents of some of the soldiers who died that day say Army senior leadership was negligent in sending the soldiers on the mission and guilty of covering up the facts.

Wanat has become a case study in what not to do in counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan. It stands as a frustrating symbol of a still-failing U.S. strategy and the subject of a new military investigation into what happened.

In their 14-plus months in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the 173rd Brigade gained a reputation for being overly aggressive, willing to bomb villages suspected of harboring insurgents. They made more enemies than allies as they pursued the Taliban, according to the Army analysis.

When a small group was sent to a remote and hostile valley to establish a new outpost, it was an opportunity for the insurgents to take revenge.

Many of the American soldiers who fought at Wanat predicted they would be attacked while in the village.

Wanat was a suicide mission that they knew "was going to be a bloodbath," Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling, 20, told his father before being killed.

Wanat has been recorded in history as a grim milestone in the still evolving U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Over the past five months, The Advertiser reviewed documents and interviewed survivors of Wanat and families of the soldiers who died there to piece together the events leading up to the fatal firefight, the firefight itself and lessons they hold for the continuing U.S. engagement in the graveyard of empires.