Hawaii Marine recounts Wanat: 'I wasn't going to be taken alive'
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
In a now-famous battle in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Marine Staff Sgt. Luis Repreza had a dwindling supply of rifle ammunition and one grenade — which he intended to use on himself if his position was overrun by enemy fighters.
It was that bad in the village of Wanat, with about 200 militants pounding a much smaller force of U.S. troops with a fusillade of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
"I wasn't going to be taken alive," the 31-year-old Kāne'ohe Bay Marine said yesterday at a Rotary Club meeting in Waikīkī.
The California man was one of three Marines — the other two were out of Okinawa — who fought in the battle of Wanat in eastern Kunar province on July 13, 2008.
It was largely a U.S. Army fight, and 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom of 'Aiea was one of nine soldiers killed in what remains the single largest loss of American life from direct combat in the nearly 9-year-old war in Afghanistan.
U.S. command decisions leading up to the firefight have since come under criticism, and prompted a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Repreza spoke to the Rotary Club of Honolulu during a luncheon at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel at the invitation of Brostrom's father, David, a Rotarian and retired Army colonel.
"A lot of people don't understand what's going on in Afghanistan," David Brostrom said afterward. "A lot of people don't know the sacrifices that our young people are making, and Sgt. Repreza kind of brings that home."
The 2008 battle in the remote Waigal Valley wasn't the only deadly encounter of its kind.
On Sept. 8, 2009, five U.S. troops were killed in Kunar province, and on Oct. 3 of the same year, eight were killed in an attack on a small U.S. outpost in neighboring Nuristan province.
Repreza was one of 49 Americans at Wanat. There also were 24 Afghan National Army soldiers that he and two other Marines were helping train.
The U.S. troops were told to start setting up a new combat outpost on low ground with a hotel, mosque and other buildings surrounding them. Those structures were used to fire on U.S. forces in the surprise pre-dawn attack.
REAL WAR STORY
Repreza had been to Iraq twice and he said, "I never thought I'd picture myself" in the type of fierce firefight that occurred in Wanat, which he likened to stories from World War II or Korea.
Repreza marshalled fire from about 14 Afghan soldiers who were dug into foxholes and semi-protected by some sandbags, while Cpl. Jason Jones and another Marine sprinted through fire to reinforce an observation post where Brostrom was killed.
Repreza received a Bronze Star with valor, and Jones was awarded a Silver Star.
Repreza later helped with the U.S. casualties, which was "probably one of the hardest things I've seen," he said.
An Army analysis of the battle later concluded that the single platoon sent to Wanat was insufficient combat power to establish an outpost in the hostile region. The unit also was low on water and lacked heavy equipment.
Repreza said about 150 Americans eventually were fighting back at Wanat after the base was reinforced. He said in his opinion, "this (number) is what I would have wanted to start off with."
David Brostrom, who questioned command decisions leading up to Wanat, was instrumental in the Army reinvestigating the battle.
Three Army officers who commanded Jonathan Brostrom's company, battalion and brigade have since received letters of reprimand. But the families who lost sons at Wanat are still waiting to be briefed about the results of the second investigation, the elder Brostrom said.
David Brostrom said he doubts any general officers will be sanctioned because "general officers don't go after general officers. They protect one another."
Brostrom said Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., who formerly commanded the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks and who now is in charge of an Army "lessons learned" command at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has laid out a plan for Army-wide change.
"It's everything from senior leaders being held accountable to company commanders and battalion commanders being too risk averse because they are afraid they are going to get punished to change tactics, techniques and procedures," Brostrom said.
Repreza said he remembered the 24-year-old Brostrom as a "big kid at heart, very happy, high-spirited, a lot of practical jokes," but someone who was tactically very proficient.
Repreza and David Brostrom projected photos of Wanat for the Rotary audience to see, as well as a CBS News segment portraying the shortcomings of the Wanat mission.
The stories of valor received two standing ovations from the approximately 100 people attending the luncheon.
Rotarian Al Linton, 51, said the presentation was emotional and revealing about today's U.S. military troops.
"I think we now have a new greatest generation," he said.