01x08 - Objective Breton

Man: You try to convince yourself that every mission could potentially go bad, but I do remember Breton feeling a little extra dangerous.

Man #2: There was a detonation, and it's just immediately shocking.

(Faint shouting)

I heard screams of wounded a Ranger...

Man #2: At the top of their lungs. My heart sank. I knew that we had hit an IED, and that was big trouble.

Man: That mission changed me. I'm never gonna be the same person.

(Helicopter whirring)

Man #2: We got sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009. We were gonna be there for a few days, pick up the slack from another platoon that was having some issues. We packed for two days. And two days turned into about 30 days. And we were all living in this big platoon tent.

(Faint conversations)

We were just jammed in there, maybe 40 of us.

We felt like, "Man, we're gonna be here all this time with, like, three pairs of socks."

Everybody would have their own kind of partitions built off and you'd find a way to manufacture some privacy for yourself.

You really see those guys almost every waking hour.

Alex: The days that we went on missions, they went by quick.

The days we weren't, you really got to kind of relax and, you know, try to unwind a little bit.

The boys are off getting chow or going to the gym or doing whatever they want to do to relax on their downtime.

Everyone had their own rituals.

Some guys would play Xbox.

I read a lot.

Tried to just keep my mind busy all the time.

I had a couple best friends in my platoon.

Rob Sanchez was one of him.

We were both kind of short.

So, a lot of guys in the battalion are six-foot-plus, and we were both little 5'8 ", 5'9" guys.

He was just a character, man.

He was always trying to make light of the situation.

He could, like, hold ten guys' attention and just make these guys laugh.

Rob thrived off that stuff.

Mike: He was a big personality.

He would easily joke with a group of guys in Ranger battalion.

That really was his role in the platoon.

You know, you always need guys to fill certain roles.

Woman: Rob knew from a young age he wanted to join the military.

When 9/11 happened, it really affected Rob.

I want to say he was in middle school, maybe 8th grade, and he was just like, you know, "That'ridiculous.

How can they do this to our country?

So, I think that was maybe always in his head.

I mean, you know, for Halloween, he was either three things.

He was a ninja, a soldier, or a zombie.

Those were the things, and more the soldier than anything.

The summer before he graduated, he did his research.

He looked all into everything, like with the SEALS and the Marines.

He enlisted and said, "You know what? The Rangers are me. That's where I'm supposed to go. I'm supposed to be part of them."

And so, that whole year, he trained, and I mean trained.

Like, his little brother was five... four or five at the time.

He would put him in his backpack.

He would walk around with this little kid, jogging down the beach.

People would tell me, "Your kid, man, what he training for?"

When Rob did something, it was 100%.

It was all or nothing.

And love was that, too. He... he loved his family.

And his friends, the Rangers, they were his brothers.

They worked together, partied together, fought together.

They... they were just inseparable.

Mike: For Rangers, you're in the same platoon for years.

You live and grow with these guys.

You do everything together.

You're going out together.

You're training together.

You know, the group, there's always something going on.

There was this guy named Remsburg, and Steve was always plotting something.

You always had a lock of your stuff up around him 'cause you were pretty sure he would take it.

Alex: When we showed up to our little circus tent, he had a projector, his computer, he had an Xbox, so he brought all the stuff for the guys to use.

Bryan: I'll never forget about this other guy Tory.

Tory is that little fiery Asian kid from the inner city.

He had these weird idiosyncrasies.

Like he hated the word "bitch."

The worst thing you could do to somebody, in his opinion, was call them that word.

We became pretty close over there.

Mike: You have all this personal and emotional investment in all these people around you.

You know, it's not just a job.

Literally, being a Ranger becomes your life.

Alex: For Objective Breton, we were looking at going into an area of Afghanistan called Panjwayi.

Panjwayi was kind of uninhabited by the coalition troops at that time.

Mike: So, we're sitting there planning, looking at graphics, looking at all these things, watching the target, seeing what's happening.

Can we identify weapons? Can we identify anything?

You know, information is, you know... it's as good as ammunition.

We were watching through surveillance some individuals gathered around a campfire looking like they were having a meeting.

The main person we were going after was a facilitator of some type of network.

It was either explosives or finance.

Those are the big things.

As we target that network and try and destroy it from the top down, we eliminate a large infrastructure that's hard for them to replace.

Mike: You know, the enemy started moving, but they were dropping little group of guys off at these road junctions and intersections.

Bryan: It was obvious that as we moved, we were gonna be engaging the enemy at each one of these guard posts.

You know, my spider sense was tingling at that point.

As we were getting ready, I'm usually the first one at the ramp counting everybody on, make sure we have a good head count.

It's just a spot I like to be on.

I enjoy flying helicopters.

(Helicopter whirring)

It's really hard to describe what it's like to fly over empty darkness on your way to a target flying 100, 150 feet off the ground.

You're kind of the master of all you... you survey.

When I joined, and I was gonna be a Ranger, I didn't really have these grand goals.

I didn't plan on being a leader of anybody.

I was just happy to be a Ranger.

I remember the Marines or somebody or the Army was at my high school, I'm in my sophomore or junior year, and they had this big inflated drill sergeant thing, and my wrestling coach told me that I couldn't do it.

I'm standing there, kind of like... imagining my future, and he walks by, and he just looks at me and goes, "That'll never be you."

I didn't say anything, but it obviously has stuck with me to this day, I mean, many years later.

And so, a big part of it was proving to myself and just to... just to prove people wrong.

Bryan: Mike was one of those guys when you initially look at him, you think, "I don't know if I want to approach this guy necessarily."

He's covered in tattoos, and he just had this intimidating look about him.

But, you know, you get to see the human side of everybody after a while, especially when you're in some situations.

Everybody's vulnerable at some point.

You build relationships that were... were both... at times, you had to be heavy-handed with discipline, and other times, you could joke.

But there had to be that line.

I took being a leader to heart.

I wanted to be close to my guys.

I wanted to know everything about them, but if you gotta order a guy to do something that, you know, requires their death, you don't want him to go look at you and go, like, you know, "Hey, Sarge, I thought we were... I thought we were buddies."

That can't be.

Alex: We were gonna land somewhere around midnight, and we wanted to be out of the area before sunrise.

It gives our aircraft the best cover from ground fire and gives us the safest passage to and from the target.

So, whether we're walking or flying, the nighttime gave us the best opportunity to be safe.

One minute!

Mike: You get the one minute call inside the aircraft, you're one minute out from the target, so if your buddy's asleep next to you or something, you... (clicks tongue) give him a good shove.

The adrenaline starts pumping a little bit.

You start getting information from the targets.

Thirty seconds!

Mike: 30-seconds call comes out. The ramp lowers.

Your field of view starts to expand, so you can start to see out.

You hit the ground, bird settles.

Go.

Mike: You get the command to go. You don't snap.

And, you know, weapon up, you're running off that bird into unknown.

On Objective Breton, we found it was best to land further away and try to use the element of surprise.

We landed in a field.

There was a slight brownout which is common because of all the dust and dirt, and the rotor wash from the aircraft is so high-powered that all the dirt gets kicked up in the air, and it's hard to see.

Bryan: You're in the middle of a field, so you're little exposed.

You don't know how many people heard you fly in.

I mean, two huge helicopters just landed in this field.

So people know you're there.

Mike: So, I remember taking a knee, setting up a perimeter.

You kind of settle there, and there's like a long pause, you know, of quiet, and everything is... there's no noise.

Everything's silent around you.

You're just listening, but you're stretching out with every possible animal instinct that you have to find something that is looking for you and to find it first.

I do remember Breton feeling a little extra dangerous.

We knew the potential for getting into some firefights was a little elevated that night.

Alex: From there, we moved right onto a road that ran through the village with walls about five feet tall on both sides of the road.

Mike: Everything has walls, and the roads have walls, and then it's just orchards and overgrowth.

It's like these little feudal towns, and it's an old place.

Every time I was on the ground there, I'm just... (chuckles) transported to the Dark Ages because that's what everything looks like to me.

It's so rural out there.

You don't have all the ambient light of the city and stuff, so, when it's dark and the moon's gone, it's dark.

I mean, you can't see your hand in front of your face sometimes, it's so dark.

Rob Sanchez was an Alpha team leader.

Alpha team leaders are always the front fire team.

Because we had to walk on these roads, guys are staggering offset with roughly three to five meters between guys and that's going to stretch out from the very first man to the 50th man.

So, you're looking at a order of movement of this whole assault force that's stretched out over 300 meters or so.

(Gunfire)

Alex: One thing we did not see was another outpost position, and we were ambushed immediately.

It was like really? Like, this is happening now? Okay.

And it's just like, immediately engaging into the next level of alertness.

Bryan: We're up against walls.

You can't shoot through your buddies.

It was difficult to return fire.

You had this really small window that you could shoot through.

I was pretty much stuck there, so I just got... tried to get as flat against the wall as I could.

Alex: One of our snipers were shot.

Shane managed to crawl through a cut in the wall.

I knew I had to run across this path, so this fire had ceased.

(Muffled shouting)

Bryan: So, I just sprinted over and got through that break in the wall and found him laying there.

Mike: Bryan was our medic, and we were on the ground for 15 minutes, and he already had his hands dirty.

It's not how you want to start a mission off.

Alex: The weapon that the enemy fighters were using, it malfunctioned, and that's why we didn't take more casualties.

Bryan: I went through my trauma assessment.

You know, you immediately look for stuff that's just pouring blood or something that's gonna kill the guy within the next few minutes.

Based on the way he was talking to us, we suspected that he was probably fine.

But were not surgeons, and we don't have x-ray vision, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt, and we tried to get them out of there as soon as we could.

We got him treated and packaged and ready to go within ten, 15 minutes.

One thing you realize as a medic is that 99% of the time, everyone just forgets you're there, and then that 1% of the time, you... all of a sudden, you're the most important guy on the battlefield.

I was a pretty bad high school student, so I used the Army as kind of a catalyst for change.

When you're 17, 18, 19-year-old kid and you're only responsible for yourself, you learn how to live a certain way.

For me, all of a sudden I was 19 in Ranger school, and felt like I had to...

I had obligations to other people.

It takes a while to sink in that you belong here.

You almost feel like you're always proving yourself.

I felt that way for years.

You're with these, like, unbelievable infantry guys and they're so good at that job, and you feel like as a medic, you're at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Your job is to kind of go out there and preserve life.

So, you kind of have a little bit of a personality crisis.

And that's your life day in and day out.

You get very comfortable with it.

You get comfortable with that level of a performance.

And you just... you know. That's what expected of you.

And that's what you expect out of everybody else.

Alex: After this near ambush, you know, we had our aircraft above us start really searching the areas around the road for any other heat signatures or possible targets in our way.

Mike: The enemy at the next place hadn't moved much, so, then the party continued moving forward.

We still had a lot of ground to cover that night.

Alex: With the gunfire, we knew that there was a good possibility that the enemy heard it, they know what's happening, and that they're ready.

Alex: That night as we were walking to the target area, the mood was on edge because a lot of us didn't want to stay out there any longer than we needed to.

Upon our movement, we came across some tree branches, standard tactics that the Taliban would use to show the locals that there's an IED buried there.

So, we knew the area could be very, very dangerous.

As a road funnels or narrows, it directs traffic in a predictable manner.

So, if the enemy thinks that they can predict our movement, then they can place devices in our way that can hamper our movement.

That night, my job was to clear those hazard areas before they pushed across them.

Bryan: Alex would go do his thing, hunt around, you know, places where it would make sense to put a bomb.

For him, it was really about knowing the tendencies of the enemy and what they were doing.

Well, someone's gotta do it.

I mean, I felt that if I was trained in it, than I would have the best options or best ability to avoid those hazards if possible and prevent others from doing so as well.

Explosives fascinated me.

The electronics, the amount of ordnance that's out there, there's hundreds of thousands of different items.

Yes, you're taking a lot of risk but you're trained properly, and you know what to look for and how to avoid some of the mistakes that others can't.

I was injured in training early on and never made it to battalions but for me, the idea of being in the 75th Ranger Regiment was a big thing, and so when I became an explosive ordnance disposal technician, there was an opportunity to try out for a special operations unit that supported them.

So, I took my opportunity.

It can be tough when you come into an environment where the guys have training and working together for years, and you're just kind of thrust in there and have to prove your worth quickly and show that you're not a liability.

It takes time.

It's just like any relationship.

Mike: In combat, you're... you are looking out for a lot of things but having someone that really knows how to spot, identify, you know, IEDs, how to disarm them, it's a great addition to any platoon, and Alex was so good at his job.

You know, you knew that you could trust this dude.

You knew you could trust him in combat.

Bryan: I think we all sort of feel like he's protecting us in a lot of ways.

Like, this guy's encyclopedic about bombs and explosives and, like, the methods in which they're rigged up and the ways in which they work.

It was impressive.

Alex: The enemy pushed the envelope in Iraq with the technology.

Afghanistan, they reverted back to lesser technology.

It was cheaper, and it was harder to defeat.

For $5, you know, you buy a couple batteries, get a couple pieces of wood, you can make a pretty crude circuit that's hard to find and it's just as easy to function.

With explosives, it's initial success or total failure.

Especially when you have hazards like this, the prices you pay are in blood.

We determined nothing was placed at this tree, so we proceeded on past all our potential hazards, you know, safely.

We reached an intersection where we knew there was enemy fighters.

Bryan: I think it was three... three to four guys we thought were just kind of hunkered down within those trees in some kind of defensive position.

So, we moved in.

Cory moved out with first squad, which was the squad that Rob was the team leader in.

They kicked out to a flank in a way to set up clear fields of fire.

Alex: We got one of our interpreters to come over a bullhorn from a covered position and speak, you know, Pashto to these supposed fighters.

Bryan: He basically just asked the guys to come out.

This is a way to, like, try and defuse the situation.

One of them got scared, shot at us, and that told us all we needed to know about that situation.

Mike: After everything settled, you know, the shooting stopped, those guys were probably dead.

We had to obviously check.

You go through the bodies, checking them for any sort of sensitive materials.

I remember finding like a... it was like a toothbrush... it wasn't like a toothbrush, but that's what it was used for, like a stick with, like, wax on it.

You go through and you find all these personal items from these enemy combatants, and it's... it's interesting to go through a dead person's pockets.

Alex: At the site, there was four machine guns.

There was a number of magazines, approximately four hand grenades, and night vision devices.

We wanted to destroy the weapons and the explosives, so I started to build an explosives demolitions shot to destroy the enemy equipment.

Bryan: At this point, the sun was starting to come up.

So, we decided, okay, we got some good stuff out of this.

I think we should try and get back to the base while we still can.

I'm looking back towards the rest of the platoon, you know, just kind of scanning around.

And then this, you know, explosion goes off.

There was this long, uh... (chuckles) a very quiet moment.

At that point, everything seemed to be very slow.

I thought everything was okay.

As much as I was stuck in this quiet pause, I was quickly ripped out of it.

(Distant screaming)

As I heard the screams of a wounded Ranger.

That was the first time I heard just someone screaming like that.

Bryan: I was standing at the road intersection.

You know, we were just having this conversation.

"Man, that was a crazy mission. I'm glad it's over."

(explosion)

And then, boom, like ten car crashes at once.

You could feel the wave come off the blast.

(Men screaming distantly)

There was just chatter everywhere.

Stuff's coming over the radio and my headset.

I could not see into the blast area because there was so much dirt.

First thing I saw was the squad leader.

He came sort of out of this dusty thing, came into view carrying Tory.

He put him down, and then he ran off to do his thing.

So, there I was alone with Tory.

(Screaming continues)

The first thing I noticed was that his foot was gone, so, he had this amputation on his right leg.

It was the first amputation I had really seen.

It was so clean.

Your body has this like, kind of uncanny ability to close off those blood vessels at first, but that effect wears off.

So, initially, there's no blood at all.

And if you let that go long enough, that will become a lot of blood.

So, I had these tourniquets rubber-banded to the front of my kit.

(Screaming)

Bryan: Ripped the tourniquet off, and I threw it on his leg, ratcheted it down.

He was in a tremendous amount of pain, and he was letting me know.

He was grabbing the chin strap on my helmet and pulling on it.

He kept saying, "My leg is on fire."

I always just wanted to be the calmest guy on the... on the battlefield in that moment.

I feel like getting flustered is very contagious.

You see one guy getting aggravated, and then other guys start to feed off that.

But, you know, if you look down at the medic and he seems very calm, very stoic, very deliberate, going through this process, you can feed off of that, too.

Mike: Turned out to be a mass casualty situation.

We were walking that perimeter and seeing a lot of the guys' faces still kind of coming out of the group shock of that.

Rob, squad leader, you know, I looked him in the eyes, and he was just so wide-eyed and just... just kind of in shock a little bit, but he was still moving and executing, but just his facial expression was so pronounced.

He just... in a state that I had never seen him in.

Some dudes that had light wounds were kind of, you know, treating themselves.

All this chaos around him, Alex is in the crater collecting all the intelligence he needed to pass it on to somebody else and make sure they didn't do the same thing.

Alex: I sweep up and make sure the guys aren't sitting near any other devices because you can expect that when one IED is planted somewhere, there's probably multiples.

If you hit one, you have to send people down there to get your casualties, you're gonna hit more.

We were able to consolidate all of the personnel to get the casualties out of there as quickly and safely as possible.

Bryan: I remember my junior medic seeing a boot with a foot in it still.

He said, "Hey, do you think that's Tory's foot?"

And he comes back with this kind of weird look on his face.

And he was like, "It was a different boot."

It wasn't Tory's foot.

But I had just seen a guy with his leg blown off and another guy that was potentially dying in front of me, so a foot like that is the least of my concerns.

At some point, I managed to, like, see the platoon sergeant go scurrying by, and I kind of, like, grabbed him.

I wanted to know what he had seen already because I had only been in that one spot, and there was just movement going on all around me.

And he said, "Remsburg is over there."

He pointed to him and said, "He was in the water. He looks bad."

Mike: Remsburg had been blown up and over into this creek underneath this culvert where the IED was.

They fished them out of this water.

He had been laying facedown unconscious.

This bomb went off right next to the guy.

His helmet was probably up in the trees or something.

Alex: When I looked at Remsburg, I had to look for an extra second.

The way he was, you know, struggling to breathe, the amount of blood that was... it was kind of hard to tell who was hurt.

You see someone that you're used to seeing one way, and they're in a completely different fashion, it's shocking.

Bryan: He had this, like, chunk of the earth lodged in his head.

There's really not much you can do.

Yet... you're obviously not gonna go in there.

I covered it with a bandage basically, and we started to get him packaged up to move him over to the casualty collection point.

We were bringing seven injured guys over there.

Alex: At this point, it's now how do we get out?

It's daylight.

We're are starting to... you know, we've called in some reinforcements, some extra aircraft to provide some overhead support, and they started getting fired upon.

(Gunfire)

There was seven to ten people shooting into the air from their houses and their courtyards and some wooded areas.

So, the transportation helicopters are now put in a very precarious situation of flying to a helicopter landing zone that is hot.

They found a landing zone that was behind a wall, very dangerous for them to do, and it saved us from getting shot at.

Bryan: I was with Remsburg.

I laid over the top of him when the bird came in 'cause it blew a bunch of dust.

And then the guys picked him up and carried him, and I slapped him on the chest and said, "All right, man."

I thought I'd basically just said good-bye to this guy.

I did not think there was any chance he was gonna survive that injury.

I didn't know if he was gonna survive the flight back to Kandahar.

There was a short period of time after the helo left that you could just look around and see that everybody was starting to realize what had just happened.

There was just a very distinct look on everybody's face.

Mike looked over at me and said, "Is Rob dead?"

And I said, "I don't know."

And then a few minutes later, I started to realize that somebody had triggered the explosion.

He was one of the only guys I didn't still see on the ground.

So, I knew it was him.

Mike: As our first squad, which contained, you know, Rob Sanchez, Cory Remsburg, Tory Honda, many other... many other really good Rangers, um.

They crossed this footbridge.

On the far side, there was, like, some... some amount of, you know, homemade explosives buried under there with a crude victim-operated, you know, pressure plate.

"Victim-operated" is kind of an interesting description, but that's the technical jargon.

You're a victim that operates this device.

You know, nobody ever thinks about themselves that way.

Certainly not a Ranger.

Alex: I didn't... I didn't know... you know, I looked around.

I didn't see him so I had no clue until I found some goggles on the ground, with his name on them.

Mike: We got everybody loaded up on the birds.

I didn't have a lot of time to think.

You know, I don't remember thinking much, just making sure the guys were good and making sure everyone was gonna get out of there.

And I was, you know... first one up the ramp counting dudes on.

It didn't sink in. Like, I was so tired on the bird.

You know, I was kind of just... once everyone was good, we're flying back.

I was just kind of in a slump, just laying there.

Everyone was just kind of staring off.

We were starting to fly home and getting that kind of, "Okay, it's over. You know, we survived. I'm still here."

This aircraft's obviously a little emptier than it was when we landed."

Mike: You always want to do something, at least, as a leader to make sure that, you know, you don't look like you're... you're so shocked or taken aback, that you're still in control and that you're still confident, so you just want to make...

I remember just trying to look around and just look people in the eye at least.

You know, something you can do.

Bryan: I looked over at Mike, and he offered me a stick of gum, which I'll never forget.

After all that, there's nothing, really, we had to say to each other.

He just offered me a stick of gum.

Bryan: When we got back to Kandahar, I went over to just be with Rob for a minute.

He was laid out at the mortuary affairs tent.

So, I wanted to go in and just spend a minute or two with him.

We do this ceremony.

We'll have everybody formed up.

You know, it's the whole boots with the rifle and the dog tags and helmet.

We do a roll call.

Someone will call out someone's name that's there, and they'll say, "I'm here."

Do it again and do it again, and then... (chuckles) and after, uh... after every name, you know, inside me was this... pressure, this emotion that was building, and I knew... you know, I knew it was coming, and I called, uh... you know, I called Rob's name, Robert Sanchez.

Sergeant Robert Sanchez.

And then somebody, you know, yells out, you know, "Robert Sanchez is no longer with us."

Then it really, you know, then it really hits home, uh... you know, that he's gone, and you're not gonna hear his name called out in morning formation before PT anymore.

He's not gonna come...

You know, he's gonna come home.

You know, it's just... it's done.

Got up to speak, and made a very sad attempt at a... at a eulogy, and it was just mostly, you know, talking through tears.

I wasn't the only one, I mean, everyone was crying.

But to see that many... you know, really brave men just so... kind of broken and vulnerable was kind of... you know, one person starts, and it just goes... it's contagious.

At this point, we're doing the, uh... the post mission analysis and, you know, preparing for...

(sniffling)

So, at that point, we had to load Rob on an aircraft to send him home back to the States.

Mike: Rob was like the... heart and soul of that platoon, you know?

He was friends with everybody.

The platoon changed.

The dynamic of the platoon was different.

You could sit in that tent, look around, and see empty bunks.

Some guy had basically been living off that bunk just a day ago.

Guy still lived there.

PT uniform laid out for after the mission.

Guys had their, like, tennis shoes ready for when they got back.

Wendy: Before Rob's last deployment I had this horrible dream.

I dreamt he was gonna die in combat.

I said, "Rob, I don't feel good about this deployment."

He goes, "Mom!"

And I go, "Rob, I've never had a bad feeling."

I've always felt him safe over there, like he... he's with the best.

And he said, "Mom, I'm your Superman. Nothing can happen to me."

That's what he would always tell me when I was, like, mad or upset.

(Sighs) And then October 1st.

(Voice breaking) I still dream about them knocking on my door.

I'm just sad. I'm sad. My heart's sad.

A general said at his funeral and it made a lot of sense to me.

"Soldiers aren't made. They're born."

Rob was... he was born to do what he did.

I mean, I think that's how I... I'm able to accept that he did something he loved.

How many of us can say we love what we do in life?

And he did. He loved being a solder.

Rob was all about the team.

And so, I'm not the only one that hurts.

I know that other people hurt, too.

His guys, they're his brothers.

I don't know that bond.

I mean, I've never been in the military.

I don't know what they go through.

Mike: It's just one of those things you're left with.

The living must carry on with... with those burdens, um... that the dead are no longer encumbered by.

That's part of the extreme of the human experience, you know, is warfare.

Even explaining it now, unless you've been there, you'll never know what it's like.

And that is the burden... the burden and the bond of people that have been through that.

So, it leaves its mark on you.

I find myself all the time trying to... earn every day.

I asked Rob's mom several years after, you know, "How do you think I should do that? Like, what do I have to do to make the most out of his sacrifice?"

And she said, you know, "Just be yourself. He was your friend for a reason. So just be yourself."

(laughter)

(cheers and applause)

Man: You keep fighting.

(Both grunting)

(laughter)