Pollowitz: We know more about David Petraeus’s mistress than we do about the eight men who died at Keating. Tell us a little about those eight men and why they’re the ones we should be covering and honoring.
Tapper: The book tells the whole history of Combat Outpost Keating, from its formation in March 2006 through the base’s being overrun in 2009, and, as you know, there are more stories of fallen and wounded troops beyond those of the eight troops killed during the Taliban assault of October 3, 2009.
That said, the eight who were killed that day died — to a man — as a result of their having run into danger, either to return fire or to try to help one of their brothers.
Kevin Thomson was from Reno, Nev. A mortar man raised by a single mom, Thomson had battled depression and lost 100 pounds in order to join the Army. He was the first one killed, shot as he ran out within a minute of the attack, heading to his weapon to return fire.
Josh Kirk, raised in Idaho, was one of the toughest, bravest men with Black Knight Troop, 3-61 Cav, and he had already been in the region with 1-91 Cav in 2007–2008. Kirk left behind a wife and daughter.
Michael Scusa also left behind a wife and child, a son. Mild-mannered and sweet, he was killed running out to bring ammunition to those who had pulled guard duty that day.
Josh Hardt, who left behind a grieving wife, ran out on a mission he had to have known he wasn’t likely to survive, to rescue five of his brothers pinned down in a Humvee.
Chris Griffin was a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from Kincheloe, in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He joined Hardt on that mission. He was a man of few words, but he commanded respect.
Justin Gallegos, a tough guy with a tender side, left behind a son and ex-wife. He was one of the five men pinned down in the Humvee, and he died trying to save one of the others as they made a break for it.
Vernon Martin was a funny and nice man with a wife and three children, and a secret that was bedeviling him. He was one of the five men pinned down in the Humvee. He, Gallegos, and Stephan Mace had initially run to the Humvee — which was being used as a guard position — to help those on guard duty.
Stephan Mace, full of mischief and fun, was from northern Virginia. The kid had so much life in him — he survived much longer than anyone thought he would have even though he had suffered horrific wounds.
I don’t know that I did them justice in these brief descriptions; that’s why I wrote a whole book about them, to flesh out their heroism and their humanity.
Pollowitz: One of the haunting stories from The Outpost is that of First Lieutenant Ben Keating (who died from injuries sustained in a truck rollover on November 26, 2006, and for whom the combat outpost was later named). You mention he was reading Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about Alexander the Great’s Afghan campaign. Pressfield starts The Afghan Campaign with a “historical note” telling readers that Alexander was forced to leave fully a fifth of his army in Afghanistan to “keep the country from reverting to insurgency” — a not-so-thinly-veiled warning to our politicians and military leadership. Are we repeating Alexander’s failed strategy?
Tapper: Many of the U.S. troops I profiled in the book were well aware of the history of both Alexander and the USSR. in the region — the hollowed-out shells of three Soviet personnel carriers sat outside Combat Outpost Keating, not exactly the most reassuring landmarks.
I don’t know that we’re exactly repeating Alexander’s strategy — obviously our mission is quite different, as we’re not seeking to conquer and occupy forever — but there are certainly uncomfortable parallels with previous empires’ excursions into the area. At the end of the day, there are a lot of people in Afghanistan who don’t want outsiders there — and they are willing to fight to the death to kick them (us) out. These insurgents know the land, and the locals know that in five or ten years’ time, the native fighters will be there and the latest occupying empire will probably not be.