The Bone Yard. The battle was fought near the building at middle right of the photo.
Gunfire poured through the darkness upon Col. Tom Brewer and a handful of National Guard troops under his command in Afghanistan.
The year was October 2003. Brewer and his squad were driving through the Afghan countryside at 1 a.m. when they were suddenly fired upon.
They took cover and fought back.
The National Guard did not expect to see action. They were deployed to train Afghan troops to someday protect and defend their own country.
The Guard was not well armed, but this time they had submachine guns thanks to Brewer, who successfully persuaded commanders to issue the Guardsmen more than handguns, just in case.
During the battle, Brewer took six bullets, but thanks to the efforts of his soldiers and protective battle gear, he managed to survive and continue to fight.
The battle started around 1 a.m. and the soldiers fought in the moonlight, with little reinforcement from the regular Army. and after the battle, the Guard battled the Army to set the record straight about the gunfight.
Brewer is challenging incumbent Rep. Adrian Smith for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. We introduced Brewer and his candidacy in the Bulletin’s Feb. 5 edition. Since then, we’ve learned about the battle of the Bone Yard in Afghanistan.
It started as Brewer and a small contingent were taking an early morning shortcut through the Afghanistan plains. They passed the place called the Bone Yard – a wreckage ground littered with military tanks and armored vehicles that the Russians left behind in 1988-89 when they pulled out of Afghanistan. The place was bombed by the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. From above, the vehicles were potentially operable, said James F. Christ, the author of the straightforward book about the battle, The Bone Yard (Battlefield Publishing).
Christ based the book on information from a military investigation as well as lengthy interviews with the soldiers who were there.
Brewer, with just four soldiers, organized the initial response. He put a man on the radio to call for reinforcements. He divided the other four soldiers, including him, into two groups, and took the lead as his team cautiously moved forward. When Brewer jumped a short wall, gunfire opened up, forcing him to sprint ahead to the nearest cover.
Uninjured, he ducked behind an old piece of equipment, but he was well ahead of his troops as a fire fight opened up. The enemy only fired a couple guns initially, but proved to be a sizeable force, raining bullets on the U.S. troops from the darkness of an old building.
The Guard, including Brewer, fought back, picking their shots and providing cover for one another as they found the best vantage points, while one trooper calld for reinforcements. His call reached the closest backup – four other Guardsmen stationed about five miles away, who quickly hit the road.
But the 10th Mountain Division, the regular Army, was more difficult to reach. Even when they were contacted, they did not arrive for nearly an hour. By then, the gunfight was virtually over.
Brewer picked his shots from behind a vehicle and the enemy responded. Three bullets hit Brewer's Kevlar protective covering, knocking him down and unconscious for a few moments. Two other bullets hit his armpit and his bicep, but still he continued to fight.
Finally, the fire fight diminished and the enemy became more intent on getting away than attacking. Brewer, down to his last bit of ammo, pulled back.
As he ran back to the wall, he was shot in the calf, knocking him down. He crawled the rest of the way. He got help from a soldier from the Napelese Royal Ghurka, who braved the gunfire to boost him over the wall.
“Col. Brewer is kind of a mountain man,” said one of the soldiers, Maj. Tom Hanley. “They picked the wrong guy to shoot. You have to think of the morale of the enemy. The machine gunner that shot Col. Brewer had to have seen his tracer strike. Col. Brewer was flung down. The guy had to have thought he’d killed his enemy. It had to be very disconcerting for that man when the colonel got back up and kept firing.”
Nearly an hour after the fight began, the 10th Mountain Division arrived. They ordered the Guardsmen to fall to the rear.
The Guard refused, out of concern that the replacement troops didn’t understand the situation.
The limping but still moving Brewer was ordered into an ambulance, which waited nearly four hours until another ambulance arrived before taking Brewer to a hospital. Then, the medics tied Brewer into the stretcher but failed to tie the stretcher down, so the stretcher bounced off its pedestal not long after the trip began. Brewer fell on his face. He rode that way to the base.
Brewer was patched up by German surgeons and then sent to the U.S. section, where he didn’t get much attention. He had to get up and get his own breakfast in the mess tent.
At daybreak, the U.S. troops took the old building. Amidst the blood, they found 19 prisoners, plus evidence that several others had escaped in a shallow ditch behind the old building.
The U.S started the fight with five soldiers, then increased to nine with the first reinforcements arrived, and finally to 15, and then the 10th Mountain division arrived.
Army officials tried to infer that the Guard were gun-happy and instigated a fight they should have avoided, but the investigation showed that if they would have continued on their way, they would have been easy targets for the enemy. And, as it worked out, Brewer and his men spoiled an Al Queada plan to ambush a training camp for native Afghan troops, the investigation showed.
Brewer was eventually awarded the Purple Heart.
This report was first published in the Feb. 26 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.