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friendly fire

On Dec. 5, 2001, a misdirected U.S. bomb exploded near the village of Shawali Kowt north of Kandahar, killing 3 U.S. soldiers and at least 23 of Karzai's Afghani fighters. Dozens more were wounded, and an investigation into the cause of the incident continues. Special Forces soldiers who were there describe the tragic accident for FRONTLINE.

Capt. Jason Amerine,
  U.S. Special Forces A-team captain

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On the morning of Dec. 5 ... the headquarters was directing airstrikes against the ridgeline across from us. One of the guys messed up and brought in the bomb on us. So when the bomb hit them, the last count that I got, the latest number was I lost about 27 of my guerrillas. JD and Dan died instantly really. Cody Prosser, a friend of mine that came in with the headquarters, was mortally wounded. He lived for a while, but there wasn't anything that could be done with him really.

Then we just went into kind of trauma mode at that point. We pulled all the guys off the hill and went to work taking care of guys' injuries. I don't know how many of the Afghanis were way over the edge in terms of critical injuries. It was hard for me to estimate, because there were just so many people wounded at that point. I've heard numbers as high as like 50 or 60 wounded. But I don't know if that's including us. I'm not really sure where that number came from. But among my guys, three of my guys had pretty life-threatening wounds. Ronnie had a shrapnel that went through his lung. He was torn up with shrapnel in other places.

Mike had a major shrapnel wound to his chest that was affecting everything -- his heart, his lungs. His other wrist was pretty badly injured and he had some other lacerations. ... Everybody else was wounded to one extent or another. We just went to work stabilizing everybody, and it worked. I mean, the guys that died -- there was no helping them. From the guys on my team, everybody else lived.

Just so many of the Afghanis were hurt. We did what we could for all of them. But then at a certain point, they medevaced us out with the most critically injured Afghanis. Then we ended up pulling more Afghanis out after that.

The other thing that was supposed to go on that day was Kandahar was sending a delegation to talk about surrender. So the irony was that, three days later, Kandahar surrendered. They might have surrendered that day to us ... .

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

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The entire time we were [in Shawali Kowt], we had been taking intermittent fire from across the bridge. [It was] not too accurate, but we'd been taking fire. I don't know if the sun hit it just right or what, but we saw a cave entrance approximately three kilometers, about two and a half kilometers to our south. A flight of F-18s overhead had identified the cave entrance. They put the lasers on it to guide the laser-guided munitions in there and to hit the target, hit the cave entrance.

I watched two munitions impact on the cave entrance, so they fell a little short. It didn't look like much damage had been caused. The Air Force controllers, in the meantime, were talking to a B-52 overhead about using a 2,000-pound JDAM. A JDAM uses satellites to guide itself into position. Basically, you provide grid coordinates. The satellites figure it out. It makes its own adjustments, and it guides itself onto the target.

This is about 9 o' clock in the morning. About 9.30, as I reached down to grab my binoculars, I'm knocked to the ground. I can't figure out exactly what had happened. I look around and once I see the devastation, I knew that we had been hit by a very large munition. Originally, in the initial stages, I thought it was an R2 and it was enemy artillery. But there was no artillery in the south. All of that was up north, fighting the Northern Alliance or the Afghan military forces.

So it was determined in about three or four hours that we had been hit by friendly fire. The 2000-pound JDAM had fallen approximately two kilometers short, and had impacted on my position. At that time, two of my soldiers died immediately and one died en route to Germany. The remainder were wounded, and a number of Afghans were killed and wounded.

What was the situation like on the ground?

Initially, in the first few minutes, [there was] a tremendous amount of confusion. But the Americans on the ground that were not injured fell back on their training. First thing was [we] got communications up to notify higher headquarters what had happened. [We] put security out to make sure security was still in place to secure our position, then started treating the wounded. Everybody came together.

At that time, you rely on your training. It's just ingrained in you. You've done it over and over and over again in training scenarios. As your old football coach or old sports coach says, "You will play as you practice." It's exactly the same thing: You will fight as you're trained. Their training took over. I believe to this day that the reason so many of the wounded survived was because of the medical attention, the medical care that they received on the ground.

Simultaneously while we're treating Americans, we're also treating the Afghans. I was concerned that this would become a rapport issue. If they saw that we were just treating the Americans, they could say, "Hey, the Americans are just going to take care of themselves. They're not going to take care of us." So we treated the Afghan wounded just as we would the Americans. They were medevaced on the same aircraft; they were medevaced to Germany. In some cases, they were actually sent to the States to receive more definitive care. But they were treated just like any American soldier. In this case, they were our allies, and in a number of cases, they were our friends. ...

And Karzai was there?

Karzai was there. Karzai was wounded. It was a very minor wound along the face. I don't know if it was a piece of shrapnel or a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. We immediately picked him up and moved him to higher ground, away from the site. He set up a command post. At this time, the negotiations for the surrender of Kandahar began in earnest.

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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That obviously was the worst day of the war for us, for me and for all of our 5th Group, where we lost three soldiers and many Afghan counterparts. [We] basically lost the entire A-team to wounds. ... I am so proud of the staff I had there, Air Force, Army, because nothing else did stop. We put on other operations throughout the rest of the country. Those things continued while we dealt with this crisis, and they did an incredible job of doing that; it doesn't always happen. ... Colonel Fox and his guys just gave heroic work at dealing with the situation, maintaining their tactical posture, so all the U.S. forces there really came together and did great work at helping to secure the area. Of course, Karzai was wounded there, and an Afghan near him decapitated; a very close call for [Karzai]. ...

I'm very much aware that in the scope of combat operations across our country's history losing three guys, 12 guys, essentially -- the magnitude is absolutely minimal. [In our past military history, we] absolutely lost thousands of Americans in one day. But for us, it was a huge event, because we had been very successful as far as accomplishing our missions without losing any of our soldiers. And it wasn't because we were risk-averse; it was because we hopefully had done a very good job of planning, and the teams on the ground were very proficient. [By] the grace of God, on this day, the reason changed. So it made an impact on us. But obviously, in the end, you continue on. So we did.

Gen. Tommy Franks
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

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... The final work [on the investigation of the incident] is not yet done. The sense is that that we put a bomb in the wrong place. It's an unfortunate thing. It's a sad thing. As you know, it was not the first time that we had that effect. Actually, I've been amazed at the paucity of casualties in this operation.

I'm not a fan of what we call "friendly fire" or "blue on blue." We don't want to have that. But I will say that it does not surprise me a lot when we do have it. My suspicion is that that it's a friendly fire issue associated with either a bad target location being sent by a ground team to an aircraft, or in an aircraft where the munitions are armed and released on a bad set of coordinates being placed there. I'm not sure that's what caused it, but it's pretty obvious to all of us that we put a bomb in the wrong place.

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