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Last full measure of devotion

They never knew what hit them, and I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad. They didn’t know they were about to die, didn’t know that morning would be their last here on earth, didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to anyone, goodbye to family, goodbye to friends. The attack came early, right at sun up. It was July 4th, America’s birthday, and though they were in Afghanistan, they planned to celebrate as best they could. But the insurgents, a combined force of Taliban and Al Qaeda, had other plans. As first light broke from the east above the Hindu Kush Mountains, the insurgents opened fired on the compound with everything they had. The group of young US Army soldiers was used to being attacked ‘“ their compound was small, isolated, with higher ground all around making it difficult to defend. Small-scale attacks with small arms fire were common. Even so, this time, things were different. This time, the insurgent force was larger, much larger, and instead of the typical sporadic, ineffective small arms fire, the attack was highly coordinated with AK-47 automatic rifle fire, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, and even a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) at the front gate ‘“ and it all came at the same time. Most still in their beds, the soldiers had little time to react, but they did, instinctively, the result of countless battle drills they’d endured in basic training. Still half asleep, they grabbed their weapons and immediately scrambled to their pre-assigned fighting positions, ready to do battle, their eyes searching the surrounding hills for signs of the enemy. That’s when the first mortar fell, landing directly on top of the two soldiers’ fighting position. For the insurgents, it was their luckiest shot of the day ‘“ for the two young soldiers, it was the unluckiest instant of their lives. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the wrong time, or maybe it was fate. Either way, it would mean their end, the explosion killing the first soldier instantly, the other lingering, unconscious, just long enough for his buddies to try to revive him. But it wasn’t to be. That day, the insurgents had their victory ‘“ two US soldiers killed in action, several more injured, some severely. Yet, the insurgent force would pay a heavy toll for their victory ‘“ at least 30 killed by fire from US Army Apache attack helicopters and US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts with their forward mounted machine guns that, when loosed, have no mercy and take no prisoners. It may be that the dead insurgents saw their god the instant they arrived in their heaven, but it can be said for certain that the last things they saw before leaving this world has the hell-fire unleashed from the bore of a US military machine gun. Several of the wounded insurgents were captured and one, badly injured and medevaced to a US Army forward surgical team defiantly shouted ‘Allah Akbar!,’ Allah Akbar!,’ (Allah is great, Allah is great) as the surgeons prepared him for life-saving surgery. Another, less belligerent than the first, told US forces they’d come from Pakistan where they’d trained in Muslim madrasas (religious schools) and that this was the first time they’d ever been to Afghanistan. After the firefight, which lasted two hours, the small compound looked like a scene from a blockbuster movie ‘“ buildings destroyed, empty ammo casings lying everywhere, shrapnel strewn about, undetonated RPGs stuck in the outer walls. The VBIED lay in ruins, blown literally to bits, its charred hull blocking the main entrance to the compound. So intense was the shooting that medevac helicopters were forced to circle the compound for nearly 30 minutes before being cleared to land. As one soldier later described the scene, ‘The place was shot all to hell!’ I was standing with a group of soldiers out by the flight line at a nearby compound when the choppers arrived. Everyone was somber ‘“ after all, we knew one of the choppers carried the bodies of two dead soldiers. When the chopper landed, we transported the bodies to a small holding room separate from the medical treatment facility. I examined the young soldiers and then officially pronounced them dead. The chaplain asked those few of us in the room for a moment of silence. He then said a prayer for the fallen. And I said a prayer of my own, for the two young soldiers, and for their families who did not yet know the fate of their sons ‘“ families for whom, after receiving the news, July 4th would never be the same. In the Gettysburg Address, given at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania some months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of soldiers who, having paid the ultimate sacrifice, had given to their country the ‘last full measure of devotion.’ And that’s what the two young soldiers did here on July 4th. They didn’t come to Afghanistan to be heroes, or to win medals, or to gain glory. They came to do their duty in defending America, a duty they believed in, and in performing that duty, gave to all Americans their last full measure to devotion. To contact Spencer, read his blog, or review an archive of his columns, please visit

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