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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Robert Gully Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Robert Gully

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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Maj. Robert Gully

As Told To Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

Robert Gully began his Army career as an ordinary private. He qualified for Special Forces in 1994 and was commissioned as an officer in 1999. Having trained foreign troops in Bosnia and the Baltics before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he then spent three tours working closely with Iraqi and Afghan forces.

When I went to Afghanistan [in 2006-2007], first of all I was horrified at the quality of the soldiers. The Iraqis were stellar soldiers compared to the Afghans, even though I had just complained about them.

 

We started off in the north in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the soldiers weren't necessarily motivated. There was virtually no fighting in Mazar-i-Sharif, and they were getting a paycheck, basically. They couldn't shoot. They couldn't keep the same guys in one squad -- it was virtually impossible to put one squad leader in charge of nine other guys, the same guys every day. [It was] "we just decided who was in charge five minutes ago" every day.

[Then] they got mobilized to go to where all the fighting was down in Kandahar province, and pretty much all my interpreters quit because they didn't want to go die. [laughs] There was a lot of AWOL.

I owned Panjaway, officially, at that time, an entire valley that leads up to Kandahar, just full of Taliban. Most of the civilians left because the fighting was so bad; they just became displaced to Kandahar.

 

The area was built up with hundreds and hundreds of grape rows, which were mud mounds. Over hundreds of years they'd built all of these rows out of mud, a couple of feet thick; the grapes are planted on top and the vines grow down the sides. They can withstand terrible amounts of direct fire. That was fairly unique to the area.

Oftentimes, when the shooting started, we were unable to give the Afghans a lot of instruction because we ended up having to fight for our own lives -- right next to them, of course, but oftentimes we ended up having to take control. When the shooting starts like that and becomes really intense, we had a tendency to focus on the enemy, and if the Afghans were holding with us, that was great. If they weren't shooting or whatever, and we had a moment to provide them some instruction, great; if not, oh well.

We got pretty caught up in the moment on some of those missions where it was shoot to live and maybe instruct a little later. There were several days where if we hadn't had allied aircraft providing bombs and bullets for us, we wouldn't have been able to break contact at all. The Taliban units in our area, they outnumbered us generally and could provide enough firepower to try to envelop us.

When we got down to it, I probably had about 80 guys at a combat outpost called Sperwan Gar. But it took about half that force to guard the combat outpost, which was nothing but a dirty mountain, a hilltop. So basically I had a force of about 40 I could take out and engage the enemy.

 

We had some concertina wire and some Canadian vehicles assisting to hold the high ground -- elements of the Royal Canadian Rifles. They were great to have around, but their rules of engagement are a little different than ours; they would come and help out, but most of the time it had to be after I was already in the fight.

[As for the Afghans,] some of their leadership was really a challenge. Only one or two were worth a damn at all; they tend to get killed.

Their sergeant major, he was killed. His name was Zabee. He was about 30 years old, and he actually had some personal values and soldierly discipline -- not like the Americans would think about, with shining boots and a pressed, starched uniform, but he would carry his own machine gun and get out on point. Normally a sergeant major wouldn't expose himself like that, but he had to lead by example.

He lost both legs to an IED. I got out there to put a tourniquet on him, but it had been 20 minutes.

They had gone out on a routine resupply [run], and they had taken trucks to go back towards Kandahar. We didn't accompany them on that mission because it was just a routine resupply. The enemy, of course, used lots of IEDs, [but] there was almost an open desert kind of area. It's kind of like a needle in a haystack -- I don't know how they hit that one. They were driving a Toyota and it took off the whole front end.

I got the radio call that they had been in contact, and we immediately launched off of Sperwan Gar. I called in a medevac. But when I got to Zabee, his soldiers hadn't tourniqueted his legs at all. I don't know why; that's one of the things that we teach them.

He was quite conscious and as lucid as you could expect. We got him on the aircraft and he was actually smacking the crew chief with his arm. But he'd lost too much [blood] and he didn't pull through.

He was actually a friend to us. In fact, it had only been a couple weeks earlier some of our American SF [Special Forces] guys had hit an IED, and [Sergeant First Class] Bill Brown was killed and two of the guys in Bill's truck were wounded. I was on the ground calling in a medevac, and it was early morning. One of the guys who'd been hurt was lying on a stretcher. He was starting to shiver. Zabee gave him his jacket -- knowing full well that he'd probably never get that jacket back and it was his only jacket.

[Later, Gully gave one of his own jackets to Zabee, over the Afghan's protests.] I said, "No, no, this is for you. You take care of my brothers, and I take care of you. We are brothers."

Their officer corps, however, was just horrible. One day we'd received a mortar attack, and I wanted to immediately try and hit the area we thought the enemy was launching mortars at us [from], so I went to the Afghan officer in charge and said, "Hey we got to go right now and attack this area." And he said, "No, no, we're eating lunch."

Forty-five minutes later we were ready to go. [But] they felt there was too many IEDs in the area and they said, "We're not leaving." I got upset. I said, "I'm leading, follow me."

That officer got shot in the arm that day. We did destroy the mortar site, but on the way out we kind of got run out of the area -- after killing a lot of the enemy -- because there were too many of them.

[Over nine months] the Afghans had about four or five KIAs total and somewhere between 10 and 15 wounded total. We lost two Special Forces soldiers, Chief [Warrant Officer] Scott Dyer and Sergeant First Class Bill Brown, and we had about nine Purple Hearts for the Americans.

Bill Brown was actually on a sister team. I only lost one out of 12 on my team, [Scott Dyer]. It was about a week before we got into Panjaway. We stopped in Kandahar, and I ended up running a mission with some of our Afghans with another organization -- I can't go into it too much. We came in aircraft in the middle of the night under fire, and he actually came out of the helicopter and broke his neck. It was a direct result of enemy action -- it was just no one got a bullet in him.

It broke my heart because he was a really good friend and probably the best SF guy that I ever had known. My team was very close. Back home, our wives and kids, we'd play together on weekends, we'd do everything together, deployed and not deployed. So it was a tough blow to everyone to lose Scott.

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