Excerpt from “Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War” by Jessica Donati.
The U.S. has come to rely on Special Operations to fight the nation’s wars. Because their operations are kept secret, America has forgotten the cost of losing its soldiers.
Matthew Roland was an Air Force captain with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Camp Antonik, a tiny camp that was all that remained of the U.S. footprint in Helmand. He had extended his tour in the southern province to help a new team of Green Berets settle into their new home.
Since most American troops had left a year earlier, the Taliban had seized back territory along the Helmand River. In response, the U.S. military was increasingly dispatching Special Operations soldiers and using airstrikes to shore up the Afghan army and police to prevent further losses. Their missions were kept secret, and officially Washington claimed that combat operations were over.
Matthew went through all the maps with the new team and pointed out where enemy forces were located. The towns and villages would have been familiar to American families whose loved ones had fought during the surge; Sangin, Marjah, Musa Qala. Hundreds of American soldiers had died in battles for Helmand’s sandswept land, and now the Taliban were set to win it back.
He had ginger hair, and earned the team’s appreciation for introducing them to his signature cocktail: a mix that was equal parts Gatorade and Rip It, an energy drink. It was designed to keep one both awake and hydrated through night shifts. The camp was located on a larger Afghan army base.
They all questioned whether the surrounding and palpably hostile Afghan soldiers could be trusted not to attack them in the middle of the night.
Rose, his girlfriend, was back in Florida and asked every day when he was coming home. She was also in US Air Force Special Operations and was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the coming weeks. She worried the extension would cause him to miss the small window they had to see each other.
Matthew had spent a long time chasing Rose, and they had been friends first. He would crash at her apartment at the end of a night out, and she would make him sleep on the couch. Inevitably, sometime later, she would hear a knock at her bedroom door.
“Rose, can we cuddle?” he would ask. “I promise I won’t do anything!”
“Go back to bed, Matthew!” she replied every time.
Eventually, they ended up on a deployment together in Africa, and she began to feel a flutter when he was around. They started dating, got serious, and planned to meet each other’s families over the Christmas holidays, when they would both be back in the United States. To celebrate his return, she had bought them tickets to see Taylor Swift.
On August 26, 2015 Matthew was days away from going home. He volunteered to lead a convoy from the airfield and was shot dead by an Afghan commando who had turned. He was 27. His replacement, Forrest Sibley, had just landed and was killed in the same attack.
The sun had barely started to rise in Florida when Rose received a phone call later that day. It was five thirty a.m. She groggily reached for her phone. A man’s voice came on the line.
“Captain Chapman?” he said. “Do you still live at your apartment?”
“Yes,” Rose said. She thought it was an odd question. Was she in trouble?
“I’m here with a few men at your door. We’re going to knock,” he said.
She practically fell out of bed, grabbed a pair of sweatpants and a shirt, and hurried to the door. Why was the captain at her front door at dawn? Her commanding officer was waiting outside in his service dress blues, a row of badges pinned to his chest. The chaplain stood to one side. At the other was a man she didn’t recognize. He was also dressed in official uniform and in the red beret worn by US Air Force combat controllers.
As soon as she saw the red beret, she knew something had happened to Matthew. She tried to steady herself. He was probably just hurt, she told herself.
“Are you Rose?” the man in the beret said.
“I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but Matthew was killed last night,” he said.
Rose stared. For a few moments, the world seemed to crumble away as each word slowly sank in. Her stomach fell. Her heart stopped. It wasn’t possible. She swayed unsteadily.
“No,” she began. She was unable to continue.
She heard her breath loud and heaving, as though it belonged to someone else. She felt tears stream down her face. Her officer swooped in and caught her, enveloping her in a huge, bear-like hug.
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated.
She felt a tidal wave of sorrow and collapsed into his arms, crying. She tried to pull herself together to find out what happened. If she could only focus on the next five minutes, she wouldn’t have to think about the rest. That Matthew was gone forever, and nothing would bring him back. The officers started to explain what would take place next.
The military had a protocol for everything, and she tried to concentrate. Matthew was on his way back, on the same flight as another soldier who had been killed in the attack. She could travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet him, as long as Matthew’s parents gave their approval.
The officers wouldn’t leave her alone until someone else had arrived to keep her company. She had to be careful about whom to call, because the military had been unable to contact Matthew’s sister. She called one of her best friends, who lived nearby. For the first time, she tried to get the words out.
“Dan,” she stuttered, “Ma-Ma-Matthew...died.”
She broke down crying again. Dan showed up right away. He helped her call a few more close friends, who sat her down, poured her a large glass of wine, and packed her bag. It was a time-tested routine to cope with loss: stick together, distract, support. She was on a plane hours later with two of Matthew’s team mates.
Matthew’s family was up waiting for her at Fisher House, for the families of the fallen. His mom, dad, and sister enveloped her in hugs. They wanted to know all about her, and sat her down to talk until they were drained and went to bed.
Matthew and Forrest arrived in identical caskets draped with American flags. The fuselage of the aircraft was otherwise empty, as per protocol. The ramp was lowered and the caskets carried to the waiting vehicles.
At the funeral home in Dover, a team was waiting to prepare the bodies for burial. Soldiers often suffered such extensive wounds that their caskets were kept closed to avoid upsetting the families and wrecking the last memories of their husbands and sons.
Rose sobbed in the hallway at the home while waiting for her turn to go in. His friends from the squadron were outside. Matthew’s parents went in first. Rose heard his mother wailing. She started to panic.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” she told herself.
Someone came to get his sister. Eventually, Matthew’s team leader appeared with another teammate and led Rose to her feet and into the viewing room. She walked to the other side without looking at the casket, getting as far away from it as possible. Seeing him would take her closer to accepting that he was dead.
His teammates steadied her, waiting for her to be ready. Finally, she turned around. Matthew’s face was lying below her line of sight, and deep down she knew that he was in there. She forced herself to his side and looked down.
It was a shock. His hair had been cut and combed over. He had always had messy hair and a scruffy beard that sometimes caught flecks of dip. Someone had sewn his lips closed.
Rose turned to one of his teammates.
“Nate, it doesn’t look like him,” she said, choking on her words.
“They cut his hair, and his hair looks stupid.”
“Do you need me to mess it up for you?” Nate asked.
“Okay, Rose, I promise, before we close the casket, I will mess up his hair for you,” he said.
She told him that would be perfect. Then they left her so she could be alone with Matthew for a while. She tucked a letter into his pocket along with a small can of dip. A day later, Matthew was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, one of more than twenty-three hundred American soldiers killed at war in Afghanistan.
“Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War” is available for purchase from all book sellers.
Jessica Donati covers foreign affairs for The Wall Street Journal in Washington and has reported from over a dozen countries in the role. She joined the paper as the bureau chief in Kabul in 2015, and lived in Afghanistan for over four years. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, covering both the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan. She co-authored a series on the war in Libya that was chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2012. She is also the recipient of a New York Press Club award for her reporting in Libya. She is British-Italian, and grew up in Italy. She lives with her husband and son in Washington.
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