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Ambushed by the Taliban

The longer she waited for his call, the more she worried

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Elizabeth receives call about Brian
  • Ambushed by the Taliban
  • Blog: Still the same, only stronger
  • Read the full War Widow series
  • The Taliban (the word means "students") are an insurgent group in Afghanistan fighting to regain control of the government.

    In 1996, they took control from mujahedeen warlords and forced a strict interpretation of Islam. They closed girls' schools, banned women from work and allowed executions and amputations as punishment for crimes.

    The Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist group that masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.

    After the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, American and British forces bombed Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in October 2001. By December, most of the Taliban had been routed.

    Since 2004, the Taliban have regrouped and continue to strengthen.

    Learn more: www.state.gov and www.cia.gov/library.


  • This narrative is based on military records, and interviews with Brian Woods' teammates, his sergeant and other Army personnel. Also interviewed were Elizabeth Woods, her family and friends, and Brian's friends and members of his family.

    In situations where only Brian and Elizabeth were present, the story is based on Elizabeth's recollection of events.

    Other sources included news reports, military historian James Hogue of UNC Charlotte, the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors ( www.taps.org), Gold Star Wives of America ( www.goldstar wives.org ), icasualties.org, www.americanwidowproject.org, journalism.berkeley.edu/ and www.state.gov.



The story so far: Elizabeth and Brian Woods' son dies at birth; a year later their daughter is born. But just when their life seems to be settling down, Brian is deployed to Afghanistan in July 2009.

At the end of every day in Afghanistan, Brian telephoned Elizabeth. He called on a phone in the camp kitchen, where she could hear other soldiers talking in the background.

Evening in Afghanistan was lunchtime in North Carolina, an 8 1/2-hour time difference. His call usually came no later than 1 p.m.

"Hi, sweetheart."

Day after day, for 34 days, Elizabeth waited for the call. When the phone finally rang, relief washed away her fears.

By mid-afternoon on Aug. 14, 2009, Elizabeth's heart was racing. Brian hadn't telephoned, and she was frantic. She drove to the grocery store and bought baby food and tried to keep busy with their daughter, Ella, desperately trying to convince herself that Brian was fine, that he would soon call and tease her about worrying too much.

In previous wars, wives waited weeks or months to get letters from their husbands. In between letters, they went about their lives, assuming no news was good news. In this modern-day war, troops call home by phone or webcam every day from 7,000 miles away. No news could be bad news.

Brian's second month in Afghanistan, August 2009, was shaping up to be the bloodiest month in the war, and U.S. military leaders warned that the fighting would intensify.

Like other Green Berets, his team was fighting alongside Afghan Security Forces, training them to take over the war against the Taliban. Their goal was to restore security, which would allow Americans to get out.

Some soldiers questioned the loyalty and competency of their Afghan partners. But Elizabeth said Brian told her he enjoyed getting to know them and was proud of his work, healing their war wounds and those of civilians. Their poverty dismayed him. He asked his sister to send clothes and shoes for the soldiers. He asked Elizabeth to send hard candy for the children.

One evening, he described a harrowing firefight. Their armored vehicle broke down and they spent seven hours stranded in the desert. Elizabeth said Brian told her he got caught without his gear on, fixing a flat tire, when the shooting started.

For Brian, it was exhilarating. For Elizabeth, terrifying.

"I just want you back home," she remembers telling him. "I just want our life back." She was close to tears. "I want to be in our own bubble together."

As the afternoon of Aug. 14 dragged on and Brian didn't call, Elizabeth thought of everything that might have gone wrong. The day felt strangely empty, as if something more than a phone call was missing.

As desperate as she was for a call, with each passing hour, she was afraid of what a call would bring.

Finally, around 4 p.m., the phone rang.

"Is this Mrs. Woods?"

A beautiful morning

Brian and six other Green Berets had traveled all night with 30 Afghan soldiers. They were headed out on a three-day mission.

Their team leader said they were searching for a group of insurgents responsible for attacks with homemade bombs called IEDs. Instead, he said, the insurgents found them.

Brian and a teammate rode in the lead in an armored vehicle. It was their job to get the convoy to its destination by the safest, most passable, route.

The roads through the mountains were narrow and rough, the teammate said, and they almost rolled their vehicle three times trying to navigate through the darkness. Each time, Brian took charge of extracting it.

At daybreak, the teammate said, the two of them stood together on high ground overlooking a village, scouting the best route. It was a beautiful morning with a blue sky, a bright sun and a cool breeze. Below them, people gathered water and firewood for breakfast. Children flew kites, a popular pastime in Afghanistan that had been banned when the Taliban ruled the country.

Brian's teammate assumed Brian was thinking the same thing he was - about his own family.

As they watched in amazement while the routines of daily life unfolded before them in the war-torn country, Brian turned with a big grin and said:

This is incredible. Can you believe it?

Return fire!

The convoy moved on, maneuvering safely through the village. Not long afterward, gunfire exploded around them.

The Taliban were attacking.

Brian's teammate said Brian found the insurgents' trail through the desert. They drove as far as they could, then Brian and the teammate set off on foot with three Afghan soldiers to find the attackers.

The Taliban fired again.

The three Afghan soldiers dropped to the ground. Brian turned and bent slightly forward to give instructions to one of them.

More shots.

Brian fell.

"Return fire!" his teammate yelled.

As a soldier, the teammate was trained to keep moving forward. He couldn't help Brian until they routed the enemy. Only then were they able to move to a less-exposed location, and radio for help. Only then could they run back and get Brian.

He had been shot in the head, below one ear. The teammate said he tried all the medical techniques Brian taught him, trying to save his friend, until a helicopter arrived to take Brian away.

Brian's teammates continued to fight until late in the afternoon. One of their Afghan partners was killed, three others seriously wounded.

Back at the camp, Brian underwent surgery. Then he was airlifted to Germany to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest American hospital outside of the United States, where injured U.S. service members are evacuated from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The military, as Brian had predicted, would fly Elizabeth there.

Friday: Elizabeth says goodbye.

Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074.
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