The killers bided their time for days, then weeks, patiently waiting for a moment when the American soldiers were vulnerable.
It came, finally, in the early hours of Sept. 16. Four cavalry soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., and two communications specialists from Fort Gordon, Ga., had an overnight assignment at a hillside observation point in the Mizan District of Zabul Province near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. They watched a valley they suspected enemy fighters were using to lob mortars into the soldiers’ small forward base a mile away.
About 20 more members of their platoon rested in a fortified checkpoint a quarter-mile distant; some were sleeping.
The soldiers’ thermal imaging scopes let their eyes cut through the dark for several hundred yards. It was a huge nighttime advantage over their enemies.
The trouble was, their enemies at this moment were disguised as their friends. And they were in the observation point with them, just a few feet behind.
Six members of the Afghan National Police climbed quietly atop a small wall, raised their guns and fired, according to soldiers and civilians familiar with the Army investigation into the attack.
Four U.S. soldiers were killed in the assault: Spc. Joshua Nelson, who had grown up in Greenville, N.C., and was based at Fort Gordon; Sgt. Sapuro Nena; Pfc. Genaro Bedoy and Pfc. Jon Townsend, all from Lewis-McChord.
The attack marked the single deadliest “green-on-blue” insider attack against American forces in 2012, according to the Long War Journal’s catalog of such incidents.
At least 51 Western service members died in insider killings in 2012. The ambush near Combat Outpost Mizan was so severe, and followed so many similar attacks, it led the Army to shut down partnered operations with Afghan forces for two weeks. This undermined the transition to Afghan control of the country – the very reason for the sustained U.S. presence in what has become America’s longest war.
It marked a betrayal that still burns among the fallen soldiers’ loved ones and those who served with them.
‘I’ll be fine’
As far as his father, Brian Nelson, can tell, Josh Nelson should never even have been in that hole where he died.
“I’ll be fine,” Brian remembers his son telling him at the end of May 2012, when he deployed with 19 other members of his unit to provide electronic warfare support for combat forces in Afghanistan, a little more than a year after he had joined the Army. Nelson, 22, was a signals intelligence analyst in the 297th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Gordon – a communications specialist.
“What I do,” he told his dad before he left for Afghanistan, “I won’t be out where there’s shooting.”
But in Afghanistan, there is often shooting where it’s not expected. The soldiers Nelson was working with from Lewis-McChord had learned that.
Their unit, from the 14th Cavalry Regiment, was on its first deployment in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq. When they took over the outpost at Mizan from the outgoing unit in the spring of 2012, the area looked relatively stable, and relations between U.S. and Afghan troops who each had a section of the compound seemed good.
“Mizan is open for business,” Command Sgt. Maj. James Coroy, the top enlisted soldier leading the outgoing troops, told a reporter at the time. Coroy felt confident the newly secured road between Mizan and Qalat, the capital of the province, 25 miles away, would stay open under the protection of Afghan National Army soldiers. This would speed the withdrawal of American forces from that corner of the country.
The plan was to hand over the Mizan outpost to Afghan forces in the fall.
But the Taliban are known to put on a show when U.S. forces hand over their positions, to give the impression they are driving out the occupying force. Troops from Mizan were attacked by the Taliban in May and June. As the transition neared, the commander of U.S. troops there, Lewis-McChord’s Lt. Col. Jim Dunivan, doubled the number U.S. forces, packing 80 soldiers into the tiny outpost.
On the night of Sept. 10, the outpost came under mortar attack, which continued the next day. Dunivan sent about 25 soldiers to an overlook about a mile away to try to stop the attacks. Six of those soldiers, along with six Afghan police officers, were broken off to hunker down in the overnight observation post on the hill a quarter-mile away.
It didn’t look like much, just a dugout covered with some tent-like camouflage to protect against the weather. A wall about 3 feet high surrounded it. Soldiers stocked their post with guns, ammunition, night-vision goggles and gear to intercept enemy communications.
The Americans clustered at the front, either resting or scanning the valley below for enemy movements.
Working hard to join
Eighteen months earlier, Josh Nelson had been more likely to be listening to music than trying to hear the conversations of insurgents.
He had graduated from North Pitt High School in 2008 with no plan for his life, his father said. He got a job in Greenville working as a telemarketer, spent his Sunday mornings playing drums or the tuba in local churches and his spare time hanging out with his musician friends.
But when he decided to get married, he snapped to like a flag in a stiff breeze.
His parents had once suggested a stint in the military, and Nelson dismissed the idea. But once he got serious with Quamisha Earlene Cierra Palmer, who came from a military family, he changed his mind, his father said.
He decided to join the Army, requiring him to lose about 100 pounds. To do that, he would have to change his diet and start exercising, running 4 to 5 miles a day, doing push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups. Until then, his dad recalls, Nelson had never done anything athletic in his life.
“He would send me updates,” Brian Nelson said. “He would text me: ‘Dad, I’m joining the Army. Dad, I’m going to lose weight. Dad, I’ve lost the weight. Dad, I’m getting married. Dad, I’ve joined the Army.’
“Bam! Bam! Bam! It happened just that fast.”
Joshua Nathaniel Nelson spoke his vows to his bride in January 2011. A few weeks later, he joined the military and headed off to boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C. From there, he went to Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas to train as a signals intelligence analyst, and in December 2011, he was assigned to Fort Gordon.
“He felt that what he was doing was a very, very important job,” Brian Nelson said. “At one point, he said he couldn’t even tell me what it was. ‘Top secret, Dad. I can’t talk about it.’ ”
Attacked by ‘allies’
Like many parents and spouses of deployed service members, Brian Nelson didn’t know exactly what part of Afghanistan his son was in. He only knew that Nelson would be leaving Afghanistan in October, heading back to Georgia, and then home to Greenville for a visit.
At about 1 a.m. on Sept. 16, the Afghans in the dugout with Nelson and the other soldiers mounted the wall and unloaded their guns, according to Dunivan and families of fallen soldiers. Some of the U.S. soldiers managed to return fire, but the Afghans had the high ground and the element of surprise on their side.
One soldier from Fort Gordon and one from Lewis-McChord survived but were severely injured. One of the Afghans was killed in the attack, though there is disagreement between the survivors over whether he was shot by his comrades or the Americans.
The five killers got away.
At his home in Greenville, Brian Nelson was unaware of the assault. But he knew as he sat in his den watching TV with his wife that the two shadows that crossed his window and headed for his door on the afternoon of Sept. 17 were of men bringing the worst kind of news.
He raised his hands to his head, as if to defend himself from physical blows, then fell to his knees, wailing.
Brian Nelson finally let the men in and let them tell him what they knew: only that Josh and three other soldiers had been killed by Afghan forces they were there to help train.
Later, Brian Nelson got an autopsy report, which he couldn’t bring himself to open for a month. He recently got the Army’s report on its investigation into the shootings, but he has not read that yet.
Whatever the report says, it won’t change one other thing Brian Nelson knows: “Josh was a hero.”
Adam Ashton is the military reporter for The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash. He embedded in Mizan last year and interviewed officers about the insider attack after they returned from Afghanistan.
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