Jason Amerine is searching for the right words. He motions toward his cup of coffee, then looks off into the distance. His stare is emblematic of all veterans who struggle to find words to explain their feelings. After a few seconds, he looks back at me. He pauses and says, “It’s hard because I’ve seen all the ways that the truth can be distorted.”
It’s November in Washington, D.C. Outside the coffee shop the sidewalks are packed with the everyday hustle that is the nation’s capital. On any other day, Jason easily blends into the sea of suits and clean haircuts en route to his retirement job at New America. As a Future War Fellow, he reminds distracted policymakers that the fundamentals of war do not necessarily change at the pace that new technology is developed. It is a task he describes as difficult—while simultaneously holding up his iPhone X—because we are a culture obsessed with new gadgets.
But today he sits across from me in jeans and a T-shirt. He has an athletic build but isn’t overly macho, such as how commandos are portrayed in movies that value romanticized narratives over factual depictions. When he speaks, he does so calmly and with effortless precision. Although such is the quality of any former senior officer in the U.S. military, his control of language is also the result of a career spent being center stage in the national conversation—first for the heroic accomplishments of his Special Forces team in Afghanistan and then their ultimate tragedy.
Military officers are conditioned to be calculated with speech. More than just executive professionalism, this behavior ensures career advancement no different than with individuals in the private sector. Go to the right dinner parties, publicly agree with the right strategies (not for the war, but for your career) and you’ll advance. But even without participating in the rank-climbing rat race, Jason had enough notoriety as a combat leader through battles such as Tarinkot in 2001, a fight that arguably established precedence for how U.S. air power would be used at the tactical level in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just months after the 9/11 attacks, every home in America was familiar with the heroic actions of the 5th Special Forces Group A-Teams in Afghanistan. Being an officer in charge of one of those teams, Jason could have leveraged that fame politically to control his ascension as an officer. Instead, a decade into his service, a point where most soldiers map out their strategy to retirement, Jason sacrificed his “golden boy” potential and adopted an arduous task that is routinely dismissed during war: spreading the truth.
For these actions, he put the future of his career in jeopardy. But in doing so, he became one of the most beloved officers among soldiers in the 5th Special Forces Group.
Jason Amerine on America’s Response
Jason looks back at me. In the past 15 years, he has told his story time and again, most recently in the 2017 CNN documentary “Legion of Brothers.”
Despite this, I observe that it is still an emotionally heavy narrative for him to revisit.
“There was no talk about losses,” he says. Jason is referring to the initial planning that his team conducted just days after the Twin Towers fell. “It wasn’t until we were briefing the group commander that I visually observed that some of my guys were worried. One by one, he walked up to and asked the men, ‘Are you OK with this?’ then moved to the next Green Beret and asked, ‘Are you comfortable with this?’”
Jason chuckles in hindsight. “Guys were worried, obviously, but he was scaring the men with his sincere concern.”
A few weeks after that briefing, ODA 574 and A-Teams throughout the 5th Special Forces Group were en route to Afghanistan as America’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
Teams such as ODA 595 would become immortalized as the Horse Soldiers. Their feats were recently captured in the January 2018 release of the movie “12 Strong.”
However, for Jason and ODA 574, their war starkly contrasted the 21st century cavalry commandos in Northern Afghanistan.
Arriving in Tarinkot
During ODA 574’s mission briefing, the group commander continually expressed that the team needed to link up with 300 guerrillas upon infiltration. On Nov. 14, 2001, stepping off of the MH-60 Black Hawks, ODA 574 commandos were greeted by only a dozen guerrillas.
“Every step of the way we were at risk of being compromised by the enemy,” Jason says. “We went in and were met with nothing—no infrastructure, no time to think about strategy. And at the end of the day, if things got dire, it would come down to whether or not air power would save us.”
That statement was tested 48 hours after ODA 574 had been boots on the ground. On Nov. 16, the town of Tarinkot—which now houses about 70,000 citizens—ejected the Taliban governor and signaled to ODA 574 its willingness to fight if the Americans took immediate action to help with security.
“We didn’t have enough men,” Jason says, “and we were put in the position of whether we’d go into the town and potentially get slaughtered by the Taliban counterattack, which at the time we didn’t know had already launched and was estimated at 1,000 fighters. But letting the townspeople get killed would jeopardize our overall mission and U.S. legitimacy with the people of Afghanistan.”
ODA 574 drove into Tarinkot and met with the local resistance at the former governor’s mansion. Again, greeted only by about a dozen guerrillas, the Americans began planning their defense and what would be a likely retreat under fire.
In the past 17 years, the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan have desensitized Americans to the humanitarian consequences of collateral damage during combat. The bloody sectarian violence that blanketed Iraq in the mid-2000s highlights the difficulties of fighting an enemy that either blends in with or readily uses civilians as cover. But in 2001, the last major war that had been fought by the U.S. was in Vietnam, and the lingering effects of that war’s atrocities had impacted U.S. rules of engagement throughout incursions in South America and the First Gulf War in 1991.
So, at 2 a.m., when aircraft above Tarinkot spotted a few pickup trucks advancing toward the town, Jason weighed a decision that might have produced international consequences and set back the newly formed American-led coalition war effort.
“Based on the environment and how we knew [the Taliban] fought,” he says, “I said, ‘Smoke ’em,’ and cleared the aircraft hot to drop ordnance. But these were just pickup trucks; we were expecting government forces at a minimum.”
At dawn, the Taliban’s main assault element of 100 vehicles proceeded toward Tarinkot. After the initial bombs were dropped, the guerrillas aiding ODA 574 retreated back into the town for refuge.
“They were freaked out,” Jason says.
Deterring the Convoy
The call for troops in contact went out over the satellite radio. Within moments a majority of the aircraft in the theater were directed to the defense of ODA 574 and Tarinkot. Alan Yoshida, the team’s Air Force combat air controller, dropped every bomb the aircraft had available. Some of the pilots stayed to conduct strafing runs before departing the engagement area.
“At the time, we assumed the Taliban had anti-aircraft missiles,” Jason says. “What those pilots did was brave.”
The first wave of aircraft departed, but the convoy was still en route. The surging boost of morale experienced by close air support plateaued and was on the verge of declining into fear. The situation was dire, and one of the leading vehicles in the convoy had reached the perimeter of the town. But as the second wave of aircraft arrived on station, the town’s people rose up once more. They engaged the Taliban’s trucks with small arms. Around the same time, the entire convoy began its rout; it was a chaotic retreat that was under constant fire from U.S. close air support.
Just 72 hours after stepping foot into Afghanistan, ODA 574 experienced one of the largest U.S. military close-air engagements since the Vietnam War. Certain members of the team were emotionally rattled.
“It’s just a lot to experience in what was essentially two-and-a-half days,” Jason says. “I think everyone needed a moment to emotionally and psychologically assess what had happened.”
For many soldiers, one of the most shocking aspects of a first firefight is the capacity of violence that can be committed by a small group in a short amount of time. Difficulty with immediately processing that information does not imply cowardice; for some it can take an entire lifetime to make sense of what takes place on the ground.
In less than 60 days, 5th Special Forces Group transitioned from peacetime training missions to leading an international war effort. And in just 72 hours, ODA 574 experienced an opening salvo that momentarily had brought them to their breaking point.
“Two days into our campaign, we accomplished an objective that we thought would take six months at a minimum. We were also almost overrun. Nothing guaranteed things were going to get easier or that we wouldn’t be grossly outnumbered again.”
For the next month, ODA 574 proceeded in what Jason describes as a “Mad Max Afghan convoy” toward Kandahar. The team continued to win battles, some through air power and others through more traditional infantry-like exchanges. However, the momentum and operational freedom the men experienced was abruptly halted by the arrival of battalion leadership on Dec. 5, 2001.
Direct command oversight is never welcomed by any ground element. Whether its Greeks landing on the shores of Troy or Rangers on the beaches of Normandy, this reality is an informal truth that persists throughout all wars. But worse than direct oversight is when senior commanders attempt to hijack the ground force’s mission. When this happens, it isn’t annoying—it’s borderline reckless.
Jason wouldn’t use the words, but specific veterans of the 5th Special Forces Group surmise that the battalion leadership went boots on the ground to “get their attaboys.”
The Taliban had signaled a willingness to surrender, and major combat operations were in decline. Arguably, there was the perception that the window to “get some” was beginning to close.
Operationally, the battalion leadership linked up with ODA 574 to aid with the transition of Kandahar to Hamid Karzai. Despite the non-kinetic nature of this mission, within hours of infiltration, the battalion commander began ordering airstrikes on a nearby ridgeline suspected of housing dug-in Taliban fighters.
“There was nothing there, and the Taliban were surrendering,” Jason says. “There was no reason to be dropping bombs.”
A battalion commander ordering airstrikes would be as odd as an NFL general manager subbing for a quarterback. Despite junior rank, no one knows the situation on the ground better than the actual ground-force commander. Whether blinded by ambition or a misdirected attempt to make a statement, the battalion commander’s decision to “participate in the fight” sparked a sequence of irreversible consequences.
In one of the worst friendly-fire incidents of the war, a B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) on ODA 574’s position. Although the technical cause of the fratricide was the incorrect transmission of grid coordinates, certain survivors see a different narrative.
The botched medevac of wounded personnel later served as the cause for critical remarks Jason made about the appointment of General James Mattis to Secretary of Defense.
Marines commanded by Mattis were stationed an hour away at Camp Rhino. Despite their proximity and available assets, Mattis refused to release Marines until he understood the landing zones to be secured. Despite this hesitation, theater elements throughout special operations corralled resources (some in multiple countries) in any way possible to help the evacuation of the wounded from the bomb site.
The incident claimed the lives of three Green Berets and five Afghan guerrillas and wounded scores of additional personnel. With the loss of Team Sergeant Jefferson “JD” Davis and Communications Sergeant Daniel Petithory, ODA 574 was combat ineffective and ordered out of Afghanistan for recovery. ODA 574 would not complete its mission. However, the survivors had new wars to fight with physical rehabilitation and emotional healing.
The official investigation released two years after the accident acknowledged that the battalion commander’s behavior was cavalier. Regardless, there was never a court martial or official charges brought up. The entire incident was acknowledged as a tragedy, but with no formal reprimand for those responsible.
Whether it was an unwillingness to accept how the fratricide was spun or an emotional inability to work in the same unit as his battalion commander, Jason’s career in the 5th Special Forces Group was cut short, and he would never again return to the unit.
Jason Amerine Still Fighting For Truth
In the years leading up to his retirement, Jason found himself behind a microphone on numerous occasions. Whether appearing on mainstream news outlets or late-night talk shows such as “The Colbert Report,” he used the opportunities to exemplify the bravery of his men, but also remind audiences of the truth.
On camera, his delivery is always sober and as calculated as he is with me in the coffee shop. He does not get excited; he does not get angry; and he does not even point fingers. Instead, he simply provides the audience with the facts as they occurred on the ground.
“I’ve been called a showboater because I’ve been in the news,” Jason says. He lets the statement hang in the air. Again, he combats how to express his adherence to the ethos of a quiet professional, despite his personal commitment to ensure that the truth is known about ODA 574.
Although some might label him a whistleblower, true bravery isn’t always shown by charging a machine gun nest or jumping out of airplanes into enemy territory. Instead, it can be as simple as doing what’s right for your men both on the battlefield and off.
This article is from the summer 2018 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.