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Soldier's combat memoir 'Outlaw Platoon' a remarkable, compelling tale

| Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Sean Parnell's first day in eastern Afghanistan in February 2006, the forward operating base he was assigned to came under fire from enemy rockets. A group of children near the base were injured. Parnell, reacting instinctively, scooped up a young girl who had suffered horrific injuries.

"Itsokayitsokayitsokay," he told the girl, trying to quell her panic as he rushed her to safety. With every step Parnell took, the girl's screams weakened until there was no sound at all. She died in his arms, the blood from her wounds staining his uniform.

"I'm still not recovered," Parnell says almost six years later. "What was so shocking to me -- and this was my first day in combat -- was I'm a young lieutenant, and six months before, I'm eating Christmas cookies with my family. You're embedded in this alien culture in this alien environment, and then, my first day in combat, a rocket lands in a playground where a bunch of young kids are playing."

Parnell, a native of Murrysville who now lives in Cranberry, has just published "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan." Written with John R. Bruning, the book makes good on a vow he made to his platoon -- Parnell was a lieutenant with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division -- on the day they returned from an extended 16-month engagement in Afghanistan.

"I wrote the book so the story of my men could be told," says Parnell, who received two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart for his service. "It was cathartic and healing for me as well."

"Outlaw Platoon" is not a sanitized version of warfare and the men that go into battle. Parnell illustrates the horrors of war and recounts how the stresses and dangers of battle forged an unbreakable bond among his men. Because of his respect for them, Parnell made sure they were included in strategy sessions.

"Ten minds," he says, "are better than one."

But in many of the almost 60 battles Parnell experienced -- five are recounted in great detail in "Outlaw Platoon" -- a strange phenomenon occurred. As bombs exploded and bullets whizzed overhead, Parnell's mind often wandered, thoughts of home popping up in vivid contrast to the danger he was in.

"Combat is such an inhumane, alien place," he says. "You anchor yourself psychologically to what's ordinary, like my dad or mom or grandfather or PNC Park. Things that are ordinary keep you in touch with reality. You don't lose yourself that way."

Parnell makes it plain that he was not a gung-ho warrior going into battle. "I wanted to make sure my hesitancy and fear was in the book," he says. But as the platoon became more experienced in combat -- there were opportunities to engage the enemy every time it went out on patrol -- the men became more confident in their superior firepower.

Parnell, whose grandfather died the day before he was deployed to Afghanistan, thought he would be facing less-strenuous opposition than in Iraq, where the attention of the world was focused in 2006. The platoon trained for a year-and-a-half, running between 20 to 30 miles each week, firing more than a million practice rounds.

But nothing prepared them for what they would face in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

"Every bit of both the political apparatus in the United States and the military was focused on the growing insurgency in Iraq," Parnell says. "We couldn't even get intelligence from the field, so we didn't know what to expect. We didn't find insurgents with pitchforks, we found a battle-hardened, well-trained capable force that had fought the Russians in the '80s, fought the Afghan civil war in the '90s and then against us after 2001. And they were really good. The average Haqqani network fighter has 10 years experience on an American private. What do you do with that• We were shocked."

As daunting as the opposition -- which included fighters from other Muslim countries -- was, equally frustrating was dealing with the "fobbits," the enlisted personnel who rarely left the forward operating base. Parnell recounts incidents where his men came home tired and bedraggled only to learn that those who had stayed behind used all of the hot water, or took all the seats in the mess hall, forcing his men to eat standing up. One sergeant, nicknamed R. Kelly, made a point of getting up early in the morning and singing at the top of his lungs, waking Parnell after he had been out late on patrol. Another sergeant went out of his way to avoid combat. The woman in charge of delivering the mail not only was rude and nasty to Parnell's men, she also lied about being bit by one of the dogs the platoon had adopted. That dog and others, including some puppies, were killed because of her complaints.

Parnell says he had no ax to grind, but felt compelled to be honest about what he and his men experienced in what should have been a refuge from battle.

"When we're out beyond the wire (the term used for venturing beyond the safety of the base) every day, men getting wounded and killed, and other men on the base aren't measuring up -- or not even measuring up, but verbally attacking or assaulting or not holding up their end of the bargain -- it hurts the morale of the men who are patrolling," he says. "I feel like a lot of Americans don't know that. ... You read books about Afghanistan or Iraq that are written by reporters. Some of them are really great, but they tend to portray infantrymen as the stereotypical misogynistic, racist, burping, flatulent guys. And they are. But they are so much more, too. I wanted to write a book that humanized them and showed America the mettle of their warrior sons. They are much more than just that stereotype, an oftentimes inaccurate stereotype."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

The range of emotions that Sean Parnell summons in 'Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan' are stunning. A nuanced, compelling memoir about his experiences as the lieutenant of an Army platoon, Parnell shows he's a gifted, brave storyteller. The revelations in 'Outlaw Platoon' about the stresses infantrymen face in combat and on the base, away from their loved ones, will shed new light on how these men are perceived.

• Rege Behe

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