Sgt. 1st Class Terryl L. Pasker, 39, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Paul Protzenko, former Connecticute Trooper First Class, 47, of Enfield, Connecticut, were killed on July 9, 2011, in Panjshir province, Afghanistan.
Ever wonder how it was that two Americans were killed last Saturday by a uniformed Afghan intelligence service member? You didn't even hear about them? Reports of the attack were extra scant and brief, muttering something about a "dispute" with someone in Afghan intelligence.
There was no dispute. From the Des Moines Register, a story of murder, valor and incorrigible barbarism:
A small contingent of Iowa Guardsmen in the northeastern province of Panjshir had run 182 missions without serious complications since arriving last fall. Just days away from returning home to Iowa, they headed out Saturday morning for one last mission.
Their destination was a town 45 minutes down the road, where they were to instruct local police officers on handling criminal cases. Then they would say goodbye to some of the Afghan officials they'd been mentoring before returning to their small base to continue packing.
But in a flash, a rogue Afghan soldier killed two Americans and wounded a third along the roadside before being shot to death. Scores of angry villagers then surrounded the cluster of Americans, threatening to kill more of them.
The Iowans' commander said Wednesday that without the heroic reflexes of one of his sergeants - plus a large dose of good fortune - many more Afghans and Americans probably would have died.
Lt. Col. Timothy Glynn of Ankeny told The Des Moines Register that the trouble began when an Afghan soldier waved down the second of four lightly armored pickup trucks carrying the Iowa troops, civilian contractors and interpreters.
The Americans didn't know the man, but they could see he was a member of the national intelligence service. "He used his uniform to get us to stop. We usually wouldn't stop for anyone," Glynn said by phone from Afghanistan.
The commander noted that some media reports have said the man argued with people in the truck. That isn't true, he said. Instead, the man immediately fired into the pickup, killing its driver, Sgt. 1st Class Terryl Pasker of Cedar Rapids, and a civilian contractor, Paul Protzenko of Enfield, Conn.
Master Sgt. Todd Eipperle of Marshalltown, who had been driving the pickup in front of Pasker's truck, stopped his vehicle and ran back to confront the attacker. The gunman, who had reloaded, wheeled around and fired from a few feet away, Eipperle later told his commander. "He said it was shocking. 'He looked me right in the eye and shot me,' " Glynn said.
The master sergeant, who was hit in his right hip and left knee, returned fire as he fell to the ground. He hit and killed the gunman, undoubtedly saving the lives of a second American contractor and two interpreters, Glynn said.
The lieutenant colonel and a handful of other soldiers had been following in two vehicles a few minutes behind the first two trucks. By the time the second group arrived on the scene, outraged villagers had gathered and were yelling at the Americans. The gunman was from their village, and the villagers might not have understood that he had started the gunbattle that led to his death, Glynn said. The villagers threatened to fetch guns and rocket-propelled grenades and attack the rest of the Americans.
Master Sgt. Todd Eipperle receives his purple heart at a hospital in Afghanistan. He exchanged fire with and killed the rogue Afghan soldier who killed Pasker. Afghan police did little to help quell the crowd, and they urged the Iowa commander to move his soldiers out of the area. Glynn said he refused, and summoned medical evacuation helicopters to the scene. While two of his soldiers prepared a landing zone, Glynn and four others fended off a crowd of 150 to 200 screaming villagers for the 20 to 30 minutes it took for the helicopters to arrive.
"It was like a really bad movie," he said. "I was just praying to God that we wouldn't have to open fire, and that they wouldn't open fire on us." Armed U.S. aircraft could have been called in to help, he said, but that could have caused many more deaths.
Eventually, the medical helicopters took the dead and wounded away, and the rest of the shaken unit was able to withdraw.
The incident happened in an unexpected spot. Panjshir is a fiercely independent area whose people managed to keep out the Soviet army and the Taliban and allied themselves with the Americans. The province is so safe that U.S. soldiers rarely drive the heavily armored trucks seen nearly everywhere else in Afghanistan. The province, which is a long valley flanked by soaring mountains, is expected to be one of the first areas of Afghanistan in which Afghan forces will formally take control of security this year.
Several of Glynn's team members already had left the province and were preparing to start their 7,000-mile journey home before Saturday. "The guys that weren't there kind of feel guilty - that they weren't there to help," Glynn said Wednesday. "I told them it was not their fault. They were doing their mission. They were doing what they were supposed to do. There was nothing else we could have done."
The Iowa Guard held a memorial service for Pasker at Bagram Airfield on Wednesday, and his comrades will continue mourning as they return to the United States.
Glynn said Pasker, 39, was an upbeat, matter-of-fact soldier who was proud to be on his second tour of Afghanistan but talked often about his plans to retire from the military. "He saw this as his last hoorah before he returned home and focused on his contracting business and starting a family," the commander said.
Protzenko, the American civilian who was killed, was a retired Connecticut state trooper who helped teach Afghan police how to conduct proper investigations, Glynn said. Protzenko and another retired American police officer served with the Iowans during the whole deployment, and they were essential members of the team, the lieutenant colonel said.
Glynn's unit became especially close because they were such a small group, he said. Despite the deployment's tragic ending, he said, they should always remember their contributions to Panjshir....