Barbara Denman answered her phone at 6 a.m. to hear the voice of her son, Army Spc. Steve Beaty, speaking from the other end. He was calling from a medical facility near Kandahar, Afghanistan, to say he would be all right.
Eight hours earlier, he was not so sure.
“I got to hear from him first,” said Denman, looking at her son, seated in her living room two days before Thanksgiving. “He said an Army person would be calling soon. But I got it from him firsthand, and I think that helped me process the whole thing.”
Earlier that day – Oct. 13 – in a remote outpost beyond Kandahar, Beaty had narrowly survived a so-called insider attack when a suicide bomber dressed as an Afghan soldier raised a hand and, in the blink of an eye, blew himself up.
While the blast left Beaty and six others badly wounded, some critically, the bomber succeeded in killing a CIA operative, an Army intelligence analyst and four Afghan counterparts.
Improvised explosive devices may have been the defining weapon of the Iraq war, but insider attacks have U.S. soldiers nervous in Afghanistan.
“The insider threat is a big deal over there,” said Beaty, a 2001 Sentinel High School graduate. “That’s the biggest thing we have to fight. The Taliban doesn’t wear uniforms. It’s tough – you have to stay on edge, on alert.”
Men and women with the Montana National Guard’s 484th Military Police Company joined state soldiers with the 260th Engineers earlier this year at Fort Bliss, Texas, to train for their overseas mission.
Beaty and the 484th arrived in Kyrgyzstan in March before moving on to Kandahar, in southeastern Afghanistan. They were quickly assigned to personal security detachments to protect high-ranking U.S. officials – a colonel in Beaty’s case.
Once on the ground, Beaty and his peers also accompanied CIA operatives and members of the National Directorate of Security, or NDS, which serves as Afghanistan’s intelligence service.
“My colonel was unique in that he was ex-Special Forces,” said Beaty. “About once every two weeks, we had a mission where we’d link up with the Special Forces guys, and we’d take a helicopter ride. We were on our fourth or fifth trip somewhere when it happened.”
It was early morning when Beaty’s unit touched down in a landing zone 45 minutes outside of Kandahar. The detachment consisted of roughly 24 people, including a dozen soldiers, CIA operatives, Afghan intelligence officers and interpreters.
The co-mingling of U.S. and Afghan forces already had American troops on edge. The Los Angeles Times reported that Afghan soldiers and police have completed 41 insider attacks this year, killing 35 Americans and 22 people serving on behalf of other countries.
The Times would add two more Americans to its tally by the end of that day.
Beaty’s assigned detachment began transferring supplies from two helicopters to a nearby facility. It was around 9:30 a.m. and temperatures were already pushing 90 degrees.
Beaty noted an Afghan male approaching from the corner of his eye. The man was later identified as Abdul Wali, a member of the NDS, and he was wearing a military uniform and a winter coat.
“He was in a military uniform, and that’s why he was able to get so close,” Beaty said. “The regulations that prevent us from making a wrong decision and killing innocent people also prevent us from really engaging the bad people.”
The man’s arms were crossed before him. Beaty saw ammo pouches strapped to his torso. He was 12 feet away, 15 at the most – the ammo pouches packed with deadly shrapnel and ball bearings.
“As I started to transition my weapon up, he looked at me and blew himself up,” Beaty said. “I remember the concussion. I remember the blast itself. It’s a very surreal moment to see that. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone.”
The explosion came with a crack, knocking Beaty sharply to the ground. He caught himself with his left hand and tried to step with his right foot.
His leg collapsed below him.
“I thought at first my foot was gone,” Beaty said. “I looked down and saw the shrapnel had come through my boot.”
Fearing a subsequent attack, Beaty resorted to his training and took a defensive position behind the pile of gear. Army Medic Mike Juhola jumped into action, taking stock of the injuries and treating the worst among them.
Bleeding from his foot, leg, chest, throat and face, Beaty’s injuries, while severe, did not appear life threatening. A dozen people lay wounded, several in grave condition or already dead.
One CIA officer helped carry the wounded to safety, unaware that shrapnel had pierced his back – a wound that would kill him within the hour. Spc. Brittany Gorden, a 24-year-old Army intelligence officer, received a fatal wound to the head.
Four of their Afghan counterparts also were killed.
“It really puts into perspective that you don’t know how long you’re going to have,” Beaty said. “I do have bad days where I think about the people we lost.”
Two days before Thanksgiving, Beaty was in a recliner, his Purple Heart on the dining room table where his mother sat and watched.
His foot was wrapped in a cast made of plaster and fiberglass. The two pins holding his foot together will come out next week. He will follow the surgery with weeks of rehabilitation. The shrapnel that remains in his leg and chest will be left alone.
“I was very lucky – it was divine intervention at that point,” he said, considering his injuries. “There were people farther away from the blast than I was who didn’t make it. I’ve tried to process that, but it’s tough. It’s not a question that makes sense.”
Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn, commander of the Montana National Guard, and Sgt. Maj. William Cooper, the Guard’s senior enlisted member, flew to Washington, D.C., to visit Beaty when he landed stateside.
They have been in touch throughout his recovery, as have officials at Fort Lewis, Wash., who check in several times a week. Does he need anything? How is he coming along?
But beyond his physical wounds are the psychological scars he is working to confront. Beaty said he hasn’t had much time to process events. He has sat with case managers and psychiatrists, and has started a journal, though he has since given up on keeping it.
“I tried to start a journal, and as I went back through the journal and read it, I realized I didn’t write anything good,” he said. “It was real depressing, so I stopped writing in that.”
Still, Beaty has a positive outlook. He attended the Griz-Cat football game, and while disappointed with the outcome, he reunited with past friends. Seeing familiar faces, he said, has helped make a difference.
“I wanted to come home for Thanksgiving and I really didn’t want to miss the Cat-Griz game,” he said, managing a grin. “It’s going to be a good day when I can get back to the gym. It’s been five weeks since I worked out.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, firstname.lastname@example.org or @martinkidston.