One tried to stay small behind a tree as withering enemy fire “peeled” back the bark and made the dirt around him dance. One crawled madly on his belly after seeing a grenade fly at him and glance off his rifle. One remembered seeing a “red mist” explode as his captain was hit.
Eight U.S. servicemen offered those riveting moment-by-moment descriptions Wednesday of the chaotic 2003 firefight on an Afghan ridgeline during testimony at the Brooklyn federal court trial of Ibrahim Suleiman Harun Hausa, an alleged al-Qaida fighter in the ambush that killed Army Pvt. Jerod Dennis and Air Force Airman Ray Losano.
Almost 14 years later, the deaths of the two brought tears to the eyes of former comrades, several of whom choked up as they told the story with husky voices.
Air Force Master Sgt. Lee Blackwell was near Losano, 24, seeking cover behind a vehicle, when the airman was shot in the face. “He was pulling at me, clawing at me,” Blackwell said. “I told him I loved him. I was proud of him.”
Sgt. Victor Graf said he went back to the battle scene when Dennis, 19, was missing at a casualty collection point after the fight, and spotted a “pair of red pants” that turned out to be Dennis.
“The amount of blood he had lost, I wasn’t going to try to do any first aid,” Graf testified. “The red pants, that was from blood soaking his pants.”
Harun, 46, a Saudi whose nom de guerre is “Spin Ghul,” is charged with conspiracy for his part in the battle that led to the deaths of Losano and Dennis, and with later masterminding a failed plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. Harun was first imprisoned in Libya, then Italy before being turned over to the United States.
He has refused to attend the trial, contending he is a soldier who should be facing military justice. The government says his fingerprints were found on a Quran left on the battlefield, and he later confessed to engaging in a battle whose details matched the 2003 fight near Firebase Shkin on the Pakistani border.
The base had been hit by rocket attacks in the days before the battle, and a rapid response force of about 15 U.S. service members and 15 Afghan militia went to the hill where they thought the missile attacks had originated after receiving intelligence about hostile forces crossing the border nearby.
At the top of the hill, the squad was hit without warning with volleys of machine-gun fire and grenades.
“I remember thinking I had allowed the element to be surprised and it was time to get out of there,” testified Army Col. Scott Trahan, then a captain who commanded the unit and was one of several wounded in the fight.
Jerry Dennis, the father of Jared Dennis, and his brother have sat in the first row of the courtroom since the trial began Monday. After hearing the testimony of his son’s fellow soldiers, he briefly broke his silence, noting that his son won a Silver Star posthumously.
“They’re pretty awesome guys,” said Dennis of Soper, Oklahoma. “Real heroes all of them, my son, too.”
He wouldn’t call the trial “closure,” but he expressed satisfaction that someone was finally on trial.
“We’ve had 14 years,” Dennis said. “It never goes away, but it will help.”
The trial resumes on Thursday.