U.S. soldier dies saving Afghan boy

Staff writerMarch 31, 2012 

— The story of Specialist Dennis Weichel could easily be a counterpoint to the gruesome account of the U.S. soldier charged with 17 counts of murder in Kandahar on March 11. Weichel, who was 29, was killed while rescuing an Afghan child, but more than a week after that event the military here has yet to officially confirm what happened. Indeed, the initial details of the episode in northeastern Laghman province came not from military officials but from Afghan civilians and then fellow soldiers and friends in the United States.

After months of what has seemed like a relentless series of episodes of soldiers behaving badly, from Quran burnings to massacres, the military was almost reluctant to trumpet its good deeds, not only in the Weichel case, but in another recent case where soldiers saved the life of a Taliban insurgent's son.

On March 22, Weichel, an Army National Guardsman from Rhode Island, was riding in a convoy that was just leaving a firing range when he jumped from his vehicle to help clear a group of children out of the way. The children were trying to collect the brass shell casings at the range to sell for scrap metal. Afghan witnesses said that when a 10-year-old Afghan boy darted under a vehicle, Weichel climbed under and pushed him to safety. Then the huge vehicle ran over Weichel, killing him.

The boy, Zaiullah, the son of an Afghan policeman, confirmed the episode in an interview.

Matiullah Khan, a vegetable seller and Zaiullah's uncle, said, "As you know, all five fingers on one hand are not equal, and it's the same with American soldiers."

''What that soldier did in Kandahar was such a brutal act, no human could do what he did," he said, referring to the accusations against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the Kandahar killings. "This soldier, he looked at my nephew as a human being and endangered his life to save my nephew's life."

In a different mission of mercy, three days after the killings of which Bales is accused, medics at a combat outpost in southeastern Paktika province raced to save the life of Mateen, an 8-year-old boy wounded when his Taliban father's homemade bomb exploded.

The emergency mission involved two medevac helicopter flights and medical treatment at three military aid stations and hospitals. The boy survived despite losing his eyes and suffering other injuries. With skin grafts and prosthetic eyes, doctors repaired as much of his face as they could. The military finally announced what had happened last week, once the boy had been returned to his family.

The military is often hampered by its bureaucracy and slow to decide when and what information to release. A spokesman for Weichel's unit, Maj. Christopher Thomas, said an investigation was still under way. "I'm concerned we should not set the precedent of commenting before the investigation is complete," Thomas said, "even though from the reports we've heard it's a shining example of what our soldiers are all about."

Moreover, after years of emphasizing better community relations, most soldiers are now routinely involved in providing services to Afghans.

At Combat Outpost Kushamond in Paktika, for instance, most of the aid station's trauma patients have been either Afghan civilians hurt in Taliban explosions or attacks, or wounded Taliban fighters, said the outpost commander, Capt. Giles Wright. "This is professionalism is all, that's just, they're human, too," Wright said. "My philosophy is that if you were taught from Day 1 we are all infidels and you had zero education you're probably going to believe what you were taught is correct. We recognize that."

On March 14, in the accident involving Mateen, a group of children playing in the yard of a house a few miles from the outpost somehow set off an improvised explosive device hidden in a radio speaker box. The owner of the house, Saboodzai, was known to the U.S. military as a local Taliban commander. The dead included two of his sons, a girl who was a cousin and a neighbor's son; Mateen was badly wounded.

A neighbor took Mateen, who had burns and multiple blast injuries, on a tractor to the outpost, where four medics worked on him. "His airway was being compromised, we were losing him on the table," said one of the medics, Sgt. Anthony Merino.

Mateen was evacuated first to Forward Operating Base Sharana, farther north in Paktika, where he was resuscitated at a field hospital, and then flown to Bagram Air Base, where there is a fully equipped trauma hospital. His eyes were too severely injured to save, but after five hours of surgery, "his prognosis is very good other than he is blind and living in Afghanistan, which is obviously an unfortunate situation to be in," said the doctor in charge, Maj. Bradley Putty.

Wright said that the rapid reactions of all involved saved the boy's life. "If all those things hadn't happened within that golden hour, he wouldn't have had a chance," he said.

Weichel, who was the father of three young children with his fiancee, was praised by his comrades for his sacrifice.

''That's Specialist Weichel for you," said Sgt. First Class Robert Tobin, who was with him that day. "He had a tremendous love for his kids and his family and I can only imagine the reason why he would do something like that was because he would want somebody to do something like that for his kids." While the military in Afghanistan debated whether to release the details of Weichel's death — even though he had been promoted to sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star posthumously — friends of his put up a Facebook page in his memory. Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was among those listed as posting comments.

"Specialist Dennis Weichel's life was marked by bravery, selflessness, and commitment to others — and unfortunately it was in demonstrating these remarkable characteristics that it was lost," the post attributed to the governor read.

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, and an Afghan employee of The New York Times from Laghman province.

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