Image: Michael Bhatia
AP
Michael Bhatia in rural Afghanistan before he was killed in May of 2008 while working for the Human Terrain System program.
updated 3/9/2009 11:31:23 AM ET 2009-03-09T15:31:23
SECOND OF TWO PARTS

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two part series. The first is: One man's odyssey from campus to combat

After seven nights sleeping on the ground, and seven days without a hot shower, Master Sgt. Rachael Ridenour was beat.

But when the Blackhawk helicopter touched down at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Ridenour and teammate Tom Garcia shouldered their packs, and headed straight for the plywood hut with plywood furniture that served as the Human Terrain team's office. It was time to meet their new colleague.

They expected a jetlagged and lost-looking newbie. But the man in the button-down Oxford shirt who rose from behind a computer to shake their hands talked in overdrive. He used vocabulary that made clear he was no soldier. In the two days he'd spent waiting for them to return from their mission, Michael Bhatia told them, he'd already begun two research projects.

Heading back to the barracks, Ridenour and Garcia assessed the new guy.

"He needs to hurry up and get tired or it's going to be a long year keeping up with him," she said.

The AF-1 team would need that energy. The last rotation had left the team without a social scientist as it sought to establish its role at FOB Salerno, a U.S. Army beachhead within a dozen miles of Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan.

The addition of Bhatia — soon nicknamed "The Nutty Professor" by his colleagues — brought the team to its full strength of five. But it remained a tiny add-on to a large and highly structured military operation.

Bhatia would have to make a place for himself. The many months he'd spent in Afghanistan as an academic provided unique insight on where to start. But from the moment he returned, it was clear he was on new and treacherous ground.

"Hard day for the 82nd, yesterday a company commander and driver were killed by an IED in Paktika," Bhatia e-mailed his mentor, Jarat Chopra, on his first morning back in the country. "I don't think I'm expected to duck, but to protect myself."

First mission
In November of 2007, FOB Salerno was home to the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team.

In Khost and surrounding provinces, the 82nd, hailing from Fort Bragg, N.C., was devoting much of its manpower to patrols and reconstruction. By building schools and roads and working to ensure Afghans' safety, the Army hoped to build support in areas that might otherwise be lost to insurgents.

With its second rotation in place, the Human Terrain team worked to define its role.

"The brigade was still trying to figure out how to properly use us, and I think we were still trying to figure that out, too," Garcia said.

The team found its place by asking questions about subjects soldiers normally overlook.

Garcia — an "east Texas country boy," who had logged 16 years in the Air Force as a cryptological linguist — was working to make himself an expert on the theft of goods from military convoys, interviewing drivers and others to figure out what was stolen, why and where.

Ridenour — a career military policewoman who had spent a tour in Iraq coordinating fuel distribution in the country's northern Kurdish stronghold — was working to become the team's expert on the local economy, tracking the price Afghan locals paid for cooking oil, flour and other staples.

A week before Thanksgiving, Bhatia joined them in his first mission with the team, to neighboring Paktika Province.

Team leader Lt. Col. Pat Cusick knew the area well. He'd served in Paktika as deputy commander of an Army reconstruction team. It was not an easy place to read, Cusick knew. In meetings between the military and tribal leaders, the villager who spoke was frequently an underling acting as mouthpiece for a silent elder.

But it became clear to Cusick — watching his new charge work — that Bhatia already understood that. Village leaders, initially skeptical, opened up to the new arrival who spoke to them of Paktika's history.

"I wish I knew this two years ago," Cusick told himself, as he listened to the conversation between elders and Bhatia.

The mission to Paktika paid dividends. Ridenour gathered enough information about rising food prices to warrant a briefing for commanders, titled "The Perfect Storm," warning the Army that the area might eventually face a food shortage unless it opened the border to trade with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Bhatia was zeroing in on his own line of research — gauging the insurgency by tracking attacks not on the military, but on local leaders who were combatants' rivals for power.

One afternoon, Garcia and Bhatia sat across a table from a local district commissioner. Which village elders had been assassinated in the area, Bhatia asked the man. What religious leaders had been threatened?

In a little more than an hour, Bhatia filled several of the lined pages in his tan field notebook.

"No one has ever asked me those questions before," the local official told the men as they rose to leave. "These questions should've been asked a long time ago."

Clueless to military culture and dynamics
By January, Bhatia's colleagues had confirmed an amusing and occasionally worrisome contradiction in the Professor's character.

He certainly knew his stuff. At times, though, he could be remarkably oblivious. Bhatia had never been a soldier, and sometimes he was clueless to both military culture and dynamics.

On a mission in the village of Zormat, Garcia watched with a mix of admiration and alarm as Bhatia's marketplace interviewing quickly drew a crowd of nearly 50.

"There's about a million things that go through your head," said Garcia, who recalls scanning the crowd's clothing for lumps that could have signaled a bomb. "Whoever was out with Michael, that was part of our job, to bring him back in. Hey, don't forget we're out here in the middle of the combat zone."

Garcia, hired for the team as a civilian after a long Air Force career, didn't seem to have much in common with Bhatia. But they forged an unlikely bond. Garcia was part American Indian. Bhatia's father was from India. They became unlikely brothers. Bhatia called his colleague "feather, not dot." Garcia called his partner "dot, not feather."

Away from Salerno, Bhatia wore Army fatigues, a combat helmet and sometimes carried an M-4 carbine. But back on base, team members teased him when they spotted red argyle socks peeking out of his combat boots. They laughed even harder when he failed to see what was funny about that.

Ridenour tried to school him in the ways of the Army. In the military, she explained, once you're accepted as an expert, you no longer have to prove your argument. Just boil down your findings to three or four bullet points. But Bhatia — who had once written a 70,000-word draft chapter for his eight-chapter doctoral thesis — was ever the scholar.

His teammates teased him about his verbosity, ordering him a shirt with the slogan, "If I'm talking, you'd better be listening."

Over time, his quirks and those of other team members generated tension.

Workdays stretched to 14 hours, seven days a week. Even the few hours in between confined team members to very close quarters. Bhatia and Garcia slept four feet apart and right next to the rear door of a bunkhouse filled with soldiers. Garcia got annoyed when Bhatia snored. Bhatia got annoyed because Garcia woke up at 5 a.m.

Finally, the team's irritation boiled over. At a meeting in the team's makeshift office, Ridenour passed out copies of a Myers-Briggs personality test. They would come to terms with each other's strengths and weaknesses by filling out the questionnaire.

"We figured out how to become a family," Garcia said, "and after that, that's what we did become."

Criticized as 'mercenary anthropologists'
On one wall of their shack at the base, the team stapled articles sent by colleagues stationed back at Fort Leavenworth.

Critics were not letting up in their condemnation of the Human Terrain project. The team kept score, posting what they considered the most outrageously off-base characterizations of their work.

"Mercenary anthropologists," one critic called them. "The Army's new secret weapon," another said.

Ridenour, Bhatia and the others read them aloud with a mix of frustration and laughter.

"Our school of thought was 'come work with us for a week,'" Ridenour said. "If you really think I'm a spy, if you really think I'm a mercenary, come see what we do."

Still, Bhatia bridled at the criticism. Before leaving, he'd told his family and friends of his irritation with academics who claimed to know a country, without ever leaving the capital city. Now his ethics and work were being questioned by people who had never set foot in Afghanistan.

"Some academics have created a polemical enemy image ... rather than actual learning what the HTT does," Bhatia e-mailed his mentor, Chopra, in January 2008. "We're not involved in lethal targeting at all."

But the team members were almost too busy to dwell on the criticism.

Winter had set in. On a mission over the New Year, they'd worked in temperatures that dropped to 20 below. Now, in February and March, they stayed put at Salerno, working on projects for the brigade commander. When the 82nd rotated out of Afghanistan, the team waited for instructions from the new command of the 101st Airborne.

"It was kind of frustrating because we all wanted to be out," Cusick said.

But there were reasons to look ahead. Bhatia e-mailed friends the testimony the Fourth Brigade's commander had delivered to Congress, vouching for the Human Terrain project's results. Come July, he told friends, he'd be back for two weeks of home leave.

Before that, though, there was work to do.

On April 30, the Human Terrain Team got long-awaited clearance. Bhatia and Garcia packed fast. The next morning, they'd finally get out from behind the wire.

Final mission
The near side of Sabari District lies less than 10 miles from FOB Salerno. But by Humvee, the journey took Bhatia and Garcia four hours, rumbling over the rough tracks that pass for roads and into volatile territory.

Sabari had a reputation as one of Afghanistan's most dangerous hotspots for improvised explosive devices. Less than two months earlier, insurgents had detonated a vehicle packed with explosives in Sabari's district center, killing two U.S. soldiers. This was to be Bhatia and Garcia's first stop.

The two planned a weeklong mission, enough time for at least a half-dozen outings with soldiers from the 101st to interview villagers around the district, home to a tense mix of tribes on Khost Province's northern edge.

The other members of the team remained on base, but Bhatia and Garcia checked in by cell phone. On Tuesday night, May 6, Bhatia got Cusick on the line. He and Garcia had reached Zambar, a distant village built of mud bricks, and met with a group of about 20 tribal elders.

"Michael was very psyched," Cusick said. Bhatia and Garcia were unearthing details of a long dispute between tribes over which had rights to the timber covering a nearby mountainside.

They readied to investigate further the next morning, the last full day of the mission. When this was over, Bhatia told Garcia, he'd brought along a cigar for each of them.

At 11 a.m., they joined a patrol from the 101st — the two Human Terrain teammates and an interpreter, together with 17 soldiers in four up-armored Humvees.

As the HTT's mission leader, Garcia had been traveling in the lead Humvee, together with the convoy commander. But the lieutenant called Garcia over. Could Bhatia ride up front today?

"Are you comfortable with that?" Garcia asked.

"Yeah, no problem," Bhatia replied.

'I've got to find my brother'
The convoy set out for a bazaar called Makhtab, less than two miles east. Five months earlier, a combined force led by Afghan commandos had raided the same site, capturing insurgents blamed for a string of bombings.

The vehicles threaded down a hard, chalky river bed, the closest thing to a road. Makhtab came into sight and the patrol swung out of the river bed to enter by a rear portal.

They were 300 yards away. The day was hot, the Humvee's engine emitted a numbing drone, and Garcia was feeling drowsy.

A deafening thump jolted him wide awake. A whoosh of air shot down the Humvee's turret.

Garcia squinted ahead into a roiling cloud of smoke and dirt.

Soldiers spilled from their vehicles. Garcia grabbed his M-4 and bolted into the smoke.

As he ran, the dust began to settle, revealing Bhatia's Humvee, spun around 90 degrees by the bomb's force. Its doors were blown off and the charred cab was empty.

The body of Spc. Jeremy Gullet, a 22-year-old father from Greenup, Ky., lay in the dirt, well clear of the wreckage. Staff Sgt. Kevin Roberts, 25, of Farmington, N.M. lay dead nearby.

Garcia, a former emergency medical technician, reached the convoy leader first. The lieutenant was alive but gravely injured. Garcia began applying tourniquets, staying with him until the patrol's medic could take over.

"I've got to find my brother," Garcia said.

He ran to the other side of the Humvee, where he knew his partner must be.

When he found Bhatia, the academic's bearded face was frozen in a smile.

Garcia crouched down in the dirt beside his friend and colleague as rain began to fall. He placed the palm of his hand over the dead man's still-open eyes and smoothed the lids closed. He brushed the dirt off of Bhatia's uniform.

"It should've been me," the veteran soldier told the veteran scholar, as rescue helicopters beat toward the scene.

"I'm going to take you home."

'Remember us'
At Michael Bhatia's funeral on May 16, Tom Garcia and Rachael Ridenour wore red argyle socks in honor of their fallen teammate.

Human Terrain manager Steve Fondacaro presented Bhatia's parents and sister with the Defense of Freedom medal awarded to the scholar, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

"Because of Michael Bhatia's superb contributions to his team's mission, significant numbers of American soldiers and Afghan civilians, who would have otherwise been casualties of war, are alive and together with their families today," the citation reads.

That evening, back in Providence, friends from both sides of the wire gathered at The Wild Colonial, and raised pints of Guinness to bid Michael Bhatia farewell.

In the weeks afterward, Bhatia's circle struggled with his death.

Professor Keith Brown returned to his desk on campus, across the atrium from the office that used to belong Bhatia, and weighed the meaning of his colleague's sacrifice — a question scholarly inquiry could not resolve.

It wasn't until late July, while serving as lay leader of his church in Providence that Brown found, if not an answer, then perhaps a route to one.

At the pulpit that Sunday, Brown spoke about the ripples of the war on terrorism and the way they connect us. He spoke about Michael Bhatia. Then he asked congregants to join him in a responsive reading of a poem by Archibald MacLeish, "The Young Dead Soldiers."

"Whether our lives were for peace and a new hope, or for nothing, we cannot say; it is you who must say this," Bhatia's colleague read.

"We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning," the worshippers answered.

"We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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