US soldier retraces Afghan steps of dead brother

November 10, 2011 - 2:45 AM
Afghan Brothers In Arms

In this Sept. 15, 2011 photo, 2nd Lt. Andrew Ferrara, 23, of Torrance, Calif., with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment, turns from the rotor wash of landing Blackhawk helicopter during a mission for a key leader engagement in Shigal, Kunar province, Afghanistan. Ferrara hopes his deployment will help forge a bond with his brother who was killed just miles away in the same mountains of Afghanistan's Kunar province while leading a platoon of his own four years ago. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ASMAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The mountainside is steep and large boulders up the slope provide perfect cover for insurgents. It's been a frequent spot for roadside bomb attacks on passing convoys.

Andrew Ferrara has come a long way to take this path. His immediate mission, as he leads his U.S. Army platoon up the mountain, is to find a trigger point from which insurgents set off the bombs. It's a treacherous climb. Several of his soldiers slip and nearly fall on the sliding gravel and loose rock.

But the 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant from California has a broader goal in being here. Here is where he can forge a bond with his older brother Matthew, who was killed in the same rugged mountains of Afghanistan's Kunar province while leading a platoon of his own four years ago.

"I know that my brother was walking the hills 10 miles from here," said Andrew, who now has his brother's initials "MCF" and date of his death tattooed on his left rib cage, the area where the bullet that killed Matthew left his body.

"You look around here and you understand the challenges that he found are similar to the challenges that I'm facing now," he said. "I get outside the trucks and walk up into the mountains and it really puts it in perspective. What kind of person he was, how strong he was and how much heart he had."

But it's more than a matter of experiencing the same geography.

Questions over Matthew's death stirred up a swirl of emotions among his family beyond just grief. Guilt, feelings of betrayal and thoughts of revenge, even doubts over the principles that his parents tried to instill throughout their lives. Andrew, the youngest of four brothers and a sister, has been an ambassador for his whole family, and retracing Matthew's footsteps has provided them not answers, but at least a way to absorb his death.

The date was Nov. 9, 2007. Matthew, a 1st lieutenant, was on his final patrol before moving on to a new assignment. He and his platoon went to the village of Aranas to have one last meeting with local elders he had been dealing with often for the past months. On the way back, they were ambushed. The battle lasted an hour, killing Matthew and five other soldiers. It took two days to retrieve the bodies because of the difficulty of the terrain.

It was in the backyard of the Ferrara family's Torrance, Calif., home, that members of Matthew's platoon told his father Mario about that day. Matthew didn't have to go on that patrol, he just wanted to say goodbye to the elders.

From everything he's learned from the platoon members, Mario believes that the reasons for Matthew's death go back to a previous battle, 10 weeks earlier.

In that battle, roughly 100 Taliban led by a local commander named Hazrat Omar attacked Ranch House Outpost, where Matthew was stationed. Matthew and his platoon found themselves locked in fighting with Taliban only 10 yards (meters) away, firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenade. During three hours of intense combat, Matthew directed the return of fire, coordinated the evacuation of the wounded and called for airstrikes perilously close to his own position, ultimately repelling a force three times the size of his own.

In the end, Omar and 10 of his fighters were killed. No U.S. soldiers lost their lives. Matthew received the Silver Star, awarded posthumously.

Omar's father is one of the top elders in Aranas. Mario is convinced the village elders with whom his son had long worked drew him into a trap.

Matthew was the first one killed in the ambush as he left Aranas. "They knew who Matt was, they targeted him. They set him up," says Mario.

Now, Mario says: "I'd be going for Hazmat Omar's dad."

"It's an innate rage thing. I can't help it. I know better but I can't help it," he said. "I look at myself and say 'Why can't you practice what you preach?' But it's just there."

Mario and his wife Linda, who run a bakery business, sought to instill in their children that all humanity is one tribe. Growing up in the Ferrara home meant mandatory readings of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" — a tale of the dangers of vengeance — along with teachings from Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita scriptures. Theirs was a self-described "glass-half-full kind of family."

In the wake of Matthew's death, Mario found himself tormented by the thought that after teaching his children the value of trust, his second eldest son may have lost his life in a betrayal of trust.

"The guilt had come from the sense that we had tried to instill in them that people are good, and I felt I had betrayed them," says Mario.

Matthew, who was posthumously promoted to captain, was buried at West Point, where at the time Andrew was enrolled. Andrew took comfort in having Matthew nearby. Still, as he researched the events of his death, he grew angry, convinced that Matthew was set up by those he had worked with. Matthew's platoon members believe that, the family says, though the military didn't investigate that aspect of his death.

"I was thinking the elders were in on that," he said of the ambush on Matthew. "I wanted to go back on mission to that place, to that town to get my answers, to find out who these elders were. Really, just to understand what happened and why someone would want to kill someone that was so precious to someone else."

After graduation, Andrew went on to Ranger school and soon after finishing in February, he learned that the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment out of Hawaii, was soon deploying to Kunar. He quickly signed on to join it.

The desire to follow Matthew to Kunar runs deep in the Ferrara boys, all of whom are in the military. The second youngest brother Damon, 25, deployed to Kunar late in 2010 for a little over two months as part of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne, the unit replaced by Andrew's battalion. The eldest, 35-year-old Marcus, who is currently stationed in Thailand, requested to go as well but leading a platoon at this point after several tours in Iraq wasn't in the career path for a U.S Army major.

It's a double-edged sword for the family, having Andrew in Kunar. He's their link to Matthew, calling home from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan just like his older brother did. But then, he's another son in the same dangerous, remote place from which one son never returned.

"We hear stories firsthand where Andy is. To have any type of stories is our only way to get close to Matt again," said Linda.

She understands why Andrew wanted to go — "I completely understand, it doesn't mean I'm completely happy he's there."

"I want him to have the resolution to concerns he has," she said. "I hope that Andy finds comfort in being close to Matt and I'm sure he will."

Six months into his year deployment, Andrew's role in the 10-year-old Afghan war mirrors Matthew's — meetings with village elders, fighting insurgents who slip in across the nearby border with Pakistan.

He focuses on the feeling that every thing he does can help save a life.

The descent from the mountainside patrol brings Andrew's platoon to the edge of the rushing Kunar River. A thick cable stretches across to the other side. It's a location where U.S. soldiers have recently been attacked. Andrew inspects the cable making sure the basket once used by the Taliban to transport weapons and ammo across the river has been removed by Afghan troops.

"He talks about blowing up positions the Taliban use to attack from. He went in there and personally set the charges," his brother Marcus said. "He made sure and that made me feel good ... that because of Andrew at that spot, no one will have to go though what we went through."

One thing Andrew hasn't done is go to Aranas, the last village Matthew visited.

Andrew hasn't learned more about the circumstances of his death, no proof that he was betrayed, though he and his family still believe firmly he was. Still, Andrew is thinking beyond it, focusing on the belief that being here has helped.

"Anything you can do as a human being to help another human being is a step in the right direction," said Andrew from atop Observation Post Coleman overlooking Taliban attack positions around the village of Asmar. "I like to think that being here now that Matt made a difference in a lot more people's lives in Afghanistan."

His father, as well, has stuck to the beliefs with which he and his wife raised their children. "I don't regret it," he said. "Andy is a goodhearted kid. He doesn't see bad in people. I'd rather they be that way."

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that by living up to duty and responsibility one can find balance and enlightenment and maintain harmony with all around them. The ancient texts now carry new meaning for Andrew.

"I think in terms of peace with Matt's death, I'll never forget and I have a different level of understanding now," says Andrew. "I do think I have gotten out what I thought I wanted. That's just the product of spending six months of my life in the same shoes my brother spent six months of his life in."