Updated: January 9, 2010 at 12:00 am
After surviving the year’s deadliest firefight in Afghanistan, Sgt. Eric J. Harder made a humble request.
The Fort Carson soldier phoned his mother, Mary Henry of suburban Minneapolis, and asked her to mail over a Minnesota Twins baseball cap — not for himself, he told her, but as a token of gratitude for a new brother.
In the chaos of the Oct. 3 assault on Combat Outpost Keating, Harder and fellow members of Fort Carson’s 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment welcomed two new comrades into their fold as they fought for their lives: A pair of Latvian soldiers who battled alongside them to defend their remote, mountain outpost from a well-armed enemy force.
Eight from Fort Carson died in the daylong battle, in which several hundred enemy fighters took positions in the surrounding hills and raked the men with machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Harder, 29, told his mother that if it hadn’t been for Janis Lakis, one of the Latvian soldiers, he might not have survived.
“He basically saved my life,” Harder told her. “I want him to have a Twins cap.”
Although Henry doesn’t know the full story behind Lakis’ intervention, those words were enough to earn him a place in her heart, and to convince her that a baseball cap wouldn’t settle the debt.
Lakis and the other Latvian soldier, Martin Dabolins, were assigned to the outpost near the Pakistan border to train members of the Afghan National Army. According to Henry, the Afghans fled when the shooting started, but Lakis and Dabolins fought valiantly alongside the Americans, cementing their bond.
In a videotaped interview featured on a military Web site,Harder described the harrowing cries of the unit’s machine gunners as they shouted for more ammunition, defenseless under heavy enemy fire.
As a team leader, Harder was among the soldiers who made repeat trips to the post’s ammo storage point to resupply the gunners. He threw down smoke grenades to provide cover from sniper fire as he ran from place to place, suffering shrapnel injuries in his legs from one explosion. His videotaped account does not address the actions of the Latvian soldiers, and Henry said he has been reluctant to discuss the battle in detail.
The Army ordered the troops to abandon Combat Outpost Keating two days after the enemy force retreated, following Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy to pull back from remote areas to defend population centers.
Three months later, Henry is working to honor a new request from her son, another attempt to thank Lakis and Dabolins for their actions during the assault, she said.
As members of the unit looked ahead to their June return from a turbulent deployment, Henry said, they hatched a plan to fly the Latvians and their families to Fort Carson for a two-week reunion. At more than $1,000 a person, however, airline tickets would be an unrealistic expense for the Latvians, and Harder agreed to raise money to fly at least five people, including Lakis’ wife and daughter and Dabolins’ girlfriend. If possible, she would like to bring a third Latvian soldier who worked at the outpost but was away on leave on the day of the battle.
They fought together to survive, she said, and she wants to see the Latvians celebrate alongside her son’s unit at their end-of-deployment ball this summer.
“It’s a chance for these young men to let guards down, reflect on the past year, attempt closure and begin to look to the future,” she said.
Soldiers in the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment said much the same thing.
“The quote I heard was, ‘If we can be fighting together, we should be able to party together,’” Henry said.
She hopes to purchase airline tickets by April. Those wishing to donate may deliver checks to any Wells Fargo branch, care of the 3-61CAV-Latvian Soldier Reunion Fund.
Contact the writer at 636-0366