“Killing people, you either get past it or you don’t,” Jason Amerine tells me. “Fighting the system—taking on the system—is another thing where you either do it or you don’t, but once you’ve done it you realize what’s behind the curtain when the Wizard of Oz is there. Once you’ve done it, you lose something about the blind faith you have. And in the military, you need to have faith in your leaders in order to do some pretty dangerous things.”
Lieutenant Colonel Amerine is a decorated soldier, having commanded a team of Green Berets during the War in Afghanistan—with the story of his 12-man A-Team immortalized in Eric Blehm’s bestselling book The Only Thing Worth Dying For. He was also a guest of honor at George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, and the first military man chosen for the America’s Army Real Heroes program: an initiative touting the “extraordinary courage” of real-life soldiers, with their likenesses featured in the America’s Army video game and on action figures sold across the country.
To the general public, LTC Amerine is perhaps best known as the Episode 5 star of Serial’s second season, an Army colonel stationed at the Pentagon and tasked with devising a plan to help bring home Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant who was captured by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network after deserting his platoon.
His team’s actions in the War in Afghanistan are chronicled in the new documentary Legion of Brothers, now playing in theaters. Directed by Greg Barker (Manhunt), the film focuses on the 595 and 574, two Special Forces teams who, in the weeks and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, were ordered on a secret mission in Afghanistan to team up with Hamid Karzai’s Northern Alliance and help defeat the Taliban. Amerine commanded the 574, whose 12-man team was first deployed to Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan.
“There was only the outline of the plan, and the plan was: link up with the Northern Alliance, who were warlords that wanted to fight the Taliban anyway, and use that to eradicate al-Qaeda. That really was it. Render Afghanistan unusable by al-Qaeda,” says Amerine. “It was left to the teams on the ground to figure it out and we developed a coherent strategy as we went along.”
That strategy included coordinating regularly with Karzai and his Afghan militiamen so as to make sure everyone was on the same page, even clearing U.S. air strikes with Karzai “to make sure the Afghans owned it.” One such air strike featured in the film occurred during the Battle of Tarin Kowt, which saw Amerine’s 12-man team and about 50 members of the Afghan militia beat back an approaching convoy of 500 Taliban with the help of air support.
In one of Legion of Brothers’ most poignant scenes, Amerine expresses mixed feelings about ordering the bombing—a move that saved all the U.S. soldiers and Afghan freedom fighters’ lives, but also claimed those of dozens of Taliban insurgents. “I just felt like I should’ve been looking the enemy in the eye before I killed them,” he says in the film.
“This was the first time I was in a shooting war—the first time for most of us—and that very first air strike, how do you know they’re the enemy? It’s a very simple, awful, terrible question of how do you know? And yet you need to be a leader and be decisive,” Amerine tells me.
“It was a moment that I knew I had to appreciate; I had to take it to heart. I just killed a lot of people,” he continues. “That was the part of the air strikes in general that always left me uneasy, was it was very easy to authorize air strikes. I would sometimes wait hours to authorize an air strike so that we were absolutely certain.” He pauses. “It always caused a degree of uncertainty and a degree of pain, but that’s the dilemma of war.”
Barker’s film contrasts scenes of the camaraderie of the 595, a tight-knit group that famously rode horses through treacherous mountain passes and into battle alongside Afghan rebels (becoming the first U.S. soldiers to battle on horseback since 1942), and the 574, a group of soldiers torn apart by tragedy.
That tragedy occurred on December 5, 2001. Following the Battles of Tarin Kowt and Shawali Kowt, both led by Amerine, as well as a two-day firefight in Kandahar, the Taliban were on the brink of surrender. But when superiors arrived on the scene, they decided to commission one last missile strike in order to, as one of the soldiers in the film puts it, “send a message.” They were targeting a cave thought to be housing Taliban insurgents just outside the town of Shawali Kowt, but the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) missile instead landed less than a hundred yards from Amerine’s men’s position.
“At the time I actually went up and voiced my anger over it,” remembers Amerine. “I didn’t know why the headquarters that got on the ground just hours before felt they needed to direct an air strike, and I didn’t know why we were directing air strikes while we were waiting for Taliban to drive from that general direction to us to surrender. The whole thing, to me, was something as old as war itself: people wanted to get a couple of blows in before it was over.”
The blast killed three members of the 574—Master Sergeant Jefferson Davis, Sergeant First Class Daniel Petithory, and Staff Sergeant Brian Cody Prosser—who became the first U.S. soldiers to die during the War in Afghanistan, under friendly fire. Fellow U.S. soldier Mike McElhenney lost his arm and Gil Magallanes suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, while Amerine caught shrapnel in his leg. Official numbers say that 27 Afghan militiamen also lay dead, although Amerine estimates it could have been as many as 50.
“These were people who were blown to pieces. You had no way of knowing,” says Amerine, his voice cracking. “What limited it to only that, which is horrible enough, was the JDAM was set for penetration because they were aiming for a cave, so it actually penetrated the ground before blowing up. That’s why everybody didn’t die.”
Two days later the Taliban surrendered, and the 574 were later awarded three Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and eleven Purple Hearts—with Amerine receiving a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“The movie [Legion of Brothers] is very important in terms of honoring the guys that died,” says Amerine. “For me, every time I talk about Afghanistan, it was always with the ulterior motive of remembering J.D., Dan, and Cody. That was always it.”
But Amerine’s battle didn’t end there. In 2013, after a stint teaching Arabic at West Point, he was brought on to help the Pentagon negotiate the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant who was captured by Taliban-aligned militants after he went missing from his base. Bergdahl had already been imprisoned for close to four years by then, and the U.S. was desperate to bring back a soldier who was not only the longest-held POW since John McCain in Vietnam, but had become the terrorists’ prized possession.
After performing a thorough audit, Amerine felt he could add six captive civilians to any potential swap, and in 2014, had a deal on the table that would have traded Haji Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban-associated drug lord, for Bergdahl and the six civilians. That deal, however, became lost in a complex web of bureaucracy, with the Department of Defense, State Department, U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, CIA, and NSA all working on the case, yet operating on different wavelengths.
Frustrated, the lieutenant colonel made a plea to Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-California), a former Marine and member of the House Armed Services Committee, to help cut through all the bureaucratic wrangling and expedite the process by having the DoD take the reins instead of the FBI. No one listened.
“I worked with the FBI a lot over the years and I’ve been very impressed with them,” offers Amerine. “The problem was, the folks that were specifically dealing with the hostage issue revealed the big Achilles heel in the whole system: there were people tasked with doing it, they had no capability of actually doing anything effective, and success for them was just keeping the families generally quiet, and then they would wait for something to happen or not. Their biggest goal was to contain the problem, and the problem for them was the family and not the hostage.”
On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Taliban members being held at Guantanamo Bay, two of whom served as commanders—a far worse deal than the several that Amerine says he and his team had on the table. President Obama held an ostentatious ceremony announcing the exchange in the White House Rose Garden that drew heavy criticism. Donald Trump, then a mere real estate tycoon and reality TV host with an itchy Twitter finger, tweeted 11 times in the weeks that followed blasting the deal.
“We had better deals we could have made. We had several things we’d come up with,” says Amerine. “The dysfunction in the system ended up creating a very bad deal. There’s really no way to get around it: five-for-one was a very bad deal. It never should have happened. The biggest reason for it is they felt that releasing the five would jumpstart peace talks and obviously that didn’t happen, and the optics were terrible. It was a terrible deal.”
Following Bergdahl’s release, in January 2015, Amerine was told that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) unit had brought a case against him, and he was “abruptly escorted out of the Pentagon,” reported Newsweek. The Pentagon would later confirm that it was the FBI who’d triggered the investigation—presumably as retaliation for Amerine voicing his disapproval to Rep. Hunter over the Bureau’s role in the whole Bergdahl affair.
“Look no further than Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine…as a prime example of how the FBI retaliates against any interest that’s not their own,” said Rep. Hunter.
Amerine doesn’t really blame the FBI for the subsequent witch-hunt. “I had a lot of people reach out to me who said they had a similar thing happen where they had a confrontation with the FBI and then the FBI would complain to their superiors in the military,” Amerine says. “I don’t think the folks in that particular field office believed it was going to go anywhere—they thought they would just complain and then it would be quieted. What they didn’t realize is that they complained about me to a general [Mary Legere] who didn’t like the congressman I was speaking to.”
After nine months of having his retirement delayed and his name dragged through the mud—as well as earning the label of “whistleblower,” a word he hates being associated with him—Amerine was cleared of any wrongdoing and awarded the Legion of Merit for his troubles. He retired in late 2015 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Senior Army officials were also cleared of retaliating against him, though many in Congress voiced their disapproval.
In the aftermath of the Amerine imbroglio, the Obama administration created the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a division of the U.S. State Department that “leads and coordinates the Government’s diplomatic engagements on overseas hostage-related matters,” as well as the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, “a single, permanent U.S. government interagency body responsible for coordinating the recovery of U.S. hostages abroad.”
Amerine views these new hostage-recovery agencies as some of his greatest accomplishments. “It was so ridiculous, what they were coming after me for, that I was able to make my case about what was wrong with the system, and things got fixed,” he says. “I’d have given up 27 months for that. Heck, I’d have given up years for that.”