Wettig on Zoroya, 'The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan'

Gregg Zoroya
Terry Wettig

Gregg Zoroya. The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan. Boston: Da Capo, Illustrations. 2017. 400 pp. $27.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-306-82483-8

Reviewed by Terry Wettig (AF Air University Global College) Published on H-War (September, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57664

The Chosen Few, by Gregg Zoroya, is a book about the military, a book about war and combat. Moreover, it is a book about the impact of war on the people—the warriors—involved. Among a plethora of war books published since the start of the US war on terror, The Chosen Few stands alone in defining the far-reaching realities young soldiers witness and experience day in, day out in hostile areas halfway around the world. Staff Sergeant Erich Phillips sums it up nicely when he said, at the onset of the Ranch House battle, “This is going to suck” (p. 47). Later, reflecting on the battle, Staff Sergeant David Dzwik related, “It’s not like the movies” (p. 98). Better than anything, these two quotes sum up the overall experience of the “chosen few” specifically and combat operations in general, as they endured long months of engaging battles against their unrelenting foe.

High in the remotest regions of Afghanistan’s eastern mountain ranges, in an area of minimal strategic or tactical advantage, some of the fiercest, bloodiest, and most gut-wrenching battles of the United States’ long war against terror were staged. At the heart of this conflict, and one of the salient features of the story behind The Chosen Few, is not the action of war and the numerous gritty battles fought but rather the story of the men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2d Battalion, 503rd Infantry, best known simply as the Chosen Company, comprised largely of soldiers from broken childhoods and families coming together as a family of warriors to face an enemy bent on their destruction. The Chosen Few is part war book, highlighting combat action in Afghanistan, and part sociology text, often depicting young men whose childhoods left them searching for meaning, brotherhood, and a sense of belonging. Ultimately, it was this dynamic that defended US interests in a war where the enemy was not only the myriad terrorist groups hell-bent on their destruction but also the terrain and, at critical moments, a lack of vital resources. This is not just another book on combat; it is also a book on how young men, while searching for meaning in their own lives, connected with others in a way not often understood by those who have not walked in their boots, resulting in a resolve, under the direst circumstances, to prevail. It is a story of young men who not only faced and fought in the ugliest of conditions but also transitioned back to a life outside of war as best they could—some through substance abuse brought on by the extreme horrors of close battle and some through college and the pursuit of civilian life and raising families. The book presents the memories of those they fought with and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice protecting what they viewed as their family.

The Chosen Few, while painting the horrific impact of war, also does well to inform the reader that, borne of necessity, the creativity of the human mind is endless. Amid a fierce battle after being ambushed in the Waigal Valley, for example, rescue operations were being mounted nearly four hours into the battle. In the darkness, two groups of American wounded and dead lay, in nearly vertical relation to each other, perilously to enemy fire. The only option for the rescue crews would be a simultaneous over-and-under hovering maneuver never before attempted by two helicopters. Fighting prop wash and sheer cliffs only feet from the rotating Blackhawk blades, Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Ryan and Captain Clayton Horney hovered their crafts for two hours while C-130 gunships pummeled the enemy fighters attacking from the surrounding mountaintops. Thus, out of the necessity of bloody combat comes innovation and a new rescue procedure likely to save many lives in future conflicts.

The Chosen Few is an excellent read. The downside of its nearly four hundred pages is that it is too short. While many books covering war and combat encompass a single event, this book chronicles nearly eighteen months of Chosen Company’s constant harassment by small attacks designed to keep them off guard and the many all-out attacks that resulted in scores of killed Americans and a medal count unprecedented in American history. Cover to cover, the reader is captivated learning not only the backgrounds of our hero warriors, the myriad reasons and circumstances that brought them together, and their post-service lives but also the in-between and intervening years that melded them into a cohesive fighting machine. One telling description perfectly illustrates the insanity of battle and the driving commitment to survival when Zoroya writes, “They were a wrecked bunch. Derry had a bullet graze to his right shoulder and shrapnel up and down his left side, with a chunk of steel embedded in his left triceps—and he was the least damaged. Begaye was shot in his right arm, Takes in both arms. The three of them were the only ones capable of fighting. Both of Johnson’s legs had been hit by bullets and shrapnel. Albert had four wounds in three limbs and couldn’t walk. And Kalenits had the gaping gunshot hole to his backside along with a shattered pelvis and considerable loss of blood” (p. 171). And yet they endured, continued fighting, survived, and lived to fight again.

The Chosen Few will be useful for a wide array of readers. To the public, this book is a view into the good, the bad, and the ugly of what our military endures in and around combat operations. It illustrates how military life can prove an effective safe haven for men (and women) searching for direction and meaning in their lives. And, while not all experience what those in Chosen Company did, it provides insight, perspective, and appreciation into those realities. To academics of military history and planning, The Chosen Few provides an excellent chronology of military planning and operations, which include not only what works but also, with a hindsight perspective, what did not work and what those impacts were. This is not just a quick read on combat nor is it another “I was there” book; this is a painstakingly written account of military operations in a faraway land that few understood. Pieced together by personal interviews with those who fought the fight and by the survivors of fallen heroes, this book leaves little to imagination and conjecture as it highlights the bravery, drive, teamwork, sacrifice, and love for each other displayed by Chosen Company in a land seven thousand miles from home.

A final comment of this book and those of the Chosen Company: Of this are heroes made.

Citation: Terry Wettig. Review of Zoroya, Gregg, The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57664

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.