on August 4, 2013 - 8:02 PM
, updated August 5, 2013 at 1:10 PM
So much ran through Robert G. Ortt’s mind as he sat in his family’s home watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He was 22 years old, just graduated from Canisius College and had always considered joining the military. He knew a defining moment in the history of the country and his life had arrived. He wondered what he would one day tell his grandchildren. Did he just watch, or did he take action?
“I was sitting on the couch watching, and I felt so helpless. I just realized that it was a pivotal point in my life. So many people don’t get those moments. They go back and forth. I knew what Rob Ortt had to do.”
He enlisted in the New York Army National Guard.
But it would take some time before he was on the front lines fighting terrorism. He advanced in rank as a part-time citizen soldier to an officer. In civilian life, he also advanced, successfully running for election as treasurer of North Tonawanda. Yet he knew he was destined to go to war.
“I always knew that at some point, being in a combat unit, our turn would come. We weren’t sure whether it would be Iraq or Afghanistan. At the time, Iraq had been dominating the news, and when we were sent to Afghanistan, I really didn’t know what to expect.”
As a first lieutenant, Ortt arrived in Afghanistan in early 2008. He said it was deceivingly quiet in Kandahar, the birthplace of the radical Taliban. That ended, he added, when more than 300 prisoners, a majority of them insurgents, busted free of a prison just outside the city.
“That really was the turning point. Before that, there had been a couple of firefights across the area that we were involved in.”
From then on, the enemy grew bolder and often engaged coalition forces in hit-and-run battles with small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices. Then on June 21, 2008, Ortt learned how random tragedy can be in war.
The colonel in charge of his team, known as PNT Patriot, which trained members of the Afghan National Police Force, approached Ortt and said he needed his mine-resistant vehicle because the navigation unit in the colonel’s was broken.
“The colonel was going out to handle an internal disciplinary problem involving a different training team. Normally, I would have been in the lead vehicle, but he said he needed my vehicle, and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ Every other mission I was in until the day I left, I was the commander in the lead vehicle. But on this day I did not go.”
The colonel’s convoy drove off at 7:15 a.m.
About 45 minutes later, horrible news came in.
The convoy had been hit by an IED and several rocket-propelled grenades.
“I got a phone call from a senior U.S. officer, and he gave me the names of four members of our team who had been killed. It was a complex ambush with the IED, the rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire. The colonel was in my seat in the lead vehicle, and he was killed. My driver also died, and the colonel’s gunner died. A second gunner in the second vehicle also died,” Ortt said.
The news crushed him.
“I felt like I was supposed to die. I told my gunner, and our first response was to gather up our weapons and body armor with the intent to try and get out there and link up with our guys. They were stuck at another camp. All their vehicles were mobility kills. They had no way to get back. But I realized we just couldn’t leave.
“I had to arrange for air support, get a chaplain and food ready once our guys were returned. When they came off that chopper, you’d never seen U.S. soldiers, grown men, look so broken, their faces. It was easily the worst day of my life. We couldn’t even run a mission for a week. We had to wait for replacements and bring them up to speed.”
During that time, Ortt could find no solace in the fact that his life had been spared.
“Finally the first sergeant came up to me. He had served in Iraq. He said, ‘Sir, you can’t beat yourself up over this. You can’t personalize it. At the end of the day, if you had been there, nothing would have changed, except that you would be dead, and the news reports would have been the same, four U.S. soldiers killed,’ ” Ortt recalled. “It took a battle-hardened guy to frame it that way.”
The insight, Ortt said, gave him what he needed emotionally to carry on with his duties, though even discussing the ambush years later is painful.
“I do it because those guys are the true war heroes, and I want people to know their story and that they were here.”
Ortt says one of hardest things was when he supervised the packing up of their personal belongings.
“I was right there. You saw pictures of their kids, cards from wives and lovers. But I will say there was a bonding with the remaining members of our team. We came out of it stronger. We really became a family,” Ortt said.
Following that, there were other firefights and encounters, including one major offensive in the city of Lashkar Gah, where the insurgents had gained such a presence that it was feared they would take control.
“There were numerous firefights, and we came under mortar fire. We were able to drive them back after several days. It was always that way. When we came in with a real show of force, they would not fight us man-to-man. They would pray and spray, and make a tactical retreat to the mountains,” Ortt said.
When it was time for him to return home, it was tough.
“There’s this sense of ownership. It is hard to let go of the mission and train your replacements. I had seen the Afghan police make considerable progress. You put so much into it. But you know it is time to go, it is the next person’s job.”
Back in North Tonawanda, Ortt returned to his duties as the city treasurer but decided he wanted to play a bigger role in the democratic process. In November 2009, he was elected to a four-year term as mayor and plans to run for re-election in November.
As for the soldiers who became his family in Afghanistan, he says he still remains in touch.
“I’ve spoken to them on the phone, sent emails and stayed in contact a lot through Facebook,” Ortt said.
Someday, he says, they will all get together for a reunion.
Robert G. Ortt, 34
Hometown and residence: North Tonawanda
Rank: First lieutenant
War zone: Afghanistan
Years of service: Active duty, January 2008-January 2009; Army National Guard, October 2001–October 2009
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Afghan Campaign Medal, Combat Infantry Badge