With public information about the battle still sketchy, Cynthia Woodard could only imagine how her son died last fall as hundreds of insurgents swarmed over his combat outpost in Afghanistan.

The Northeast Philadelphia woman had searched an Army report and found many pages blank or covered with dashes and garbled characters for privacy or security reasons.

Nothing adequately described the attack that claimed her son, Spec. Michael Scusa, 22, of Villas, Cape May County, and seven comrades on Oct. 3, 2009 - one of the deadliest days of America's longest war.

Then, last week, for the first time, Woodard read a running narrative of computer messages typed by U.S. soldiers that pulled back the curtain on the desperate battle.

" . . . we are taking casiltys," wrote one of the soldiers in a frantic call for help filled with misspellings.


"we need support."

The chilling, minute-by-minute communications - from Combat Outpost Keating to its headquarters - were among tens of thousands of documents made public last month by WikiLeaks, a website that thrives on exposing secrets. They provide a record that families of soldiers in other wars have never had.

Anxious to know more, relatives across the country have searched the data for information withheld by the military, and found themselves transported by words into the deadly chaos their soldiers faced.

In her Holmesburg apartment, Woodard pictured Keating's spartan collection of buildings and the stubborn defense put up by Scusa and fellow soldiers in the Army's 61st Cavalry in the Hindu Kush valley of Kamdesh, Nuristan Province.

"I get a sense of what Michael's last moments were like, and what it was like for all of these guys," said Woodard, 53, as she read the hastily typed words. "I have a hard time dealing with this."

Though the messages were terse and filled with military acronyms and jargon, the writer's emotions came through powerfully, sometimes in capital letters followed by exclamation points.

Some messages were garbled, reflecting the intensity of the moment as the fate of American defenders on Keating and adjacent Observation Post Fritsche, on higher ground, hung in the balance.

"Michael used to say he didn't want to grow old," said Woodard, tears welling in her eyes. She sat near a wall covered with photos and a chalk drawing of her son, as well as awards and framed medals, including Scusa's Purple Heart. "I would've liked to have had him around a little longer."

In the 10 months since the battle, families of the fallen soldiers have coveted information about Keating - whether from a redacted report, from soldiers who were there, or from the WikiLeaks documents.

"Other than the Army knocking at my door at 8:30 on a Sunday and telling me, 'Your son was killed,' I haven't gotten anything," said Vanessa Adelson, mother of Spec. Stephan Mace, 21, of Lovettsville, Va. "We were told he lived 15 minutes.

"Then I found out he was hit at 6:30 in the morning and died at 10:30 that night," said Adelson, 47, of Charles Town, W.Va. "Every ounce of information I have gotten has come by writing and asking people. . . . I need to know what happened to my son."

That knowledge - and sharing stories of their loved ones - keeps their memories alive, the families said.

"I felt as a mother that I couldn't be there for him at his last moment," said Kerri Causley, mother of Spec. Christopher Griffin, 24, of Kincheloe, Mich. "I can understand how some families want to know and others don't."

"I wanted to know," said Causley, 42, a Petoskey, Mich., resident who keeps her son's cremated remains on her fireplace mantle. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him and the other seven."

Desperate messages

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 3, 300 Taliban-linked militia quietly slipped into the village of Urmol on a ridge above Keating. They forced civilians to leave, then set up firing positions in its buildings and on the hillside, the Army said.

Below them were about 50 U.S. soldiers and 90 Afghans. They had been targeted regularly by snipers and small attacks for months but had never seen anything like the ferocious assault about to sweep over them.

By 5:58 a.m., the outpost and observation post were being raked with heavy machine-gun fire, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. The 61st Cavalry reported being "IN HEAVY CONTACT" and requested an "Air Tic Be opened," jargon for close-air support.

"we need it now," wrote a soldier. "we have mortars pinned down and fire coming form everywhere."

A string of computer messages followed:

"we are taking heavy saf [small arms fire] and rpgs [rocket propelled grenades]"

"GET SOMETHING UP!" a reference to air support.

"ITS A 40 MINUTE FLIGHT," came the reply.

Each message was more intense than the last, painting an increasingly grim picture.

"we are taking fire from inside urmul village," a post soldier wrote.

"multiple enemies running through the anp [Afghan National Police] station and fire coming from the mosque in urmu."

Within an hour, soldiers were running out of ammunition, and Scusa and a comrade were ordered to pick up supplies. They were both hit. A bullet smashed through Scusa's neck, struck his carotid artery, and exited his back. Another hit one of his legs.

"That was the big thing - trying to get the ammunition," said Woodard, who along with other parents is seeking the Medal of Honor for the fallen soldiers. "These guys risked their lives to save others."

Nearby, the Observation Post Fritsche was "about to pop claymores," the military's description for setting off mines.

Less than an hour after the fight came an urgent message: "enemy in the wire at keating," a reference to the outpost's perimeter. It was repeated several times, sometimes in capital letters.

As the number of casualties mounted and insurgents breached the wire in three places, Americans regrouped to make a stand at the last building on the post that wasn't burning.

Fighter jets, joined by attack helicopters, strafed and bombed the area around them, killing many attackers and destroying a village mosque used to fire on the post. By 1 p.m., U.S. soldiers were taking back what was left; some of the injured refused medevac and continued to fight.

Eight Americans died, and more than 20 were wounded. Three Afghan National Army members were killed, and nearly a dozen were wounded.

Scattered on and around the post were the bodies of about 150 insurgents.

Days later, the post was abandoned.

Unanswered question

Mostly, the survivors want to know why.

Why were their loved ones stationed in a valley with little cover from enemy fire? The WikiLeaks account only reinforces the question.

"Our guys weren't supposed to be there," said Connie Brown, mother of Sgt. Vernon Martin, 25, of Savannah, Ga. "When my son got there in May, he told me, 'They got us down in a hole,' but he said they'd be moving in a month. Two months passed and they still hadn't moved."

Keating was established in 2006 as a base for a Provincial Reconstruction Team. It offered help to Afghans, providing clothing, first aid, and school supplies, WikiLeaks-released documents showed. But limited manpower prevented the outpost from effectively protecting the local population and performing counterinsurgency.

Commanders considered the outpost obsolete by mid-2009 and scheduled it to be closed by that August. The withdrawal was delayed when equipment needed for the move was diverted to Afghan National Security Forces in other operations. That gave insurgents time to strike.

Sgt. Martin was shot four times as he made his way to the ammunition building.

"My son came to me in a dream [after a memorial service in November], and he had the biggest grin on his face," said Brown, 53, of Savannah. " . . . Some of us will never fully heal. I know I won't."

Martin's comrade, Spec. Griffin, was shot in the head while providing cover fire for others.

"Two and a half weeks before the attack, we talked," Causley said. "He was excited because they were going to leave the camp, and he was going to get to blow it up."

Instead, she got the dreaded knock on the door. "I saw two officers, and you know immediately," she said. " 'Are you Kerri Causley?' they asked. 'Can we go inside?' "

Like Griffin, Stephan Mace also was cut down while providing covering machine-gun fire for others.

The WikiLeaks report is "wrenching," said Mace's grandfather, John Petro, 72, of Falls Church, Va. "There is not a hell of a lot you want to know about it, but you're compelled to try to understand."

Families look for pieces of the Keating puzzle anywhere they can find it.

An Oct. 3 video by an ABC News reporter showing a wounded soldier being loaded on a Black Hawk helicopter caught the attention of Mace's mother, Vanessa Adelson. She recognized the hands, contacted the reporter, and confirmed they belonged to Stephan.

"I know my son's hands," Adelson said, adding that she later "ended up getting a box coming off a plane, not knowing what happened."

"I use every opportunity to keep my son's memory alive and bring attention to what's going on in the war," Adelson said.

The release of the WikiLeaks documents prompted some survivors to reconnect with one another and to remind the public - through the news media - of their sacrifice.

"I stood up for my son when he was alive, and I will stand up for him now that he's dead," Adelson said.

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore
at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.