Under ordinary circumstances, says Lt. Andrew Exum C’00, “I am almost frighteningly laid-back. When bullets start flying, usually my heart starts beating a little faster.”
This past spring, the Chattanooga, Tennessee, native admitted to having some pulse-quickening moments as a U.S. Army platoon leader searching the caves of eastern Afghanistan for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and weaponry. Serving in the 10th Mountain Division, he took part in four missions for Operation Anaconda.
During one of those missions, “I was patrolling the [Shahikot] Valley with a 12-man patrol when one of my soldiers saw something behind me, [near] a knocked-out enemy bunker. Sure enough, it was an Al Qaeda soldier with an American-made machine gun,” which he was swinging in Exum’s direction.
“I ended up killing him and we pushed through. We don’t know whether he was trying to ambush us or trying to hide, but I think he was trying to guard a large stash of American equipment we found on him. That was pretty much my tensest moment.”
An English major, Daily Pennsylvanian columnist and ROTC participant during his days at Penn, Exum was stationed at Fort Drum, New York—which he describes as “pretty much the coldest spot on Earth”—when the World Trade Center was attacked last September. At first it looked like his unit would be deployed to Ground Zero to recover bodies and remove rubble; instead it was sent to Kuwait. Arriving in October, Exum helped guard American convoys and began training his soldiers—“getting ready for what we didn’t know.” Then in early March the Army launched Operation Anaconda to the Shahikot Valley.
“We were basically called and told to be on a plane in 24 hours, because we were going to get in the mix. We had spent five months watching things going on in Afghanistan, and we weren’t really part of it. We were so ready to go.”
One of the objectives was to systematically demolish the Al Qaeda and Taliban bunker systems, using explosives. Exum also collected DNA samples and other evidence for U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA. “We were almost like crime-fighters out there. That’s something American soldiers haven’t had to do in the past. If you get into some massive airfight with Al Qaeda soldiers, once it’s over you have to start taking pictures of all the guys, then you take hair samples to try to tie them to crimes that were committed previously.”
In addition to frequent letters from his mother, another reminder of life back home came from Exum’s encounter with two Penn alumni while stationed in Bagram. “One was an L.A. Times reporter who interviewed me. Another was an Army intelligence captain who helped me get some maps I needed for a mission. Once he found out I was a Penn alum, he was all kinds of helpful,” Exum says. “We could have had the Bagram Penn Club.”
Coming home to Tennessee in April for the first time in one-and-a-half years, Exum says he appreciates “the little things, like every cold pint of beer and every opportunity to lounge around on the sofa.” He was planning to return to Fort Drum and await his next assignment.
With two more years to go in his military contract, Exum says he has some “real tough decisions” to make in about a year. “I could end my [Army] career right now and definitely feel pretty proud of all the stuff I’ve done so far.”