Pinned Down in Afghanistan: The Ill-Fated Battle for Hill 2610

An excerpt from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor recounts a Taliban ambush that killed four U.S. army soldiers.

RTR3A347-615.jpgGoran Tomasevic/Reuters

Staff Sergeant Chris "Cricket" Cunningham, 26, led the kill team for 3-71 Cav.

After high school, Cunningham had been looking for a way out of Whitingham, Vermont, when one of his older brothers told him to join the Army. "Don't sign any papers until they give you one that says 'Ranger' on it," his brother told him, advice that Cunningham took.

For a few months now, Cunningham had been angling to team up with Sergeant First Class Jared Monti, 30, on a mission. Cunningham respected how skilled the forward observers from Monti's team were, and the two men had become friends. At the end of each day back at Forward Operating Base Naray they would sit on a bench in a garden, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze. Missions, commanders, family -- they talked about it all. After they got out of the Army, both were thinking about enrolling in the Troops to Teachers program, a partnership between the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Education that helped eligible soldiers start new careers as public school teachers in high poverty areas.

Monti, a fellow New Englander, came from the working-class town of Raynham, Massachusetts, where he'd been a champion wrestler who always had a smile on his face. That changed after the Army sent him to his first deployment, to Kosovo, where he was given a crash course in what had once been, to him, unimaginable barbarism. He would regularly witness a town of Christian adults throwing garbage at Muslim children walking to school. To Monti, what was morally right far exceeded the importance of Army rules, so he started driving the kids to school in his Humvee. But there was too much horror there for him to make a difference -- too much hatred, too much killing, too many neighbors turned murderers. He came back from the Balkans a different man, haunted.

Jared Monti had always been an innately altruistic person, but it was almost as if the more he witnessed of the worst of man, the more he lived for his men. One Christmas, he gave his leave to a soldier with an immigrant wife he hadn't seen in two years. That was pure Monti. Returning to his barracks after hitting the mess hall on a different deployment, in South Korea, Monti witnessed one private sadistically beating another. He tried to break up the fight verbally, but that didn't work, so he grabbed the aggressor and threw him against the wall. The next day Monti got called into the sergeant major's office, where he was chewed out -­ Monti was of higher rank, and putting his hands on someone of lower rank was a violation of Army rules. Monti was demoted because of the incident. So be it.

Finally, in June 2006, Cunningham and Monti were assigned a mission.

Their snipers and scouts would take two days to hike to a ridge overlooking the house of an insurgent leader near the border town of Gawardesh. Only after Cunningham gave the go-ahead would the rest of 3-71 Cav roll in.

Monti was excited about partnering on a mission with his buddy Cunningham. He would lead the forward observers and artillerymen, while Cunningham would be in charge of the shooters. They met and discussed the operation. The United States had never battled the insurgent, Haji Usman, or his fighters before, so they would be operating mostly on hunches. Usman could probably muster up to about 50 fighters, intelligence officer Captain Ross Berkoff told them. They would be able to use their knowledge of the terrain to their advantage and try to outflank their positions. Berkoff did not expect much of a threat in terms of firepower.

In his tent at Forward Operating Base Naray, Monti told one of his ranking non-commissioned officers, Sergeant Chris Grzecki, about the mission. "We're going to this area, to overwatch this other area," he said, pointing at a map. "This is the mountain we think is best," he said.

He pointed to Hill 2610.

* * *

When asked, in February 2003, how many troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq after the invasion, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki went off message. "Several hundred thousand soldiers" would be required, he told Congress. Pentagon leaders assailed that figure, and Shinseki was marginalized. From then on, no general would publicly question troop figures.

And that was Iraq, the favored war of the commander-in-chief, the one where the funds and assets and troops were sent. Jared Monti would often complain to his father Paul that he and his men were deprived. They didn't have enough resources, he would say, they didn't have enough helicopters.

Paul Monti, a public high school science teacher, was already incensed at what he saw as a near dereliction of duty by President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. By doing so, Paul Monti believed, they were short-changing troops like his son who were fighting in the country where those responsible for 9/11 had made their nefarious plans. Years later, after son's mission to Hill 2610, the question as to why his son was so forsaken by his leaders would gnaw at Paul Monti.

Why would Bush and Rumsfeld, Paul Monti wondered, send kids into war without making sure they had enough manpower and supplies? Why would they create a dynamic where the wounds of one man could jeopardize an entire mission?

* * *

Before he left on this mission with Charlie Troop's kill team, Sergeant Patrick Lybert, 28, called his younger brother, Noah, back in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, to coordinate a different task altogether. Lybert was scheduled to return to Fort Drum on leave the next month, July 2006, to visit his fiancé Carola Hubbard. He had secretly paid for plane tickets for Noah and their mother to meet them at the upstate New York Army base for a surprise wedding.

Monti threw Grzecki his radio. 'You're Chaos 3-5 now,' Monti said, transferring his call sign.

Noah, 19, was a special needs kid, so Lybert had to make sure his brother fully comprehended that this was a secret he was supposed to keep not only from Carola but from their mother as well. (Noah understood.) Patrick Lybert had always been protective of his younger brother. A classmate in 4th grade ended up with a black eye after he suggested that Lynert was something less than a full brother to Noah, who technically had a different father, their mother having divorced and remarried. After he graduated from high school, Patrick told his mother, Cheryl Lee Nussberger, "Don't worry, Ma. I'll take care of Noah." He told her that after she passed away, he wanted to become Noah's guardian.

"Well, Pat, you may have a wife who feels differently," his mother said.

"Nobody will ever be part of my life who doesn't accept Noah," Lybert replied. And Carola fulfilled that prophesy: after the Army, the plan was for Patrick and Carola Lybert to move back to Ladysmith. All part of the plan and the promise.

When Patrick came home on leave in January, before being deployed to Afghanistan, his mother noticed that he had a weight on him. He would be a recon team leader, and took his leadership responsibilities seriously. He couldn't be a pal to his troops, he had to be tough on them so they would be prepared. "Some of these guys are so green, they're going to get themselves killed," he told her, worried. "Mom, if any of those guys I'm responsible for get killed I will never be able to live with myself." So, like a good mother who sees her child worried, Cheryl worried, too.

Lybert joked around a lot -­- he gave the impression of a fun-loving, outdoorsy kind of guy ­-- but he went into the Army with grief in his soul, Cheryl always thought.

He'd joined the Army in 2002, did a tour in Iraq, came back and jumped from the 1-32 Infantry to do recon for a new cavalry squadron they were forming at Fort Drum, 3-71 Cav. He loved the Army and had just re-upped in March, though he was also eager now to start a family. More immediately, he was looking forward to returning to Fort Drum on leave, to seeing Carola, his mom, and Noah.

"I got the tickets booked," he told his mother, referring to her flight to upstate New York to meet him.

"I told you not to do that -- I'll pay!" she protested.

"I already bought the tickets, Mom," he said. "Hey, I'm going out on this mission. I'll call you when I get back. I love ya, Ma." The phone went dead.

"I love you, too," she said into the silence. "Patrick, I love you."

* * *

Patrick Lybert didn't normally work with the kill team, but three soldiers from Cunningham's regular group weren't there -­ two were on leave, one was healing from a hernia -­ so Lybert and three others came along for the mission. On the night of June 19, Cunningham and Monti led the 14 others in a convoy to a mortar position south of Bazgal near the Gawardesh Bridge. From there they began their ascent up the ridge. It was crucial that no one see them, so they took the most difficult route. Heading to a ridgeline overlooking the Gremen Valley, they climbed until sunrise. During the daytime they rested and conducted surveillance.

The slopes were steep and their rucksacks were jammed with 60-100 pounds of gear. The men had to tread carefully, for fear they might trigger a Soviet-era mine, fall down the mountain, or at the very least sprain an ankle. June in Afghanistan: the temperatures shot up to close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rough terrain sapped every bit of their energy. They didn't talk -­ they had to keep quiet ­- and Grzecki spent much of his time just praying for the torturous mission to end.

RTR2Q3YF-615.jpgU.S Army soldiers from Charlie Company 2nd battalion 35th infantry regiment, Task Forces Bronco climb down from the top of the hill which overlooks the river Darya ye Kunar in eastern Afghanistan. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

The second day of their trek, the troops saw two Toyota Hilux pickup trucks loaded with men driving into the valley. After the sun set, the Americans watched headlights flow along the road. It seemed suspicious, lots of talking and driving during late hours of the night and through the early morning.

At dawn, they continued their ascent. Specialist John Garner served as point man for the kill team, which meant that he blazed the trails, and chose paths that were preposterously off the beaten path.

Sometimes these cumbersome routes were annoying to those traveling with him, Garner knew, but that was okay with him: he was point and he'd be the first one shot or blown up. They could go where he wanted to go.

Garner and Specialist Franklin Woods led the way up the mountain and into a thicket of Afghan pines, the rest of the team following 20 yards behind. Garner was heartened by the untrammeled pine needles scattered on the steep mountainside, covering the ground like a thick carpet, suggesting pristine land untouched by the enemy. And then he saw indentations in the needles' pattern, some earth poking out from underneath.

Footprints.

He called his team leader -- John Hawes, the good shot who'd scored his first kill during the Kotya Valley mission -- and showed him the remnants of the path someone had walked, in a steep area where one would only be walking if trying to do so undetected. The coordinated pattern of the broken needles and patches of dirt suggested a group of people walking in single file. Hawes looked and nodded.

"Push forward," he told Garner. "Keep your eyes open."

Garner did so, his sniper rifle pointed out in front of him, his finger on the trigger, the hair on the back of his neck standing at attention. Finally the team arrived at the top of Hill 2610 and set up camp in a small area on a flat but narrow ridgeline that reminded Hawes of a knife's edge. At an elevation of roughly 8,500 feet, the spot was approximately 160 feet long and 65 feet wide and sloped downward north to south, with a tiny goat trail along the eastern edge. Some of the men set up in the north, behind trees and heavy brush. A few smaller trees, several large boulders and the remains of a stone wall marked the southern end of their position. With their scopes, they watched the valley to the east, beyond the steep, roughly 80 percent decline. Normally the kill team would carry enough food and water to last five to seven days, but by time they all got to the summit, they were almost out -­ or "black" -- on water. Cunningham called that into the base.

After about an hour, Garner saw six men through his spotting scope. They were about two and a half miles away, heading towards them from the Pakistan border. He alerted his chain of command, and soon Cunningham came over to take a look. Were they insurgents? Friendlies? Afghans? No one knew. From the observation point, the Americans could see a suspected HIG safe house and Haji Usman's home.

Cunningham and Monti were pleased. This, they felt, was a good location.

* * *

On June 20, 2006, Sergeant Adones Flores, the acting platoon sergeant, was asked to lead a patrol to make sure everything was all right before the 3-71 Cav pushed into nearby Gawerdesh. Flores was in the third Humvee of the convoy, listening on the radio for any insurgent chatter. At first Flores had no idea what had happened. Then he was lying in a crater amidst a cloud of dust. "What are you doing?" Flores asked one of his fellow troops, who was hovering above him. He didn't yet realize he was on the ground, out of the Humvee.

"We just got hit," the soldier said. "We just got hit by an IED."

"Oh shit," said Flores. He checked his arms, legs, torso. They were all there. He realized he was lying in a crater and shots were being fired. Bullets were hailing around him. Then his driver was pulling him, dragging him up into the mountains.

Now Flores felt the pain. His leg. It was swollen. Soon he was back at Forward Operating Base Naray, with a medic cutting open his leg to relieve the pressure.

"A couple more minutes and you would have lost the leg," the medic told him.

* * *

At Forward Operating Base Naray, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard called in Captain Frank Brooks of Barbarian Troop and Captain Michael Schmidt of Charlie Troop.

The squadron was supposed to launch into Gawardesh that night or early the next morning, air assaulting troops from Barbarian and Charlie Troops and entering the village. Were they square? Were they good to go?

Brooks said yes. But Schmidt said no. One of his men ­- Flores -- had just been seriously wounded by an IED, and Charlie Troop needed about 24 hours to get things straight.

* * *

On Hill 2610, Cunningham was told the mission was being delayed up to 48 hours, but he wasn't told why -- and it didn't matter why, really. You did what you were told. But he made it clear to the commanders back at Forward Operating Base Naray that the changing circumstances meant they needed a resupply of food and water as soon as possible -- 420 bottles of water and 160 MREs if they were going to last four to five more days on the ridge, which was now the plan. A resupply would unquestionably alert the enemy as to their presence, but they had no choice. (They had previously been scheduled for a resupply in conjunction with the pending air assault.) All Cunningham could do was request that the chopper drop the supplies as far from their observation post as possible, in an area not visible to those in the Gremen Valley.

At about 2 p.m. local time, a Black Hawk helicopter dropped the speedball -- a device packed with supplies that can withstand a fall -- roughly 500 feet to the north of the hillside, above a ridge on a different mountain.

This is making a bigger signature than I wanted, Cunningham thought. It's too close to us, drawing too much attention. He decided that he would lead 11 soldiers to recover the supplies. It might be something of a hike, Cunningham warned them. "Conserve your water."

The chopper crewman tried to lift the two men up as quickly as he could, when suddenly the Jungle Penetrator itself began spinning out of control.

Four men stayed behind to keep watch, including Grzecki and Specialist Max Noble, a medic. Through his scope, Noble saw an Afghan with military-style binoculars standing in the valley near a large house, looking right at them. Though he was carrying a large bag, he didn't have a weapon visible, so the Rules of Engagement dictated that there wasn't much Noble could do other than note the guy's location and assign a target reference point to the building, which he did.

The dozen troops returned, led by Cunningham and Monti, carrying with them food and water, which everyone guzzled down. Noble told Cunningham what he'd seen, and pointed out for him the man's location. An hour or so later, on the goat trail to east of their position, two Afghan women in blue burqas appeared, carrying bags of wheat. They slowly approached the Americans. All that Cunningham, Monti and the other men could see of them were their eyes, but the Afghan women could see everything: the number of U.S. troops; where they'd set the heavy guns; where they'd placed the rectangular Claymore mines that they'd scattered around the camp, set to detonate against any enemy attackers should they get too close.

The soldiers looked at one another. What should we do? Should we detain them? For what? For walking in their own country? Garner stood on a boulder above the women, looking down at them. One woman signaled with her hand, asking if her group could pass by. She pointed at a Claymore. The mine was hidden, but when you lived in a country covered with explosives, you learned to watch where you walked.

Presented by

Jake Tapper is CNN's Chief Washington Correspondent and and anchor of The Lead. He is the author of The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.

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