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

Garner signaled for her to pass by; she shook her head no and pointed in a different direction she wanted to travel, circling around their makeshift camp, hugging the cliff and walking into a thick cluster of woods. They allowed the women to leave on that route.

As the sun set on the valley, Cunningham, Monti, and Hawes stood behind a big rock and began talking about moving to a different spot. If they did, they would have to travel on a different path -­ that's how the enemy slays U.S. soldiers, Cunningham thought, he waits until we're in a vulnerable position. Yet they weren't sure there was a better, more defendable position -­ this area of the ridgeline was wider than others, and there were a few big boulders they could use for cover.

They were talking about doubling the number of troops on guard shift for the night when an RPG exploded in the tree above them.

* * *

There are many different types of grenades and RPGs, but in general one should picture an RPG as resembling arocket about the size of a man's forearm. Fired from a tube, it becomes something like a combination of an immense bullet and an explosive. RPGs take down helicopters; they stop tanks. Human bodies -- flesh and bone, muscle and tissue -- offer little impediment.

First comes the force of the explosion, the blast wave that inevitably knocks soldiers down and perhaps unconscious. The high-pressure shock wave is followed by a "blast wind" that sends an overpressure through the body, causing significant damage to tissues in the ears, lungs and bowels.

Then, if a soldier survives being hit by an RPG, it's only after he has gotten his bearings that he then notices the impact of the considerable shrapnel. The RPG casing, now in the form of myriad penetrating fragments, has been hurled in all directions. That the shape of these fragments is irregular can slow down their trajectory as they fly through tissue, at times making their impact more painful than a bullet. A leg or arm might be turned to mash, or liquefied. If you're a soldier in battle and an RPG hits a tree near you, you get down and hope to God that another one doesn't land closer.

* * *

The first thing Smitty did was look at his watch to see what time he was going to die. Private 1st Class Sean "Smitty" Smith had been lying down and putting out his cigarette ­- a local brand called Pine Light ­- when the shooting started. He and six other troops were at the northern end of their position, near the treeline. The other five were Franklin Woods, Brian Bradbury, Private 1st Class Derek James, Specialist Matthew Chambers, and Specialist Shawn Heistand. Woods had heard the shuffling of feet, but before he could say anything the shooting started, so quickly and so ferociously that many of the troops didn't even have time to grab their weapons. There were approximately 50 Afghans shooting at them from 150 feet away to the north, and some more immediately to the west -- all so close that the men at the treeline could see the their faces as they fired at the Americans with Russian-made PKM machine guns. Those faces looked calm and collected, wearing the kind of expression common to target practice. The insurgents firing the RPGs were to the northwest.

RTR3A0FQ-250.jpgA U.S soldier climbs a hilltop near the town of Walli Was in Paktika province. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Smitty was scared. This was his first firefight ever. There wasn't much for him to take cover behind, though he didn't think the enemy yet knew he was there. But sooner or later, they would surely figure it out.

Smitty and Bradbury were the Squad Automatic Weapons (SAW) gunners, the designated carriers of portable light machine guns -­ ones that produce a heavy volume of fire with something approaching the accuracy of a rifle. Bradbury, laying on his stomach at the front lines, used his SAW to suppress enemy fire as much as he could. Heistand was firing as well with his assault rifle.

Smitty didn't have his SAW on him; he'd earlier placed his gun in the spot where he was going to stand guard duty that night. On his belly, he started low-crawling backwards to a small clearing where he grabbed a different gun, a sniper rifle. Walking backwards, he slowly fired a series of well-aimed shots, then turned around and ran back to the rest of the group behind the boulders.

This attack wasn't distressing only to newbies like Smitty; the hell they were in represented the most intense enemy fire ever experienced by Cunningham, who was on his fourth tour in Afghanistan. The PKM machine guns the insurgents were firing could deliver up to 650 rounds per minute, and the Afghan RPGs were coming in quickly, one after another after another. Pretty much all the Americans could do was duck behind their cover, hold their weapons above their heads, shoot, and pray.

* * *

Using his call sign, "Chaos 3-5," Monti grabbed the radio and called squadron headquarters. We're under attack by a much larger force, he told them. We need mortars, heavy artillery and aircraft to drop bombs.

Monti stopped for a second. Remaining behind the boulder, he fired his M4 carbine rifle towards approaching enemy fighters to the west. Then he threw a grenade at them. It didn't go off, but it caused the insurgents to scatter.

He called in the coordinates for the Americans and those for the insurgents, though they were "danger close" -- meaning the insurgents were in such tight proximity with their prey there was a significant risk that any mortars fired or bombs dropped might kill Americans, too. But there was no better option, at this point it looked as though they would be overrun.

Shortly thereafter, several mortars landed to the north of the American camp. A mortarman asked Monti by radio if he should adjust his fire, but the enemy bullets and RPGs were flying so furiously, Monti told him that he couldn't lift his head to even see where the mortars had hit. He'd just have to keep his fingers crossed and hope they were hitting their mark.

* * *

Grzecki and Specialist John Garner had been sitting on the eastern part of the hilltop with their spotting scopes observing the valley when the RPG had exploded in the tree four feet away from them. They'd promptly dived behind a small boulder for cover, but within moments, the fire was so intense they couldn't grab their weapons. Grzecki's rifle was sitting next to him, but a flurry of bullets kept him from reaching over. Garner grabbed his rifle but as he stood to return fire, an enemy fighter shot it right out of his hand.

Lybert was in front of Garner, crouching behind the small stone wall to the west. Specialist Daniel Linnihan was farther down, also behind the L-shaped wall.

"I need a weapon!" Garner yelled to Lybert.

"Where's yours?" Lybert shouted back.

"It got shot out of my hand!" Garner said.

"Stay behind cover!" Lybert told him, popping back up with only the top of his helmet, his eyes, and his rifle exposed. He continued steadily returning fire towards the enemy, as the small stone wall he was behind began getting hit with machine gun fire, chipping the rock and exploding puffs of gray dust. Lybert pulled the trigger of his gun and as Garner looked to him he stopped, just stopped, with blood starting to spill from his right ear. Lybert fell forward. "Lybert's been hit!" Garner yelled.

Garner fell onto his chest, getting as low to the ground as he could. He wanted to move backwards, behind the boulders, but he was afraid he'd get killed.

Behind the cover of the small stone wall, Linnihan crawled to check on his friend. Lybert was gone.

"Throw me Lybert's weapon!" Garner yelled to Linnihan.

Linnihan reached under the shoulder of the dead soldier, grabbed his M4 rifle and tossed it to Garner.

"Cover us while we move," Garner and Grzecki screamed to Cunningham and the others behind the safety of the boulders.

"Move!" the team yelled back, providing suppressive fire as the two ran to them behind the larger boulder and a wave of RPGs followed. Grzecki did a quick check. He could see where every American was with the exception of Bradbury. The U.S. troops at the northern end, near the enemy, had been retreating. Chambers, Smitty, and Woods made it to cover safely.

Derek James had not. "I got hit in the wrist!" he yelled as he low-crawled to the boulders. "I got shot in the back!" Grzecki reached out and grabbed him, pulling him behind the rock. Chambers began treating James's wound with gauze, trying to stop the bleeding, unsure whether the bullet had ripped across his back like a skipping stone or had drilled in.

The insurgents seemed to be coordinating their movements. About a dozen of them pushed in directly from the north, others were firing RPGs from the northwest, and a smaller group started creeping towards the Americans from the goat trail to the east. Bradbury and Heistand could hardly have been more exposed in their northern position near the wood line. The enemy could see them clearly, and they could see the enemy.

"We need to get to better cover," Heistand told Bradbury. "Let's go!"

Heistand jumped up and retreated towards the boulders. When he arrived at the rocks Bradbury was no longer with him.

* * *

Cunningham had been kneeling behind a tree stump engaging with the enemy; he could feel as rounds hit the stump. Insurgents were so close, he could hear their low whispers. Everyone had been calling Bradbury's name for several minutes with no response. Cunningham loved that kid with the gray steely eyes. He was a soldier's soldier, did what he was told. He was smart and tough. As they had hiked to the summit of Hill 2610 just a few hours earlier, Bradbury had told Garner and Lybert that he'd had something of an epiphany: after the deployment he would go home, work things out with his wife -­ with whom he'd been having problems -- and raise his three-year-old girl Jasmine the right way. That conversation now seemed as if it had happened a month ago.

Cunningham was convinced they couldn't retreat, primarily because Bradbury was still on their front line, but that wasn't the only reason; if they fell back, down the steep 70-degree slope behind them, they would have been repeating a mistake made by the Soviets more than a decade before, he thought. He had studied those battles and was convinced his team could not let the enemy have the high ground because they would then be able to pin them down and finish them off. That was why the Russian were never able to make any progress in the mountains of Afghanistan, Cunningham thought. The best way to fight here is to fight like the enemy -- own the high ground or meet them on the same altitude.

"Bradbury!" Cunningham yelled. "Bradbury!"

Quietly, Bradbury managed to say, "Yeah?" From sound alone it was hard to tell where he was -- 50 feet away? One hundred?

"You okay, buddy?" Cunningham asked.


"Okay, buddy, we're going to come get you."

Once the others realized Bradbury was talking to Cunningham, they started cheering him on, a somewhat incongruous moment given the heavy volume of rocket and machine gun fire they were still taking.

"Don't worry, buddy -- we're going to get you!" yelled Renkin.

Cunningham and Smitty had a decent position to low-crawl to where they thought Bradbury was and drag him back.

"I'm going to get him," Cunningham said.

"No, he's my guy," said Monti. "I'll get him."

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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