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

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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.

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.

"Yeah."

"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."

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

"You're going to be all right!" Monti yelled to Bradbury. "We're coming to get you!"

Monti stood and ran north, towards Bradbury and the enemy, away from the cover of the boulders, immediately prompting an eruption of machine gun fire. He dove behind the small stone wall where Lybert's corpse lay, paused and then stood, pushing towards Bradbury. The insurgents fired upon him again. He dove back behind the wall.

"I need cover!" Monti yelled to his men.

Hawes grabbed an M203 launcher to fire grenades at the enemy. Others grabbed their rifles.

"I'm going to go again!" Monti yelled and for a third time, he stood and ran towards Bradbury. Monti's quarry was on his back about 60 feet away, in a small depression in the ground that hid him from both the U.S. troops and the insurgents. Bradbury was in agony; an RPG had ripped apart his arm and shoulder.

Now another RPG found its mark, slamming into Monti's legs, setting off its shock wave and filling the air with shrapnel.

The dust cleared. "My leg's gone!" Monti yelled. "Fuck!" His leg was not gone, but it had been deeply cut by the shrapnel and Monti was now in shock. When he tried to crawl back, he couldn't. "Help me!" Monti yelled. "Cunny, come get me," he pleaded, obviously in excruciating pain. "Come get me."

Cunningham stood and started to move, but the fire was too intense, both from the insurgents who were frighteningly close, and the U.S. troops returning fire. He would have had to run through rounds. Hawes started low crawling towards Monti. But even on the ground there was only so far he could go.

For a short while, Monti's fellow troops listened to him scream as he bled to death. They tried to keep him calm, returning fire, asking him questions.

"What are you going to do when you get home on leave?" they'd ask. "Will you drink a beer with me?"

"Tell my mom and dad I love them," Monti said, his voice growing weaker.

"You'll tell them yourself!" yelled Hawes.

Cunningham could hear an enemy commander shouting out orders to his men.

"Tell them I made my peace with God," Monti said. He begged for the release of death and finally, it came.

* * *

From afar, the fire support soldiers kept sending mortars, exploding the ridge line above the kill team, and as the sun set, Grzecki directed planes that began dropping 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs, about 500 feet away. That was enough to abate enemy fire.

Cunningham moved up and provided cover, firing his M203 grenade launcher. Hawes reached Lybert and -­ after having confirmed he was dead -- grabbed his ammo and threw it back behind the boulders. Insurgents shot at him; Hawes fired an M16 rifle at them that he found near Lybert and then threw a grenade. Next he scurried to Monti.

Also dead. He grabbed and tossed his ammo, too.

Hawes moved to Bradbury, where Smitty met him. Bradbury was still alive, though the RPG blast had done serious damage to his arm. Together Hawes and Smitty carried him towards the boulders.

RTXP8O6-615.jpgU.S. Army's Charlie troop, 371 Cavalry, 3rd brigade of 10th Mountain Division takes positions on top of a hill during patrol. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

Noble, the medic, started working on Bradbury. His arm was so badly mangled that Noble had to wrap the tourniquet around Bradbury's shoulder since there wasn't a real place for it on the limb itself.

The medic showed Garner where to hold the special quick-clotting combat gauze on Bardbury's wounds. The gauze burned a bit as its embedded chemical sealed his wound.

"You get to go home now," Garner reassured him. "You get to see your baby early."

More rounds came towards them, and Hawes got Garner's attention and pointed to Bradbury's weapon.

"Get to it," Hawes said.

Garner ran back to Bradbury's SAW and started firing. Smitty joined him. Grzecki called back to base; they needed to get a medevac in there. By now, darkness had fallen upon the mountain.

* * *

The enemy retreated, and the kill team assumed a 360-degree posture, ready to fire outwards in all directions. The corpses of Monti and Lybert lay side by side. Troops pulling guard duty could look through the thermal sights of their rifles and see the remaining heat leave the bodies of their fallen comrades. Viewed through infrared goggles, the two bodies slowly eased from a light shade of grey to the inky black of everything else surrounding them.

There was nowhere for the medevac helicopter to land, so one of the birds lowered a hoist carrying a combat medic, Staff Sergeant Heathe Craig of the 159th Medical Company. Just hours before, Craig had been on his computer, using an internet chat service to play peekaboo with his daughter Leona, who was just 13 days shy of her first birthday. His wife Judy and their four-year-old son Jonas giggled since Craig's webcam wasn't functioning properly ­- to his family in their off-post apartment close to Wiesbaden, Germany, Heathe Craig appeared upside down and green.

In the middle of that conversation he got the call and now here he was, doing one of his least favorite things in the world ­- sitting on a Jungle Penetrator, the drill-shaped device lowered to extract troops, balancing himself as he descended into hostile territory on the side of a mountain. He'd volunteered to be a flight medic after concluding that being a regular scout medic wasn't enough -­ treating athlete's foot in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, didn't leave him feeling like he was really contributing. But this -- well, this was terrifying. Craig was lowered into an opening in the trees -- just above a boulder on a steep decline to the west of the mountain ridge. Garner lit a strobe light and Cunningham, standing on the boulder, grabbed the medic, losing his wedding ring in the process. Over the din of the choppers, Craig tried to reassure everyone that their ordeal was over.

"We're going to get you guys out of here!" Craig yelled. "Everyone's going to be ok."

The plan was for the two wounded men to both be choppered to an aid station on the same helicopter. Bradbury was supposed to get in the hoist first, but he started bleeding again and was slipping in and out of consciousness, so Derek James was first to be strapped into the Jungle Penetrator's seat. Craig tied himself to the Jungle Penetrator, facing James around the perpendicular metal, and twirled his finger as a signal for the chopper crewman to pull them up. Upon lifting off the ground, the Jungle Penetrator swung from the boulder over the steep decline and started spinning around. Craig controlled the oscillations as he'd been trained to do and the two were quickly yanked into the bird.

Craig quickly returned to ground to grab Bradbury. They strapped him in as well, but Bradbury was going to be tougher to hoist up because of his wound. Craig twirled his finger again. The Jungle Penetrator swung out and started spinning again. Bradbury couldn't hold himself upright and he was leaning back, making it more difficult for Craig to control the rotation. 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. The crewman frantically pulled them up quickly as the cable twisted and turned, rubbing against the sharp edge of the chopper floor.

Then the cable snapped.

Craig and Bradbury plummeted onto the western side of the ridge onto rocks ­- a roughly 100-foot drop.

Oh, no, the men thought as they watched. God, no.

Cunningham ran down, followed by Chambers and Noble. Craig and Bradbury were unconscious and in visibly bad shape. They drew shallow breaths. Cunningham checked both for spinal injuries as the Medevac flew away. He pulled out a radio from Craig's medic kit. "They're still alive!" Cunningham yelled. "Get that Medevac back here!" There was no response, but it wasn't Cunningham's radio, so he wasn't sure if it was even working, if the chopper pilots had heard him.

Hawes arrived and cut off Craig's helmet and combat vest to try to release any pressure. He then tried to help Bradbury while Noble held Craig.

Cunningham ran up the mountain and told Grzecki to call back to command and tell anyone who would listen to send the medevac back. Noble followed him up the hill.

"They're dead," Noble said.

* * *

In the operations center at Forward Operating Base Naray, Howard was intensely aware of everything that had gone down on Hill 2610. Four men were dead while one wounded man ­- Derek James -- had been successfully medevaced to the aid station at Naray. All the others were accounted for and would likely be okay for the night. Food drops were not needed.

Howard went into his commander's office. Then he came back out into the operations center. It was time to cut their losses. Howard decided it wasn't worth sending in a helicopter to an area where an insurgent with an RPG could get lucky and 3-71 Cav would suffer yet another tragedy. No more helicopters that night, he said. He made sure to put plans in place for the spent team to safely walk off the mountain the next day.

"Those guys are just going to have to hold up," he said.

* * *

Cunningham, Hawes, and Woods moved the four bodies away from their camp.

As dawn broke, Cunningham noticed the look on the faces of his men. He had seen it before: huge wide eyes. A lifetime's worth of horror and loss packed into a few hours. The look of men who'd had something of themselves taken away forever. The look of men who had been hollowed out.

The next medevac brought in hard plastic stretchers "Skedcos" -- with a controlled line. The four corpses were removed from the mountain, as was their gear. The thirteen surviving members of the kill team walked back down the mountain towards Forward Operating Base Naray.

A few days later, Captain Michael Schmidt and two Charlie Troop platoons air assaulted into the Gremen Valley. Charlie Troop watched the buildings where the enemy lurked. They took grids and called in bombs. Not much was left when it was all over.


This post is adapted from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.

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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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