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

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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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