STRONG POINT HAJIKHEL, Afghanistan — There was no fighting the bitter cold. Three hours till daylight, they told themselves. Just get through it.
As the company of 1st Infantry Division soldiers and their Afghan National Army partners huddled in small groups on the ground, many shivered uncontrollably as the water in their CamelBak canteens froze on their backs.
A low, full moon illuminated puffs of breath in the rare moments they would speak. It was Dec. 10, and they were halfway through a 96-hour mission, the last of their deployment. In two weeks, they would be on their way home.
Soldiers with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, and their ANA partners had been dropped by Chinook helicopters into hostile territory near the village of Hajikhel in the notorious Band-e-Timor region. The Taliban use the lush corridor along the Arghandab River to move fighters and weapons in from Pakistan, up through the Registan Desert, up through Maiwand district and over to Helmand province to the west.
At first light, Delta Company would move into a compound and set up a strong point. From there they would set blocking positions for 10th Mountain’s 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which was clearing with armored vehicles from the west. By moving in ahead of the 3-71, they planned to disrupt the enemies’ ability to set up fighting positions or place improvised explosive devices in their path.
As the soldiers scanned the desolate horizon for signs of the enemy, Company Commander Capt. Jared Coil, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, considered the war that waited for them at daylight. Driven by earlier losses, his thoughts were focused:
Accomplish the mission and bring everyone back safely.
Two weeks earlier
Their last mission, to the River-West, was nearly identical: Land ahead of a clearing element along the Band-e-Timor, establish blocking positions and disrupt enemy IED emplacements.
Delta Company soldiers were late add-ons and given only 12 hours to prepare, but they were experienced, completing a third of the brigade’s air assaults for the deployment. The armored company comprised mostly tankers, soldiers who’d signed up to drive to the war in 70-ton tanks. But because a counterinsurgency campaign has little use for tanks, they had evolved into an air assault asset for the 10th Mountain’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, who they were attached to for the deployment.
They landed just outside the village of Pa’in Kelay early in the morning on Nov. 20. They’d been in firefights there, and they knew the 3-71 Cav would be pushing the enemy east into them. They expected a fight.
In this battle, the real enemy was silent, buried in the ground.
Sgt. Ricardo Perez was on a patrol, searching for IEDs, when he stepped on one that tore off his left leg. Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Murray, his platoon sergeant, was next to Perez when it blew, and he struggled with the loss.
Later that night, as the company moved through darkness to meet the helicopters that would fly them to their next blocking position, Explosive Ordnance Disposal tech Staff Sgt. Jeremy Vickers stepped on another IED. He would lose his leg, too.
Delta Company had been in multiple firefights and navigated scores of IED emplacements and hadn’t lost a soldier until now. The losses took their toll on the small company — an especially tight-knit unit even by infantry standards.
They were angry, more with themselves than the enemy. Angry that they hadn’t spotted the IED that injured Perez; angry at the randomness of the IED that found Vickers, who had been in the middle of the formation.
Soldiers will say there’s a guilt that pervades a unit when someone is wounded or killed in an IED attack. However unfounded or misplaced, the feeling comes in ways not found after a firefight. With guilt comes frustration.
“You’re not fighting IEDs, you find them. And you find them in one of two ways, by getting blown up by them or by being lucky enough to spot them,” Coil said. “With small-arms fire, there’s something to fight against. Every single one of my guys would rather be engaged by small-arms fire than by an IED because of that ability to do something about it.
“Mentally you retaliate against it, you can fire back. You can call in aircraft. Bring hell and high water all the way to that point that’s firing at you.
“With IEDs,” he said, “you can’t do that.”
By the time the Chinooks arrived to transport them, they had refocused. They were headed into the unknown, and again, they expected the worst.
They arrived near the village of Mandozai and set up a strong point at first light. By late afternoon, they received reports that Taliban fighters were staged at a nearby compound with a car bomb.
Coil assembled a squad of U.S. and ANA soldiers to investigate. They knew an IED belt surrounded the complex, and they had learned that enemy spotters would be watching, waiting to engage them with small-arms fire.
Murray led the patrol with a detector known as a MINEHOUND. They pushed through a field of grape rows and marked possible IEDs. As they moved into an irrigation canal for cover, they received reports confirming that more Taliban fighters had arrived and were planning an attack. Their mission changed from a reconnaissance patrol to a raid, and Coil needed more soldiers to move in.
He radioed the strong point and told his men to assemble a second squad to join them. Murray would fall back to their position and guide the additional soldiers in through the cleared path.
Murray had gone only a few feet when a flash cut through the darkness. A violent explosion ripped the ground beneath them, filling the air with debris and slamming soldiers with dirt. Coil struggled to see through the smoke and dust as he yelled for his soldiers. All but one answered.
Murray was gone.
Coil told everyone to stay put. The blast had destroyed the MINEHOUND, but he had to get to Murray. Skill had little to do with what needed to be done; luck was what he needed as he stepped through the IED belt toward his soldier. When he saw Murray’s face, he said, he knew he had died instantly.
Coil radioed soldiers at the strong point, who had heard the blast. First Sgt. Edward Mosher, of Glencoe, Ala., asked who needed a medevac.
“It was very difficult to say, ‘We don’t need a medevac,’ ” Coil said later.
Soldiers at the strong point were confused about who had been killed. For Mosher, whose call sign is Dauntless Seven, the confirmation was the worst radio transmission he would ever hear.
“Dauntless Seven, this is Dauntless Six, Red Four is gone.”
Reeling from the news, Mosher assembled a team to go after the trapped men. Cpl. Ryan Sharp was one of the first to grab his kit. Moments later, the small band of soldiers pushed out into the darkness. No moon lit their way, and they struggled to see, even with their night-vision goggles.
“Every instinct of my physical being was saying, ‘Don’t go down that road, don’t take your men down that road,’ ” Mosher said later. But he knew he had no choice. He had to get to his commander. He had to get to Murray.
Clearing the way with another MINEHOUND, Mosher and the soldiers made it to Coil’s position. They loaded Murray onto a litter and struggled to make their way out of the canal and back onto a path toward the strong point. They had gone about 50 feet when they saw another flash. A split-second later, the earth tore open with an explosion so powerful that soldiers a half-mile away felt the shock wave.
“I felt like a car slammed into me. Next thing I know I was on my back in a cloud of dust,” Mosher said later.
He couldn’t see or hear, and his mind was fogged. He couldn’t feel his left side, but he was afraid to reach down. “I was pretty sure my leg was gone from the knee down,” he recalled,
As his senses returned, he was relieved to see that he still had his leg, but it had gone numb from the impact.
It was then he realized that Sharp, who had been next to him at the back of litter, had stepped on the IED and taken most of the blast. His legs and arms were broken and he was crying out in pain. The other soldiers on the litter team, Staff Sgt. Manuel Alvarez and Spc. Matthew Kemp, were thrown against a mud wall. Both suffered from broken bones and torn flesh. The smell of explosives hung in the smoke-filled air. The faces of the wounded, covered in fine dust, appeared ghostlike, Coil recalled, as soldiers worked to stabilize their wounds and stop the bleeding. When the medevac arrived, Sharp, Alvarez and Kemp were loaded onto the helicopter.
Mosher refused to go.
That night, the company watched from its position as an Apache Longbow helicopter made three gun runs over the Taliban compound. Soon after, they received word that a firefight had slowed the 3-71 and they needed to maintain their blocking position.
The company’s mission had been extended.
Gutting it out
Delta Company returned to their command post at Forward Operating Base Sarkari Karez two days later. It was Thanksgiving morning. Their mission, initially slated for 24 hours, had been extended twice to 96 hours. They’d had their losses, but Delta Company had significantly reduced the threat for the 3-71 Cav, and at least 23 Taliban fighters were killed by coalition forces. They had lost one of their best soldiers, but they had gotten five others out on medevacs.
On Dec. 3, they received word that Sharp died at a hospital in Germany. The men took it hard; Sharp had been in the company the longest.
“That was incredibly defeating,” Coil said. “The collective breath of the company went out.”
On the same day they learned of Sharp’s death, they received confirmation that they were headed back into the Band-e-Timor for a follow-on mission, a rarity for a unit so close to going home.
Mosher wanted to go but was ordered to stay back because of his injuries. His hearing had only partially returned and his left side was still healing. A little after 2 a.m. on Dec. 8, Mosher walked with his soldiers to the landing zone. The 19-year veteran stood by as they loaded onto the Chinooks and lifted into the night. After the helicopters left, he went to the battalion command center to monitor the mission.
As the first band of light appeared at the frozen landing zone near Hajikhel, soldiers stirred from their frigid overnight outpost. Slowly and quietly, they adjusted their kits and prepared to move out.
The company spent much of the day out on patrol, while the ANA engaged the locals. For many, the day was quieter than they had hoped. They were ready to fight and were disappointed that the Taliban had gone indoors for the winter. That evening, they watched as a full lunar eclipse passed over them. It was fitting, they decided, since an eclipse had occurred on the night of their first air assault in June.
On their final day, Sgt. Jason Rankin, of Olathe, Kan., thumbed through a motorcycle magazine while on a rest rotation at the strong point. Without raising an eyebrow or a blank stare, he said he hoped to keep his legs from getting blown off so he wouldn’t have to modify the motorcycle he planned to buy.
A few hours later, they headed out and waited for the helicopters to pick them up for the trip back to their command post.
When they landed at FOB Sarkari Karez, Mosher was waiting for them. As soldiers filed off the helicopters, cheers erupted among some of the men.
Rankin didn’t cheer, he said, instead breathing a sigh of relief.
“The ones that cheered are the ones that know they’re done,” he said, pausing and taking a deep breath. Tens of thousands of soldiers were still out in the Afghan winter or were preparing for deployments.
“It might be over for some of us,” he said, “but it’s not over for all of us.”