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LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Across just a few deadly yards of rocky terrain, the private’s cries grew weaker.
Even though bullets came pouring in like hail, Staff Sgt. Jared Monti made a break for it. The enemy was strong — maybe 50, to the 16 Americans. But Pvt. Brian Bradbury was Monti’s guy. He was isolated and bleeding badly on this grim mountain ridge in northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province.
Monti didn’t get far. A barrage of fire cut down the 30-year-old moments before air cover he’d requested arrived.
Exhausted and reeling from a desperate fight that left Monti and another leader dead, the 10th Mountain Division soldiers pulled Bradbury to safety.
A medevac helicopter appeared like an angel of mercy come after a long nightmare. It lowered a stretcher. A medic grabbed hold of Bradbury and the two rose high into the night air.
He was going to make it.
Then the hoist broke, and the two plummeted to their deaths.
The men who made it off the mountain on June 21, 2006, and the haunting memories of the four who didn’t, will fill the East Room of the White House on Thursday, when President Barack Obama will present Monti’s family, from Raynham, Mass., with the Medal of Honor, the highest recognition a servicemember can earn.
The battle and the crushing accident that followed marked every soldier there. All came back changed by the violence, the loss and the astounding sacrifice they saw in themselves and each other during the most dire juncture of their lives.
“There’s only a few people in the world who have been with a person in their most trying time,” said Staff Sgt. Chris Grzecki, 26, now an instructor at Fort Sill, Okla. “To see the things those guys did — it’s amazing to see that kind of dedication and courage.”
Monti will be receiving the medal. But those present will honor not just Monti, posthumously promoted to sergeant first class. They will also honor Bradbury, whom comrades said kept firing with his good arm until his ammunition ran out, and the rest of the men pinned on that bloody mountain, outnumbered and outgunned.
Some of the younger ones, like Pfc. Derek James, 22, who with a bullet in his back was the only one wounded to make it out alive, Spc. Sean Smith, 23, and Sgt. Joshua Renken, 22, would be back to fight again two years later with the 10th Mountain Division, this time in Logar province.
“I accepted the fact that I was gonna die that day on that mountain,” said Smith. “I do know now it’s made me a better soldier because one of these days, I will be a leader and I will be able to speak from experience and tell my soldiers the bad guys are bad, they will try to kill you. You don’t realize how terrifying it is.”
Suddenly, the place lit up
The 16-soldier patrol from the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team set out June 18, 2006, on a hellish three-day climb up a steep, unnavigated mountainside into enemy territory near Gowardesh. They were members of Charlie Troop led by Sgt. Patrick Lybert and two groups from Headquarters and Headquarters Troop: the snipers led by Staff Sgt. Chris Cunningham, and the artillery team, known as forward observers, led by Monti.
The troops were supposed to be setting up over-watch for a larger operation in the valley 2,600 feet below. But the main effort got delayed and the soldiers soon exhausted their food and water. A helicopter with fresh supplies that would have come under the distraction of helicopters arriving with the larger operation, instead came in alone, even though it “increased the risk that re-supply would compromise the patrol,” an Army report said.
They divvied up the items and settled in for the night, aware the enemy might have them marked.
The men divided into two positions along the ridgeline, most of them in a line of trees and bushes at the northern end of the ridge, others, including Monti and Cunningham behind some large rock and tree cover at the southern end.
Suddenly, just before dusk, the place lit up with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from the trees just above the ridge to the north.
James tried to take cover behind a small rock, but it wasn’t enough. An RPG blew a chunk out of his left arm. Then a bullet struck his back. If he was going to survive, he was going to have to make a run for it to the southern position.
“I remember thinking ‘Shit, I am going to die,’ ” James said. “We are all going to die.”
Bleeding, he got up and ran past the ridgeline, then crawled up to the main position, where a medic began to bandage him.
The gunfire was so intense that Grzecki could not reach his rifle about a foot away. A soldier beside him had his rifle shot right out of his hand, Grzecki said.
Lybert was using a big rock for cover, but kept popping up to see where the enemy was, James recalled. “Then, all of a sudden, he just stopped.”
He’d been shot in the head and killed.
“We were taking so much fire we couldn’t make out where the mortars landed. It was coming in so close that ... you could hear it right over your head, just like whizzing through,” James said. “They were so close at one point you could hear their voices.”
Smith, who grew up the son of a Special Forces officer in the Middle East, heard the enemy chanting in Arabic. The soldiers were throwing grenades to keep them at bay.
Most of the guys made it back to the main position. But as Bradbury, 22, of St. Joseph, Mo., ran, an RPG exploded and he fell just over the ridge from his colleagues. They called out, kept him talking, but separated from the group by what James called “the death zone,” they could not reach him.
“You can tell Bradbury is slowly slipping away,” Renken said, allowing himself to drift into the moment. “We are doing everything we can to keep him talking.”
Monti, whose call sign was Chaos 35, was on the radio calling in artillery and airstrikes. But when Cunningham said he would go after Bradbury, Monti wouldn’t hear of it.
“That’s my guy. I am going to get him,” Grzecki recalled him saying. “That’s when he threw me the radio and said ‘Hey, you are Chaos 35 now.’ ”
Twice Monti tried to make the run, but gunfire pushed him back. The third time, with the men all laying down cover fire, he went for it, almost making it to Bradbury before he fell in a hail of RPGs and bullets.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, SFC Monti moved from behind the cover of rocks into the face of withering enemy fire,” his commendation says. “SFC Monti’s acts of heroism inspired the patrol to fight off the larger enemy force.”
His scream was like nothing his men had heard before. Several of the men wondered briefly why he seemed to be joking around at a time like this. It took a few seconds for them to realize he’d been hit.
One of the last things he said was that he’d made peace, Grzecki said. And to tell his family he loved them.
‘Trees are falling over …’
Within minutes of Monti’s death, the air support he had called in arrived and dropped several 500- and two 2,000-pound bombs just a few hundred yards from where the men were surrounded.
“Trees are falling over, you can hear the shrapnel whizzing over your head,” Renken recalled. “Your teeth are rattling, about to fall right out of your head.”
It took time for the last fire to subside. Finally, the beating of a chopper blade pulled close and a jungle penetrator was lowered down onto the ground before them.
“I remember hearing the flight medic they dropped down say ‘Hey, don’t worry. I am gonna get you guys out of here,’ ” said Smith. “That was nice. It made me feel better. At this point it began to sink in that it was [messed] up, the whole situation.”
Staff Sgt. Heathe Craig, 28, a medic with the 159th Air Ambulance Medical Company out of Wiesbaden, Germany, took James up first. He deposited him on the helicopter, then came back down with extra straps to take Bradbury. The private was too hurt to hold on, so Craig rode up with him, the report said.
They ascended into the darkness, relief washing over the men left below, who, even as the helicopter flew away, believed that their man Bradbury had made it out of there alive.
“I heard a thump, like you dropped a ship anchor to the ground,” Smith said. “I heard someone call the medic again. I asked what was going on.
“The steel cable ... snapped and that killed Bradbury,” Smith recounted. “It also killed the flight medic that had just told us we would be OK.”
They laid out the dead and took turns watching the mountain with their thermal vision goggles. They could see the bodies of their comrades slowly growing cold in the long, deep night.
Jittery, they’d call fire every time a twig snapped or an insect landed on their shoulders, Smith said. “Things were lighting up all night long.”
The morning after the firefight, the men scoured the area for enemy bodies or equipment.
“It looked like a nuke had hit,” Smith said. “All the trees were cut in half. Branches were all over.”
The helicopters came back and the men piled their dead in a basket, which was raised to the chopper. But there wasn’t room for the living, now beyond exhaustion. They would have to go down on foot.
It would be days before they’d be able to grieve, standing inside a closed military aircraft at Bagram Airfield: 13 men, four coffins and the sobs these hardened soldiers had not allowed themselves before.
Renken would later remember Monti kidding around on the trek up the mountain, telling them how he wanted his funeral to be like the Vikings: a push off into the water with a flaming arrow that would burn in the sea.
“Sgt. Monti was trying to keep everyone happy, cracking jokes, giving people a hard time, just to keep the mood up because we had no food, no water,” Renken said. “We were just hurting.”
For many, Monti was always a legendary figure, a man who gave of himself and always engaged those around him. His men loved him like his family did, for his generosity and his humility and what his father, Paul Monti, described as his humanitarianism.
“He exuded love and caring for everyone around him,” his father said.
Monti was the son who rarely came home for the holidays because he gave away his Christmas leave to someone with a wife and children. He‘d walk into any room and make friends, his father said.
He once infuriated his roommate because he gave their brand-new dining room furniture away to another soldier whose kids were sitting on the floor.
The way Monti died on that mountain was the way he lived.