Everything was on fire. The trucks. The bazaar. The grass.
It looked surreal. It looked like a movie.
That was what Spc. Tyler Stafford remembered thinking as he stepped onto the medical evacuation helicopter. The 23-year-old soldier would have been loaded onto the bird, but the poncho that was hastily employed as his stretcher broke. His body speckled with grenade and RPG shrapnel, the Vicenza, Italy, infantryman walked the last few feet to the waiting Black Hawk.
That was Sunday morning in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province. At a forward operating base — maybe as big as a football field — established just a few days prior.
Outnumbered but not outgunned, a platoon-plus element of soldiers with 2nd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team accompanied by Afghan soldiers engaged in a fistfight of a firefight.
After maybe two hours of intense combat, some of the soldiers’ guns seized up because they expelled so many rounds so quickly. Insurgent bullets and dozens of rocket-propelled grenades filled the air. So many RPGs were fired at the soldiers that they wondered how the insurgents had so many.
That was July 13. That was when Stafford was blown out of a fighting position by an RPG, survived a grenade blast and had the tail of an RPG strike his helmet.
That was the day nine Chosen Company soldiers died.
It was just days before the unit was scheduled to leave the base.
The first RPG and machine gun fire came at dawn, strategically striking the forward operating base’s mortar pit. The insurgents next sighted their RPGs on the tow truck inside the combat outpost, taking it out. That was around 4:30 a.m.
This was not a haphazard attack. The reportedly 200 insurgents fought from several positions. They aimed to overrun the new base. The U.S. soldiers knew it and fought like hell. They knew their lives were on the line.
"I just hope these guys’ wives and their children understand how courageous their husbands and dads were," said Sgt. Jacob Walker. "They fought like warriors."
The next target was the FOB’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others — Stafford among them — were wounded.
When the attack began, Stafford grabbed his M-240 machine gun off a north-facing sandbag wall and moved it to an east-facing sandbag wall. Moments later, RPGs struck the north-facing wall, knocking Stafford out of the fighting position and wounding another soldier.
Stafford thought he was on fire so he rolled around, regaining his senses. Nearby, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling, who later died in the fight, had a stunned look on his face.
Immediately, a grenade exploded by Stafford, blowing him down to a lower terrace at the observation post and knocking his helmet off. Stafford put his helmet back on and noticed how badly he was bleeding.
Cpl. Matthew Phillips was close by, so Stafford called to him for help. Phillips was preparing to throw a grenade and shot a look at Stafford that said, "Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first."
This was only about 30 to 60 seconds into the attack.
Kneeling behind a sandbag wall, Phillips pulled the grenade pin, but just after he threw it an RPG exploded at his position. The tail of the RPG smacked Stafford’s helmet. The dust cleared. Phillips was slumped over, his chest on his knees and his hands by his side. Stafford called out to his buddy three or four times, but Phillips never answered or moved.
"When I saw Phillips die, I looked down and was bleeding pretty good, that’s probably the most scared I was at any point," Stafford said. "Then I kinda had to calm myself down and be like, ‘All right, I gotta go try to do my job.’ "
The soldier from Parker, Colo., loaded his 9 mm handgun, crawled up to their fighting position, stuck the pistol over the sandbags and fired.
Stafford saw Zwilling’s M-4 rifle nearby so he loaded it, put it on top of the sandbag and fired. Another couple RPGs struck the sandbag wall Stafford used as cover. Shrapnel pierced his hands.
Stafford low-crawled to another fighting position where Cpl. Jason Bogar, Sgt. Matthew Gobble and Sgt. Ryan Pitts were located. Stafford told Pitts that the insurgents were within grenade-tossing range. That got Pitts’ attention.
With blood running down his face, Pitts threw a grenade and then crawled to the position from where Stafford had just come. Pitts started hucking more grenades.
The firefight intensified. Bullets cut down tree limbs that fell on the soldiers. RPGs constantly exploded.
Back at Stafford’s position, so many bullets were coming in that the soldiers could not poke their heads over their sandbag wall. Bogar stuck an M-249 machine gun above the wall and squeezed off rounds to keep fire on the insurgents. In about five minutes, Bogar fired about 600 rounds, causing the M-249 to seize up from heat.
At another spot on the observation post, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers laid down continuous fire from an M-240 machine gun, despite drawing small-arms and RPG fire from the enemy. Ayers kept firing until he was shot and killed. Cpl. Pruitt Rainey radioed the FOB with a casualty report, calling for help. Of the nine soldiers at the observation post, Ayers and Phillips were dead, Zwilling was unaccounted for, and three were wounded. Additionally, several of the soldiers’ machine guns couldn’t fire because of damage. And they needed more ammo.
Rainey, Bogar and another soldier jumped out of their fighting position with the third soldier of the group launching a shoulder-fired missile.
All this happened within the first 20 minutes of the fight.
Platoon leader 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Cpl. Jason Hovater arrived at the observation post to reinforce the soldiers. By that time, the insurgents had breached the perimeter of the observation post. Gunfire rang out, and Rainey shouted, "He’s right behind the sandbag."
Brostrom could be heard shouting about the insurgent as well.
More gunfire and grenade explosions ensued. Back in the fighting position, Gobble fired a few quick rounds. Gobble then looked to where the soldiers were fighting and told Stafford the soldiers were dead. Of the nine soldiers who died in the battle, at least seven fell in fighting at the observation post.
The insurgents then started chucking rocks at Gobble and Stafford’s fighting position, hoping that the soldiers might think the rocks were grenades, causing them to jump from the safety of their fighting hole. One rock hit a tree behind Stafford and landed directly between his legs. He braced himself for an explosion. He then realized it was a rock.
Stafford didn’t have a weapon, and Gobble was low on ammo. Gobble told Stafford they had to get back to the FOB. They didn’t realize that Pitts was still alive in another fighting position at the observation post. Gobble and Stafford crawled out of their fighting hole. Gobble looked again to where the soldiers had been fighting and reconfirmed to Stafford that Brostrom, Rainey, Bogar and others were dead.
Gobble and Stafford low-crawled and ran back to the FOB. Coming into the FOB, Stafford was asked by a sergeant what was going on at the observation post. Stafford told him all the soldiers there were dead. Stafford lay against a wall, and his fellow soldiers put a tourniquet on him.
From the OP, Pitts got on the radio and told his comrades he was alone. At least three soldiers went to the OP to rescue Pitts, but they suffered wounds after encountering RPG and small-arms fire.
At that time, air support arrived in the form of Apache helicopters, A-10s and F-15s, performing bombing and strafing runs.
When the attack began, Walker was on the FOB. He grabbed an M-249 and started shooting toward a mountain spur where he could see some muzzle flashes. Walker put down 600 to 800 rounds of ammunition.
He got down behind the wall he was shooting from to load more ammo and was told they were taking fire from the southwest. He threw the bipod legs of his machine gun on the hood of a nearby Humvee. A 7.62-millimeter caliber bullet struck Walker’s left wrist, knocking him to the ground. A soldier applied a tourniquet to Walker and bandaged him.
Walker and two other wounded soldiers distributed their ammo and grenades and passed messages.
The whole FOB was covered in dust and smoke, looking like something out of an old Western movie.
"I’ve never seen the enemy do anything like that," said Walker, who was medically evacuated off the FOB in one of the first helicopters to arrive. "It’s usually three RPGs, some sporadic fire and then they’re gone … I don’t where they got all those RPGs. That was crazy."
Two hours after the first shots were fired, Stafford made his way — with help — to the medevac helicopter that arrived.
"It was some of the bravest stuff I’ve ever seen in my life, and I will never see it again because those guys," Stafford said, then paused. "Normal humans wouldn’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that — getting up and firing back when everything around you is popping and whizzing and trees, branches coming down and sandbags exploding and RPGs coming in over your head … It was a fistfight then, and those guys held ’ em off."
Stafford offered a guess as to why his fellow soldiers fought so hard.
"Just hardcoreness I guess," he said. "Just guys kicking ass, basically. Just making sure that we look scary enough that you don’t want to come in and try to get us."