As morning broke on the top of Shal Mountain, Staff Sgt. Anthony Fuentes and his platoon watched the scavenging birds that had come to feed on the dead and dying Taliban, rotting and moaning on the ragged slope below.
Hearing the Taliban so close was creepy, Sgt. Ryan Poulter said.
That’s the way things had gone for days, and the fighting was far from over.
Rising 1,100 feet from the banks of the roiling Kunar River, the top of Shal provided a view of nearly everything over an 18-mile stretch of the Kunar River Valley, from Combat Outpost Monti to the south to Forward Operating Base Bostick to the north. Whomever owned Shal also controlled a smuggling route known as the Ghaziabad Gap, which runs east roughly 10 miles to Pakistan.
Compared to many of the surrounding mountains in the Hindu Kush, Shal was relatively small. But because of the way the landscape was sculpted, it was strategically important. For as long as Americans had been in Kunar province, it had belonged to the Taliban. Shal allowed them to funnel arms from Pakistan, but also to coordinate attacks on supply convoys and almost daily strikes on Monti, a valley floor outpost that was a favorite punching bag for local militants.
By October 2011, the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment’s Bastard Company, based at Monti, had had enough.
In addition to the casualties they’d taken from rockets and mortars on the outpost, they’d lost two soldiers on the main road near Shal. After weeks of rehearsals, they launched an operation to seize the mountain. At the end, at least 115 militants were dead.
The insurgency had thrown everything it had into trying to retake the mountaintop, and had failed.
Platoon against the world
Company B’s planning had to be meticulous. The top of Shal was barely big enough to hold one platoon, which would have to take and hold the outpost from an enemy that everyone assumed wouldn’t just roll over.
To hedge against casualties, each soldier learned what the others did so they could sustain a fight if someone fell in battle. Machine gunners and riflemen cross-trained as medics and mortarmen. Spc. Jeffrey Conn, 24, the platoon’s medic who would earn the Silver Star for his actions, familiarized himself with their tools of destruction.
On the night of Oct. 8, 2011, Bastard Company’s 1st Platoon loaded into Chinooks. The twin-rotor birds swung north to drop the men and their 120-pound packs atop Shal. There wasn’t enough room on the mountain for the helos to land there — everyone knew that. The plan was for the Chinooks to half hover with just their back wheels down while the soldiers rushed out.
Instead of stepping out onto the rocky precipice, the platoon rushed into a cornfield at the mountain’s base — to everyone’s surprise and dismay.
“Well, we just got dropped in one of the worst villages” to start, said Fuentes, the platoon sergeant who would orchestrate much of the battle.
As they took up fighting positions, a surveillance drone detected three insurgents moving toward the mountaintop.
The race was on.
Fuentes, 24, grabbed six of his fastest soldiers and a five-man team of Afghans. The Americans left their packs — and their jackets, food and extra ammo — to make a hasty ascent. While racing the Taliban, they also had just an hour before more helicopters would arrive with thousands of pounds of ammunition, building materials, water and food to construct and sustain the mountain outpost.
On reaching the summit, “my guys were just smoked,” said Fuentes, who in March was awarded the Silver Star for his role. “One of them showed signs of acute mountain sickness from the significant change in elevation that fast,” he said. The supplies came immediately. And behind them, rain.
With their jackets and rain gear at the bottom of the mountain, the men took turns building fighting positions out of the rock, which warmed them, and pulling security, which sent them to the brink of hypothermia.
Their heavy weapons — Mk-19 grenade launchers, .50-caliber machine guns and a high-tech targeting system that would quickly give them coordinates for precision missile and artillery strikes and bomb drops — stayed below. Those weapons and other gear wouldn’t reach the top for days.
The insurgents were watching, but the soldiers atop the mountain couldn’t see them.
“The dead space was probably the biggest worry,” Fuentes said. “They could pretty much come from anywhere and we wouldn’t see them. You would only be able to identify them once they came within 15 meters of your position.”
While Fuentes and his men on the mountaintop got to work, the rest of the platoon reached a cellphone tower halfway up Shal. The next day, a handful of soldiers trudged the rest of the way to meet up with Fuentes. Now, 16 Americans and five Afghans occupied the nascent outpost. They had no idea how many Taliban were out there, but estimates range from 300 to 500.
The first major contact came that night — less than 24 hours after landing. Fuentes, the most experienced fighter on the mountain, said it was probing fire, meant to give the enemy an idea of what kind of firepower they were up against. Fuentes and his men shot back with M240 machine guns. He said he “didn’t expect too much” based on what the Taliban had shown.
The next night, the insurgents arrived with a plan.
“It was actually pretty interesting to see how they did it,” Fuentes said. “They sent a feint on the north side, a small five-man element.”
Meanwhile, more than two-dozen Taliban snuck up the southeast side of the peak to surprise them.
“It was just a platoon against the world at that point,” said Poulter, of Pleasant Hill, Calif.
Fuentes directed his mortarman, Spc. Lee Bruges of Baton Rouge, La., to drop 60 mm fragmentary mortar rounds within 50 meters of their own position to hold off the onslaught. Then the staff sergeant called for final protective fires, a last-ditch defense to keep the outpost from getting overrun. They blew all of their defensive mines, sending a wall of hot metal into the stream of attackers trying to breach the outer perimeter. The men went “metal to metal,” Fuentes said, forming a ring of fire with their M4 assault rifles and tossing grenades.
It wasn’t enough.
“That was the first time we had to call in for danger-close bomb drops and danger-close firing missions,” Fuentes said.
Air Force jets dropped laser-guided bombs within 150 feet of the soldiers, rocking the mountain like an earthquake.
“When they would hit, your teeth would chatter and you could actually feel the ripple go through your body,” Fuentes said.
They survived the night, but the battle had just begun.
Throughout most of their days on the mountain, they could hear Taliban moving just below them, sometimes as close as 15 yards away but invisible on the tricky terrain below the cliffs where the outpost sat.
After the first big fight, the men on Shal were running dangerously low on ammunition. Nearly constant harassing fire prevented them from building their fighting positions during the day. At night, they’d try to work and, when they could, sleep. Four days in, none had gotten more than a few hours rest, and some of Fuentes’ men were starting to fade, he said. They were awake only so much as their eyes were open.
The days blended together. In interviews with numerous Company B soldiers, none could keep the nine days they were atop Shal quite straight.
But they do remember that, a few days in, their heavy weapons made it to the top.
On Oct. 12, 2011, Poulter identified a pair of insurgent positions and took them out with a TOW missile system. Radio chatter picked up by a monitoring system revealed that Poulter had killed a Taliban commander — the brother of the fighter who’d killed two Company B men on the road below three months earlier.
The Taliban held a funeral in the town below. Afterward, the men atop Shal picked up insurgent radio chatter.
“That was when they were like, ‘We will overrun this [outpost]. We will not stop until they are all dead,’ ” Fuentes said.
Dozens of vehicles began streaming through the Ghaziabad Gap from Pakistan — at least 60 of them, Fuentes said. Other fighters came by mules, whose braying echoed in the hills.
“We knew it was going to get really bad,” Fuentes said.
The Bastards got reinforcements as well. Their platoon leader came up from the cell phone tower along with a weapons squad, bringing the American contingent to 23.
They’d need every man.
A day after the funeral, the Taliban launched a vicious assault. More than a dozen machine gun positions in the hills opened up, backed by recoilless rifles rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and snipers.
“It was kind of like a lot of chaos, because everybody was pinned down,” Fuentes said.
Rounds were pouring onto the mountain top like a rainstorm on a pond, with ricochets splashing fragments of lead and dirt and rock all around them.
“We couldn’t get our heads up, we couldn’t identify anything,” Fuentes said.
The outpost’s northern flank, where the five-man Afghan element was positioned along with the newly arrived weapons squad, was taking it hardest.
They took a direct RPG hit to their partially built fortifications.
Poulter, splitting his time between keeping the Afghans in the fight and keeping everyone supplied with ammo, was sprinting toward the northern position to fix the radio when another RPG struck. The blast threw the Afghan platoon leader, Inzar Gul, and his recoilless rifle like rag dolls. As Gul fell, his weapon discharged straight up into the air, creating a back blast that, together with the RPG, knocked out everyone on the northern flank, including Poulter.
Poulter came to, rolled a rock off his legs and rushed the last few yards to the northern position. All he could find of Gul was a shoe and a puddle of blood.
He ran back to the command post to report to Fuentes: Gul was dead.
Only he wasn’t.
Poulter had been out for minutes, buried under a layer of dust and rock. Conn, the medic, and others had rescued Gul and two other badly injured Afghans from the rubble.
“I don’t know how that guy lived,” Fuentes said of Gul. “He should have died. Rounds went inside him and cauterized themselves on the way in.”
The weapons squad was alive but incapacitated. The men were knocked out briefly, and when they came to fired their weapons indiscriminately, some into the air, some at harmless hillsides, Fuentes said.
The reinforcements were essentially gone.
The insurgents kept coming.
Fuentes and his platoon leader called in air strikes and requested artillery from Monti and Bostick, as well as missiles from Bagram Airfield, more than 100 miles away.
The fighting died down as night fell. They called in a medical evacuation flight to take Gul and five dazed men from the weapons squad off the mountain.
Taliban radio chatter tipped that they were about to attack again as the Black Hawk came in to whisk away the injured. Staff Sgt. Robert Cowdrey stepped off the bird to receive the wounded. With the rotor wash kicking up blinding dust, nobody could tell whether the Taliban assault had started.
In the brownout, Cowdrey loaded Gul then went back for the injured Americans.
As Cowdrey led them to the helicopter, the bird’s rotor blades dropped down and hit the medic in the face.
“My guys got thrown everywhere,” Fuentes said. “The bird pulled off.”
He and Conn ran back out to the landing zone. It took a moment to realize what had happened.
There was no saving Cowdrey, though Conn tried.
They carried the medic to a safer part of the outpost and prepped him to be hoisted by cable into another medevac. Fuentes and Conn worked as rounds again started to fall.
They didn’t get to process what had just happened, Fuentes said. “We had to defend against another frontal attack from the enemy.”
They again fell into their final protective fires positions. Air support had all been called off earlier as bad weather set in. For an hour and a half, they fought off the Taliban with what they had at hand.
The weather broke before dawn. Apache attack helicopters soared up the valley and the insurgents scattered back to their caves.
As day broke Oct. 14, “everybody’s spirits were pretty low,” Fuentes said.
They still hadn’t slept. Nearly three-quarters of the men on the hill had suffered concussions in the previous day’s firefight.
The one bright spot: Relief was on its way. Soldiers from another company were coming that night to relieve 1st Platoon.
As the new guys settled in, Fuentes was tasked with getting his platoon’s gear down to the cell phone tower and prepped for sling-load extraction.
He and a small team headed down the mountain.
“As I’m down there, my platoon up top with my platoon leader takes contact. So I’m trying to get back up there as fast as possible,” Fuentes said.
He grabbed some fresh soldiers from the cell tower and scrambled up the hill.
A wave of nearly a dozen suicide attackers was close behind.
As they tried to storm the hilltop, Conn and Poulter tossed a flurry of grenades over the cliff to hold them off. One of Poulter’s grenades hit a suicide bomber in the chest, fell to the ground and blew up in the fighter’s face.
Meanwhile, the reinforcements with Fuentes were pinned down by snipers. Fuentes sprinted through the gunfire to their position to see two suicide bombers nearly on top of the position. He brought up his M4 and shot both before they could detonate.
Apaches arrived again, and the men took cover as the birds strafed the hillside to take out the rest of the attackers.
The battle for Shal was all but over. The suicide bombers were the insurgents’ last desperate attempt to retake the outpost. Soon after, the survivors began streaming back to Pakistan.
The victory drained the valley of support for the Taliban.
“They operate off of successes, so when they have a big success, it’s easy to recruit people,” Fuentes said. “But if you’re constantly losing, it’s hard to get good people to come work for you.”