NARANG VALLEY, Afghanistan — The CH-47 Chinook landed on the dusty hilltop shortly before midnight.

About 30 soldiers from 3rd Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment leapt out in a swirling maelstrom of grit kicked up by the massive bird’s twin rotor blades.

The troops were expecting action. The latest intelligence indicated that enemy fighters had emplaced a heavy machine gun and an 82 mm mortar in the nearby hills. As many as 40 enemy fighters were reported in the area.

The mission had been planned for nearly a month, so it came as no surprise that advance word may have leaked to the enemy.

"Over time, maybe somebody told one of their buddies who worked in the chow hall, who told someone else [who told the enemy]," said 1st Lt. Brendan Kennedy, leader of 3rd Platoon.

Getting in and getting out would be the tricky part, said Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Smith, of Lewistown, Pa., a 13-year veteran. But with plenty of overhead cover from an AC-130 gunship, F-15 fighters and a B-1 bomber, the risks would probably be negligible.

"If anybody is out there tonight, they’ll probably be dead," Kennedy said.

The landing went off without a hitch, and the troops encountered no enemy fire. After settling in for the night, they started fortifying their positions as soon as dawn broke.

"Operation Rock Penetrator," which started nearly two weeks ago, was the latest U.S. effort to disrupt enemy activity in this rugged mountain valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The operation involved more than 100 U.S. soldiers and another 30 or so Afghan army troops.

U.S. forces would hold the high ground while Afghan forces cleared the village of Badel, down in the valley, a frequently-used stopover for enemy fighters infiltrating into the region from Pakistan.

The next morning was mostly quiet, except for the roar of jets and helicopters overhead, and the occasional thunder of artillery strikes in the valley. But everything changed around 1 p.m., when a group of six to eight enemy fighters came up the hill and almost stumbled into the U.S. positions. They made it to within 300 meters before Smith told Spc. Brandon Davidson, 21, of Lake Placid, Fla., and Sgt. Alexander Ditsen, 29, of Cape Coral, Fla., to open fire with their M-203 grenade launchers.

Davidson, Ditsen and Spc. James Corona, 21, of San Antonio, lobbed more than three dozen rounds. The militants were apparently taken by surprise, and did not return fire.

"We got our point across," said Smith, the platoon sergeant. "They still don’t know where we are."

The fighters appeared to have retreated down the hill and across a narrow spur to the opposite ridge, several hundred meters away. Smith called for an artillery strike.

Spc. Timothy Locklear, 23, of Greenville, S.C., worked up a grid coordinate, and soon a barrage of 155 mm artillery rounds pounded the fighters’ suspected location. An A-10 Thunderbolt followed soon after, raking the hillside with 30 mm cannon fire.

A pair of OH-58 Kiowa helicopters swept past overhead a couple of hours later, assessing the damage. But it was unclear how many of the enemy had been killed.

Down in the valley, the Afghan troops clearing Badel found two anti-tank mines in a house and some bomb-making materials. They arrested one man.

The next morning, a dead man, dressed in white, was spotted next to a rock on the opposite ridgeline, a likely casualty from the artillery and airstrikes the day before.

Just before 10 a.m., three more enemy fighters were spotted on the ridgeline, close to where the body lay. The soldier called in another artillery strike. A man’s voice soon came over the enemy’s radio, calling for the men. They did not answer.

"Those rounds were perfect," said Smith. "Right on target. Where that one guy was standing, there is nothing but a crater."

The strikes continued off and on throughout the second day and into the night, whenever U.S. forces got a definite fix on the enemy positions. The killing was distant and impersonal.

As evening approached, heavy machine-gun fire broke out in the distance. Another platoon had come under contact. But there were no U.S. casualties. Soon, more U.S. artillery was raining down on suspected enemy hide-outs.

After one barrage, a surveillance aircraft reported seeing dozens of "hotspots" — infrared signatures — of people fleeing the area. Another strike was planned.

As they waited for the Chinooks to come back and pick them up, one soldier said aloud that he hoped there were no women and children among the group. Another soldier said he hoped there were.

"You don’t mean that," the first soldier said, in the dark.

"Yes, I do," the second one said. "You know what women are here? They’re ACM multipliers."

ACM stands for "anti-coalition militia."

"No, you don’t," the first soldier said, again.

A third soldier decided to lighten the mood. "They’re not ACM anymore," he said. "They’re now FOE."

"FOE?" someone asked.

"Yeah," the third soldier said. "Forces of Evil."

In the dark, everyone laughed. Within an hour, the Chinooks had arrived. The mission was over.

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