No animals. No clothes drying in the Afghan air. No sign that people had lived in Joy Koja in months.
It was just after midnight April 6, 2010. Sergeant 1st Class Michael Hunter and his team of Green Berets, Marine Special Operators and Afghan commandos had seen the same thing in a nearby village a week earlier.
Insurgents had chased out the villagers and entrenched themselves in the warrens of mud-walled compounds south of Bala Morghab.
Exactly where was the question.
Finding nothing in southern Joy Koja in Badghis province, Hunter and the three Americans and 28 Afghans with him turned back toward Forward Operating Base Todd.
They cleared one side of the village as they went while another team cleared the other, checking for signs of life in the darkness.
About 3 a.m. on a narrow road flanked by 10-foot mud walls, a man poked out of a doorway, popped off a few rounds in their direction and disappeared.
It might have been an insurgent or a civilian. Hunter wanted to make sure before opening fire.
He instructed most of his team to hold fast and observe while he advanced with one of the Marines and an Afghan commando. As they neared the door, two men burst out of it, AK-47s blazing.
“Myself and the Marine operator killed the first two at the gate,” Hunter said. “Sure enough, once those first shots were fired, it was game on.”
Hunter thought better of pushing in right away as gunfire erupted from ports cut in the compound walls.
“You never want to rush to your death,” he said.
He led his team through a break in a wall opposite the compound and set up an ambush in a field. Within seconds, seven insurgents came running out.
“They moved right across the front of us and we ended up killing all seven of them,” he said.
Hunter’s team fought gunmen rushing in from outside while another group of Americans and commandos shot their way into the compound.
“They were trying to push through,” he said. “I mean, these guys were in a good firefight for well over an hour going back and forth.”
Inside, the insurgents were supplied and reinforced through a complex of tunnels connecting numerous compounds. Every time the joint force tried to push deeper, someone got hit. Casualties quickly mounted.
Rob, a Green Beret, was shot through both legs and a Marine operator jumped to cover the downed soldier. Hunter and another Marine rushed in and used their armored chests as a shield while the injured Green Beret was pulled behind a wall.
Hunter headed back outside, radioed for a medevac and organized his team to secure a landing zone to evacuate him and five wounded commandos.
Then word came that another Green Beret was hit. Medic Wyatt Goldsmith took a round in the foot, but refused to leave the fight.
He tied up his boot, “went back inside and started getting it on again,” Hunter said.
The enemy just kept coming.
Two commandos were killed. Hunter called another medevac to take Goldsmith and the dead off the battlefield.
The fight had raged for hours by the time the call came to pull back and radio in air support. The men watched as 500-pound bombs were dropped on the compound, reducing it to rubble.
Hunter led a team to assess the damage. As soon as they started taking photos, “we came back under fire again,” he said.
Hunter and his team pulled back and called in more airstrikes. After each bomb fell, the insurgents resumed their attack, “and they were quickly massing forces from the surrounding villages.”
About 100 American operators and Afghan commandos were facing an estimated 300 insurgents.
From his sniper position on high ground, another Green Beret named Corey kept the enemy swarm from surrounding the operators and commandos as they moved in again to assault the compounds.
The bombs had given them momentum, but once inside the Afghans froze, Hunter said. With two of their own dead and another five wounded, they lost the will to fight.
One of the interpreters yelled, “ ‘Why aren’t you guys out there fighting? This is your country. Look at these guys — they’re out there fighting,’” Hunter recounted. “Their response was, ‘These men are like lions. They don’t feel fear like we feel fear.’ ”
The Americans tried to rally their Afghan colleagues by example.
Marine operator Pat Dolphin established a sniper position. Hunter’s team leader secured the roofs. Another operator took out a machine-gun position overlooking the helicopter landing zone.
Hunter and two Marines — George and Billy — took the lead clearing the rest of the compounds. With grenades and M-4 carbines, they fought their way through the maze of rooms.
“Every time we turned a corner we were receiving small-arms fire,” Hunter said. “The insurgents would stick weapons out of windows and start spraying us from only a couple meters away. We just got lucky, I guess, that day.”
On the hill, insurgents noticed one of the Green Berets and his team of commandos, and he was hit while trying to call in fire missions.
Two other Green Berets ran to pull him off the hill while the rest of the ground team maneuvered to support them.
Almost a dozen Green Berets and Marine operators took positions on a road cut to fight off the advancing insurgents as they awaited reinforcements from FOB Todd.
They’d have to wait a bit longer.
The first Quick Reaction Force hit a roadside bomb on its way south, and another launched to take its place.
Even when it arrived, the insurgents didn’t back down.
The fight dragged into midday until the Americans and Afghans were nearly out of ammo, forcing a pullback to refit and reload.
The two-kilometer withdrawal to FOB Todd turned the battle into a running gunfight.
Hunter took up the rear, gunning down fighters chasing them.
“They were pretty determined not to back down,” Hunter said. “And so we had a lot of respect for the enemy that we were up against.”
For his actions that day, Hunter was awarded the Silver Star.
His award citation reads, in part: “His courageous actions all the way through the engagement kept momentum in the friendly force’s favor and were decisive to the successful outcome of a firefight which resulted in 103 insurgents killed and countless more wounded. His actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism and reflect distinct credit upon himself, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, and the United States Army.”
Hunter would earn a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for his efforts in the same area on June 18, 2010.