Thursday, March 16, 2006, was a beautiful sunny day in Paktika Province, eastern Afghanistan. It borders a lawless region of Pakistan that is home to some al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Snow in the mountain passes along the border had melted giving them access again to Afghanistan where they came looking for American soldiers. They soon found them.
At dawn, the 10th Mountain Division's Alpha Company headed out on a mission. Lt. Billy Mariani, the unit commander, noticed something about his troops.
"There was definitely a sense of uneasiness. There was an air about them of, you know, maybe something was going to happen," he said.
The convoy included some two dozen 10th Mountain Division soldiers mounted in five armored Humvees and a handful of Afghan National Army troops riding in a pickup truck. Their mission was to visit a remote village to meet the tribal elders. No roads existed in this no-man's land and they had to drive through waddis, dry narrow river beds with high, dangerous ground on either side.
Four hours into the drive and just miles from the village, gunfire broke out. They'd been ambushed from above. Twenty-three-year-old Pvt. Channing Moss, the gunner, said it sounded like rattling spoons.
Then came the big guns. Volleys of rocket-propelled grenades rained down. The Afghan National Army pickup exploded. Two of the Afghan soldiers died.
One RPG skidded past Lt. Mariani's vehicle. All of the vehicles had to quickly get out of the "kill zone." But before they could get to safety, three rockets hit Pvt. Moss' Humvee.
Staff Sgt. Eric Wynn, 33, the soldier in the front passenger seat, felt one slice through his face. Moss remembers the truck practically lift up. He was thrown up against the Humvee and then moved to return fire.
"I smelled something smoking and I looked down ... and I was smoking," he said.
Wynn turned to tell Moss where to fire and saw the tail fins of the RPG sticking out of Moss' side.
Roughly the length of a baseball bat, an RPG travels at the speed of a bullet. At the front end is the warhead -- a large grenade. The detonator and fuel are contained in the shaft. On the back are its fins, pieces of metal that stick out like legs on a camera tripod. The RPG is the weapon of choice for many of the world's guerillas.
Luckily for Moss, the company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, who the soldiers call "Doc," was in his Humvee. With Alpha company still under fire, it would have been nearly impossible for Angell to get to Moss in time if he hadn't been close by.
The RPG that had plowed into Moss' lower abdomen stretched from one hip to the other. If the RPG went off, it would kill everyone within 30 feet of him. Yet Angell stayed close, bandaging his wounds and stabilizing the weapon so that movement wouldn't cause it to explode.
Moss was still fully conscious, so Angell ordered him to not look down at the injury. He didn't want Moss to panic.
"I'm gonna do everything I can," Angell said to Moss. "You keep fighting with me and I'll keep fighting with you."
Wynn held his wounded face together with a bandage and reported their casualties over the radio while he also reached for Moss' hand.
"He was squeezing my hand ... making sure I was staying alive," Moss said.
Reports of injuries had been radioed to the medical evacuation helicopter (MEDEVAC) base in Salerno, Afghanistan -- minus one crucial piece of information.
"We didn't tell them that, you know, Moss had live ordnance in him," Mariani said, "because there was that possibility that, you know, they might not want to transport him with live ordnance in him."
Preparations began for the rescue mission. But first the Blackhawk crew had to wait for clearance from commanders because the area was "hot" -- the battle was still raging. For MEDEVAC crew chief SSG Christian Roberts, it was a very long 15 minutes.
"When you know you have wounded people out there that are waiting for you to come pick them up, it seems like an eternity," he said.
The firefight died down and Mariani went over to check on Moss. Even though he was stunned by the fins sticking out of him, Mariani said, "I grabbed his hand and I just said, 'Hey, buddy, we're gonna get you out of here.'"
"Doc" continued working frantically to stabilize Moss even though the RPG was a danger to everyone around Moss. Angell knew Moss' only chance for survival was to get out of there and to a hospital quickly.
"I constantly was looking at my watch, saying, you know, 'When is the bird gonna get here, when is the bird gonna get here,'" medic Doc Angell said.
When Lt. Mariani pulled "Doc" aside to ask him if he thought Moss would make it, he could only shake his head no.
If Pvt. Moss didn't survive, his wife, six months pregnant with their second child, would lose her husband and his daughter Yuliana would lose her father. But just as Moss felt he would die, he heard the choppers. An Apache helicopter escorted the MEDEVAC chopper in case there was more gunfire.
Spc. Collier, the flight medic, quickly realized what they faced with Pvt Moss.
"I see a metal object protruding out, and there are fins on it, and I am like, 'This looks like this guy got hit with something, and it's stuck in him, and it didn't blow up,'" he said.
Army policy states that they are not supposed to transport soldiers in Moss' condition. The risk of catastrophic loss is too great -- four MEDEVAC crew members, three wounded soldiers and a helicopter could all be blown out of the sky.
But they also knew if they didn't take Moss, he would die.
Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa conferred with his soldiers: "I asked my crew, you know, 'Are you guys comfortable with this?'" he said. "Because I wasn't gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren't comfortable with it."
The crew quickly decided to take the risk.
Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the tense moment.
"We all said, 'Yeah, let's get him on board and let's get outta here,'" he said.
As crew chief Christian Roberts said, "We are not gonna leave a U.S. soldier to die in the middle of Afghanistan."