'They Were Hunting and Killing Us': ABC News' Mike Boettcher Caught in Taliban Firefight With U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

PHOTO: PFC Bryan Smith
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There was nowhere to run, so we dove into a muddy mountainside.

I tucked in with my camera next to U.S. Army Capt. Ed Bankston, Headquarters Company, No Slack battalion, 101st Airborne. He'd been shot in the legs nine months earlier, but fought to get back to the front and that's where he was now -- out front and exposed.

Bankston's mission was to hunt and kill the Taliban in a remote mountain valley near the Pakistan border, but the Taliban had struck first. They were hunting and killing us.

"I won't forget that day for the rest of my life. I'll question every piece for the rest of my life," said Bankston.

The 3rd Platoon, Cougar Company, No Slack Battalion, essentially "circle the wagons" after taking fire from all sides during Operation Strong Eagle 3. Photo by Mike Boettcher

Just two days earlier, March 26, Bankston and his platoon leader, Kevin Mott, briefed their part of Operation Strong Eagle 3 on a huge battlefield mockup, called a sand table. They were a little nervous about it. Four hundred U.S. and 300 Afghan national Army soldiers would be airlifted into a remote mountain valley near Pakistan that served as the headquarters for a top Taliban and al Qaeda leader, Qari Zia Rahman.

No Slack's commander, Lt. Col. Joel Vowell warned his men that Strong Eagle 3 had the potential to be a very tough mission.

"This is Barawolo Kalay. This is his home. This is his sanctuary. This is his neighborhood. No one has ever dared to go in there. You think this is going to cause a ruckus? I think so," he told his soldiers.

But No Slack had been in a lot of ruckuses in the three months we spent with them. They were assigned perhaps the toughest area of Afghanistan, Kunar Province, known as "The Heart of Darkness."

Kunar's terrain consists of steep mountains and deep valleys. The mountainsides are honeycombed with caves that Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents use for ambush. Every invading army since the time of Alexander the Great has failed to completely conquer Kunar.

American forces are facing the same challenges as their historic predecessors, but have one advantage: helicopters. No other army had been able to seize the high ground. Not even the Soviets, who used their helicopters for strafing runs and missile attacks.

However, Vowell is an air assault specialist who was making military history by landing large numbers of troops on high-mountain ridges where they would immediately have the advantage of the high ground.

But as the 700-man force flew to their high-mountain landing zones early on the morning of March 28, a lot of soldiers had a gut feeling that this was not going to be an ordinary mission.

"From the second I got on the Chinook I had doubts," recalled Sgt. Eric Mendez, a squad leader for Bankston's Headquarters Company. "I had doubts that I wasn't going to make it back."

The 3rd Platoon, Cougar Company, No Slack Battalion, essentially "circle the wagons" after taking fire from all sides during Operation Strong Eagle 3. Photo by Mike Boettcher

Mendez's platoon leader, Capt. Kevin Mott, already was acutely aware of Kunar's dangers. Ten months earlier, a Taliban bullet had grazed his head, causing him to fall several hundred feet down a mountainside. He should have died, but survived and after months of treatment returned to the front to be with his men.

"I don't think anybody was really prepared for exactly what it was going to be like," he said. "Some of us had the worst in mind."

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