May 30, 2011 -- 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.
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."
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."
'It Was All Pretty Much Chaos'
Those fears were confirmed when the Chinooks deposited them on a snow-covered mountaintop shortly after midnight. The soldiers were equipped with night-vision goggles, but the terrain was steeper than they thought. Men were falling everywhere. Spc. Angel Ramon, from Brooklyn, N.Y., recalled that "when we first started to attempt to walk down at night, I almost fell down the mountain in the first 30 minutes."
Soldiers joke that no military plan survives the first minutes of battle and Ramon's company commander, Bankston, was quickly finding out how true that is.
"With the heavy loads we had, with the amount of personnel we had, it wasn't feasible to move down the mountain at night," he said.
The descent wasn't much better at dawn. Sgt. Mendez remembered that "basically you had to hold on to a tree or a root or some kind of shrub just to stand up as you go down."
Across the valley, on another mountaintop, Cougar Company decided to press ahead under the cover of darkness. They knew there was a significant force of Taliban insurgents near their landing zone. They just didn't know how close.
As he moved down the mountain, Spc. Bret Kadlec noticed something wasn't right.
"I heard a couple of Afghanis talking," he said. "Real quiet, just a couple of whispers and they were right in the trees above us. And I asked Sgt. Burgess, 'We don't have no Afghan Army next to us do we?' And he said, 'No.' And as soon as he said no I heard them flip their weapon to fire and started to open up on us. And we immediately jumped down. We started shooting up in the trees because they were directly above us. It was all pretty much chaos from there."
Kadlec's squad leader, Sgt. Brian Burgess, and Spc. Dustin Feldhaus were mortally wounded in the opening seconds of the night battle.
The squad's medic, Brit Jacobs, didn't need to be told to run into enemy fire to help his buddies.
"I heard the radio go on and someone [sounded hurt]," he said. "No one told me there were casualties. I knew because of that. They were literally in the trees firing down at us. What kind of crazy crap is that?"
A late enlistee in his 30s, Spc. Eric Matheson was a father figure in 3rd Platoon, Cougar Company, who call themselves, "The Bastards." He knew the younger soldiers were watching him.
"I really felt I was going to die down there -- either shot from above or all it would have taken is one rocket-propelled grenade placed right and we'd of all been dead," he said. "I stayed there even though my instinct was to get the hell out of there, but I stayed tree for all my group, my squad, my platoon. I stayed there for 'The Bastards.'"
The medic, Jacobs, recalled that in the worst of the battle he was fighting only for his buddies to the left and right of him.
"It was amazing to see out of that chaos that it could at least be a little bit organized," he said. "Everybody [was] doing their part to help out. You could really see a fraternal love between everybody, even though there was a enemy out there and chaos.
The 3rd Platoon, outnumbered, kept fighting on and, within an hour, prevailed. The Taliban, who weren't killed in the gun battle, climbed down from their trees and retreated.
Sgt. Burgess's squad began Operation Strong Eagle 3 with seven men. In the first hour of the Operation, two had died and a third was injured. A fourth soldier, PFC Jeremy Faulkner, would die in a separate battle late that morning. The squad would end the day with only three soldiers still in the fight. And theirs was only the opening battle.
'The Roar of Thousands of Flying Bullets Was Deafening'
Shortly after daybreak, when the rest of the No Slack task force descended into the valley from five separate landing zones, every American position was hit simultaneously from every direction. The roar of thousands of flying bullets was deafening.
A chilly mixture of rain, sleet and hail enveloped the valley and forced the troop's helicopter air cover to depart. The Taliban waited until the gunships were off station to begin the attack.
Situated behind Headquarters Company commander, Capt. Bankston, I hugged the muddy mountainside as closely as I could. He was on the radio answering calls from headquarters, which wanted to know what the enemy situation was. His reply was direct.
"The f***ing enemy station right now," he said, "is that they are shooting at us from a bunch of different locations."
Capt. Mott's platoon was pinned down 50 yards to our right.
"It sounded like the whole valley had erupted in fire at the same time," he recalled.
Mott's men were taking fire from three different locations, and one of his squads, led by Staff Sgt. Ofran Arrechaga, situated another 50 yards to Mott's right, was trapped in an exposed draw and taking fire from all sides.
Arrechaga was adored by the younger men and respected by his officers. He was thought of as as a "soldier's soldier." In the opening minutes of the battle, he lay wounded on the mountainside. Spc. Steven Trimm was shot in the hand, but kept firing his M-4 rifle at Taliban positions. An Afghan soldier had been shot in the leg.
Mott transmitted the news. "6, 3-6, I have an unconfirmed report over my net. I have three casualties. I'll give you more information as I get it."
Immediately, two sergeants, Jeremy Sizemore and Eric Mendez, along with a medic, Spc. Jameson Lindskog, only on his second combat mission, pushed out to relieve the cut-off squad.
"I was not thinking at all," said Mendez. "I just heard we had casualties. My guys are down. My men need help. So, it just clicked into my head. It's like muscle memory. You just run. You just run to them. If the enemy pops up, you engage them and hopefully you just destroy them as you continue to move."
A week earlier, I had spent three days sitting next to Lindskog in the back of an armored truck, called an MRAP. We were on a convoy protection mission and were being jostled up and down as the truck moved along Kunar's rutted roads.
Lindskog had joined the Army after his California physical therapy business went belly up in the recession. He saw that I was wincing. My back hurt and he urged me to come to the medic station after the mission for some "back work." I never had time to take him up on the offer and now he was in trouble.
He, Sizemore and Mendez were running through a wall of bullets to reach their surrounded comrades. Sizemore shouted to a wounded Spc. Trimm that "friendlies" were approaching.
"As soon as we were coming in we could hear them: 'Hey, we're right here. Don't shoot. We're coming in. Let us know what's going on,'" Sizemore said. "Trimm said Sgt. AC [Arrechaga] is shot. He's hit in the back. We stopped the bleeding. Trim said, 'I'm shot, but I'm good. I can carry on.' The Afghan Army guy is shot. He's laying out in the middle of the draw."
Spc. Lindskog Is Shot While Attending to Others
With Arrechaga's visible bleeding stopped, and Spc. Trimm wounded but still fighting, Sizemore and Mendez focused on the Afghan soldier.
"Sgt. Sizemore ended up trying to put the tourniquet on," Mendez said. "I was trying to help him cinch it down. As I was cinching it down, I took two rounds to the chest. Kind of caught me off guard. Basically there was a lot of dust and shrapnel from my plate which kind of blew me back a little bit."
The medic, Spc. Lindskog, was seeing battle for the first time. Seemingly oblivious to the bullets flying around him, he worked to save the life of the wounded Afghan soldier. Spc. Angel Ramon was a few feet away, watching.
"I just saw Doc, his hands were all bloody because he was treating different guys down there and the next thing I know I see him just fall," he said.
Sizemore stayed with the wounded Lindskog. He tried to stop the bleeding, but couldn't. The wound was too severe. He told Doc to hold on, that a medivac bird would be there at any moment.
"Just like I was telling Lindskog, for however long that it was," Sizemore said. "It felt like an hour and a half [but] it was probably 45 minutes, I don't know. But I kept telling him, 'The bird's coming, the bird's coming, just hang in there, the bird's coming.' After awhile, the person saying it is getting tired and unsure and the person hearing it is getting tired and unsure."
The weather was so bad and enemy fire so intense that it was almost suicide for a medivac to attempt the rescue. However, U.S. Air Force parajumpers decided to try to land to save Arrechaga and Lindskog. I watched as they dove towards the draw, the noise of their rotor wash drawing out the sound of bullets.
Sizemore watched it attempt the rescue.
"We're like, 'What are they doing here?'" Sizemore said. "'Oh well, let's get them out.' So they pull in, turn sideways and, ding, ding, ding, ding, they just get lit up."
The Air Force Blackhawk had been shot up so badly, its pilot turned and dove down the valley where he made an emergency landing.
It would be another hour before another rescue attempt could me made, but Lindskog had lost too much blood. Before he died, the medic was still giving the surviving soldiers instructions on how to treat himself and the other wounded.
Capt. Bankston remembers, "He charged right in behind his platoon sergeant through withering enemy fire. Even after he was wounded, he continued until he couldn't anymore and then he continued to tell everyone what to do. And that was up until he passed."
'Make Stuff Blow Up'
Sgt. Arrechaga hung on until the medivac arrived and was even talking to Mendez and Sizemore as he was lifted to the helicopter in a rescue basket. Mendez and the rest of the platoon would not learn for two more days that he did not survive his wounds.
"I couldn't explain in words how I felt after helping them out," he said. "Having to run down there, all that effort and the only thing I could do is question myself: Could I have run faster? A piece of me falls when you see your men die, when you see your men hurt. I can't explain. It's just like your heart kind of just drops."
Everything changed when Capt. Bankston gave the order to his fire support officer. "Make stuff blow up" was the blunt order. And it did.
The weather had cleared and attack helicopters and fighter jets re-entered the battle. The three-day operation would stretch into nine days, but the 101st Airborne kept fighting as their predecessors had more than a half century earlier in Bastogne at World War II's Battle of the Bulge. They took Barawolo Kalay and wounded Qari Zia Rahman, who barely escaped into Pakistan.
For their valor, No Slack's soldiers were awarded a basketful of silver and bronze stars. Gen. David Petraeus pinned medals on Mott, Bankston, Sizemore, Mendez and a host of other soldiers -- awards they would gladly trade for the lives of their brothers.
And then they went home. There was no send off, no brass band. Without a word, they walked to a chartered helicopter and got the hell out of Kunar and "The Heart of Darkness."
ABC News's Mike Boettcher is an award-winning investigative journalist currently embedded with U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. He is the only journalist with the 101st Airborne. Boettcher is also a professor at the University of Oklahoma. His students host a website called Afghan101, covering the wars from the home front.