The remote U.S. outpost near the Pakistan border that was nearly overrun by insurgents last weekend has been abandoned and destroyed by American troops, military officials announced today.
Americans demolished the base, dubbed Combat Outpost Keating, just days after an all-day fight last Saturday in which eight American soldiers were killed and 24 wounded. U.S. military officials estimate that as many as 100 of the attackers were also killed in the battle, which was the bloodiest in Afghanistan in the past year.
Keating was destroyed so it could not be used by insurgents.
Keating and a second base, Combat Outpost Fritsche, were abandoned this week as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's new strategy to pull back from unpopulated areas and concentrate on defending population centers.
"We had been planning to realign our forces to better protect the population for months. These closings are part of that realignment," said an Army spokesperson Major T.G. Taylor.
One of the commanders in the Keating fight rejected any suggestion that the battle was a defeat and was frustrated that it could appear that way, especially since he estimated that as many as 100 to 150 attackers were killed in the fight.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Blackmon, who commanded the Apache battalion that flew to Keating's defense, told ABC News, "Knowing that American soldiers fought all day long, heroic valorous actions all day long, and a headline would lead the average person to believe that we may have lost that fight. Unequivocally untrue."
The closings were announced as fresh details emerged about the battle for Keating last Saturday from the pilots of two Apache gunships who helped repel the attack and two ground controllers who were inside the base.
By the time Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ross Lewallen and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chad Bardwell arrived over the embattled outpost,, much of Keating was in flames and dozens of insurgents could be seen on the camp's perimeter.
"When we first showed up and put our sensors on Keating, it was just kind of shock," said Bardwell, 35, of Liman, Wyo., who piloted one of a swarm of Apaches that rushed the base's defense. "All the amount of flames and the smoke and to see that amount of personnel running outside of their wire. It was really kind of shock."
Lewallen added, "I've been on three deployments and I've never seen that large of a force attacking one static position."
The number of attackers has been estimated from 100 to 200. Lewallen said he thought as many as 350 were involved in the assault.
Hunkered down inside the base's operations center were 1st Lt. Cason Shrode, 24, of Dallas, and Sgt. Jayson Souter, 22, of Tuscon, Ariz. The two men were working radios and directing traffic for the Apaches and attack jets that swarmed overhead.
But they knew the camp was ablaze and that insurgents had breached the camp's defenses and were inside the wire.
"It's definitely not a comfortable feeling to be at a place where you're most vulnerable, just not a comfortable feeling knowing these guys are right outside," Souter told ABC News.
The camp is located at the base of two steep mountains, allowing the enemy to fire down on the camp with a powerful .50 caliber machine gun and other heavy guns.
Attack Aircraft Were Stacked Up
The U.S. and Afghan army soldiers inside Keating had been reduced in ranks because the camp was scheduled to be closed as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy of pulling back from sparsely populated areas to protect population centers instead.
The camp's defenders, who endured small attacks several times a week, had been warned by villagers about 10 minutes before the onslaught began. While the camp prepared for a pending attack, soldiers were not alarmed by the warning because it was one of the almost daily stream of tips they received.
"We get reports all the time," Shrode said. "I will say it's 50-50 [the attack] will happen."
The soldiers quickly realized the assault was much larger than any they had ever endured. The camp's generator was hit immediately, plunging the camp into pre-dawn darkness.
Soon the camp was on fire with strong winds fanning it along to additional buildings. Eventually, every building in the camp, except one, was burned.
"We were basically surrounded 360 degrees," Shrode said. "I think there were significant numbers [of enemy fighters] throughout the day."
He immediately called for air support.
"We had fixed wing [jets] 20 minutes after fight started," Shrode told ABC News. "We had helicopters 20 minutes later. ... We had so many different assets up in the air ... they were stacked on so many different levels."
Nevertheless, the battle raged throughout the morning. There was a lull about noon, before the attack resumed.
"We had everything we needed. It was just a big attack with a lot of people. Bad things happen, but I think we did well, considering the circumstances."
He added that cooperation with the air cover ensured that a "bad situation did not turn worse."
For the pilots, it was, at times, difficult to find the enemy. And because of the smoke, visibility was restricted to a half mile.
"One of the primary reasons the fight took so long, it is in extreme terrain," said Lewallen, of Clarksville, Tenn. "There are a lot of rocks and a lot of cover. You really can't detect the enemy until they start moving again."
Three Apaches Damaged by Insurgent Fire
Three of the attacking Apaches were damaged by insurgent fire, officials said.
By the afternoon, cloud cover moved in, which helped reveal the position of enemy gunners.
"At that time we were able to see some of the larger muzzle flashes that were a little higher in the mountains," Lewallen said. "We started to eliminate the larger weapons."
One concern was a report that several large caliber weapons were trained on the helicopter landing zone, waiting for a Medevac flight to take out the wounded. The Medevac chopper didn't arrive until after 9 p.m. that night under the cover of darkness and after those weapons had been located and destroyed.
ABC News had previously reported that when the Medevac flight arrived, some of the wounded refused a chance to leave Keating and kept on fighting. Soldiers also confirmed an earlier ABC News report that some troops gave blood during the fight to be transfused into wounded comrades.
When the attack was over, Souter and Shrode said the soldiers checked on each other and assessed the damage. The fire had destroyed much of the camp.
Lost in the blaze were "cameras, movies, stuff that helps you pass the time ... but there were guys who literally lost everything except the clothes off their backs and the weapons in their hands," Souter said.