'I Prayed the Insurgents Were Bad Shots'

PHOTO Reporter Mike Boettcher was embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan when the Taliban ambushed their group.PlayCourtesy Carlos Boettcher
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I thought I was finally in a tough spot from which I wouldn't escape. Worse, I couldn't see my son, Carlos, who also was pinned down on this barren mountainside in Khost province. I prayed the insurgents were bad shots. My prayers were answered.

The day began routinely enough. We had completed an embed at Combat Outpost Wilderness wedged in rugged mountains along the Khost/Gardez highway.

It took the Soviet army more than eight years to break through a mujahidin blockade of the road during its war here. Thousands of Red Army soldiers were killed and wounded along the K/G highway. The American challenge here is mild by comparison. The road is open, but insurgent attacks are frequent.

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As we boarded vehicles to leave Wilderness, an emergency call was transmitted over unit radios. Taliban rocket teams just five miles up the road had attacked a convoy.

By chance, we were leaving COP Wilderness with Lt. Col. Steve Lutsky, the war squadron commander who directs U.S. operations in the area. He ordered an immediate mission to intercept the insurgent rocket teams before they could escape.

Up, up, up we climbed in pursuit of the Taliban. The more we walked, the steeper the grade and the thinner the air. My legs were burning and so were my lungs. Each breath was a fight to accomplish. Everywhere I looked were ridgelines and peaks and I was sure we would not find insurgents. I was right. The insurgents found us.

It takes my mind a split second to process a sight I'm not expecting to see. So when the ground in front of me began to kick up like small gravel geysers, I gazed at it in wonderment, until the sound caught up with the picture. Those were bullets and I was a target, I belatedly concluded.


What next? I've been shot at before, but there always had been a building to scurry to or a boulder to duck behind. Here, the old reliables were missing. There was nothing to shield me. To make matters worse, the slope was so extreme that if I dove to the ground, I would tumble down the mountainside. My only option was to fall on my back, break my downward slide with my boots and lie as flat as possible.

Boettcher: 'They Had Guns, I Had a Camera'

As I lay on my back, I could see the origin of the gunfire. Not a good thing. If I can see them, they can see me. They had guns. I had a camera. My odds were not good.

Spc. Eric Powell was just below me on the mountainside doing his best to get a clean shot at the attackers.

There were five other soldiers in our patrol, including Lt. Col. Lutsky and his bodyguard, Sgt. Rhyss Heeter, but I couldn't see any of them. I could, however, hear them shooting and being shot at, and it quickly became evident to me that I was caught in the middle -- bullets whizzing over me in both directions.

Where was Carlos?

I couldn't see him and began second-guessing the wisdom of a father-son team working together to cover a war. To get to Carlos, though, I had to get to cover and the nearest place to which to run was a good 100 yards away. Powell said he would cover me and he did.


He opened up on the insurgent position and I ran as fast as my 56-year-old legs would take me, which wasn't very fast. It was, however, fast enough to keep ahead of the bullets fired at me by the Taliban gunmen. I heard the thuds of their rounds falling directly behind me. Good marksmen would have quickly adjusted. They were not good marksmen.

The most difficult run of my life ended behind a holly tree. Specialist Powell, whose covering fire saved my life, followed behind me. We moved on and a minute later encountered Carlos and the other soldiers. All of us were alive and exhilaration led to laughter.

A bullet had sliced through Sgt. Heeter's radio antenna.

"That was close", he said.

It certainly was.

Mike Boettcher is an award-winning investigative journalist currently embedded with U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. He is also a professor at the University of Oklahoma. His students host a website called Afghan101, covering the wars from the home front.

Images courtesy of Carlos Boettcher