Like the rest of America, they'd rather be watching the NFL playoffs. But on this night, the men of the Army's 2nd brigade, 12th infantry division, Charlie Company leave their mess-hall, big-screen TV and suit up for another moonlight mission. They'll chopper into the hills above their outpost in Afghanistan and hike down at dawn, hunting hidden weapons and enemy fighters.
Capt. Shawn Conlin, the commanding officer, says the Army soldiers will arrive by air behind enemy lines, hoping to make contact.
Waiting for their bird, the landing zone buzzes with soldier humor as company members play with Kevin, a white dog and the post mascot.
Waiting in the Night
The short helicopter flight drops them behind a hostile village known as Dand. The area is Kunar province, the rugged and violent region north of Kabul along the Pakistan border. The soldiers creep past unfriendly dogs and then they wait, ignoring the stars, spectacular overhead, to study the shadows.
While waiting, Sgt. Dan Sheely talks in a whisper about his life back home.
"I have a wife and two boys," Sheely says softly. When asked if he tells them about these missions, he replies with a smile, "I don't go into detail."
Attack From the Village
Dawn breaks and the company, now perspiring, keeps moving, working across boulders, thorns, mud and streams.
The soldiers search the naturally fortified hiding spots and use spray paint to mark Taliban fighting positions to help guide bombs in later fights.
Crossing a terraced meadow, the only sign of life is a lone goat herder. The troops are out in the open -- and suddenly the shooting begins.The sniper fire comes from Dand, the village the soldiers skirted hours ago. The soldiers scurry into a dry creek bed where they huddle as the whiz overhead.
The attack follows a familiar pattern. The insurgents in these hills know the soldiers have been marching all night, that they're tired, and they just gave up the high ground.
Pinned down, Charlie Company knows they have to get to safer ground.
"You ready?" one soldier asks. "Let's do it," comes the reply.
Heading for cover, the soldiers casually sprint under 50 pound of gear, no detectable effort in their voices. "Go ahead, pop up there and find you some cover," Sgt. Sheely tells his men.
They are young men but already battle-hardened. They have enough steel in their nerves now, while under fire, to kid their older captain for his slow retreat. They show little patience, however, for their Afghan allies who patrol with them and seem uncertain which way to go.
"Get the BEEP over here!" yells a Charlie Company soldier.
Taking Out a Taliban Commander
The command center is watching via predator drone and, while it directs artillery, the company heads into a village alley.
But there is another sniper and another skirmish, more running for cover.
In the middle of it all, Sheely gets approval from an Afghan elder, who gives him a thumbs up and shakes his hand.
"Go inside, go inside," Sheely urges the elder.
After 30 minutes of fighting, a 500-pound bomb takes out a Taliban commander and four of his fighters. No Americans are injured.
Later, the company members return to their outpost and empty their chambers. Sheely empties rocks from his shoes and thinks of that wife and two boys.
It's a big day for his 5-year-old son. "Happy Birthday, Lucas," he says.
Commanding officer Conlin says, "Today was fairly tame, I guess you could say, from what they typically get. Hopefully, they'll think twice about ambushing us from there again."
But Charlie Company won't know for sure until they go out again tomorrow ... and the next day ... into the Valley of Death.