Anaconda: A war story

US soldiers recount 18 hours in one of the fiercest firefights of the Afghan war

A pale blue dawn broke over the snow-covered Shah-e Kot peaks as Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Abbott and his battalion from the 10th Mountain Division rode packed in Chinook helicopters to the battle zone. Many of the US troops, fresh-faced young recruits who'd never before seen combat, were, as some put it, "pumped."

For Sergeant Abbott, a 32-year-old father of four, former Army Ranger, and a veteran of conflicts such as the bloody Mogadishu firefight of 1993, the adrenaline rush felt all too familiar.

It was March 2, and what was about to unfold was the biggest US ground battle in the Afghanistan war, in which American infantrymen took on the foot soldiers of terrorism directly for the first time.

The operation, code-named Anaconda, aimed to seal off and destroy pockets of Al Qaeda and Taliban regrouped inside a 70-square-mile stretch of rugged mountain ridges and valleys. Friendly Afghan forces accompanied by US Green Berets were to attack from the north, driving the estimated 200 to 400 enemy fighters toward several US blocking positions in the south, manned by Army assault troops.

But within minutes after Abbott's chopper touched down in the valley, his unit's mission changed drastically. Dug into the surrounding ridges on the east and west was a heavily armed, fortified enemy force of well over 100 men that US military planners had not known was there. These fighters were later joined by Al Qaeda from the north, who repelled the Afghan forces and then moved south to fight the Americans.

This is the story of how Abbott and 85 other light infantrymen – aided by the US air arsenal – survived and, to a degree, succeeded in an 18-hour firefight that was as brutal as it was unexpected. Under attack at times from 360 degrees, running out of ammunition, with a third of its men wounded, the US force held its ground until most of the enemy were defeated. Through skill, stamina, and a small dip in terrain known as the "bowl," miraculously every US soldier lived.

Yet the lessons of the battle, based on interviews with more than 20 soldiers and officers who took part, are sobering. For the American fight that cold March day offers stark revelations about war planning and strategy: about troubling shortfalls of intelligence, and the cost – however necessary – of US military efforts to spare civilians. It underscores the importance of "boots on the ground" and the limits of antiseptic, push-button warfare from above – especially against an elusive terrorist force.

The struggle in the valley tells, too, of deeper things: of how a 21-year-old private feels getting shot at for the first time, and of the inner resolve of commanders who stave off panic. It's a story of the frustration of a young medic with too many wounded to care for when help is hours away. It's about fear overwhelmed by revenge, and good men learning to kill without regrets. It's about the elation of staying alive, and the uncommon beauty of helicopter blades spinning silver in the full moon light.

* * *

Moments after Abbott jogged out the back of the Chinook into the rocky, snow-patched valley at about 6 a.m., the yell burst out: "Incoming!"

Enemy rifle fire – sporadic at first, but rapidly building – shot down on the US troops from a fortified ridgeline partway up the mountainside on the east. Rounds also flew in from two dozen black-uniformed Al Qaeda, who appeared to the men like ants, climbing the ridge to the west.

Abbott and the rest of the 10th Mountain Division's Charlie Company took cover in shallow ditches and rises and began returning fire in both directions. To move faster, many dropped their 85-pound rucksacks stuffed with food, cold-weather gear, and extra ammunition – a decision they would later regret.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Paul LaCamera, the 10th Mountain Division's senior officer on the ground and his top enlisted man, Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, took up position in the "bowl." The dip in the valley was so fortuitous that Sergeant Major Grippe later joked that Mother Nature must have put it there "because sometime young Americans were going to need it."

Still, Grippe realized his men were "in a very precarious position." Originally assigned to block major southern and eastern exit routes from the valley – code-named Heather and Ginger – they now faced a "nose-to-nose" battle with a large enemy contingent. Worse, the enemy manned well-concealed mountainside positions, while Grippe's men occupied the exposed low ground.

The consolation prize: They had found one of the biggest concentrations of Al Qaeda and Taliban in the Shah-e Kot Valley.

A few feet from Grippe, Capt. Scott Taylor, the battalion fire-support officer, began urgently radioing for Apache attack helicopters. The bespectacled young officer from Long Valley, N.J., was a 1996 Rutgers graduate in international environmental studies. Now he dealt with the landscape of war, directing artillery and close airstrikes.

Captain Taylor passed grid coordinates for targets to two Apache pilots, who within 20 minutes swooped in firing cannons on the ridge. They circled and were launching rockets at the hilltop when enemy bullets strafed the aircraft, forcing them to leave. An hour later, two more Apaches flew in. Taylor again directed them to targets, but before they fired a single shot, they, too, were repelled by ground-to-air missiles and small arms.

"Summit 4-0. This is Killer Spade 6," the pilot radioed, using Taylor's call sign. "We've taken small-arms fire and have to return to the FARP [Forward Area Refueling Point, known as 'Texaco'] to deal with it."

Taylor immediately radioed his higher-ups at the brigade command for guidance. The news was bad: Five out of six Apaches available that morning had been torn up by enemy groundfire. The choppers also lacked maneuverability in the high, thin air. There would be no Apache support the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, in the open valley floor, Pvt. 1st Class Chad Ryan and his crew were hoisting 40-pound, high-explosive rounds into the muzzle of a 120-mm mortar tube and firing at the eastern ridgeline.

The young gunner was new to combat but managed to stay focused, even as one buddy temporarily panicked and others looked wide-eyed.

"It didn't hit me as, 'Hey, I'm gonna die.' It was, 'Hey, I've been here before,' " he said.

Back in the small Mississippi River town of Sterling, Ill., Private Ryan's football coach had taught him to "practice how you play." When he joined the Army in 2000, he trained as if it were for real, too. "I took it as, 'It's my life. It's gonna save me one day,' and it did."

Ryan's crew shot off 16 rounds before AK-47 fire began tossing up dirt at their feet. When enemy mortar strikes started closing in, Abbott and others rushed out under direct fire and helped pull the big gun back. They had reached a small drainage ditch near a group of Abbott's men when, suddenly, the world disappeared in a flash and cloud of black.

Grippe looked over to where Abbott had been, and saw more than a dozen bodies motionless on the ground. An enemy mortar with a 60-yard burst radius had landed almost on top of them. "I figured we had four or five guys dead," Grippe said. But then a shadow staggered out of the smoke and debris.

Abbott, his right arm deeply lacerated, screamed at his men to get up and move before another mortar round struck. "If you don't get up, you are going to die!" he yelled. One soldier stared back blankly, slipping into shock. "Snap out of it!" Abbott shouted. He radioed for cover, and led the band of wounded as they hobbled and dashed 40 yards to the bowl.

As he lay in the dirt, unable to shoulder a weapon, Abbott felt defenseless. Worse, more than half of his platoon was wounded, and he blamed himself. His mind drifted to thoughts of his children, and his wife's parting plea: "Don't be a hero. Come back to us."

It was still morning.

* * *

As Abbott's unit dug in, word of its predicament began ricocheting around the US military headquarters at Bagram airfield 80 miles to the north. Inside a packed, noisy tent bristling with communications gear, US commanders and staff tracked the unfolding campaign.

"There's a hot LZ [landing zone]!" one of the US battle planners, Maj. Francesca Ziemba, rushed over to tell intelligence officers tracking the unfolding campaign.

Major Ziemba felt a twinge of horror as she and scores of other officers watched live video of the battlefield taken by unmanned Predator drones. What they saw on the 5-foot-wide screens and heard crackling over radio waves was in many ways shocking: The enemy was proving more numerous, determined, and entrenched in the craggy mountains of Shah-e Kot than expected.

For the headquarters staff of the 10th Mountain Division, including Ziemba and Gen. Frank "Buster" Hagenbeck, commander of Operation Anaconda, news of the men caught in enemy crossfire hit doubly hard.

"Those were our guys. It was personal," says Ziemba, a West Point graduate and veteran intelligence officer nicknamed "Ox." "I wanted to pick up a rifle and get on a helo and go out there. I think everyone felt that way."

The frustration was acute because Ziemba and other intelligence officers had been sleuthing out the enemy for weeks. Now, 86 American infantrymen were fighting for their lives, largely because US reconnaissance had failed to detect the enemy in the mountain ridges.

"There was nothing to tell us that they were there," says Ziemba, whose job was to anticipate enemy moves. US intelligence photos, listening devices, and spying had turned up no sign of Al Qaeda presence in the high ground. Analysts also believed the mountain hide-outs would be too cold for the enemy, given that even local shepherds waited out the winter in the villages below.

"Unfortunately, these guys were very good at hiding," says Chief Warrant Officer Jocelyn Baker, who was tracking the battle that day.

As she scanned three Predator screens, Officer Baker was also surprised by the sizable Al Qaeda and Taliban contingents, initially believed to be only small pockets located in and around civilian villages. "We are assuming they are civilians, but it turns out they are a whole lot of bad guys," says Baker.

In fact, the Americans may have been too cautious. Concerned about risking civilian lives, US commanders did not launch their usual heavy aerial bombardments to "soften up" the enemy before sending in ground troops. When friendly Afghan forces launched an assault from the north on the morning of March 2, they encountered no civilians. "Zero," says Col. John Mulholland, a Green Beret commander who helped lead the Afghans.

Instead, a large enemy force repulsed the Afghans and then turned south to face US troops, including Abbott's unit. Only later was it determined that the enemy had used cash and threats to drive civilians from the villages before the fighting.

Even worse, as Baker tracked enemy movements from inside the windowless intelligence tent, she was beginning to realize what Abbott and his men were already finding out on the ground: "They knew we were coming."

* * *

High on a snowy ridge, an Al Qaeda sniper was harassing the Americans. Through binoculars they spotted him, jeering and making obscene gestures. But every time they tried to shoot him, he slipped behind the rocks.

Until now, the men of the 10th Mountain Division – the first US conventional force in Afghanistan – had had few close encounters with the enemy. The Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners they came across at detention centers at Bagram and Mazar-e Sharif looked peaked and thin.

"They had bodies like little girls," recalls Charlie Company medic Eddie "Doc" Rivera, who took DNA samples from the detainees. Seeing their frail figures, he felt a mixture of anger and incredulity: "What were you even thinking, to challenge us?"

That day in the valley, though, the enemy stirred no pity. Wearing black tunics and black head wraps, they appeared to the American soldiers as "Ninjas." "These weren't the total third world country bums who were forced to fight," says Abbott. "They were probably the trainers."

The terrorist fighters had the advantage of a mountain stronghold riddled with caves and tunnels dug over decades. In the 1980s, Afghan mujahideen leader Nassrullah Mansour killed many Soviet troops who sought to capture the base that lies at the southern end of the Shah-e Kot Valley and intersects a major supply and escape route east to Pakistan. In a nearby valley, a Soviet commando battalion of 400 men was wiped out in one day in April 1986 after making a similar assault below fortified ridgelines.

This time, it was Mr. Mansour's son, Saif, who led the die-hard collection of Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants in making a stand against the Americans. After the fall of the Taliban regime last winter, hundreds of Arabs, Afghans, Chechens, and Uzbeks regrouped at the base, occupying the reinforced bunkers, mud-brick compounds, and caves complete with air vents and back exits.

Inside, they lived in rustic comfort in hideouts that appeared surreal to US troops who later searched the area. Entire skinned, smoked goats hung in kitchens, with bags of rice and cast-iron stoves for cooking and heat. They had punching bags, gym shoes, and exercise equipment. Copies of the Koran were common, as were Russian weapons manuals. Medical supplies, drugs, and even makeshift IVs stood ready for use. They had radios, cellphones, foreign passports, alarm clocks, and, of course, vast caches of weapons and ammunition.

Outside, some of the bunkers had 3-foot-thick stone walls, so strong that US antitank rockets bounced off, according to Staff Sgt. Del Rodriguez, who led a direct assault on one such enemy-held position.

Even US bombs and precision-guided missiles had limited effectiveness, as the fighting March 2 showed.

As the day wore on, Air Force controllers attached to Colonel LaCamera's battalion radioed for close airstrikes by B-52 bombers as well as "fast movers" such as F-16 fighter jets. The noise of the aircraft sent the enemy scurrying into their caves, giving the Americans an opportunity to reposition.

Still, pilots thousands of feet overhead had trouble landing bombs on cave openings hidden by the crags and shadows of the mountains. Once the aircraft left, enemy fire resumed.

Then, around 3 p.m., the airstrikes halted completely until nightfall. Seizing the opportunity, the well-stocked enemy began to pound the US troops with the most intense barrage of fire yet.

LaCamera's men were left to fight back with small arms: M4 rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. For a time, they were aided by a small group of US and Australian Special Operations Forces on the western ridge above. Those forces ambushed a group of Al Qaeda there and also radioed warnings when the enemy on the east ridge pulled out its mortars. US mortars lay quiet. They were considered too vulnerable to enemy targeting after the attack on Ryan's tube wounded Abbott and his men.

Yet pinpointing the well-concealed enemy positions with small arms also proved hard. A natural camouflage of shrubs, rocks, and juniper trees blended together in the snow, obscuring enemy muzzle flashes and the backblast from rocket-propelled grenades. "They knew the nooks and crannies and where to hide," LaCamera says.

The thin mountain air grew colder. American casualties mounted. Some of the men used their bare hands to scrape 3-foot-deep troughs for the wounded out of the ocher soil, laying two or three injured men in each one. They had little food, water, or winter clothing and only one of four medical supply bags – the other three had been dropped in the valley.

Worse, ammunition was low. The US troops exhausted their supply of machine-gun rounds. Within hours, they risked running out completely.

The Al Qaeda had the fight they wanted, their chance to kill Americans, LaCamera thought. He and his men were determined to see them fail.

* * *

One young US private was knocked down by a round in the chest, but scrambled back up and returned fire, saved by his Kevlar body armor. Two others lay without cover in the valley floor, guarding the perimeter. For hours, Sgt. Jeffrey Grothause and his nine-man squad maneuvered in and around the 50-yard-wide bowl, holding off Al Qaeda and Taliban who came from the village of Marzak in the north and crept to within 30 yards of US forces.

Shrapnel later tore into his arm, but Sergeant Grothause still picked up his M4 rifle and shot off a dozen rounds to cover his men. "It's just your will. You see your guys out there, and you say, 'I'm not going to let those guys go solo,' " he says. "We kept going."

As American troops like Grothause rallied that day, no one was prouder of his "boys" than Grippe. With dark eyes and black hair shaved halfway up his head, the ex-paratrooper had spent most of his career in Army Ranger units that had to be ready to deploy within 18 hours. He had seen action in the Middle East, Panama, and Haiti. In the eyes of his men, the burly sergeant of Sicilian descent embodied the heart and soul of the moment.

"Hooyah! Let's get some fire over there!" Grippe yelled, grabbing an M203 grenade-launcher to get his men on target.

"Hooyah, this is what it's about, man!"

Nearby was Grippe's longtime Ranger comrade and commanding officer. The blond, barrel-chested LaCamera seemed Grippe's perfect complement. Tracking the battle and communicating with higher-ups, the cool, soft-spoken West Point graduate made the day's toughest decisions.

Yet while Grippe, LaCamera, and other veterans exuded resolve, combat novices like Grothause and medic "Doc" Rivera pulled through with sweat, grit, and a refusal to let one another down.

Again and again as the day wore on, Rivera heard the telltale "thwump" of a mortar blasting from the mountains and lunged to shield the wounded. Cradling their heads in his blood-spattered hands, he heard their quiet prayers and moans. Then, the 160-pound specialist from Ellenville, N.Y., breathing hard at the 8,500-foot elevation, used all his strength to try to move his hurting buddies to safety.

"They are all torn up from shrapnel, but they are digging their legs and fingers into the dirt trying to move," Rivera recalls. "I want to pick them up, but I can't. So I drag them."

Then another casualty would come in, and another. "Doc, it hurts so bad," one told him. "Doc, what's gonna happen to me?"

"We gotta get these casualties out!" the medic yelled. But hour after hour, the answer came back the same: "The LZ's [landing zone's] too hot!"

Rivera was scared, but he knew he had to be strong for his guys. When he needed comfort, he thought of his friend Steve, the short, balding New York City paramedic he'd worked with last summer as part of his Army training. While stationed at an airfield in Uzbekistan in November, Rivera learned that Steve had been killed at the World Trade Center.

"I thought about him. I said, 'Hey, this is for you, man. This is for everybody who didn't make it.' It boosted me. It opened a window."

As the cold deepened and dusk spread across the valley, the men anticipated the advantage nightfall would bring. "We own the night," Sgt. Maj. Robert Healy, a former Ranger instructor who handled battalion operations, told them. "We can see them. They can't see us."

Then about 6:30 p.m., from high above, came the faint whir of propellers from the slow and low-flying but lethal AC-130 "Spectre" gunship, a plane the military restricts to flying at night. An instant later, a blaze of 105-mm cannon fire strafed the mountain, eliciting cheers from the US troops. Using infrared sensors and radar, the gunship crew spotted and picked off groups of the enemy caught unawares, unloading most of its ammunition. "Papa Spectre took care of business," said Sergeant Healy.

The gunship's detailed thermal-imaging cameras also offered evidence of the size of the enemy contingent the Americans faced: Upon arrival, its crew detected 60 enemy dead already on the eastern ridgeline, and then killed 28 more, said Taylor, the fire-support officer on the ground. US commanders later estimated the enemy force in the 18-hour battle at 150 to 200.

Warned by the gunship of more enemy closing in, LaCamera knew he had to get his men out. He called for a massive bombardment of the ridgelines to the east and west of his troops' position. US headquarters also ordered the bombing of Marzak village, which had been declared a hostile area. "I want Marzak and those ridges to disappear," LaCamera said. In the US air barrage that followed, B-52 bombers dropped a string of 2,000-pound missiles that rocked the ground and lit the sky like a gigantic fireworks display.

Yet when a Black Hawk medivac helicopter approached at 8 p.m., it still met sporadic fire. It was nearly hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, but managed to land and evacuate the 12 most seriously wounded.

At 10:45 p.m., a second gunship circled in to provide cover, and finally, near midnight, two Chinooks flew in for the rest of the troops, huddled in the freezing darkness. The sight of the wide-bodied birds, silver in the moonlight, was to Rivera "like the gates of heaven opening."

With gear and rucksacks recovered from the valley jostling on their backs, the soldiers scrambled up a 10-foot embankment to the choppers and piled in.

Still, for Abbott and others sitting confined and immobile before liftoff, it was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the day. A hit now, they knew, would mean carnage. After all they'd been through, they "didn't want to die sitting on a helicopter," Taylor said.

"Lay down some suppressive fire!" Grippe yelled to the Chinook gunner, who seemed unfazed by the danger. For the first time that day, the ridgeline above remained silent.

As the chopper rose, Abbott's whole body tensed as he gauged the rise in elevation. "100 feet, OK, nothing yet ... 200 feet...."

They cleared the valley. Healy, who had been holding his breath, burst out a sigh of relief.

Rivera looked at his buddies' dazed faces. "Yeah, we made it," he thought. "That was my lottery, right there," he said. "I won the lottery."

Epilogue

A cool spring breeze blows down through the hardwood forest of the Adirondack Mountains and across the grassy hills surrounding Fort Drum, N.Y. There, inside a packed sports arena festooned with US and state flags, LaCamera, Grippe, and dozens of their men stand at attention in the center of a basketball court as a military band plays the national anthem.

One by one, as their names are called, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division step forward.

"Lt. Col. Paul LaCamera ... the Silver Star ... for gallantry in action."

For his tough, clearheaded decisions on March 2, LaCamera earns the highest medal awarded to US soldiers so far in the antiterror war. Grippe and Healy receive the Bronze Star With Valor for "heroic achievement." Taylor and two dozen others are decorated with Bronze Stars, and Ryan with an Army Commendation Medal. Purple Hearts are awarded to Abbott and other wounded.

"Welcome home," booms Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Goedkoop from the podium. "And from a grateful nation, thank you."

The standing-room-only crowd erupts with applause from hundreds of comrades in fatigues, shouts from children, and tears from wives cradling infants. Many of the babies were born during the six-month Afghanistan deployment and are seeing their fathers for the first time. "I thought I'd never get to be a father," says Sgt. Randel Perez, who earned a Bronze Star With Valor for his bravery March 2. His son, Ramiro, was born Dec. 23.

Indeed, for the soldiers who hastily shipped out in October – unable to tell their families where they were going or when they'd return – it's a euphoric homecoming. A time, at last, to let their guard down.

"I said a couple of 'Our Fathers' and 'Hail Marys,' " LaCamera says, reflecting on the spiritual side of soldiering. "There's no atheist in a foxhole."

Grippe jokes about how the shrapnel lodged in his right hamstring will set off metal detectors for the rest of his life. He shrugs off his Bronze Star, saying, "It's really no big deal."

Maybe not to him. But at Shah-e Kot, the 10th Mountain Division was tested in the first battle of a campaign with huge stakes.

Amid fierce resistance, what was originally planned as a 72-hour operation stretched out for two weeks. An additional 200 to 300 US troops were flown in, as were Marine Cobra helicopters. In the end, US-led forces swept through the base and killed hundreds of enemy fighters, although an unknown number escaped, according to US military officials.

Grippe and his men were vital to bringing down an enemy stronghold, but the slightest loss of will, slip in judgment, or adverse turn could have cost scores of lives. Indeed, on March 4, just north of where Grippe and his men fought, seven US commandos on a reconnaissance mission died in mountain ambushes.

"What message would we send to the rest of the world on the seriousness of our war on terrorism if we lost against a terrorist organization?" Grippe asks. "An 18-hour battle can affect a whole country."

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