The helicopters were flying low and fast through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in the dead of night.
The soldiers of Havoc Company were rushing to the aid of an American unit pinned down by insurgents in a steep-walled canyon of the Pech River Valley. As they headed toward a 10,000-foot ridgeline not long before midnight on June 25, they knew they were entering one of the toughest neighborhoods in a country notorious for them.
Below Havoc Company that June night were hundreds of insurgents, commanders estimate, the product of Al Qaeda-run training camps that had been cleared out a year before – and now needed clearing out again.
But as the large Chinook transport helicopter carrying the bulk of the unit's forces was preparing to land, it clipped a nearby tree line.
Troops already on the ground watched in horror as it fell 80 feet and burst into flames.
"The first thought I had was that everyone was dead," says Pfc. John Litwinczuk, a broad-shouldered machine-gunner with Havoc Company who had been watching from below.
Amazingly, none were. But those who crawled out of the burning fuselage were to face the fight of their lives come daybreak.
No longer would Havoc's mission be to descend into an area that US commanders had nicknamed "the Gambir jungle" – thick with pines and undergrowth and interlaced with a complex network of caves – to relieve the besieged 1st Platoon. Instead, it would stay on this high outcrop and bar the back door against Taliban reinforcements seeking to join the battle below – a five-day-long brawl that, at one point, had the company commander asking his troops, "Can you hold your line?"
The stories of the soldiers involved in the mission, code-named Operation Hammer Down, are both harrowing and heroic, starkly illustrating the harsh realities of America's war in Afghanistan. This is particularly true in the country's east, which has seen none of the "surge" reinforcements that were primarily sent to the south. Instead, commanders call the east an "economy of force" operation.
Today, the troops here have responsibility for twice the area of their predecessors. With US force levels across Afghanistan, now at 100,000, set to diminish by 10,000 at year's end and another 23,000 by next summer, some soldiers in the east openly question whether drone strikes wouldn't be a better option than risking American lives for what can seem like temporary gains. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the decline in US forces by the year's end.]
"This was not the first time the Gambir mission has been executed. The unit we replaced, they did it," says Sgt. Ridge Kaaekuahiwi of 1st Platoon. The Gambir Jungle has been cleared every year since 2006, according to US intelligence officials. "And probably when we make it out of here, the next unit is going to do the same thing," Kaaekuahiwi adds.
Commanders call it a complicated puzzle in which air assaults and repeated clearing missions are necessary. "I think you continue to chip away," says Col. Richard Kim, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, which includes the units that fought in Operation Hammer Down. "And that's what we're doing. We're chipping away."
Battle for the Gambir Jungle:
Part 1, Tuesday: Soldiers' tales of an epic battle
Part 2, Wednesday: Into the 'Valley of Death'
Part 3, Thursday: First Platoon's 'last stand'
Part 4, Friday: A race against daybreak
Part 5, Saturday: What was it all for?