(July 2010) Three weeks into the fight in the volatile Arghandab Valley, an American platoon of the Army's 101st Airborne Division is heading to the rear, weakened by horrific war injuries and unable to continue its mission. The platoon -- 1st platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 320 Field Artillery Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division -- started the mission with 17 men, and now is down to nine. Combat Outpost Nolen has seen some of the most intense fighting in Kandahar Province.
This area is critical to U.S. control of the region because it's a main supply route into the city of Kandahar for the Taliban. It's also treacherous for the platoon trying to carry out its mission.
Shrapnel ripped into Sgt. Matthew Kendall's face and left arm on July 4, when a soldier from another unit stepped on a homemade bomb, which the military calls an IED, as Kendall walked next to him.
Spc. Kevin Gatson fell victim to another IED July 12. It was one of many that have been seeded in farming land surrounding the former school the platoon is using as a base. Gatson lost his leg and three fingers. The platoon leader, 1st Lt. Norman Black, had his eardrum blown out by the blast.
A quick reaction team was immediately sent from COP Nolen and came to Gatson's aid. On the way, an IED exploded and Staff Sgt. Kyle Malin lost both of his legs. Less than 45 minutes later, an IED took off both of Pfc. Corey Kent's legs and part of his left hand. Sgt. Michael Hagan was hit in the face and arm by shrapnel, and also suffered a ruptured eardrum.
Just two days later on July 14, Pfc. Brandon King, a soldier from a different platoon, was shot by a marksman while standing guard duty. He was the first soldier killed at COP Nolen since it was taken over by the 101st Airborne Division.
On July 19, Staff Sgt. Avionne Reese walked into an IED for the third time in the three-week deployment -- it shot pieces of the bomb into the right side of his body. Luckily no one was seriously injured in the first incident on July 5, when an IED went off near a patrol. But on July 12, in the second incident, he was struck by shrapnel from the IED that hit Gatson. After three IEDs the Army will take a soldier out of the fight for evaluation.
Spc. Pedro Torres injured his arm and was hit in the face by the same blast that hit Reese.
The group has already been recommended for 10 Purple Hearts.
Sgt. Leon Richards, from a different platoon, was recommended for a Bronze Star for Valor for calling a medivac helicopter, providing aid and assistance to the wounded, and helping Spc. Jacob Walker out of a field peppered with IEDs.
The numbers alone tell you Afghanistan is getting more dangerous by the month, but those tragically killed in action only tell part of the story.
The numbers can't describe the feeling these men have of leaving the razor wire around their tiny mud-walled compound each day. Every day they try desperately to walk in the footprints of the man in front of them, in 120 degree heat, while weighed down by 85 pounds of gear through humid pomegranate groves and grape fields. The fields swamp visibility in every direction, with green foliage carpeting otherwise dusty terrain areas.
They can't walk on roads or paths because the IED threat is too great. They must climb over 10-foot mud walls on a route so difficult that 600 meters of walking could take an hour and a half. All the while they're on the lookout for a command wire, milk jug, or a rock pile that wasn't there the day before.
The minute they leave the wire the enemy has been alerted they're on the move. The element of surprise is not in their favor. Firefights are a daily occurrence. In fact, COP Nolen is attacked so often that the men refer to a "witching hour," usually between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. That's when the energy-sapping heat has faded down enough that the Taliban is ready for fighting.
The buzzwords here are about counterinsurgency doctrine, fighting corruption in the government, setting up local governance, and standing up the Afghan Army and police. But at the very basic level it's about survival for the men leaving the wire to walk through the fields, and for the average farmer working those same fields, too.
Numbers can't explain the constant tension, fear, lack of sleep, or horrific scenes that unfold before platoon members' eyes each day.
Soldiers often say that courage isn't just willing to go into the fight. True courage is knowing what's waiting for you, and going anyway.