Two Afghan men on a motorcycle approached a makeshift camp of NATO and Afghan troops and unloaded a bundle of blankets. American soldiers went into combat mode, throwing on flak vests and helmets and grabbing their rifles. They feared it was a ruse — perhaps a suicide bomber moving in for the kill.
The Afghans raised their robes to show they had no weapons, and unwrapped the bundle. Inside was 7-year-old Sayd Rahman, shot in the chest near Marjah, where U.S. Marines are trying to clear out a bastion of insurgency in one of the biggest operations since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
"He's still breathing, so that's a good thing," said Cpl. Bradley Casey, member of a Canadian military unit that is training Afghan troops in the Badula Qulp region, northeast of Marjah. Forces there are assisting the Marines, impeding Taliban movement in the area.
It's an inevitability of war that the most vulnerable suffer as much or more than the combatants, particularly in the Afghan conflict, where insurgents dress in civilian clothing and melt away into the local population to escape the heavy firepower of their Western foes.
Mistakes occur, although that's little comfort to those who suffer from error.
The scene on Sunday morning appeared to be an example of that, though the details of what happened to the boy were hard to establish. His father, Neck Mohammad, said the boy was caught in crossfire at sunrise near his home, and he wasn't sure who did the shooting.
He and another man said they rode for an hour on a motorbike on bumpy, dirt tracks, with the passenger holding the blanket-wrapped boy. They made it to the military post, a ring of armored vehicles along a canal road where the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of Task Force Stryker is patrolling.
The soldiers, trained to kill, drew on another set of reflexes: saving a life.
They carried Sayd Rahman into the back of a Stryker infantry vehicle. The bullet wound, about the size of a coin, was in the center of his lower chest, just above the stomach. There was no exit wound, but heavy bruising that indicated internal bleeding. He was not coughing up blood, so his lungs were intact.
Casey, U.S. Maj. Steven Williams of Burlington, N.C., and U.S. Spc. Andrew Szala of Newport, R.I., did their jobs. They put a plastic chest seal with valves on the wound to prevent air entering and building up pressure that could collapse the lungs.
A Canadian soldier radioed for a "bird" — a helicopter — to fly from Camp Bastion, a British base about a five-minute flight away, to evacuate Sayd Rahman for surgery.
The boy called for his father and said he was cold. The medics put heat packs on his arms and legs, and wrapped him in blankets.
"I tried to put a small IV in his arm, but he just wasn't able to take it," Casey said later. "His veins were way too small. So we stopped, because it distressed him too much."
The medics made the boy sit up so that fluid in his chest wouldn't clog up. He leaned against his father.
His bleeding, slow at the beginning, picked up again.
"It's such a long time since he got shot," Williams said after his work was done. "We were worried about shock, and he was starting to show signs of that."
The wound seemed to have come from a 7.62 mm round, but both insurgents and allied troops use that type of bullet, so there was no way to know who did the shooting.
After a little more than 30 minutes, two Blackhawk choppers piloted by the aviation unit of the U.S. Special Forces were clattering overhead. They circled and one landed. In an instant, Sayd Rahman was airborne.
"He's a tough, little guy," said Szala, who was optimistic about the boy's chances. "He wasn't making a word."