It was Aug. 10, 2009 in the Arghandab River Valley, a hot and dusty day full of unknowns.
An American battalion was swapping in with a Canadian garrison. As the Stryker troop carrier rumbled toward the riverside orchards, a Canadian soldier warned 1st Lt. Vic Cortese, 24, of East Quogue, New York: "We don't go in there."
The American troops clambered out of the Stryker's cramped confines into the raw sunlight. The soldiers spread out, started walking.
Less than 20 minutes later, snap, snap, snap in the air. A Taliban ambush. Cortese's first firefight, and he went numb. "For a split second, I was like: 'Oh man!'" he recalled. Then training took command. He pushed against the earth, lifted his M-4 rifle and pulled the trigger.
Twenty-two men in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of 800 died in a yearlong Afghan tour ending this summer. Most were killed last year in the Arghandab, a gateway to the southern city of Kandahar. About 70 were injured, all but two in bomb blasts.
The death toll was one of the highest in the Afghan war, and the tough fight in the Arghandab drew the attention of America's leaders. President Obama was photographed saluting the coffin of one of the soldiers on arrival in the United States. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told soldiers at their base in March that their efforts had helped push back the Taliban.
However, the battalion failed to dislodge insurgent cells entirely. A similar outcome is emerging in the southern town of Marjah after a bigger operation led by U.S. Marines in February. An even larger campaign is unfolding in Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital.
The battalion's story is an extreme example of the challenges American soldiers face in Afghanistan.
The battalion is part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which originally trained for urban combat in Iraq. But the mission changed in the final months of training, and the brigade's 130 Arabic students took a crash course in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's largest ethnic community.
The battalion's Stryker vehicles, prized for their speed and mobility, were making their debut in the Afghan war. But they could not operate in rough terrain where soldiers had to get around on foot.
The timing was bad; August is the height of Afghanistan's fighting season.
Perhaps most treacherous of all, the battalion had very little intelligence. The soldiers didn't know it, but they faced an entrenched enemy willing to stand and fight for a sliver of territory vital to the Taliban's goal of seizing Kandahar. They needed more manpower.
Before dawn on Aug. 7, the battalion rolled out of Kandahar to Forward Operating Base Frontenac, just northwest of the Arghandab. The soldiers in the hatches got sunburns. The thermometer read 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
A "perfect storm" awaited, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann, the battalion commander, from the tiny town of Baker in Montana.
"You can't get from one side of the river to the other easily. You can't do anything on vehicles," Neumann said. "We didn't know it was going to be saturated with enemy. Nobody was tracking that it was a Taliban sanctuary."
Two deaths in five minutes
Spc. Troy O. Tom was the first. A 21-year-old Navajo from Shiprock, New Mexico, he smiled serenely through tough camp training and told friends he turned down scholarships to serve his country. On Aug. 18, an explosive on a footbridge killed him.
Within five minutes, Pfc. Jonathan C. Yanney, 20, of Litchfield, Minn., died the same way. Soldiers say he stopped, stooped to adjust his heavy backpack, and took his last step.
Fear of more attacks delayed the search for the bodies. The next day, a bomb struck a convoy. The shock wave thumped 1st Lt. Kyle Hovatter of Tallahassee, Fla. in the face — "like a ton of bricks," he said. Soldiers spotted a dozen muzzle flashes in the undergrowth. Sixteen Strykers unloaded 50-caliber machine gunfire and other ordnance. Helicopters flew low, unleashing at least 100 rockets.
The barrage subsided, and the Americans found Tom and Yanney.
A pattern was emerging.
The Taliban had no chance in a firefight, but disrupted American movement with mines and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, usually fuel-soaked fertilizer packed in cooking oil jugs and wired to a power source that ignites the mix.
The IEDs got bigger as insurgents learned to pierce the Stryker hulls. At first, the Americans walked into bombs around trails and at gaps in walls. They adapted, varying movements and spotting ribbons in trees and other Taliban markers for IEDs.
Hovatter, 27, replaced a wounded platoon leader, and tried not to think of his wife on patrol so he could stay alert. He played out worst-case scenarios: What if the guy in front steps on a mine? What will I do?
"You're the American army, you're the U.S. infantry," Hovatter said. "You don't expect to come across something that's going to make you step back and say: 'How can I change?'"
In photographs, Capt. John L. Hallett III of Concord, California, resembles a diffident schoolboy, his ears poking out awkwardly.
Once he visited Afghan police and balked at his hosts' yogurt drink in a communal bowl. They gave him a glass. Too polite to decline, he held it for the entire meeting and dumped its contents in the bowl when nobody was looking.
On Aug. 25, an IED in a culvert flipped a Stryker, killing 30-year-old Hallett and three others. Six days later, more deaths. A medic tried to resuscitate a soldier who lost limbs, then announced it was over.
1st Sgt. Charles Burrow ordered the medic to continue until the helicopter arrived for the "angel flight" that would carry the dead man away. He didn't want to give up.
After the evacuation, a void settled inside Burrow. It was as though there was nothing left to do. He turned to the Protestant chaplain, Capt. Gary Lewis, who arrived to counsel the soldiers.
"Chaplain, be quick. I'm sending these guys right back out. I don't want them dwelling on it right now," Lewis remembers Burrow saying.
Again and again, the battalion tried to close out grief. Focus on the task. Look ahead, not back. Each time a soldier died, the base flag flew at half-staff, but only for a few hours. Death became normal, a jarring routine. It meant loss; it meant everyone else was still alive.
"We aren't civilians. It's not like some dude that you work with. We live together, eat together. You get pretty close and emotionally attached," said Burrow, 36, of Harker Heights, Texas. Of the attacks, he said: "It shakes your confidence. All of these came like, 'bang, bang, bang.'... Anytime there's an event like that, you re-examine: 'Why am I here?'"
In one firefight, soldiers pumped bullets into an insurgent who sprinted into the open to drag away a wounded comrade. Watching him die gave therapeutic release.
Getting street smart
One September night, two dozen suspected insurgents appeared with bags around an American post, then pushed into the orchards before dawn. Coalition rules of engagement barred the Americans from opening fire unless there was obvious hostile intent.
The paltry role of Afghan forces was also frustrating. Chaplain Lewis, a 37-year-old father of four from San Diego, California, once boarded a Stryker with two Americans who survived an IED strike. In back were two Afghan soldiers, one of whom had shot himself in the foot. A commander told Lewis: "Keep an eye on those two. Make sure their weapons remain on safe."
It was hard to separate civilians from insurgents. On village patrols, the Americans probably shook hands with unarmed fighters. The battalion struggled for traction in civil outreach. One platoon delivered a generator on a pallet outside a medical clinic; gunmen shot holes in it overnight.
Gradually, soldiers learned the territory, and Taliban tactics. They pushed into target areas before pre-dawn prayers at the mosque, and once roared up a dry riverbed in Strykers to win surprise. They knew an ambush was looming in a village where the children had vanished.
With time, villagers returned, and talked. By November, soldiers had found caches of weapons and bomb-making material.
One patrol felt a turning point when an old man motioned afar with his cane.
"Taliban," the man said.
There are versions of what Staff Sgt. Michael Brown, 27, said when a mine severed his right foot on Oct. 15. It's part of Alpha Company lore. It was either "Man, this is really going to affect my jump shot" or "This is going to affect my golf swing" or "That was my accelerator foot."
Always upbeat, Brown stayed in character. A medic tied a tourniquet. "Doc, is that tight enough?" inquired Brown of Staten Island, New York. The pain floated away with the morphine.
Life could end anytime. In the early days, soldiers exhaled in relief every time a boot sank harmlessly into the earth.
"Every step is, 'When? When? When? When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen?" said Alpha's 1st Sgt. Gene Hicks, 39, of Tacoma, Wash., a former Marine who will retire and become a deputy sheriff in Boise, Idaho.
And then, he said, it would be: "Boom! It just happened."
U.S. commanders were fighting an estimated 200 or more Taliban who always removed their dead.
Pomegranates perched on trees like Christmas ornaments, cool and sweet. But the foliage trapped a sauna-like heat. It was hard to see. Troops walked in a constant crouch. They hopped mud walls or broke holes in them. On the night Brown was hurt, the entire Alpha Company — about 150 men — crawled single-file through a hole the size of a bedroom window.
Rifles aloft, soldiers waded across irrigation trenches. The terrain reminded some of scenes from Vietnam War movies. It was a maze.
"Everything but the Minotaur," said 26-year-old Capt. Michael Kovalsky of Fords, New Jersey. He took command of Alpha Company after Hallett's death.
One platoon adopted a dog, named Staff. Sgt. Bear. One night, Bear barked at the darkness. A daytime search unearthed an IED.
When Christmas came, the dining hall displayed "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss. On the cover, someone crossed out "Grinch" and wrote "Taliban."
The men grew close. They could identify others in the dark by their gaits. When Brown was blown up, his comrades instantly recognized his voice from the screams.
Oct. 27: The boom was muffled, possibly because the IED hit square underneath the Stryker.
But the radio call was clear and final. Eight KIA, killed in action. Seven Charlie Company soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. The blast had driven the armor plate under the Stryker through the roof, peeling it off like a can opener.
A firefight erupted. Afterward, troops found a man's corpse and drag marks, probably an attempt by insurgents to remove the body. A young boy sobbed nearby. He told an interpreter that the man was his uncle and brought him along as a human shield.
"He thought you wouldn't shoot us," the boy said.
At the smoking Stryker, soldiers collected body parts. They ran out of body bags. On base, they collected things — letters, clothes, photos, computers — from the rooms of the dead for delivery to their families.
Grousing is common in any army, but a deeper resentment brewed in the 1-17. In November, brigade chief Col. Harry Tunnell replaced Capt. Joel Kassulke of Charlie Company, which had suffered the most deaths — 12 men — of the four companies.
The soldiers fumed. They thought the captain was made a scapegoat.
In December, the battalion took a new mission to secure area highways. Fighting had ebbed, and a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division took over most of the Arghandab. Some 1-17 soldiers were emotional — they thought they were winning, and felt defeat at leaving.
A month later, an Army Times newspaper article included assertions by Charlie Company junior leaders that they had not trained adequately for the Afghan mission, and that the battalion had not focused enough on civilian concerns.
Neumann said civil development was hardly the first option in a heavy combat zone, but acknowledged he could have done more to convey command thinking down the chain. As for Kassulke's transfer, he said, the brigade command believed the man and the company were close to a "breaking point" and needed change.
"That was a bitter pill for that company to swallow," Neumann said. The Army Times article, he said, "tore at the fiber of this unit and I was proud that we shook that off too."
Phobia about orchards
With the deployment nearly over, Sgt. Richard Thibeault of Bravo Company remembered Aug. 10, 2009, when he and Cortese first tasted combat. A bullet struck Thibeault's ceramic chest plate but did not penetrate. He went somewhere else: a dream, a bubble, a cocoon.
"It knocked me back a couple of steps and I hit the ground," he said. "It was like hearing everything through a can, being way off. It was like being five miles away and hearing gunfire. Everything was real faint, but I was right there in the middle of it."
Thibeault crawled, and a soldier grabbed him by the collar.
"I got up there behind the wall ... and said, 'Hey man, I got shot,'" Thibeault recalled. "He looked and he said, 'No, you didn't.' I was like, 'Yeah, I was.' He was, 'No, you didn't. Start firing.'"
The soldier shoved his hand under Thibeault's vest and yanked it out. No blood.
Thibeault, 22, of Cornelia, Georgia, had bowel movement trouble for a month and has a phobia about orchards. On leave, he got a tattoo of a crosshairs with a wisp of smoke where the bullet would have entered.
At Frontenac today, photographs of the dead line the corridor in the headquarters. A concrete memorial bears their names.
Cortese struggles to wrap his mind around things. In the beginning, he wanted to know if he would hold up in a firefight. Now he knows, and he was promoted. But will home be the same? Will he miss Afghanistan?
"I feel like when we're back, I'm going to want to be over here and I don't know why," Cortese said. "It will be hard to watch the news and not be here."