SIRKANKEL, Afghanistan – It had been a freezing night in a dry riverbed, and just after dawn, the shells from Taliban and Al Qaeda guns started whistling in.
The barrage lasted for up to five hours, with varying intensity. A soldier who had taken shrapnel in the legs and buttocks howled in pain, but could not be evacuated in safety until nightfall.
Cold, chaos and the whine and thump of shells, incoming and outgoing. Nearly six months after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan was still in full swing.
I had been in Kandahar since early February, and for days on end had been watching soldiers line up and disappear into the cargo planes and helicopters taking off for the fighting in the eastern province of Paktia.
Young American infantry officers marched their men up the back ramps of C-130 cargo planes. Australian special forces, who had refused to acknowledge their presence in Kandahar, drove up to their airfield in Land Rovers armed with heavy machine guns.
My own departure for the front seemed to become imminent around Feb. 24 when I was told to prepare for extremely cold weather and was given pills for altitude sickness. By now there was none of the usual bustle of planes loading and unloading. Most of the staff officers were gone, and the perimeter guards were no longer Americans from the 101st Airborne Division, but recently arrived Canadian soldiers.
When we six journalists boarded a C-17 cargo plane with about 70 soldiers, all we knew was that we were accompanying a combat mission. The plane flew northeastward to Bagram air base with its lights off for safety.
The next morning, at Bagram, Col. Frank Wiercinski briefed his commanders on the mission.
"We're making history. You ought to be proud of yourselves — you ought to be proud of your soldiers," he said. "It's the Al Qaeda that we're after. We've said this from the beginning."
About 1,000 U.S. soldiers from three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division would be involved in Operation Anaconda. U.S. and coalition special operations soldiers would also take part, as would soldiers of the government of interim President Hamid Karzai.
Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of the operation, gave more details: Afghan forces loyal to commander Zia Lodin would fight their way into the village of Sirkankel with a small detachment of U.S. special forces, while soldiers from the 10th and the 101st would try to separate Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from civilians fleeing the village.
Hagenbeck and Wiercinski both said they didn't know what Zia's experience or background were. But they said commanders who had worked with Zia had spoken highly of him.
Now the waiting began. The mission was supposed to start on Feb. 27, but was postponed for 48 hours because of weather — rainy and blustery. The landscape around the base was gray and dismal: muddy roads and fields that looked like photos of the World War I battlefields of Verdun and Flanders.
The troops lived in rows of mud-spattered tents, some with crooked stove pipes jutting out. "It's the waiting that really gets you," said 1st Sgt. Jonathan Blossom, 42, from Kansas City, Kan. "The troops are on edge and they're ready to go."
Finally on Saturday came word that we would be helicoptered into an area outside Sirkankel that night. For most of the afternoon we waited on the airstrip.
After several false starts, word came after nightfall to board the CH-47 Chinook that would ferry us to our destination. The propellers of the giant transport helicopter were already raging as we lined up in two rows. We walked, then jogged to the Chinook, the soldiers carrying packs weighing up to 110 pounds.
When all the troops were on board, the machine finally took off, again in blackout conditions. Sitting next to the two side gunners, the only light I could see was the green reflection on their faces from their night-vision glasses.
Five minutes to go, the door gunner signaled, holding up his hand as we approached the landing zone. It had gone much faster than I expected, but at least the Chinook hadn't attracted any fire.
The soldiers disembarked and lay down, forming a circular perimeter. The helicopter took off, its roar faded away, and all 43 of us were left in dark and silence on the side of a barren hill.
Slowly the officers and their radio men began to scurry about, orienting themselves on maps and contacting other units to link up with before leading the march to our night position.
My feet were numb from the cold, and we moved slowly. We set up our perimeter in a dry riverbed — a good, defensible position.
The night passed in brief naps a few minutes at a time.
Just before dawn Blossom walked down the line of sleeping soldiers to shake them awake and tell them to pack up their sleeping bags, most all of which were wet — inside and out — from the early morning frost.
The soldiers were waiting for first light when the shells came in.
Rounds crashed and exploded, some as near as 15 yards away. As I lay on the riverbed, patches of earth flew through the air and soldiers ran by. A round came in, thudded into the ground a few feet away from me, ticked for a while but didn't go off.
A colleague whom I lay spooned into for safety asked what that sound was.
"Those are my knees knocking together," I told him.
None of the men I had arrived with were injured, but a soldier from a different company had a hellish time until the medics loaded him up with painkillers. He could not be evacuated until the night, because headquarters had forbidden most helicopters to fly during the day after five were damaged in the previous day's combat.
For most of the day we tried to stay under cover and it wasn't until late afternoon that we began to slowly move around again. We opened our food rations and ate them cold. Half of the soldiers slept, while the others stood watch.
During our second night in the combat zone, B-52s and AC-130 Spectre Gunships made bombing runs against positions in the hills and caves held by Al Qaeda. The concussive roar of the bombs moved through me, and several times I awoke to the racket of radio transmissions saying two MH-47E special operations helicopters were downed.
Seven Americans were killed including one Navy SEAL who, according to officials at the Pentagon, fell out as the stricken chopper veered up and away toward safer ground.
On Monday morning I found my way to a hilltop and through binoculars saw the hulk of a downed black helicopter, about a mile away. Near the top of the front two rotors, the paint had been burned away so that the bright aluminum was visible, and the landing gear appeared to be broken.
The rest of the day passed quietly. Soldiers cleaned their weapons and caught up on sleep. Tuesday came an ordeal of a different, but less threatening sort: digging trenches. We spent the afternoon chopping into the rocky earth. In my case, it served little purpose since no sooner was I finished than it was time to board a helicopter back to Bagram.