WASHINGTON – An American soldier who was dropped by helicopter into a barrage of Al Qaeda fire says he and his fellow troops survived an 18-hour firefight so brutal it's hard to tell the entire tale.
"I probably wouldn't tell my mom the exact truth," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Healy. "I wouldn't want to worry her too much."
Less than a minute after the men hit the ground running from their choppers, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and small-arms fire started exploding around them, Healy said.
"The RPG rounds were going anywhere from five to 10 feet from us," Healy told Pentagon reporters Thursday in a telephone interview from Bagram, Afghanistan, a U.S. base away from the Shah-e-kot valley battle area. The first mortar round wounded about six men, the second the same number, the 34-year-old soldier from Michigan recalled. The Pentagon would not divulge hometowns of Healy or other soldiers on the hookup.
Under such pressure, the Americans quickly took what cover they could find on the barren valley floor and began shooting back at Al Qaeda fighters firing from snowcapped ridge lines high above.
"Throughout the whole day, [it was] RPG rounds, machine guns, mortar rounds landing just everywhere." Most wounds were to arms and legs, with body armor protecting the soldiers' midsections. Shrapnel hit Healy in a leg, shoulder and "behind the ear," he said.
The 17-year Army veteran, with dozens of others from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, were expected to form blocking positions in the eastern Afghanistan valley in the battle last Saturday. It was an opening move in Operation Anaconda, designed to encircle the remnants of the Al Qaeda terror network and Taliban militia fighters in a mountain area of 60 to 70 square miles, then crush them.
Allied Afghan forces were supposed to have flushed Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from strongholds in the valley toward the American forces, but the Afghans also came under enemy fire and never made it to their position, the soldiers said.
"As with any LZ (landing zone), we were told to expect it, to react to it," Healy said when asked about the incoming fire's intensity. "We didn't think it would be that high a volume of fire coming at us. Luckily, they weren't accurate shots."
The senior enlisted man on the ground in the battle, Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, said about 125 men came in on three CH-47 Chinooks. He ordered "hunter-killer" sniper teams placed along the valley to the south, and men from the Army's 101st Airborne Division took up positions in the northern part of the valley, Grippe said.
The pre-battle picture painted by intelligence briefers, however, "was just a little bit different than the actual events happening on the ground," said Grippe, of New York. His men had landed "at the base of an Al Qaeda stronghold."
After about 10 minutes, Al Qaeda fighters "came out of caves and well-fortified positions," Grippe said. "We experienced a heavy volume of fire from the mountains above us. We returned fire, and we did kill Al Qaeda elements."
Grippe said the firefight continued from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., when his wounded were taken out. At midnight, he and the remainder of his forces were airlifted out of the battle area.
Grippe, 39, was hit by shrapnel in the back of a thigh.
"I guess I'll be setting off airport metal detectors the rest of my life," he said. Once his wounds heal, he intends to head back into the mountains with his men.
"Our infantry fought very well that day," he said, adding later that the absence of the Afghans turned the battle into "quite the American fight."
Afghans have since taken up the blocking role in other areas or are "on the offense" against the enemy, he said.
His own blocking mission turned into a battle that pinned the enemy down and detailed their positions for attacks by bombers, Grippe said.
"We didn't run from the fight. It wasn't a Mogadishu; it wasn't as though we were pinned down," he said. The enemy was forced to stay put and was hit repeatedly by airpower called in by his forces, he said.
Since their position at the bottom of the valley would not allow them to attack the forces on the mountains, they were pulled out, said Grippe, based at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Grippe called combat in rugged Afghanistan "a light infantry fight," tailored for men from the 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Air Assault units.
"It's quite a surprise to our enemies that my boys are up there at 10,000 feet, chasing them down," he said.