Operation Anaconda Vets Get Purple Hearts

Eight U.S. soldiers received Purple Hearts on Saturday for injuries suffered during an intense, 18-hour firefight on the first day of Operation Anaconda.

"The men standing here ... showed their metal and their steel in the sense that they were wounded in the early morning hours and were unable to be extracted until the early evening," said Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, the commander of all ground forces in Afghanistan, who placed the award on each of the men.

The battle began early on March 2, when the platoon from Charlie company of the 10th Mountain Division dropped into a valley on the eastern ridge of the Shah-e-Kot valley, nearly directly on top of an Al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold.

The battle raged until about midnight, with 28 of the 86 American soldiers injured but none killed.

"We eliminated a lot of Al Qaeda that day," said Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, 39, of Frankfurt, N.Y., who received the award after taking shrapnel to his hamstring.

It took days for American forces to finally take control of the area, with the help of intense bombing from the air.

The major fighting of Operation Anaconda has ended, but U.S., Canadian and allied-Afghan forces continue to go through the vast cave complexes of the frigid valley, searching for intelligence information and remaining enemy fighters.

It was the most extensive ground battle involving U.S. troops in the five-month Afghan war.

"You did exactly what the enemy was absolutely certain you could not do. You were characterized by them and many people throughout the world as being soft, self-centered and having no mental or physical toughness," Hagenbeck said. They said "as soldiers you couldn't hold a candle to these tough Taliban war-experience veterans in this country. You proved them all wrong."

Maj. Thomas Byrne, a doctor who was one of three medics treating the wounded, was injured when a mortar blast went off next to him as he treated a casualty. He continued treating the wounded even after becoming one of them himself.

Byrne, 32, from Renton, Wash., said it was "a miracle" that none of the men was killed.

"There were bullets flying over our heads, the mortars exploding, I just did a lot of praying, because if the mortars had hit any closer we would have been dead," he said.

Capt. James Taylor, 29, of Long Valley, N.J., who was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round in the shoulder, said he never feared that the men would make it out.

"I knew it was just a matter of time until we got the situation under control," Taylor said.

Capt. Timothy Gittins, 25, of Harlan, Iowa, was hit by shrapnel in the forearm but kept fighting. "I didn't even notice I was hit until I got back," he said.

"I learned a lot about myself that day," Gittins said, "and a lot about everyone else.

The other men who received the Purple Heart on Saturday were Maj. James Hall, 41, from Greenville, S.C.; Sgt. 1st Class David Jackson, 37, of Midland, Texas; Pfc. Jack Horn, 25, of Lafayette, La.; and Pfc. Chad Ryan, whose hometown was not available.