CORONADO, Calif. – Before U.S. Marines landed outside Kandahar, a group of Navy SEALs were already on the ground in Afghanistan, carrying out a secret mission dangerously close to the Taliban's last stronghold.
In an atypical gesture of openness Thursday, the Navy had two SEALs discuss a 96-hour operation that took place miles behind enemy lines. Their names were withheld, and they did not answer questions that could compromise security.
The SEALs' target was a private airstrip built by a wealthy Arab to reach his hunting lodge. Within two weeks, the world would know it as Camp Rhino, and the Marines there would be helping opposition Afghan forces run the Taliban out of town.
The airstrip was believed to be deserted, but the SEAL team, one of three based in Coronado, was sent in to make sure. In order to avoid detection, the SEALs communicated by hand signals and spoke only when necessary and in a close whisper. They left no traces, carting out even their bodily waste.
"I've been in 16 years and this was like the big game," said the platoon's chief enlisted man.
"We're real fortunate to get a chance ... to be tested."
With each carrying 100 pounds of food, weapons and gear, the SEALs were dropped "a significant distance" from the strip. Nothing separated them from their target but a silent, abandoned landscape of sand and dust.
"The only thing you hear is the wind," said a 34-year-old lieutenant from Iowa, the platoon's No. 2 in command.
Although Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, the area was so isolated no mines were encountered.
They moved at night under moonless skies, lit by a dome of stars. A thermometer carried by the lieutenant showed the temperature plummeting into the 20s. During the day, they slept out of sight. Dirt covered their bodies.
Through night vision goggles they could see animals that resembled coyotes. During the days, U.S. jets streaked overhead.
"It's a cold, desolate place where anything could happen. You have to be prepared for anything," said the top enlisted man, a 35-year-old from Ohio.
They discovered that the landing strip was indeed deserted and passed the word that all was clear. But as the Marines struggled to ironing out the landing logistics, the SEALs' 24-hour mission stretched into 96 hours.
Their silence wasn't broken until Nov. 25 when the thunder of the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters announced the arrival of the Marines. For the SEALs providing security, this was the most dangerous moment, but the landing went off without a hitch.
"I want to thank you guys for freezing for us," the Marines' company commander told them.
Hours later, the SEALs were gone, returning to an unnamed base in the Middle East. Twelve days later, on Dec. 7, the Taliban fled Kandahar.
The Navy's elite "Sea, Air, Land" force has served as an advance guard for the Marine Corps in nearly every U.S. conflict since its conception in 1962. Its members are trained to conduct almost any mission in any climate, from deserts to frozen tundra to the high seas.
"That's why we exist," said Evin Thompson, chief staff officer for the Coronado SEAL teams.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.