DUSTOFF 73 and the 'Valley of Death'

Article excerpt

The assault targeted a key Taliban training camp in Afghanistan's Kunar province. The mission was failing. The wounded were dying. The medevac team took off on the perilous mission to save them...

The first bodies came on the first day of the opera- tion. It was a Saturday, hot and quiet, the wind spinning eddies of sand around Forward Operating Base Joyce in eastern Afghanistan. Out of the mid- morning silence came the crackle of a hand radio. "Medevac! Medevac! Mede- vac!" said the dispatcher, and eight camouflaged figures--the helicopter crews of DUSTOFF 73 and DUSTOFF 72--darted out of their tents, a rehearsed riot of belts and straps, buckles and Velcro. Going by the manual, it takes more than an hour to prep a Blackhawk helicopter for flight. But both of these birds were airborne within five minutes, the pilots still blink- ing sleep from their eyes.

The call came from a unit in Operation Hammer Down, a mission to clear Taliban training camps in the Watapur Val- ley, just over the border from Pakistan's most dangerous tribal regions. The same terrain stymied the Soviets in the 1980s, and controlling it was an elusive center- piece of the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Every summer U.S. forces charged in by the hundreds, but every fall the bad guys were back again, and the cycle re- peated. This mission was meant to be the last dance, a crucial partnership with the Afghan National Army before the Obama administration began unwinding the war.

It broke down almost immediately. Before dawn a lumbering Chinook transport helicopter clipped a tree line and crashlanded high in the mountains, stranding a platoon of infantry soldiers. At least two other platoons were ambushed at dawn as they moved into the valley. And by midday the medic calls were stacking up like bids at an auction. The most urgent came from Gambir, a village notched into the mountainside, where 40 soldiers dug in against the onslaught. The first in com- mand was already dead, shot in the neck as he moved to higher ground to organize an evacuation. Now a skinny black private was slowly choking on his own blood, his jaw shot away.

Inside the cockpit of DUSTOFF 73, the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Erik Sabiston, 38, stared out from behind dark shades. Back at base he's known as a jokester, the guy who carpets a Red Sox fan's locker with Yankee paraphernalia. But not in the air. Now Sabiston talked maneuvers with co-pilot Kenneth Brodhead, 44, one of the most experienced fliers in the Army; behind them were two relative rookies, 24-year-old Specialist David Capps, the crew's technician, and next to him the medic herself, Sgt. Julia Bringloe, one of the few women on the front lines. They were flying over a region where more than a hundred Americans have died fighting, a many-named series of valleys known among some veterans by only one: the "Valley of Death."

There was no way to land in Gambir; the fighting around the gravely wounded soldier was too intense. Trees burned, build- ings smoldered. Taliban reinforcements streamed in from a network of caves and the homes of sympathetic locals. So over the next few hours--while American gunships tried to clear Gambir for an emergency landing--the two DUSTOFF helicopters knocked down their rescue lists elsewhere. There was a patient with shrapnel in his thigh, two patients with gunshot wounds, and then two more with the same. Neither helicopter landed; instead, Bringloe and the other medic were hoisted down on hooks, and then hoisted back up along with the stricken. No shots were fired, no enemy engaged. It was almost like a training day.

Then Sabiston swung the helicopter toward Gambir. The village came into view all at once. It looks like a war movie, Sabiston thought to himself, like Apocalypse Now. A hot tide of adrenaline rushed through him. Capps, who flew with an American flag wrapped beneath his body armor, thought of his son, just 5 months old. …