Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Battle for Afghanistan's Gambir Jungle: 1st Platoon's 'Last Stand'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Battle for Afghanistan's Gambir Jungle: 1st Platoon's 'Last Stand'

Article excerpt

By the end of Day 1 of Operation Hammer Down, 1st Platoon needed help. But when reinforcements arrived, they found they had more than enough of their own troubles.

[To read the previous installment of this series, please click here.]

Operation Hammer Down had begun in the hours before midnight of June 24 as an operation to flush insurgents out of terrorist training camps in the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan. Now, in the full light of Sunday, June 25, it was clear that B Company's 1st Platoon was, in the words of one soldier, being "rocked."

From a ridge some 500 yards away, the soldiers from B Company's 3rd Platoon, also a part of Operation Hammer Down, could see the battle raging between the 1st and the Taliban.

It was clear the enemy were experienced fighters. "They were using our tactics against us, basically," says Staff Sgt. Christopher Panter of the 3rd. "And they know our rules of engagement probably better than we do."

When US aircraft sped down the valley in an effort to fire on enemy positions, "You'd see a lot of females getting up on the buildings, waving fighters in to hide them," Panter says. "It's hard to see that. You can watch eight fighters pile into a building, but you know there are women and children in there so you can't do anything about it."

As the 3rd watched from a distance, 1st Platoon soldiers who could were rallying to a safe house they had established, creating a strong point for the unit in a nearby mud-walled house called a kulat. It was "a 'last stand' kind of thing," as one soldier describes it.

From then on, says Sgt. Elwyn Lovelace of the 1st, "We just kind of focused on keeping ourselves alive."

Meanwhile, in the gulch, injured Staff Sgt. Nigel Kelly and the soldiers of the 1st working to save him remained vulnerable, with Taliban fighters all around. "At one point when we were down in there we could hear them above us," says Spc. Derrick Dickerson. "All they had to do was lean over and spray, and we'd be done."

Kelly urged the soldiers to just leave him behind. "He told us that while we were playing dead. He told us that it wasn't worth us getting hurt," says Dickerson.

Dickerson and the others did not heed his suggestion. Slowly, as darkness fell, he and the other soldiers pulled Kelly up the gulch and to the rooftop of the kulat that had become the strong point in hopes of having him airlifted to safety.

A medevac chopper, under cover of night, came at last. For five minutes, it hovered above Kelly and the other soldiers. "But it wouldn't land," Dickerson says. The area was too dangerous. "Once it left, probably about 10 minutes after that, [Kelly] died."

Barring the 'back door'

By that night, senior commanders overseeing Operation Hammer Down had made a decision. They would not pull the plug. Instead, the 1st Platoon would hold the strong point and wait to be relieved by a new unit: Havoc Company. …

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