The blast from the mine tore into the American soldier’s body, tossing him backwards through the air like a rag doll. He spun in mid-flight and thumped onto a dirt path 20ft away.
Silence descended for a moment as a large brown cloud of dust settled over his comrades where they crouched between two mud walls. Then the shouting began.
“Medic,” yelled one of the men. The cry was repeated down a line of soldiers. “Get a f****** medic up here now!”
An Afghan soldier who had been caught in the explosion was beyond help. His legs were sliced off above the knees. He quickly bled to death.
The American, however, was conscious and became the focus of frenzied activity.
With their ears ringing from the blast, two US soldiers raced through the haze and knelt beside Specialist Robert Trujillo, 25, an amateur boxer from Denver, Colorado.
When they rolled him onto his back they were shocked by what they saw. Blood pulsed from two gaping wounds on the insides of his thighs. His fingers were smashed and limp. Small stone fragments were embedded in the blackened flesh of his arms and legs.
As Captain Matt Crawford, a 31-year-old intelligence officer from Darlington, Pennsylvania, took in the extent of the injuries, all he could think was: “He’s going to die unless we do something now.”
Crawford and Sergeant Zane Cordingly, a close friend of the injured man, stuffed gauze into the open wounds as pools of blood began to leak into the dirt beneath him.
“He’s bleeding bad. He’s going to bleed out,” said Cordingly, a deeply religious, blond-haired 24-year-old who had himself been knocked flat by the force of the blast.
Both men dug their knees into Trujillo’s groin, pressing their whole body weight down on either side to cut off the blood supply.
Taliban gunmen opened fire 300 yards to our west. Bullets cracked overhead but the battle to save Trujillo continued regardless. “Where does it hurt? Tell me about your baby boy,” Cordingly told Trujillo, fighting to keep his friend alert. “Tell us how you met your wife. How’s the weather in your home state?”
“I met her at a party,” Trujillo struggled to reply. “F*** the weather, man.”
An Afghan soldier attached to the unit started cutting off Trujillo’s body armour. As he bandaged his fingers, he ran out of dressings. He raced over to me, ducking low to avoid incoming rounds, and I handed him bandages and pressure dressings from a pouch on the side of my armour.
“Everything f****** hurts right now, man,” Trujillo groaned, his chest heaving as he sucked in air. “I just want to see my boy Jackson again.”
The men of the 75th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, had no warning that they had walked into a trap laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Alpha Company, from the regiment’s 1st Squadron — known simply as “1-75” — had entered the village of Zenadan, a cluster of mud homes, with the intention of presenting some sheep to celebrate its liberation from the Taliban. The “freedom sheep” did not arrive so the soldiers set about delivering blankets and food.
About 15 men had crossed a narrow footbridge over an irrigation ditch on the outskirts of the village when the bomb exploded beneath the Afghan soldier, a 28-year-old man identified only as Ali, from the northern province of Takhar.
A plume of smoke rocketed into the air 40 yards in front of me. Ali was hurled over a wall, coming to rest in front of Colonel Thomas McFayden, the squadron commander, who had just walked over the bomb without detonating it.
Trujillo, one of the colonel’s bodyguards, groaned as he lay on the ground with his friends around him. Every now and then, as Crawford and Cordingly tended to his wounds, he spoke through puffy, bloodencrusted lips.
“I can’t feel my arm, gentlemen. I can’t feel my feet,” he said. “What happened? Is the colonel okay? Is my cock okay? It hurts like hell.”
Cordingly reassured him: “The colonel is fine. He’s proud of what you’ve done for him. You stepped on an IED but you’re going to be okay. Your cock is still there. We’re going to get you home to your wife.”
Forty-five minutes after the explosion, a medic injected Trujillo with morphine and called for a stretcher.
A group of us rolled him onto his side, slipped the stretcher beneath him and pushed him back on top of it, to loud yelps of pain. His belt caught on the metal frame. I grabbed a pair of scissors lying in the dust and cut it from him.
As the soldiers raced back along the path and over the footbridge, a medical evacuation helicopter roared in to land in a nearby field. One of the soldiers lost his footing and dropped the stretcher. “Oh f*** that hurts, you assholes,” cried the wounded soldier.
His comrades slid him into the back of the Black Hawk and the helicopter took off in a swirl of dust and hay.
As Afghan soldiers collected Ali’s body, burying what was left of his legs, American bomb disposal experts were painstakingly investigating. They found no fewer than seven other IEDs along the trail.
One of the home-made bombs was embedded beneath the footbridge we had all crossed moments before the mine was detonated. Four more were packed into used mortar shells along the wall where the soldiers had crouched.
Trujillo’s gun magazine was found 50 yards from the blast on the other side of the irrigation ditch. The mine was said to have shattered almost every bone in his body.
“It is strange,” McFayden said later, back at base. “You try to bring in food to feed the people and all they want to do is kill you. It is a strange kind of warfare.”
Operation Dragon Strike, aimed at flushing insurgents from their heartlands around the strategically critical southern Afghan city of Kandahar, began three weeks ago in the district of Zhari.
Winning here is considered fundamental to President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan.
“We are going to get rid of the insurgents and backfill the space we leave with our troops and with Afghan soldiers and the Afghan government,” said McFayden, whose squadron forms the backbone of the surge into Zhari, west of the city.
McFayden, nicknamed “the Silver Fox” for his greying hair, has been assigned the task of driving the insurgents off Highway One, the main route from Kandahar to Kabul, the capital.
Taliban gun teams three or four men strong have been hiding in tunnels and grape fields before mounting “shoot and scoot” attacks, harassing American troops with small arms fire to lure them onto mined tracks.
As the fighting has spread, local people have abandoned villages such as Sangesar — where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, used to preach at a mosque — for the relative safety of Kandahar city.
US commanders said the first three weeks of Operation Dragon Strike had been a success. Drones, heavy artillery, mortars, helicopter gunships and troops on the ground killed more than 70 Taliban fighters in rat runs and fields.
British Harrier jets and American B-1 bombers pounded IED factories with 500lb bombs. Soldiers seized white Taliban flags and captured the Taliban’s shadow deputy governor. Taliban foot soldiers were overheard telling their commanders on the radio: “It’s raining hard in Zhari.”
Over the past week, however, 1-75 Squadron has started to take casualties as Taliban reinforcements have arrived from Pakistan. The IED strike that wounded Trujillo last Sunday was a sign that the Taliban still hold sway over large parts of Zhari.
On Monday, two platoons from 1-75’s Charlie Company pushed west on a mission to engage Taliban fighters a mile from its most southerly outpost. Second Platoon took sporadic fire from Taliban Kalashnikovs for most of the morning as the soldiers trudged through 10ft tall marijuana plants and elephant grass.
One platoon sharpshooter was quick to spot an insurgent preparing to fire. “I saw him pop up over the wall. I shot him square in the sternum,” said Marksman Cory Smith.
But the drones circling in the sky above failed to track the Taliban team carrying the body away and, unbeknown to the Americans soldiers, the enemy was soon preparing its second ambush of the day.
As the afternoon drew to a close, Second Platoon headed back to its temporary base, a cluster of partially collapsed buildings, on the edge of a village called Haji Musa.
Meanwhile, Third Platoon and a detachment of engineers cleared IEDs from the eastern approach to the village. They had reached the outskirts of Haji Musa when Second Platoon linked up with them.
After crossing a waist-deep irrigation canal, Second Platoon paused behind a high mud wall. Third Platoon’s vehicles were 30 yards ahead on a sand trail. Suddenly, bursts from a Taliban machinegun sent a group of Afghan soldiers diving into the grass.
As the commanding officer of Charlie Company, Captain Mike Gold, began to rally his troops, a round from a Taliban bazooka smashed into the side of one of the vehicles, enveloping it in smoke 20 yards from where I crouched.
An Afghan soldier who had been standing near the vehicle staggered away in a daze.
Another bazooka round exploded against a nearby tree and one of the Americans dragged the Afghan to the ground, heaving him out of the danger zone by his armour as the two sides exchanged rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire.
A Taliban rocket thumped into the wall in front of me. Then a bullet smashed the thigh of an Afghan soldier as he ran across a path towards cover. One of his comrades hauled him to an American medic, who wrapped a pressure dressing around the wound.
Gold called in 155mm artillery shells on top of the Taliban’s position as his men fired hundreds of rounds and grenades, forcing the insurgents to retreat. Some Afghan soldiers who had plucked marijuana leaves from the fields during the day rolled them up and began to smoke them as the sun dropped in the sky.
“It gives you courage,” one of them explained as they watched the helicopter roar away with their wounded comrade on board.
Kiowa helicopters growled overhead to cover our withdrawal to the derelict buildings that would serve as our base for the night. “After all that, I don’t want to give up this ground,” said Gold, the captain, who, at 28, is on his fourth tour of Afghanistan. “We will return tomorrow.”
THE next day, Gold and Third Platoon pressed further west than any Nato unit in two years. The Taliban saw them coming. An RPG whistled over the heads of the front section as the men clambered over earth mounds in a grape field.
As the two front men scrambled over a low wall and dropped down into a ditch, the Taliban opened fire again. This time, four separate gun teams loosed off a barrage at the Americans and sent them racing for cover before they returned fire.
The platoon’s sniper was called forward. “If you see any movement ahead, take the shot,” said the commanding officer, First Lieutenant Adam Moma.
Kiowa helicopters began a series of runs, burping lead from 50-calibre cannon onto the Taliban’s positions as they swooped low over our heads. Then they circled back over us and fired four air-to-surface rockets, forcing the Taliban from their positions in the trees.
“F****** drama, man,” said one of the soldiers crouching next to Gold as the captain called in 120mm mortar shells that thumped into a field 250 yards ahead. The Taliban retreated further to select a spot for their next ambush.
The platoon soldiers jumped over a high mud wall and ducked down into a marijuana field, brushing the thickly scented plants away from their faces.
Just as the lead section reached the end of the field, a Taliban gunman popped his head over a wall and sprayed rounds from his assault rifle.
Sergeant Isaac Labonte and Private First Class Matt Chaney returned fire just 20 yards from the Taliban’s position. Rounds from Labonte’s grenade-launcher exploded in a tree above the gunman’s head, raining down shrapnel on top of him. More Taliban gunmen opened up at the front section from behind another wall.
As I crawled on my belly to try to get out of the pot field, I passed an Afghan interpreter crawling the other way, a look of terror on his face. Eventually, smoke grenades were fired at the enemy positions so that the helicopters circling above could lock on to Taliban targets.
An Apache helicopter launched a volley of 30mm high-explosive rounds from its cannon, only for some of them to fall short. The ambushed soldiers saw marijuana leaves disintegrate as the rounds exploded next to them.
The Taliban aimed an old Soviet anti-aircraft weapon at the Apache and one round tore into its tail fin. But the Apache made another run, launching a Hellfire missile into a grape hut 150 yards in front of us with five insurgents inside.
“Talk about danger close. It’s one hell of a day when your own 30mm goes off and all you can hear is ping ping ping as the rounds land around you,” said Labonte, who has recently recovered from being shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq.
“They couldn’t see us and we couldn’t see them. We were lucky.”
As the troops trudged back to base, yet more artillery rounds whistled overhead. “They clearly want to defend this place,” said Crawford, the captain. “It’s like Terroristville.”
Local people trapped by fighting in the “Terrorist-villes” of Zhari fear the Taliban but doubt that the Americans can bring peace and accuse them of propping up a corrupt Afghan government.
“The war will come to my village if the Americans build their bases here,” an old man with a long white beard told Bravo Company’s commanding officer outside a mosque.
The Americans offered him guns to keep the Taliban out. He refused. “They will kill me before I kill them. Who will feed my kids if I die?” he said.
“This is not even my country. If I step on a bomb and get blown into six pieces, who is going to feed my kids?” replied the commanding officer, Captain Bret Matzenbacher.
“We will take on the Taliban no matter what, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if we had your support.”
The old man’s reluctance to provoke the Taliban was borne out the following day, however. They returned to his newly liberated village and stole the “freedom sheep” given to the villagers. They even made the villagers pay for two they had eaten.