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Soldiers Honored With Silver Stars Following Extraordinary Battle in Afghanistan

December 12, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Ten elite Army soldiers who subdued a large insurgent stronghold in the mountains of Afghanistan after a nearly seven-hour battle were honored Friday with Silver Stars. Ray Suarez reports on the extraordinary battle.

RAY SUAREZ: Operation Commando Wrath was planned for the first week in April. Elite Army special operators and Afghan army commandos had mapped out an assault on an insurgent stronghold in the northeastern reaches of Afghanistan.

Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson.

ANN SCOTT TYSON, Washington Post: They describe this holdout as a place — no roads led to it. They were using old Russian maps to explore these places. And they believed that no U.S. or Russian forces had even gone to this place.

They, when I interviewed them, told me that they routinely do find that the terrain is different, but they had seen nothing this austere. And there was nothing about the imagery that they were getting that gave them a sense of just how difficult this was going to be.

I mean, they were prepared for the unexpected, but this was the most austere they had seen.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like, once they were inserted, they found that they were both seriously outmanned and exposed at the same time?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Definitely. They believe that, from the moment they turned their helicopters into that valley, I mean, there was no way they could maintain the element of surprise and that the insurgent leaders there would have heard them, known they were coming for them, known how they would approach, and therefore were able to have, you know, a few minutes of time to prepare.

RAY SUAREZ: The rotor blades of the infiltrating helicopters were an insurgent magnet. And with the rough terrain, the commandos had to leap from the choppers into a fast-rushing stream or onto rocks and make their way up the mountains. The Green Berets were quickly surrounded from all angles, under intense enemy fire, and basically in the open.

Time running out for injured

GREEN BERET: We're starting to take fire. We need additional aircraft in here to help us out.

RAY SUAREZ: Though they were able to counterattack and repel the insurgents and inflict severe casualties, the enemy's advantage in numbers was taking a steady toll.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: One soldier recounted his leg being amputated right there with a bullet, virtually, except for a small, you know, segment that held it to his body. And others, you know, were shot in hip, losing a lot of blood.

So, at one point, I think they reached a decision that, you know, their medic was running out of supplies. There was a real cost-benefit analysis between, you know, continuing to fight as much as they could.

The more they got wounded and there are fewer people to take care of the casualties and, you know, that would pretty much be it.

Berets formed exit plan

RAY SUAREZ: With hundreds of insurgents firing from fortified positions in the high mountain readout, the Special Forces called in a massive aerial bombardment, nearly on top of their own position. Amid the bombardment, they could start to make their way out.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: They came up with a plan that, every time the Air Force would come in and drop these massive bombs, that they would use that as an opportunity to sort of descend, you know, one more terrace.

And just to describe this, it was apparently a very rocky mountainside, very steep, involving sort of semi-cliff-type settings, interspersed with small terraced -- very narrow terrace-like fields, maybe of just a few feet or so.

So they had to navigate their way, in some cases sort of clinging to rock faces, to maneuver back with, again, a fairly regular use of bombing and, you know, shooting back, as they made their way down. You know, some of them, obviously, carrying the ones who couldn't walk anymore.

No American deaths in fight

RAY SUAREZ: Their progress was slow, though still in one piece, helping the seriously wounded to the evacuation point. But dangers remained.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: On the exfiltration, after they got down to this stream bed, you know, one helicopter -- again, they'd been here for six hours now. You know, their wounded are getting more and more critical. A helicopter comes in, starts, you know, getting shot up so quickly that all they have time to do is allow the medic to jump off.

GREEN BERET: We just got here. We're going south.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: They described, you know, standing there, thinking, "Oh, my god, is it going to take another six hours, you know, for the next one to come in?"

But fortunately, you know, it wasn't that long, they -- again, dropping more air power. But the next one that came in landed, you know, somehow in the middle, and they had to cross over through this water again to get to the aircraft.

GREEN BERET: Roger, I confirm nine casualties, over.

RAY SUAREZ: Those nine all survived. No Americans died.

Today, 10 of the Green Berets were awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action, among other commendations. It's the Army's third-highest award for combat valor.