FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Capt. Kyle Walton remembers pressing himself into the jagged stones that covered the cliff in northeast Afghanistan.
Machine gun rounds and sniper fire ricocheted off the rocks. Two rounds slammed into his helmet, smashing his head into the ground. Nearby, three of his U.S. Army Special Forces comrades were gravely wounded. One grenade or a well-aimed bullet, Walton thought, could etch April 6, 2008 on his gravestone.
Walton and his team from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group had been sent to kill or capture terrorists from a rugged valley that had never been penetrated by U.S. forces — or, they had been told, the Soviets before them.
He peered over the side of the cliff to the dry river bed 60 feet below and considered his options. Could he roll the wounded men off and then jump to safety? Would they survive the fall?
By the end of the six-hour battle deep within the Shok Valley, Walton would bear witness to heroics that on Friday would earn his team 10 Silver Stars, the most awarded for a single battle since the start of the war and possibly the most since the Vietnam War, although Army officials couldn't confirm that. An Air Force controller who was not formally part of the unit but supported the mission by guiding air strikes from the ground also earned a Silver Star.
Walton, a Special Forces team leader, and his men described the battle in an interview with The Associated Press last week. Most seem unimpressed they've earned the Army's third-highest award for combat valor.
"This is the story about Americans fighting side-by-side with their Afghan counterparts refusing to quit," said Walton, of Carmel, Ind. "What awards come in the aftermath are not important to me."
The mission that sent three Special Forces teams and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion to the Shok Valley seemed imperiled from the outset.
Six massive CH-47 Chinook helicopters had deposited the men earlier that morning, banking through thick clouds as they entered the valley. The approaching U.S. soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses perched at the top of the cliff.
Considered a sanctuary of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group, the valley is far from any major American base.
It was impossible for the helicopters to land on the jagged rocks at the bottom of the valley. The Special Forces soldiers and commandos, each carrying more than 60 pounds of gear, dropped from 10 feet above the ground, landing among boulders or in a near-frozen stream.
With several Afghan commandos, Staff Sgt. John Walding and Staff Sgt. David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zig-zagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where the terrorists were hiding.
Walton followed with two other soldiers and a 23-year-old Afghan interpreter who went by the name C.K., an orphan who dreamed of going to the United States.
Walding and Sanders were on the outskirts of the village when Staff Sgt. Luis Morales saw a group of armed men run along a nearby ridge. He fired. The surrounding mountains and buildings erupted in an ambush: The soldiers estimate that more than 200 fighters opened up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s.
C.K. crumbled to the ground.
Walton and Spc. Michael Carter dove into a small cave. Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr couldn't fit so the Rock Island, Ill., native dropped to one knee and started firing. An F-15 made a strafing run to push back the fighters, but it wasn't enough.
Sanders radioed for close air support — an order that Walton had to verify because the enemy was so near that the same bombs could kill the Americans.
The nearest house exploded; the firing didn't stop.
"Hit it again," Sanders said.
For the rest of the battle, F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters attacked.
Behr was hit next — a sniper's round passing through his leg. Morales knelt on Behr's hip to stop the bleeding and kept firing until he, too, was hit in the leg and ankle.
Walton and Carter, a combat cameraman from Smithville, Texas, dragged the two wounded men to the cave. Gunfire had destroyed Carter's camera so Walton put him to work treating Morales who, in turn, kept treating Behr.
Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer, a medic from Pullman, Wash., fought his way up the cliff to help.
"Heard some guys got hit up here," he said as he reached the cave, pulling bandages and gear from his aid bag.
Walton told Walding and Sanders to abandon the assault and meet on the cliff. The Americans and Afghan commandos pulled back as the Air Force continued to pound the village.
Walding made it to the cliff when a bullet shattered his leg. He watched his foot and lower leg flop on the ground as Walton dragged him to the cliff edge. With every heartbeat, a stream of blood shot out of Walding's wound. Rolling on his back, the Groesbeck, Texas, native, asked for a tourniquet and cranked down until the bleeding stopped.
The soldiers were trapped against the cliff. Walton was sure his men would be overrun. The narrow path was too exposed. He sent Sanders to find another way down. Sometimes free-climbing the rock face, the Huntsville, Ala., native found a steep path and made his way back up. Could the wounded make it out alive? Walton asked.
"Yes, they'll survive," Sanders said.
Down below, Staff Sgt. Seth E. Howard took his sniper rifle and started climbing with Staff Sgt. Matthew Williams.
At the top, Howard used C.K.'s lifeless body for cover and started to shoot. He fired repeatedly, killing as many as 20 of their attackers, his comrades say. The enemy gunfire slowed. The Air Force bombing continued, providing cover.
Morales was first down the cliff, clutching branches and rocks as he slid. Sanders, Carter and Williams went up to get Behr, then back up to rescue Walding. As Walton climbed down, a 2,000-pound bomb hit a nearby house. Another strike nearly blew Howard off the cliff.
Helicopters swooped in to pick up the 15 wounded American and Afghan soldiers, as well as the rest of the teams. Bullets pinged off the helicopters. One hit a pilot.
All the Americans survived.
Months later, Walding wants back on the team even though he lost a leg. Morales walks with a cane.
The raid, the soldiers say, proved there will be no safe haven in Afghanistan for terrorists. As for the medals, the soldiers see them as emblems of teamwork and brotherhood. Not valor.
"When you go to help your buddy, you're not thinking, 'I am going to get a Silver Star for this,'" Walding said. "If you were there, there would not be a second guess on why."