A battle following a Taliban attack on a combat outpost last fall in Afghanistan that killed eight soldiers and injured two dozen others highlights the best and worst of the American military -- troops fought bravely, but some think they were put at unnecessary risk.
Some senior officers are being disciplined for security lapses.
What happened at Combat Outpost Keating is not unique. The Army is wrapping up another investigation into a similar situation at a different outpost.
The Battle At Keating
Last October, just after dawn, Sgt. Eric Harder heard a large explosion at his remote combat outpost, tucked between two mountains near Pakistan's border.
Harder says he figured it was just other American soldiers firing artillery into the hills but later realized they were under attack from hundreds of Taliban fighters. The Americans were outnumbered 3 to 1.
Harder and the others had a simple mission: intercept insurgents coming across from Pakistan. But for months, these soldiers from Fort Carson, Colo., had suffered dozens of harassing attacks.
But this time was different, Harder says. They heard fire all around them, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
"You could hear rounds starting to hit our roof. Trucks started to go low on ammo, very fast," he says.
Harder, from Minnesota, just 29, was in charge of a small team of soldiers at the combat outpost, COP Keating. The fire was so intense they had to toss smoke grenades for concealment, just to get out of their barracks to fight.
"We couldn't even get out our door unless we popped a smoke, popped a smoke grenade and pushed guys out again," he says.
Harder's superiors grabbed their radios, desperately calling for air power. That call made it to Bagram Air Base -- more than 100 miles to the west. That's where Air Force Capt. Michael Polidor and First Lt. Aaron Dove were sitting in their F-15. The tower had already cleared them to take off on a scheduled mission.
"About two minutes later they called back on the satellite radio and said that COP Keating is currently being overrun," Polidor says. "You need to take off immediately."
Within minutes they were over COP Keating.
"You could see the buildings burning," Dove says. "I saw five to eight really large fires going on inside the outpost. And you could see small explosions from the mortars exploding within the outpost and the surrounding hillsides."
On the ground, Harder fed ammunition to the machine gunners pointing toward those hills. That's when he spotted something unusual, he says. The Afghan soldiers assigned to help the Americans were abandoning their positions.
"We looked over the wire and saw them running down to the east. I mean I was furious. They left us hanging, left our backs exposed," Harder says.
That allowed some Taliban fighters to slip into the combat outpost.
At this point, the fight had raged for several hours. Running once more for ammunition, Harder heard a deafening explosion. Shrapnel tore into his leg.
"Oh it's a sound you'll never get out of your head. Loud bang followed by your ears ringing. Really loud," he says.
But Harder and the other soldiers now had cover from above. The F-15 used everything it had, from a machine gun to a 2,000-pound bomb.
"After we had run out, we stayed over the area, while other aircraft checked in because we were the only ones who were still there who had an idea what was going on," Dove says.
The F-15 crew helped direct other American warplanes. They stayed on station for eight hours. By nightfall, it was over. The battle left eight Americans dead and 22 others wounded. They estimate more than 150 Taliban were killed.
"I couldn't sleep. The only thing that comforted me to close my eyes was hearing the air support over us. Physically my body didn't want to go on anymore," Harder says of his exhaustion.
Bravery And Failures
Harder was put in for medals, including a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. Dozens of others are also expected to receive awards for bravery. Polidor and Dove -- the F-15 crew -- recently were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
But the attack on COP Keating exposed serious problems, an Army investigation found. The outpost didn't have enough soldiers or defenses. Senior officers failed to understand the Taliban was preparing a large attack.
The outpost became, says the investigative report, "an attractive target for enemy fighters."
Two colonels received letters of reprimand for those failures.
Now, COP Keating is abandoned. Other remote American outposts have closed too. That's because the new U.S. military strategy no longer focuses on going after enemy fighters in the mountains, but on winning over Afghans in the cities and villages.
As part of that effort, Harder and his fellow soldiers recently went on a patrol, checking up on a village school.