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Uthlaut relayed the offer back to base. The company commander seized on it, ordered him to split his platoon into two serials--one escorting the albatross GMV to a rendezvous point on the highway, the other proceeding to Manah--and to move out, now. Uthlaut, steamed, e-mailed back his disagreement and then radioed it, hoping that officers would overhear and amend the command. It meant splitting his firepower, relying on a local, traveling in daylight and arriving in Manah after sundown, too late to begin clearing operations. Why not move at night and arrive there at dawn, especially after sitting in one place for so long that half the countryside knew his platoon's whereabouts? Objection overruled.
Suddenly orders were being barked, vehicles were pulling out. Pat and Russ would join 14 other Rangers and four Afghan soldiers traveling in Serial 1 to Manah. Serial 2, including Kevin and the towed turkey, would leave a few minutes later and take another road through the mountains to the highway. Just before their exodus a one-legged man approached the platoon with a message: An Afghan doctor who lived on a nearby hill had something to tell them. The Black Sheep, who could tarry no more, blew him off and left in a cloud of dust.
Was the doctor trying to warn of an ambush? A more appetizing opportunity than this, no enemy could possibly conjure. No, wait, yes it could. The tow truck--a jinga, the locals called it--tried to but couldn't negotiate the steep, twisting dirt road through the mountains. Serial 2 would have to turn around and take the longer path to the highway, following Serial 1's route for a stretch through the narrowest of canyons. The jinga driver knew the way. He'd lead them.
Serial 1, in six vehicles up ahead, entered the canyon (see map, page 96), its walls so sheer it felt like a cave and so tight in spots that vehicles had just inches of clearance. Russ's guts tightened. This was exactly the sort of terrain where, in Army training videos, he'd seen Afghans pick apart the Soviets during their war two decades ago. "This is Ambush Alley," he told a Ranger beside him. They made it through the gorge unscathed, passed a cluster of four houses, then missed their turnoff to Manah and pulled to the side of the road.
Serial 2 entered the canyon and got the same ominous feelings. "Reminds me of the opening of The Lone Ranger," one Black Sheep said, "where all the Texas Rangers got killed." Suddenly an explosion ripped through the canyon. "IED!" someone shouted--but no, it wasn't an Improvised Explosive Device hidden along the road. More explosions shook the canyon, rocks cascading from the 650-foot-high walls: mortar or rocket-propelled grenades launched from the ridgelines.
The jinga driver froze, and the four Ranger vehicles behind him were pinned, the gorge too narrow to squeeze around him and escape. The squad leader in the GMV behind the jinga, Staff Sgt. Greg Baker, screamed and waved at the Afghan driver to Move! Move!--got no response and shattered the driver's window with a blow from his M-4 rifle.
Pat and his serial might never have heard or responded to that first explosion if they hadn't missed their turn and pulled over. But they did, at 6:34 p.m., and were now running back toward the canyon in fire teams of two to four men. Oh, f---, Russ thought. Here it was: his and Pat's first firefight.
Pat took off, then turned. There was confusion in the eyes of a young Ranger, 18-year-old Spc. Bryan O'Neal, whom he'd taken under his wing months earlier. "Follow me!" he called, and the kid came on the run. "Let's go kill the bad guys!" All the Afghans in Serial 1 stayed with the vehicles ... except one. He went with Pat.
Russ, for the first time, saw Pat move when it was life and death. Damn, he thought--hauling all that gear and that big SAW gun uphill, scaling five-foot stone walls, crossing the rock rubble of that lunar landscape, Pat was flat-out flying. He had mates in Ambush Alley. He had a brother in the kill zone.
Three to four football fields. That's how much ground he had to cover to get back there. He and his two men raced past the four houses. From one bolted a woman, screaming, and a flock of children.