The Taliban-occupied Korengal Valley—one of the deadliest places in the world for an American—hosts one-fifth of all combat in Afghanistan. It’s also home to Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice, 28, and his platoon of 35 soldiers: the tip of Operation Enduring Freedom’s spear. Late last year, their position came under unexpected fire. Here, Rice tells his story.
"The initial burst did the damage. We were pinned down by five Afghan fighters with RPGs along Abaskar Ridge, which runs north-south in the Korengal. I believe Ruger died right away. He was approximately three feet away from me when he got hit. I’m pretty sure that he was killed instantly. I was shot through the back. The round came in just below my shoulder blade and exited through my mid abdominal wall.
"The rest of the platoon got to my position fast, but they didn’t realize that the enemy still had the high ground. I told the team leader how to maneuver his guys to clear the hilltop. While they took it, a medic conducted a linkup.
"Under fire, we moved to a flat area 150 meters away. I lay down and got my equipment off. I’d felt worse pain before. All the adrenaline masked a lot of it. But the bullet punctured one of my lungs, which collapsed, and breathing was difficult.
"From the spot I’d been hit I had to move about 800 meters up the mountain to the loading zone. The platoon prepared to carry me along with my gunner, Vanderberg, who had also been hit. I’m a big guy, 230 pounds. Vanderberg’s about 6'5", 260 pounds. I told my medic I’d walk; Vanderberg said the same. We had one man on either side of us. One held an IV. Both assisted on the tougher sections of the climb. Surviving out there is about the guys to your left and right. There’s no way we could get by without one another. After I was medevac’d to safety, one of the hardest parts was thinking about my guys out there. I wanted to get back out to be with them—and I did, six months later.
"Firefights usually happen just after dawn or at dusk. Since terrain in the Korengal is all shell rock, digging out cover isn’t really possible. On a patrol, you pay attention to your surroundings, looking for the enemy, but at the same time noticing rocks or logs to use for cover. When the shooting starts, I’ll find myself behind some boulder without even knowing how I got there. I just tell myself to remain calm. That carries over to my other guys—most of whom are young, 18 to 22.
"One of the most important things, oddly enough, is to use all the downtime well. Some guys read. Some sketch. And others write. I’m a big Deadhead, so I’ll listen to music on my iPod. It’s essential to get away for a while."
—As Told to Douglas D. Ofiara and Lucas Pollock
ANALYSIS: Kevin’s response to being shot and seeing others shot requires a certain strength of character. He clearly has a positive attitude and keeps his cool. But when he says that he finds himself sheltering behind a boulder and doesn’t remember how he got there, that is pure training. He does the next right thing automatically.
Next: Alison Wright: Beating the Impossible