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
Photographer Alison Wright, 45, has been locked in a day-to-day struggle for survival since January 2000, when a bus she was riding in Laos was struck by a logging truck. According to the medical professionals she has since consulted, she should have died that day. Her recovery (documented in her new book Learning to Breathe, Hudson Street Press) has defied all odds.
"When the truck hit, I slammed my head hard. I know it sounds cliché, but all I could see was a bright white light—I had to ask myself if I’d died. The impact instantly broke my back, pelvis, coccyx, and ribs; my left arm plunged through the window and was shredded to the bone; my spleen was sliced in half; my diaphragm and lungs were punctured; my heart, stomach, and intestines tore loose and actually lodged in my shoulder. When I came to, I looked around the bus, which was on its side, and the endorphins kicked in. I pushed apart the seats that pinned me down and managed to pull myself out of the bus and crawl out onto the road. Then I realized how difficult it was to breathe, and I started to think about my situation in very matter-of-fact terms. Like, I remember not wanting to cry and waste any water with my tears, and I checked to make sure I had my wallet so that if I died, people could ID me. I knew that if I was going to survive, I had to calm myself down and get my breathing under control. I’d studied Vipassana meditation and yoga for years, both of which focus on breathing techniques. I was able to call on that experience to calm my breathing, and as a result, calm myself. I remember looking at the bamboo moving in the wind around me and waiting for help, just focusing on my breaths.
"I was eventually rescued that day by a passing aid worker, who drove me seven hours to a hospital. Back home in San Francisco, though, I faced new challenges. Physically, I had to totally rebuild my muscles, which had atrophied after four months in bed. Doctors told me I should accept the fact that my life would never be the same. Obviously, they didn’t know me. When one told me I’d never have abdominal muscles again, I worked toward doing sit-ups. I eventually did a thousand a day. Every morning I’d wake up and put my feet on the ground and feel gratitude. When you grasp your own mortality, you really feel a bigger force at work. I set the goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which I did in 2004. For years, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had horrible nightmares about the accident. But in 2005, I traveled back to Laos and rode the same bus route again. I realized then what a gift it was to be thrown into adversity and come out on the other end.”
—As Told to Lucas Pollock
Analysis: Doctors I’ve talked to over the years lament that they can’t simply teach people to be like Alison—to move forward against all odds. There are patients who are so good at following instructions that if the doctor tells them they have six months to live, they die right on schedule. Alison certainly took control of her own destiny.
Next: Michael Andereggen: Trapped by Experience
On June 6, 2006, Michael Andereggen—an alpine guide and graduate of the Swiss Army’s survival training program—started up Canada’s 11,624-foot Mount Temple with his climbing partner, Kyle Smith. They planned to summit via the East Ridge and were prepared to bivouac. But on the descent, after 18 hours of climbing, Andereggen, 31, lost his footing and fell 34 stories, leaving him semiconscious and alone.
"It was the snow and cold that I noticed when I first came to. My face was badly beaten, my eyes were almost swollen shut. I had fallen 400 feet down the snowfield-scree slope. My climbing rope had coiled around me, arresting my fall and keeping me from dropping over the Big Step, a distance of 600 feet. The rope must have caught on a nub, because when I pulled on it, it came loose and I slid a body length down the slope. From then on I knew I had to remain very still. Exhausted, I drifted off to sleep.
"When I awoke, I realized my pack containing warm clothing and food was missing. I was lying on melting snow, and my pants, jacket, and base layer were wet. The rope wrapped around my torso was my only means of retaining body heat. I crisscrossed my arms over my chest, but I couldn’t do anything for my legs or feet. I didn’t have the strength to bring my knees to my chest. Instead, I flexed my leg muscles just to get some blood flowing.
"Kyle was my only hope of rescue. But he had a difficult journey back to the lodge, made harder because I had our only rope. I knew that I probably wouldn’t last another 24 hours in my condition. I was tired and couldn’t stay awake. (I later learned that my core temp had dropped below 85ºF, a state of profound hypothermia.)
"I wondered if I would be rescued. I wondered if I would ever recover. I wondered if I should just cut the rope that held me in place. It seemed a rational trade-off: an end to my suffering versus a struggle in recovery. Would I be able to climb again, to ski again? I decided then that if I did not have help before nightfall on the second day, I would cut the rope rather than slowly freeze.
"As I grew weaker, it took more energy to concentrate on staying warm, to wait for the morning. I thought of a warm sanctuary and tried to keep awake, to hold on to my rope.
"When I woke up next, I felt warm. The sun was up. Though faint at first, I heard a noise in the distance. Was it getting louder or was I imagining it? I still could not see well, but I knew I had to do something. Summoning all my strength, I waved in the direction of the sound. Please see me, please help me! Then, a voice. ‘Are you all right?’ It was the park warden. Overcome with emotion, I let myself relax and started to sob."
—As Told to Douglas D. Ofiara
Analysis: Michael has great training. But experience doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. Anyone who climbs radical slopes for 18 hours will be impaired. However, once in trouble, Michael adopts the only strategy he can: He does the next right thing, remains logical, and takes on an attitude of survival by surrender. He admits he may die.