GANJGAL, Afghanistan — Getting separated from the others may have been a blessing in disguise.
As I lay in the dirt and rocks, the sharp needles of dry nettles pinching my palms and backside, three men in the group I'd been with were injured.
Marine Maj. Kevin Williams of Louisville, Ky., took a bullet in his left forearm. Marine 1st Sgt. Christopher Garza of Houston suffered a near total loss of hearing and a serious concussion from a rocket-propelled grenade explosion. U.S. Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook of Colorado Springs, Colo., was gravely wounded when a bullet gouged his right cheek and then tore into the base of his neck.
Had I bolted with them, I, too, might've been killed or wounded.
Only Army Capt. William Swenson of Seattle and Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo of New York were unscathed and able to defend themselves and their wounded comrades from the insurgents who were moving down a hillside toward them.
At one point, Swenson said later, two insurgents wearing helmets and flak vests called on the five Americans to surrender. He responded by hurling a hand grenade at them.
I finally sprang up from the furrow where I was lying and weaved and dodged my way back to where I'd last seen the others. I dove behind a stone wall and nearly landed on top of the bleeding Westbrook.
Wounded Marines try to save friends
Between dry heaves, Garza kept shouting questions about the condition of other Marines. He demanded to be allowed to find Navy corpsman James Layton of Riverbank and three Marines who were feared dead.
Williams, dizzy with pain, alternately reassured him and ordered him to stay put, forced to shout because Garza could barely hear.
Westbrook lay on his back as Swenson, his friend and boss, pressed a field dressing to his neck. With his other hand, Swenson called the locations of insurgents into his radio. He then would take time to calm Westbrook, telling him that his wound wasn't fatal and trying to bolster his spirits by teasing him that he was being overly dramatic.
As bullets zapped above and around us, Fabayo grabbed the wounded Westbrook's M-4 and threw it to me. "This is your rifle now," he yelled. Then he turned to fire bursts from his own rifle.
It took a few seconds for me to decide that I'd use the rifle if I had to save my life and the lives of the others.
During that brief interlude, I remembered the time I talked to my friend and colleague, Joe Galloway, about his decision to use his M-16 when North Vietnamese soldiers were about to overrun a battalion command post in South Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley in 1965.
Joe said he hadn't hesitated, for the same reason that I now knew I wouldn't: There was no choice.
It never came to that. Instead, it was time to move again when the insurgents' fire slackened with the approach of two U.S. helicopters. I slung Westbrook's M-4 around my shoulder, grabbed him under his right armpit with my left hand and used my right hand to press the blood-soaked field dressing on his neck wound.
We couldn't run, so we stumbled.
Someone on his other side was helping to carry Westbrook. I thought it was Fabayo, but I wasn't sure. A medevac helicopter was landing, and for a few seconds, I thought with relief that we'd be able to walk-stumble the wounded sergeant to the landing zone on a terraced field about 50 yards away. Westbrook, a stocky man, wouldn't be easy to carry, even under normal circumstances.
Injured soldier dragged, hoisted to safety
Then the insurgents started shooting at us again. We lowered Westbrook as gently as we could behind some cover and lay behind it ourselves. He was in great pain and cried out. I glanced at my left sleeve and saw that it was streaked with his blood.
When the firing slackened again, we resumed trying to get Westbrook to the landing zone. We begged him to help us by pushing himself to his feet while we pulled.
He cried in agony, but he got up.
The three of us started stumbling toward the landing zone. Then we realized that we were below the landing field, and that we'd have to heave him up the stone wall of the terrace. He was passing out, unable to help us this time. Someone joined us. And then someone else.
I couldn't tell who they were as the wash from the incoming helicopter's rotor blades whipped up a hurricane of dirt and stones and straw.
We held onto Westbrook's uniform as we manhandled him up the wall through the clouds of stinging debris. Then soldiers appeared at the top. They grabbed him and carried him to the helicopter.
I still had Westbrook's rifle over my shoulder, dragging against my half-filled Camelbak water container. I asked one of the U.S. reinforcements who were now arriving to put the safety on for me.
I'd learned several days earlier how to fire an M-4, but I was taking no chances. The soldier pulled the magazine out, ejected the round from the breech and handed it back.
Williams, Garza and I made our way slowly down to an aid station, where medics treated the two wounded men. We then were placed in hulking, armored MRAPs, me in one and them in another, and driven back to U.S. Forward Operating Base Joyce.
I'd thought briefly about accompanying Swenson and Fabayo as they jumped into vehicles to retrieve the dead and wounded from the battlefield. Somehow, I felt I'd be abandoning them if I didn't. Williams, however, rightly said the only place I was going was back to the base.
Once there, I sat in the aid station watching medics attend to Williams and Garza and trying to comfort an Afghan translator who was weeping over the death of Williams' translator, a close friend. As I sat beside him, hugging his shoulders, it was hard holding back my own tears.
I wandered over to the command center, anxious to find out what had happened to Swenson and Fabayo. A hulking sergeant major saw Westbrook's weapon and stopped.
"Sir, I'll take that," he said in a voice honed by years of giving orders.