MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And now a story from Afghanistan. It started last October just after dawn when Sergeant Eric Harder heard a large explosion at his remote combat outpost. The small base was tucked between two mountains near Pakistan's border. Harder says he figured it was just other American soldiers firing artillery into the hills.
ERIC HARDER: I was still pretty tired as it's all going.
NORRIS: Then, another explosion, even closer.
HARDER: Then another one, and it was incoming.
NORRIS: Sergeant Harder realized his outpost was under attack from hundreds of Taliban fighters. The Americans were outnumbered 3 to 1. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman picks up the story of the fight that day and explains what the U.S. military learned from it.
TOM BOWMAN: Sergeant Harder and the others had a simple mission: Intercept insurgents coming across from Pakistan. But for months, these soldiers from Fort Carson, Colorado, had suffered dozens of harassing attacks. This was different. They heard fire all around them, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades.
HARDER: I heard RPGs starting to come in. You could hear rounds hitting the top of our roof. Trucks started to go low on ammo, very fast.
BOWMAN: Harder was just 29, a soldier from Minnesota. He was in charge of a small team of soldiers at the combat outpost, COP Keating for short. The fire was so intense, they had to toss smoke grenades for concealment just to get out of their barracks to fight.
HARDER: We couldn't even get out our door unless we popped a smoke - a smoke grenade and then we could push guys out again.
BOWMAN: 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 Captain Michael Polidor and First Lieutenant Aaron Dove were sitting in their F-15. The tower had already cleared them to take off on a scheduled mission.
MICHAEL POLIDOR: Unidentified Man #2: Copy.
BOWMAN: This is their radio transmission from that day. The F-15 roared off the runway. Within minutes they were over COP Keating.
AARON DOVE: You could see the buildings burning.
BOWMAN: That's First Lieutenant Dove.
DOVE: 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 on the surrounding hillsides.
BOWMAN: On the ground, Sergeant Harder fed ammunition to the machine gunners pointing toward those hills. That's when he spotted something unusual. The Afghan soldiers assigned to help the Americans were abandoning their positions.
HARDER: We looked over the wire, and then we saw them running down to the east. I mean, I was furious. They just left - they just left us hanging, left our backs exposed.
BOWMAN: 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.
HARDER: Oh, it's a sound you'll never get out of your head: loud bang followed by your ears ringing. Really loud.
BOWMAN: Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible), this will be a shooter-shooter.
BOWMAN: The F-15 used everything it had, from a machine gun to a 2,000-pound bomb. First Lieutenant Dove.
DOVE: After we had run out, we stayed over the area while other aircraft checked in because we were the only ones who had - who were still there who had an idea what was going on.
BOWMAN: The F-15 crew helped direct other American warplanes. They stayed on station for eight hours. By nightfall, it was over: eight Americans dead, 22 others wounded. They estimate more than 150 Taliban were killed. Sergeant Harder was exhausted.
HARDER: 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.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News.
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