The medevac helicopter tried to approach several times, but enemy gunfire kept it away. The four Soldiers had to wait a little longer while their friends cleared the area.
The four were eventually loaded and taken away. One stayed in Afghanistan. The other three went from Forward Operating Base Warrior, Afghanistan, to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan and then on to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or San Antonio Military Medical Center.
One of those guys, Capt. Adam Cowan, ended up in Building 88312 at Fort Riley Dec. 29 as a platoon of his Soldiers returned home. He greeted them with smiles and hugs. Even though Cowan departed Afghanistan four months before, his mind was never too far from the Soldiers and the fight he left behind.
Cowan thought he was more excited to see some of his Soldiers come home than they were.
"All of the guys fought hard and sacrificed a lot this deployment, so for me it was the feeling that this was the end for them, at least the end of the hardest part," he said. "You also know there's going to be the residual effects that don't stop just because they're home, but seeing them come back gives the feeling that the hard part is over for them."
Cowan and a group of his Soldiers from Company D, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, including Spc. Jordan Knox, were on a two-day mission checking out villages in the Ghazni Province of Afghanistan in August. They were there to ask locals about the Taliban's activity in the area when someone discovered an improvised explosive device in an open area between two villages, Knox said recently while sitting in the dayroom at his San Antonio Military Medical Center barracks.
Shots came from nearby buildings soon after. Air support was called in and the Soldiers kept pushing forward. They cleared the buildings and the shooting stopped, Knox said.
The Soldiers thought they would get to rest that night as squads took turns pulling security while the others slept on the roof of a building. Before the sun went down, however, word came over the radio they were about to be attacked, Knox said.
Shooting started yet again. A bullet pinged in Sgt. Bryan Daniels' helmet and bounced out. He almost fell off the roof and Knox moved to help him.
Knox, the 22-year-old son and brother of Navy men, felt something hit his right arm and it went numb. He tried picking up his M4, but his arm wouldn't work. He noticed he was breathing funny. Turns out Knox got hit right under the collarbone and the bullet traveled through his body, breaking his humerus before exiting out the back of his arm.
He low-crawled off the roof, thinking it was shrapnel that got him. He has yet to regain full use of his arm.
Cowan took command of Co. D eight months before it deployed to Afghanistan. A 2006 Kansas State University graduate, Cowan served as Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon's aide before going back to an infantry battalion. Dragon served as deputy commander of the 1st Inf. Div. from 2009 to 2011.
"When we went over, we knew there was going to be fighting," Cowan said of the deployment. "We knew there was going to be the hardships and the ugliness that goes along with fighting, but 4th took more than their fair share of it all."
Cowan got off a few rounds when the Aug. 21 firefight broke out. He reached for his M320, or grenade launcher to the non-infantrymen, and was preparing to fire when he took a bullet to the right leg. It felt like a slap against his leg as it entered the inside of his right calf, broke the fibula, severed nerves, destroyed an artery and exited.
"It was a pretty good firefight," he said.
Cowan, Knox, Daniels and Pfc. Luis Morentin all left the area together. Knox remembered his company commander was right across from him in the Black Hawk. The four received Purple Hearts while in the hospital at Bagram.
Doctors there took a vein from Cowan's thigh and patched the artery in his leg, saving it from amputation. He arrived at Walter Reed on the second week of September.
The "Dragon" Brigade is in the process of returning to Fort Riley after a nine-month deployment to the Paktika and Ghazni provinces. In that time, eight Soldiers lost their lives in combat: Spc. Cody Moosman, Sgt. Erik May, 1st Lt. Todd Lambka, Pfc. Jesus Lopez, Capt. James Nehl, Staff Sgt. Matthew Stiltz, Sgt. Joseph Richardson and Sgt. Channing Hicks.
Six were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment. Two were assigned to the 2nd Bn., 16th Inf. Regt., the "Rangers."
One of those men, Nehl, was Cowan's replacement after he was evacuated.
Nehl and his men were clearing several towns when they were attacked. Sgt. Michael Maki and Nehl were near one another when bullets started flying. They decided to move around a corner and across and road, and started providing a cover of fire for each other.
Maki made it halfway across when he was hit. Nehl ran out to drag his Soldier from the road. Maki heard Nehl grunt before he dropped to the ground.
"At that point, stuff started to light up pretty good," Maki said of the heightened fighting.
The two were evacuated together. Maki remembered waking up at Bagram and again in Germany. He took a bullet to the left side of his chest. It hit his lung, broke four ribs, nicked his scapula and exited from the left side of his upper back. He ended up in San Antonio.
Nehl didn't make it home. He died Nov. 9 in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.
Maki didn't find out his commander died until he was in the intensive care unit in San Antonio. His voice lowers and slows when he talks of Nehl. Part of him feels guilty, he said.
"He got shot helping me."
It was mutual -- they were helping each other, he said. Nehl was a good commander, Maki said. Cowan, too. They were "some of the better commanders I served under."
"It's hard not to feel guilty about it," Maki added, going back to Nehl and the firefight.
Cowan, who now serves as the brigade rear detachment's assistant operations officer, was at the San Antonio Military Medical Center in early December to promote Maki and Knox.
The Soldiers were happy to see their former commander, they said, and it was "cool" for Cowan to get to promote them, he said. He has, of course, kept in touch with them since they were injured.
"I still have a sense of duty to watch over those guys," Cowan said recently during a physical therapy session at Irwin Army Community Hospital.
Nehl died less than three months after taking command of Co. D from Cowan. Does Cowan think about whether it could have been him on the road that November day?
It's impossible to say, he said.
"James has way more experience in the Army than I do -- 18 years as an infantryman, a lot of that time was in 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment," Cowan said. "So he's seen a lot more danger than I have, been in a lot more fire fights. Bottom line is he was doing what he thought was best for the rest of his men by going down that road. He and Maki were lucky to have each other there, both of them would of done anything for each other.
Maki traveled to Fort Riley from San Antonio on Dec. 29 to welcome his buddies back, too.
"It's hard not being able to come home with them," Maki said in Texas earlier that month.
"I'd rather be over there with them 'til we all get back," Knox said the same day.
Knox and Maki are recovering better than Cowan thought they would. Both want to stay in the Army.
Knox's father returned from Afghanistan and his brother graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy shortly before he deployed with 4th IBCT. His father wants him to become an officer. He is working hard to get that right arm to function again.
Maki would like to PCS to Fort Carson, Colo., to be closer to his hometown of Fort Collins. He is focusing on recovering and enjoying his mom's home cooked eggs.
Maki wants to stay infantry because it's what he knows, he said.
Cowan, the father of two young boys, continues physical therapy three times a week to maintain strength in his thigh and leg so if -- when, rather -- he gets mobility back in his ankle, he is ready. He will soon go to San Antonio to be fitted with an innovative brace that mimics the shape of a prosthetic. It uses his own energy to provide more strength and support.
Leading the 85 Soldiers in Co. D was Cowan's first command.
"A lot don't have personal experiences with Soldiers that will remain forever, but I do with them," he said. "I'll obviously remember that day forever."
Article by Amanda Kim Stairrett, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs