A crackle in the brush. That's the sound the Afghan herder recalls hearing as he walked alone through a pine forest last month. When he looked up, he saw an American commando, his legs and shoulder bloodied. The commando pointed his gun at the Afghan. "Maybe he thought I was a Taliban," says the shepherd, Gulab. "I remembered hearing that if an American sticks up his thumb, it is a friendly gesture. So that's what I did." To make sure the message was clear, Gulab lifted his tunic to show the American he wasn't hiding a weapon. He then propped up the wounded commando, and together the pair hobbled down the steep mountain trail to Sabari-Minah, a cluster of adobe-and-wood homes--crossing, for the time being, to safety.
What Gulab did not know is that the commando he encountered was part of a team of Navy SEALs that had been missing for four days after being ambushed by Taliban insurgents during a reconnaissance mission in northeastern Afghanistan. An initial search mission to find the missing SEALs ended in disaster on June 28, when a Chinook helicopter carrying 16 service members was shot down over Kunar province, killing everyone aboard, in one of the deadliest attacks so far on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Since then, the bodies of two of the missing SEALs have been recovered; another is still classified as missing, though the Taliban claims he was captured and beheaded.
One member of the team did survive. Though the military has not released the name of the SEAL (the U.S. military seldom gives out the names of its special-operations personnel), TIME pieced together his story on the basis of briefings with U.S. military officials in Afghanistan plus an exclusive account of how Gulab, an Afghan herdsman, rescued the wounded commando. What emerges is the tale of a courageous U.S. fighter facing impossible odds in unfamiliar terrain, stalked by the enemy and stripped of everything but his gun and his will to survive. But it is also a story of mercy and fraternity, showing that even in the war-scorched landscape of the Afghan mountains, little shoots of humanity sometimes have a chance to grow.
The clashes in Kunar province have highlighted a worrying surge in violence in Afghanistan, where 15,000 U.S. troops are based. Several months ago, U.S. and Afghan officials claimed the Taliban was a spent force. But the Islamist fighters and their al-Qaeda allies have sprung back with fresh recruits, new weaponry and advanced bombmaking skills passed on to them by terrorists in Iraq, officials in Kabul say.
It was in response to signs of a mounting threat from Taliban fighters that the four-man commando team found itself in the Afghan forests of Kunar province on June 28, maneuvering under low clouds and a drenching rain. The mission, code-named Operation Redwing, was to find and engage the enemy. But in late afternoon, the commandos sent back a one-line message to the "Ark," a coalition-forces operations room in Kabul. Accompanied by a warning chime, it read, "Troops in contact." Translation: a fire fight was under way.