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The humvee wasn't parked where it was supposed to be. Instead it idled another 75 meters down the road. The confusion and the rocks in the road got to me. I stumbled, and fell hard against the mountainside. For a brief moment I thought it made more sense to curl up like an armadillo under the protection of my armor and wait it out. But the soldier behind me was screaming at me to run. I did. I don't really remember the next 75 meters; only throwing myself at the pile of soldiers huddled between the humvee and the mountainside. Mortars coming from the Korengal outpost lit up the sky in flashes. I could see a tangle of limbs and chests heaving to suck in oxygen. The smell of sweat intermingled with the scent of the mountain sage bushes we were crushing under our cumulative weight. My head rang with the sound of returning fire coming from the guy on my left as he aimed at the darkness below. Adam Ferguson, TIME's photographer, actually stood up to take pictures. It felt like we were taking fire from all sides, but in the dark it's hard to tell. But then, across the road, I could see muzzle flashes coming up from the hillside below. Our protective cocoon of humvee and mountainside had been breached. We had to run again, this time for the protection of another observation post about 150 meters away, while the soldiers at the observation post trained automatic fire on the insurgent positions.
This is where you start thinking about the insanity of war. About the false sense of security that two metal plates and Kevlar webbing offer when they are presented in glossy catalogs. About how vulnerable flesh is to metal projectiles. It wasn't my life that flashed before my eyes, but all the descriptions of wounds I'd heard from the buddies of injured soldiers. Faces blown off, shattered shoulders and mangled limbs all the points exposed by the limits of Kevlar. What is more insane than running 200 meters through gunfire to reach the safety? But we did. I felt like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, somehow dancing between the bullets that showered from below and behind. The Taliban can shoot, but they can't aim. We were lucky. All of us were.
From the outpost we hiked up the mountain face back to Restrepo. The surge of adrenaline and endorphins meant that I didn't even notice a journey that on previous attempts had left me panting at every turn in the switchback trail. I had sweated through my Kevlar. It felt like I had sweated through my plates. It had taken little more than an hour to move from Loi Kolay back to Restrepo, but it felt like days. Within an hour, though, we were back on the move. One of the soldiers, Private first class Matthew Fowler, 24, had ripped open his knee on a rock while sprinting from the humvee to the outpost and he needed medical attention unavailable at Restrepo. We climbed back down the hill to the road that just a few hours before had been filled with terror, to meet the humvees that would take us to the main Korengal Outpost. Fowler kept reaching for the gun he had left back at Restrepo. It was his security blanket he said, and he felt vulnerable without it. In two months Bravo Company will be leaving the valley, and it is unlikely that Fowler will be healed in time to rejoin his comrades. A day later I saw him at the 1-26's command headquarters. His knee had been stitched up and he walked on crutches. He was happy to be out of the Korengal, he said. But he was conflicted about leaving his buddies behind at Restrepo. "They go through this s--- every day, and I wish I could be there to fight with them," he told me.