BADULA QULP, Afghanistan - "Medic!" Bullets cracked through the dry grass. "Medic!" "Who's hit?" someone yelled. The American soldiers were pinned down in a ditch yesterday, bodies prone in the mud.
"I don't know!" another voice shouted in the din of gunfire.
A U.S. soldier was down, shot in the chest by an insurgent near the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah. A Canadian soldier in the same patrol took a bullet in the front of his helmet, right where the center of his forehead was, like a bull's-eye. He was stunned, but unhurt.
Where were the insurgents shooting from? Which of the mud-walled compounds up ahead?
The firefight in the Badula Qulp region of Helmand province lasted about 45 minutes and tapered off after a Cobra helicopter shot a Hellfire missile into the building where the Taliban were believed hiding. Soldiers said they found the body of one suspected insurgent and heard another may have been buried quickly. It was a small skirmish in the grand scheme of the Afghan war.
But the intense gunfight showed the difficulty of fighting an enemy who knows the terrain, watches, waits and strikes when it chooses - frequently appearing to capitalize on Western rules designed to prevent civilian casualties.
The patrol began in the early afternoon, heading off a canal road and into farmland to the west. Fifty men: an American platoon, up to 30 Afghan soldiers and 10 Canadian troops who advise the Afghans. They moved slowly, in two columns. Two Afghan soldiers with metal detectors, searching for mines, led the way.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer accompanied the patrol.
The sky was clear, the air brisk, and it was very quiet. About 700 yards off the road, the soldiers saw four or five unarmed men, watching. The men moved away. Within minutes, gunfire erupted.
Caught in the open, the patrol hit the dirt and returned fire.
But it was an exposed position and hard to locate the source of fire. One group of soldiers picked up and sprinted, slowly, it seemed, with their cumbersome gear, for a shallow irrigation canal.
It was cover, but not for long.
"Hey sir, where's it coming from?" an American shouted to his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Gavin McMahon of Brooklyn.
"Somewhere over there," McMahon said, gesturing west.
The men in the ditch pushed forward, trying to reach a low earthen berm for better cover. The Taliban had a line of sight straight down the canal. Rounds snapped a couple of feet away. To the AP reporter, a civilian with no military background, it seemed counterintuitive: running forward, toward the danger. Not back.
Then the American soldier was hit. The bullet hit the shoulder piece of his protective vest, and bounced down into his chest. Spc. Benjamin McQuiston of Tucson, Ariz., was just ahead of the man, whose name could not yet be released.
With shooting all around, soldiers cut away the injured man's shirt, and put a chest seal on the wound to prevent air entering.
"I'm going to be good," the man said. He was able to walk and had the energy to shout an obscenity at the Taliban.
McMahon was on the radio, calling for help. The mission had immediately shifted from fighting the Taliban to getting a wounded man to safety and treatment. The patrol pulled back, different groups laying down fire while others ran to cover, bunching up against mud walls.
But it wasn't over.
The AP reporter, hauling the wounded man's ammunition belt, was with two or three men who sprinted around a corner, straight into another ambush. The bullets flew past just a few feet away, maybe.
It was hard to tell. It was also hard to tell what was cover and what wasn't. The only thing to do was to lie, crouch, curl up and hope.