The United States has pulled 400 troops out of the battle in eastern Afghanistan. The soldiers were airlifted from the rugged Arma Mountains to the U.S. base camp at Bagram, north of Kabul.
The area around the Bagram airfield was a sea of fine-particle dust as wave after wave of large Chinook transport helicopters landed, bearing battle-weary U.S. troops.
The soldiers went to their tents, unloaded their heavy field packs, and immediately set to cleaning their weapons, laden with carbon and dust from nearly 10 days of fighting.
For nearly all of them, the battle against al-Qaida and Taleban fighters was their first time in combat. In interviews with nearly a dozen soldiers, the most commonly heard theme was: the intense training paid off.
One soldier, who just gave his name and rank as Specialist Combs, said he would not be alive except for it. "Everything definitely worked. I am here with all fingers, all toes, all body parts. Heart is still beating, so it worked, sir," he said.
The U.S. troops were airlifted in to the battle zone in Chinook helicopters. During the operation, named Anaconda, two were hit by ground fire.
Pilot Jody Eppler said it was a tricky business to maneuver one of the large, unwieldy helicopters in a high and dusty environment. "Basically, once you start descending and making your approach to land, from about 10 feet down you just continue with what you have got because you do not have the ground in sight. And you hope you have picked a spot that is level and does not have any holes or big rocks that you are going to run into. And just put the thing on the ground so your troops can get out safely," Jody Eppler said.
Soldiers said on the first day, March 2, they ran into unexpectedly heavy opposition from the dug-in al-Qaida and Taleban fighters. Like many of his comrades, Private First Class Ben McBride expressed surprise at the level of opposition they faced.
"To stay in an environment where you have a load of U.S. troops coming in, you have air strikes, continuous air strikes, the potential for mortar rounds landing on you, they are very tenacious individuals. But I would have to say that in the end, they backed off. They really backed off. But I think they finally caught on to the point after about seven days of us being out there that there was really absolutely nothing that they could do," Ben McBride said.
Conditions were fierce in the high elevations, with snow and freezing temperatures at night and blazing sun by day.
Echoing many of his comrades, Specialist Justin Adamson said the impact of what they had been through did not really hit them until later. "It does not really hit you until afterwards because of the adrenaline. But once the adrenaline goes down, you go, 'Man, that was almost it," he said.
A Special Forces lieutenant colonel, who would only give his name as Mark, said the events of six months ago are on everyone's mind. He said the soldiers do not want to let any of the al-Qaida and Taleban escape.
"You know, I would remind you that on the 11 of September, these bastards killed 3,000 folk, all of whom were innocent. You need to underline that, put it in bold type, on the front page of the newspaper. These [al-Qaida] guys are down there in this pile. That is where they are. These are the most technical and best trained and most capable that they own. And they are trying to survive. Do you want to let them? Do you want to let them? I do not," he said.
Neither do any of the exhausted soldiers who have come back from battle. If the need arises, they say they are ready to go back, no longer as green troops, but now as combat veterans.