In late 2009, President Obama announced that an additional 30,000 American troops would begin rapidly deploying to Afghanistan as part of a strategy to reverse alarming gains made by the Taliban in the years since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted them from Kabul. The bulk of the initial troop surge was comprised of men and women with the 101st Airborne Division out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, which within months of the announcement deployed roughly 24,000 of its soldiers to the most contested regions of the country. It was a grueling endeavor: the 101st suffered more combat losses on that rotation than on any other since the Vietnam War. 1st BCT - one of the division's four Brigade Combat Teams - was responsible for operations in northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The brigade - nicknamed "Bastogne" - was concentrated in and around Kunar Province, a longtime nerve center of insurgent activity, notorious for its impenetrable river valleys and near-vertical mountain terrain.
The 101st suffered more combat losses on that rotation than on any other since the Vietnam War.
"My first two tours in Iraq didn't prepare me for the year that I spent patrolling those mountains with some of the toughest guys I've ever met," says SFC Mark Burrell, a U.S. Army combat correspondent who was attached to Bastogne for much of its deployment. "When I was in Iraq, the enemy wanted to blow you up, take a few pot shots and run away. In Afghanistan, they wanted to kill you. A very distinct difference." Burrell spent most of his tour patrolling the Pech River Valley, not far from the area featured in Sebastian Junger's 2010 harrowing war documentary, Restrepo. "By the time I arrived, the Taliban had been fighting for decades, and they were putting up a fight," says Burrell. "But our troops never backed down." This is his story.
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Photos by SFC Mark Burrell