ABOARD A BLACK HAWK HELICOPTER IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN — The Army medics had just dropped off a Marine wounded in a bombing when one reached over and handed me a scribbled note inside the noisy U.S. helicopter.
"We got another mission," the message from U.S. Army medic Sgt. Josef Campbell read.
I jotted back: "Where?"
"Sangin, hot landing zone, Marines under fire, one is injured."
Southern Afghanistan remains a stronghold of the Taliban, and Sangin is a hotly contested district. The spring fighting season is now under way. That means more soldiers wounded by gunfire and bombings. And more work for the medics of the "Dustoff" helicopters.
As we approached Sangin, I saw an Afghan woman hanging her laundry inside the yard of her house. The tranquillity of the scene helped me relax.
That sense of calm lasted just a few moments.
Dust, mud and grass churned up in front of us as the Black Hawk landed.
Campbell, 35, of Juniper, Idaho, reached out to open the door. Then gunfire erupted.
I heard a metallic sound and realized the helicopter had been hit. The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Fink, quickly pulled the helicopter's nose toward the sky. All I could see in front of us were trees and power lines.
"If we are going to crash. I don't want to see it," I thought. My eyes shut, I held onto my seat belt.
I opened my eyes. We hadn't crashed. Slowly, the helicopter gained altitude and rose to safety.
We cruised slowly as Fink, 40, of Spring Hill, Kan., and another pilot, Chief Warrant Office 2 Niel Steward, 34, of Grand Rapids, Mich., checked the helicopter to make sure it could still maneuver. It could.
After 15 minutes, I realized we would return to the same spot. As I looked at Campbell, I noticed his extraordinary level of concentration. He adjusted his gloves, reached for his assault rifle and then peered out of his open window.
I kept trying to find my lucky charms in my pockets.
The helicopter touched down right where we took fire only minutes earlier. The big side door slid open. I reached for my camera, feeling better because I could concentrate on something else.
Campbell jumped out first. He looked around. Neither of us could see the Marines. Suddenly, a Marine jumped up from a ditch nearby, one hand on his stomach and the other holding rosary beads.
The Marine sprinted toward us, turning around to wave to the others that he could make it to the helicopter. Another Marine tried to catch up to help him, but the injured Marine, Lance Cpl. Blas Trevino from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, ran so fast he made it to the helicopter first.
Trevino latched onto Campbell in a desperate hug.
"You have made it! You have made it!" Campbell shouted over the whine of the idling helicopter.
As the helicopter lifted off again, the medics began treating Trevino for a gunshot wound to his stomach. During the 10-minute flight, Trevino kept praying while clutching his rosary beads.
We landed at Forward Operating Base Edi outside Sangin but still in Helmand province. Medics carried Trevino into a hospital tent.
Meanwhile, Fink and Stewart walked around the helicopter, looking for damage.
Gunfire had struck five times in the tail. One bullet passed barely a third of an inch from the hydraulic system powering the huge helicopter. Another went through the metal near the fuel tank.
The two men took off their bulletproof vests.
"That was pretty close," they agreed.