Serial 1, led by Uthlaut and including Pat Tillman, would move immediately to Manah.
Serial 2, with the local tow truck hauling the Humvee, would follow, but would soon branch off toward a highway to drop off the vehicle.
The Afghan region of Khost, frequented by Osama bin Laden and his allies for many years, was where Pat Tillman and other members of the 2nd Platoon were responsible for operations.
(Emilio Morenatti -- AP)
Sgt. Greg Baker, a young and slightly built Ranger nearing the end of his enlistment, commanded the heaviest-armed vehicle in Serial 2, just behind the jinga tow truck. Baker's men wielded the .50-caliber machine gun, plus an M-240B machine gun, an M-249 squad automatic weapon and three M-4 carbines. Baker's truck would do the heaviest shooting if there were any attack. Two of his gunners had never seen combat before.
Baker left the Rangers last spring; he declined to comment for these articles. A second gunner in his vehicle, Trevor Alders, also declined to discuss the incident.
Kevin Tillman was also assigned to Serial 2. He manned an MK19 gun in the trailing vehicle, well behind Baker.
They left Margarah village a little after 6 p.m. They had been in the same place for more than five hours, presenting an inviting target for Taliban guerrillas.
Pat Tillman's serial, with Uthlaut in command, soon turned into a steep and narrow canyon, passed through safely and approached Manah as planned.
Behind them, Serial 2 briefly started down a different road, then stopped. The Afghan tow truck driver said he could not navigate the pitted road. He suggested they turn around and follow the same route that Serial 1 had taken. After Serial 2 passed Manah, the group could circle around to the designated highway. Serial 2's leader, the platoon sergeant, agreed.
There was no radio communication between the two serials about this change in plans.
At 6:34 p.m. Serial 2, with about 17 Rangers in six vehicles, entered the narrow canyon that Serial 1 had just left.
"I noticed rocks falling . . . then I saw the second and third mortar round hit."
When he heard the first explosion, the platoon sergeant thought one of his vehicles had struck a land mine or a roadside bomb.
They had been in the canyon only a minute. In his machine gun-laden truck, Greg Baker also thought somebody had hit a mine. He and his men jumped out of their vehicle. Baker looked up at the sheer canyon walls. The canyon was five to 10 yards across at its narrowest. "I noticed rocks falling," he recalled in a statement, and "then I saw the second and third mortar rounds hit." He could hear, too, the rattle of enemy small-arms fire.
It was not a bomb -- it was an ambush. Baker and his comrades thought they could see their attackers moving high above them. They began to return fire.
They were trapped in the worst possible place: the kill zone of an ambush. The best way to beat a canyon ambush is to flee the kill zone as fast as possible. But Baker and his men had dismounted their vehicles. Worse, when they scrambled back and tried to move, they discovered that the lumbering Afghan tow truck in their serial was stalled, blocking their exit.
Baker "ran up and grabbed" the truck driver and his Afghan interpreter and "threw them in the truck and started to move," as he recalled. He fired up the canyon walls until he ran out of ammunition. Then he jumped from the tow truck, ran back to his vehicle and reloaded. When the tow truck stopped again, Baker shouted at his own driver to move around it.
Finally freed, Baker's heavily armed Humvee raced out of the ambush canyon, its machine guns pounding fire, its inexperienced shooters coursing with adrenaline.
"I remember not liking his position."
Ahead of them, parked outside a small village near Manah, David Uthlaut heard an explosion. From his position he "could not see the enemy or make an adequate assessment of the situation," so he ordered his men to move toward the firing.
Uthlaut designated Pat Tillman as one of three fire team leaders and ordered him to join other Rangers "to press the fight," as Uthlaut put it, against an uncertain adversary.
Uthlaut tried to raise Serial 2 on his radio. He wanted to find out where the Rangers were and to tell them where his serial had set up. But he could not get through -- the high canyon walls blocked radio signals.
Tillman and other Rangers moved up a rocky north-south ridge that faced the ambush canyon on a roughly perpendicular angle.
The light was dimming. "It was like twilight," one Ranger in the fight recalled. "You couldn't see colors, but you could see silhouettes." Another soldier felt the light was "still pretty good."