The American military death toll in Afghanistan has reached 1,000 and the number of US troops in Afghanistan has now surpassed the total in Iraq. The grim milestone comes midway between President Obama's decision last December to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan and a progress report on the war that he has promised by the end of the year. Reporter Ben Gilbert is embedded with an Army unit currently deployed in Eastern Afghanistan.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. U.S. troops in Afghanistan reached a grim milestone today. The number of American military deaths in the country reached 1,000. The latest fatality was the result of a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan. The first U.S. combat death in the Afghan war came back in 2002 in eastern Afghanistan. That's where The World's Ben Gilbert is right now embedded with an Army unit in Paktia Province.
BEN GILBERT: The 101st Airborne's Bravo Troop, First Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment live and work on a small forward operating base called Wilderness. It's nestled in a mountain pass on a strategic road near Afghanistan's poorest border with Pakistan. The winter here was pretty quiet, but now winter's over. This week the Taliban executed eight Afghan elders who dared challenge them. They also hit camp Wilderness with 12 rockets. They were fired from a village called Haqi Kalay, a town with suspected links to the Taliban affiliated Haqqani network. Lieutenant Joe Witcher leads a group of 19 soldiers to Haqi Kalay. The dirt road is rough and rudded. The vehicles snake slowly through the washed out valleys and climb steep embankments. There's basically only one way into the village and one way out which makes it perfect for an ambush.
LIEUTENANT JOE WITCHER: Hey T, it should be the next hilltop once we get behind this one.
GILBERT: The American spends two hours looking for the rocket launch site. Afterwards, they come back through Haqi Kalay. A crowd of young men sit in a long row under the shade of one building unsmiling and staring. The Americans begin the trip back home and within five minutes, the troops are ambushed on an exposed part of the dirt road. Sergeant E. Daniel Witherspoon, the gunner on one truck sees muzzle flashes from a ridge to our right. The American trucks return fire from mounted machine guns and grenade launchers. Explosions rip into the dirt below the trucks. The insurgents are firing rocket propelled grenades. Then, the Afghan soldiers jump out of the pick up truck in front of us and run for cover behind a small hill blocking the convoy. Sergeant Chester Thompson yells for them to get back in so the six vehicle convoy can move forward. Eleven minutes into the attack, a trooper named Sergeant Robert Kramm gets out of his truck, under fire, and herds the Afghans back into their truck. The convoy moves down the hill and out of the line of fire. The soldiers call for air support and artillery. Soon, two apache helicopters show up, but it's not over. A trail of smoke arcs toward one, apparently someone shot an RPG at the helicopter and narrowly missed it. Later, the platoon commander, Lt. Joe Witcher, leads a group of soldiers up across the valley into the ridgeline from where the ambush originated. All they find is bullet casings. The people who shot at them are long gone. The troops hike back to their trucks and head back to the base. Lt. Witcher.
LT. WITCHER: I'm not going to line, we always kind of say we are waiting for it, but I wasn't expecting it today. But like we were talking about, it has definitely; the area has definitely switched to game on in the last week, week and a half.
GILBERT: Back at the unit's headquarters at Camp Wilderness, the troops inspect their vehicles for damage. The first armored truck in the convoy took eight shots, with five of them striking the turret gunner's shield a few vital inches from 27-year-old private first class Jacob Veith's body. Veith was a cop for two years in the suburbs outside Kansas City before joining the Army. This is his first time in combat.
PFC JACOB VEITH: That was pretty amazing. Gets your blood pumping, you know? I mean I was a cop for three years, been in the Army for little over a year now, and probably had more excitement here than I ever had back on the street.
GILBERT: No one was hurt in the fire fight, but this is a deadly serious game, especially now. B Troop's commander, Captain Jarrad Glasenapp says that this fire fight showed that the fighting season has kicked off. He also says it shows that the Afghan Army still isn't quite up to the job. But this job isn't easy for anyone. The last time this unit was able to make it to Haqi Kalay was two and a half weeks ago. Without more U.S. or Afghan troops in this area to secure these small villages, the insurgents can blend in with locals in villages and pretty much move freely across the remote, rugged territory. Glasenapp says his troop's mission will be to move into those areas and try to bring Afghan troops and government services to the villages. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert at Camp Wilderness, Paktia Province, Afghanistan.