The voice from a distant mountain ambush in Afghanistan left U.S. commanders glued to their radios in 2007. A 20-year-old paratrooper, dead and dying Americans all around him, was telling the world what was happening and calling for help.
Kyle White, who the White House announced Tuesday will receive the Medal of Honor in a ceremony May 13, was a key lifeline for those in his patrol still alive, scattered along a cliffside trail snaking along a river near the border with Pakistan.
White will be only the seventh living recipient of the Medal of Honor from either the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. His will be the 14th awarded from the conflicts to those living or dead.
MORE: Official account of battle
Six Americans were killed in the ambush Nov. 9, 2007, along with three Afghan National Army soldiers. All of the other eight U.S. soldiers were wounded.
"I was 100% certain I was going to die that day," says White, who suffered a mild concussion from two nearby explosions.
More than six years passed before the decision to give him the vaunted award — a long period even by the measured pace the Pentagon normally takes.
White says he always knew that receiving a Medal of Honor could change his life. The thought of it brought mixed feelings — humbled by the recognition but sorrowful over the terrible cost it represents.
The only child of a couple employed by the Boeing aircraft manufacturer, Kyle White grew up in Bonney Lake, Wash., in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and enlisted in the Army shortly after graduating from high school.
He left the Army in 2011, and last year, he obtained a bachelor of science degree with a major in finance from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Now 27, he was hired in January by the Royal Bank of Canada in Charlotte as an investment analyst.
The battle for which White is being honored was a textbook ambush by an enemy that vastly outnumbered the Americans and their Afghan comrades. Between firing his rifle, scrambling to retrieve wounded comrades and having his thoughts scrambled by two close explosions, White told commanders what was happening, according to an Army account.
"All of Afghanistan was listening to his call sign, Charlie One Six Romeo," says Col. William Ostlund, then-commander of the battalion in which White served as a specialist.
"So when his platoon leader was killed, Charlie One Six Romeo was instrumental in controlling every single thing, from the fixed-wing bombers to the helicopter attack to the indirect (mortar and artillery) fire to treating casualties," Ostlund says.
Fourteen Americans and a squad of Afghan National Army soldiers were attacked while strung out single file along a narrow trail devoid of cover. Scores of Taliban fighters crouched on the opposite side of the valley or were concealed ahead down the trail or on the ridge above. They opened fire at 3:30 p.m. as the setting sun was in the soldiers' eyes. Many of the attackers were in shadows, all but invisible to the Americans.
The Taliban even videoed the action so they could turn it into a propaganda film. But the battle all but escaped notice in American media.
The battle became known as the Bella Ambush, named after the outpost where the soldiers were headed that afternoon.
Events leading to the ambush actually began months earlier. White was with the 1st Platoon, Chosen Company of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry.
During the summer of 2007, the platoon was based at a distant outpost near the village of Aranas, high in the Hindu Kush mountains. In August, the paratroopers of 1st Platoon came under attack at their base by about 100 Taliban fighters who overran nearly half the fort.
Half the 22 Americans were wounded. The platoon commander, 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, earned a Silver Star after calling in an airstrike on top of his position, killing the Taliban commander leading the attack.
That outpost near Aranas was abandoned in October, but Ferrara wanted to reconnect with the elders in Aranas and led a patrol up from Bella the night of Nov. 8.
He met with them Nov. 9 but grew suspicious that a Taliban attack might be forming and ordered his patrol to hike back toward Bella that afternoon. They were en route when the ambush occurred.
Ferrara, 24, a West Point graduate from Torrance, Calif., died carrying a list of what the elders wanted for the winter — fuel and blankets — tucked in his pocket, Ostlund says. Ferrara was posthumously promoted to captain.
White was his radio man.
"The whole valley erupted," White remembers. "They had us in this perfect spot."
Paratroopers who weren't killed outright charged into enemy fire or tumbled off the path down the steep mountainside to reach the valley 50 to 100 yards below. Some were blown off the cliff by rocket-propelled grenades, Ostlund says.
When the shooting started, White was near a gnarled, juniper-like tree that offered concealment but no protection from enemy fire. White huddled there, working feverishly to stem the blood gushing from a shoulder wound to Spc. Kain Schilling.
Thirty feet behind them on the trail, Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks, 28, of Troy, Mich., who was training the Afghan soldiers, was sitting upright on the ground, shot through the leg and chest, blood coming out of his mouth.
He tried crawling to reach White and Schilling but couldn't manage it.
"The air was really hot and hostile," Schilling recalls. "There are a lot of different sounds, you get your cracks, and the whips, the real close-like zingers when they're dialing in on you."
White came to Bocks.
"I remember thinking to myself, all right, I'm not going to make it through this," White recalls. "So I'm going to at least try to help somebody until that happens."
Schilling, who lay beneath the tree canopy, recalls how White ran to Bocks as bullets ricocheted off broken shale at White's feet creating an aura of sparks.
"It would almost be a cool sight if it wasn't so deadly," Schilling says. "I was absolutely sure that he was going to die."
Each time White made his way toward Bocks, Taliban fighters concentrated their fire on him. Fearing that Bocks would be wounded again, White pulled back to the tree but returned again and again to finally drag Bocks to the canopy of leaves.
"Everywhere around my feet, through my uniform, it was just rounds coming in everywhere," White says. "You could feel it, the pressure of the round going by."
Bocks was wounded in the chest and right leg. Though White placed a tourniquet above the leg wound, he could tell there was serious internal damage from the chest wound.
"I don't think I'm going to make it through this one," the Marine said. He died shortly thereafter.
Schilling was hit a second time, this time through his left leg. White pulled his belt off to use as a second tourniquet, yanking it tight.
Then the radio man crawled back out into the open to reach Ferrara, who had collapsed several feet up the trail. He found his platoon commander dead.
He said he needed to notify the world about what had gone wrong.
White's own radio was shot up by gunfire. Schilling's radio also was also out of action. White retrieved Bocks' radio.
"I was bringing it to my ear. A bullet went right though the hand mike and just blew it out of my hand," he recalls.
But he managed to activate it and establish radio contact with commanders, summoning artillery support, aircraft and rescue personnel.
Air evacuations that required hoisting dead and wounded up to hovering medevac helicopters were not possible until after dark.
Other heroism that day included the actions of then-Staff Sgt. James Takes. He ordered his men down the mountainside while providing covering fire, then followed them, pausing to help a wounded soldier despite being shot through both arms, according to an award citation. Takes received a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest valor award. Conrad Begaye, , another staff sergeant in the patrol, received the Silver Star for heroism after establishing radio contact and assisting with directing support fire and rescue.
White suffered a mild traumatic brain injury from the close blast of an RPG and then, minutes later, the explosion of an incoming, 120mm mortar round from U.S. forces trying to suppress the enemy attack.
He was diagnosed later with post-traumatic stress disorder but says he copes with the symptoms through exercise.
He still carries in his face bullet fragments from an AK-47 round that shattered on a rock in front of him.
Besides Ferrara and Bocks, other American dead were Sgt Jeffrey Mersman, 23, of Parker Kan.; Cpl. Lester Roque, 23, of Torrance, Calif.; Spc. Joseph Lancour, 21, of Swartz Creek, Mich.; and White's best friend in the platoon, Cpl. Sean K.A. Langevin, 23, of Walnut Creek, Calif.
The battle lasted more than 20 hours, from the opening volley until the last dead American was recovered.