THE valley was descending into madness.
Machinegun fire was raking the air above them. Radios were crackling, men yelling above the static and gunfire.
The Australian soldiers, about 20 of them with another 20 Afghan army, were bunkered down. Sergeant Sean Lanigan was at the front of the patrol with Private Paul Langer in what his Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Jennings, would later call a knife fight.
In other words, they were so close they may as well have been using knives, not machineguns.
"We were getting hit from a couple of positions," Sgt Lanigan said. "From thick marijuana crops."
Corn and wheat also grew. All taller than a man, it made it perfect for evil men to hide in.
This was on the morning of August 24, 2010, the day Lance-Corporal Jared MacKinney would be shot dead. And if not for the actions of another, Corporal Dan Keighran, there might have been many more.
Cpl Keighran was awarded the Victoria Cross last week for what happened this day, just the third VC winner since fighting began in Afghanistan.
The battle is more than two years gone now, but this week Cpl Keighran, with Lt Col Jennings, Sgt Lanigan, Corporal Lukas Woolley and Sapper Joel Toms, recalled what happened that day. He wouldn’t do it without them.
The air was full of machinegun fire and shouts, Afghani soldiers missing and then found, gunfire coming from crops you cannot see into, an enemy of unknown size, but of considerable firepower.
The Afghani insurgents that planned the ambush had done a wonderful job. The Australians were vulnerable, on the low side with only open ground behind them, or a high, naked hill. It was so bare any attempt at gaining higher ground was not worth considering.
"Get some eyes on the target," came the radio call.
At this, Sgt Lanigan saw Cpl Keighran running up the hill. In truth, he was already going before the instructions came.
"Oh shit!" Sgt Lanigan thought. Spr Toms saw him go, too. "Oh no!" he thought.
Cpl Keighran went up the hill with Private Sean Parker and two Afghanis.
He got up the hill so fast he went too far. “I knew I went too far because I nearly got shot in the first couple of seconds,” he said.
The bullets came in hard, punching the ground. “The closer it gets the crisper it sounds. It’s like a crack,” he said. Cpl Woolley added, “Like a stockwhip.”
Cpl Keighran was in a bad spot. There wasn’t enough cover. He was too exposed. The cracks were crisp. “But I knew I had to be there, essentially to support my mates in the trench,” he said.
Such environments are not the place for hard luck stories. Actions here are always final, and sometimes fatal.
But the Australians were under siege and, with the moment at hand, a man with a bad haircut and an intelligent eye, who now commits his fulltime work to time in the mines, was about to do something extraordinary.
Cpl Woolley sent about half a dozen Afghans to help Cpl Keighran. They carried rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machineguns, and Cpl Keighran began positioning them 10-15m apart, attracting fire every time he moved to the next.
From there he called positions in and, on a ridge about 1.5km west, four light-armoured trucks carrying a .50 calibre machinegun, two 25mm Bushmaster chain guns, a 7.62mm machinegun and an 84mm recoilless rifle fired.
For Cpl Keighran the relief was brief. Realising he was calling in positions, the insurgents turned their guns on the exposed hillside.
"That’s when Dan and Sean Parker started really getting a massive amount of fire from long range," Sgt Lanigan said.
"It was perfect machinegun range. That’s when we realised there was a lot of fire going above our heads hitting Dan and Sean."
The insurgents brought reinforcements. Fire started coming from farther away.
When the reinforcements arrived Cpl Keighran knew exactly where they needed to be, but they had to be told.
"We need to get fire support," Cpl Keighran thought, to engage the targets further out. "I made the decision at this point to come off this hill," he said.
More machinegun fire rained down as he descended.
He ran in some places, crawled in others. Puffs of dirt spat up around him.
He grabbed Captain Brendan Perkins: “We’re getting engaged further out than what’s still going on close quarter. We need to get rounds on these boys to help us out.”
Back up the hill they went, crawling all the way. On top, the machinegun fire picked up, so heavily they couldn’t stick their heads up to identify enemy positions.
Then, if he hadn’t already by now, Cpl Keighran did something that would earn his Victoria Cross.
"Put down 50 rounds rapid fire, I’m gonna stand up," he said. "I’m gonna draw fire."
Most of us would think this is crazy. For most of us it would be. But Cpl Keighran is uncommon.
"There’s a point where you make a decision and there’s a point beyond that," Cpl Woolley said, "and I watched him go beyond that a couple of times." By example, each time he watched Cpl Keighran go through his processes before he acted. This was no ill-considered action.
"Essentially," Keighran said, he knew he had to "expose myself on top of this hill. I made the call to run across it."
Amid all that gunfire, Cpl Keighran ran 20-30m to draw fire. He did this, across a naked ridge, the bullets coming in crisp and clear.
Then he did it again.
The third time he ran even further. “I went way too far,” he said.
He ran 45-50m, bullets zinging around him.
"The second time was pushing it, the third time - I’m lucky, to say the least."
Spotting muzzle fire, they identified three enemy positions that were soon taken out, turning the battle.
Cpl Woolley saw enough to be alarmed and jump on the radio. “Dan, jump on Channel 2,” he said. “What do you need?” said Cpl Keighran.
"You’re taking rounds real close," he said. "Watch out."
"Yeah," Cpl Keighran said. "No dramas."
Soon after, he was running again. Lance-Cpl MacKinney had just been shot.