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News arrives that an informer is claiming that the missing soldier is alive and being held by the Taliban in Kuhak, the same village where the soldiers started. With the soldier now confirmed dead, the tip-off appears suspicious.

“If they know that one of our guys is missing, that means that they want us to walk through Kuhak,” said Sgt. Victorin. “It could be an ambush, it could be an IED.” Reinforcements are called, in the form of Green Berets and surrogate local militias.

Gunfire reverberates around the valley, chattering above the evening prayer and what sounds like children screaming. The helicopters drop chaff and return to base. Darkness falls. As the clatter of rotors fades away, the river’s warbling reasserts itself.

Lt. Ritenour’s company prepares to return to base.

“Exfil[tration] is the most dangerous part of the mission,” he says. “We’ve been here for eight hours; therefore, it’s likely that the Taliban have been implanting IEDs around us.”

The company moves silently through waist-high fields to a soundtrack of dogs barking hoarsely from within compounds. A ghostly moon rises from behind a mountain range, shedding silvery light on faces illuminated only by the green pinprick of night-vision goggles. Light pollution from Kandahar bleeds sickly into the black night from a few miles away.

“A death for us is sacred,” says Sgt. Mason. “No effort will be spared to return that body to its family.”