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Courtesy Samuel Van Kopp

Samuel Van Kopp during one of his last days in the intensive care unit, right before a drainage tube was removed from his skull.

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Samuel Van Kopp with his family at Thanksgiving dinner in Washington, D.C.

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Samuel Van Kopp and his brother Miles at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., recently.

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TBC

Samuel Van Kopp

He remembers his 10-man platoon was in "an old corn field, hunkered down in the half-flooded furrows."

He could hear in the distance the sound of small arms fire and the distinctive "womp, then the BANG of impact" of rocket-propelled grenades.

Originally hailing from Bakersfield, 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp had graduated from the Army's elite West Point academy two years before. Now he was a leader of men -- a platoon leader -- "hunkered down" somewhere in Afghanistan. It was Sept. 26, 2012.

"I hesitate (to tell this story) only because I fear my recollections give the impression of the 26th being an unusual event, like the battle scene in some old movie," he wrote in an email.

But it wasn't unusual at all, said Van Kopp, who turned 25 on Friday. On the contrary, being engaged by the enemy -- a polite term for taking lethal mortar fire, pot shots from hidden machine gunners or threats from improvised explosive devices -- was almost an everyday occurrence.

Once or twice a month, Van Kopp said, his crew would share what he called a "communal 'near-death experience'" that shook people up.

"I'm not talking about striking an IED in a vehicle -- that's a 'non-serious engagement' because though people get concussions, the gunner might get bruised up a bit and it's all very exciting, and certainly the vehicle is rendered non-mission capable for a bit, no one dies or is in danger of dying from the blast alone.

"A 'near-death experience firefight,'" he continued, "is one that starts as an ambush, when by all rights you should have died, when you can literally see the 7.62 rounds ricocheting off the mud brick in front of you, when a mortar round or RPG with your name on it rams into the hill right next to you, when you run like hell to the nearest cover."

Unfortunately for Van Kopp and his men, Sept. 26 would turn into that kind of day -- and worse.

Careful not to divulge sensitive information, Van Kopp's account leaves some questions unanswered. But it's a frightening reminder of what many American soldiers and Marines face every day in the non-traditional battlefields of this ancient arid land.

"My platoon kicked out our dismounts (the men who are designated to leave the vehicles and put boots on the ground), who started moving through the woods by the river about 800 meters south of our vehicles on the road. It's a very slow process," Van Kopp continued.

The acting senior scout, a staff sergeant, handled the movement of the section. As platoon leader, Van Kopp coordinated the movement of his unit with adjacent units.

About an hour into their patrol they heard "enemy contact" coming from two directions.

"In front of us, maybe a kilometer away, two teams of RPGs were busy lobbing rounds at our vehicle convoy," he said.

"Behind us came the sustained rattle of maybe two or three medium machine guns and maybe four or five AK-47s keeping steady contact at some unseen target, again probably the convoy."

In the cornfield, Van Kopp conferred with his staff sergeant about a plan to wait for the insurgent elements, who had split their force and would likely have to cross the platoon's field of fire. Both men saw an opportunity.

"Don't believe what's sometimes written," Van Kopp said. "A platoon can more readily lose its platoon leader than it can a good staff sergeant."

The two men agreed to the plan, so they stayed low and Van Kopp crawled back to his spot watching the unit's northern flank.

"A few seconds later we came under fire, probably a machine gun or two and a couple AKs," he said. "The fire was close but not too close."

The radio traffic -- frantic since the attack began -- became crazed, he recalled.

"I turned around to see if I needed to move my guys and caught a glimpse of an old man walking across the river bank, moving in our direction."

He saw his staff sergeant move to intercept the man as machine gun fire raked the embankment beside the unit's southern flank.

"I turned back to the radio, again and again calling up our position, that we were under fire," Van Kopp remembered.

"Then an explosion -- and the world was put on pause."

When the blast hit, it caught Van Kopp from behind and knocked him to the ground.

"In the dust cloud that surrounded us there was no sound," he remembered. "I could taste blood and felt it streaming from my ears but I heard only ringing.

"I tried to stand but couldn't balance. I couldn't see well. I could feel myself losing consciousness, the world slowing down. We were still under fire. I crawled to a trench and got on the radio. I sent up our position -- my GPS was still good.

"The explosion had shut up the radio chatter," he said. "I reported that we had been attacked and that we needed immediate relief and medivac. I sent up the first half of the army's medivac report and lost consciousness."

Van Kopp didn't know it at the time, but his staff sergeant was already dead, killed instantly in the explosion. Another man was mortally wounded and two others were seriously hurt. In the aftermath of the explosion there were no screams.

Van Kopp regained consciousness two days later in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C.

"I thought for a few days that the explosion had been an RPG, and the doctors, fearing my condition and reaction, told me I was the only man hit," Lt. Van Kopp recalled.

He later learned that the explosion originated from a suicide bomber, the old man his staff sergeant had intercepted.

"It must seem ridiculous, a civilian walking around the battlefield," Van Kopp said. "But in reality this area abutted huge tracks of farmland and we often encountered civilians caught in the middle.

"Beyond a doubt, had his two men not moved to intercept the suicide bomber before he got to the middle of their formation, many more men would have died that day," he said.

"I owe them my life."