By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006
FORT BRAGG, N.C., May 18 -- Sgt. 1st Class David Lowe and his Special Forces A-team were in their last week in Afghanistan on June 10, 2005, when their base received an urgent call: A small group of 82nd Airborne paratroopers was pinned down in a firefight near the Pakistan border and needed support.
"When you're that close to leaving the country and you've survived the whole time, you kind of stand down a little bit," said Lowe, 26, of Lancaster, Pa., recalling that much of the team's equipment was packed. "But they needed help," he said, "so we went," setting out on a mission that would prove vital and tragic.
Lowe's bravery in the Afghan mountains that sweltering summer day was rewarded Thursday with a Silver Star, which was pinned on by Brig. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., the head of the Special Forces Command, as Lowe and 12 fellow soldiers from 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, were honored at a ceremony here.
As fighting surges in Afghanistan against a reinvigorated Taliban, the stories behind Lowe's medal and others awarded for valor in combat offer vivid glimpses into the intensity of warfare in the country's most contested zones. Increased violence, particularly suicide and improvised bombs, has inflicted a worsening toll of U.S. troop deaths, which now total 234 -- including 10 for 7th Group.
U.S. military commanders acknowledge that the war that began in 2001 with the Special Forces' rapid overthrow of the Taliban government is far from over. They have put off plans to withdraw several thousand U.S. troops -- including conventional and Special Forces -- from Afghanistan this year.
The combat trials faced by Lowe and his comrades suggest the challenge that lies ahead.
It was midafternoon last June when Lowe's team, accompanied by Afghan forces, began climbing a steep mountainside to reach the 82nd Airborne paratroopers fighting off pockets of enemy on all sides.
Lowe's team moved through the brush without talking. The sun cast shadows on the hills, making it difficult to see. Lowe was uphill providing cover ahead of Sgt. 1st Class Victor Cervantes, who walked below through a dry streambed, when fire from a Kalashnikov broke out near Cervantes's position.
Lowe turned and dashed back, catching a glimpse of a camouflage coat and a figure ducking between the trees and rocks. Lowe fired at it with his M-4 and the gunfire stopped. Then he began yelling, "Vic!" "Vic!" trying to find his teammate.
"So anyway, Vic was dead," Lowe recalled, choking up at the memory. But Lowe, the team medic, said he controlled an urge to charge blindly up the hill in revenge.
Instead, according to his medal citation, during a six-hour firefight, Lowe moved deliberately to aid the wounded -- at one point dashing over 150 yards of open ground. He climbed an exposed rock pinnacle to shoot down a fighter who had a teammate pinned down, and helped kill six other attackers, including some who shot at the soldiers as they attempted to carry out Cervantes's body.
"We were a week from going home, and he's putting himself in harm's way -- he's the real hero today," Lowe said of Cervantes, 27, of Stockton, Calif.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Hope, 39, of Tulsa, also received the Silver Star for his daring leadership during a hastily executed spring 2005 raid on a fortified Taliban camp in Paktika province that killed a senior regional Taliban commander for southeastern Afghanistan.
As soon as they got off the helicopter near the camp, Hope's team came under withering fire from about 20 enemy fighters awaiting with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, and machine guns with armor-piercing bullets. The team fought its way up a ridge overlooking the camp, and then, to reach the stronghold, Hope led a flat-out race across 600 yards of open desert.
Following Hope, Staff Sgt. Charles Maxwell watched as bullets chopped up dust around his feet. "I wasn't going to let him go without me," said Maxwell, 32, who was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.