10 Green Berets to Receive Silver Star for Afghan Battle
Friday, December 12, 2008
After jumping out of helicopters at daybreak onto jagged, ice-covered rocks and into water at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the 12-man Special Forces team scrambled up the steep mountainside toward its target -- an insurgent stronghold in northeast Afghanistan.
"Our plan," Capt. Kyle M. Walton recalled in an interview, "was to fight downhill."
But as the soldiers maneuvered toward a cluster of thick-walled mud buildings constructed layer upon layer about 1,000 feet farther up the mountain, insurgents quickly manned fighting positions, readying a barrage of fire for the exposed Green Berets.
A harrowing, nearly seven-hour battle unfolded on that mountainside in Afghanistan's Nuristan province on April 6, as Walton, his team and a few dozen Afghan commandos they had trained took fire from all directions. Outnumbered, the Green Berets fought on even after half of them were wounded -- four critically -- and managed to subdue an estimated 150 to 200 insurgents, according to interviews with several team members and official citations.
Today, Walton and nine of his teammates from Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 of the 3rd Special Forces Group will receive the Silver Star for their heroism in that battle -- the highest number of such awards given to the elite troops for a single engagement since the Vietnam War.
That chilly morning, Walton's mind was on his team's mission: to capture or kill several members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) militant group in their stronghold, a village perched in Nuristan's Shok Valley that was accessible only by pack mule and so remote that Walton said he believed that no U.S. troops, or Soviet ones before them, had ever been there.
But as the soldiers, each carrying 60 to 80 pounds of gear, scaled the mountain, they could already spot insurgents running to and fro, they said. As the soldiers drew closer, they saw that many of the mud buildings had holes in the foot-thick walls for snipers. The U.S. troops had maintained an element of surprise until their helicopters turned into the valley, but by now the insurgent leaders entrenched above knew they were the targets, and had alerted their fighters to rally.
Staff Sgt. Luis Morales of Fredericksburg was the first to see an armed insurgent and opened fire, killing him. But at that moment, the insurgents began blasting away at the American and Afghan troops with machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- shooting down on each of the U.S. positions from virtually all sides.
"All elements were pinned down from extremely heavy fire from the get-go," Walton said. "It was a coordinated attack." The insurgent Afghan fighters knew there was only one route up the valley and "were able to wait until we were in the most vulnerable position to initiate the ambush," said Staff Sgt. Seth E. Howard, the team weapons sergeant.
Almost immediately, exposed U.S. and Afghan troops were hit. An Afghan interpreter was killed, and Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr was shot in the hip.
"We were pretty much in the open, there were no trees to hide behind," said Morales, who with Walton pulled Behr back to their position. Morales cut open Behr's fatigues and applied pressure to his bleeding hip, even though Morales himself had been shot in the right thigh. A minute later, Morales was hit again, in the ankle, leaving him struggling to treat himself and his comrade, he said. Absent any cover, Walton moved the body of the dead Afghan interpreter to shield the wounded.
Farther down the hill in the streambed, Master Sgt. Scott Ford, the team sergeant, was firing an M203 grenade launcher at the fighting positions, he recalled. An Afghan commando fired rocket-propelled grenades at the windows from which they were taking fire, while Howard shot rounds from a rocket launcher and recoilless rifle.