The situation was dire: A team of Army Rangers had swooped into an enemy compound in southern Afghanistan, only to find that the area had been rigged with numerous booby traps. At least 10 improvised explosive devices went off within minutes, mortally wounding four soldiers and catastrophically injuring several others.
This is the crisis that Staff Sgt. Jeffery M. Dawson, Sgt. Bryan C. Anderson and their fellow Rangers faced on Oct. 5, 2013, Army officials say. Dawson and Anderson, already coping with their own blast injuries, worked to aid their fellow wounded soldiers and recover the remains of those who had died.
On Tuesday, Dawson and Anderson received the Distinguished Service Cross at Fort Benning, Ga., for their heroism in that compound. The award is second only to the Medal of Honor in honoring heroism by U.S. soldiers.
“That mission started out the same as every mission,” said Dawson, according to an Army news release. “The IED threat was low and it was supposed to be a quick easy target. Upon infiltration everything changed in minutes.”
Killed in the mission were 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25; Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24; and Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, 24. Moreno, later promoted to captain, was an Army nurse who died after triggering a bomb while rushing to the side of an injured soldier. Hawkins and Patterson were both Rangers, while Peters was a military policeman.
Dawson was an explosive ordnance disposal technician, and left the compound early in the raid with other soldiers, chasing a fleeing insurgent. The man detonated a suicide vest, killing himself, another insurgent and an Army dog, Jani, and wounding Dawson and seven other U.S. troops.
Around the same time, U.S. soldiers inside the compound were walloped with numerous explosions. Dawson cleared a 30-foot wide path to allow an Air Force pararescue jumper to provide medical aid to Peters, who already had been wounded. Dawson then cleared another 10-foot path to two other soldiers who had been hit, including Patterson, according to a summary of Dawson’s actions released to The Washington Post.
Dawson began clearing a route to Moreno with his metal detector, but uncovered another IED after moving about 25 feet. He adjusted his path, but found two more, and then was wounded for a second time with the fragmentation from another blast, which critically wounded another Ranger, Cpl. Joshua Hargis.
Dawson is credited with disregarding his own wounds to help a medic treat Hargis, who survived and was later pictured in a widely distributed photograph saluting his commander from his hospital bed. Dawson began clearing another route to help others, but called for his fellow soldiers to stay in place after finding more IED wires.
“His personal recovery of the remains of SPC Patterson embodies one of the most profound tenants of the Ranger Creed: ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy,'” Dawson’s summary of action states. “His expedient treatment directly contributed to saving the life of CPL Hargis. With repeated disregard for his personal safety, SSG Dawson consistently exposed himself at the lead of maneuvering elements to ensure safe passage for all teammates around the objective area.”
Anderson was a Ranger medic on the raid. Like Dawson, he was outside the compound chasing the enemy fighter with the suicide vest when it detonated. Anderson broke away from the chase before it exploded, however, responding to American casualties inside the compound.
Anderson treated one soldier, Sgt. Thomas Block, who lost an eye and was tossed 35 feet in the air, according to an Army Times report. Block survived and went on to be named that newspaper’s 2014 Army Times soldier of the year for his resilience.
Anderson then moved forward over ground that had not previously been cleared for bombs, and treated other soldiers. A blast within 20 feet of Anderson then mortally wounded Patterson, and knocked Anderson over. He recovered to treat other soldiers, including Peters and Hargis.
“SGT Anderson had kept CPL Hargis alive for one hour, 37 minutes and thirty seconds with two catastrophic leg amputations on an objective area laden with explosives,” Anderson’s summary of action states. “SGT Anderson continued to treat CPL Hargis on the aircraft until it reached Kandahar Airfield. SGT Anderson carried CPL Hargis to the ambulance waiting on the airfield and accompanied CPL Hargis into the emergency room at Kandahar Airfield’s Hospital.”
Army officials said that Anderson endured seven explosions from a distance of no more than 10 meters in the span of 30 minutes. No fewer than 10 additional IEDs that did not explode were later found in the area nearby by Army bomb technicians.
“SGT Anderson was one of the most actively mobile strike force member on the objective,” the Army summary of action says. “His attempts to save SGT Hawkins’ and SGT Peters’ lives, while directly risking his own, are admirable beyond description.”
“I never even thought twice about running to one of those patients,” Anderson told Army Times. “The guys are basically my family, so when one of them is hurt, and I’m their medic, it’s my job to go make them better.”
Other soldiers also have received awards for valor that day. Hawkins and Patterson received posthumous Bronze Stars with “V” device, and Spec. Samuel Rae Crockett received the Silver Star in a ceremony last April.