On Sept. 27, 2014, a team of U.S. Special Operations troops was dropped into a volatile village in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The U.S. military had withdrawn thousands of troops from the country in the previous year, and the mission called for 21 Americans and about 60 Afghan commando counterparts to clear a bazaar of weapons and insurgents, and then get out.
It turned into a fight for their lives, three U.S. Special Operations airmen involved in the battle recalled Tuesday. The insurgents, numbering close to 100, sprung a fierce attack in which they not only launched a barrage of fire on the Americans, but made plans on the radio to overrun their position and take them hostage, the airmen said.
“They were much, much more brave than any insurgent that I have ever had throughout my deployments there,” Senior Airman Goodie J. Goodman told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “They didn’t seem like they were willing to quit until the last soul.”
On Wednesday, the Air Force will award three prestigious valor combat decorations to its three combat controllers in the battle, service officials said. Senior Airman Dustin H. Temple will receive the rare and prestigious Air Force Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor in honoring heroism in combat in the service. Goodman and Tech. Sgt. Matthew J. Greiner will receive the Silver Star, which is two levels below the Medal of Honor.
The battle marks just the second time in the 14 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that more than one airman has received such prestigious awards for heroism, Air Force officials said. An awards ceremony will be held at Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina.
One U.S. Special Forces soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Andrew T. Weathers, 30, suffered a gunshot to the head during the battle, and died Sept. 30 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after being evacuated from the battlefield, the airmen said. But remarkably, no other American or Afghan commando sustained any serious injuries.
The coalition launched 80 airstrikes during the mission, killing a confirmed 38 insurgents and destroying 28 vehicles, 17 buildings and 32 enemy fighting positions, Air Force officials said.
The operation was launched in the Kajaki district of northern Helmand province. It came at a time when the Taliban had mounted a broad assault to take back key areas in the northern region of the province, including Sangin, just south of Kajaki. Greiner said the “white space had sort of collapsed” where the battle occurred.
“I think it was more volatile,” he said.
The Air Force released this map showing how many positions there were around three spots that U.S. forces held:
The first team included Temple, Weathers, seven other U.S. Special Operations troops and five Afghan commandos. It received 80 percent of the fire during the first portion of the battle. The second element included Greiner, Goodman and 11 other Special Operations troops, along with 50 Afghan commandos. The third team had four U.S. troops and five Afghan commandos.
Temple is credited with putting himself into the line of fire of enemy snipers after Weathers had been shot to drag him from a rooftop and then carry him to a helicopter that had arrived to evacuate him.
“Despite overwhelming and accurate enemy machine gun fire, he remained in the open landing zone, providing covering fire while his teammates pulled back,” his Air Force Cross citations states. “After he returned to the compound, enemy fighters surged within 40 meters after intercepted communications stated ‘Take the Americans alive.'”
Temple responded by directing F-16 fighter jets to launch strafing gun runs, his citations adds. They were “danger close,” meaning he and other coalition troops were in close proximity to the targets.
Temple also is credited with again braving enemy fire to retrieve ammunition and other supplies from a helicopter that landed around under fire to help them. It took longer than expected due to a miscommunication about how the ammunition was packaged, he said, but they eventually got what they needed.
“I didn’t notice how close it was until one of our friendlies said, “Hey, are you OK? You’re taking fire all around,” Temple said.
Greiner and Goodman were together in another compound farther to the west for much of the battle, the airmen said.
Greiner is credited with guiding numerous airstrikes in defense of the coalition troops on the ground while facing enemy in 20 separate positions, according to his citation.
“With two observation posts in danger of being overrun by insurgents with 40 meters of their position, Sergeant Greiner focused all efforts on halting the enemy advance,” his citation states. “He immediately destroyed two compounds housing an insurgent machine gun position and enemy strongpoints, one danger close to friendly positions, with four 500-pound bombs from a pair of F-16s.”
The insurgents pinned down American and Afghan troops with machine-gun fire after sneaking through nearby corn fields, but Greiner called for Hellfire missile strikes and gun runs by AH-64 Apache helicopters. At one point, six armed insurgents approached coalition troops, and Greiner had them taken out by an AC-130 gunship plane overhead because he feared they’d launch a suicide attack.
Goodman is credited with holding a rooftop position while in the same compound as Greiner while machine-gun fire impacted six inches over his head, and then coordinating fires that held insurgents off for hours.
At one point, Goodman drew the enemy out by instructing the loud, low-flying AC-130 to remain outside of audible range,” his citation states. “When the enemy initiated a massive attack, Goodman controlled both aerial fires from the AC-130 and mortar fires from friendly ground forces until they retreated.”
In addition to the F-16s, Apaches and AC-130, the Americans had support from unmanned MQ-1 Predator aircraft. During the 48-hour fight, 28 combat helicopters and 20 coalition planes were involved.
Update, May 6, 7:15 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect new numbers just released of Americans and Afghan commandos involved in the battle. Also, video of the battle and photos of the awards ceremony were released Wednesday.