RAF MILDENHALL, England – Like many, I was prepared to lay down my life for my country each time I shipped off to war. There were a few times when I genuinely believed the cost would be my life, but, sadly it’s turned out to be much more.
The sacrifices paid in combat can’t be quantified in dollars or time, but are counted in tears shed by those who love and support us while we’re downrange or healing back at home.
I’m an Air Force Wounded Warrior, a Purple Heart recipient, and not ashamed to admit it.
On the outside I look just like any other airman and relish in that. However, something nearly always feels different. I’m typically withdrawn and emotionally numb.
I’ve adapted and am learning to live like that.
A respected colleague of mine and someone I consider a friend advised me to try to put my feelings down into words – to share this experience.
So taking the U.S. Air Forces in Europe public affairs functional manager Chief Master Sgt. Tyler Foster’s advice, I’ve done just that and will recount one particular mission, as I remember Operation Red Sand.
A group of scouts, their medic, a Navy combat cameraman and I set out by foot April 2, 2011 into areas far north in the Bala Murghab Valley, Badghis province, Afghanistan.
We ventured further than coalition forces had ever gone, and spent the night reconning villages, plotting locations and fighting positions both for ourselves, and anticipating enemy locations and contact.
It was a rough night, but paled in comparison with what was soon to follow.
The next night the same scouts from Red Platoon, Bulldog Troop, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, Navy dog handler Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Lee, his bomb dog "Valdo," a handful of Afghan National Army soldiers, Petty Officer 1st Class John Pearl and I returned.
This time we took to secure an area of ruins central in the location where we could operate patrols in known insurgent areas, and egress by riverbed if needed.
After securing the ruins in a field just outside Kamisari Village, we dug in fighting positions and fortified the eroded walls and doorways with sandbags, all under the cover of darkness. We also patrolled the nearby Kamisari and Joy Gange Villages, looking for evidence of mines, improvised explosive devices or booby traps.
At day break and without rest, we launched a patrol into a known insurgent hotbed and tried to convince locals to not support the insurgency and start supporting their government, with promises that a better life and development being made possible.
Army 1st Lt. Joe Law, Red Platoon leader, assured the men that if they worked with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, they would see bazaars and progress like that seen in central BMG.
Unaccepting to Law’s offers, the village elders became argumentative and accused our team wrongdoing and trespassing. Tension grew in the air in the villagers became visually upset, spitting and behaving in a way you rarely see in people who typically put a lot of stock into saving face and respect.
Law ordered our team to move out.
As we headed out of the village, around a dozen fighting-age men began to line rooftops, and we knew a battle would soon ensue.
We headed back to our fortified ruins and dug our heels in for the inevitable battle that would find us.
The ruins we established as Observation Post Reaper was eroded and roofless, and was basically a dilapidated, old three-room mud hut.
I was in the western-most part of the ruins with scouts Sgt. Jeff Sheppard and Pfc. Ben Bradley. Pearl, Lee and Valdo were also in that room.
The center room housed an ANA soldier, his platoon sergeant, our interpreter, Law, scout Sgt. Peter Nalesnik and Maj. Jonathan Lauer, an adviser from the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, who was along for the mission.
Three ANA soldiers, scout Spc. William Newland, medic Spc. Kellen West, and forward observer Spc. Dwayne Sims-Sparks were all in the eastern room.
Soon we began to take small-arms fire and started to locate where they were attacking from, and returned fire. Pearl was documenting the fight with video and I with still photos.
From where I stood, I noticed Sheppard and Bradley immediately engage the Taliban and lay down suppressive fire. Most of the incoming fire was originating from a compound several hundred meters to our north. Insurgents were also using canals to our east and west to flank us.
They were able to maneuver up and down the canals, spraying rounds at us at will from a wide array of cover locations. Almost immediately the fighting reached a level of intensity that forced me to lay down my camera and volley rounds back at the insurgents.
A few minutes into the firefight, I watched in awe as, while my co-worker Pearl was shooting video, an insurgent hit three rounds near his head, walking each round closer than the next.
I could hear several whizzing bullets passing very near to my face and body, and their sound is unforgettable. At a distance, they sounded like pops; near my position, they sounded more like loud cracks; and when they passed within inches of my ears, they sounded like a high-speed bullet train roaring by.
The Taliban were bombarding us with AK-47 and a barrage of heavy machine gun fire.
As we fought, I could literally see the mud walls of our ruins being cut down by the incoming PKM fire.
Sheppard called out to Pearl that he’d better move. At that point, Pearl grabbed his video camera and moved into the next room. Our room was the smallest of them all, not well fortified and we were taking one hell of a beating.
The firefight continued for a few hours and we were literally pinned down and under attack from the compound and both canals.
We needed a mortar mission or close-air support desperately as we were severely outgunned, had minimal cover in the ruins and field, and the insurgent force attacking us was growing very quickly.
Italian army soldiers from Forward Operating Base Todd began laying mortar fire into the field west of where most the insurgents were attacking. The first mortar hit about 25 meters from my position.
Each falling mortar shook the ground like an enormous bass drum, rattling my bones and soul. The first mortar stunned me for a moment, then coming out of the haze I joined Sheppard and Bradley, calling out mortar positions to Law. Under Sims-Spark’s directions, mortars moved closer and closer to the target.
The enemy assault grew in intensity and I recall wondering if we’d make it out alive. Our 15-man team seemed doomed.
Still, Law kept working the CAS mission and, despite the dangerously close proximity to which bullets were impacting, I could see Sheppard and Bradley keep fighting. It was inspiring!
Law was calling on someone to verify no insurgents were approaching from our south. I remember thinking that in order to see over the southern wall, I would have to run through a hail of enemy AK and PKM fire, jump up to grapple the top of the wall and peer over.
Shaking and petrified, I garnered the courage and ran through the barrage of bullets and verified, indeed we didn’t have any surprises coming to attack us from the rear.
When I raced back to the front of the room and returned scanning the western canal, Sheppard shouted at me to stay down. I knew any dumb move would burden my team in that they’d have to carry my mangled body off that field. Still, keeping insurgents off our rear was worth the risk.
Through panic and impending doom, the scout team kept their focus and wits about them, and we all continued to fight our hardest.
Law called out to check the south again. This time, without giving it too much thought, I checked the rear.
With each dash to the southern wall, my heart skipped beats and rounds bounced near my body and face. I could taste their proximity as dirt peppered my face.
The fighting went on and continued to intensify. Sheppard was keeping the insurgents out of the river beds by launching grenades and one of our ANA soldiers hit the compound center mass with a precisely aimed RPG.
No matter how hard we fought, they were growing in mass and their attacks were intensifying. It was clear they did not want us to set up a fire base in their backyard.
Our room continued getting pounded and we soon found ourselves taking three RPGs back to back, nearly destroying our northern defenses. Sheppard knew it was time to move and planned to lay down squad-automatic weapon fire to cover movement to the next room and he’d soon follow.
Before he had the chance to do so, the insurgents shot an RPG straight through the makeshift doorway in the front of our ruins, and I watched, as if in slow motion, as the grenade went straight over Bradley’s head, skimmed within inches of my face and impacted the ground a few feet behind me.
When the grenade exploded I was thrown into the front wall and saw nothing but sharp white light. I couldn’t smell, feel, see, and couldn’t comprehend what was going on for moments … then I heard clear as day, Sheppard screaming, “Medic! Medic! Medic! We need a medic! Get down here, West!”
I stumbled and regained my footing and found that I had all extremities and knowing Lee was dead, shuttered to look back. When I did, I learned he was alive, but Valdo was in really bad shape.
The RPG struck right behind Valdo and the heroic dog took most of the blast. Lee seemed extremely concerned for his wounded shipmate Valdo, Sheppard had shrapnel to the front of his arm, Bradley had shrapnel in his leg, and I caught some in my upper back and also had a concussion.
But we were all alive and while Lee and the West tended to Valdo, the rest of us continued to fight.
Knowing the insurgents were dialed in on our position and that another direct RPG hit would kill the four of us, Law called for more mortar fire and CAS.
An F-16 Fighting Falcon soon shrieked low and over head, popping flares to scare the insurgents. A remote piloted vehicle pounded the compound with 30 mm cannons, and we egressed towards the canal.
I didn’t know it at the time, but soon learned that Nalesnik, Lauer and an ANA soldier were already in that canal, clearing our path forward.
During the fog of the battle, I really only saw what was before me and around me. I knew Sheppard and Bradley were in the fight, I knew Law was leading us forward and calling in fire missions, I knew Lee was struggling with Valdo and that West was tending to wounds, but I had little knowledge of the vital parts the rest of the team was playing in the fight.
I learned later that at one point, the ANA sergeant bravely tossed Newland down and covered him with his own body, to protect the young specialist from a barrage of PKM rounds. That’s the type of heroism you see on movies but rarely witness first hand.
Meanwhile, we battled our way into the canal and for two kilometers, we fought our way through sporadic small-arms fire.
Pearl carried Valdo, our wounded shipmate, on his shoulders.
I was behind Pearl in the canal and could see Valdo had a hole about the size of a Pepsi can in his intestine. Pearl was soaked in vomit and feces, but kept pushing forward, determined to get Valdo to the medevac site.
Once we made it to a clearing, we found two Mine Resistant Ambush Protected all-Terrain Vehicles (Cougars) waiting for us, which Law had already coordinated.
Even coming out of the canal was intense as we had to climb up about 9 feet, while the roots we grabbed would break away. I had about 200 of the 550 rounds I left with still on me, plus an AT-4 (anti-tank weapon), 9mm handgun, four grenades, camera gear, back-up camera gear, food, water and supplies – it was hard as hell to climb out of that canal.
Once I got to the top, I quickly saw that the Cougars were under attack and were rocking their crew-serve automatic weapons at distant insurgents.
We quickly crammed as many as we could inside the Cougars, others jumped in back, and we moved our wounded to Combat Outpost Metro for a medical air evacuation.
Once we reached COP Metro, we found the COP was under attack and all our comrades who stayed behind during the mission were up on the walls engaging. West cared for Valdo and the rest of us, while more MRAPs arrived for a mounted re-assault toward Joy Gange Village.
We got Valdo, Lee and Sheppard airborne, and West then treated Bradley and I.
After being patched up, I was horrified to find that the mounted counter offensive left without me. I jumped in the back of an ANA Ranger about to ride back north but their movement was cancelled, so I hauled butt to the walls of COP Metro to man a sniper rifle, and provided over watch.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Pearl already up there on a machine gun. He and I had been through much together on that deployment and for all my life, I’ll truly consider him my brother.
Bulldog Troop’s first sergeant, 1st Sgt. David Dempsey, led a quick-reaction force and joined Red Platoon, and continued with mounted and foot patrols in the nearby villages, capturing and killing insurgents, destroying known compounds, capturing IED-making materials and destroying an IED-making facility.
No further coalition forces were wounded in the engagement.
An Air Force B-1 dropped four 38GBU bombs and Army CAS assisted with hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon support from the air.
Italian Army soldiers supported with eight mortars from FOB Todd, and provided observation support from COP Chroma, which overlooked the engagement, and allowed them to accurately advise Army scouts on insurgent locations.
In the end, we were all fine and ready for duty within days. Valdo was sent to a Role-2 hospital at Camp Arena, Herat, where he was stabilized by a team of doctors. Once stable, he was transferred to Kandahar Air Field, where a veterinarian could treat him.
Until then, it had been an Army field medic, doctors and nurses who strayed from their ‘human expertise’ and did their best to patch up the canine.
I’m not sure what became of Valdo and often wonder. As for the rest of the team, I keep in contact with nearly all of the Americans who fought at Operation Red Sand. I’m told the Army Combat Studies Institute will release part two of their Vanguard of Valor Book in the coming months, and that an entire chapter will be dedicated to Red Sand.
Have I suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Though I know I’ll continue to keep in touch with my team, I direly wish I could meet some of the insurgents whom we fought against at Red Sand. If I could, I’d plainly tell them this:
You should have aimed your shots better, you should have fired your RPG with precision … you should have pierced our hearts, but you didn’t.
No, your attempt on our lives failed. Our hearts still beat and they beat for your people, the people of the Murghab Valley whom you carelessly toss aside and grow fat from, as they continue to go without food, water or a peaceful existence.
As you attacked us on that field, I watched Afghan women and children take cover behind trees on the western side. As your men attacked us from within those families, we never once returned fire in their direction.
Why do we care more about your families than you? Why can’t you see that your cause is futile? Here’s my sincere recommendation to you:
Lay down your arms and join the reintegration process. You should stop terrorizing your people and start assisting your government in rebuilding and development.
If you do this, someday you will see an Afghanistan you’ve never imagined possible. Perhaps someday your grandkids and mine could play in the park together, or tour some of Herat City’s spectacular sites on the same tour bus.
If you don’t, more will needlessly suffer at your hands. And rest assured, there are many scouts from Red Platoon whom remember your faces as we met in the village prior to your assault.
Just join reintegration.
But, above all, I forgive you.