Special Forces team earns 10 Silver Stars
Afghanistan cliff was scene of valor
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Captain Kyle Walton remembers pressing himself into the jagged stones that covered the cliff in northeast Afghanistan.
Machine gun rounds and sniper fire ricocheted off the rocks. Two rounds slammed into his helmet, smashing his head into the ground. Nearby, three of his US Army Special Forces comrades were gravely wounded. One grenade or a well-aimed bullet, Walton thought, could etch April 6, 2008 on his gravestone.
Walton and his team from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group had been sent to kill or capture terrorists from a valley that had never been penetrated by US forces - or, they were told, by Soviets before them.
Walton peered over the side of the cliff to the dry river bed 60 feet below and considered his options. Could he roll the wounded men off and then jump to safety? Would they survive the fall?
By the end of the six-hour battle deep within the Shok Valley, Walton would bear witness to heroics that would earn his team 10 Silver Stars yesterday, the most for a single battle in Afghanistan.
Walton, a Special Forces team leader, and his men described the battle in an interview last week. Most seemed unimpressed that they had earned the Army's third-highest award for valor.
"This is the story about Americans fighting side by side with their Afghan counterparts [and] refusing to quit," said Walton, of Carmel, Ind. "What awards come in the aftermath are not important to me."
The mission that sent three Special Forces teams and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion to the Shok Valley seemed perilous from the outset.
Six massive CH-47 Chinook helicopters, banking through thick clouds, had deposited the men earlier that morning. The approaching US soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses atop the cliff.
Considered a sanctuary of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group, the valley is far from any major US base.
It was impossible for the helicopters to land on the jagged rocks at the bottom of the valley. The Special Forces soldiers and commandos, each carrying more than 60 pounds of gear, dropped from 10 feet above the ground.
With several Afghan commandos, staff sergeants John Walding and David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zigzagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where the terrorists were hiding.
Walton followed with two other soldiers and a 23-year-old Afghan interpreter who went by C.K., an orphan who dreamed of going to the United States.
Walding and Sanders were on the outskirts of the village when Staff Sergeant Luis Morales saw a group of armed men run along a nearby ridge. He fired. The surrounding mountains and buildings erupted in an ambush: The soldiers estimate that more than 200 fighters opened up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and AK-47s.
C.K. crumpled to the ground.
Walton and Specialist Michael Carter dove into a small cave. Staff Sergeant Dillon Behr couldn't fit inside the cave, so the Rock Island, Ill., native dropped to one knee and started firing. An F-15 made a strafing run to push back the fighters, but it wasn't enough.
Sanders radioed for close air support - an order that Walton had to verify because the enemy was so near, the same bombs could kill the Americans.
The nearest house exploded; the firing didn't stop. "Hit it again," Sanders said. For the rest of the battle, F-15 fighters and
Behr was hit next - a sniper's round passing through his leg. Morales knelt on Behr's hip to stop the bleeding until he, too, was hit in the leg and ankle.
Walton and Carter, a combat cameraman from Smithville, Texas, dragged the two wounded men to the cave. Gunfire had destroyed Carter's camera so Walton put him to work treating Morales, who in turn treated Behr. Staff Sergeant Ronald J. Shurer, from Pullman, Wash., fought his way up the cliff to help.
Walton told Walding and Sanders to abandon the assault and meet on the cliff. The Americans and Afghan commandos pulled back as the Air Force continued to pound the village.
Walding made it to the cliff when a bullet shattered his leg. He watched his foot and lower leg flop on the ground as Walton dragged him to the cliff edge. With every heartbeat, a stream of blood shot out of Walding's wound. Rolling on his back, the Groesbeck, Texas, native, asked for a tourniquet and cranked down until the bleeding stopped.
The soldiers were trapped against the cliff. Walton was sure his men would be overrun. The narrow path was too exposed. He sent Sanders to find another way down. Sometimes free-climbing the rock face, the Huntsville, Ala., native found a steep path and made his way back up. Could the wounded make it out alive? Walton asked. "Yes, they'll survive," Sanders said.
Down below, Staff Sergeant Seth E. Howard took his sniper rifle and started climbing with Staff Sergeant Matthew Williams. At the top, Howard used C.K.'s lifeless body for cover and started to shoot. He killed as many as 20 of their attackers, his buddies said. Enemy gunfire slowed. The Air Force bombing provided cover.
Morales was first down the cliff, clutching branches and rocks as he slid. Sanders, Carter, and Williams went up to get Behr, then back to rescue Walding. Helicopters swooped in to pick up the 15 wounded American and Afghan soldiers, as well as the rest of the teams.
All the Americans survived.