FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Capt. 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 U.S. 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 rugged valley that had never been penetrated by U.S. forces — or, they had been told, the Soviets before them.
He 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 on Friday would earn his team 10 Silver Stars, the most for a single battle in Afghanistan.
……Most seem unimpressed they’ve earned the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor.
“This is the story about Americans fighting side-by-side with their Afghan counterparts 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 imperiled from the outset.
Six massive CH-47 Chinook helicopters had deposited the men earlier that morning, banking through thick clouds as they entered the valley. The approaching U.S. Soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses perched at the top of the cliff.
Considered a sanctuary of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group, the valley is far from any major American 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, landing among boulders or in a near-frozen stream.
With several Afghan commandos, Staff Sgt. John Walding and Staff Sgt. David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zig-zagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where the terrorists were hiding.
……Walding and Sanders were on the outskirts of the village when Staff Sgt. 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.
……Sanders radioed for close air support — an order that Walton had to verify because the enemy was so near that the same bombs could kill the Americans.
……For the rest of the battle, F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters attacked.
……Helicopters swooped in to pick up the 15 wounded American and Afghan soldiers, as well as the rest of the teams. Bullets pinged off the helicopters. One hit a pilot.
All the Americans survived.
……The raid, the Soldiers say, proved there will be no safe haven in Afghanistan for terrorists. As for the medals, the Soldiers see them as emblems of teamwork and brotherhood. Not valor.
The United States Army: ‘When you care enough to send the very best.’
The now-in-hell Hadjis were simply no match.
The bravery and valor of those Soldiers is representative of the best that America has to offer.