1 Afghan battle, 10 Silver Stars
Outnumbered and bloodied, they fought on.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Capt. Kyle Walton remembers pressing himself into the jagged stones that covered a remote 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 after a six-hour battle. One grenade or bullet, Walton thought, could etch April 6, 2008, on his gravestone.
The team from the Third Battalion, Third Special Forces Group had been sent to kill or capture insurgents from a rugged valley that had never been penetrated by U.S. forces - or, they had been told, the Soviets before them.
Walton peered over the side of the cliff to the dry riverbed 60 feet below and weighed his escape options, knowing they could hold out only for so long without being overrun. Could he roll the wounded men off and then jump to safety?
During their six-hour battle, Walton, his team, and a few dozen Afghan commandos took fire from all directions. Outnumbered, they fought on even after half of them were wounded - four critically - and managed to subdue 150 to 200 insurgents, according to interviews and records.
Yesterday, their heroics were rewarded when 10 team members received Silver Stars, the most awarded for a single battle since the start of the war and possibly the most since the Vietnam War, although Army officials could not confirm that.
Walton, a Special Forces team leader, and his men described the battle in an interview with the Associated Press last week. Most seem unimpressed that they have 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 took them to the Shok Valley seemed imperiled from the start.
Banking through thick clouds as they entered the valley, six CH-47 Chinook helicopters deposited the men in the morning. The U.S. soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses atop the cliff.
It was impossible for the helicopters to land on the jagged rocks at the bottom of the valley. The soldiers, 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 Sgts. John Walding and David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zigzagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where insurgents were hiding.
Walton followed with two other soldiers and a 23-year-old Afghan interpreter who went by the name C.K., an orphan who dreamed of going to the United States.
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 with more than 200 fighters opening up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s.
C.K. crumbled to the ground, dead.
Walton and Spec. Michael Carter dived into a small cave. Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr couldn't fit, 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.
'Hit it again'
Sanders radioed for close air support. The nearest house exploded; the firing didn't stop. "Hit it again," Sanders said.
For the rest of the battle, F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters attacked.
Behr was hit next - a sniper's round passing through his leg. Morales knelt on Behr's hip to stop the bleeding and kept firing until he, too, was hit in the leg and ankle.
Walton and Carter, from Smithville, Texas, dragged the two wounded men to the cave. Walton began treating Morales, who, in turn, kept helping Behr.
Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer, a medic 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, from Groesbeck, Texas, 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.
"I literally grabbed my boot and put it in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it would not flop around. There was about two inches of meat holding my leg on." He put on a tourniquet, watching the blood flow out the stump to see when it was tight enough.
Then Walding tried to inject himself with morphine but accidentally used the wrong tip of the syringe and put the needle in this thumb, he recalled. "My thumb felt great," he said.
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 Sgt. Seth E. Howard took his sniper rifle and started climbing with Staff Sgt. Matthew Williams.
At the top, Howard used C.K.'s body for cover and started to shoot, killing as many as 20 attackers, his comrades say. The enemy gunfire slowed. The Air Force bombing continued, providing 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 up for Walding. As Walton climbed down, a 2,000-pound bomb hit a nearby house. Another strike nearly blew Howard off the cliff.
Finally, the troops made it to the stream, with those who could still walk carrying the wounded. A first medical-evacuation helicopter flew in, but the rotors were hit by bullets, so the pilot hovered just long enough to allow a medic to jump off, then flew away.
A second helicopter came in but had to land in the middle of the icy, fast-moving stream. "It took two to three guys to carry each casualty through the river," said Master Sgt. Scott Ford of Athens, Ohio. "It was a mad dash to the medevac." As they sat on the chopper, it sustained several rounds of fire, and the pilot was grazed by a bullet.
All the Americans survived.
Months later, Walding wants back on the team even though he lost a leg. Morales walks with a cane.
As for the medals, the soldiers see them as emblems of teamwork and brotherhood. Not valor.
"When you go to help your buddy, you're not thinking, 'I am going to get a Silver Star for this,' " Walding said. "If you were there, there would not be a second guess on why."