Six soldiers received Silver Stars in early December for bravery during two bloody firefights in Afghanistan.
Three soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division — Staff Sgt. Al J. Garcia, Spc. David R. Stone and Sgt. Jacob Wilder — were honored at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Dec. 9 for two audacious rescues during an air assault operation in Paktika province in April.
They served with 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.
On Dec. 6, a trio of Special Forces soldiers received Silver Stars in Stuttgart, Germany. Capt. David Fox, Sgt. 1st Class McKenna “Frank” Miller and Staff Sgt. Matthew Gassman were recognized for a dangerous evacuation of casualties in the mountains of Kapisa province in 2010. All three were assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.
The Silver Star is the third-highest award for valor in combat. But for many soldiers, including Wilder, it’s accepted with mixed emotions.
“It’s an honor to be a Silver Star recipient, but the events that had to happen for me to get that, I’d rather not have happened,” he told Army Times on Dec. 9.
Rescue under fire
A scout platoon from the 101st with Garcia, Stone and Wilder raided Menjo Kala in eastern Afghanistan on the night of April 22 on a hunt for enemy weapons caches as part of a larger operation, according to Army documents.
The three soldiers swept through targeted compounds but didn’t find contraband, said Garcia, a 25-year-old team leader.
“It was a dry hole,” he said.
Instead, they found a nearby enemy “armed to the teeth.”
Outside a mosque about a kilometer away, a friendly element came under a tenacious attack that caused multiple casualties, pinning down a few of them.
Garcia, Stone and Wilder rushed through the darkness, covering the distance in minutes, to aid their besieged comrades.
They hunkered down behind a 3-foot wall within 100 feet of the mosque where about 10 insurgents popped shots at troops.
The fighting was so close it was “pretty much a grenade-tossing match,” Garcia said.
To make matters more difficult, the casualties were out of the team’s view.
The team cleared an adjacent building and climbed to its roof. While exposed to enemy fire, they spotted three wounded comrades dangerously close to the enemy.
“Once we moved up and we got eyes on the casualties, the only thing going through my mind was, ‘We’ve got to get them, we’ve got to get them now. We can’t let them sit there any longer or they’re going to die,’” said Wilder, a 24-year-old scout, who was then a specialist.
The soldiers charged into a 40-meter “kill zone,” where bullets flew and grenades detonated along their path. They pulled out one American and one Afghan soldier.
Then they turned back for another casualty, and this time, Stone placed himself in the line of enemy fire and laid down protective shots so the casualty could be recovered, his award citation said.
During that second rescue, a close-range blast dazed Garcia and left Wilder bleeding.
“I was so focused on what I had to do, I wasn’t worried about my safety,” Stone said. “I was worried about everybody else’s.”
Garcia said the team’s bravery was born of necessity.
“We were the only guys able to maneuver whatsoever, so if we didn’t, nobody else could have,” he said.
After casualties were treated and evacuated, the soldiers continued their mission, Garcia said. They searched other compounds and didn’t arrive back at their base until hours later.
Army documents credit the team with saving other soldiers’ lives.
On Dec. 17, 2010, a 45-person coalition convoy with members of Special Forces Task Unit 0115 drove to a “highly contested” village in northeastern Afghanistan to reconnoiter a ridge for a possible checkpoint.
At Jalokhel village, a mounted element manned security positions while a squad-sized reconnaissance element — made up of coalition members and led by Fox, an SF team leader — began to hike 300 feet above to survey the site.
“If you own this terrain, you have this key juncture in the valley,” Fox told Army Times on Dec. 12.
Enemy fighters showed they would not give it up without a fight. About 70 fighters launched a complex ambush that would last three hours, kill one coalition member and wound about four others and a military dog.
As the recon squad scaled the high ground, enemy fighters peppered friendly security positions below with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
Enemy rounds hit within meters of Gassman, a weapons sergeant, who returned fire.
Miller, an operations sergeant, directed suppressive fires until the enemy temporarily broke contact, according to his citation.
Fox, now on the ridge with the recon squad, thought a dire situation might be looming and called down to Miller to prepare the patrol to leave the area.
Moments later, an improvised explosive device erupted “like a volcano” by the dismounted patrol, Fox said.
The blast killed a French captain, maimed an Afghan soldier and knocked Fox out.
“I woke up face in the ground,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything.”
The enemy re-engaged the mounted patrol with a hail of rounds.
When Fox regained his senses, he applied tourniquets to the Afghan and radioed for help while bullets zipped by.
Miller and Gassman received a garbled transmission but were able to understand two words: “urgent … surgical,” Army documents said.
Waiting for backup, Fox moved casualties to more covered positions.
Miller pulled together a rescue team, and ascended the slope as bullets hit rocks around him.
Gassman twice attempted to scale 200 meters of steep rock face before locating the isolated patrol.
Miller arrived at the dislocated patrol “completely exhausted” but lifted a Frenchman on his back and headed back down the slope. Fox shielded the two soldiers during the descent.
When Gassman arrived on the ridge, he coordinated with a joint tactical air controller for helicopter medical evacuation and carried the wounded Afghan soldier down from the high ground.
“He went into autopilot, focused on what needed to be done, detaching himself from everything going on and simply went to work,” Fox said of Gassman.
At the base of the mountain, Fox ran across a stream to divert enemy fire from Miller and the casualty.
A fatigued Miller collapsed while trying to dodge enemy fire that was striking the casualty on his back. He pressed on another 100 meters despite strained hamstrings before he fell again.
“He was going to do this until his body quit,” Fox said of Miller.
Fox and another American soldier then helped Miller and the casualty to cover.
Gassman arrived at the mountain base covered in the Afghan’s blood.
The casualties were loaded in a vehicle to be driven to a helicopter landing zone about a kilometer away and later evacuated.
“Everybody stuck together as a team,” Fox said. “We knew it was a dire situation, and everyone stuck with it.”
During the battle, the coalition patrol killed at least five enemy fighters and wounded six others, according to Fox’s award citation.
About two weeks later, a coalition team built a checkpoint in the Jalokhel area, “a monumental achievement for this valley,” Fox said. “They saw a new level of security they hadn’t seen in that area.
“All of these efforts were not for nothing,” he said.
story by: John Ryan and Michelle Tan
photo courtesy of: US ARMY