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Old 12-16-2008, 11:49   #55
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Fierce battle above Shok Valley earns Silver Stars


Fierce battle above Shok Valley earns Silver Stars

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (USASOC News Service, Dec. 16, 2008) -- There are no roads leading into the Shok Valley. A village which stands sentinel over the valley is home to one of the fiercest of the insurgent forces in Afghanistan - the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin, or HIG.

On April 6, a daring raid into the stronghold by Afghan Commandos and their Special Forces counterparts tested the mettle of the Afghan forces and further forged the bond between them and their SF brothers.

On Dec. 12, Lt. Gen. John F. Mullholland, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, pinned Silver Stars on the chests of 10 of the men involved in the raid and the ensuing six-and-a half-hour-firefight that saw more than 150 insurgents killed.

It was the largest ceremony of its kind since the Vietnam era. But for the members of Team 3336 of the 3rd Special Forces Group, it was never about the medals.

When you ask them to use one word to describe April 6, their words pop, much like the gunfire that rained down on them.

"A nightmare."

"Baptism by fire," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Plants, "it was my first firefight."


More words followed as the team went back in their minds to that day.

The Mission

The team was assigned to take out high-value targets within the HIG. The insurgent group was entrenched in the valley and was guarded by a number of highly-trained foreign fighters. The sheer number of weapons and amount of ammo used by the insurgents led the team to conclude that they had been stockpiling the weaponry within the fortress-like village since the Russian invasion of the country during the late '80s.

Accompanying the team that day was a group of Afghan Commandos.

"We have such a big rapport with the commandos we've trained," said Staff Sgt. Luis Morales, the team's intelligence sergeant. "They have such a loyalty to us. They try as hard to protect us as we try to protect ourselves."

"We eat, sleep and train with these commandos," said Capt. Kyle Walton, the detachment commander. "We die with them, too. These guys are close friends to us. At the outset of the attack, I lost my interpreter, and we were as close as anyone."

The interpreters hold a special place within the team.

"They are just like a member of the team," said Morales. "One of our interpreters has seen as much combat as any of us. He has six years of combat experience. He's been with six SF teams and been in hundreds of firefights - but he doesn't get the six-month break.

"With our tactical knowledge and their (the commandos) knowledge of the local populace, terrain and customs, we can truly become a force multiplier," said Walton. "That's what SF does. We bring things to the fight that they don't have, such as close air support and weaponry. But in the end, it's an Afghan fight, and we are part of it."

The commandos who accompanied the SF team on the mission have developed something of reputation throughout Afghanistan.

"The Taliban calls them the wolves. When they hear the wolves are coming, they know they are in trouble. The commandos are pretty feared. Everywhere we go, they identify us with the commandos, and the fact that this group of insurgents was prepared to sit and fight us to the death was indicative of an enemy force you don't see every day," said Morales.

One Way In

"Eighty percent of the guys on the ground that day had been in firefights before," said Walton. "We feel fairly comfortable in a firefight anytime."

But that day was different. The team was going into the unknown. The Russians, during their 20-year occupation of the country, never made it into the Shok Valley. To date, no coalition troops had been there. This was a first. To get into the valley, the team had to fly.

"I feel comfortable with my feet on a ground," said Morales. "I don't feel comfortable in the helicopter - we can't control what happens there. But on the ground, we have a plan, we go in and do it, and the rest falls into place.

"We knew this was going to be a difficult mission. We expected there to be a number of insurgents because of the high-value targets we were after, but we really thought the terrain would be the greatest difficulty," explained Walton.

That thought proved correct. As the helicopters settled over the valley, the pilots couldn't set the birds down, so the Soldiers had to jump about 10 feet off the bird. Many of them landed waist-deep in an icy river. With temperatures in the low 30s, the climate immediately began to take its toll.

Then they faced a climb up the mountain.

Walton explained the idea was to go into the village unannounced, with the plan to take the fight to the insurgents in the village. "We didn't want to fight uphill," he said, adding that the village is at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

The team decided to use switchbacks, which were actually terraced farm plots, as a means to get up to the village. The team divided up into three maneuver units, with members of the SF team paired up with about six commandos and their interpreters.

The village itself is situated on a finger off the mountain. The team would have to head up a draw to the village.

"The buildings in the village are built one on top of the other, on top of a slope thousands of feet in the air," said Walton. "So we started the climb. The insurgents waited until the lead element was within a couple hundred meters of the compound before they initiated contact. As soon as the shooting started, we realized that they had their defensive positions dug in, and they were occupying buildings 360 degrees all around us."

The Fight

As soon as the opening salvo was fired, the interpreter standing beside Walton in the command-and-control element was killed. Moments later, Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr was shot in the leg. Behr, a communications sergeant stayed in the fight and sustained another wound before he became unable to continue the fight.

"We knew we needed to regain the initiative, so we started initiating danger-close air runs," said Walton.

Staff Sgt. David Sanders was in the lead assault force.

"I had approximately 10 Commandos with me, and we got into the village before we started receiving fire. We couldn't move any farther forward," he recalled. "Through the radio traffic, we heard some of the team had gotten shot, so we started trying to identify the buildings where the fire was coming from. We hoped to neutralize the threat."

Walton said Sanders was the first person he thought of who might be able to identify where the insurgents were.

"I was standing next to the combat controller, and when we got to a place where we could talk, he called in close air support, and the F-15s rolled in immediately. I knew my guys were up there, and I know that when you call in danger close air, you are probably going to get injured or killed. I called back to Sanders and asked if he was too close. He said, 'Bring it anyway.' Bombs started exploding everywhere. When I called to see if he was still alive, all I could hear him saying was, 'Hit them again.' "

Walton said that it is rare to call in danger-close air even once during a firefight. Throughout the afternoon, the team called it 70 times.

"We did take some casualties from the danger-close air," said Staff Sgt. Seth Howard. "A lot of the commandos got injured from falling debris. The bombs were throwing full trees and boulders at them - they were flying hundreds of meters.

At one point in the battle, when it looked as if the C2 element would be overrun, Sanders called for the bombing to come closer.

"They dropped a 2,000 lb. bomb right on top of our position," said Walton. "Because of the elevation, the bomb blew upward rather than down. It just didn't seem like we had much of a decision. Our guys were wounded, and we couldn't go back the way we came."

"We knew we might get hurt, but we really didn't think about it," said Sanders.

"The insurgents were so dug in so well that even the close air support wasn't enough. It helped, but it was by no means a magic wand," said Howard. "You would think when the bombs start dropping they would stop shooting at you. That's the thought process, and you know it might kill you or somebody else, but when there are so many pieces of hot metal flying all around you constantly, you've got to let it go."

With bombings falling and heavy gunfire coming from every side, the team returned fire. Team members recall going through masses of ammo, in addition to the bombs that were dropped and the rounds the aircraft were firing.

The team's fire was controlled, though, according to Walton.

"Cloud cover was coming in, and there was no certainty that we would be able to get out that night. So we didn't waste our ammo. We really didn't fire unless we had a shot or when we needed to lay suppressive fire to allow people to move."

The insurgents, likewise, were shooting in a controlled manner. The gunfire was heavy, sustained and accurate. Team members recall that even if the bullets weren't kicking up beside them or hitting them, they definitely heard them crack near them. Snipers were during heavy play in the engagement.
cont'd below
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