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HEROES 2013

'Her memory helped me through this'

Army Staff Sgt. Axel Castellanos Jr., now 26, from Chicago is seen here at a post in Sarkani, Afghanistan during his 2011 deployment for which he earned the Bronze Star with a combat valor device. Castellanos and his men thwarted an ambush on a humanitarian aid convoy and saved the life of an Afghan policeman during a close proximity firefight against 50-60 heavily armed insurgents.

About a month before deploying to Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Axel Castellanos Jr. attended the funeral for his hero – Army Sgt. Devin Snyder, of the 793rd Military Police Battalion.

Snyder and three other soldiers were killed June 4, 2011, in Laghman province, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device.

“She fought to deploy and was killed doing what she believed in,” said Castellanos, 26, a Chicago native serving with the 127th Military Police Company, 759th Military Police Battalion in Fort Carlson, Colo. “She had a good heart and was a good person. The world needs more people like her.”

He still harbored a lot of anger over her death when he deployed later in 2011. His thoughts would return to her less than two weeks after arriving in country when bullets started to fly on a dusty road in Afghanistan on Aug. 4, 2011. He would earn the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor that day in the face of withering fire from an aggressive enemy.

Castellanos, then a 24-year-old squad leader for the 127th Military Police Company, received word that a humanitarian aid convoy was ambushed near the village of Matin and was in danger of being overrun. As the closest unit, his team was dispatched as a quick-reaction force.

They didn’t know what they were walking into.

“It was a very gut-wrenching experience because, as I learned in Iraq, attacks are usually initiated by surprise,” Castellanos said.

When they arrived on the scene — which consisted of a narrow road flanked by rock faces, mud huts and corn fields — Castellanos and his men encountered a shot-up fuel truck that was blocking the road for the rest of a 12-vehicle convoy. The driver had been seriously wounded.

A wounded Afghan policeman lay in a small ditch north of the truck, while several of his comrades fired into the cornfields to the south.

About 60 insurgents advanced through the corn toward their position.

Castellanos’ squad began taking automatic weapons fire to their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. His machine gunners traded salvos with an elusive enemy.

With no cover in sight, Castellanos decided that he and two of his fellow noncommissioned officers would run 40 meters into the kill zone to evacuate the Afghan police officer. If they didn’t get to him, he would surely bleed out.

When they got to the casualty, Castellanos’ men began providing aid while he tossed smoke to shield their position and took cover behind the engine block of the fuel truck.

As the smoke dissipated, heavy volumes of accurate fire came in from 20 to 30 meters away — the smoke had also provided cover to insurgents who advanced on their position, Castellanos said. He took out two with his rifle, according to his award citation.

“I remember seeing the tops of the corn swaying violently as the enemy maneuvered through the stalks,” Castellanos said. “Subconsciously I knew there was the potential that we could be overrun, but I didn’t think about it.”

The enemy advanced, firing automatic machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, two of which flew past Castellanos and hit a cliff face 25 meters away, the citation said. The insurgents had stopped trying to secure the valuable fuel and were now trying to destroy it, Castellanos said.

He looked down with trepidation at the sign on the truck that read “Flammable.”

Throughout the engagement, men, women and children from Matin watched the battle from nearby, yelling and gesturing toward the American soldiers in a hostile manner. They cheered and laughed as bullets landed inches from Castellanos and his men, forcing them to take cover.

Castellanos ignored the jeering crowd and returned fire at the enemy. He popped off a few grenades from the M203 under his rifle.

As his team members moved the police officer, Castellanos spotted an enemy RPG team in the open, 15 meters from the fuel truck. He threw a fragmentation grenade and the firing momentarily stopped, allowing the U.S. soldiers to get the Afghan policeman to an MRAP.

As soon as the door closed, the villagers began participating in the attack, opening up a second front of small-arms fire. Insurgents began targeting the MRAP with mortars.

Castellanos and another soldier once again rushed out into enemy fire to move the fuel truck so the convoy could pass, with Castellanos providing cover fire as he walked alongside the truck.

Once it was moved, Afghan police led the convoy down the road and out of harm’s way.

Castellanos’ squad drove down the road to turn around so they could return to base. As they pulled into a large turnoff, they were passed by an unidentified U.S. military convoy heading toward Matin. They followed.

When they arrived back at the site of the firefight, Castellanos’ squad found the other convoy stopped, blocking the road and keeping them from evacuating their wounded Afghan ally.

Again, he ran with no cover through enemy fire to the last vehicle in the convoy. He banged as hard as he could and yelled for the gunner to make way.

“I was reminded of that fact that I was standing about five meters from the cornfield,” Castellanos said. “I began to sprint back to my vehicle as I caught a glimpse of an armed fighter in the cornfield ahead of me adjacent to where the front of my vehicle was.”

The enemy fighter disappeared.

Castellanos could hear yelling from within the corn. He knew he was out of ammunition in his rifle, so he removed his M9 pistol from his vest. As he neared his vehicle, the insurgent popped up again. Castellanos fired from 10 meters away; the enemy fighter fell and lay motionless.

As he entered his vehicle, Air Force F-16s dropped a 500-pound bomb and conducted a “danger close” 20-millimeter strafing run on enemy forces in the cornfields just 25 meters away.

Castellanos and his men not only saved the life of the police officer, but got all of his men back to base unharmed. No civilians were hurt.

“I remember telling myself to stay calm and to stop getting mad,” Castellanos recalled regarding his festering anger over his friend’s death that propelled him through the battle. “I know that as a leader, you have to remove yourself from the situation personally and look at it objectively. Personal feelings cloud your judgment and the ability to make rational decisions.

“I wanted nothing more than to kill every fighter that was out there,” he said. “I know that I thought about her while this ambush was happening. Her memory helped me through this.”

When Castellanos returned home, he once again made a trip to western New York where he presented his Bronze Star to Snyder’s parents.

burke.matt@stripes.com

Heroes 2013: Ordinary people or something more?

Honored for valor and bravery in battle, those dubbed heroes often deflect praise saying they did only what others, in their boots, would have done.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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