2nd Platoon soldiers survive harrowing Taliban ambush
ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — On the second day of their operation, soldiers with 2nd Platoon were out on patrol again, not far from where they had gotten into a firefight with Taliban fighters the day before.
Kiowa scout helicopters were overhead, keeping watch on two men who had been shadowing the platoon for a while. They were believed to be part of the group that had set up the previous day’s ambush.
The platoon was nearing the end of the patrol when the lead squad entered a narrow alley set amid poppy fields and mud brick walls.
The alley forced the soldiers to narrow into a single file. Cpl. Aaron Barrett, who was walking point, turned and told the soldier behind him, Spc. Chad Brown, to keep his eyes sharp and be prepared for a close ambush.
The alley curved. As soon as Barrett went around the curve, two Taliban fighters opened up on him and Brown from no more than 10 to 15 feet away.
Barrett, 31, of South Bend, Ind., dove for cover behind a stump when the barrage started.
"I was trying to get as small as possible," he said, recounting the events a few days later.
Brown, who was carrying an M-249 light machine gun, was just behind Barrett in the file. He hit the dirt and began returning fire.
"We wanted to break contact, but the Taliban fire was too intense," said Brown, 24, of Jacksonville, Fla.
The Taliban had Barrett caught in a crossfire. One fighter with an AK-47 rifle was crouched behind a low wall, just to his front. Another was firing a PKM machine gun at him from down an alley to his left.
Taliban gunshots were cracking all around him, so close "I could feel the heat from the barrel and the pressure from the [muzzle blast] coming by my face," Barrett recalled.
"If I had gotten up and started to move, I’d have been hosed with bullets."
He was so close he found himself staring directly into the enemy’s eyes. The two Taliban fighters, he said, appeared "happy" that they were shooting at the Americans.
"They didn’t show any fear, that’s for sure," he said.
But then the PKM jammed, and the fighter in the alley took off running. At that point, Barrett looked back and saw Sgt. Zachary
Swelfer, charging up the narrow alley, firing his M-4 rifle.
Swelfer, 27, of Merrillville, Ind., who had been about 100 feet back in the file, couldn’t pinpoint the source of the Taliban fire, but he knew Barrett was in serious trouble.
"He was pinned down bad," Swelfer said. "I wanted to get him out of there."
The enemy fire was constant, with Taliban bullets whizzing past as Swelfer ran forward.
"I don’t know how I made it up through that alley," he said. "There were rounds all over the place."
Barrett was already up on one knee, preparing to throw a fragmentation grenade when Swelfer reached him. Barrett waited a few seconds, cooking the grenade off, then tossed it over the low wall to the front while Swelfer shot another M-203 grenade round down the alley from where the PKM had been firing.
After the grenade exploded, the enemy fire was suppressed, at least temporarily.
"That’s when Swelfer and I looked at each other and said, ‘We got to get the [expletive] out of here,’ " Barrett said.
They fell back as Brown and others poured on covering fire. The soldiers peeled off into a compound about 20 to 30 yards down the alley and took cover. But they were soon taking fire again, this time from several positions to the south.
"It was a little nerve-racking," Barrett said. "At that point, I went into self-preservation mode, and just started laying down rounds."
The soldiers were caught in a maze of alleys and mud-brick buildings, any one of which could provide enemy cover. Farther down the alley, Staff Sgt. Jeff Ackermann tossed another grenade over a wall where he believed fighters were hiding.
"There were so many places people could’ve just popped out of," he said.
The Kiowa gunships that had been circling overhead began to pound the Taliban positions with .50-caliber machine gun fire and Hellfire missiles.
"It was a welcome sight to see them lighting that place up," said Brown, the machine gunner.
The platoon was able to break contact.
Capt. Chris Brawley, the company commander, said he plans to recommend that the soldiers and several others receive commendations for valor.
The most important thing, Swelfer said, is they all survived. "It was intense, that’s for sure," he said. "But we’re all alive, and we all made it back."