Firefight kills hunted Afghan militant
Five soldiers put in for Bronze Star with ‘V’ device for their actions
Stars and Stripes
DAG, Afghanistan — It all started as a routine mission on a near moonless night one month ago.
The objective was an abandoned village named Shudergay, a place frequented by bad guys who do bad things. Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division had been there before. They knew it was a sanctuary for insurgents to regroup, rest and re-arm.
It was also the hometown of Habib Jan, the head of a large militant cell operating in northeastern Afghanistan.
“This guy was responsible for the only two soldiers I lost,” said Capt. Robert Stanton, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. “The extension was almost worth it to get rid of him. No, I would say it was definitely worth it.”
Before the battle
The 1st Battalion arrived in northeastern Afghanistan last June. Two companies moved into the Pech River valley northwest of Asadabad in Kunar Province.
On June 16, 2006, 1st Lt. Forrest Ewens, commander of 3rd Platoon, Company C, and Sgt. Ian Sanchez, an engineer attached to the unit, were killed by a bomb.
Thirty-eight days later, Sgt. David “Harry” Hierholzer, also of 3rd Platoon, was fatally shot.
In response to those and other attacks — blamed on Habib Jan’s militia — U.S. and Afghan forces conducted raids that yielded 22 weapons caches, ammo and other materials. The success was partly due to tips by locals.
“The enemy’s greatest fears are helicopters and howitzers, and people talking to us,” said Capt. Joe Hansen of the 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment. “They’re still trying to fight, but they’re finding it difficult without the support of the people.”
One of the places dropped in on was Shudergay. The initial encounter was chilly. On a subsequent visit, they found not a soul, though there were signs of past lives, on a couple of levels.
Months before the April 22, 2007, raid that bagged Habib Jan, troops walked through the ghost town and into some of the dwellings. Most articles of life were missing, though a few threads remained: a straw bed, an old musket, broken pottery, books.
Spc. Robert Brandt of 2nd Platoon, Company C, recalled how a particular book, an English-language book, caught the eye of Capt. Sean McQuade, the platoon commander. The book bore the stamp of the captain’s former elementary school back in Maine.
‘Weren’t expecting anything’
The platoon planned to visit Shudergay again, but the timetable was pushed up after an attack that killed two Afghan soldiers.
“We knew it was a hotspot,” Stanton said. “We knew it was an area the enemy liked to use.”
At around 1 a.m. on April 22, two dozen U.S. soldiers — and eight Afghans — under McQuade’s command set out on foot from company headquarters at Combat Main.
The team arrived on the outskirts of the village around 5 a.m. It still looked abandoned.
“We really weren’t expecting anything,” Brandt said.
The team pressed on. About 400 meters short of the village, the first shots rang out. Despite gunfire from multiple directions, the team advanced toward one of the compounds.
Once in, it became clear they had crashed someone’s party, and the trap they found themselves in was their door prize.
“Every position we had, we were pinned down,” Staff Sgt. Chris Bryant said. Above, “there were caves all over.”
When troops are under fire, the passage of time and sequence of events can get distorted. To a degree, that happened in Shudergay. Soldiers mix the timing of two events: the arrival of a supply helicopter and the shooting of an Afghan soldier.
The helicopter triggered a barrage of fire after a lull in the shooting. Troops suspect that during the mid-morning lull, more militants arrived in the hills.
“It all kicked off again when the bird tried to re-supply us,” said Spc. Derek Smedley.
The helicopter dropped its load and left. The care package was relatively close, but not close enough to risk getting shot, so it was written off.
Something the platoon didn’t write off was the sniper who shot an Afghan soldier in the gut. As the hours dragged on, and the quick-reaction force inched closer, so too did the elusive gunman’s aim.
“I had a round go right between my legs,” Brandt said.
Brandt helped transport the wounded Afghan to a landing zone. The medic with the Afghan was Sgt. Jose Rivas, who had joined the platoon just a couple of days before and was on his first mission into the mountains.
Normally, the trip should’ve taken some eight minutes, but instead it took at least a couple of hours because of the firefight. Sgt. 1st Class Jorge Lopez broke his left ankle and had to be evacuated, too. In the end, both he and the Afghan survived the ordeal.
At around 4 p.m., a quick-reaction force led by Stanton and 1st Lt. Tim Lo, 3rd Platoon commander, arrived. Between them and McQuade’s men, the tide of the battle soon turned, though not before a 20-minute shower.
“It rained just long enough to get me wet and to piss me off even more,” Bryant said.
‘Hide the guest’
The intensity and duration of the gunfire pouring down surprised the soldiers.
“For the first time, they hung around,” Stanton said of the enemy, which was estimated to number 40 to 60.
“We realized someone important was up there,” Bryant said. “We just didn’t realize how important.”
Over the course of the day, an Afghan interpreter monitored the enemy’s radio traffic. He heard things such as: “Hide the guest” and “How is the guest doing?”
But for the time being, the guy they were most concerned about was the sniper. The Black Hawks hovering overhead repeatedly tried to silence him, but couldn’t. They were hitting too high above his position, which was only about 300 meters from the compound, not on a ridge line, as everyone thought.
The man who figured it out was Spc. Brent Schlup. At 7 p.m., Schlup fired an anti-tank round at where he figured the guy was hiding. No more sniping.
McQuade and his men remained in the village overnight. Ironically, they slept in Habib Jan’s guest house.
Sometime after dark, an AC-130 gunship radioed. There were five individuals moving along a nearby ridge line and the operator wanted to know if they were friendlies. “Negative,” was the reply. Moments later the aircraft peppered the ridge line.
In all, 21 soldiers have been recommended for medals for that day. Five — McQuade, Bryant, Rivas, Schlup and Spc. Robert Robinson — have been nominated for the Bronze Star with “V.”
The morning after the battle, the platoon came off the mountain and returned to camp. But they were soon told to go back to do a battlefield assessment.
On the ridge line sprayed by the AC-130, they found five bodies. Four more fighters apparently died in the engagement, including the sniper.
A couple of days later, headquarters notified Stanton that Habib Jan had been one of those killed on the ridge. The gunship’s fire literally cut him in half.
A day or so before Habib Jan’s death was confirmed, an Afghan working at Camp Main glimpsed a photo of the corpse. The man lifted his eyes from the photo and told Bryant: “Yeah, that’s Habib Jan — and he owes me money.”
For an awkward moment he looked to Bryant, as if to ask: Are you going to cover his debt?
Bryant shook his head. As far as he was concern, payback was already rendered.