TACOMA, Wash. — In her last moments of life, Army nurse Capt. Jennifer Moreno heard two orders.
One was a call to help a wounded soldier struck by a blast in a booby-trapped killing field at an Afghanistan bomb-making compound.
The other was a command to stay put lest she strike another mine in the bomb belt.
The nurse from Madigan Army Medical Center chose to help the wounded soldier, and gave her life trying.
In the words of her commander, Moreno ran “into hell” to rescue a comrade on the night she was killed. Newly released narratives of the Oct. 5 battle reveal the kind of hell Moreno and dozens of Army special operators found while trying to disrupt a plot to kill civilians in the city of Kandahar.
A total of 12 bombs exploded that night — a chain reaction that took the lives of four U.S. soldiers and wounded at least 25.
The fifth bomb killed Moreno, 25, who volunteered for a dangerous assignment supporting special operators in combat.
The 11th bomb wounded three soldiers trying to recover her body.
Moreno is Madigan’s only fatal casualty from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the hospital south of Tacoma has continuously deployed soldiers to medical facilities in combat zones.
Moreno “sacrificed her life so others could live,” her Bronze Star commendation reads.
The News Tribune previously reported Moreno’s death and covered her memorial service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. But her award commendation, which the newspaper obtained recently, sheds more light on that chaotic day, and on the heroic steps that were taken to honor the Soldiers Creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
Breaking up a plot
Moreno is one of only 11 women from Lewis-McChord to die in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of only two women from the local base who were commissioned officers when they were killed.
Moreno died with Sgt. Patrick Hawkins and Spc. Cody Patterson of the Georgia-based 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and special agent Joseph M. Peters of a military police unit based in Italy.
The Army says their sacrifices stymied an attack “that would have resulted in the deaths of unknown multitudes of innocent civilians.” At least two insurgents died in the compound; two of them were wearing suicide vests.
The narratives were written to support military honors several soldiers received for their actions in the fight. Moreno posthumously received a Bronze Star. So did Hawkins and Patterson.
Spc. Samuel Crockett, who survived that bloody day, received a Silver Star for risking his life over a two-hour rescue. He played a key role in recovering Moreno’s body after the 11th blast, and in providing life-saving medical aid to a wounded soldier.
He also set off the 12th and final bomb, but it had a low detonation that did not injure him.
The battle began as the soldiers approached the compound in Kandahar’s Zhari district and called out for its occupants to surrender.
None of the insurgents inside would be taken alive.
Woman in suicide vest
The first to die was an Afghan woman walking out of the compound wearing a suicide vest.
She detonated the explosive, killing herself, wounding six troops and setting off a second blast nearby. Two soldiers rushing to help troops wounded in the first blast hit the third bomb. A second enemy fighter died in those early blasts, too.
An Afghan insurgent who ran away from the building detonated the fourth explosive, another suicide vest. The bomb killed him and a military working dog named Jani.
Moreno heard a call from a staff sergeant to help a wounded soldier. At the same time, the battle’s ground commander told all of the soldiers to stay where they were.
Her Bronze Star commendation uses dry, formal military language to describe the decision she faced.
“Disregarding her own well-being,” it reads, “Moreno unhesitatingly moved to assist (the soldiers) upon realizing the severity of the wounds sustained by her fellow teammates.”
“While in transit, Moreno detonated Device No. 5 and was killed in action.”
Few could make the same choice.
“None of us would have done what you did, running into hell to save your wounded brothers, knowing full well you probably wouldn’t make it back,” the commander of Moreno’s female Special Operations support team in Afghanistan, Capt. Amanda King, later wrote in a eulogy.
The battle did not end with Moreno’s sacrifice.
“Follow me,” Hawkins told Patterson as they made their move to reach the wounded.
Patterson stepped on a mine, the sixth detonation. He stumbled and hit the seventh, delivering fatal wounds to both him and Hawkins.
Peters, the military police officer, set off explosions No. 8 and No. 9 after working to clear a helicopter landing zone for medical evacuations.
Crockett arrived with a 20-soldier force dispatched to clear the area of mines and rescue the wounded. He was trained for the job as a soldier in a North Carolina-based explosives command.
He cleared space for medics to work on casualties and made his way to isolated Rangers, escorting them through the mine belt to safety. He managed to retrieve Hawkins, the fallen military dog and various pieces of sensitive military equipment without detonating more bombs.
“His focus on retrieving teammates from stranded positions ultimately preserved their lives,” his Silver Star commendation reads.
Moreno’s body remained on the field.
Three soldiers from Crockett’s unit tried to retrieve her, but struck the 11th explosive.
Crockett ran to them, halting at the edge of his cleared path.
He saw his platoon sergeant injured but standing. Crockett guided him back to safe ground.
With no clear path to his two newly wounded teammates, Crockett got down to the ground and swept the earth for mines with his own hands.
He reached a private first class who lost his right leg to the bomb. Crockett applied a tourniquet and “single-handedly dragged him to an area where medics could safely render treatment.”
There was one more injured teammate left to recover from the 11th explosion. Crockett set off the final blast as he stepped to the wounded sergeant.
It didn’t kill him, so he continued with the rescue. He chose a different path, again swept the ground with his hands, and brought his teammate back to safety.
Still, Moreno’s body remained where she fell.
Crockett got as close as he could to the fallen nurse, attached a drag line to her and pulled her to the safe area.
With Moreno recovered, the operators made the call to leave the compound.
Finally, they got out of hell. They did not leave one of their own behind.