The terrain was ideal for an ambush.
“To our west and to our east was high cliff faces,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Clouse. “To the south was the entrance to the canyon that we had come in through, and to the north there was a box canyon.”
It was June 26, 2008, and Clouse, a medic, was a Special Forces liaison to Marine Special Operations Company H, Special Operations Task Force – 73. He and his team would be caught in a four-hour firefight after which he was awarded the Silver Star for braving a tsunami of fire to treat wounded.
The team was on a patrol looking for a suspected insurgent location on the border of Farah and Herat provinces in Afghanistan that took them through the canyon with almost vertical walls. Suddenly, their path was blocked by a small truck with a flatbed and a disabled Toyota Land Cruiser.
The sun was not up yet, but there was enough pre-dawn light to see as the team got out of their Humvee and walked deeper into the canyon.
“As we pushed in, we started seeing kind of more and more signs of recent enemy activity,” he said. “That little voice in my head started going ‘ding, ding, ding, there’s something not right here.’ ”
He could see a lot of spent 7.62x54 shell casings spread all over the ground, suggesting someone with a sniper rifle had been active there recently.
“Then I actually found a spot where the guy who was shooting the sniper rifle had been laying down,” Clouse said. “I was able to see the imprint of his body, of his elbows and of his toes where he had been laying in to sight that rifle in.”
Just as he was processing this information, the enemy opened fire from the cliffs above with machine guns, sniper rifles and possibly rocket propelled grenades.
“It was very hard at first to localize where the shooting was,” he said. “We knew we were being shot at by the people above us, but we were essentially in a box canyon, and so they could be almost 360 degrees around us shooting down.”
To add to the confusion, the U.S. troops’ voices echoed in the canyon as they all yelled, “Where are they?”
“In the opening shots, several guys were hit: two Marines took hits in the upper leg and at least two Afghan National Army soldiers were hit at that point,” Clouse said. “So over the next little bit, seconds to a minute or so, guys were kind of moving in trying to find a covered concealed position and the guys on the cliffs above us to the north were really laying into us really hard.”
Clouse and members of the Marine team took cover behind a Humvee, which offered a very narrow space where they weren’t exposed to the enemy. Clouse was treating a Marine who had been shot in the upper thigh when the team corpsman came up to him and asked where the other wounded Marine was.
“As he asked that, he was hit — the corpsman was struck by a round that hit him in the center-left of his back and exited the kind of center right of his abdomen, so he went down right there,” Clouse said. “So I dragged him behind cover and started to treat him.”
Meanwhile, the other wounded Marine, Staff Sgt. Edgar A. Heredia, lay motionless in the open. Figuring Heredia was either dead or close to death, Clouse continued to treat the corpsman until Marines dragged him to cover.
“I moved to their location to their location and I assessed and I tried to treat Staff Sgt. Heredia, but he died shortly after I got there,” Clouse, who kept telling the story without breaking stride.
As the fight wore on, more wounded servicemembers made their way to the Humvee, where Clouse tended to them.
After a while, it became clear that the aircraft who had been called in to bomb the insurgents were not hitting their targets due to the terrain. The medevac helicopters could not reach the team and were running low on fuel.
“So we kind of cooked up a little course of action that we would — through the cover of airstrikes and throwing smoke grenades — we would try to move guys in onesies and twosies, leapfrogging from cover to cover within the kill zone to get us out.
“We began to do that and it took quite a while: The airstrike would come, we’d know the airstrike was inbound, we’d throw smoke, airstrike would hit, everyone would open up with everything they had while two or three guys might run to the next little piece of cover, and we kept moving guys like that,” he said.
Every time he moved, he was exposed to fire.
“I took a lot of fragmentary and shrapnel injuries,” he said. “I was hit once in the weapon, twice in the armor and once through the pant leg.”
One Marine managed to climb the cliffs to a point where he could shoot at the insurgents with his machine gun, providing critical cover that helped the team get all of the wounded out of the kill zone.
“We were able to get that MARSOC corpsman onto the helicopter and he ended up surviving,” Clouse said.
Of the six U.S. and Afghan servicemembers Clouse treated that day, all but Heredia survived.
Clouse credits his Special Forces training for allowing him to move from one wounded servicemember to another under such intense fire.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of internal debate about whether to go or not,” he said. “There were guys who were dying and they needed me assistance and the guys called for me, so I went.”