'There's only so much cover'
Stars and Stripes
Staff Sgt. Grant Derrick lay sprawled across the limp body of a wounded Afghan soldier, behind a too-short pile of rocks, with hundreds of bullets smashing the ground around him, and waited to die.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is not the way I thought it would end,’ ” he said. “I was in the worst situation I could possibly imagine.”
For 13 soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group, that mission in May 2010 turned out to be more dangerous than most of them ever feared.
Their early morning push into Hendor village in northern Afghanistan was designed to help secure areas around Kabul in advance of the June 2010 peace jirga. Capt. Tim Driscoll said his team had already faced long firefights all across Laghman province in previous months, so they expected strong resistance when they reached Hendor.
But even before the mission began, things started to go wrong. Problems with the helicopter landing zone left them farther outside the village than planned, and the noise as the aircraft circled ruined any chance of a stealthy entrance.
By the time Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 arrived at dawn, Driscoll said, the village was a ghost town, with most of the locals — and all of the young men — already hiding in the nearby mountainside.
“The first building we got to, there was a large weapons cache inside,” said Staff Sgt. Jermon Tibbs, the squad’s forensic specialist. “As we started to go through the items, that’s when the shooting started.”
Tibbs and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Plants took the weapons cache out of the village to detonate it, but quickly found themselves pinned down. Even behind the buildings farthest from the mountainside, troops found little protection.
The village covers less than a square mile, but the soldiers said its rocky terrain and narrow alleys made walking treacherous. Enemy bullets came down like rain, almost vertically from the high ground above, Tibbs said.
“And from then on, for the rest of the day, we were getting shot at,” he said. “Every open area, we got shot at. When we got behind some cover, we got shot at. For the first hour there, we just stayed low, trying to figure out where exactly they were shooting from.”
Two Afghan commandos were killed early in the fight. Another was hit with a bullet that entered beside his nose and burst through under his chin. As Master Sgt. Sean Berk dragged the wounded man into an empty house, Staff Sgt. Justin Schafer realized he had been hit as well.
“I had noticed the rounds getting closer and closer, but I didn’t realize I had been hit twice in my aid bag,” the 29-year-old medic said. “The whole thing was smashed.”
The damaged equipment forced Driscoll to send the other squad medic, Derrick, across the village to help Schafer tend to the wounded.
Until then, his men had been working in three teams, each leading dozens of Afghan commandos into different sections of the village. Derrick said he only had to cover about 400 yards to get from one side of the village to the other, but every step was met with gunfire.
“There were so many spider holes, you couldn’t distinguish where the fire was coming from,” he said. “You’re just hauling ass, because there’s only so much cover when they’re firing straight down at you.”
Hours into the day, as the two medics tried to set up a safe casualty collection point, the rest of the teams moved ahead with the mission. Coalition aircraft peppered the mountainside with rockets and 500-pound bombs, but with mixed results. Driscoll directed his soldiers and the commandos to new positions, trying to counter the threat.
At one point, his own position was blanketed with fire from two different groups of enemy fighters. Driscoll had to dash through 100 yards of open space to establish a new command post. Even as bullets ricocheted inches from him, soldiers said Driscoll continued to bark out orders, enabling them and the Afghan commandos to regroup safely on the village’s southern end.
The team pushed through the village searching for more weapons. Tibbs was pulled from that detail to rush an injured Afghan named Ullah to Schafer’s makeshift clinic. Shot through the face, Ullah was still alive, but struggling to breathe.
Derrick said he and Schafer made the call to evacuate the man — and three other wounded commandos — as quickly as possible. Medevac pilots relayed their anticipated landing zone, and Ullah was placed on a litter for the dangerous dash uphill.
“It wasn’t an ideal spot, and as we came around a corner, they let loose on us,” Schafer said.
The group immediately scattered. Tibbs and Schafer found cover behind nearby buildings. The helicopters circled away. After the commandos dove for safety, Derrick was caught in the open with the litter and wounded man.
“He had no body armor, no helmet. He was completely exposed,” Derrick said of Ullah. “He got hit again in the leg. I drug him behind a broken rock pile, not even a meter high, and then I basically lied on top of him, returning fire.”
Derrick was grazed in the ankle by a bullet. He had been shot in the shoulder during a mission four months earlier, and the new injury — though minor — washed a sense of dread over him.
“I was upset about me, I was worried about the patient,” he said. “I was surprised I hadn’t already been hit more than just in the ankle.”
Tibbs climbed a rock wall to return fire and attempt to pull the shooters’ attention from Derrick. The commandos joined in from farther back. Schafer inched through the gunfire to Derrick’s position.
“I didn’t think [Ullah] was going to make it to begin with, even before he got shot the second time,” Schafer said. “I told Derrick later that if we were selfish, we could have gotten out of there easily without him. But at the time, that never crossed out minds.”
The three made their way out of the shooting gallery, at one point tossing Ullah over a short wall in a desperate attempt to find cover. Remarkably, the pair said, the man survived that, and even seemed more alert after some battlefield first aid.
Nearby, other soldiers found another large cache of weapons and drugs. Driscoll ordered it destroyed, and the medics saw the news as their best chance for escape.
“The blast took out four houses and created a giant wall of smoke,” Driscoll said. “We could barely see, but we got out of there.”
Tibbs, Schafer and Derrick reconnected at the edge of the village, and managed to hold off enemy fire long enough to load all of the wounded Afghans onto a medevac helicopter at a slightly safer landing area. As it flew off, they heard Driscoll ordering troops to counter dozens of enemy fighters at the other end of the village, trying to wipe out the detachment.
By then, the men had already been fighting for more than eight hours. The fighting was so fierce that most hadn’t had a chance to catch their breath, and all were fighting dehydration and exhaustion.
“But you couldn’t stop to think about it,” Driscoll said. “You just had to keep going.”
After more close calls and another hour of fighting, the soldiers pushed the enemy back again. Driscoll and several others were down to their last few rounds when Driscoll gave the order to pull out. By then another operational detachment had entered the fight, relieving them.
The soldiers said they continued to take gunfire until the moment the last transport aircraft flew out of range.
Army officials credited the unit with killing 30 enemy fighters on the day, and pushing back at least 50 more trying to retake the village. Despite the daylong barrage, none of the 13 U.S. soldiers were killed or seriously injured.
Driscoll credited that to the unit’s professionalism and focus, although Schafer admitted he’s still shocked that they all survived.
All 13 men received their medals of valor at a ceremony in North Carolina in February. Derrick and Schafer received the Silver Star for their heroism in protecting Ullah. Driscoll, Tibbs and six others were awarded the Bronze Star with “V.”
In the days following the firefight, U.S. forces opted to withdraw from the village rather than hold it. Schafer said the goal was simply to clear the area temporarily to help secure the larger region, though several of the soldiers hoped they’d have another chance to go back and “finish the job.”
The two Afghan commandos killed early in the fight were the only fatalities of the mission. The wounded, including Ullah, all survived. Weeks later, the two medics met with him in an Afghan hospital and, unhappy with the care he was receiving, brought him back to their base for his recovery.
Driscoll said that speaks to the connection his men made with the Afghans. Derrick echoed that sentiment.
“If we all didn’t have that bond, it would have been a worse day,” he said.