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'Don't go into the light'

Valor is thought to reveal itself most commonly during simple acts of courage, boldly enacted in harrowing moments where lives are saved and others lost.

Yet valor isn’t common, and the only thing simple about war is ugliness. Seen up close, nearly every death, even those of the enemy, can seem unjust.

So it is within that complexity that valor is revealed in one of its rarer forms; not borne of actions that save the day, but forged in moments that end the day with dignity and grace.

Few understand this better than the men of Combat Company, and notably Pfc. Robert Farleigh and Spc. Jeffrey Lola, who in the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the war began in late 2001, worked under fire to save five of their friends, most of whom they knew were probably already gone.

Farleigh and Lola, both with 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, were posted on Aug. 11, 2011, at a battle position nicknamed Coral. They were barely awake when they heard the blast, but explosions were nothing new in Nalgham, so they hardly stirred.

“After the first week there, you just stop reacting to them,” said Farleigh, the platoon’s medic.

But this blast was gravely different.

A squad of their soldiers had been on a breakfast run when they rolled over an improvised explosive device on a desolate road in central Kandahar province, the heart of the original Taliban movement.

The blast breached the hull of their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, pushing the engine into the cab and blowing the doors and the turret. From surrounding fighting positions, soldiers watched as the explosion sent a plume of white smoke nearly 200 feet in the air.

"These were young kids, witnessing their buddies dying and still finding strength to carry on the mission. Their selfless actions were the only bright spots on the darkest of days.”
- 1st Lt. Sam Freakley

With the arrival a few minutes later of Farleigh’s M-ATV — the “all terrain” MRAP used in Afghanistan — he was out of the truck before it stopped moving. Lola was close behind. The catastrophic blast had thrown the soldiers and no one was moving.

“They’re all gone,” Lola thought.

Still, they ran toward the wounded, stepping over a secondary IED that failed to detonate.
Farleigh went to work on one soldier, and Lola on another. Then gunfire erupted; they had raced into an ambush. Using the blown turret as cover, Lola fired on insurgents before turning back to his patient.

“Keep breathing,” he said, wrapping tourniquets on the soldier’s legs. “Don’t go into the light.”

But there was no cover for Farleigh, who was kneeled over a wounded soldier in a poppy field when the shooting started. He turned his back to the fire and leaned over his friend, using his body to protect him as the bullets sped by.

“I just kept working on him,” Farleigh said. “At that point I didn’t really care.”

Sgt. Ramon Villeblanca and Pfc. Michael Clark, also a medic, soon arrived and went to work helping Farleigh and Lola.

From the surrounding battle positions, Combat Company soldiers unleashed a barrage of fire on the attackers. Minutes later, the firefight was over.

Reluctantly, Lola and Farleigh stopped working on their patients. They were gone, along with two others who had been killed instantly in the blast.

Hope stirred among the soldiers when the medevac helicopter landed and they loaded the lone survivor.

Then word came: He died on the flight.

Dozens of soldiers had arrived and were devastated when they learned so many had been lost. Some were angry, others quiet. Some found solace in gathering personal belongings from the wreckage.

Lola saw an empty helmet., the worst of sights for an infantryman on the battlefield. He went to pick it up, then saw another. As he reached for it, the tears pushed out in waves. It would be days before they would stop.

“It’s a rough thing seeing five of your real good buddies out there like that,” Lola said.
Farleigh, who was 19 and on his first deployment, never considered leaving his friend when the firefight started.

“I think you don’t really know it’s there until it happens,” he said about his ability to remain calm. “There’s no way to test it. I know people who have frozen up in that situation. It’s different for everybody.”

Farleigh, who has since been promoted to specialist, and Lola were awarded Bronze Stars with “V,” while Villeblanca and Clark, now a specialist, were awarded Army Commendation Medals with “V.”

Company Commander Capt. Dennis Call, who arrived shortly after the firefight and helped evacuate the fallen, is inspired by the fortitude of his young soldiers.

“We suffered a tremendous number of casualties early on to IEDs. They didn’t even hesitate to do what was necessary to recover their wounded buddies, regardless of the dangers to their own safety,” Call said.

Platoon leader 1st Lt. Sam Freakley, who arrived not long after the explosion, also believes he witnessed a rare form of valor.

“While we were taking fire and attmempting to aid the wounded, I wasn’t thinking about how heroic they had been,” Freakley said later. “But when I had time to reflect, “I was awed by the composure and bravery they had shown,” Freakley said. “It validates our ethos and everything we stand for. These were young kids, witnessing their buddies dying and still finding strength to carry on the mission. Their selfless actions were the only bright spots on the darkest of days.”

rauchl@estripes.osd.mil

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