Their guns lay disassembled for cleaning, their thoughts on a mission expected later that day.
Hanging out near their Strykers during downtime at a forward operating base in Afghanistan last year, members of a security detail for 4th Squadron brass of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment didn’t know they were already in the crosshairs of an insurgent.
“They were caught pretty unaware,” said Maj. Andy Watson, at that time the squadron operations chief.
The small group was huddled around the ramp of a parked Stryker outside the squadron Tactical Operations Center in Kandahar province on the morning of March 19, 2011, cleaning weapons for a mission and finishing a new guard roster.
As the men talked, an Afghan guard, armed with an AK-47, started walking in their direction. Spc. Jose Arocha, 25, was standing by the group when he noticed the man. Unsure what the guard wanted, Arocha turned to him and placed a hand on his own weapon.
"By him shooting at me, he wouldn’t be able to shoot at the guys."
- Sgt. Jose Arocha
The guard lifted his, and Arocha shouted out to the others.
“As I was saying something, he just opened fire,” said Arocha, now a sergeant. “He opened fire initially on me, and then he sprayed the rest of the group.”
Soldiers scrambled, diving under the nearby Strykers or behind them, according to the regiment’s account of events. Some didn’t make it fast enough. Cpl. Donald Mickler Jr., 29, of Ohio and Pfc. Rudy Acosta, 19, a medic from California, were killed in the initial bursts.
Others were injured. Sgt. Zack Hombel took a round in the arm as he fled to the front of the aligned Strykers.
Arocha said he avoided the first bursts and moved between the Strykers. Working his way to the front of the vehicles, he followed a set of concrete T-walls around the nearby TOC, found a gap and took cover to insert a magazine into his weapon and load it. Unlike other soldiers in the group, Arocha had cleaned his weapon the previous night.
Other soldiers made for the T-wall, as well, running for the small gap that offered the only entry. The gunman, meanwhile, followed the fleeing soldiers.
“He didn’t say a word, he just opened up and fired,” Arocha said. “And as he moved down, he didn’t say anything. He was pretty deliberate. He was trying to get as much as he could out of it.”
“The guy caught us with our pants down,” Hombel said. “We were just lucky that Arocha’s weapon was already clean.”
Hombel was near two other soldiers when the shooting started, he said. One made it to the T-walls. Another, Acosta, was hit and went down.
“I was by myself,” Hombel said. “And he lit me up again, so I went behind the closest thing I had for cover. It was the unit grill.”
The gunman hit Hombel in the hip, and a round struck and disabled his weapon. Unable to get to the T-walls, the sergeant watched as the shooter neared and recognized him as an easy target.
“That dude started coming toward me and that’s when Arocha came around the barriers and started shooting the guy,” he said.
Arocha said his first thought was to go around the TOC and eventually come behind the shooter, a plan he rejected for the length of time it would take. He instead stepped from behind the T-walls after reloading his weapon, and he opened fire.
“He would see me, he would shoot at me, and by him shooting at me, he wouldn’t be able to shoot at the guys,” Arocha said of his plan.
His first three shots struck the guard, but none penetrated his body armor, according to the regiment’s account. The shooter fired back at Arocha, who returned to the T-walls for cover. Arocha then came back out, took aim for the man’s limbs, and sent him to the ground with a shot to the knee.
The shooter continued firing from the ground. As another soldier provided cover, Arocha ran toward a bunker closer to the shooter and opened fire again. Hombel, meanwhile, used the moment to find cover behind a nearby shed, he said.
“I didn’t miss once,” Arocha said. “There was nothing in the background — everything was hitting him. Some rounds went through the plate he was wearing.”
After the assailant stopped moving, Arocha ran to the man, kicked his gun away and then checked on the wounded.
Inside the TOC, Watson and others initially thought the gunshots were a negligent discharge. As they ran outside, they met some of the wounded soldiers seeking safety. By the time Watson was outside, it was over.
“This was over in less than a minute,” he said. “That’d be my guess.”
The gunman had been on narcotics, Arocha and Hombel said they were later told. The reason for the attack is unclear; the regiment account said the man was Taliban posing as a guard.
Hombel said the attack caught soldiers unprepared. Had Arocha not had a clean gun and not emerged from the T-walls, the outcome would have been grimmer.
“I think I would’ve been killed,” Hombel said. “Because I was the only one in that area, and I was really the only one left.”
Arocha said he doesn’t replay the incident nor suffer from the memories. It was his first and only engagement in his first deployment, and he’s since transferred to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
The Silver Star is an honor, he said, but one that comes with tragedy he wishes could be undone.
“If there’s any way I could take that day back, I would,” he said.