'I couldn't figure out where he was'
Army Commendation Medal with "V"
Distinguished Service Cross
It was Pfc. Adam Mittelstadt’s first mission outside the wire, and he was nervous. A day before rolling out with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, a soldier from another unit had died when his truck hit a roadside bomb as soldiers were clearing the patch of road Mittelstadt was to occupy for the next six days.
“Don’t worry about it,” a lieutenant told him. “What are the chances of you actually hitting an IED?”
Mittelstadt buried his nerves and soldiered up.
Three days later, Company B was strung along Route California — the main supply road from Jalalabad, a day’s drive to the southwest — to Forward Operating Base Bostick, about five miles north. The soldiers were securing the road for a supply convoy, a task repeated almost monthly and never peacefully.
“You just want to have a break. But I mean, you’ve got to keep going.”
- Staff Sgt. Anthony Fuentes
July 19, 2011, was a hot, cloudless summer day. On the left, peaks of granite brushed the blue sky. To the right, a sheer drop of 40 feet ended at the west bank of the roiling Kunar River.
They’d already been on the road for a day. There had been firefights, but the soldiers had taken no casualties. The second day dawned peacefully. Hours passed with a tense calm.
Around noon, Mittelstadt, whose job was to monitor enemy radio transmissions and find their source, locked on to a signal. Enemy fighters were moving into position to the south.
His truck, a deadly beast outfitted with a TOW missile system, was ordered to take them out. Sgt. Jacob Molina cranked the wheel, pulled a 180 and drove south, passing over the hastily patched crater from the bomb three days earlier, and halted near the mouth of the Dab Baro Valley.
Pfc. Anthony Green, the gunner, scoped an enemy position and fired. The missile roared to its target, exploded and silenced the insurgent signal. In the passenger seat, Staff Sgt. James Christen radioed the kill to the company commander.
Great, but another Company B element was now engaged in a firefight near the front of the column, the commander told him. He ordered the men north.
Molina spun the truck around, and Mittelstadt locked on to another signal. Beside him, an interpreter listened in — chatter about detonating an IED. Mittelstadt was preparing to send the report when everything went black.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Fuentes, the platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, heard the blast from his truck a half-mile north. He didn’t need to be told what happened. He ordered his medical evacuation truck to follow, and sped down the road.
A minute later, they found the truck upside down, five feet up a slope near a crater nine feet deep and 18 feet wide. Diesel fumes filled the air and remnants of the truck’s engine and drivetrain littered the smoldering hole.
You feel helpless,” said Fuentes, 27, from Jackson, Calif Fuentes said. “You feel like you can’t do anything.”
The feeling lasted a few long seconds. Then Fuentes and Spc. Jeffrey Conn, the platoon medic, raced forward along with two other soldiers.
As they reached open ground, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine gun rounds rained down from the mountainside.
“The enemy set up probably the most coordinated ambush I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan,” Fuentes said.
Two anti-aircraft guns almost a half-mile up the valley’s cliff walls fired down on them. Closer, two assault elements with AK-47 and machine guns and two more teams with rocket-propelled grenade launchers fired rounds on Fuentes and his men as they sprinted across the valley’s mouth.
The force of the blast drove the floor upward to what would have chest level had the truck been upright. The windshield and passenger door were gone, and Christen’s seat was empty.
“I couldn’t figure out where he was,” Conn said.
Someone else spotted Christen about 45 feet away. Enemy gunfire halted Fuentes’ first two attempts to reach him. On the third try, he made it. Christen was dead.
But four more men were still in the truck, a mess of metal soaked in diesel. They needed to get everybody out. If the truck caught fire, a deadly explosion was sure to follow.
Mittelstadt had already awoken, disoriented and wedged between the truck’s side armor and air condenser. The interpreter, Atale, conscious and surprisingly unscathed, helped pry him out.
It wasn’t until he stood up that Mittelstadt realized the truck was upside down. A pair of legs protruded limply up through the gunner’s hatch. Mittelstadt removed piles of gear that had fallen on Green.
It was then that gunfire again kicked up outside. Mittelstadt sifted through the clutter for a weapon, then poked his head through a hole in the truck’s side. Conn was there, telling him he’d be OK. Dazed but coherent, Mittelstadt relayed what he knew about the status of the other occupants.
Conn scrambled around the truck looking for an opening. He knew rounds were hitting around him, but he was focused on just one thing.
“I just knew there were guys in the truck and that we had to get them out,” he said.
There was no way in.
Molina, the driver, regained consciousness, but he was crushed in his seat. He began to scream.
Conn ran back around to the blasted door to calm Mittelstadt and Molina as enemy fire poured in from two separate groups of insurgents. In between words of reassurance to the injured men, Conn fired back.
The gunner’s hatch, pinned against the ground, was the sole exit from the truck’s rear. Only the TOW launcher and its bulky target system kept the truck from crushing Green, whose arms and head were pinned. Fuentes signaled for his truck to move forward, and it inched into the kill zone. Bullets slammed into its armored snout as Fuentes grabbed the winch and pulled the cable toward the wreckage.
He climbed atop and started to hook up to an axle. Enemy rounds slammed into the armor in front of him, missing him by inches and peppering him with shrapnel. He tumbled to the ground, dislocating his shoulder, but he shrugged it off, climbed back up and locked on.
As the cable went taut, the truck’s remains began to list, more spinning than turning over. Fuentes had to let it back down.
He called for another vehicle to pull up from the south. With one winch as an anchor, he reeled the other in. This time, the truck rolled into the crater with a thump.
Green was conscious, but almost unrecognizable with lacerations to his head and bulging bruises on his crushed face. Fuentes pulled him out and threw him over his shoulder. As Fuentes carried him through a hail of bullets, Green took a round through his right leg. Still dazed, he didn’t even feel it.
Conn grabbed Mittelstadt, who had lacerations to his head, a shredded ear and a blown eardrum. He followed Fuentes through the kill zone. Conn went to work on their injuries as Fuentes ran back for Molina.
“Molina was pinned in there, and we didn’t have recovery kit to get him out,” Fuentes said. “I didn’t have the Jaws of Life or anything like that.”
Capt. Adam Maneen, the company’s executive officer, jumped from his truck to help. As Maneen pried on a piece of metal trapping Molina, Fuentes lifted the sergeant’s shattered body through the missing windshield.
The effort drained them, but they couldn’t rest. While the gun trucks had silenced two enemy positions, yet another team of fighters sneaked closer and took aim at the exposed men as they and a third soldier carried Molina out of the kill zone to the medevac truck.
With so many casualties in the cramped cabin, it was impossible to raise the truck’s back ramp all the way. Conn squatted on its lip and went to work splinting Molina’s broken limbs.
“Conn was taking heavy fire the whole time,” Fuentes said, “and he just stayed back there and kept working on casualties. He didn’t even move.”
Within minutes, they were at the landing zone, waiting for the helicopter. A few minutes later, the dead and wounded were flying to Bostick.
Fuentes and his men were spent. They had to stay on the road, though, at least until dark, when the fighting might die down.
“You just want to have a break,” Fuentes said. “But I mean, you’ve got to keep going.”
For his actions, Conn was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V.” Fuentes, who led soldiers through one major battle before and another after this incident, was nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest award. The nomination was awaiting approval at the time of publication.
After night fell, they returned to Combat Outpost Monti long enough to pick up ammunition and fuel, but not long enough to change their clothes, which were covered in blood, diesel and oil.
They held a quick ceremony for Christen and learned then that Molina had died of his wounds. They took a moment to remember him as well.
The men didn’t have time to dwell on the losses. The mission wasn’t done yet. The soldiers mounted back up and headed out for another four days of hell.