The intelligence reports suggested nothing amiss in Zaranj on April 28, 2012.
The town of 50,000 people, just a few miles from the Iranian border, was far from the Taliban strongholds in the southeast. The last attack there had been about four years earlier.
The joint U.S. force of mostly Marines traveled through town with Afghan police in four Ford Ranger trucks to meet with local officials.
There were no overt signs of danger on the streets.
One moment the second truck in the convoy was fine, and in the next, two Marines were blown out of the pickup bed. They would later find out that a Taliban militant had detonated a hand cart filled with explosives and ball bearings.
Petty Officer 1st Class Benny Flores, a 29-year-old Navy corpsman from Guam and Tinian, somehow remained in the truck bed during the blast. Flores says he yelled for his Marines, Sgt. Caleb Rauscher and Maj. Andrew Kingsbury, and jumped out of the truck.
Flores calls them “his” Marines. Corpsmen are known for taking their jobs personally. They are the sailors whom Marines must trust to keep them alive.
“I honestly didn’t feel any pain,” said Flores, who couldn’t hear, couldn’t see much and whose arm was shredded by shrapnel. “I knew I was hurt. But it wasn’t the first thing that ran through my mind.”
Flores ran about 35 feet from the truck and found Rauscher, 22, face down in the dirt.
Chunks of Rauscher’s helmet were missing, but that Kevlar likely saved his life. Rauscher was concussed and seriously hurt, but he wasn’t suffering from any immediate life-threatening injuries.
Flores moved to the passenger side of the damaged truck to check on Master Sgt. Scott Pruitt, a 38-year-old military accountant who had volunteered for a combat tour before his impending retirement.
A metal fence from the road median had crushed the passenger door, pinning Pruitt’s legs. Other debris shattered the window.
Pruitt bled from his head, neck and body. Flores applied two tourniquets and began working on extracting him with help from Capt. Jason Bowers and Kingsbury, who staggered to his feet after suffering a concussion and perforated eardrums.
Kingsbury checked Pruitt for a pulse. Nothing.
“I think he did everything he could for Scott that day,” said Kingsbury, who works as a pilot in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
There was no time for grief. Snipers had begun firing from the rooftops.
While the Afghan police and Marines fired back, Lt. Gabe Sganga tried to get Rauscher to his feet and out of danger. Rauscher, who weighed about 250 pounds without his gear, couldn’t stand. Sganga and Phillips tried helping until Kingsbury took over for Phillips and got Rauscher into a nearby motorcycle shop.
Meanwhile, Flores ducked back into the firefight to check on the driver, an Afghan policeman with internal injuries.
After Marines got the policeman to safety, Flores went back to Pruitt to try to revive him. In all, Flores ran through gunfire four times to render aid.
When the fire finally ceased, the convoy sped away to a local hospital. Flores worked with Afghan doctors on the wounded, while Kingsbury arranged the medical evacuation flights to a military hospital.
It wasn’t until everyone else got on the helicopters that Flores stopped for treatment. He spent the next two days in the hospital, side by side with Kingsbury.
After the incident, a drawdown meant Flores could have gone home. He chose to stay with his Marines.
“My wife, of course, was upset,” Flores said. “She couldn’t understand why I’d want to stay there, given the chance come home.
“I told her it was something I wanted to do … I felt like I still had more to give. I felt like I was going to be disappointment if I didn’t stay when I could stay.”
On May 3, 2013, Flores received the Silver Star for his actions. He received accolades and applause from flag officers, his family and others gathered at Camp Pendleton in California, where he is now a chief petty officer.
He accepted the honor humbly, but with lingering regret over Pruitt’s death.
“We lost a great Marine, and to this day it still bothers me,” Flores said. “I think about whether there was anything I could have done better to save his life.”
Flores talks with Pruitt’s mother often. She tells him he did everything possible to save her son. She tells Flores to wear the Silver Star with pride.
Most of the servicemembers involved in the fight still keep in touch. They plan to visit Pruitt’s gravesite together this year.
“You build incredibly strong relationships through hardship,” Kingsbury said. “That’s through the training we do in the military and through operational experiences.
“There are a lot of people in the U.S. military that have very unfortunate, very similar experiences with this. Those things didn’t go away. But were not alone in that.”