When the shooting started, it didn’t take long for then-Tech. Sgt. Delorean Sheridan to sort out what was happening.
Puffs of smoke, followed by the sound of gunfire. Bullets striking, men to his right and left falling.
His quick and courageous reaction to an insider attack — an ambush from close range that wounded many and could have killed scores — earned the Air Force special tactics airman a Silver Star, the U.S. military’s third highest award for bravery in combat.
The events of March 11, 2013, unfolded inside a small forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Wardak province, where Sheridan, an Air Force combat controller on his sixth deployment, was part of a team of Green Berets and Afghan forces.
That morning, the group huddled together while standing in a gravel lot, the base’s motor pool area, discussing the day’s mission.
The U.S. soldiers took turns briefing their Afghan counterparts, a mix of Afghan Special Forces and Afghan National Police members. They were almost done when gunfire rang out.
At an awards ceremony in January at Pope Field, N.C., where now-Master Sgt. Sheridan is assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, he recalled seeing puffs of smoke before he heard the machine gunfire.
“Initially, everyone starts to look to see what’s going on,” Sheridan recalled in a phone interview in May. “We’re accustomed to shooting, so our first instinct is, ‘OK, what is the person shooting at?’ I turned and looked back and I saw this guy shooting at me and the light bulbs hit: It’s some guy trying to kill us.”
The shooter was an Afghan National Police officer — or a man posing as one — attacking with a truck-mounted machine gun from about 25 feet away.
The gunman, described as being new to the police force, was sitting by himself in a truck parked somewhere behind the huddled men. Sometime during the U.S. soldiers’ briefing, he slipped unnoticed out the driver’s side door, climbed up onto the truck’s bed and began shooting.
At about the same time, heavy machine gunfire erupted from just outside the base, where 15 to 20 men were shooting as part of a coordinated attack.
“The way our base was set up, there was a compound directly adjacent to our exterior wall with a window that could look into our motor pool,” Sheridan said. “From there, people were shooting also. Later on we found out there were people maneuvering around the compound trying to get a way in.”
Men around Sheridan dropped to the ground. Bullet fragments hit Sheridan’s chest armor in the initial burst of gunfire.
Those who could ran toward a nearby cluster of five large military trucks to take cover.
So, too, did Sheridan, but he didn’t stop running. He kept going, toward the shooter.
“The only response to a near ambush is to turn and return fire,” he said. “That’s what popped in my head: ‘Hey, you’re in an ambush. I need to close the distance and put fire power on.’”
Sheridan darted between vehicles and leapt in the back of an armored vehicle with an open hatch parked closest to the gunman. Armed with a Glock pistol, Sheridan needed a good angle and close range to take him out.
“I pulled out my pistol, popped up through that hatch and started to shoot at him from there,” he said.
He fired off two rounds from his pistol, put it down and resumed shooting with a loaded M-4 rifle he found in the vehicle, firing a total of 11 times until the gunman lay motionless.
As his adrenaline pumped furiously, an odd thing happened.
Sheridan could not hear his own gun shots or the incoming gunfire from the outside attackers. He was experiencing “auditory exclusion,” a temporary loss of hearing that can occur in high stress situations, where the brain begins to shut down any senses not deemed essential to the task at hand. Later, Sheridan noted that his ears weren’t ringing, despite shooting his weapon without earplugs.
Sheridan knew what was happening to him, and why, an awareness which helped him stay calm, he said.
“Part of our resiliency training is talking about the way the brain reacts to stimulus and to fight-or-flight near-death situations,” he said. “I was aware of it and it wasn’t a big deal.”
The next thing Sheridan remembered is seeing three bodies on the ground, near the spot where his team was huddled only moments earlier. “I’m sure there were others,” he said. “My mind was only processing those three people.”
Sheridan ended up darting back out into the firefight three times to retrieve each of the fallen men, pulling them out of the line of fire to a place where they could receive medical assistance.
Two of the men died in the attack: Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel and Staff Sgt. Rex Schad.
Pedersen-Keel, 28, a Green Beret from Madison, Conn., and a West Point Academy graduate, had recently volunteered to step in as the team leader after the previous one had been wounded, Sheridan said. He was warm-hearted and smart, Sheridan said. “It takes a certain level of intelligence and humility to work with partner forces and not come off as arrogant or brutish, and he did it flawlessly.”
Schad, 26, the infantry squad noncommissioned-officer-in-charge “involved himself with his guys on a very personal level … and they loved him for it,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan’s team sergeant also lay on the ground that day. He regained consciousness when Sheridan and another soldier began moving him.
“He said, ‘How’s my face look?’” Sheridan said. Relieved to hear his team sergeant speaking, Sheridan couldn’t help but answer the question with some humor. “’Ah, your face looks great, man. You look awesome,’” Sheridan responded. “Especially in a moment like that, a little bit of levity can help you get through to the next thing.”
The next thing was requesting aircraft for medical evacuation and close-air support, a job that fell to the combat controller.
“I climbed up into a truck, got on the radio and said, ‘Hey, we’re in trouble. We need help,’” Sheridan said.
Multiple aircraft showed up shortly, he said. It took five Blackhawks to pick up 23 wounded U.S. soldiers and Afghanis. Sheridan assisted with the litter transfer of injured personnel while directing close air support and surveillance aircraft.
“With the medical evacuation complete, Sergeant Sheridan located and directed aircraft to engage insurgents maneuvering towards the friendly location, resulting in four additional enemy fighters killed,” his Silver Star citation reads. His “complete disregard for personal safety and extreme calm under pressure despite grave danger to himself and others directly resulted in saving the lives of 23 critically wounded personnel.”
Sheridan can recall the ebb and flow of his emotions and his thoughts throughout the battle, of how the adrenaline eased up after he radioed for medical evacuation, his body relaxing ever so slightly.
“My brain kind of settled down,” he said. “Your body kind of flushes.”
That’s when the awful reality of what had just happened began to sink in. “I’m there and there’s wounded teammates all around. I’m like, ‘This is a bad day.’ It doesn’t feel good. You’re watching people around you die.”
Days like that serve as a reminder of why combat controllers undergo some of the most rigorous training in the Air Force, Sheridan said. “It’s got to be tough, because when there’s bad days, the combat controller, that Air Force guy, can be the guy that sinks or saves everybody.”
Sheridan comes from a long line of military men, starting with his paternal great-grandfather. His dad retired from the Coast Guard, and his grandfather fought in Vietnam. A great uncle was a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the nation’s first all-black parachute infantry team.
Sheridan almost joined the Army, his sights set on becoming an Army Ranger, until a high school friend told him he could do almost the same thing in Air Force special tactics –- “but they’re going to treat you better because you’re in the Air Force,” the friend said.
Sheridan signed on in 1999 right after graduating from high school. He was a tactical air control party airman for six years before retraining into combat control in 2005.
Only 33, he was given a STEP promotion to master sergeant. Earlier this year, he received one of the Air Force’s most prestigious awards, the 2013 Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award, in the junior enlisted category.
Sheridan says he doesn’t think often about his Silver Star.
“If this Silver Star helps bring light to what combat control does, to what special tactics does, great,” he said. “But for me, buy me a cup of coffee. We’ll call each other even.”