Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Colbert and Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Busic were in the intelligence section of Forward Operating Base Ghazni in Afghanistan in August 2013 when they heard the explosion.
The two Green Berets thought their building had been hit by one of the many mortars or rockets that had peppered the base for the past week. But when Colbert walked outside, the 45-year-old from Spokane, Wash., saw a large mushroom cloud near the eastern perimeter.
On a fortified NATO base with about 1,400 people, Colbert, Busic and the other special operators with 1st Special Forces Group could have let someone else check it out. But that isn’t what heroes do. They rushed toward the blast, sparking a violent tug-of-war with 10 Taliban insurgents armed with grenades, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests.
By the end of the day, they had repelled the attack — called “spectacular” in their citations — and earned the Silver Star.
“I had a clear line of sight to the eastern section of the FOB,” Colbert recalled in April from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he is in the process of separating after more than 24 years. “I knew it wasn’t a rocket.”
Busic, a 33-year-old Michigan native, and two Green Berets exited the building on the west side and headed out in a pickup truck. Colbert came out of the building on the other side and rushed toward the explosion.
He was picked up by an Army special operator and a Navy SEAL in an all-terrain vehicle, and they raced to the scene.
The insurgents had launched a two-pronged attack on the base. The explosion in the east was the main attack, where insurgents used an explosive-laden vehicle to breach the walls, hell-bent on inflicting mass casualties. A diversionary attack on the other side was louder and meant to draw the bulk of base’s defenders.
Colbert believes the insurgents were aided by local workers with base access.
“They knew what side of the FOB would receive the least resistance,” he said. They also knew which side to hit to inflict the most damage. The eastern side was home to two chow halls, headquarters, support facilities and living areas.
After the blast ripped a 40-foot hole in the outer perimeter wall, at least 10 insurgents in Afghan National Army uniforms poured into the east side near the airfield. which had a maze of barriers and containers that supported drone operations.
When Colbert and the two others arrived on the scene, they parked their vehicle behind cover and began to take AK-47 fire from three insurgents, according to Colbert’s award citation.
Colbert destroyed one fighter within 25 meters of his position, according to the citation. Two others were killed by his colleagues.
They continued to move toward the sounds of gunfire. As they turned a corner, they came face to face with six insurgents in two locations, all within 20 meters.
The other Green Beret with Colbert was shot in the calf and head, although his helmet stopped the bullet.
“Chief Colbert instantly exposed himself into the direct line of fire to pull his fellow special operator behind cover, saving his life,” the citation reads.
Next thing he knew, Busic was on the scene with two other Green Berets, including Staff Sgt. Earl Plumlee, who is being considered for a Medal of Honor. Colbert took a bullet in his right leg and was struck with grenade fragments.
The other Green Berets tried to nose their truck in front of the wounded special operator to provide cover. “They immediately started lighting up that pickup truck,” he said.
Plumlee got hung up in the truck with his gear. While the other special operators got out and moved for cover, he went straight at the insurgents, firing a pistol.
Another special operator arrived in an all-terrain vehicle. Colbert provided suppressive fire as he continued moving the wounded special operator to safety.
Plumlee spanned 50 meters in the open, alone, and was engaging the enemy, Colbert said. Plumlee neutralized four or five fighters, then ran back to get Busic to help him kill the rest.
Busic joined Plumlee in an alley between the inner perimeter wall and storage containers. An insurgent rushed them and detonated his vest, blowing Plumlee back into a barrier. Soon a group of Polish soldiers arrived.
At some point, Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis of the 10th Mountain Division stepped in front of one of the Polish soldiers, shielding him as a vest was detonated. Ollis was the only American killed that day. He earned the Silver Star and the Polish Armed Forces Gold Medal.
Colbert and the special operators, now in two groups, ran through alleys between the inner perimeter and containers.
“All of the insurgents were on the ground,” Busic recalled. “I didn’t see any movement.”
Then he heard the “tink, tink” of a grenade. One fighter had played dead.
“I looked at him and he looked at me, then he detonated his vest,” Busic said. The grenade was within 15 feet of their position, the citation said. With no time to flee, they absorbed the blast.
Busic killed another insurgent who came from behind.
After the battle, the men took stock of their injuries. Colbert had been shot, and Busic suffered fragmentary injuries to both legs and an arm. They headed back to get explosive ordnance disposal experts and join the fight on the other side of the base. They pulled guard duty that night.
Most of the men who fought that day are still dealing with their injuries, Colbert said. The shrapnel in Busic’s leg was too deeply embedded to be removed.
Colbert and Busic were credited with ensuring the safety of the 1,400 servicemembers and civilians. Both said the award was humbling but scoffed at being called heroes.
“We were in the right place at the right time to react and it was necessary,” Colbert said.
“We don’t do our job for awards or accolades,” Busic said, “We just do it to serve.”