Former Green Beret medic receives Medal of Honor for lifesaving actions in Afghanistan
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 1, 2018
WASHINGTON — Dillon Behr never understood how he and Ron Shurer received the same valor award for their actions in the midst of a savage, 6-hour firefight in which their Green Beret unit was nearly overrun in the jagged, icy cliffs of eastern Afghanistan.
The entire 12-man force from Operational Detachment-Alpha 3336 had fought valiantly April 6, 2008, on that Nuristan province mountain where they’d been sent to kill or capture a high-value leader of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin insurgent group, Behr said Sunday. But Shurer not only single-handedly kept Behr alive after he was shot through the hip early in the fight known now as the Battle of Shok Valley, but he also ultimately was responsible for ensuring all of the American troops on that mountain made it out alive.
“Without Ron Shurer at my side, I would have died that day. No question,” Behr said. “His presence gave me the confidence to know I could make it. There’s a good chance if he would have been critically injured or killed on the battlefield … we all might have died out there.”
Months after the battle, 10 soldiers who fought that day were awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest honor for valor, representing the most such battlefield awards earned in a single engagement since the Vietnam War. On Monday, Shurer’s Silver Star was upgraded to the Medal of Honor when President Donald Trump presented the nation’s highest military honor to the former Green Beret during a ceremony at the White House.
Trump smiled widely as he presented the award to Shurer, tapping the former Green Beret on the shoulder of his dress blue Army Service Uniform.
Behr and eight other members of Shurer’s unit who fought in the battle with him attended the ceremony, as well as two Afghans who fought by their side. The upgraded award felt right, Behr said.
“Knowing that he was awarded the Silver Star, the same award that I got, it didn’t really seem fair,” Behr said the day before the ceremony. “So, to see him elevated and given the nation’s highest honor — there’s nobody else that could deserve it any more, and I’m extremely proud to know him.”
For Shurer, 37, who has worked as a Secret Service agent since he left the Army in 2011, the upgraded award was unexpected and the result of a Pentagon review that began in 2016 of high-level, post-9/11 combat awards.
On Sept. 4, Shurer was summoned to the West Wing. There, the president told the soldier that he would receive the Medal of Honor, Trump said during the ceremony.
“It was a moment I will never forget,” he said in the East Room of the White House before a standing-room-only audience of senior military leaders, Secret Service agents and Shurer’s family and friends. “It’s a great story … for Ron, a good man.”
Before his meeting with Trump, Shurer said he was not aware his Silver Star was under consideration for an upgrade.
“Since we got the word, I’ve felt every emotion — pride, humbled, a little embarrassed,” he said. There’s “so much to try and process and take in. It’s definitely something you grow up hearing about, but never would have considered myself in that conversation.”
Ultimately, Shurer said, the award is about recognizing the other men who fought alongside him on that mountain a decade ago.
“I want to dedicate this to the other men in ODA 3336,” he said Monday just after he was presented the award. “Without them, this Medal of Honor really never would have been possible. It was truly a team effort.”
The Green Berets and some 100 Afghan commandos sent on that mission could sense something was amiss not long after their arrival. The unit was forced to drop about 10 feet from the hovering helicopters, which could not find a place to land, and needed to scale a nearly vertical, 100-foot cliff to reach the compound where their target was expected to be, according to soldiers who served on that mission.
Behr said he felt a sense of “eeriness” immediately.
Then the battle erupted — heavy fire from rifles and machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades rained down onto them from some 200 to 300 enemy fighters from positions overhead.
“It was just an onslaught of fire and explosions for a very long time,” said Behr, who was then a sergeant first class and the unit’s communications specialist. “Utter chaos.”
The operation’s ground commander Lt. Col. Kyle Walton, then a captain, split the team into several assault elements, leading the way up the cliff with Behr and several others. Below the cliff, some of the Afghan commandos were wounded. Shurer, the only medic on the operation, began tending to them.
“Blood all over the place,” Trump said, describing the details of the battle. “It was a tough, tough situation to be in.”
Before long, Walton recalled, the situation for him and the others atop the cliff became untenable.
With his team outmanned, outgunned and taking casualties, Walton was forced to call Shurer to his position.
“When I called for Ron, there was a silence over the radio for a few seconds, because everyone realized what that meant — that it was bad,” Walton said. “He had to climb a mountain under fire with a couple other guys on the team. When he showed up, nearly everybody was wounded. We were under direct fire. We were pinned down with nearly nowhere to go except down that 100-foot cliff.
The unit’s Afghan interpreter, who they knew by the nickname C.K., was mortally wounded. Behr was down and even after Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs arrived to help, soldiers kept getting hit with the mix of enemy fire and shrapnel from the “danger close” strikes, bombs that were called in close to their own position.
Shurer went to work on Behr, calmly reassuring his friend he would make it.
He checked the others' injuries. C.K. was not going to make it; the others had a chance to live if they could be evacuated. But Behr was in the worst shape, with the gnarled hip injury and another wound to his arm, Shurer recalled.
“Constantly bleeding,” the former medic said. “I got to the point where … I just resorted to using my fingers to kind of shove [a clotting agent] in and then bandaged him up as tight as I could.”
Shurer was hit twice — once in his helmet, leaving him momentarily stunned, and then again in his arm. He kept working.
Behr, in a morphine stupor, believed he would die. He said a prayer.
Then “Ron slapped me across the face and said, ‘Wake up. You’re not going to die today,’” he recounted. “I knew at that point I was going to make it.”
‘Calm, collected and cool’
After hours of fighting, the unit was still not in the clear.
Walton feared his force was on the verge of being overrun.
With the insurgents nearing his position, Walton reached for a grenade and called in a massive “danger close” strike, expecting it could take his entire team out.
They were “all prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.
The bomb dropped. And then he saw the image he would forever remember from that fight – Shurer’s body draped over the injured men he’d been working on through the fight.
“In that moment, the strike that we had called in on our own position detonated just above us and blocked out the sun. As the dust settled, Ron Shurer was the first thing that I saw on top of his wounded teammates, protecting them even to the end when we had all fully accepted the fact that we were going to go down fighting,” the officer said. “Ron Shurer was still thinking of others.”
The bomb blast gave the team enough cover to remove the wounded.
Shurer strung together nylon tubular webbing to form a makeshift sling to lower Behr and the others off the cliff to get them to the incoming helicopters. They would survive.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Williams, another Green Beret who served on that mission, credited Shurer’s sure-handedness with allowing the unit to survive the battle — one of the worst Green Berets have faced in recent years, he said.
“His ability to manage an unmanageable situation and remain calm, collected and cool — always was that guy, hanging out or training or whatever,” said Williams, who is still with 3rd Special Forces Group. “It really came to light during the worst possible time and that is the reason we were all able to make it away from that position alive and as a team.”
The mission might not have been a success, but Shurer managed to ensure his fellow soldiers survived.
“We’d been in engagements before, even on that deployment,” he said. “Nothing like that before. Luckily, we’re all incredibly well trained, we trusted each other, and it all just kind of worked for us that day. On our worst day.”
Shurer said Sunday that his fellow soldiers' appreciation of his actions that day means more to him than receiving the Medal of Honor.
“That means so much more,” he said. “I know these guys’ wives, their kids. Just knowing that — it’s very humbling for them to say [he saved their lives]. Luckily, it all kind of worked for me to help those guys.”
Shurer, who last year was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, hopes his award can draw some attention to the sacrifice Green Berets have made through the years and continue to make today in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and in countries across Africa.
“Hopefully, [it will] remind the American public about all the servicemembers we still have out there, still doing the missions today, just quietly going about their jobs, you know, not asking for recognition,” he said. “Whatever little voice I get, I hope to just be able to direct attention that way.”