ORGUN-E, Afghanistan — It wasn’t the first firefight for soldiers from the Headquarters and Headquarters Company. And it wasn’t the last.
But an ambush on the mountainous route between Zerok and Orgun-E that lasted a little less than half an hour on Aug. 27, 2007, still stands out. Pfc. Thomas Wilson died in the fight — one of only two members of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment killed by direct fire during the unit’s current deployment to Afghanistan.
"That was an ugly day," said 1st Sgt. Mason Bryant. "It started out OK, but ended like (expletive)."
Spc. Dillon Bergstad earned one of the military’s highest honors — the Silver Star — for his actions that day. Bryant and a handful of others earned various citations for their valor.
It started when a convoy of eight Humvees headed down the windy dirt track from Zerok to help support another convoy hunting for roadside bombs. Half of them stopped along the way for the soldiers to dismount and walk along the ridgeline. The other four continued a bit further.
"We stopped in a kill zone," Bryant said. The vehicle he, Wilson and three others were riding in was the first to be hit.
All four top gunners — including Wilson and Bergstad — started to return fire.
Bergstad, a 23-year-old from North Bend, Ore., had been in three ambushes prior to that day — all on his first and only combat deployment.
"Usually, they just fired a few RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and ran away," he said. "Not a whole lot was going through my mind. It was basically: ‘I have to lay down fire, because this is for real and these guys aren’t joking around.’ "
He ducked back down inside the vehicle when RPGs exploded around his turret. He came back in a second time after a feeling of being punched in the arm. But he said he didn’t really feel any pain, so he climbed up again and resumed firing. After the battle was over, Bryant inspected all his soldiers and found a bullet had entered through the top of Bergstad’s right arm and only a small bit of skin kept it from going all the way through.
Staff Sgt. Timothy Hamilton was wounded when an armor-piercing bullet went through the roof of the Humvee — and his Kevlar helmet — and grazed his neck. Wilson was killed by a freak round that went between the protective glass around the turret and the base of the Humvee. He was leaning over to pick up more ammunition and was shot in the head.
Pfc. Jurgen Rogers, who had been helping him reload, then took over his gun and continued firing.
All four Humvees were in motion, trying to keep their gunners from becoming easy targets.
"It probably was quite a sight if you would have been able to see it from up above," Bergstad said. "They were all maneuvering around and somehow they avoided hitting each other."
Sgt. Dustin Fodo was driving the vehicle Bergstad was in while Capt. John Gibson and Staff Sgt. Caleb Branch tried working the radios. He said he and Bergstad were in constant communication.
"It was not the politest conversation in the world," Fodo said. "There was a lot of screaming and cursing."
Fodo maneuvered the Humvee so that the front part of the vehicle was between most of the oncoming fire and the soldiers inside. "It saved our lives," he said. "We caught two RPGs in the engine."
Bergstad said the firing never let up. "They didn’t even seem to have to stop to reload," he said.
"I was sitting with three guys who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan and they said that was some of the most intense fire they had seen," Branch said.
Bryant said the fight essentially came to an end with the help of mortar support from Zerok and the arrival of the platoon that had dismounted earlier.
Two of the four Humvees had to be towed away. Dozens of rounds and 10 RPGs had taken their toll. Wilson and Bergstad were medically evacuated by helicopter. And the rest of the soldiers made their way back to Zerok while U.S. aircraft pounded the ridgelines.
By the numbersA look at some of the key figures from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment’s 13 months in Afghanistan.
Number of artillery or mortar rounds fired since tour beganin May 2007
Number of times soldiers from the unit were fired upon by insurgents
U.S. soldiers killed during the tour
Number of U.S. soldiersseriously wounded
Number of months the battalion has spent in Afghanistan in the past 3½ years
Amount in dollars of potential projects the unit identified to address area’s water-related woes