(U.S. Army)

From his right side or the front, Staff Sgt. Matthew Ritenour looks unscathed.

But if you stand on his left you can see scar tissue around the hole where the bullet entered his skull and two larger scars, in the shape of a cross, where the surgeon opened up his head to remove bullet and bone fragments.

"I’ve got a way to go but my rehab is going good," said the young soldier, who has had physical, speech, occupational and psychological therapy.

Now he’s planning to rejoin his unit, Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, although his injury means he can’t go back to his old job.

The 32-year-old Chicago native was shot in the head during an attack on Forward Operating Base Baylough in southern Afghanistan’s mountainous Dey Chopan district on Sept. 4.

The wound left him partially paralyzed, but according to soldiers who fought alongside him that day, he continued to lead his men by manning a radio and directing fire for more than an hour. He has received the Silver Star for his deeds.

When the attack came, Ritenour was in charge of soldiers manning the "rock guard" — a pile of massive boulders, some as large as houses, overlooking a series of ridgelines, orchards and farmhouses and a small stream to the north and west of Baylough.

Pfc. Jason Byrd, 23, of Greensburg, Pa., a medic, recalled running toward the rock guard to get into a defensive position as insurgents pounded the base with rockets, mortars and heavy machine gun fire. Soldiers had to run down a staircase made of old ammunition containers that was a magnet for enemy fire, he said.

Two soldiers were shot in the wrist by a burst of enemy fire. Then Ritenour, who was checking on his soldiers, ran up the stairs and was struck by a round that penetrated his Kevlar helmet.

Byrd and another soldier dragged the NCO to cover and started treating the wound, which was bleeding heavily.

"There was a trench going across the back of his skull … you could see shards of skull. … It was pretty deep … but I stopped the bleeding with a dressing," he said.

As Ritenour lay on the ground in shock, other soldiers became confused and communication began to break down. Then they heard that a friendly observation post overlooking the forward operating base was in enemy hands, Byrd said.

"I gave Ritenour the radio and said, ‘Your soldiers need you.’ He just snapped to it even though he was half-paralyzed and couldn’t move. He had me hold the map in front of his face and started calling for fire from the mortars and calling out to the guys to see if they were OK. He was running the position like he was supposed to, even though he couldn’t get up and move around," he said.

Ritenour refused to be evacuated by medevac helicopter to an aid station and continued to lead the defense of the rock guard for more than an hour, until airstrikes hit the insurgents, Byrd said.

Sgt. 1st Class Russell Johnson, 32, of Cumberland, Va., said the attack on the rock guard was probably an attempt to breach the wire there and use the rocks as cover to attack the rest of the FOB.

"But our men traded machine-gun fire with the enemy so they could get into their positions and fight," he said.

It was 45 minutes before jets arrived to drop 500-pound bombs on enemy positions 500 meters from the rock guard. But some enemy fighters were as close as 75 meters and more were taking cover in a creek bed.

"Once the helicopters got there — Dutch Apaches — they were able to get closer to the FOB with rockets and 30 mm cannons. They cleared the enemy out of the creek. And that pretty much ended the battle on the north side," he said.

On the other side of the FOB, the Taliban overran an Afghan National Police observation post at the top of a nearby mountain with a clear view of the American positions.

The Taliban destroyed a Zeus anti-aircraft weapon at the outpost and captured an 82 mm recoilless rifle but the Americans responded by peppering them, from more than a kilometer away, with .50-caliber sniper fire and dropping mortar rounds on the outpost, which soon caught fire. The ANP reported four Taliban bodies in the outpost when they returned.

After he was transported to the U.S., Ritenour began a long road to recovery that enabled him to return to Germany in February to greet his unit as they returned from Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Ritenour

Unit: 1st Battalion, 4th InfantryRegiment

Medal: Silver Star

Earned: Dey Chopan district, Afghanistan

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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