ARLINGTON, Va. — It took the Army 2½ years to call Joey Banegas a hero for saving the life of his lieutenant in Afghanistan on Oct. 10, 2004.
By that time Banegas, now a medically retired sergeant, was accustomed to his new prosthesis.
The Las Cruces, N.M., soldier was able to walk to the podium at Fort Bliss, Texas, on Jan. 4, 2007, and stand at attention as Maj. Gen. Robert Lennox, commander of U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Center presented him with a Bronze Star with "V" device and an Army Commendation with "V."
Banegas was a specialist and a 50-caliber anti-tank gunner assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division when he was one of about 100 soldiers detailed to support a Special Forces unit assigned to a remote area of southeastern Afghanistan.
"Ninety-five percent of the population was [sympathetic with the] Taliban," he said. "It was rough, knowing that. The people didn’t want us there. They’d give us dirty looks."
Banegas had been in Afghanistan for six months when the 2004 presidential elections were held.
Afghans had risked their lives to come out to vote that morning, and Banegas’ convoy had the critical task of carrying the ballot boxes back to their camp, where a helicopter would take them to Khandahar for tabulation.
They had to be low-key, Banegas said, hiding the fact that they were carrying the precious ballots, "so there were just 10 of us in two Humvees. We didn’t want it to look like there was anything important going on" by having a larger convoy.
Banegas was up on the gun in the lead Humvee, manning an MK-19 as the mini-convoy moved through the streets near Pir Jawad.
"Everyone was tense and quiet and focused on what we had to do," he said.
Something went wrong.
"Someone informed on us — maybe it was an interpreter," Banegas said.
From a cornfield, Taliban fighters leapt up, and unleashed a ferocious ambush.
As Banegas swung his gun to fire on the attackers, his Humvee was hit head-on by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The vehicle slid to a stop and burst into flames.
"I was screaming ‘Go go go!’ to the driver, and he was yelling back ‘I can’t, it’s dead!’
"We coasted to a stop right in the middle of the kill zone," Banegas said.
As the enemy kept firing, Banegas ducked down into the vehicle, which was filling with smoke.
He could hear bullets smashing into the thick, blast-resistant glass. "Ping, ping, ping!"
Banegas didn’t want to stand back up in the turret, but he had no choice.
"In training, they always tell you, ‘Your truck is your castle, and you protect your castle to the end,’ " he said.
"You don’t want to leave the enemy that weapon, especially if it’s fully functioning. And I’m the gunner. I gotta do this."
Banegas ran through the belt and was reloading when he heard a moan from inside.
Through the smoke, he said, "I looked down, ducked down in the turret, and saw Lt. Drew Sloan in the back seat. The young officer was ramming his shoulder weakly against the combat-locked door, trying to get out.
"The sight of him was overwhelming," Banegas said. "He took a piece of shrapnel that tore his cheek off, his whole face was bloody."
Banegas yelled, "The lieutenant’s hit, he needs help, someone get the first aid kit," but no one could hear him.
"I thought, ‘Aw, screw it.’ "
Banegas, who stands 5-feet-7 and weighed about 175 pounds at the time, opened one of the vehicle doors a crack and dropped.
He low-crawled to the other side of the vehicle, opened the opposite door and managed to get the "taller but skinnier" Sloan over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
"I started running to the next position, with bullets zinging by," Banegas said.
Jouncing along on his back, blood dripping into the dust, Sloan could manage only one sentence, Banegas recalled.
"He said, ‘Don’t drop me, Banegas.’ "
"I said, ‘That’s OK, sir, I’m not going to drop you.’ "
Banegas rescued his officer, then went back and got the gun, too.
The entire crew of 10 soldiers made it out of the village without fatalities, jammed into and on top of the single operating Humvee. They even got the ballots out with them.
Four days later, Banegas was tasked with a resupply mission.
This time, a bomb went off under his Humvee, and he lost his leg.
Push Banegas, and he will admit it took courage to do what he did the first time around, although he mostly credits training and "reacting."
Courage, he said, was going back out there.
Name: Spc. Joey Banegas
Unit: 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division
Medals: Bronze Star with "V" device and an Army Commendation with "V"
Earned: Oct. 10, 2004, in southeastern Afghanistan
See more of Stripes' "Heroes" stories here.