'They were so close that you could hear their footsteps'

Hurlburt ceremony

Air Force Combat Controller Tech Sgt. Clint Campbell and several other servicemembers are awarded combat medals in a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in January, 2012. (WKRG-TV)

The first attack struck at daybreak, igniting a seven-hour gunfight that would have been a story in itself, if it weren’t only the beginning.

The coalition troops dropped in from Chinook helicopters for a pre-dawn raid aimed at disrupting Taliban forces believed to be shooting at aircraft from positions along a nearby highway in western Kandahar province’s Zhari district.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Clint Campbell, a combat controller, joined about a dozen Special Forces soldiers, 70 Afghan commandos and a handful of other American military members on the mission. The details of their harrowing day were recounted by several of those involved, as well as in a medal citation provided by the 3rd Special Forces Group.

When the fight began on Aug. 4, 2010, Campbell called in multiple gun runs by A-10 Warthogs and Apache and Kiowa helicopters.

“They flew directly over the kill zone, flew about 25 meters above us, banked hard 180 degrees and slammed the bird down under immense gunfire."
- Capt. Aaron Baty

By noon, the Americans and Afghan forces had killed at least 11 enemy fighters and wounded two.

When the first wave of fighting died down, the day had just begun to heat up. The men attempted to cool off by jumping into a stream, but that provided only temporary relief as the temperature soared to 120 degrees by early afternoon.

The soldiers thought they could use the heat to their advantage and decided to move during the middle of the day, since enemy fighters tend to avoid engagements when “the heat is so bad,” said team leader Capt. Aaron Baty.

After conducting clearance operations in the town of Baluchan, the patrol moved toward Combat Outpost Howz-E-Madad, about two miles to the north.

They were low on ammunition and water.

The patrol left the village and was spaced over about 100 meters while troops walked single file along a narrow horse-and-wagon road lined by crumbling, shallow mud walls bordered by grape fields, when gunfire erupted.

An enemy fighter, dressed as a woman, had placed a PKM machine gun over the wall and sprayed rounds at the rear of the patrol.

The first batch of bullets hit Sgt. 1st Class Sean King, a Special Forces medic, an Afghan interpreter and an Afghan commando in their legs.

More enemy fighters then began “engaging us from the east, using the grape fields to move up and down,” said Sgt. 1st Class Chad Lawson, an Army Special Forces communications sergeant.

They were so close, he said, that “you could hear their footsteps, taking cover behind the wall.”

About 45 insurgents fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the Americans from three directions.

“Everybody, from the front to the rear, was under attack,” Lawson said.

While shooting back, King crawled into a shallow ditch, wrapped a tourniquet around his leg and radioed for help.

That’s when Campbell “ran 300 meters through a gauntlet of enemy fire” to get to the rear of the patrol, according to the medal citation. “As rocket-propelled grenades exploded just feet away and tracer rounds passed within inches,” Campbell fired his rifle and killed one insurgent with a hand grenade at a distance of 15 feet.

“It’s just a reaction,” Campbell said. “You know what you have to do in that situation from your training.”

Lawson, at the front of the patrol, also decided to run to the formation’s rear.

“I needed to be the conduit between the rear and Aaron so that he could effectively pass information to higher headquarters,” he said.

Lawson knew men were down, but due to “broken radio traffic,” he didn’t know that King, a friend, was among them.

After a 600-meter sprint “through a hail of RPG and machine gun fire,” which narrowly missed him on multiple occasions, Lawson reached King and the others.

“As I turned the corner, I saw it was Sean,” Lawson said. “We’ve been very close. ... That added a couple decimals of urgency of what was going on.”

Also at the patrol’s rear, Adam, a sergeant first class in Special Forces intelligence who requested only his first name be used, and another Special Forces soldier were returning fire through a break in the wall, Lawson said.

That enabled Staff Sgt. Bobby Bradford, a Special Forces medic, to attend to the wounded. Bradford hunkered down in the ditch with King.

“I don’t know how he fit himself in that small of a hole,” King said of Bradford. “He was able to treat the wound and give me an IV.”

Meanwhile, King was “watching rounds … as well as fragments of those rounds … impact the very lip of the ditch. One of those [fragments] actually hit Bobby in the face.”

As the firefight continued, Lawson helped organize a defense to the assault and set up a triage for the injured, while Campbell dialed in air support. With enemy fighters so close, Campbell marked their locations with smoke grenades, so an F-16 in the vicinity would know where to direct its strafing runs, he said.

Baty called for medical evacuation. The air support gave Campbell, Lawson and others enough time to move the injured to a nearby field for evacuation. Still, more gunfire came from enemy fighters on the western portion of the evacuation landing zone, requiring some heroics on the part of the UH-60 Black Hawk crew coming in to pick up the casualties, the Special Forces soldiers said.

“They flew directly over the kill zone, flew about 25 meters above us, banked hard 180 degrees and slammed the bird down under immense gunfire,” remaining on the ground for only about 30 seconds, enough time to load the injured, Baty said.

Lawson, Campbell and the others assisting with the evacuation linked back up with the rest of the patrol and, after taking a quick headcount, began the trek to Combat Outpost Howz-E-Madad. Their ammunition was almost gone — down to less than one magazine per person — but the team continued to slug it out with the enemy while slowly moving north.

Campbell directed 10 strikes from Kiowa gunships to further pound away at enemy fighters, and he coordinated with other aircraft to guide the patrol through the maze of Afghan huts and trails back to the outpost.

More than 26 insurgents were killed, according to information from 3rd Special Forces Group. In addition to the three medically evacuated, three others were wounded, but no one was killed.

For their efforts, Campbell and Lawson earned Silver Stars. Bradford received a Bronze Star with “V” to go along with his Purple Heart.

“You hardly hear of a whole company surviving [such an ambush],” King said.

Their success was a team effort, despite the singling out of individuals for combat awards, the servicemembers said.

“It was a full effort by every one of those guys that was out there fighting,” Campbell said. “For what was brought on, how many people attacked us, we fared well.”

Said Lawson: “It was one of the most impressive team efforts I’ve been a part of.”

And exhausting, added Adam, the intelligence sergeant: “Chad didn’t get out of bed for three days [afterward] because of dehydration. He literally ran himself to exhaustion.”

Adam said that their training helped give them the edge that day, as the soldiers ran through similar scenarios before they deployed.

“I’ve never had it that hard in my life,” he said. “That was the most intense firefight I’ve ever seen.”


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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2012