'To come face to face with the guy who just shot you ... it's unreal'

Six months into his tour in Afghanistan, Sgt. Timothy Gilboe, a former Army combat engineer who had asked to retrain as an infantryman so he could get nearer to the action, had still come no closer to the enemy than firing on Taliban a half-mile away.

That changed on April 28, 2011, the day he earned a Silver Star by attacking and defeating an armed insurgent barehanded after a point-blank rifle shot to the belly. At a minimum, his actions saved his assistant machine gunner and himself. They may have prevented a cadre of Taliban fighters from regrouping and taking out his squad.

“To come face to face with the guy who just shot you, to put your hands on him while he’s still alive and actually touch him while he’s trying to kill you — it’s unreal,” Gilboe said.

The lasting legacy for him has not been a triumphant sense of combat glory, but an aching loss. In the seconds before his moment of truth, a buddy with whom he’d grown close over the months in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Matthew Hermanson, was fatally wounded.

“I’d give everything, my medal, my worldly possessions, to have him here today,” Gilboe told his fellow soldiers at his medal ceremony in December at Fort Polk, La., home of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.

But Gilboe was fortunate to be alive to receive his medal.

“In that second, I made the decision I would charge him. I was thinking, ‘Now you’ve got me a little pissed.’ ”
- Sgt. Timothy Gilboe

His unit, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry, had been assigned to choke off weapons smuggling in the Jaghatu district of Wardak province. His platoon was stationed on a slope above a hostile village.

“It was a bad place,” said Andrew Corean, who was assigned to the unit as an Air Force joint terminal attack controller. “Anytime we went there we could expect opposition.”

From the hillside, the unit fired at a mortar team it spotted in the streets below, and from a distance, Gilboe thought he saw dead or injured insurgents lying in the street.

Sent to conduct a battle damage assessment, he and other squad members crept through a wadi and behind a building. What he saw when he looked out, however, wasn’t what he expected.

“I swung around the little building expecting to find two dead guys, but it was just their motorcycle,” he said.

Snipers radioed down they had seen the men duck into nearby buildings, and the squad moved into the village.

Hermanson, the squad leader, led the way.

“I remember him looking back at me, and knew he was going to say we’ll position on that big rock,” Gilboe said, referring to a stone outcropping in the village.

“The second our eyes met, the two insurgents dumped a ton of rounds through the doorway on full auto,” he said.

It could just as well have been him in front, Gilboe said, but Hermanson felt it was his responsibility to lead his soldiers into danger, and thus took the brunt of the first volley.

“They hit him in the leg and he went down,” he said. “I pivoted and instantly cleared the kill zone.

“I saw him struggle up, and they hit him again. I remember hearing it hit him. I saw on his face he was hit bad. He went down on his face.”

The platoon leader, a lieutenant, ran to Hermanson and immediately went down with a gunshot wound to his leg.

Gilboe turned his attention to the problem closest at hand: His assistant machine gunner’s pack loaded with rounds had been hit with a tracer bullet and set on fire.

Gilboe dropped his M240, breaking the links of the ammunition belt in the process, and scrambled to get the pack off Pfc. Scott Anderson.

“At that point I saw those rounds cooking off as the biggest threat,” he said.

As they extinguished the flames, Gilboe glanced at Anderson’s face.

“He froze and his eyes got huge,” said Gilboe, who whirled and saw two gun-toting insurgents sprinting at them from the front of the building.

“In that second, I made the decision I would charge him,” Gilboe said. “I was thinking, ‘Now you’ve got me a little pissed.’ ”

Gilboe’s gun was out of action, but the lead insurgent’s Kalashnikov was not. As they barreled into each other, Gilboe grabbed the barrel and the insurgent squeezed off a round, which hit near the bottom of Gilboe’s bulletproof chest plate. The shot knocked the wind out of him and sprayed his legs with small shrapnel, but the plate did its job.

Stunned but enraged, the muscular sergeant wrestled the insurgent to the ground and tried to shoot him with the Kalashnikov.

“I was like, ‘OK, you’re going to eat your own gun,’ ” he said.

The rifle, however, failed to fire.

Corean meanwhile had shot the second insurgent several times as he charged Gilboe, but was pinned down by insurgents still in the building and unable to help with the first.

“I got on top of the guy and held him down,” Gilboe said. “I’m like ‘Anderson, shoot him!’ ”

The assistant machine gunner finished the fighter off. One of the bullets fragmented in the man’s body, causing a piece of copper casing to tear into Gilboe’s finger, where it would remain for months.

“For a second, I thought Anderson had shot me instead of him,” Gilboe said, chuckling.

Corean lobbed a grenade into the building at the remaining fighters, and the stunned Gilboe went to attend to Hermanson, who while fatally injured had been making radio calls to alert troops in the area about the battle.

“The very first thing he asked when we rolled him over was if everyone else was OK,” Gilboe said. “I said yes, and I assured him we got those guys who shot him.”

Medevac arrived swiftly, Gilboe said, and the two friends were transported in separate helicopters.

“When we got to the hospital at FOB Shank [in Logar province] I thought we were in the golden hour, and I was sure I was about to see Matt alive,” he said.

But his buddy had slipped away during the flight.

“I got to carry his casket onto the plane and see him off,” Gilboe said. “He’s the real hero here, because he died protecting me and the whole squad.”

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2012