'We were sprinting and shooting at the same time'

When Staff Sgt. Kyle Ashton climbed through the hatch of the disabled vehicle, he had one thought: Get Johnson out.

The firefight that raged outside no longer mattered, nor did the thick black smoke that was burning his lungs as he groped through the toxic darkness, searching for the trapped driver.

A complex ambush had left the 10th Mountain Division soldiers isolated and under attack. Insurgents had targeted a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle with a sophisticated volley of recoilless rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades as the truck traveled near the end of a convoy in Kandahar province on May 27, 2011.

Under a barrage of close-range fire and cut off from the rest of their vehicles, members of the scout platoon of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, who were in the tail vehicle, watched as the MRAP came under fire, then quickly moved up to defend the vehicle and evacuate the wounded.

“If you stop and think about things too much, you hesitate. When you hesitate, people die.”
- Sgt. 1st Class Marco Herrera

“We were sprinting and shooting at the same time, all the way up to the truck,” said Ashton, the squad leader.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. We shot over a thousand rounds with our M4s.”

The doors of the MRAP were destroyed, but the four passengers, though badly wounded, were able to climb out through the gunner’s hatch. The driver, Pfc. Corey Johnson, was too injured pull himself from the wreckage.

“You don’t think, you just react,” said scout platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Marco Herrera.

“If you stop and think about things too much, you hesitate. When you hesitate, people die.”

As Ashton climbed on the MRAP to rescue Johnson, Herrera and Sgt. Joshua Self treated the wounded.

Spc. Clement Brodeur, Spc. Jonatan Fernandez, Spc. Anton Nemyshkin and Pfc. Aaron Guidry continued to fire on the insurgents, who were now attacking from multiple directions.

When Ashton slid in through the hatch, he could hear Johnson gasping for air, but he couldn’t see him. As he moved toward the driver’s seat, he could make out Johnson’s silhouette, but couldn’t discern the severity of his wounds. Ashton tried to reassure him as he checked the doors.

The driver’s side was shredded. No chance there. He turned to the passenger door. It was mangled, but he saw a ray of light beaming through a crack where it should open.

Propping his back against the center radio mount, he used one leg to release the door handle while using the other to push the door.

“As soon as I got it open a little bit, I put my feet a little lower, then I just leg-pressed it as hard as I could,” Ashton said.

It opened enough for him to get his head out and call for help. Air filled his lungs and he realized he hadn’t been breathing. Brodeur and Fernandez helped Ashton pull Johnson through the small opening.

Herrera, Self and Guidry had loaded the wounded on the Scout vehicle and were parked nearby, waiting to evacuate them to nearby Strong Point Diwar. When Johnson was loaded, they tore away.

Ashton collected his M4 and rejoined the firefight.

For their actions, Herrera and Ashton were awarded Bronze Stars with “V.” Self, Brodeur, Fernandez and Guidry were awarded Army Commendation Medals with “V.”

“The only reason those guys are alive is because of Sergeant Herrera and his guys,” said Capt. Kevin O’Donaghue, executive officer of the battalion’s Company C, who was in one of the lead vehicles in the convoy. “They showed extraordinary courage.”

Like many soldiers who receive medals, the scouts are reticent to speak about what happened, especially to people who weren’t there. They don’t think they did anything special.

“There’s a person in there that needs so much help,” said Ashton about Johnson, who died later from his wounds. “I couldn’t even imagine someone being too afraid to not help somebody in that situation. It’s just something I had to do.

“There are certain things that people are meant to do. The way I went in my life brought me here. I was meant to see these types of things. ... To smell them, to hear them, to feel them. It’s the guy that gave his life for his country that’s the real hero.”

But as leaders, he and Herrera couldn’t be more proud of their men.

“It’s was just a horrible situation, and the way these guys carried themselves was amazing,” Ashton said. “I’ve been a leader for a while, I’ve been in some heavy stuff, but I’ve never seen anybody act like that.”


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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2012