In the midst of winter, fighting in Afghanistan’s Zabul province had settled into a chilly lull.
Sgt. Stephen Stoops, 24, more than halfway through his first deployment, hadn’t seen much action, even in the more active summer months. A roadside bomb that didn’t blow properly and a handful of poorly aimed mortars and machine-gun bursts made up his entire combat experience outside the wire.
On Jan. 8, 2012, the enemy was inside the gate.
With a bit of downtime, his platoon put down their weapons, put on their workout clothes and threw together a game of football on Forward Operating Base Eagle, an Afghan base adjacent to the Americans’ FOB Apache.
They had played for 45 minutes when an Afghan soldier in full combat gear “came out from behind the bleachers and just started shooting at us,” Stoops said.
At first, Stoops thought the Afghan was just throwing firecrackers, “just messing around. Because that’s exactly what it sounded like.”
When another soldier realized what was happening and yelled for the unarmed men to run, Stoops, like most of his comrades, started to bolt for cover.
“Then I heard Bolan screaming,” Stoops, of Port Orchard, Wash., said.
He turned to find Pfc. John Bolan and Pfc. Dustin Napier down on the field, an oval inside a track like the ones at any American high school.
“I watched the guy walk over to them and shoot them while they were laying on the ground,” Stoops said. “And I started screaming, ‘They’re going to kill them!’ ”
For a split second he wondered why nobody else was stopping to help the injured men.
“And then [the Afghan] started shooting at me.”
Stoops sprinted 150 yards across the open field to the base’s gate as rounds snapped by his head and ricocheted off the ground near his feet, throwing up small clouds of dust.
“I don’t know how I didn’t get shot,” he said.
By the time Stoops got to the gate, Sgt. Jacob Lewis was heading back to the field with an M4 carbine he’d taken from one of the National Guardsmen manning the post.
Stoops, a married father of a young son, recalled thinking, “I can’t let [him] go back out there by himself.”
Stoops saw another guardsman with an M249 machine gun, but the weapon wasn’t loaded with its usual drum of linked ammo.
“So I took a magazine off one of their chests and I ripped the weapon out of their hand and started pushing out with Sgt. Lewis.”
The two sergeants linked up, hatched a quick plan and moved on their assailant.
Stoops doesn’t know if the Afghan even saw them coming; he was still walking over the downed soldiers, his M16 rifle on his hip, shooting wildly in three-round bursts.
Stoops and Lewis emptied their magazines on the assailant.
“He went down,” Stoops said, but kept trying to get back up. Stoops changed magazines and ripped through another 30 rounds as he and Lewis advanced.
Fighting to get back up, the Afghan was still a threat.
Out of ammo, Stoops ran over and hit the rogue soldier in the face with the machine gun’s butt stock until he stopped moving.
Lewis tended to Bolan while Stoops assessed Napier’s wounds — gunshots to the leg, neck and chin.
“I couldn’t feel a pulse or anything like that so I kind of just held pressure on his wounds,” Stoops said.
Time seemed to stand still as he yelled and waited for a medic.
“Your adrenaline’s pumping,” he said. “Everything’s in like slow-motion. It just seems like everything takes forever.”
It seemed that 30 minutes had passed by the time the medics arrived, Stoops said, but it was probably a small fraction of that.
Even so, Napier was already dead.
“There was nothing I could really do,” Stoops said.
Bolan, shot twice in the back and once in the arm, was evacuated and survived.
Lewis was nominated for the Silver Star for his actions that day. The nomination was awaiting approval at the time of publication. Stoops was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor.
Stoops’ citation reads in part, “His heroic actions and complete disregard for his own safety during an enemy attack on Forward Operating base Apache in Afghanistan saved the lives of his fellow Soldiers.”
“And I’d do it again,” he said.