Isolated on a small roof of an enemy compound, Sgt. Michael Ross felt the bullets ping near his feet and snap inches by his head. The insurgents had the high ground, and he had no cover.
It was just him and a critically wounded Ranger, exposed and alone for five minutes.
In eastern Afghanistan on April 13, 2012, Ross, with the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, moved without hesitation to protect his fallen comrade from cascades of automatic fire “at dire risk to his own life” and “with only his direct fires as their defense,” according to the citation from the Silver Star he earned that night.
Ross, a sniper team leader, and Sgt. Tanner Higgins had moved ahead of the Ranger platoon in a mission at a tiered rural compound, first scaling a wall, then making a steep, 12-foot climb up a ladder to the first roof. Ross was behind Higgins as he crested the next roof.
“I heard a shot, and I saw Sgt. Higgins fall off the ladder,” Ross said. “Are you hit? Are you good?” Ross recalled asking at the time.
Higgins said he thought he had been shot in the back, so “now I assume we’re taking contact from behind,” Ross said. “As I turn, I noticed multiple positions started moving, and we start taking pretty good fire.”
Ross could see the men and the muzzle flashes from inside the other buildings along the courtyard, from behind them and from above.
“They pretty much had us pinned,” he said.
With Higgins on his back and barely conscious, Ross ditched his heavier sniper rifle in favor of Higgins’ assault rifle and started engaging the enemy. The shooter on the roof began firing at the rest of the platoon below, pinning them down and cutting off Ross and Higgins from backup.
The roof, about the size of a large conference table, had almost no cover, so Ross protected the injured Ranger with his own body.
“I did all but sit on him,” Ross said. “I just wanted to get him covered.”
On the roof right above them, Ross could see an insurgent who had the freedom of movement that a superior fire position provides.
“He was staying far enough back to where I couldn’t hit him,” Ross said.
It became a slug fest between him and Ross.
As Higgins grew quiet, Ross told him: “Hey, I’m going to get you out of here as soon as I can. But we got to take care of these guys first.”
They desperately needed cover.
“All we had was a little chimney,” and it was in the center of the roof, much closer to the enemy than Ross would have liked, but he dragged Higgins by the body armor to get behind the tiny structure.
“It couldn’t have been more than 2 feet tall, maybe,” Ross said. “But that was it. Until someone else was able to get up there, I had to put Sgt. Higgins behind that, and then once again get myself in as much of the line of fire to make sure he wasn’t hit again.”
Completely exposed, Ross put Higgins’ head and chest behind the chimney and then took a knee over the rest of him while he tried to take out the insurgents around them.
The enemy rained down overwhelming fire, but Ross knew it was a gunfight he had to win or neither of them was going to make it.
“If we both go down, we’re in bad shape because then nobody is going to be able to get up here,” Ross remembered thinking.
According to Ross’ Silver Star citation, “he began to direct the assault force to enemy positions within the compound and his own location” while continuing “to suppress barricaded enemy fighters in vastly superior positions to his own for five minutes while the assault force attempted to conduct a rooftop extraction.”
Another Ranger was able to get to the roof, and he and Ross got Higgins to the others waiting on the ladder and then to a medevac. Higgins later died.
Later in the mission — down from the roof and after air support had taken out some of the compound — Ross set up his rifle behind a 4-foot wall of rubble. As Afghan soldiers began to clear the buildings, Ross noticed that one lone enemy fighter, hidden from their view, was waiting to attack as they came into the room. Through a small hole in the wall, Ross took the fighter out, averting any Afghan casualties.