Pech Valley, Afghanistan — Aug. 4, 2011
At first, then-Pfc. Sean T. Ambriz didn’t want it. He couldn’t wrap his head around why he’d gotten the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for what he did in Afghanistan’s Saw Valley.
“Every time someone asked me about it or I thought about it or I had to put my [Army Combat Uniform] on or I had to look at that award, all I thought about is that day and everything that had happened,” Ambriz said. “So at first it was a burden I had to carry.”
Now a staff sergeant with two Bronze Stars with “V,” he’s a bit older and wiser. He’s given up trying to understand why he got the awards when others didn’t, and instead he said he tries to live up to what they represent.
“I don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, wow, you have two bronze stars, and that is what made your career,’ ” he said. “I want people to look at other things that I do and go, ‘OK, now I understand why he earned those.’ ”
The stories behind those two awards are harrowing.
On Sept. 10, 2009, Ambriz was standing on the west bank of the Kunar River. The top enlisted man on the scene, a first sergeant, asked for volunteers to help extract casualties from the Saw Valley.
Ambriz started to run back to his truck to grab water and his medical bag. The first sergeant told him not to bother.
“We aren’t going to be up there that long,” Ambriz remembered being told.
Ambriz was a military policeman, but his medical training before deploying to Afghanistan’s Kunar province put him in the role of a medic. His MP platoon was attached to the 4th Infantry Division’s 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment.
Eight members of the 3-61 would die in battle nearby at Combat Outpost Keating two weeks later in one of the most costly engagements of the war. What Ambriz was about to face was a prelude.
Somewhere up in the Saw, 1st Lt. Tyler E. Parten was dead. Others in Parten’s element, which included Afghan and Latvian soldiers, were wounded.
Ambriz didn’t have a radio, but he caught broken bits of garbled chatter around him. From what he gathered, the men were maybe 200 yards up in the Hindu Kush.
With seven other soldiers — including four noncommissioned officers from his unit, the 884th MP Company — he started up the mountain.
What he didn’t know then was that Parten’s element was far deeper in the Saw and pinned down by snipers hidden in the rocky slopes.
“We got maybe 50 meters off the road onto the mountain when we took our first pop shots,” Ambriz said.
There was almost no cover. The men scattered, taking sniper fire as they trudged deeper into the deadly Saw.
About a mile later, they ran into a series of terraced cornfields.
At the fifth or sixth terrace, “I remember Cpl. [Brandon] Systo helping me up,” Ambriz said. He threw his weapon up onto the terrace ledge, “and then I remember pulling myself up, looking at his face, and he was telling me to be quiet. Then a round came over the corn stalks and almost hit him in the head.”
The men dashed for a trail nearly a football field away. A small rock wall there gave limited cover.
Parten’s element was just a little farther up the valley, but the ground between them was wide open. The first sergeant called for mortars to lay a blanket of smoke over the gap and shield their movement.
The mortars slammed into the mountain, and Ambriz and the rescuers sprinted through the fog.
“There was no real formation. The mountainous terrain was just horrible,” he said.
The rescuers searched for Parten’s scattered element and located the downed lieutenant. Ambriz threw a tourniquet on an Afghan soldier who’d taken a bullet through the calf, then turned to help an American shot in the knee limp out of the kill zone.
As the smoke dispersed, the wounded and rescuers scrambled down the slope. Sniper rounds cracked as night fell.
The able took on the gear of the wounded, spreading out the load. Some donned additional body armor. Ambriz slung a half-dozen weapons over his shoulders and struck out with others to scout a route down the mountain.
“Everyone was embracing the suck,” Ambriz said.
Just getting this far had taken hours. Nearly everyone was out of water. The other soldiers all outranked Ambriz. The older troops checked on him as they descended, giving him water from their own nearly spent supplies.
Flashlights would give them away. The American scouts picked their way down slowly in the blackness, testing the drops.
“We couldn’t tell if it was, like, three feet or 30 feet, and I remember we were, like, kicking rocks off the edge,” he said.
They were making decent progress. Then at least one of the Afghan soldiers turned on a flashlight to see in the dark.
“We started taking fire from across the river from the Saw Village and from the mountains adjacent to the village behind it,” Ambriz said. “They were shooting rockets, they were shooting everything at us.”
Kiowas and Apache gunships hovered overhead, drawing fire away from the men below.
Exhausted and out of water, Ambriz said he temporarily blacked out and woke to see an AC-130 Spectre gunship raining rounds on the opposite slope.
He took cover behind a rock wall with the first sergeant and others and bandaged an interpreter who’d been shot. He looked up the slope to see an Afghan soldier down.
Ambriz started to move out to grab the injured man, “but I couldn’t get to him,” he said. “There was just no room, no cover, no concealment. The fire was too effective. I remember looking up and seeing rockets come in.”
One slammed into the ground nearby, and the wall that was his cover crashed down, injuring Ambriz’s shoulder.
The first sergeant headed back up the mountain to bring in the medical evacuation helicopter and ordered Ambriz and the others to continue back to their trucks.
“We were taking fire the whole way down,” Ambriz said.
Two years later, Ambriz was in the neighborhood again, this time in the Pech Valley, a tributary of the Kunar that runs roughly parallel to the Saw.
Ambriz was a sergeant this time, a newly promoted team leader.
On Aug. 4, 2011, his military police squad was parked on a road supporting a clearing operation when a call came over the radio for them to assist an Afghan humanitarian aid convoy under attack.
They came around a bend and found a fuel truck sitting in the middle of the road. On the left, cornfields stretched for hundreds of meters. A village at the foot of a mountain went up to the right.
Some Afghan police were using the fuel truck as cover while engaging insurgents in the village. Another policeman was down in a ditch with a bullet wound in his leg.
Ambriz asked another soldier to lay down smoke grenades to cover his movement and got ready to run to the injured Afghan’s aid. He thought he got the signal to go. Ambriz jumped out of the back of his armored truck and started to run. “I just saw nothing but cornfields and no smoke,” Ambriz said.
Two other NCOs got out of their trucks and laid down suppressive fire so Ambriz could reach the injured man.
Crouched in the ditch, Ambriz patched up the Afghan as the firefight raged around them. The firefight was too intense to dash back to safety. Ambriz laid down next to the Afghan and tried to shield the injured man with his body.
“And then I started feeling something on the back of my neck,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Insurgents were swarming from every direction. In a panic, the Afghan policeman pointed at the small brick wall that was shielding him and Ambriz from gunfire coming from one side of the road. Rounds were smacking into the wall just inches above his head.
“What I was feeling on my neck was the brick crumbling down on top of us,” Ambriz said.
A volley of grenades and a wall of lead from the crew-served weapons on the MPs’ trucks suppressed the insurgents long enough for Ambriz to bolt from the ditch with his patient.
After securing the injured Afghan in the back of an armored truck, Ambriz joined two of his other NCOs on the ground to fight off the militants.
Under fire, Sgt. Jim Lane moved the fuel truck off the road, then jumped on top of an MP armored truck to try to fix its malfunctioning remote-controlled gun.
“Why this dude never got an award I don’t know, but I’ll never forget,” Ambriz said.
Unable to fix the trigger, Lane yelled out coordinates to the gunner inside the truck and activated the trigger by hand, fully exposed on the top of the truck.
Ambriz climbed up to cover him, then moved on to take on other targets. He emptied his entire load of 210 rounds at the attackers, grabbed another soldier’s load, then another’s.
A warning system that alerted the soldiers to the direction and distance of enemy fire indicated the insurgents were closing in from every direction, Ambriz said.
Three fighters rushed out of the corn stalks as Ambriz rounded the back of one of the trucks and nearly ran into him.
“I just sprayed, and then I don’t even remember what happened next,” Ambriz said.
More insurgents kept coming. The MPs had gone through all of their grenades and thousands of rounds before an F-16 streaked in, dropping a 500-pound bomb and strafing the insurgents with its cannon. The air cover gave the MPs time to escape the kill zone.
Ambriz doesn’t know how none of his fellow MPs was seriously injured in the battle. He and Lane suffered minor wounds.
“It was like a (expletive) movie,” Ambriz said. “It was insane.”