Fort Carson soldiers honored for actions after Taliban gunman opened fire on top US, Afghan officials
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 2, 2019
WASHINGTON — When a Taliban-trained gunman who had infiltrated the Afghan security forces opened fire during a meeting of top U.S. and Afghan security forces in Kandahar in the fall, six 4th Infantry Division soldiers sprang into action — killing the shooter and providing medical care.
For their actions during the surprise insider attack Oct. 18 that killed two senior Kandahar provincial leaders and injured an American general, the soldiers received combat and valor awards last month in a ceremony at Fort Carson, Colo., according to the Army.
"These soldiers, acting as guardian angels, remained standing and returned fire to eliminate the threat," said Army Col. Dave Zinn, who led the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division through a nine-month tour last year in southern Afghanistan. "They secured the chaotic scene and rendered medical aid to the wounded, organized the evacuation of senior U.S. and Afghan officials, called in a medevac helicopter, and prepared their convoy for movement out of the city."
For their roles in the incident, Spcs. Jacob S. Shontz and Joseph Smith were awarded the Army Commendation Medal with combat “V” device for valor during a ceremony June 11. First Lt. Cooper L. Lemons, Sgt. 1st Class John Ballenger, Staff Sgt. Timme L. Jones, and Spc. Benaiah O. Wiedenhoft were awarded the Army Commendation Medal with combat “C” device in the same ceremony.
The “V” device is awarded for specific "heroic actions" conducted during combat, according to the Army, while the newer “C” device indicates the medal was awarded for distinguished service under combat conditions.
Smith, a medic, said he and other soldiers in his company were conducting security operations from a tower near the Kandahar governor’s palace that day as U.S. Army Gen. Scot Miller, the top commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley met with officials that included Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq, the province’s intelligence chief, Abdul Momim, and its governor, Zalmai Wessa.
“All of a sudden, I heard a shot pop and all we could see were people trying to take cover,” Smith recalled in an Army statement.
He ran forward as shooting continued, intent on providing aid to anyone injured, and eventually treating Afghans and Americans.
"Instincts kind of just took over; it felt surreal,” the medic said in the statement. "I took a deep breath and started treating and prioritizing those around me."
Because of his and the other soldiers’ actions that day, casualties were evacuated quickly to a NATO-run medical facility, according to the Army.
Raziq, a powerful but controversial figure in Afghanistan, was killed in the incident, as was Momim. Wessa and Smiley were injured by gunfire but survived, officials said.
The shooter, who had trained with the Taliban in Pakistan before joining Raziq’s team under an alias as a bodyguard, was killed. The Taliban claimed he had targeted Raziq and Miller, who escaped the ambush unharmed.
The insider attack was one in a series of tragic events during the unit’s deployment. Two soldiers from 2nd IBCT, 4th Infantry Division were killed during the tour.
Cpl. Joseph Maciel was killed in a separate insider attack on July 7, 2018, and Spc. James A. Slape died Oct. 4 in a roadside bomb attack.
Zinn told reporters at the Pentagon in January that his soldiers, who were assigned to a mission to train and advise Afghan forces, found themselves occasionally engaging enemy forces.
He estimated about 400 soldiers in his brigade were awarded either the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Action Badge, decorations issued to soldiers who perform appropriately while under enemy fire.
From left: Spc. Jacob S. Shontz, Spc. Joseph Smith, 1st Lt. Cooper L. Lemons, Sgt. 1st Class John Ballenger, Staff Sgt. Timme L. Jones, and Spc. Benaiah O. Wiedenhoft, all with 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, receive awards in front of their peers and leaders June 11, 2019, during a ceremony at Fort Carson.
NEYSA CANFIELD/U.S. ARMY