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Special Forces soldiers honored for valor in Afghanistan

Mar. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Valor Awar
The Silver Star recipients are, from left, (1st row) Sgt. 1st Class David Blish; Master Sgt. Charles Ritter; Chief Warrant 2 Jason Myers; Chief Warrant 2 Robert Hinsley; (2nd row) Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Drew; Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Brown; Staff Sgt. Robert Ashwell; and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Lavery. They received the awards Thursday at Fort Bragg, N.C.. (Sgt. Enoch Fleites / Army)
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Eight soldiers from 3rd Special Forces Group were honored March 27 with the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor, for their actions in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commander of Army Special Operations Command, presented the awards.

In addition to the Silver Stars, soldiers received 27 Bronze Star Medals with “V” device, 36 Army Commendation Medals with “V” device and 32 Purple Hearts. Most of the soldiers were honored for their actions during the group’s last two battalion rotations.

Staff Sgt. Robert Ashwell

On April 6, 2013, Ashwell, 10 other Special Forces soldiers, a forward observer, a combat controller and two interpreters were sent into the Sono Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

Their mission: extract friendly forces pinned down by more than 100 Taliban and foreign fighters who had surrounded their compound near Bar Ghunday Village in Shigal Wa Sheltan District.

The enemy fighters were within 200 meters of the perimeter, engaging the friendly forces from elevated, fortified fighting positions using small arms, machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

The Operational Detachment-Alpha, serving as a secondary quick-reaction force, was tasked with securing a casualty evacuation corridor and facilitating the extraction.

Team members quickly realized their vehicles could not operate on the Sono Valley road, so they began moving on foot for four kilometers, under heavy enemy fire, to seize a “tactically advantageous position,” according to the narrative accompanying Ashwell’s award.

When the ODA got within 400 meters of the pinned down element, it came under extremely accurate fire from the south and east. To get the team out of the open area, Ashwell, a weapons sergeant, and another member of the ODA ran to a nearby compound and kicked in a locked exterior door as bursts of machine gun fire slammed into the nearby wall.

Inside, the men established a command and control position.

With complete disregard for his own safety, Ashwell and two other members of the ODA continued east and established a critical overwatch position to begin extracting the pinned down element.

During the extraction, Ashwell saw two friendly casualties approaching an open dry river bed, which was under heavy machine gun fire. Ashwell and another member of the ODA moved forward to help them. Ashwell charged through a hail of enemy fire to recover the now fallen casualty. Then Ashwell and his teammate carried the casualty back through the fire and into a nearby vehicle.

Ashwell’s bravery and calm demeanor under heavy fire is credited with saving countless American and Afghan lives.

Sgt. 1st Class David Blish

Blish was a senior communications sergeant in charge of all radio traffic and procedures during a combat operation Oct. 24, 2012, in Afghanistan’s Wardak province.

While under heavy enemy fire, Blish established satellite communications that enabled the team on the ground to get permission from their higher headquarters to commence air-to-ground engagements and effectively engage the enemy.

After the air-to-ground attacks, Blish volunteered to move into a known enemy safe haven in the highly vegetated low ground and assess battle damage.

Once on site, Blish’s fellow soldiers came under fire from eight enemy dismounts inside the thick green zone. Despite the threat to his life, Blish assaulted toward the enemy, killing three enemy fighters who were 5 to 20 meters away.

Blish continued his battle damage assessment, though he had no effective cover or concealment. The enemy tried to surround Blish’s element, but he continued to push into their known defensive positions.

His actions helped eliminate five enemy fighters, recover one machine gun and an AK-47, and destroy two enemy motorcycles, a mortar tube and multiple boxes of ammunition.

After confirming a total of 13 enemy fighters killed, Blish’s element began to move away. On the way out, they were ambushed from over a dozen concealed locations. Enemy fire wounded his team sergeant.

Blish immediately established satellite communications to call in a medical evacuation while under fire, helped move the wounded to a secure helicopter landing zone, and exposed himself to fire again to mark the landing zone.

His actions are credited with maintaining constant communication throughout the mission, eliminating more than three dozen enemy fighters and saving his team sergeant’s life.

Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Brown and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Myers

On Nov. 10, 2011, enemy fighters launched an attack on the Chamkani District Center in Paktia province, seizing control of the compound and killing three Afghan policemen.

The insurgents set up fighting positions on the first and second floors in the second building within the compound and began to fire machine guns, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on a nearby U.S. post.

Myers assembled a five-man assault force made up of two Special Forces soldiers and three Afghan policemen and ordered a platoon of commandos to follow the assault force to the western entry control point.

Brown, the senior engineer sergeant, reconnoitered a covered and concealed route through a section of the Chamkani Bazaar to the district center’s entry control point.

Brown relayed the information to Myers, and, under heavy fire, Myers and his men moved toward the district center. There, Myers directed the locals to close their shops and seek cover from the incoming fire. He then learned that five to 10 insurgents, including at least three wearing suicide vests, had seized the district center and taken hostages.

Myers, Brown and the assault force quickly secured the entrance to the district center compound before moving to the main entrance of the district center building. In the lobby, the men were fired on by insurgents with AK-47s.

Brown opened fire, then threw a fragmentation grenade to clear the barricaded room; Myers rushed past the stalled Afghan police and entered the room.

He identified one dead insurgent, but he couldn’t completely clear the room because of the dust from the grenade explosion. A barricaded insurgent threw hand grenades at him. The first grenade flew past Myers’ head.

Brown, standing behind Myers, caught the grenade in his hands. With complete disregard for his own safety, Brown backed out of the door, faced down the hallway, and threw the grenade toward the corner of the lobby.

After yelling a warning to friendly forces to take cover, Brown ran down the hall, grabbed an Afghan policeman and shielded him with his body. When the grenade exploded, Brown absorbed the shock and shrapnel from the grenade in his back.

Back in the room, the barricaded insurgent threw a second grenade, which landed in the doorway. Myers dove for cover, and despite suffering shrapnel wounds in his hands, arms, legs and buttocks when the grenade exploded, he quickly got back up and killed the insurgent.

He ordered another grenade be thrown into the room to cover the withdrawal of the assault force.

Myers established security and provided covering fire, allowing his team to move back to the district center entry control point without suffering further casualties.

Outside the district center, Brown took small arms fire and grenades from an adjacent building. He returned fire and linked up with two Afghan policemen.

Ignoring his wounds and mild shock, Brown relayed his position to his commander then directed the establishment of the inner cordon while a command post was established. As reinforcements arrived, Brown continued to strengthen the inner cordon to make sure the perimeter was sealed off.

Special Forces soldiers rescued nine hostages from the district center building. Myers dispatched a ladder and a seven-man assault force to get the remaining five hostages from the building’s second floor while Brown ensured each hostage was searched and placed in a temporary holding area.

With all the hostages rescued, Myers led a small element that cleared four of the five buildings. In the last building, a booby-trapped rocket-propelled grenade exploded, injuring five members of the clearing team. Myers, ignoring his wounds, immediately established a casualty collection point and treated the wounded.

After 15 hours under extremely dangerous conditions, Myers led the final clearing operation into the booby-trapped building, clearing it without incident.

Myers credited his team’s noncommissioned officers for putting in place a base defense plan that allowed the soldiers to react quickly to the enemy attack. He also praised the Afghans who fought alongside the Americans.

“Fortunately, we had long-standing relationships with these guys,” Myers said. “I’d worked with them on two deployments, so we were integrated, we knew each other. It was outstanding.”

During the ceremony March 27, Brown also was awarded the ARCOM with “V” and two Purple Hearts.

Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Drew

During a combat operation April 11, 2012, in Kamdesh, Drew, a communications sergeant, infiltrated onto the objective’s landing zone and moved his element of Afghan National Army commandos to link up with the district leadership.

Drew quickly established security and integrated his element with the local defense forces and began identifying enemy fighting positions. The next morning, Drew and his teammates conducted a shura, or meeting, at the Kamdesh District Center. During the shura, friendly forces came under intense enemy fire.

Drew put himself directly in harm’s way to gain high ground so he could direct fires and suppress enemy fighters’ movements. He commanded and controlled a platoon of commandos, local forces and district leaders while under heavy enemy sniper and automatic machine gun fire. He also continuously put himself in the kill zone to protect his partner force and local civilians.

At one point during the battle, the enemy engaged Drew’s position from as close as 70 meters away. They wounded two Afghan commandos and an Afghan woman, and killed another Afghan woman.

Drew administered first aid to the wounded woman, rushing through enemy fire to move her to the casualty collection point. He then provided fire support so the medevac helicopter could land. Throughout the 15-hour battle, Drew repeatedly exposed himself to machine gun and sniper fire to protect civilians, the Afghan commandos, local national government officials and his teammates.

Drew is singlehandedly responsible for two successful air-to-ground engagements, resulting in 10 to 15 enemy fighters killed. He put himself out in the open multiple times to identify and engage enemy fighting positions and mark them with smoke rounds so friendly aircraft could engage them.

His actions helped defeat the “immense enemy force that was skillfully maneuvering toward his position,” and he saved his teammates’ lives, according to the narrative accompanying his award.

Warrant Officer Robert Hinsley

On March 9, 2013, Hinsley was part of a combined operation with Afghan forces around southern Achin District in Nangarhar province. The area had been reported to be an enemy stronghold, where weapons, narcotics, improvised explosive device components and assembled devices were openly sold, exchanged and employed.

On patrol, Hinsley, the assistant detachment commander of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha 3134, led a combined 15-soldier dismounted element alongside friendly forces traveling south.

In the Shadel Bazaar, a known hub of enemy commerce and operations planning, friendly forces became canalized by the urban construction and open irrigated agriculture terrain.

As Hinsley noticed local shop owners and residents had fled the area, the enemy launched a three-sided ambush. An estimated 100 or more enemy fighters were in the initial volley; and numbers swelled as the fight raged on for eight hours. In the first two hours, many friendly forces were caught in open fields and fixed by the overwhelming enemy fire.

Hinsley deployed smoke and suppressive fire, while exposed to enemy fire, to allow the friendly forces a chance to get to cover. He engaged the enemy, coordinated fires and provided tactical guidance that contributed to “preventing almost certain injury or death of friendly forces caught in the open and unable to move under enemy fire,” according to the narrative accompanying his award.

Hinsley was “essential” to ensuring friendly forces knew the enemy locations. He also inspired troops who had never previously engaged the enemy.

When Hinsley realized that enemy forces were traveling through canals that provided them with cover from direct-fire weapons, he crossed an open danger area, while exposed to enemy fire, to get a grenade launcher from a vehicle more than 100 meters away.

Using the grenade launcher and additional supplies from the vehicle, Hinsley “directly contributed” to friendly forces keeping the enemy from advancing, according to the narrative.

Throughout the fight, Hinsley repeatedly volunteered to assume fighting positions at substantial risk to himself, in order to command and inspire other friendly elements.

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Lavery

Lavery, a weapons sergeant, was honored for his actions March 11, 2013, in Wardak province.

Lavery’s ODA and an Afghan army special operations team were finishing a joint patrol brief at their base. The troops were about to conduct a communications check when an Afghan National Police officer operating a truck-mounted machine gun about 25 feet away opened fire on the group.

At the same time, 15 to 20 insurgents attacked the base using machine guns and small arms.

Two American soldiers, two Afghan police officers and two Afghan special operations soldiers were killed almost immediately. Ten Americans, two Afghan soldiers, three linguists, two Afghan police and the deputy chief of police were wounded.

Lavery was standing next to another U.S. soldier when the gunner opened fire. Lavery immediately pushed the other soldier backwards while simultaneously stepping in front of him.

Lavery was shot in his right thigh; he suffered a shattered femur and a severed femoral artery. The gunshot knocked Lavery down, on top of the other soldier. Lavery yelled at the soldier to move to cover from the continuous enemy fire.

As the firefight continued, and with a life-threatening injury, Lavery continued to yell out directions until his teammates could move him to a safe position at the casualty collection point.

In addition to his Silver Star, Lavery also received the Bronze Star with “V” and three Purple Hearts during the March 27 ceremony.

Master Sgt. Charles Ritter

Ritter, an operations sergeant, was honored for his actions May 30, 2013, in Tagab District, Kapisa province.

He was mentoring troops from the Afghan army’s 6th Special Operations Kandak when they came under heavy and accurate enemy fire from machine guns, small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.

“As the sun came up, they were 5 to 10 meters from our position,” Ritter said. “There were about 200 to 300 of them, so I grabbed my commandos and tried to push them back.”

After several hours of intense fighting, Ritter led a small force of eight commandos and two Americans on a local patrol to set an ambush.

“The battle positions were pinned down, and we had to go find where they were staging from,” he said. “As we were moving, we got caught in a U-shaped ambush.”

The initial burst of fire, down a narrow alley, wounded an Afghan commando and pushed the rest of the patrol back to a covered position.

Ritter immediately called for air-to-ground fires on the enemy so he and his troops could recover the wounded man, but the aircraft’s weapons suffered a malfunction and the fire never came.

Ritter then tried “several times” to move down the alley to the casualty but each time was repelled by machine gun and small arms fire, according to the narrative accompanying his award.

The enemy moved through orchards directly west of the force and engaged with small arms fire. Ritter decided to recover the wounded man.

He quickly organized the Afghan commandos into a rescue effort and began moving toward the casualty while laying down a base of fire. The enemy returned fire, hitting Ritter three times, including in his back. He kept going.

“I tried to engage the machine gun, but my right arm wouldn’t work,” he said.

Ritter moved back to cover while the commando force recovered their wounded comrade.

By this time, an A-10 moved into position and destroyed the enemy positions.

A medic treated Ritter, then he grabbed his weapon and continued to lead his team back to their battle positions.

Ritter is credited with organizing, inspiring and leading the effort to rescue the wounded commando. Without his actions, the wounded man likely would have been taken captive or killed.

He was later evacuated back to the U.S. Ritter underwent five surgeries and rehabilitated for two months. In August, he rejoined his team in Afghanistan.

“I’m not really sure I’m deserving, but it’s humbling, and I’m honored to be recognized for the actions we did that day,” Ritter said.

“I think what sets us apart is we’re trained to operate in small numbers with indigenous forces,” he said. “We can stay calm and make things happen, even though it seems impossible at the time.”

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