Marine Raider Staff Sgt. Robert Van Hook says his Silver Star is not his alone.
Being presented the military's third-highest valor award was "truly like a dose of humble pie," Van Hook told Marine Corps Times.
"It's in the MARSOC creed that we emphasize being a silent professional and I didn't sign up for this profession to receive awards for gallantry; I signed up to do a job and I believe in the MARSOC mission," he said. "It's an extremely humbling experience, because I've definitely got big shoes to fill."
"Not one guy receives an award like this," Van Hook said. "Every individual out there that day put himself in harm's way and did glorious things."
A hasty ambush
In the dark of night, Van Hook and Marine Special Operations Team 8224, joined by Afghan commandos, moved out to a small village in an unnamed valley in Herat province, Afghanistan.
Their mission was to clear the town of the Taliban so that a follow-on Afghan National Army unit could meet with village elders and try to bring the area back into the fold of the Afghan government.
As they moved along a route rife with improvised explosive devices, however, they soon found they weren't alone.
"The Taliban had gotten pretty smart to our tactical procedures so they had spotters that knew when we left the base and how we left, even at night," Van Hook said. "As we left we started realizing, through what we call early warning, that they were basically sending signals throughout the valley that we were moving around."
It wasn't long before they identified two scouts shadowing their movement.
Undeterred, Van Hook took a small element ahead along a ratline, a covert route using concealing terrain, to head off the scouts.
"We came up on about 10 insurgents, all of them armed, on radios trying to coordinate an attack on us," he said. "So through our [rules of engagement] we went ahead and engaged."
Staff Sgt. Robert T. Van Hook, a Marine Raider, was awarded the Silver Star earlier this month for heroism during a 2013 deployment to Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Marine Corps
Van Hook's hasty ambush killed and wounded several Taliban, and the survivors split up and fled. One group held up in a nearby residential compound, so Van Hook took a couple of Afghan commandos to press the engagement on the fortified position.
"We were taking fire, so I went ahead and threw some hand grenades in there and then we cleared the compound," he said.
They then detained and tactically questioned the Taliban survivors, who confirmed they had been staging an attack on the Raiders and their Afghan counterparts.
The Taliban's attack
With the village cleared, Van Hook and his team set out to establish a defensive blocking position before the larger ANA force arrived at dawn for their key leader engagements.
The region had become destabilized since the withdrawal of American forces, and this meeting was the Afghan government's chance to prove it was working to provide security and invest in the population.
"Due to the overt posture of the U.S. and Afghan presence, not a shot was fired, nobody moved on us, nobody was spotting us," Van Hook said. "Everything was pretty much locked down at that point."
The meetings went off without a hitch and the ANA departed, but the calm didn't last long.
"Right about the time that you could see their vehicles' taillights breaking the horizon, we started taking some pot shots," he said. "Nothing, really; just some average pot shots at that point."
As Van Hook assessed the situation and spoke with villagers, the random pot shots picked up in intensity and turned into designated fire, he said.
Van Hook's position was well-fortified and secure, but another element was soon heavily pinned down as the enemy used micro-terrain to maneuver against them.
"They were taking fires from all sides and weren't really able to tell where they were getting shot at from," he said. "They called over to me, and because we had our [targets] pretty suppressed, I started focusing over to that position."
As he moved to assist them, however, the Taliban launched a massive coordinated assault against the Raiders and the Afghan commandos.
With lead raining in, Van Hook and a fellow Marine re-manned a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher positioned on a nearby rooftop, which the Raiders had previously left once its position was known to the enemy. For the uninitiated, the Mark 19 is a fearsome weapon system that rapidly pumps out explosive 40mm grenades to suppress enemy infantry or destroy light armored vehicles.
With the other Marine taking radio calls and guiding Van Hook's fire, they were able to stall the Taliban's advance.
"I continued to engage and the other element was marking my shots, saying 'good effects, good effects, good effects,' so I just continued to work from target to target off of what they were spotting," Van Hook said.
As the Taliban recovered from the initial shock of the incoming explosive rounds, they began directing all their fire on Van Hook's position.
A rocket-propelled grenade came in, hitting the thin wall concealing the Marines and knocking both of them unconscious.
"I don't know how long I was out, [but when] I came to, the Mark 19's on top of me, there's a puddle of blood underneath me, and I see the other guy kind of passed out right beside me, almost like you're cuddling with you wife," Van Hook said.
He saw the Marine was bleeding out his back, so Van Hook applied direct pressure to the wound and maneuvered him to a staircase to get him off the roof.
Van Hook then flipped the Mark 19 back over, untwisted the ammo and started firing again until he noticed his own leg was bleeding heavily.
"Once I realized how much blood was coming out of my leg, I went ahead and threw a tourniquet on that and continued to engage," he said.
'It was danger close'
No sooner was Van Hook off the roof than a nearby Afghan was hit through the mouth.
Van Hook and the SARC rendered first aid to the Afghan and the other Marine knocked out by the RPG blast, but Van Hook, as the element leader, was concerned with the integrity of their defensive positions.
"Basically, we had already broken down a couple of the positions, so there were security vulnerabilities," he said. "I told the SARC to take care of these guys, I'm good to go, so I went ahead and pushed off," he said.
While the SARC requested a casualty evacuation helicopter flight, Van Hook worked to shore up the team's defensive posture.
He then began calling in 120mm mortar fire on the enemy, spotting impacting rounds and providing corrections to fire in order to finally halt the Taliban's attack.
"Due to where [the Taliban] were dug in at the ratline, it was danger close," Van Hook said, referring to the exceptional circumstance of requesting indirect fire be dropped in close proximity to friendly forces. "That carried on for a good bit."
The casevac arrived, and Van Hook loaded up along with the other wounded Marine and the Afghan for transport to the nearest base and better medical care.
Looking back on the operation that day, despite frustration with having to leave his fellow Marines, Van Hook considers it a resounding success.
"[It was] our ability to go down there and put the Afghan face on it and show [local residents] that these guys are willing to provide security," he said. "These guys that had been terrorizing their villages and their families for months on end were killed or wounded."
That allowed the Afghan government to build enormous rapport in the region which continues to this day, Van Hook said.
Reflecting on his Silver Star, he said he didn't do anything any of his fellow Raiders would not have done.
"The respect, the tenacity and the discipline that that team instilled in everyone made everyone a warrior on the battlefield that day," Van Hook said. "We take pride and joy in the camaraderie that we build, and I accept this award on behalf of our Marine special operations community."
Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.