In 1988, Demitri Zacharov was a 25-year-old soldier serving in a Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiment stationed on a small, gray mountain just outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Today, a typically cold Chicago winter afternoon, the 46-year-old Afghansti, a Russian term for veterans of the Soviet Afghan War, sat quietly on the bench looking out toward the frozen mass of Lake Michigan, smoke curling from his cigarette, thinking about the question just asked. “I know of this place,” he said, “the Shok Valley. We did not go there. There were no good roads and death was certain.” He tossed his cigarette down, ground it under his boot and continued, “For us, the war was an asylum and Jalalabad was our cage.”
Out of the numerous historical lessons that can be drawn from the failed Soviet war in Afghanistan, the necessity of engaging the population and developing a true national army that is willing to leave their bases and fight for their own country is one lesson the United States understands and has embraced wholeheartedly. Of all the elements of the growing Afghan National Army, the men of the Commando Battalions are, without a doubt, among the very best. Their strength is born from their close relationship with the soldiers of the U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) who train them. Indeed, so effective are the commandos, that Taliban fighters respectfully refer to them as “the wolves” and, as the men of 3rd Special Forces Group, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3336, can tell you: When the wolves and their SF brethren decided to test the Taliban in their Shok Valley stronghold, the Taliban knew trouble was coming.
Because of its remote nature – there are no roads leading into the fastness of the area – the Shok Valley, along with the lone village perched high above the valley floor, made for a perfect base for the fierce insurgent force called Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin, or HIG. Founded by Gulbadin Hekmatyer, HIG has been in the thick of regional conflict since the Soviet invasion, going so far at one point as to oppose both the Taliban and the United States at the same time. In 2008, an American think tank reported that HIG had been, after initial coalition successes, “sidelined from Afghan politics but has recently reemerged as an aggressive militant group, claiming responsibility for many bloody attacks against coalition forces and the administration of President Hamid Karzai.” Deciding that HIG’s hold on the area must be challenged, coalition planners decided to launch a daring raid into the heart of the Shok Valley stronghold with a combined force of Afghan commandos and their Special Forces counterparts. The battle that followed was both a test and a testament to their skill and bravery.
The Afghan/American force, built around the Special Forces soldiers of ODA 3336, was assigned to take out specific high-value targets
within the HIG organization. The insurgent group was known to be solidly entrenched and was guarded by a corps of well-trained foreign fighters. Intelligence estimates concluded that HIG had been stockpiling weapons and ammunition in the fortress-like village since the Russian invasion some 20 years before. The village itself is a series of multi-storied structures built along a rise of terraced hills perched well above the valley floor. At one edge of the village was a precipice that dropped almost 100 feet to the next lowest level.
Even though no coalition force had ever entered the valley, ODA team leader Capt. Kyle Walton and team sergeant Master Sgt. Scott Ford had every confidence in their commando counterparts. “We eat, sleep, and train with these commandos,” said Walton. “We die with them, too. These guys are close friends to us. At the outset of the attack, I lost my interpreter, and we were as close as anyone.” Staff Sgt. Luis Morales, the team’s intelligence sergeant, was equally proud and confident of his men. “We have such a big rapport with the commandos we’ve trained and they have such a loyalty to us.” So strong is the bond that the Afghans, Morales noted, “try as hard to protect us as we try to protect ourselves.”
As they crafted their plan for the 130-man assault force, Walton and Ford knew their commandos would be backed up with the tremendous firepower and tactical knowledge of the ODA, and the force multipliers a Special Forces “A” Team brings to the fight, like helicopters and fixed-wing close air support. Nearly every member of the Afghan commando team had some combat experience. Others had a vast amount of experience, such as Walton’s interpreter, who had six years of war experience, time with six SF teams, and hundreds of firefights. Overhead, the assault force could rely on two F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft piloted by men from the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) and a flight of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.
Well before the sun came up on April 6, 2008, the men of the assault force were carefully going over their pre-combat checks, and the plan was briefed one last time. The team was composed of Walton, Ford, Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr, Staff Sgt. Seth Howard, Morales, Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer, Staff Sgt. John Walding, Sgt. David Sanders, and Sgt. Matthew Williams. Attached to the team were Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), and a young specialist named Michael Carter, a combat cameraman attached to the team to photograph this mission. Once their gear was ready and the mission briefed one last time, a flight of CH-47 Chinook helicopters lifted the men from their base, up high over the mountains that hulk over Jalalabad, and into the shadowy depths of the Shok Valley.
The mission was challenged almost from the start. Unable to land on the valley floor, the assault force had to jump from the hovering Chinooks. For Morales this was fine. “I feel comfortable with my feet on the ground,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable in the helicopter – we can’t control what happens there. But on the ground we have a plan, we go in and do it, and the rest falls into place.” The plan called for the team to slip into the village unannounced, and as they worked their way up the terraced cliffs to the first set of houses, it seemed like they just might make it. Suddenly, automatic rifle fire ripped down from above and the team found themselves caught in an ambush. The rest of the plan, as Morales might say, would now have to fall into place.
The initial burst of fire struck at roughly the halfway point along the long line of troops; the target was the C2 element, or command and control node, cutting the team into three sections. The C2 element, a small but crucial group of soldiers, contained the detachment commander; an interpreter; Behr, the team communications specialist; Rhyner, the JTAC; and Carter, the combat cameraman. Walton’s interpreter, the veteran of six years’ combat, fell dead, and next to him Behr was hit in the leg. Carter remembered, “We started taking fire from almost every direction. It seemed like 360 [degrees] and that’s when rounds started impacting … everybody just started contact, started firing.”
Walton, Rhyner, and Carter began laying suppressive fire and quickly found cover in a small cut etched in the cliff face. The C2 element was pinned down by enemy fire. Behr, still very much in the fight and engaging enemy positions, was about 15 feet away from Carter and Walton when a second round smashed into his arm. A man from one of the assault teams made his way to Behr and had just begun to perform first aid when he too was felled by enemy fire. Acting quickly, Walton slipped out from the face of the cliff and unleashed a hail of suppressive fire to cover Carter as he rushed to the fallen soldiers and pulled Behr to a safe position. The two men then shifted positions, this time Carter laying down fire as Walton rescued the second soldier.
Farther up the hill, Staff Sgt. David Sanders, with the lead assault element of Afghan commandos, quickly identified the buildings the enemy was using for protection. His commandos threw out a fusillade of fire to relieve the C2 element. Sanders could not maneuver but could keep the insurgents from flanking the rest of his team. Back with the C2 element, Walton knew he would need air support to relieve his beleaguered command, but also knew his communications sergeant was out of the fight and worse yet separated from his gear. Once again Walton, this time with the help of the JTAC, exposed himself to lay down fire and cover Carter as he dashed out retrieve the critical radio. With the radio in hand, the JTAC and the team commander quickly established communications with the F-15s prowling overhead.
Standing next to Rhyner, Walton quickly surveyed his compact but violent battle space and made the decision to bring the Eagles in
“danger close.” Walton recalled that he “was standing next to the combat controller, and when we got to a place where we could talk, he called in close air support, and the F-15s rolled in immediately. I knew my guys were up there, and I know that when you call in danger-close air, you are probably going to get injured or killed,” said Walton. “I called back to Sanders and asked if he was too close. He said, ‘Bring it anyway.’ Bombs started exploding everywhere. When I called to see if he was still alive, all I could hear him saying was, ‘Hit them again.’” Every commander knows that calling for danger close air support is a rare event; Walton was forced to call for danger close bomb runs nearly 70 times before this fight was over.
Circling high overhead, Capt. Prichard Keely, a weapons system officer, and Maj. James Scheideman, a pilot from the 335th TFS, maintained constant communication with the assault force on the ground as they battled the insurgent force. The Strike Eagle’s targeting pod gave the F-15 crew a powerful vantage point. Keely noted that, “I could see people with weapons moving around on top of the houses.” For the men on the ground, there was no doubt the distant F-15s were keeping them alive and safe. Keely, along with Walton and the JTAC on the ground, had the crucial job of coordinating the ballet of fast-moving fighters, slower ground-attack aircraft, and even slower helicopters.
Far below the Strike Eagles the men of ODA 3336 continued to battle for their very existence. Using every weapon available, Walton called for additional support from two AH-64 Apache helicopters that continually slipped in using their 30 mm chain guns to clear the roofs of gathering insurgents. All the while Walton’s men returned fire. Team members recall going through masses of ammo in addition to the bombs that were dropped and the rounds the aircraft were firing. According to Walton, the team’s fire and that of the commandos was controlled and accurate. Much to Walton’s chagrin, the weather was closing in and his close air support might be called away. Since there was no way to be sure they could get out of the valley that night, the ODA was careful not to waste their limited ammunition supply.
Walton and ODA 3336 were in need of a miracle, and one arrived in the form of a massive explosion that dragged everyone’s attention from the growing fight. A bomb struck a large building and the resulting blast blew the entire structure apart. “Good guy or bad guy, you’re going to stop when you see that,” said Morales. “It reminded me of the videos from 9/11 – everything starts flooding at you, debris starts falling, and everything gets darker.” Further down the trail, below the C2 element, Staff Sgt. Seth Howard used the jaw-dropping blast as a diversion to move closer to the fighting. Once he gained a better position, Howard, a trained sniper, began picking off insurgents. Howard directed his small commando assault team to pin the insurgents so he could maneuver his sniper rifle and a recoilless rifle to different positions. “They had been hunting us and now we were hunting them too,” said Walton. “What turned the battle was Seth [Howard] and his element.”
By this time, Keely was directing two A-10 Warthogs toward the battle, when he noticed more insurgents pouring down the valley toward the fight. He called down to Walton who then knew he had to get out of this fight right away if only because of the wounded. Once more, Walton called on Carter, this time to join Sgt. Sanders, the team engineer, to find a way down to the valley floor. The route was treacherous. “We had to ‘Spider-Man’ down the cliff to find ways,” Carter said. “There were 20-foot, straight-down drops. It was just a bad place to be.” Although the route was bad, Sanders assured Walton he could get the wounded men down the cliff.
Once their escape route was identified, Ford set up the medevac and organized the less seriously wounded to carry the more critically injured down. While organizing the commandos, Ford was shot in the chest plate by sniper fire. Undaunted, he leapt to his feet and let loose a hail of covering fire. An insurgent sniper caught Ford in his sights and fired. Down the hill Ford reeled from the impact as the sniper round tore through his left arm, nearly severing it. With a tourniquet around his arm, the team sergeant climbed down the mountain and continued to organize the medevac. As Morales slipped down the cliff, he glanced over to see Walding, one of the assault team leaders, calmly carrying his leg, which had been severed by a sniper shot, down the difficult incline.
High above the raging battle, Keely and Scheideman remained in the fight for three hours. The F-15 joined up with a circling tanker, refueling twice before being relieved by two other Strike Eagle aircrews. While the peak of the fight had passed, it was difficult for Keely to leave before it was truly over. “We had run out of gas and we had run out of munitions,” he said. “You just wish there was one more thing you could do to keep those guys safe.”
As the last of the wounded made their way down, Walton, Howard, and Carter remained behind to cover the team and retrieve mission essential equipment. “There were a lot of guns around where everybody had been shot,” said Howard. “It kind of became an issue that there were too many guns up there and we didn’t want to leave them in enemy hands.” Carter braved a hail of fire to retrieve these weapons and other equipment – leaving the cameras that had been shot to bits during the initial minutes of the battle. Carter gathered equipment and began throwing it off the cliff, while Howard continued to pick off enemy combatants, covering the medevac. Eventually alone, and with less than a magazine of ammunition left, Howard slipped away, but only after his team was safely down the mountain. Reportedly, by the end of the fight, between 150 and 200 insurgents were killed. Almost every member of ODA 3336 was injured, along with several Afghan commandos. Amazingly, despite the ferocity of the battle, only two Afghanis were killed.
Once in the valley, the men of ODA 3336 and their friends from the commandos were evacuated to nearby hospitals. Once in the
medical system, the men found themselves separated from their team and their comrades. ODA 3336 would not stand together again for nearly eight months. It would be Dec. 12, 2008, at Fort Bragg, N.C., when, in one of the largest awards ceremonies since the Vietnam era, the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) awarded 19 Silver Star Medals, two Bronze Star Medals for Valor, two Army Commendation Medals for Valor, and four Purple Hearts. At the center of the ceremony were the men of ODA 3336, who were presented with 10 of the 19 Silver Stars.
Prior to the awarding of the medals, the story of these men was told once again, narrated by members of 3rd Special Forces Group who told of the daring feats of each Special Forces soldier. “As we have listened to these incredible tales, I am truly at a loss for words to do justice to what we have heard here,” Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said. “Where do we get such men? … There is no finer fighting man on the face of the earth than the American soldier. And there is no finer American soldier than our Green Berets.” Mulholland was confident that many people simply wouldn’t believe the courage displayed by the men arrayed before him. “If you saw what you heard today in a movie, you would shake your head and say, ‘That didn’t happen.’ But it does, every day.”
The editors are indebted to USASOC’s Janice Burton for the use of quotations and information derived from her story “Fierce Battle Above Shok Valley Earns Silver Stars.” This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.