FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Crouched in the kill zone with a rifle in one hand and a grenade launcher in the other, Sgt. 1st Class Richard "Rich" Harris prepared to fight to the death to protect his fallen comrade.
On Sept. 13, 2011, Harris, a weapons sergeant with a Special Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), embodied the spirit of the Army's warrior ethos after his ODA team was ambushed by an overwhelming enemy force while conducting a mission in the Wardak Province, Afghanistan.
Harris' team sergeant, Master Sgt. Danial "Slim" Adams, was killed in action during the initial moments of the ambush, and Harris spent the rest of the battle aggressively attacking the ambushing insurgents while guarding the body of his team sergeant at significant risk to his own life.
Nearly five years later, Harris' heroic actions from that day were formally recognized when he was presented the Silver Star medal, the nation's third highest award for valor, June 3, 2016.
"It does bring a little bit of closure," said Harris, who was able to reconnect with some of the men he fought with on that long-ago day, some of which he had not seen in years.
"This ceremony has ended up being a reunion, and a celebration of [Adams], his life and his sacrifice," said Harris.
On that day nearly five years ago, Harris' ODA, partnered with Hungarian Special Operations and Afghan National Police, carried out an operation to apprehend known insurgents in the Maiden Shahr District, an area traditionally used by insurgents to move, undetected by opposing coalition forces.
The ODA's team sergeant, Master Sgt. Danial Adams led a small maneuver element, which convoyed through the mountainous area on the outskirts of the village through the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) in order to provide necessary over watch and to facilitate radio communications from the high ground to the west.
A separate main body element patrolled through the village from the north-east. Harris was originally part of the main element, but joined up with Adams' ATV team part-way through the mission.
After approximately three hours of searching, they were unable to locate their target, so they began to withdraw from the village. It was at that time that they lost their aerial reconnaissance assets, which were pulled away to assist coalition forces in other parts of the country.
Once the main body was clear of the village, Adams and the rest of his over-watch element began moving south on their ATVs to the designated link-up point. Adams led the way, followed by Harris and three other team members.
Just as they passed a small cluster of buildings at the edge of the village, they ran into a well-planned and emplaced ambush comprised of more than 25 insurgents armed with AK-47 light machine guns, PKM heavy machine guns, and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades. The insurgents were in staggered positions along the ambush line across approximately 180 meters.
Harris recalled the area around them suddenly coming to life with the sounds and flashes of close gunfire. "My mindset was, 'Holy crap. We're in deep trouble,'" he remembered.
As the air around them filled with deadly enemy fire, and rounds whizzed by and pinged off their vehicles, Adams and Harris both got low and gunned their ATVs, attempting to accelerate through the kill zone. Unfortunately, it was here that Adams took a burst of PKM fire, suffering wounds to his wrist, thigh and neck, and throwing him from his ATV within meters of the enemy line.
"At the time, I didn't know what happened," Harris said. "I just saw him kind of dive off/fall off his ATV."
Harris aborted his path and veered up a small hill to take cover between two buildings. The three operators following closely behind Adams and Harris managed to stop their ATVs behind the cover of small buildings where they began fighting back.
Harris, under an intense and unyielding barrage of enemy fire, immediately engaged the enemy with his M-4 rifle and grenade launcher, all the while calling out to his team sergeant below. His attacks soon brought the insurgents' attention to him, and he found himself the target of concentrated enemy fire. Undaunted, he continued to return fire.
"That's when an RPG came and just … streamed right up at me," said Harris.
The enemy rocket exploded against a wall approximately seven feet behind him, throwing him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bell, who was a sergeant first class at the time, was one of the three operators fighting about 40 meters away. He was preparing to throw a grenade when he happened to look up at Harris' position and witnessed the explosion.
Bell described his first thoughts as, "I'm pretty sure Rich is dead."
Harris wasn't, however, and after regaining consciousness and situational awareness moments later, he got back in the fight. The explosion had knocked his radio system ear buds out, leaving him unable to communicate with his fellow green berets. Not knowing when or even if he would get reinforcements, Harris said he had only two priorities: Return fire and find Slim. Harris resumed his attack on the enemy line.
Meanwhile, unaware that a battle was raging less than two miles away, Staff Sgt. Millan, a fire team leader that day, was waiting back at the link-up point with the rest of the main element. Millan said they were getting concerned that the ATV element hadn't linked up yet.
"Anything outside of a minute or two minutes would have been uncharacteristic of Slim to be late," said Millan, "and we were approaching about five minutes now."
Suddenly, Millan spotted green smoke coming from the distance. He drove up a nearby hill, where he finally gained radio communication with Bell and verified they were under attack. Without hesitation, Millan and his men organized three trucks, loaded them with fighters, and made their way as fast as possible through the narrow and undulated mountainous trails to reach their endangered team.
Back on the ambush line, Harris finally spotted Adams laying face-down approximately 25 meters away. He had been partially dragged by enemy insurgents who had advanced while Harris was unconscious. Harris tried making contact by calling his team sergeant's name, but Adams did not move. Fearing Adams may fall back into the hands of the enemy, Harris had a decision to make.
"Okay, I know where Slim's at," Harris explained. "I can't find the rest of my team. I need to go and get Slim."
Harris said, "I remember my legs and knees were just shaking and knocking uncontrollably and I couldn't stop it….I was basically preparing myself to die."
Harris fell back on his training as a Soldier. "Everything that I've ever learned and trained and had beat into my head was that you never leave a fallen comrade," Harris said, "and that's exactly what Slim was."
It was decided.
Harris darted out of cover and sprinted directly into the storm of enemy fire, firing a weapon from each hand as he went. Amazingly, he made it through unscathed. Once he reached Adams, he continued his attack on the enemy, throwing hand grenades before using his rifle to fire left, right, and in front of him, no longer knowing where the ambush line began and where it ended.
Between bursts of attack, Harris checked on Adams, and knew immediately that he needed to find cover so he could provide first aid.
Knowing he would be cut down by enemy fire if he tried to carry Adams back the way he came, Harris did the only other thing he had a choice on. Acting quickly, he threw two grenades and then began dragging both Adams and himself closer to the enemy, seeking the meager cover provided by a small rock-wall that ran along the very ditch that the enemy occupied.
Now, within mere feet of the enemy position, Harris once again took the fight to them, by employing his remaining grenades and his rifle.
In between his attacks, Harris attempted to render medical aid to Adams. It was during this time that he realized that Adams had been killed in action and that due to the nature of his wounds, no amount of first aid would bring him back.
"I was pretty devastated," said Harris. "I took two seconds to say a quick prayer for him and his family, and then it was back to the firefight that I was still the center of attention of."
Determined not to let the enemy lay another hand on the body of his leader, Harris reloaded his rifle and grenade launcher, took up one in each hand, and prepared to die defending his team sergeant.
"I was getting a pretty heavy dose of returning fire from those guys," he said, "and I needed to…secure the area and figure out what my next move was, because now I'm even further away from cover and I'm even closer to the enemy."
During his one-man stand-off, the rest of the ATV element managed to maneuver into closer fighting positions, and their Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), Air Force Tech Sgt. Tommy Baughs, started calling in F-16 strafing gun runs within meters of Harris' position.
Despite the F-16's strafing attacks, the enemy continued to place deadly fire on Harris and his team's positions, and was still attempting to maneuver on them.
Realizing that he needed to get in communication with the rest of his men, Harris located his radio system ear buds and finally made contact with Bell.
"I could tell that he was in a bad way," said Bell. "This guy [was] living in a different world than what we were living in. A totally different world."
Bell informed Harris that they were unable to utilize close air support (CAS) to drop bombs on the enemy due to Harris occupying the same location. Harris, understanding that the lives of his team would be seriously jeopardized if they couldn't drop ordinance on the enemy, decided to find cover until the bombs could be dropped. Under covering fire from his team, Harris sprinted back up the hill where he finally met up with Bell and the rest of the ATV element.
"It was a momentous reunification," said Bell. "(Harris) was as exhausted as I've ever seen a human being be."
By this time, Millan and his reinforcements had also reached the ambush site.
"We drove up, and we're trying to calm down Rich," said Millan, "because he was out of water, he was beet-red in the face, and his main concern was he needed to go get Slim."
At one point, the team decided they needed to retrieve their 60mm mortar system from a nearby ATV, and despite his exhaustion, Harris stepped up. He and Bell sprinted 40 meters across open ground, paralleling the enemy line and exposing themselves yet again to small arms and machine gun fire, to retrieve and place the mortar into action. They fired eight 60mm rounds before taking cover as the F-16 dropped a 500 lb. bomb on the enemy's position.
Bell and Harris then rode the ATV back across the hostile terrain to hand off the mortar to their team. That's when Harris decided to go back for his fallen comrade. Once again ignoring the immense risk to his own life, he drove the ATV one final time directly into the kill zone, toward both the waiting enemy and his fallen team sergeant. Millan, who realized that Harris was the only one who knew the location of Adams' body, ran after him on foot.
"All the sudden I hear on the radio, 'Hey, there's another 500 lb. bomb coming in,'" said Harris, "And I'm like, 'Okay, great!'"
Without hesitation, he covered Adams' body with his own to protect him from the impending detonation less than 40 meters away. Millan, who had reached Harris by then, jumped on top of him, and together they waited for the earth-shattering explosion. As soon as it was over, the two men jumped up and began to load Adams onto the ATV. Their interpreter came running in at that time, and with his help, they loaded Adams' body onto the ATV and drove out of the kill zone.
Harris' continuous actions during the battle were the primary reasons Adams' body did not fall into enemy hands.
Throughout all of this, Harris and his team members want people to remember Master Sgt. Danial "Slim" Adams, who was killed in action while defending his nation's security.
"Dan…was an amazing man, was well-loved by every one," said Bell. "He was a true leader and a wonderful husband and father."
Adams is survived by his wife and three children.
"He cared about us," said Millan. "He cared about his troops. And that's the legacy he left behind, that…we're going to carry forward."
Harris, who had only graduated the special forces qualification course a few months earlier, recalled a moment right before they shipped out. As he was saying goodbye to his wife, Harris tried to reassure her by saying, "You don't have to worry about me. You don't have to worry about us. Because we got Slim."
According to Harris, Adams' sacrifice may have been directly responsible for his survival that day.
"In my mind, that day," explained Harris, "as soon as the firefight happened, we had some choices to make immediately. And the one that Slim made was the one that I was gonna make, because I trusted him that much."
"If anything, [Adams] drew fire so that I had the time to move up that hill and get to cover, and live," Harris said. "[Adams] made the decision of 'I am going first, I'm leading out. He didn't have to lead out…He didn't tell anyone to lead, he didn't ask anyone to lead. He led from the front, like he always did."
According to those who knew him, that was how Adams lived his life. It was how he lived his Army career: Always leading from the front.