By Staff Sgt. Jorden WeirFebruary 9, 2017
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- After landing in a flooded field outside Boz Qandahari Village, Kunduz Province, Afghanistan and trudging a mile through mud up to their waists, Army Sgt. 1st Class Morrison thought to himself: All right, yeah, that's how it's going to be tonight.
"We came to the realization that we were going to be wet and muddy real quick," remembered Sgt. 1st Class Valderrama, the senior weapons sergeant, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Their mission that night, Nov. 2, was to target known enemy safe havens and disrupt the refit operations of several high-level Taliban leaders.
What followed was a nightlong battle for survival as 10 Special Forces operators, two American support elements, and a small partner force of Afghan soldiers fought off wave after wave of fortified and determined Taliban insurgents while trying to escape a village that had suddenly become an angry hornet's nest.
The night's brutal fighting resulted in approximately a third of the 59-man force suffering casualties, including two Green Berets killed in action.
A GATE NO ONE EXPECTED
Upon reaching the infiltration area via helicopters, they began slogging through the flooded fields toward their target a mile away. An hour later they reached the village, where they entered by climbing a cliff face with switchback trails carved into the sides.
"The village itself was something like a castle," recalled Morrison, the senior medical sergeant, "just steep, 100-foot high cliffs on all sides of the village with only one entry way."
Using aerial assets at their disposal, the team quickly determined that enemy combatants were already beginning to maneuver around them.
In the village, they cleared the first two compounds of interest without incident, collecting valuable intelligence and destroying contraband as they went. Upon learning that bad weather was on the way, they moved their timeline forward to exfiltrate the area safely.
"We determined to bypass our third [compound] and go straight to our fourth," said Sgt. 1st Class Seidl, team sergeant.
However, as they approached the fourth compound through a street lined with 10-foot-high walls on either side, they encountered an unexpected problem.
"The lead blocking position calls up and says, 'Hey we've got a huge metal gate blocking the road,'" Seidl recalled.
Morrison, who was at the gate along with Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Gloyer, an intelligence sergeant, said, "The spider senses were definitely tingling, being up there at that gate."
This area was a known Taliban hideout, and they had just run into a 20-foot tall steel gate that no one had known was there.
"Kind of ominous," Morrison said.
Seidl and Valderrama were planning out how to get around the gate through an adjacent compound when the ambush began.
"We heard a distinctive thud, and we both turned to look at the gate," Seidl said. "That's when the first grenade detonated."
CAUGHT IN THE BLAST
Morrison and Gloyer, along with several Afghan soldiers, were caught in the blast. Morrison was knocked to the ground, suffering shrapnel wounds to his body, hands and face. He regained situational awareness immediately, engaging and suppressing an enemy fighter inside of a second-story window before dragging an unconscious Afghan soldier out of the kill zone.
Gloyer, who was mortally wounded in the blast, managed to run back to the group before collapsing into Morrison and Valderrama. Morrison, ignoring his own grievous injuries, began treatment on Gloyer, directing a fellow operator to perform complex medical aid under his supervision after realizing that he had the use of only three fingers on his hand.
With Taliban forces attacking from nearly all sides, the pitch black of the night had suddenly become a hell storm of enemy fire.
"They basically had us, almost 360 degrees," Valderrama remembered.
One fallen Afghan soldier was still in the kill zone. While trying to rally the Afghans, Seidl watched his own team leader, Capt. Andrew Byers, take action.
"Byers sprinted past me," Seidl said. "He just ran straight into the smoke and the dust."
Inspired by his team leader's selflessness, Seidl took off after him, and together they pulled the fallen Afghan out of the kill zone.
Shortly after, a call came over the radio saying that another Green Beret was down. Warrant Officer 1 Meade, the assistant detachment commander, had been shot five times, sustaining gunshot wounds in his legs, his hip, hand and wrist.
Staff Sgt. Russell, the junior weapons sergeant, was with Meade. Russell recalled a rush of fear when he realized the team had just been hit at their southern and northernmost points, and they were trapped in an alley. But fear didn't stop Russell from reacting quickly.
"I grabbed [Meade] by his plate carrier," he said, "dragged him back a few feet and tried to get in front of him, between what was basically a three-way kill zone. ... I thought I was dead."
Meade, who is recovering from his injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, said Russell exhibited exceptional heroism in saving his life.
"He ran into machine gun fire to get me," said Meade, "Then, whenever he couldn't drag me any further, he laid down on top of me and protected me with his own body."
When Seidl arrived at their location, he found Russell alone and kneeling over Meade.
"He's engaging [the enemy] in three different directions," Seidl said. "And all the while, he managed to get tourniquets on both of [Meade's] legs, saving his life."
Russell was later recognized with the Silver Star Medal for his actions that night.
Seidl, Russell and another operator pulled Meade to relative safety before continuing the fight.
A VULNERABLE COMPOUND
The fight was assisted by Air Force Staff Sgt. Hunter, a combat controller who accompanied the unit that night. Hunter, who was recommended for the Air Force Cross Medal for his actions, spent the night calling in precision air strikes on enemy positions and keeping the team informed on enemy movement seen from the air.
With casualties mounting and small arms fire and grenades raining all around them, Byers made the call to set up a defensive posture inside of a compound so they could care for their wounded.
Choosing one nearby, Seidl and Byers stacked up to breach its gate and threw fragmentation grenades inside. Seidl turned to rally the Afghan soldiers into action.
"That's when I hear the first boot kick the gate," Seidl recalled.
Byers, determined to get his team out of harm's way, attempted to kick the gate open himself. It held fast, however, secured by an object. Seidl said he saw Byers reach across the gate to grab the object holding it closed.
"And that's when I watched the rounds rip through the gate and into [Byers]," Seidl remembered.
Reacting quickly, Seidl emptied his magazine into the gate while Valderrama darted forward to pull Byers out.
After handing off a mortally wounded Byers to another soldier for first aid, Valderrama and Seidl breached a different compound and began clearing it by themselves.
"He went left. I went right," Seidl said. "Not ideal."
It happened to be the only compound with shorter walls than the others, allowing more clearing options. But the short walls also gave the Taliban a line-of-sight advantage.
"It was probably the most vulnerable compound to be in," Seidl said, "but at the time it was the only one we could get into."
After about a half-hour of brutal fighting, the team had finally secured the defensive foothold they needed.
With everyone inside the compound, they established as much of a defensive perimeter as they could with their limited personnel. They quickly occupied the few hard-shelled rooms available and established a casualty collection point outside.
WALL OF FIRE
Valderrama set up lanes of fire by placing uninjured Afghan soldiers around the perimeter, then set off running from position to position in an effort to ensure the best defense possible.
"I basically wanted them to build a wall [of fire] between us and anyone out there," Valderrama explained.
Hunter, at the authorization of Seidl, called in multiple danger-close air strikes onto enemy positions all around them, the closest of which detonated approximately nine feet from their own location.
Morrison, who was significantly injured in the initial grenade blast, continued to refuse medical treatment so he could assist with the other wounded soldiers.
"He's completely injured," Seidl remembered. "He looks horrible. He's got blood covering his face. He's limping. He can barely hold a rifle, but he's still fighting."
Sadly, it was during this time that Gloyer succumbed to his wounds from the initial grenade blast.
With severe injuries to his team leader, Byers, and assistant team leader, Meade, Seidl now found himself in charge of a mass casualty situation.
Along with calling in MEDEVAC requests and maintaining radio communications with higher, Seidl called for reinforcements to facilitate their movement out of the village to the landing zone.
With about a third of his force depleted by casualties, Seidl's team was forced to hold their position until a quick reaction force could arrive to assist in exfiltration.
"For two hours we fought in that compound," Seidl said. "[We] fought for our lives."
And they repelled every attack on their perimeter, not suffering a single additional casualty.
When help arrived, it was in the form of a single 10-man Special Forces unit who had stormed the village alone to reach their comrades.
With the additional forces, they began a movement away from the compound and village. They continued the fight through 800-meters of volatile enemy territory toward the MEDEVAC location.
Bounding out of the village proved difficult due to the force fragmenting and creating gaps in the defense.
Suddenly, aerial assets warned them of enemy movement directly to their flank, and as the enemy opened fire, soldiers darted off the road for cover, including those carrying the stretcher holding Byers.
Morrison was up ahead pulling security.
"I remember turning around," Morrison said, "and seeing [our medic] laying there, bullets all over the place, just holding pressure on [Byers'] wound."
With the immediate threat suppressed, they regrouped and traveled to a nearby field. Despite still being under fire, Seidl called for MEDEVAC on the spot, due to the slow movement of the formation and the deteriorating health of their casualties.
"We got to a field and we're like, you know, there's no better time than the present," Morrison said. "We need to get our more seriously injured guys [evacuated] right away."
When the helicopter finally touched down, the Green Berets loaded Byers and Meade on board, along with their medic, who was treating them. Unfortunately, Byers succumbed to his wounds during that flight.
For selflessly running into a kill zone to retrieve a fallen Afghan comrade, for maintaining positive control of a 59-man force during a seemingly hopeless situation, and for sacrificing his life by leading from the front in an effort to rescue his men, Byers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal.
One wounded, litter-bound Afghan soldier still lay in the open field, and upon seeing him, another Green Beret lay on top of him, shielding the soldier's body from the enemy bullets pinging all around them.
Everyone not involved with moving casualties were concentrating their full efforts on returning fire, trying to suppress the enemy attacks still coming from the village.
As the helicopter flew away, the enemy transitioned their fire directly onto the landing zone, where the remaining force had little protection.
"I hadn't had fire that close to me in a very long time," said Seidl. "If I had an [entrenching tool] I would have dug a Ranger grave and gotten as low as I could into that field."
Dawn had broken by this point, taking with it the cover of darkness. The enemy fire was so concentrated that the second MEDEVAC helicopter couldn't land, forcing the Special Forces operators to move their wounded another 300 meters to a tree line. Improvising to assist in the movement, Seidl and Morrison used a nearby donkey to help carry Gloyer to the new extraction point.
When they made it, Seidl called the evacuation. And, as the sun rose on the morning of Nov. 3, the remaining men left the area.
Despite a night filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, these Special Forces operators accomplished a difficult mission. In total, the Special Forces Soldiers killed 27 Taliban insurgents along with three high-value area Taliban commanders.
"I feel content that their network was severely hindered and damaged, and probably going to be out of commission for quite a while." Seidl said.
For taking charge of a depleted force and establishing a defensive posture that repelled every subsequent attack, for making the tough call on multiple air strikes near his own position and leading men under his charge out of a hostile city after inflicting catastrophic damage on multiple enemies, Seidl was awarded the Silver Star Medal.
It was a bittersweet victory, however, with the devastating losses of Byers and Gloyer.
"I know we've taken losses in the past," Seidl said, "but I don't know that we've ever taken a loss like this in quite some time, where a team is hit this hard."
The losses of Byers and Gloyer affected every member of the Special Forces unit. Morrison will never forget the men's professionalism and commitment to the team and mission.
"Both of them were extremely dedicated," Morrison said. "Both of them believed in what they were doing."
Morrison explained that, despite the dangers, despite the risks and the hardships, being a Green Beret is ultimately a calling.
"When we sign up for Special Forces, we volunteer several times," he said. "We volunteer to join the Army, then we volunteer to go to [Special Forces] selection, then we stay around and deal with all the hardships of the [Special Forces] qualification course. So it goes without saying that those guys wanted to be where they were that night."
"Some of the things that I saw of the men that night was some of the most courageous and amazing things I'd ever seen," Seidl added, "or could ever hope to see."
For their actions that night, the Special Forces team were awarded three Silver Star Medals, three Bronze Star Medals (two with Valor), four Army Commendation Medals with Valor, and six Purple Heart Medals.
Their valorous actions were recognized during a ceremony held at Fort Carson, Colorado, Feb. 1, 2017.