FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq - The details were sketchy. The only information coming in was 10 Iraqi Army soldiers had been killed and their brigade commander was taking fire and needed help.
With that little bit of information and the belief they were facing a force of no more than 15 or 20 militants, 12 paratroopers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division's Military Transition Team 0810, went to the aid of the soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 8th Iraqi Army Division, Jan. 28.
The paratroopers' initial mission was to help provide close air support and communication with the helicopters circling high above the fire fight taking place on the ground just north of Najaf.
However, the mission quickly changed as the team approached the site of the ongoing battle. Nearing the battle, the paratroopers saw an AH-64 Apache helicopter fall from the sky.
Immediately the MiTT's mission changed. They moved to the site of the downed chopper to protect the wreckage and look for the pilots.
"When I saw the Apache go down, it immediately changed everything. There was no (Iraqi Army), there was no 12 people, it was all irrelevant," said Master Sgt. Thomas Ballard, non-commissioned officer in charge of MiTT 0810. "Everything was focused on that crash site; nothing else mattered. That's where we had to go and that's what we did."
Once the small team of paratroopers reached the crash site, security became priority number one.
"As we reached the crash site - we were driving on a road parallel to the crash site - so I decided to have Master Sgt. Ballard's vehicle, the lead vehicle, pull onto the far side and the rest of our convoy would remain on the other side," said Lt. Col. Stephen Hughes, deputy commanding officer of the 4th BCT and the MiTT team chief.
"As my vehicle pulled into position in an open area, we started receiving contact with heavy machine-gun fire and an RPG was launched at us," he added.
It didn't take long for the paratroopers to realize they were up against more than a small 15- to 20-man force.
"We began engaging, and continued engaging. There were 265 bodies reported at the end, but I can tell you, there was more than that," Ballard continued. "Everything we shot was targets and collectively, we burned up about 11,000 rounds of machine gun ammo, M4 ammo, M203 grenade launcher ammo and 10 air strikes."
Once the fighting began, it didn't end for the 12-man team until nearly three hours later when backup finally arrived.
"There were a lot of bullets flying, we were only a small group of people and didn't know whether we could hold our position if the enemy made a concerted effort to get to the helicopter," said Maj. John Reed, MiTT operations officer.
Not only were the militants well-armed, they were well-entrenched and prepared to die for their cause.
"The guys we were up against were the Soldiers of Heaven cult, led by a man who believed he was the 12th Imam," Ballard said. "It was said that upon his return, the demise of all the other leaders, religious and otherwise would mark his coming and he was planning to put that into effect the very next day coincidentally.
"They had ungodly amounts of weapons. There were tunnels, bunkers, there were even trenches, and they were around the entire perimeter of the compound," he continued. "It wasn't until the next day that we found out there was almost 1,000 people on that objective and what we were really up against."
After the fighting was over, more than 400 militants were captured. Many more cult members died during the fighting.
For their actions during the battle against such a large foe, and for their willingness to sacrifice themselves to never leave their fallen comrades, the entire 12-man team was awarded Army Commendation Medals for valor.
Ballard, Hughes and Reed were further recognized Sept. 9 for their actions. Ballard received the Silver Star, while Hughes received a Bronze Star for valor and Reed the Bronze Star.
"Master Sgt. Ballard's actions on the day of the fight and the following day were phenomenal," Reed said. "His dedication to the mission, his disregard for the enemy threat, and his lead from the front attitude has been an inspiration for us all."