WASHINGTON (Oct. 15, 2007) - When Staff Sgt. Jason Fetty put himself between a suicide bomber and the bomber's intended targets at the grand opening of a new medical facility in Khost, Afghanistan, he wasn't thinking of the strategic, or even tactical, importance of his actions.
All he wanted was to protect his fellow soldiers, the Afghan people they were helping and the new emergency room his provincial reconstruction team had spent months working to make a reality.
Today, the 32-year-old pharmacist from Parkersburg, W. Va., is becoming the first Army Reserve Soldier to receive the Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Fetty's commander said his actions went far beyond saving "countless, countless lives."
"His actions, along with the actions of others on the team, really prevented a strategic catastrophe," said Navy Cmdr. John F.G. Wade, who commanded Joint Provisional Reconstruction Team Khost during the late-February incident.
Provisional reconstruction teams serve a vital role in Afghanistan, Cdr. Wade explained. They complement maneuver forces in separating the enemy from the people, connecting people to the Afghan government and helping the government meet the needs of the people.
"We truly are deployed to contribute to the betterment of others," Cdr. Wade said. "But that is a threat to the enemy, because what we are doing is giving hope, providing opportunity, creating a better future for the people of Afghanistan."
That makes the 25 PRTs' achievements in Afghanistan -- including the opening of a new emergency room for almost 1 million Khost province citizens -- prime targets for terrorists, he said.
That's exactly what happened when members of the Khost PRT joined officials from throughout the province to celebrate the facility's opening Feb. 20. "We were all there to celebrate the fact that we had come together, worked together as a team to achieve a common desire, and that was to help the people," Cdr. Wade said.
But among the medical professionals who had come from all corners of Khost was a man in a doctor's lab coat nobody else recognized.
Staff Sgt. Fetty, a PRT member who was pulling guard duty outside the building alongside the newly arrived 82nd Airborne Division, watched as a sea of white lab coats came rushing out of the building and past him. After more than 10 months in Khost, Fetty had worked closely with the local medical community and recognized each doctor's face.
He turned to ensure the 82nd Division troops didn't fire and cleared them from the area, noting that "those guys had no way of knowing these were actual doctors. I was the only one who knew they weren't bad guys."
When Staff Sgt. Fetty turned back toward the building, the "bad guy" was standing directly in front of him, disguised as a doctor. Fetty had never laid eyes on him before and immediately knew something was wrong. "He was crazy in the eyes. He looked like he was on drugs, and he was acting very erratic. He definitely didn't look right," Staff Sgt. Fetty said.
"Every Soldier who has been in combat or been downrange knows when something is not right," he continued. "You can feel it. You can see it. It's a general sinking feeling that things are not going to go right. You feel it in your gut."
Staff Sgt. Fetty's military training kicked in. He began going through his "escalation of force" commands: "Stop. Get down." The "doctor" ignored him, and tried to grab him.
Staff Sgt. Fetty wanted to fire a warning shot, but feared it would ricochet and hit the hospital or someone gathered in the crowd around it. The suspect continued to close in on him and grabbed the barrel of his rifle. At this point, Fetty started to fear the worst. "I was pretty sure he had a (suicide) vest on under his lab coat, but I still didn't know for sure," he said.
Rather than shirking him off, Staff Sgt. Fetty used the distance his weapon created between him and his attacker to his advantage. "I knew that if he grabbed hold of my armor or my person in any way, I was toast," he said. "There was no getting out of it at that point. I wouldn't be able to stop him from detonating himself."
He slowly maneuvered toward a clearing between the hospital and the nearby administrative huts, away from the crowd. "I figured that if I stalled him long enough, everyone else would do their job and get the area cleared," he said.
Staff Sgt. Fetty kept his eyes locked with his attackers'. "The last thing I wanted him to do was lose focus on me, because he didn't want me," he said. "The governor of the province was there, and he was the primary target. Suicide bombers rarely attack Americans; they want government officials. So I had to keep his focus on me."
As the struggle continued, Staff Sgt. Fetty recognized he probably wouldn't survive. "You resign yourself pretty quick. You just stop thinking at that point about yourself," he said. "It was either going to be me or 20 other people back there. ... Suicide bombers are next to impossible to stop. All you can do is limit the damage that they can do."
The chain of events "becomes sketchy" when Staff Sgt. Fetty recalls what happened after he maneuvered the attacker around the corner from the crowd. "Things happened very, very quickly," he said. Friends told Staff Sgt. Fetty he tackled the attacker, but he doesn't remember that. He recalls hitting him with the butt of his weapon, then firing warning shots at the ground near his feet.
The attacker came at him, so Staff Sgt. Fetty fired into his lower legs, then his kneecap. "He stood back up, even though I gave him a crippling wound," he said. "He got back up and tried to come at me again."
Staff Sgt. Fetty said he remembers hearing the blast of weapons from other members of the security team firing at the attacker. He shot again, at the man's stomach. He'd heard that it's safe to fire into a suicide vest, but didn't want to test his luck by firing into the attacker's chest. "That's a bad way for me to end up in a bunch of pieces," he said.
Then the attacker looked at Staff Sgt. Fetty with "the scariest face I've ever seen." The standoff had turned personal. "Earlier, he just looked crazy, but now he wanted to kill me," Staff Sgt. Fetty said. "I knew what his intent was, and I abandoned all hopes of killing the guy before he would explode."
Staff Sgt. Fetty took three steps before making a "Hollywood dive." The blast came as he hit the ground, peppering him with shrapnel in the face, leg and ankle. All that remained where he had struggled with the attacker was a big hole in the ground.
For several months after the incident, Staff Sgt. Fetty second-guessed his actions. He fretted that several other soldiers and an Afghan security guard had received shrapnel wounds. Should he have shot sooner or done something differently' "Maybe I could have done it so nobody got hurt, or at least just I got hurt," he said.
In the end, he accepted that he'd made the best of a bad situation by limiting collateral damage as he applied the training that had been grilled into him. "We train hard," and for every imaginable scenario, including dealings with a suicide bomber, he said. "You go through your rules of engagement and pray that it all works out the way it's supposed to. This time it happened to work out."
Although he's proud to receive the Silver Star, Staff Sgt. Fetty said anyone in his shoes would have acted the same way. "I don't really believe in valor that much," he said. "It's more like the set of circumstances you're put in. I think there are plenty of people over there who are just as brave as I am, who fortunately never found themselves in that situation."
He said he's convinced that everyone possesses traits of heroism. "It's in every human nature to protect someone else," he said, particularly those they've bonded with through hundreds of combat missions and countless hours of ping-pong. "It's a combination of training, loyalty to your friends and basic human nature," he said.
Still assigned to a medical holding company at Fort Bragg, N.C., Staff Sgt. Fetty said he looks forward to getting back to his troops to instill some of the lessons he's learned. "You stick to the basics," he said. "Always have a plan, stick to the plan, but be prepared to change the plan when you need to."
Looking back, he said he's glad he felt compelled to volunteer for duty in Afghanistan, even changing his military specialty so he could deploy as part of the civil affairs team.
He's convinced the PRTs are making "a huge difference" in Afghanistan. "It's absolutely vital," he said. "We build roads, build bridges, improve health care. The Afghan government doesn't really have the means to fix itself by itself."
Working among the Afghan people was "amazing," he said. "Every time we'd go and stop someplace, people were happy to see us. Kids knew 'PRT' meant that we were going to fix something. We were going to improve their life in some way."
Cdr. Wade said Staff Sgt. Fetty's actions during a celebration of a PRT milestone "exemplified what we are trying to achieve." By standing firmly in the face of danger, Staff Sgt. Fetty demonstrated "that we really are there to help the people of Afghanistan," he said.
Staff Sgt. Fetty's actions had a ripple effect in Khost province, he said. Furious that terrorists would try to undo the progress being made, local leaders and mullahs staged a peace rally following the would-be attack. They decreed acts of violence "unIslamic," Cdr. Wade said, and helped get word out to the people "that the United States and coalition are truly here to help."
Cdr. Wade said he's glad Staff Sgt. Fetty is being recognized for his actions, "and for the tactical and strategic impact he had."
"It was an incredible honor to have served with him," he said.
(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service)