Spc. Michael Carter will be awarded the Silver Star for actions while he was attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group for an April 6 battle in Afghanistan. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
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It was daybreak on April 6 when the air assault force thundered around the corner of a mountain in northeastern Afghanistan into what they knew would be a buzz saw.
A swarm of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters packed with about 40 Special Forces soldiers from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group and another 100 Afghan special operations commandos descended into the rugged Shok valley in Nuristan province, what they called in the battle narrative "a well known sanctuary of the Hezeb Islamic al Gulbadin terrorist organization."
Carrying at least 60 pounds of gear on their backs, some of the men jumped down 10 feet onto the ice-covered ground from the hovering helicopters. Operating at about 10,000 feet, the group began a grueling two-mile trek alongside a fast-moving river, moving toward a higher ground. There, a heavily armed force of insurgents waited.
The plan was to fight from above, but they began taking fire during the ascent onto a terraced ridgeline, and for the next seven hours a furious battle would test the Green Berets' mettle in ways even the most experienced hadn't seen.
Danger-close air support strikes just 40 feet above one position - where the mission commander and others were pinned into a shallow nook on a cliff face - blocked out the sun and rained down huge rocks that broke soldiers' bones. Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades popped and exploded all around them. Snipers cut them off from movement and critically wounded team members who tried to get to them.
"I am a medic, a civilian [emergency medical technician] and I've been through a lot of combat in different deployments and I've seen a lot of trauma. Some of the trauma we saw that day was by far the worst I've seen," Capt. Kyle Walton, mission commander and commander of Operational Detachment Alpha 3336, told Army Times in a phone interview from Fort Bragg, N.C.
One soldier on the mountain that day had never seen anything close to real combat.
Spc. Michael Carter, 25, a combat documentation and production specialist with 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), was near the end of his first deployment to Afghanistan and was there that day to videotape parts of the mission.
He was filling in for his more experienced boss, a staff sergeant who was sick, and joined the men of ODA 3336 only hours before they departed for the mission.
Carter is one of 10 soldiers who on Dec. 12 were awarded Silver Star medals for heroic actions in that battle.
Read the soldiers' narratives from the battle
According to Combat Camera's historical records, he is the first soldier in that military occupational specialty to be awarded the Army's third-highest award for valor.
"He did spectacularly," Walton said. "That day Carter was not a combat cameraman, that day Carter was a Green Beret. He acted that way on the ground and that's why I put him in for the award."
Rifle instead of a camera
During an interview with Army Times at his company's Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, Carter recalled what happened.
"We hit one terrace and started contact. My camera was in my bag, so I pulled my rifle and started shooting at movement. Rounds starting popping around me and I climbed to the next level and ran for cover where the captain and the [joint tactical air controller] were at. It was a nook inside the mountain wall, like half a bubble," he said. "One of the interpreters got shot in the head about three feet from us."
Walton, who also received a Silver Star, said he pulled the interpreter's body toward their position and used it as a shield.
"I'm not proud of that but that's what he would have wanted us to do, and I would hope my men would do that with me," Walton said.
As Walton, Carter and two others tried to make themselves as flat as possible against the cliff, two ODA team members were struck down in front of them as they approached their position. Both were critically wounded, including Staff Sgt. John Walding whose leg had been severed by a sniper's bullet. They were receiving secondary sniper shots as they lay there just outside Walton's reach.
"Because rounds were kicking all around us from fighting positions at 360 degrees and the enemy was maneuvering above us on another terrace, I realized one of us, either Carter or I, were going to die if we went out to get those casualties," Walton recalled. "But when your soldiers are down in front of you and they're continuing to get hit and they've already been hit multiple times, you gotta do something. I remember looking at Carter and saying ‘OK, you take the guy on the left and I'll take the guy on the right. Let's go.' And we both went out there and pulled them back."
Carter recalls Walton ordering him to do it. But Walton had a different take, saying Carter "is too humble."
"He didn't do that because I ordered him to do that, he did that out of his own courage and he was helping out a guy he potentially had met just the night before."
Carter's video camera, which he had packed into his ruck before ascending the mountain, was shot through with a bullet that also sliced open his Camelbak bladder, spilling cold water down his body as the fighting raged on.
Walton also credited Carter with getting his critically wounded soldiers off the mountain by breaking their fall with his own body at the bottom of a 60-foot drop on the other side of the mountain, and with performing medical tasks Carter was only minimally trained to do.
"He did some pretty remarkable and heroic things during the day that, quite frankly, he was not as well-prepared or trained for as the rest of the guys on the ground. Yet as soon as that camera was gone he was a fighter like everyone else. It's because of his actions that a lot of the guys in my detachment are still alive today," Walton said.
At the end of the day, the U.S. forces had suffered bad wounds, but all made it back alive. In addition to Walton's interpreter, one Afghan commando was killed. Walton estimated up to 200 of the enemy were killed in action.
Carter is now being recruited by 3rd Special Forces Group to become a permanent attachment to their teams.
"Believe me, I've seen him in action. He's got everything we're looking for right now," Walton said.
Carter hasn't made a decision yet, but said he likes the special operations environment.
"When we were coming down the mountainside, one of the guys asked me, ‘When are you coming to the team?' It's got me thinking about it," he said.
Carter may have more than courage, though. In the interview at Fort Meade he exhibited the qualities of what Special Forces soldiers call a "quiet professional," offering only a glimpse of some of the praise he received after the battle.
"I'd rather keep all that stuff to myself," he said. "We just talked."