Rep. Duncan Hunter ()
The Green Berets were urging a handful of anti-Taliban guerrillas up a hill outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, with Taliban machine-gun fire raining around them, when Sgt. Wes McGirr was shot through the neck. Without hesitating, Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert Magallanes, a former paramedic, stabilized McGirr’s wound and ran through the enemy fire to fetch a truck below the hill to evacuate his teammate.
Now, more than a decade later, the unit’s former commander has teamed up with three members of Congress to resubmit Magallanes, McGirr and Sgts. 1st Class Ronnie Raikes and Michael McElhiney for the Silver Star for their valorous actions. In the weeks after Sept. 11, their unit — Operational Detachment Alpha 574 — infiltrated deep into Taliban territory to organize and advise now-President Hamid Karzai’s ragtag militia in a series of battles to control southern Afghanistan.
Army Secretary John McHugh’s position on the matter has been that neither the Awards and Decorations Branch nor the chain of command has any record of Lt. Col. Jason Amerine’s two original submissions for the Silver Star. Amerine is the former commander of ODA-574.
But personnel records suggest the awards were intentionally downgraded. For the matter to be considered again, the Army would need to see new information, McHugh told Rep. Duncan Hunter in a Jan. 30 letter.
Amerine on May 17 resubmitted the original award recommendation records, along with a letter of support from Hunter, R-Calif.; John Kline, R-Minn.; and Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.
“As Secretary of the Army, we ask that you provide this case with the personal attention necessary — unique to the circumstances of the situation — to ensure these soldiers receive the recognition they deserve,” the letter reads.
In November and December 2001, the 11-man team, code-named “Texas 1-2,” successfully protected Karzai as he united the northern and southern tribes in rebellion against the Taliban, according to Eric Blehm, the author of the definitive account of ODA-574’s actions, “The Only Thing Worth Dying For.”
It was the most dangerous and politically important mission of the war to that point, Blehm said. The team accepted the mission voluntarily and despite caution from its leaders, quickly inspired Afghans in the region to rebel and protected them against superior numbers of Taliban fighters. Leading from the front, with a small force of anti-Taliban guerrillas, they “plowed through the heart of the Taliban,” he said.
“To me, it was like the Spartans in ‘300,’ against this gigantic force,” Blehm told Army Times. “And again, it was voluntary.”
Upon the unit’s insertion near Tarin Kowt, the capital of Oruzgan province, the town of 10,000 declared allegiance to Karzai, according to the Army’s official history. On Nov. 16, 2001, Taliban leaders had moved about 500 soldiers north from Kandahar to crush Karzai, who in turn rallied his handful of men to victory with help from his U.S. allies and close-air support.
“Failure to stop the attack meant that the men would be surrounded and cut off from retreat,” Amerine’s account states. “Airborne evacuation was impossible and the Taliban were not expected to take the men prisoner. The men understood that failure to defend the town meant that all of them would be killed, but they volunteered to try to save the people in spite of these dangers.”
Over several weeks, Karzai’s small force of 30 grew to an army of 800 men and began fighting its way southeast through Oruzgan to capture Kandahar — the Taliban’s birthplace — again, with help from U.S. special forces and close-air support.
However, the operation came to a tragic end for ODA-574 on Dec. 5, 2001, two days before the Taliban surrendered Kandahar. A friendly fire bomb attack killed two men on the team and 100 guerrillas. The surviving team members, all wounded, left the country.
In the blast, Raikes sustained nerve damage in his right arm; Magallanes has an extensive brain injury and other medical problems; and McElhiney, the legislative director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, lost his right hand and part of his forearm.
“To this day, there is no more geopolitically significant mission in the war on terror,” Blehm said. “Everybody can look at Karzai and decide we don’t like him, but at the time, he was our great hope. Politics aside, they did their job.”