Staff Sgt. Michael Sargent had only bad options when he looked to escape a courtyard where two of his Afghan military partners already had been killed and three more of his teammates wounded at the hands of enemies with a powerful machine gun.
He and his last remaining partner could make a break for the only open door. Taking that route would expose at least one of them to a deadly injury. Insurgents with the big gun just 25 feet away had a clear shot at the exit.
Or, Sargent could try to land a grenade in the doorway the insurgents used to shoot his teammates.
His Green Beret partner fired on the enemy doorway, giving him cover.
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Sargent stepped out in the open.
He tossed the grenade.
Insurgents kept shooting.
He hurled another grenade.
That one hit.
Sargent’s bravery that December night in Afghanistan’s Helmand province earned him one of the military’s highest honors, the Silver Star. He was one of nine Washington National Guard Special Forces soldiers recognized for valor in combat during an intense deployment that stretched from August to February.
Sargent, 30, insists the real honor for him was just knowing that his teammates nominated him for the recognition.
“It really meant a lot to me that these guys felt I was deserving of it,” said Sargent, who lives in West Seattle.
“As much of an honor as that is, I’ve always been a big believer that it’s something everyone in Special Forces is capable of. Because of the timing and whatnot, it was me in that compound, and it happened to go in a certain way, that, well, obviously my family’s glad.”
About 90 soldiers from the Washington National Guard’s A Company of the 19th Special Forces Group now are home recovering from a deployment that placed them on the front lines fighting a burgeoning insurgency in southern Afghanistan.
At any given time, those guys were out there alone and unafraid.
Maj. Aron Horiel
They were stretched across several provinces that once contained thousands of American soldiers. This time, they embedded with elite Afghan military units still fighting the Taliban and other insurgents.
“At any given time, those guys were out there alone and unafraid,” said A Company Commander Maj. Aron Horiel.
A fallen comrade
One of the company’s soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock of Tacoma, died Jan. 5 while trying to create a safe helicopter landing zone to evacuate a badly wounded Air Force teammate. McClintock, who left behind a wife and infant son, received a Silver Star for his bravery. He was buried in March at Arlington National Cemetery.
Several of the combat awards handed to A Company soldiers at a ceremony April 29 stemmed from efforts to save McClintock. One of them, Staff Sgt. Jordan Avery, received a Bronze Star recognizing the risk he took when he hauled a wounded McClintock through an irrigation canal to bring him to a place where medics could try to revive him.
“Matt’s sacrifice is something we can truly never live up to,” Horiel said. “His loss is deeply felt through the company. You can never repay what a guy like Matt sacrifices, so you just try to live every day and hope your actions live up to what he sacrificed.”
Horiel led a group of experienced soldiers who rarely deploy together. They’re mostly veterans of active-duty Special Forces units, Army Rangers or Marines who chose to re-enlist as part-time soldiers in the National Guard.
McClintock and Sargent, for example, brought with them experience from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group.
These men are heroes, plain and simple. They don't boast. They don't draw undue attention to themselves. They just get the job done.
Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty
Sargent left the active-duty Green Berets in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in business administration through the University of Virginia. He put his studies on hold last year when he learned he’d have an opportunity to deploy with A Company.
He thought it would give him a chance to prove himself as a Green Beret. He last deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2011-12 with 1st Special Forces Group, but felt unfulfilled. Others from his unit were wounded. One, Sgt. 1st Class Dae Han Park, was killed.
Sargent rarely saw the enemy that year.
“People were getting into contact, doing what they were supposed to do,” he said. “In some ways, I felt like I was benched.”
Sargent had no trouble finding the enemy on his most recent deployment. A Company soldiers were in hot spots repeatedly supporting Afghan troops in close battles with insurgents.
On Dec. 17, Sargent joined a mission attacking five compounds in Helmand province. They’re typically family homes, but referred to as compounds because each contains several buildings with a wall around the outside of the property.
Gunshots rang out at one their first targets, and Afghan commandos fled the compound. They told Sargent conflicting stories about the danger inside.
Two Afghan soldiers were missing. No one could say if they were wounded or dead.
“There was nothing for us to get behind”
Sargent decided to go in with two Green Berets, an interpreter and the one Afghan commando who wanted to join them.
With night vision goggles, he spotted one of the Afghan’s soldier’s bodies and brought it out of the compound. The group went in for the second corpse when the insurgents began shooting again, striking three of Sargent’s teammates.
I feel like I’ve given everything I can give.
Staff Sgt. Michael Sargent
The three wounded men escaped the compound, leaving Sargent and one other Green Beret to retrieve the last Afghan soldier’s body and fight the insurgents who’d killed or injured five of their partners.
They couldn’t find much cover. They crouched behind something soft that felt like a hay bale.
“Our cover wasn’t the best in retrospect. It was really nothing. There was nothing for us to get behind,” Sargent said.
They laid low and shot at the insurgents’ position, keeping them occupied in the dark.
With bullets flying in both directions, Sargent managed to pull the second Afghan body out of the compound.
That’s when he and his partner faced their difficult choice about how to get both of them out of the compound alive. No one would be able to provide cover fire for the last Green Beret in the courtyard, making that soldier an easy target for the insurgents.
Sargent and his partner noticed a fire starting to burn near where they suspected their enemies hid inside a building. Sargent’s second grenade caused the blaze to ignite further, driving five insurgents out of the compound and into the deadly gunfire of the two Green Berets.
The shootout that night and a few other battles from his last deployment gave Sargent a different feeling than his last tour in Afghanistan.
This time, he left Afghanistan believing he belonged with the Green Berets he respected as he moved up the ranks in the Army.
“I’ve done a lot here,” he said. “I feel like I’ve given everything I can give.”