A heroic story

A couple of years ago, I started a series of posts I called “Project Hero” over at QandO to honor some of the heroes who I thought weren’t getting the mainstream recognition they deserved in the media. It has been a labor of love and an honor to do. Some of the stories are mindboggling when you consider what these men and women have endured and done. And there are few that leave you dry-eyed. Today, for a change, instead of politics, I’d like to share one of those stories with you. It features Special Forces MSG Brendan O’Connor, ODA 765, of the 7th Special Forces Group. But I think he’d be the first to tell you that the results of this action were truly a team effort. And you’ll realize why they call the Green Berets, “the quiet professionals”. The story comes from a variety of sources.

The story of O’Connor’s heroism begins in June 2006, when Capt. Sheffield Ford III led his 8 Special Forces soldiers, 8 other Americans and 48 members of the Afghan national army into the villages near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement was born. They called it Operation Kaika. Like so many of the battles in the war for Afghanistan, it took place in obscurity.

Ford’s team of Special Forces soldiers had been hearing reports that the resurgent Taliban was forcing Afghans out of their villages. So the Americans and their Afghan allies moved in with the plan of killing or capturing as many enemy fighters as they could find.

The country around Kandahar is forbidding: Huge, dusty fields cut by irrigation ditches. The team’s vehicles couldn’t get through, so the men pushed on on foot.

When they reached a compound they believed belonged to a local Taliban commander, they seized it and set up a base.

The Taliban attacked at nightfall. Scores of enemy fighters hit from three sides with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. There were hundreds of them.

“And it’s like all hell breaks loose. Literally, all hell breaks loose,” remembers CPT Ford. “The enemy is firing at all directions at us. And soldiers are trying to identify the positions and return fire. They had completely surrounded us and were firing at us with multiple systems.”

American forces were accustomed to quick hit and run attacks by the Taliban, but Ford and Master Sergeant Brendan O’Connor say they were shocked by the sustained, organized assault in the village.

“We had not seen this disciplined execution of infantry tactics,” Sgt. O’Connor explained.

But Ford and his team were able to beat back the attack.

The next day, the team located the compound from which the Taliban were staging their assault on the American-Afghan force.

Master Sgt. Thom Maholic — the Special Forces team sergeant — volunteered to clear out the compound with 20 Afghan soldiers. He split his men into two groups and dispatched Staff Sgt. Matthew Binney to set up a machine gun to cover the assault.

Binney took Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Fuerst III, a Florida National Guard infantryman attached to the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 765 and nine Afghan soldiers with him and set up the machine gun. Maholic quickly routed the enemy force in the compound, but the Taliban counterattacked in force. As hundreds of enemy fighters poured in, Maholic’s men and the small group with Binney were surrounded. At the same time, the Taliban hit Ford’s base.

Binney and his team were under intense fire. Moving through a hole in a mud wall, they stumbled into a group of Taliban fighters. Both groups were surprised, but Binney and the Americans reacted first with furious fire and hand grenades at close range and kept from being overrun. They were close enough to the Taliban to hear them yelling insults and threats.

Then Binney went down, hit with a bullet in the back of the head.

The bullet fractured Binney’s skull. “I didn’t hear anything. It was just the loudest buzzing I’d ever heard out of both ears. Any my vision was real blurred as well,” he remembers.

Dazed and briefly blind and deaf, Binney still managed to organize an attack on a Taliban position, but a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into Staff Sgt. Fuerst’s leg.

Despite his injuries, Binney, who was the team medic, got up and kept fighting. “That’s when I was hit the second time. Went through my shoulder,” Binney says.

Binney had no shoulder left. “It wasn’t connected structurally anymore,” he explains.

The Taliban managed to get within shouting distance of the two wounded Americans and started taunting their Afghan translator.

“A lot of the things that the Taliban were yelling at them while they were shooting at each other was that, ‘Hey, you’re a fellow Muslim, we can forgive you, just put your weapons down and walk away. We want the Americans alive,'” Ford remembers.

“The things they would have done to me if they had caught me alive – you can only imagine what they would have done,” Binney says. “The kind of propaganda they would have been able to have made – it would have been real bad.”

Over the radio, the translator, named Jacob, told Ford the situation was so dire that he was prepared to kill the two wounded Americans and himself just so they wouldn’t be taken hostage.

“He said that he was willing to make sure that both of them were killed. And that he would kill himself so that nobody would be taken alive by the Taliban. Because he understood what would happen if they were to capture ’em,” Ford says.

Asked what he said to that, Ford said, “I told him not to. I said, ‘We’ve got people coming.'”

Sergeant First Class Abram Hernandez was teetering on top of a ladder he had climbed at the corner of a building to get a clear shot at the Taliban fighters trying to take Matthew Binney and Joe Fuerst prisoner.

“Seeing Hernandez propped up at that ridiculous angle was absolutely inspiring,” says O’Connor. “You could see the tracer rounds actually flail the wall in front of him. And he’d duck down and then pop back up and tracer rounds were coming, they were whizzing right by our heads.”

O’Connor volunteered to lead an effort to get to the besieged assault force. He fought his way to Maholic with eight Afghan soldiers, an interpreter and another Special Forces soldier. Maholic told O’Connor and his relief force to go after the wounded.

O’Connor led his men along a wall that provided cover from Taliban machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. When he got to the end of the wall, O’Connor realized that the wounded soldiers were 200 feet away, across an open field. The field was covered by three Taliban machine guns.

While Hernandez was firing from the ladder and his own Afghan gunners providing machine-gun fire to cover him, , O’Connor started crawling toward Binney and Fuerst. Some of the Afghan soldiers tried to follow, but they were turned back by the volume of Taliban fire.

With bullets smacking into the dirt and cutting the grass, O’Connor realized that he couldn’t get low enough unless he took off his body armor. So he shed his protection and crawled on. Inch by inch, he stayed below the hundreds of Taliban machine-gun rounds.

“I actually pulled back to cover, to a covered position and removed my body armor,” O’Connor remembers.

CPT Ford said everyone watching O’Connor crawl 90 yards across the open field without his bullet-proof vest couldn’t believe what he was doing.

“They described to me watching the machine gun fire go right over his body, seein’ it hit grass that he was crawlin’ through and seein’ it mow some of that down, the fires were so heavy it was literally cutting some of the grass in different spots,” Ford explains.

It took an hour and a half for O’Connor to reach Fuerst and Binney. From a rooftop, Master Sergeant Thom Maholic was single-handedly holding down a group of advancing Taliban who were threatening the rescue operation.

“They were coming to take that compound that Thom was holding. And he would stop them by killing them or wounding them. And eventually they gave up their assault,” Ford explains.

Across the field, O’Connor reached a mud wall and hopped over it. The two wounded men were holed up among grapevines. Fuerst was in bad shape, with a gaping wound in his left leg. O’Connor tied it off and looked for a safer place to move the two men.

With Taliban fighters closing in, O’Connor picked up Fuerst and ran toward a pump house on the edge of the grapevines. He stashed Fuerst in a shaded area and scouted out the pump house, hoping enemy fighters weren’t waiting.

Nearby was a 6-foot wall bordering a dirt lane. Friendly forces had made their way there, so O’Connor got Fuerst and Binney over.

Once everyone was in the lane, O’Connor started to tend to the wounded. Breaking out his medical gear, he realized that the heat — it was about 120 degrees — had melted the glue that kept his IVs together. His gear was a mess, but he did his best to help Fuerst and Binney.

After nightfall, O’Connor led the relief force back to Maholic’s perimeter. When he got to the compound, he found out that Maholic had been killed, shot by a Taliban fighter he had spotted moving in on the compound. O’Connor took over the defense of the compound.

“They needed that leadership. Up until that point, they were in a disarray, just trying to hide and survive,” Ford said. “When he showed back up with the wounded, he provided that. He provided that leadership that was needed.”

They evacuated the wounded by helicopter as Ford called in airstrikes. After nightfall, O’Connor led the remaining defenders back to the main base.

After nearly two days of fighting, two men lost and one seriously wounded, the Green Berets were almost out of ammunition.

Apache gunships were continuing to hammer Taliban positions, but Special Forces soldiers were still surrounded. To get them out, they asked one of the pilots flying overhead to lay down an infrared beam that they used to guide them through the dark back to their patrol base. The plane fired at anything moving outside that infrared beam.

Ford says the beam could be seen on night vision, but not by the naked eye.

They were able to move a critical 600 meters using that method, a method they’d never used before.

Seventeen hours after the battle started, Ford and O’Connor led the team out of the district, leaving more than 100 Taliban fighters dead.

Despite O’Connor’s efforts to save him, the team lost Fuerst as well as their team sergeant, MSG Tom Maholic .

For their action that day, 4 members of the team, to include MSG Maholic, were awarded the Silver Star. MSG Brendan O’Connor, who had discarded his body armor and crawled for a torturous hour and half in an attempt to save two of his wounded comrades, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s 2nd higest award for valor.

In a propaganda video, the Taliban showed off Matthew Binney’s body armor as a war trophy and claimed victory, even though they lost an estimated 120 men in the fighting. That’s all they had to show because Binney’s comrades had made sure, at the risk of their own lives that Sgt’s Binney and Fuerst weren’t left behind.

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