Longest Day: Bringing the team home from Shok Valley
By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service | republished with permission of DOD
WASHINGTON -- Then-Sgt.1st Class Matthew Williams was anticipating a critical phone call, as he waited patiently inside his pickup truck in front of his home near Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
A month prior, Williams received a series of odd messages from the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, or G-1. At first, the Special Forces team sergeant brushed it off, thinking it was some form of administrative error.
The lieutenant colonel on the line assured that her inquiry was no mistake, Williams said.
"She said we wanted to set up a call with a senior Department of Defense official. I had no idea. I didn't know if they cut my orders off, or if I owed the Army a bunch of money and I was kicked out," Williams said as he smiled. "I said, 'Sure; if a senior DOD official wants to call me, I guess they're more than welcome to.'"
As his truck idled softly in his driveway, Williams' cellphone rang. "'Please hold the line for the President of the United States,'" the person said.
"I was kind of shocked at that point," he said. Frantic, Williams texted his wife, Kate, and asked her to join him outside.
"President Trump came on the line and [started] talking about the Medal of Honor and what it means," Williams recalled. "Then, he told me that my [Silver Star] award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. I was pretty much speechless. I didn't know what to say to the president."
As Kate entered the truck, she overheard the tail end of the conversation.
The president said, "'We are excited to see your family and meet everyone at the White House,'" Williams said.
Slightly confused, Kate took a moment to try and connect the dots. She was aware that former-Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer II, a Special Forces medic, was recently selected to receive the Medal of Honor. Williams and Shurer were both assigned to the same Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA, in 2008.
"I thought that the president was calling to congratulate the team … and welcome us to the White House in a few weeks," Kate said.
It did not take long for Matt to reveal the good news.
"I didn't believe it," Kate said. "I think I probably said, 'Are you kidding me, are you kidding me,' [multiple] times."
As they both sat in the car -- tears streaming down Kate's face -- she asked her husband one vital question: "What did you do?"
SHOK VALLEY -- APRIL 6, 2008
It was an early morning wake-up for ODA 3336, 3rd Special Forces Group, on April 6, 2008. The sun was rising, sending light throughout the team's staging area near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
That morning, then-Sgt. Matthew Williams, a weapons sergeant during the operation, was hard at work with 14 other Special Forces operators. The team stayed busy, checking gear and weapons, and synching with their larger Afghan commando force, Williams said.
Several hours had passed, along with the original launch time for the team's upcoming mission. Weather conditions in the region grounded the force and almost canceled the operation, he said.
"We kind of had a little bit of a lull, which is an interesting way to start the day," Williams said. "Once we got told we were going to go, that shift in focus had to happen. Everybody got their mind right, and we were ready."
After boarding a series of CH-47 Chinooks, the team set off. Their mission: take out or capture high-value targets of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an insurgent group residing in the heart of Shok Valley.
According to intelligence reports, an undetermined amount of adversaries protected their location.
"I actually don't even remember how long the flight was," Williams said. "Personally, I like to remain calm during a flight. Once we know we're there … I get a little bit of an adrenaline dump. You never know what's on the other side of that helicopter.
"Once we got there, the helicopters came to hover. We were expecting them to land. We looked at the crew chief, and he told us to go -- it was about a 10-foot drop," Williams said. "It was rocky and a lot more treacherous than we thought. Luckily, we didn't sustain any injuries."
The joint attacking force offloaded slowly just south of their objective. With the extended time it took to off-load, the team lost their element of surprise.
"Most notably, I remember it was actually very quiet," Williams recalled after the Chinooks left the area. "That happens quite often. Usually, the helicopters fly in, the bad guys have time to leave, and then we go clear their village. That happened a couple of times on that [deployment] already."
After reconsolidating the force, teams of Special Forces and Afghan commandos divided into three elements. From there, it was a short hike to the enemy's encampment -- a series of stacked buildings recessed along the summit of the terraced mountainside.
The first command and control team took the point and began the treacherous hike through the riverbed. They were the first to ascend the mountain, Williams said.
Williams and his team were still near the base of the mountain, "when all of a sudden everything exploded all at once," he said. "Machine-gun fire and [rocket-propelled grenades] started going off. That is when everything started getting loud and chaotic."
With a majority of his element still pushing up through the riverbed, the team scattered to find cover. The enemy force maintained an elevated vantage point, providing an advantage over the attacking force.
Williams and his teammates had a decent visual of the buildings on the leading edge of the village and started to engage.
"We were able to return fire for a while, and that's when then things started getting a little haywire," Williams said. "That is when we got the call."
DRIVEN TOWARD SERVICE
Prior to joining the Army, Williams hoped to one day find a job in law enforcement as a detective, or an assignment with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Raised in Boerne, Texas, Williams spent the majority of his childhood years in the small town of less than 5,000 people in the 1990s. Williams eventually enrolled at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a minor in business administration.
"So, 9/11 happened, and now we're at war," Williams said. "I started thinking about other ways to serve and looked into the military."
Williams started doing some research and found the 18X Army Special Forces candidate program.
"That really kind of fit the bill of what I was looking to do," he said. "I knew that the Green Berets were behind enemy lines doing good stuff. And they were at the forefront of the war in Afghanistan at that time. So, I saw that as a great opportunity."
In 2005, Williams departed for infantry one-station unit training. Once completed, Williams transferred to Fort Bragg for the Special Forces qualification course, and other advanced training. Eventually, he graduated as an 18B Special Forces weapons sergeant.
Special Forces weapons sergeants are capable of operating and maintaining a wide variety of U.S., allied and foreign weaponry. They often go behind enemy lines to recruit, train and equip friendly forces to mission objectives.
In addition to being an expert on weapons systems, 18Bs are considered "masters of tactics," and assist the command team as tactical advisors, Williams added. Further, 18Bs support the team's training initiatives by improving or refining Soldiers' marksmanship skills, and advising the team on small unit tactics, rates of fire, patrols, and ambushes, to name a few.
The team's actions in Shok Valley happened during Williams' first-ever deployment. Several months after his return, he reunited with an old friend, Kate, during a friend's wedding that summer.
"We were in second grade in physical education class, and we were square dancing partners," Kate said. "Our families moved separate ways throughout the years, and we shared some mutual family friends."
The couple quickly became close. During the early parts of their relationship, Kate resided in Texas, while Matt continued his career at Fort Bragg. The couple managed a long-distance relationship for about a year and a half until Kate decided to move to North Carolina.
It didn't take long for the couple to get engaged and later married. Their family grew with the birth of their son, Nolan.
Throughout their relationship, Matt deployed five times and participated in countless extended in-field training rotations. His deployments would last eight or nine months, which made it difficult on Kate who tried to keep busy by working at a full-time job.
"Of course you can't prepare for that, but this is what he loves to do," she said.
ORGANIZING A COUNTER-ASSAULT
Back in Shok Valley, tensions grew as the enemy continued to fire on the joint team's location. With the team pinned down at a higher elevation and with multiple injuries, the team's command and control element requested support, Williams said.
Then-Master Sgt. Scott Ford, the team sergeant, gathered a small counter-assault team to provide support at the first element's location. Joining the group was Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II, the only medic assigned during the operation.
Williams also volunteered himself and his heavy weapons squad as reinforcements, he said. Once assembled, the counter-assault team cut across a waist-deep, ice-cold river, and fought their way up the terraced mountainside to the besieged team's location.
As they arrived, Williams noticed that then-Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr and then-Staff Sgt. Luis Morales were both injured. An Afghan interpreter who went by the name "C.K." appeared to be dead. Shurer moved to the wounded and began providing lifesaving care.
The counter-assault team immediately synched with then-Capt. Kyle Walton, the operation commander, and provided a solid base of suppressive fire to keep the enemy at bay.
"Everybody else was hunkered down," Williams said. "We tried to figure out … how we're going to get the wounded guys out of there. We had to figure out what made sense at that point, or if we had the ability to push into the village."
With little to no cover at their current location, the best option was to move back down to the base of the mountain and set up a casualty collection point, Williams said. However, with the terraced terrain, the lead element needed more manpower to create "a chain of personnel" to safely maneuver casualties down a series of steep drops.
Understanding the severity of the situation, Williams moved about halfway down the mountain through continuous enemy fire, to garner support. Around the same time, then-Staff Sgt. John Walding and then-Sgt. David Sanders came down from a higher elevation, and returned to the lead element's position to support evacuation efforts, Williams said.
As Walding tried to evacuate personnel, an enemy sniper connected with his lower right leg, amputating his limb right below the knee. At the same time, a different sniper made contact with Ford's chest plate, knocking him to the ground.
Shaken by the initial shot, Ford got back on his feet only to be shot a second time. This time, the bullet penetrated Ford's left arm then bounced off Shurer's helmet. Shurer was able to recover and continued to provide care while concurrently directing others to aid Ford and Walding.
"We had four casualties up there," Williams said. "I went back up to assess the situation. Scott was ambulatory -- so he could walk. He already had a tourniquet put on his upper left arm, but not the best dressing. So, I was able to get him up on his feet and then helped him climb down, at which point I passed him to [Howard]."
Then-Staff Sgt. Seth Howard, a weapons sergeant and trained sniper during the operation, grabbed Ford and led him down to the temporary collection point at the base of the mountain.
As Ford was being helped down to the casualty collection point, Williams returned to the lead element's position and continued the fight.
"We knew we had three patients that we needed to move on litters. The plan remained the same at that point. We needed to still get enough guys up to their position … to where we can pass these litters down and get them off," Williams said.
Returning near the base of the mountain, Williams, Howard, and their Afghan counterparts provided suppressive fire and directed personnel. At the same time, the lead element consolidated the injured and started the treacherous hike down the steep terrain.
"I was trying to establish a corridor to kind of move these guys through," Williams said. "At the same time [then-Sgt. David Sanders] and a couple of others were looking for other options on the backside of the mountain."
It was around that point in the operation when the lines of communication between Williams and his other teammates went silent, he said.
"Time kind of stood still," Williams said. "Once we didn't hear from them for a long time, [Howard] and I decided we needed to go [help]."
Linking back up with his commando squad, the team started moving toward Sanders' and the lead element's last known location, Williams said.
"My biggest concern was going up there and [finding] five or six dead buddies," Williams said. "I knew we couldn't go up the same way that we had gone because it had been taking pretty heavy fire."
Searching for another route along the terraced mountainside, Williams identified a scalable cliff face that curved around to a small outcrop. Since the path was too small to move the larger commando force efficiently, Howard and Williams put themselves at risk and cut across the steep surface.
Meanwhile, their Afghan force continued to engage the enemy from their location.
"We just continued to pull everybody else off … to a new casualty collect point -- established out of necessity," Williams added. "Once we got that established, [Shurer] was able to work the guys as best he could. I went back around to the front area and insured security was laid in well, (so) that we could provide a base of fire if needed."
As the medical evacuation helicopters touched down, parts of the joint team continued to secure the area while Williams and other operators helped move casualties onto the aircraft. The team was under a constant barrage of enemy fire the entire time.
"I know their helicopter got shot up quite a bit, but they came in and saved the day," Williams said.
After the wounded were evacuated, the remaining Special Forces team reconsolidated their Afghan commandos and tried to secure all of their critical command and control assets.
"Since there were so many wounded guys, we had to make sure that their equipment didn't get left behind," Williams said.
Once completed, the joint force retreated from the area to another extraction point.
The entire mission lasted for more than six hours. During that time, Williams and the joint force fought about 200 adversaries and survived a series of friendly, danger-close airstrikes.
"It was a brutally long day, and we're just lucky it worked out for the best," Williams said. "We brought everybody home. Some guys have some lifelong injuries that they're dealing with, but it could've been a lot worse."
MEDAL OF HONOR
While grateful for the Medal of Honor nomination, now-Master Sgt. Williams would like to maintain his current role within Special Forces. In fact, Williams was originally notified by the president in September 2018, but requested to delay his ceremony until he returned from his deployment.
Through it all, Williams recognized the impact Ford had on his career. Ford was ODA 3336's former team sergeant.
"You know, your first team sergeant when you're young and coming out of Q course pretty much becomes a role model. I looked up to him," Williams said. "I think one of the biggest takeaways I took from [Ford] was the focus that he put on training, and the focus that he put on training the Afghans."
Ford stressed the importance of "being prepared, knowing your job, knowing your equipment, and an understanding that this is a profession that you have chosen," he said. "I think through my entire career, I have learned to remain level-headed and focused on what needs to happen, as opposed to what is happening."
For his actions in Shok Valley, Williams will receive the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House Oct 30, 2019.
"I'm honored to receive it. It is just weird to think that I did something that great," he said. "We just did what Green Berets do. We stuck to our training, and we did our job and got everybody home."
Williams joins a handful of recipients that have been recognized with the Medal of Honor for heroism in Afghanistan. In 2013, Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha and Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter received the award for their heroic actions during the Battle of Kamdesh at Combat Outpost Keating on Oct. 3, 2009.
Before Shok Valley, Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, assigned to ODA 3312, received the nation's highest honor posthumously for helping his teammates escape from another Afghan valley full of insurgents. Then, on Oct. 1, Shurer received the medal for his actions in Shok Valley.
"This Medal of Honor … ultimately represents ODA 3336 and how we operated that entire deployment," he said. "We were a great team that came together as a family, and that's what led to ultimately our success.
"That is what people need to understand when they see the Medal of Honor. It's for the team. It's for the regiment. And it's for the Special Forces community -- that is what it's all about."