What Makes a Hero?

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http://www.fayobserver.com/article?id=269960

Published on Sunday, August 19, 2007



What makes a hero?


By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Staff Sgt. Jude Voss saved a fellow soldier’s life, braving enemy fire to drag him to safety.

Sgt. 1st Class Greg Stube slumped in the turret of the Special Forces truck, mangled from a bomb blast.

Just seconds earlier, Stube had given Staff Sgt. Jude Voss a thumbs up as he started up the hill in southern Afghanistan.

The battle to drive the Taliban off the high ground was on, and the Special Forces soldiers were confident.

But now, black smoke billowed from the truck, and Voss could barely see Stube.

What Voss could see, though, threw him into action.

He raced through the smoke and Taliban machine-gun fire to the truck. Then he ignored the flames to climb up and drag out Stube.

Voss — a young, wiry Special Forces communications sergeant — was fresh out of training.

Stube, the barrel-chested, veteran Green Beret medic assigned to a civil affairs unit, had just returned from a stint teaching at the Special Warfare Center and School on Fort Bragg. He had volunteered for the fight.

Voss and Stube weren’t buddies. They were in different units and had met only in passing. But Voss never hesitated when he saw Stube in trouble. He saved Stube’s life.

The details of the story of Voss and Stube are unique, but the subtext is as old as war: Time and again, soldiers have risked — and sometimes lost — their lives to save comrades. The stories of their deeds are the stuff of medal citations. But those never answer a fundamental question: Why?

What gives soldiers such as Voss the selfless courage that makes them heroes?

The scene for the story was set last summer, when Taliban militants began gathering a force in an attempt to retake the Afghan city of Kandahar.

Special Forces teams, Canadian soldiers and Afghan fighters blocked the way. And the Taliban decided to fight.

The attack on the hill where the Taliban were dug in — a place called Sperwan Ghar — started Sept. 4, 2006, just as the sun came up.

Capt. Rusty Bradley and his team were making their second attack on the hill. Two days before, the Special Forces had fought the Taliban fighters to a standstill but had run out of ammunition. Now, loaded up, Bradley led the convoy of Special Forces GMVs and pickups for a second time across the packed sand and rocks toward Sperwan Ghar.

The hill 40 miles southwest of Kandahar is surrounded by vast fields of marijuana, some of the plants taller than a man. Irrigation ditches crisscross the dusty plains.

The region was one that the Soviets never pacified. In the 1990s, it became a home to the Taliban movement. Now the Taliban were trying to re-establish control.

Taking Sperwan Ghar was just one part of what the coalition forces called Operation Medusa. Another piece had stalled when Canadian soldiers in a different part of the valley were ambushed. The Special Forces soldiers hoped to take the high ground so that they could help their allies.

As they approached the hill, they knew that they were outnumbered. As many as 2,000 fighters were waiting on Sperwan Ghar and in the surrounding valley.

When the soldiers still were a few hundred yards from the base of the hill, the Taliban opened fire with a hail of rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.


THE BATTLE FOR SPERWAN GHAR

Estimated enemy force: 1,500 to 2,000 Taliban fighters

Date: Sept. 2-17, 2006

Units involved: Elements of the 3rd Special Forces Group with Afghan army forces, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group and a company from the 10th Mountain Division

Objective: The Special Forces*-led coalition blocked the Taliban's plan to capture Kandahar, one of Afghanistan's largest cities and the cultural center of the southern part of the country.

Results: The battle was a major blow to the Taliban's plans. A firebase was built at Sperwan Ghar, and Canadian and American soldiers started the reconstruction of infrastructure and roadways in the region. They also linked the regional economy to the rest of the country.

Maj. Jared Hill, the overall commander, was at the center of the convoy. He and Voss, who worked the radios and drove the truck, set up at the base of the hill. With a headset pressed against his ear, Hill coordinated the attack.

All three of his Special Forces teams — officially called operational detachments — were under fire. But the Special Forces soldiers made steady progress up the hill. Operational Detachment Alpha 326 went up the southwest side of the hill as ODA 331 — Capt. Bradley’s team — was going up the center. ODA 336 was at the end of the convoy and started to take fire as well.

Hill’s men were surrounded.

Voss hunkered down next to Hill’s truck as machine-gun fire blasted away at him and rocket-propelled grenades exploded overhead.

Over the constant clattering of machine guns, Voss heard a pop. Reports that an Afghan soldier had stepped on a mine three-quarters of the way up the hill crackled over the radio.

Hill ordered Stube and Sgt. 1st Class Sean Mishra to take a truck up the hill and get the wounded Afghan, while he and Voss moved their truck forward to set up a casualty collection point.

As Stube’s truck crossed a berm to head up Sperwan Ghar, he flashed Voss his upraised thumb.

The explosion hit seconds later, covering the truck in smoke and dust. The force of the blast sent Hill flying backward. Voss, stunned, watched as a huge cloud of dust surrounded him.

Bradley and his Afghan fighters saw the explosion down the hill. He got on the radio and called Hill.

No answer.

Hill had felt the explosion before he saw it. A mortar tube and a boot blown into the air landed with a thud next to him.

When Hill saw the boot, he thought it was his own. “I’m dead,” flashed through his mind.

But he checked his legs and saw both still attached and began to pull himself together. He shook off the cobwebs in time to see Voss rush into the flames.

The bomb had exploded under the right wheel, setting the gas tank afire and blowing the driver, Mishra, through the door and several feet up the mountain.

Atop the truck, Stube knew he was in trouble. He could feel his legs burning. He tried to climb out of the turret, but his leg was broken. Bone shards stuck out of his pants leg, and he collapsed.

By then, Voss had charged over to the blazing GMV. Fighting through the black smoke and fire, he saw Stube hunched over the roof.

Reaching through the flames, he grabbed Stube and hauled him to the ground.

Stube’s uniform was on fire. Voss tried to put out the flames with his gloved hands. He could feel the skin on his wrists and hands burning, but he didn’t stop.

When the fire didn’t go out immediately, Voss took handfuls of sand and smothered the flames.

Then ammunition on the burning truck started to cook off.

“We need to go,” Voss thought. He started to drag Stube toward one of the ditches crossing the field.

Bradley, meanwhile, had started to run down the hill to the truck as soon as he heard the explosion. When he crested a small rise, he saw Voss standing on the front bumper covered in flames, tugging Stube out.

By the time Bradley got to Voss, he had Stube in the ditch near the marijuana field.

Ducking to stay under intense machine-gun fire from Taliban fighters on the hill and rounds cooking off the burning truck, Voss started to treat Stube’s wounds.

Something about being in the field of pot struck Voss as ironic.

“I’ve never smoked this stuff,” Voss said. “Now I’m going to die in this stuff.”

Bradley was looking for Mishra, the driver of the truck. “Where is Sean?” he asked.

Voss just shrugged.

Bradley found Mishra slumped on the side of the hill, dazed from the blast. He carried Mishra to the ditch and placed him head-to-head with Stube.

Bradley ran his hands over Mishra but found no blood. He started to help Voss with Stube.

Squatting in the ditch, Bradley noticed that Voss’ hands were burned, the nylon pouches on his body armor had melted and his beard was smoking.

“Sergeant Voss, how is he?” Bradley screamed over the steady rattle of machine guns. He watched Voss: A nod would mean that he thought Stube would make it.

Voss shook his head, and Bradley’s heart sank.

Stube had a gaping wound on his right side, and his right leg was barely connected to his body. Much of it was turned up under him as he lay in the ditch.

His injuries were beyond what nonmedics — such as Voss — are trained to treat.

Stube fought to stay awake. He wiggled his fingers. He picked a point and concentrated on it. He knew that if he lost consciousness, he was likely to die.

“I felt like if I was to have any chance, I was going to have to help them at this point,” he remembered.

In a raspy voice, choking on blood, he talked Voss through the aid that saved his life.

“I can’t feel this,” Stube wheezed. “This is obviously leaking.”

It worked. Stube was alive when three Special Forces medics from the teams fighting on the hill made it to him.

“I shouldn’t have lived,” Stube said later. “I never witnessed a guy live with the injuries I had.”

While Bradley half-dragged, half-carried Mishra across the marijuana field to the casualty collection point, Voss ran back to Hill’s truck and grabbed a stretcher. Once Stube was safe to move, he wanted to be ready.

When the time came, the stretcher wouldn’t open. The medics and Voss tried to figure out a way to carry Stube. Finally, an Afghan soldier just tossed the wounded American over his shoulder and raced back toward Hill’s truck.

The pain was excruciating. Every time Stube’s body bounced, it forced shrapnel deeper into his abdomen.

Bradley, who had come back to the ditch after helping Mishra, made a quick check that no important gear had been left behind, then ran for Hill’s truck as well.

Voss makes no claim to hero status when asked about that day last year. What he did was just part of the job, he says.

“I did what everybody out there would do,” Voss said later. “I was just the closest guy.”

The men who served with Voss disagree. They have nominated him for a Silver Star Medal.

Voss also doesn’t have much to say about what made him run to danger. Their own bravery isn’t a subject many soldiers like to talk about.

But a few soldiers who served in other wars, in other times, think they have an idea why Voss acted.

His courage illustrates a combat truth to these veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam: Soldiers aren’t thinking about glory or ideals in the midst of a battle.

They fight for the men to the left and right of them.

“The lives of combat soldiers are intertwined, and they depend on each other,” said retired Lt. Col. James Megellas. “In combat, they develop a relationship that cannot be explained in genetic or biological terms. It is stronger than brotherhood and continues until eternity.”

Megellas was a heavily decorated 82nd Airborne Division officer in World WarII.

Retired Army Col. Bill Richardson, a veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars, says that the combat brotherhood doesn’t take long to form.

“In combat, the bonding of individuals and small units can take place in minutes. Survival depends upon them taking care of each other,” he said. “It becomes so strong that a man without a second thought will throw himself on a grenade to save his buddies, not for country, freedom, glory or medals. Only for his brothers in arms.”

Tom Twomey, who fought in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, said soldiers understand sacrifice.

“That is the bottom line,” Twomey said. “People who have never been in combat will never feel it.”

The battle for Sperwan Ghar raged for another eight hours, ending with the U.S.-led force occupying the hill.

Over the next few days, the Taliban counterattacked the hill five times with little success. Using the high ground, the Special Forces and Afghan soldiers called in repeated airstrikes that were too much for the Taliban, who lost at least 900 fighters in the monthlong battle.

Voss stayed for the whole battle despite the burns on his wrists and hands. Today, he is back on Fort Bragg preparing to deploy again.

Stube was evacuated to a hospital in Kandahar, where doctors saved his right leg, and then back to the United States. He has had several surgeries and is recovering.

Before he got on the helicopter that flew him from Sperwan Ghar, he told Hill that he was proud to serve with him and with Bradley. Then he had something to say to Voss.

“You are a friend of mine for life, if you like it or not,” Stube told him.

“I feel the same way,” Voss said.

Staff writer Kevin Maurer can be reached at maurerk@fayobserver.com or 486-3587.
 

RackMaster

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I read a Canadian account of the Battle but it was a paper copy and it was not for reproduction with out heavy edited. ;) It took me a long time to read it, I had to keep putting it down to clear my eyes. I felt the same way with this story. An amazing story of soldiers doing amazing acts for their brothers.
 
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