Silver Star recipients Capt. David Fox, Sgt. McKenna “Frank” Miller and Staff Sgt. Matthew Gassman received the third highest award for gallantry in combat for their heroic actions on Dec. 17, 2010, in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Capt. David Fox, three French engineers, an interpreter, an Afghan National Security Forces commander and a member of his Special Operations Task Unit were conducting a site assessment for future placement of an ANSF checkpoint when the team started taking enemy contact.
“We just wanted to get out there, take some photos, get some measurements and get out as quickly as possible,” said Sgt. McKenna ‘Frank’ Miller, who was setting up a defensive perimeter while Fox was surveying the site. “We knew we would get into a firefight every time we went out there.”
From his position, Fox noticed that his security elements were taking small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks from two separate enemy positions.
“Frank was telling me to hurry up there,” Fox said, describing how enemy fire began to increase in volume on Miller’s position. “I was sensing [that] things were deteriorating.”
He moved the survey element to the top of a ridgeline to engage the enemy, and suddenly darkness enveloped him. A devastating improvised explosive device detonated near the team, leaving Fox unconscious, instantly killing a French captain and critically wounding the ANSF commander. Despite being disoriented when he came to, Fox began to search for survivors and account for members of the element.
“Initially, I thought it was a mortar round,” Fox said. “I was waiting for that second round to hit, but it never came. I was zapped of all my strength at that point.”
Still dazed from the blast and with enemy rounds impacting within inches of him, Fox began to administer trauma care by placing a tourniquet on the ANSF commander.
From his position on the ground, Miller heard the large explosion atop the ridgeline but could only see a large plume of black smoke billowing up from where Fox and the assessment team were located. At that moment he had broken transmission with Fox and lost radio contact. “It went from everything’s fine to we’re going to need to evacuate the hell out of here,” Miller said.
The mountainous terrain made radio communications even more restricted. Not long afterwards, only Fox’s words, “urgent … surgical” could be heard over the radio.
Located at the eastern-most security position, Staff Sgt. Matthew Gassman made several attempts to scale the mountain directly to the blast site. Realizing enemy rounds were impacting on his position and the ascent route was too steep, he moved 100 meters to the west of his position and around the ridgeline to another access route — but he was still off.
Gassman then climbed several hundred near-vertical feet on the mountain fully exposed to enemy observation. Impacting rounds sparked the rocky surface near him, yet he continued to try to get to Fox. This time he had climbed south of Fox’s position.
Once again, Gassman ran down the mountain and moved 200 meters north and started his desperate climb again, still taking enemy fire. After scrambling twice up restrictive terrain and wearing nearly 80 pounds of gear, an exhausted Gassman finally found Fox and the wounded ANSF commander.
After Miller arrived to Fox’s location, he noticed Fox was still dazed from the blast but able to move on his own. Miller organized the element to extract the French engineer’s body and the wounded ANSF commander.
“At this time I was totally exhausted. I could barely drag the guy, yet put him on my shoulder,” Fox said. “Frank said, ‘hey I got it,’ bends down, puts the KIA in a fireman’s carry, picks him up and proceeds to move down the mountain.”
Miller had scaled the mountain just prior to arriving on the scene, but he carried the KIA down the mountain to the emergency helicopter landing zone for evacuation.
Soaked in the French engineer’s blood, Miller painstakingly made his way down the mountain, all-the-while taking sustained fire from the enemy. Several times he stumbled and fell due to the weight on his back. Fox, now carrying Miller’s M4 carbine weapon, provided suppressive fire to shield Miller as they made their way down the near-vertical mountain.
As the men approached the dried up wadi at the base of the mountain, Miller fell once more. He was now in agonizing pain due to his hamstrings being severely strained. The team was able to seek cover behind a tree upon crossing the wadi.
Laughing aloud as he recalled the events on the ground, Miller said, “I do remember Capt. Fox running across the wadi in the open to go get help and [bring] me water.”
Gassman made his way down the mountain under a hail of fire with the ANSF commander to the HLZ, but had to abort because of too much enemy fire at that location. The decision was made to establish another landing zone 1,000 meters away.
After loading everyone into an light medium tactical vehicle, Gassman dismounted and ran in front of the vehicle to suppress enemy fire and then led the vehicle to the second HLZ where the wounded ANSF commander and the fallen French officer were evacuated.
Reflecting on why it was important to bring his mortally wounded French comrade down the mountain, Miller said, “We’re never going to leave somebody behind. It’s not an option.”