At the start of the mission, the terrain was so bad in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley that the team of Green Berets and the assault force of Afghan commandos had to jump 10 feet off the back of CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
It was April 6, 2008, and Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 was leading a daring mission to kill or capture a high-value enemy target in a stronghold at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.
“Within just a few minutes, enemy forces had pinned down our initial assault element and the command-and-control element, which I was part of,” recalled Lt. Col. Kyle Walton, the operation commander that day.
“We had multiple casualties, and our team interpreter was killed. In short order, we found ourselves bounding back to an approximately 100-foot cliff, where we were forced to fight for the next seven hours for survival,” he said.
There were many acts of valor that day, including those of a medic who earned the Medal of Honor last year. Now, a second Green Beret’s heroism during the battle has been marked for the nation’s highest valor award.
For his determination and refusal to quit under overwhelming odds, President Donald Trump will award Master Sgt. Matthew Williams, a weapons sergeant on ODA 3336, with the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony Wednesday.
“If I had to describe his actions in one way, he was always looking for work. When Matt completed one task, he showed back up — all of it under fire, all of it under extreme physical stress and enemy activity around us,” Walton told defense reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
From the beginning, it was clear that the large enemy force occupying the heights above was extremely skilled in battle.
“These guys knew what they were doing,” Walton said. “The first volley of fire included sniper fire that hit my radio operator and killed our interpreter, and they were placing rounds either on our equipment or within inches of us.”
Later in the battle, an enemy sniper shot staff Sgt. John Walding in the right leg, severing it below the knee, according to an Army news release. Master Sgt. Scott Ford, the team sergeant, took a round in the chest armor plate. The armor stopped the round, but another found his left arm a few minutes later. It passed through Ford and deflected off then-Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II’s helmet.
“At that point, our focus really changed from ‘Hey is [it] … tactically feasible to continue this mission or do we need to find a way to exfil and change kind of our focus?”‘ Williams said. “Immediately, it became ‘Hey, we’ve got four wounded Americans, and we need to do whatever is possible to get them home safely.'”
Williams worked his way up and down the mountain, organizing a human chain of Afghan commandos to be ready to move wounded down the rugged terrain to await medevac helicopters.
“He was over here, and he was over here, and then he was over there,” said Shurer, who received the Medal of Honor in 2018 for the bravery he displayed during the battle.
“When you are talking about Green Berets, you are talking about the bravest of the brave guys as a whole — he just didn’t seem deterred at any moment,” he added.
Shurer said he felt that the decision to upgrade Williams’ Silver Star to the Medal of Honor made much more sense than when his own Silver Star was upgraded for the prestigious valor award.
“I’m the medic, and I was out there being the medic, doing my job,” Shurer said. “What else was I going to do that day?
“When I found out Matt was going to be receiving the medal, to me that made more sense because I have been up on that mountain, and I had seen everything he was doing,” he said.
Shurer described how Williams worked to turn a terrible piece of terrain into a defendable position.
“He started establishing the defense around this tiny little area we crammed ourselves into,” Shurer said. “I wouldn’t call it cover. It was just a horrible position that we found ourselves in and, with the actions of him and some of the other guys, it made a horrible position a little bit tenable; it let us keep that ground so that way we could start to get those casualties off.”
Hour after hour, the team called in close-air support missions that included Army AH-64 Apache gunships, as well as Air Force F-15 Eagles and A-10 Thunderbolts and even a strike from a B-1B Lancer bomber, Walton said.
“We watched more than 70 danger-close airstrikes, and one of them was almost directly on top of our own position to prevent us from being overrun,” he said.
Williams talked about the situation from an unemotional point of view, focusing on what had to be done for his teammates so they could be flown to safety by medevac helicopters.
“There is no point in dwelling on how bad the situation really is; you are better served to focus on what needs to happen and move toward that goal,” he said.
This is not surprising to Ford, who recognized a unique quality in Williams shortly after he joined the team just before the deployment.
“Matt was a very young member of the detachment. … However, from the minute I met Matt, I knew he was a very mature individual,” Ford said.
“He is just a very composed and methodical person, so I had actually given Matt more responsibility than a lot of senior guys on the team for that day because I recognized his talent and his leadership ability,” he added. “He fit what a Green Beret needs to be. He thinks about second- and third-order effects even when he is under pressure, so I think that is the difference with Master Sgt. Williams. … Every time I turned around, Matt was there looking for a job and, because of that, he was all over the battlefield that day.”
Williams said he is humbled to receive the honor but honestly is looking forward to returning to work at 3rd Special Forces Group.
“I hope I can wear the medal with honor and distinction and represent something that is much bigger than myself, which is what it means to be on a team of brothers and what it means to be a Special Forces soldier,” he said.
“I am hoping to return back to the unit, get back to my team and continue training and getting my current team ready for whatever comes next for us,” Williams said.
— Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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