The ambush caught Army Spc. Richard Baker and the team of special forces troops he was assisting as they left a village in western Afghanistan, where the 20-year-old medic found himself rushing to aid a sergeant who had been shot in the head as bullets rained around him.
The medic from Rye, Colo., was awarded a Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal for valor Wednesday. He was among a dozen members of his company in the 3rd Infantry Division decorated for acts of bravery during their first deployment to Afghanistan earlier this year.
"I was just focusing on what I had to do, that's it," said Baker, who joined the Army barely two years ago.
His commanders in the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment insist that Baker and the 680 soldiers he deployed with in February performed above and beyond their training and experience during a nine-month tour scattered across remote areas of western Afghanistan. While many had previously served in Iraq, this was the first time Fort Stewart sent ground troops to Afghanistan.
Twelve soldiers in Baker's company earned Bronze Stars. Two others received Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat. More medals were being awarded across the battalion's five additional companies.
"I could not be prouder of this outfit," said Lt. Col. Mike Jason, the battalion commander. "These soldiers were asked to punch above their weight class for nine months."
In Afghanistan, Jason's troops were tasked with assisting Navy SEALs, Army green berets and other special forces whose job was to help Afghan police secure remote villages. The Georgia-based soldiers got tapped to deploy with minimal notice - they only had from November to February to train for the mission.
Many of the battalion's soldiers are trained as tank crews, and tanks aren't needed in Afghanistan's mountainous terrain. So those soldiers had to adjust to other tasks.
Some got assigned to drive smaller, mine-resistant vehicles and escort supply convoys on long and treacherous road trips. Others transitioned to light infantry, essentially serving as riflemen. Tank mechanics took up assembling and maintaining 500 dirt bikes that the Afghan police used for patrols.
Two weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Mario Rivers had to take over for his platoon sergeant, who was wounded by an explosive round with shrapnel lodged in his abdomen.
Rivers, 30, of Cope, S.C., suffered a shrapnel wound to his right leg in the same attack on a base in Afghanistan's Helmand province. He was awarded a Purple Heart on Wednesday, but downplayed his own injury. Already a veteran of three Iraq tours, Rivers insisted on returning to work immediately and finished the deployment filling in for his wounded platoon sergeant.
"I was up and walking the same day," Rivers said. "I was able to stay in the fight."