Editor’s Note: This is the third in an ongoing series that tells the stories of men and women in the armed forces who have been awarded for acts of bravery while serving their country.
Spc. Michael Carter wasn’t supposed to be on that cliffside that day, April 6, 2008, taking intense fire from insurgents alongside U.S. Special Forces and native commandos in what is considered one of the legendary battles of the Afghanistan war.
The 24-year-old combat cameraman was nearing the end of his 12-month tour and thought he’d completed his last combat mission. Then his boss got pinkeye and asked Carter to fill in on the mission deep within Shok Valley, a well-known sanctuary of the Hezeb Islamic al Gulbadin terrorist organization.
Arriving with his gear, the Texas native got a hint of what was to come.
“The team just started stripping my whole kit apart, saying, ‘You’re not going to need this’ because we were going just pretty much vertical. … That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’”
Along with a dozen Green Berets and a small group of Afghan soldiers, Carter jumped from a hovering helicopter onto the remote, icy terrain of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. The team slogged through a frigid stream and scaled halfway up a cliff face toward its target village when insurgents suddenly started firing. Carter climbed to the next tier and scrambled over to join the detachment commander and combat controller.
The unit’s interpreter was shot in the head not two feet away as he ran for cover at the outset of the fierce, seven-hour firefight. Insurgents had surrounded the American troops, who were far outnumbered, even with their Afghan commando allies.
“My bag got shot,” Carter says. “It ripped through my camera and batteries and my Camelbak. I felt the Camelbak water running down my back. I thought I’d been shot. … I was so pumped through with adrenaline. I thought, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me.’”
He quickly realized it was water and got back to work, carrying a wounded team member out of the line of fire, then performing first aid and running back into immediate danger to recover the communication sergeant’s radio.
Air support had been called in, and heavy debris rained down. Carter used his body to shield the seriously injured from further harm. Meanwhile, more nearby team members were shot.
Carter and another soldier left their nook to find another way down the cliffs. They reported back to the commander that it wouldn’t be easy.
“He was like, ‘Will the guys live?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, they’ll live.’ He was like, ‘All right, start taking them down.’”
Carter helped several wounded soldiers down the 60-foot, nearly vertical face. When they couldn’t climb any farther, Carter braced himself 10 to 15 feet below to catch them as they fell.
Seven hours later, they were back in the air. While many were injured, no American troops died that day. Two Afghan commandos were killed. Carter and nine others were awarded the Silver Star for their actions that day. He became the first U.S. combat cameraman to receive the military’s third-highest decoration.
Asked what the citation means to him, he glanced down for a moment.
The intense firefight and mounting injuries left no time for Carter to think about the worst-case scenario.
“I knew we were going to come out of it,” he says. “I mean, I was with the Army’s best.”
“I’m just glad we all came out alive.”
As it turns out, the cameraman never used his camera that day. It now sits in a museum in Fort Meade, Md.
Ashley Hamershock, a former correspondent for the Associated Press, is a freelance writer and editor based in California.