April 20, 2008 60 Minutes (CBS), 8:00 PM
LARA LOGAN: With all the focus on the war in Iraq, we don't hear much about the war in Afghanistan anymore, even though the U.S. is fighting the Taliban nearly seven years after they seemed to be defeated, and we hardly ever hear from the elite, secretive U.S. special forces who are leading that fight. But a Green Beret team wanted to talk to us, to honor the men they lost when they were ambushed by hundreds of Taliban fighters two years ago. Not since Black Hawk Down in Somalia have we heard a story of a small band of elite American soldiers who were so badly outnumbered and fighting for their lives. This is a story about valor, but it’s also a wake-up call about the growing strength of the enemy in Afghanistan.
From behind enemy lines, a Taliban camera captured these pictures of the fighting, which started at sundown on June 23rd, 2006. The sun goes down.
MAJ. SHEF FORD: It’s like all hell breaks loose, literally. All hell breaks loose. The enemy is firing at all directions at us, and soldiers are trying to identify the positions and return fire. But they have completely surrounded us and were firing at us with multiple systems.
LOGAN: The battle over two days and two nights took place in a small village about 12 miles southwest of the city of Kandahar. The Green Berets, just nine of them, went into the village with eight other American and 48 Afghan soldiers. They were on a mission to capture or kill a Taliban commander known to operate in the area.
FORD: This is an area where the battle took place.
LOGAN: Major Shef Ford says he didn’t know hundreds of well-armed, well-supplied, hard-core Taliban were waiting to ambush his men. They took these pictures of themselves preparing for the battle. American forces were accustomed to quick hit-and-run attacks by the Taliban, but Major Ford and Sergeant Brendan O’Connor say they were shocked by shocked by the sustained, organized assault in the village.
SGT. BRENDAN O’CONNOR: We had not seen this disciplined execution of infantry tactics.
LOGAN: And you had never experienced anything like this?
FORD: Not to this extent. And we also started taking mortar fire into the patrol base, which also demonstrated that there was somebody who knew about the weapons system and how to operate it.
LOGAN: So that was a sign that was as sign that this was going to be different?
FORD: Yes, that was a sign.
LOGAN: At one point the Taliban even broke through the Green Berets’ perimeter, but they were pushed back. Major Ford called in air support. That’s a 500-pound bomb exploding, but the bombs couldn’t stop the Taliban. They were everywhere.
FORD: The enemy was also located in this compound, this compound and --
LOGAN: Using an unmanned aerial vehicle like this one as their eyes in the sky, the Green Berets located a compound near the town graveyard that they suspected the Taliban were using as a command center. Team Sergeant Thom Maholic led a small group of men from the Green Beret patrol base to the compound a third of a mile away. The Taliban pulled back, but a short distance away they were dug in with machine guns.
FORD: There was enemy located in three different positions in this irrigation ditch.
LOGAN: The machine guns opened fire on Staff Sergeant Matthew Binney, who had split off to provide cover for the assault on the compound.
SGT. MATTHEW BINNEY: I got hit in the back of the head by a round. It knocked me to the ground.
LOGAN: The bullet actually hit your skull?
BINNEY: Yes, ma’am.
LOGAN: Did it fracture it?
BINNEY: Yes, it did. I didn’t hear anything. It was just the loudest buzzing I’d ever heard out of both ears, and my vision was real blurred as well.
LOGAN: Despite his injuries, Binney, who was the team medic, got up and kept fighting.
BINNEY: That’s when I was hit the second time – went through my shoulder.
LOGAN: So you had no shoulder left?
BINNEY: No, I didn’t. It wasn’t connected structurally anymore.
LOGAN: Then a U.S. soldier who was with Binney, Joe Fuerst, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and seriously wounded. The Taliban managed to get within shouting distance of the two wounded Americans and starting taunting their Afghan translator.
FORD: A lot of the things that the Taliban were yelling at then while they were shooting at each other was that hey, you’re a fellow Muslim, we can forgive you, just put your weapons down and walk away, we want the Americans alive.
BINNEY: The things they would have done to me if they had caught me alive, you can only imagine what they would have done. The kind of propaganda they would have been able to have made. It would have been real bad.
LOGAN: Over the radio the translator named Jacob told Major Ford the situation was so dire that he was prepared to kill the two wounded Americans and himself just so they wouldn’t be taken hostage.
FORD: He said that he was willing to make sure that both of them were killed and that he would kill himself so that nobody would be taken alive by the Taliban, because he understood what would happen if they were to capture him.
LOGAN: What did you say to that?
FORD: I told him not to. I said, we’ve got people coming.
LOGAN: But Major Ford says his small team was scattered around the village under attack from hundreds of Taliban. The relentless, intense sound of the fighting was captured when one of the Green Berets’ cameras was accidentally knocked on.
Does it take you back? You can hear the different machine guns here being fired.
LOGAN: The 50-caliber machine guns.
FORD: The grenade launcher.
LOGAN: The grenade launcher.
FORD: The 240, the M-249, which is another automatic weapon.
LOGAN: So you’re completely surrounded by Taliban?
FORD: We’re completely surrounded by Taliban.
LOGAN: Every position?
FORD: Every position. The patrol base, the compound.
LOGAN: So you guys were in real trouble at this point?
FORD: Yes, we were.
LOGAN: Afghan reinforcements tried to reach the village, but were pushed back by the Taliban. The Green Berets could have been overrun were it not for individual acts of heroism by members of their team.
Sergeant First Class Abram Hernandez was teetering on top of a ladder he had climbed at the corner of a building to get a clear shot at the Taliban fighters trying to take Matthew Binney and Joe Fuerst prisoner.
You were hanging on that ladder high in the air holding on with one arm, shooting with the other arm.
SGT. FIRST CLASS ABRAM HERNANDEZ: Well, because I lost my balance. That’s why. (Laughs.)
LOGAN: But you held on?
HERNANDEZ: Yes, I did.
O’CONNOR: Seeing Hernandez propped at that ridiculous angle was absolutely inspiring. You could see the tracer rounds actually flail the wall in front of him, and he ducked down and then popped back up. And the tracer rounds were coming. They were whizzing right by our heads.
LOGAN: Were you amazed by Hernandez, what he was doing?
O’CONNOR: I was – I was – I was –
LOGAN: Brendan says he’s never seen anything more inspiring or motivating than that moment when he laid eyes on you.
HERNANDEZ: And I’d say the same thing about him.
LOGAN: While Abram Hernandez was firing from the ladder, Sergeant O’Connor started to crawl under fire across an open field to rescue the two wounded Americans. With no cover, his thick body armor made him an easy target.
O’CONNOR: I actually pulled back to cover – to a covered position and removed my body armor.
LOGAN: Couldn’t get low enough?
O’CONNOR: Couldn’t get low enough, right.
LOGAN: And all the time you’re still under fire?
O’CONNOR: Yeah. There was exchanges of fire going on at all times.
LOGAN: Major Ford said everyone watching O’Connor crawl 90 yards across the open field without his bulletproof vest couldn’t believe what he was doing.
FORD: They described to me, watching the machine gun fire go right over his body, seeing it hit grass that he was crawling through, seeing it mow some of that down – that the fires were so heavy it was literally cutting some of the grass in different spots.
LOGAN: It took an hour and a half for O’Connor to reach Fuerst and Binney. From a rooftop Master Sergeant Maholic was singlehandedly holding down a group of advancing Taliban who were threatening the rescue operation.
FORD: They were coming to take that compound that Thom was holding, and he would stop them by killing them or wounding them, and eventually they gave up their assault.
LOGAN: Did Thom make it possible for you to get out?
LOGAN: You couldn’t have done it without him?
O’CONNOR: Absolutely not.
LOGAN: Then Maholic took a bullet in the head. Abram Hernandez rushed to his aid, but there was little he could do.
HERNANDEZ: After a while he pretty much expired in my arms and –
LOGAN: He died in your arms?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, he died in my arms.
LOGAN: Joe Fuerst also died as Sergeant O’Connor tried to carry him to safety. At this point other members of the team, including Staff Sergeant Brandon Pechette, began to think no one would make it out alive.
Were you afraid?
STAFF SGT. BRANDON PECHETTE: I was at a point. There was a lull. When I heard that Tom Maholic and Joe had passed, it was kind of a point where we’re like, well, we’re still surrounded, you know, what are we going to do? Well, we’ll keep fighting. So I pulled out a notebook, wrote a little quick note to my wife, said goodbye, and said, well, if I’m going I’m taking as many as I can with me, and we’re going to fight as bravely as we can.
LOGAN: After nearly two days of fighting, two men lost and one seriously wounded, the Green Berets were almost out of ammunition. Apache gunships were continuing to hammer Taliban positions, but the Green Berets were still surrounded. To get them out they asked one of the pilots flying overhead to lay down an infrared beam that they used to guide them through the dark back to their patrol base. The plane fired at anything moving outside that infrared beam.
FORD: It couldn’t be seen by the naked eye.
LOGAN: And you could see this on your night vision?
LOGAN: How far did you have to travel like this?
FORD: Six hundred –
O’CONNOR: About 600 meters.
FORD: About 600 meters.
LOGAN: Have you ever seen that done before?
FORD: No, I have not.
LOGAN: In this propaganda video the Taliban showed off Matthew Binney’s body armor as a war trophy and claimed victory even though they lost an estimated 120 men in the fighting, but they surprised the Green Berets with their skill on the battlefield.
FORD: The Taliban want to take Afghanistan back. They want to reinstall their government, their system of life.
LOGAN: But bottom line, a force that was defeated in the invasion is no longer defeated.
FORD: Not at this time.
LOGAN: But people will be watching this wondering how did we get to this point, when this is the army that literally ran from U.S. forces, and now we’re fighting them on this scale?
FORD: They’ve hid and they’ve trained.
LOGAN: The kind of training that you use?
FORD: Right, absolutely.
LOGAN: And now I’m sitting here and you’re talking about a force that not only uses American-style combat and infantry tactics, but is able to engage America’s finest warriors?
FORD: That’s correct.
LOGAN: At an emotional ceremony in Kandahar, the Green Berets honored the two warriors they lost in the fighting, Tom Maholic and Joe Fuerst. The team believes their whole unit would have been killed or captured had it not been for the bravery of individuals like Brendan O’Connor.
FORD: He’s an absolute hero. He’s what people want to be.
LOGAN: Later this month O’Connor will become only the second American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross for Valor in Afghanistan. The rest of the unit was honored at Ft. Bragg late last year and became the most decorated Special Forces team for a single battle in the Afghan war.
MALE SOLIDER: The Silver Star is being presented to Andrew Maholic on behalf of Master Sergeant Thomas D. Maholic. (Applause.)
LOGAN: Thom Maholic’s Silver Star was presented to his son Andrew. He stood proudly in front of the men whose lives his father had saved.
Two years after the battle, the village where the fighting took place and much of Southern Afghanistan remain under Taliban influence.