The loss of two special operations airmen with expertise in close air support from an insider attack came as the U.S. stepped up airstrikes against the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command said Friday.
Capt. Matthew D. Roland, 27, of Lexington, Kentucky, assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and Staff Sgt. Forrest B. Sibley, 31, of Pensacola, Florida, assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, suffered fatal wounds in an attack in southwestern Helmand province Wednesday.
Roland and Sibley were riding in a bus and approaching a checkpoint on Camp Antonik, now a forward operating base of the Afghan National Security Forces, when the bus was attacked by two gunmen wearing ANSF uniforms, Pentagon and CentCom officials said. Both died the next day of their wounds.
Camp Antonik is the former Camp Bastion, which was a main British base in Afghanistan. Bastion was adjacent to the Marines' Camp Leatherneck, which was abandoned as U.S. forces withdrew.
Initial reports after the attack said that the two gunmen were killed by return fire from Operation Resolute Support NATO troops, but later reports said that both were wounded and in custody.
In an audio briefing to the Pentagon Friday, Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a CentCom spokesman, said it was still unclear whether the two gunmen were members of the ANSF or Taliban infiltrators.
Ryder also said, "there has been an increase in airstrikes" recently by the U.S. in Helmand province where the Taliban earlier this week reportedly overran ANSF positions in the Musa Qalah district northeast of Camp Antonik.
The airstrikes were being carried out by manned aircraft and not armed drones, Ryder said. Although the bombings have been infrequent since the troop drawdown, "the commander there does have the ability to provide air support to the Afghan defense forces when they're in extremis," Ryder said.
In Florida, the special operations community hailed Roland and Sibley for their devotion to duty and skills as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers.
"These two combat controllers were incredible warriors who not only volunteered to join our nation's Special Operations Forces, but earned their way to the tip of the spear in defense of our nation," Col. Wolfe Davidson, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, said in a statement.
"The risks that these men and their teammates endured in combat and in training are all too well known to the Special Tactics community, but it does not make this great loss any easier to bear," he said.
Sibley had received the Bronze Star four times, including once with the combat ‘V' device. He deployed four times in his seven-year Air Force career.
John Wayne McDonald, of Alabama, who went to high school with Sibley, told the Fort Walton, Florida, Daily News that Sibley "was a great guy. He was never mean to anyone."
Roland was a 2010 Air Force Academy graduate and special tactics officer. He became a team leader who supervised the training of 34 airmen and had deployed three times in five years.
Phil Roberts of Lexington, Kentucky, who knew Roland as an Eagle Scout, said, "Matt was a true leader even in high school" and "there was never any doubt he would be a fine military officer. I think he probably wore camo diapers as an infant."
Following tradition at the Air Force Academy, the cadets sang the third chorus of the "Air Force Song" in tribute to Roland:
Here's a toast to the host of those who
love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we send this message
of his brother men who fly.
We drink to those who gave their all of old
Then down we roar to score the rainbow's
pot of gold.
A toast to the host of men we boast
The US Air Force!
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.