A Marine who fought off an Afghan insurgent assault despite painful shrapnel wounds to the leg said his bravery under fire was all in a day's work.
Staff Sgt. Robert Van Hook, a critical skills operator attached to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, received the Silver Star on Jan. 15 during a ceremony at the headquarters of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or Marsoc, near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for heroism in battle during a 2013 deployment to Herat province, Afghanistan.
In an interview days after receiving the military's third-highest award for bravery, Van Hook recalled the events of that day of action.
Van Hook, a 27-year-old native of Nokesville, Virginia, had been serving as the element leader for Marine Special Operations Team 8224, Special Operations Task Force West. A former reconnaissance Marine, Van Hook had been to Iraq once and was on his third deployment to Afghanistan.
His team had begun its operation late at night Aug. 14. They planned to clear a village of insurgents in preparation for a visit by local Afghan National Army, or ANA, leaders to the region the following day. As they moved into the region around 2 or 3 a.m., Van Hook said, the team spotted two who appeared to be "walking with intent" and exhibiting other suspicious behaviors.
On Van Hook's order, the Marine team took cover and maneuvered closer to observe the men, eventually watching them link up with eight others at the back of a building. All were armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons he said, and as they communicated in Pashto over their radios, Van Hook could make out words like "bomb."
Taking advantage of the element of surprise, he "executed a hasty ambush" on the men, according to his medal citation, killing four and wounding two more. Then he and his team cleared the building from which the insurgents were operating, using their own guns and hand grenades. One more insurgent was taken hostage inside, and two more were detained.
Despite the intensity of this ambush under cover of darkness, Van Hook said he was able to keep a cool head as he aggressively charged into an enemy position.
"We train like we fight here," Van Hook said. "Our training is as realistic as we can possibly get it. It's almost second nature at this point."
Daybreak found Van Hook and his team in a building providing over-watch defense for a sister Marine Special Operations Team as they brought in ANA officials for a key leader engagement with elders from the region.
"The area was highly destabilized. We wanted to get high-ranking leaders with the Afghan army to show their presence," Van Hook explained. "We knew the area had a lot of insurgents in it and they had freedom of movement."
The engagement went as planned, with little more than sporadic "pop shots" at the Marines while the leaders were present. But as the ANA detachment pulled away, all that changed.
"You could almost see their tail lights crossing the horizon when the attack started to kick off," Van Hook said.
A sniper on the ground started targeting the two Marine teams. As Van Hook's team began returning fire with recoilless rifles and machine guns, the insurgents directed the bulk of their fire at them. As the onslaught became overwhelming, Van Hook ordered a Marine who had been manning an MK-19 grenade launcher on the roof to take cover.
"If your head was just over the wall, you were getting shot in the Kevlar," he said.
Later, though, when Van Hook got word from the other Marine element that it was being targeted on three sides, he grabbed another Marine and charged back out to take control of the MK-19 once more.
As he fired the big gun, Van Hook successfully drew the brunt of the enemy attack onto his position, taking the pressure off the other element and allowing them to regain their advantage. He fired on the insurgents until one of them shot an RPG into the rooftop position, knocking Van Hook and the other Marine unconscious and wounding them with shrapnel.
When Van Hook regained consciousness, he saw that the MK-19 had rolled over his leg, which had been pierced by shrapnel and had blood pooling under it. The other Marine had been apparently wounded in the back, and Van Hook moved to put pressure on the wound, and push the Marine to cover, despite the pain in his own leg.
Then, he manned the gun once more and continued to fire on the enemy fighters. When he looked down and saw that the pool of blood under his leg had grown larger, he applied a tourniquet to the leg and kept on fighting.
Finally, one of MARSOC's special amphibious reconnaissance corpsmen convinced Van Hook to leave the roof for a medical examination. At this point, the Marine was in intense pain and couldn't feel anything below the ankle of his wounded leg due to a nerve injury.
But, Van Hook said, "I could still think, and I realized there were gaps in my security, so I wanted to support as much as possible."
With two Marines wounded and an ANA soldier who was fighting with them in bad shape from being shot in the face, the decision was made to organize a casualty evacuation. Instead of laying back and resting, Van Hook teamed up with another Marine who had a recoilless rifle, identifying insurgent targets so he could shoot at them.
Then, with the medical evacuation, or medevac, chopper approaching, he began calling in "danger close" suppressive 120mm mortar fire around the landing zone to allow the bird to land safely. Once on board, Van Hook said he felt not relief, but frustration.
"The last thing a Marine wants to do is leave other Marines behind and I was pretty irritated at that point," he said.
But the day wasn't over; while aboard the aircraft, the Afghan soldier collapsed, and Van Hook and the other Marine provided triage care, taking advantage of their extensive medical training.
Looking back on the day, Van Hook was unassuming about his accomplishments.
"This is the job we signed up for," he said. "Everybody understands the positions you're going to be put in once you become a [Marine] Raider. Once I found out that the award went through, it was the biggest dose of humble pie I've ever experienced."