The small team of Army Green Berets riding on all-terrain vehicles had just passed through the village in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province when they ran into a well-planned, enemy ambush.
About 25 insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles, PKM machine guns, and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades opened fire.
The air around the operational detachment-alpha assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) exploded with deadly enemy fire. The insurgent force was set up in staggered positions along the ambush line that stretched approximately 180 meters.
The ODA's team sergeant, Master Sgt. Danial “Slim” Adams and Sgt. 1st Class Richard "Rich" Harris both got low and gunned their ATVs, attempting to accelerate through the kill zone, according to an account in an Army press release.
Almost immediately, Adams took a burst of PKM fire -- suffering wounds to his wrist, thigh and neck – and was thrown from his ATV within meters of the enemy line.
Harris recalled the area around them suddenly came to life with the sounds and flashes of close gunfire. "My mindset was, 'Holy crap. We're in deep trouble,'" he remembered.
"At the time, I didn't know what happened," Harris said. "I just saw him kind of dive off/fall off his ATV."
Harris aborted his path and veered up a small hill to take cover between two buildings. Harris, under intense enemy fire, fired his M-4 rifle and grenade launcher at the enemy, all the while calling out to his team sergeant below.
Adams died of his wounds on that Sept. 13, 2011, but Harris spent the rest of the battle aggressively attacking the ambushing insurgents while guarding the body of his team sergeant at significant risk to his own life, according to the release.
Nearly five years later, Harris' heroic actions from that day were formally recognized when he was presented the Silver Star medal, the nation's third highest award for valor, June 3, 2016.
After returning fire, Harris soon found himself the target of concentrated enemy fire. Undaunted, he continued to fight.
"That's when an RPG came and just … streamed right up at me," said Harris.
The enemy rocket exploded against a wall approximately seven feet behind him, throwing him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bell, who was a sergeant first class at the time, was one of the three operators fighting about 40 meters away. He was preparing to throw a grenade when he happened to look up at Harris' position and witnessed the explosion.
Bell described his first thoughts as, "I'm pretty sure Rich is dead."
The explosion had knocked his radio system earbuds from Harris’ ears, leaving him unable to communicate with his fellow Green Berets. Not knowing when or even if he would get reinforcements, Harris said he had only two priorities: return fire and find Adams. Harris resumed his attack on the enemy line.
Harris finally spotted Adams laying face-down approximately 25 meters away. He had been partially dragged by enemy insurgents who had advanced while Harris was unconscious. Harris tried making contact by calling his team sergeant's name, but Adams did not move. Fearing Adams may fall back into the hands of the enemy, Harris had a decision to make.
"Okay, I know where Slim's at," Harris explained. "I can't find the rest of my team. I need to go and get Slim.
"I remember my legs and knees were just shaking and knocking uncontrollably and I couldn't stop it….I was basically preparing myself to die."
Harris fell back on his training. "Everything that I've ever learned and trained and had beat into my head was that you never leave a fallen comrade. And that's exactly what Slim was."
Harris darted out of cover and sprinted directly into the storm of enemy fire, firing a weapon from each hand as he went.
Once he reached Adams, he continued his attack on the enemy, throwing hand grenades before using his rifle to fire left, right, and in front of him, no longer knowing where the ambush line began and where it ended.
Between bursts of attack, Harris checked on Adams, and knew immediately that he needed to find cover so he could provide first aid.
Knowing he would be cut down by enemy fire if he tried to carry Adams back the way he came, Harris did the only other thing he had a choice on.
Acting quickly, he threw two grenades and then began dragging both Adams and himself closer to the enemy, seeking the meager cover provided by a small rock-wall that ran along the very ditch that the enemy occupied.
Now, within just a few feet of the enemy position, Harris used his remaining grenades and fired his rifle.
In between his attacks, Harris attempted to render medical aid to Adams. It was during this time that he realized that Adams had died of his wounds and no amount of first aid would bring him back.
"I was pretty devastated," said Harris. "I took two seconds to say a quick prayer for him and his family, and then it was back to the firefight that I was still the center of attention of."
Harris reloaded his rifle and grenade launcher, took up one in each hand, and prepared to die defending his team sergeant.
"I was getting a pretty heavy dose of returning fire from those guys," he said, "and I needed to…secure the area and figure out what my next move was, because now I'm even further away from cover and I'm even closer to the enemy."
During his one-man stand-off, the rest of the ATV element managed to maneuver into closer fighting positions, and Air Force Tech Sgt. Tommy Baughs, the team’s joint tactical air controller, started calling in F-16 strafing gun runs within meters of Harris' position.
Despite the F-16's strafing attacks, the enemy continued to place deadly fire on Harris and his team's positions, and was still attempting to maneuver on them.
Realizing that he needed to get in communication with the rest of his men, Harris located his radio system earbuds and finally made contact with Bell.
"I could tell that he was in a bad way," said Bell. "This guy [was] living in a different world than what we were living in, a totally different world."
Bell told Harris that they couldn’t use close air support to drop bombs on the enemy because Harris was too close to the enemy position.
Harris, understanding that the lives of his team would be seriously jeopardized if they couldn't drop ordinance on the enemy, decided to find cover until the bombs could be dropped, according to the release. Under covering fire from his team, Harris sprinted back up the hill where he finally met up with Bell and the rest of the ATV element.
"It was a momentous reunification," said Bell. Harris “was as exhausted as I've ever seen a human being be."
By this time, reinforcements had also reached the ambush site. The team decided they needed to retrieve their 60mm mortar system from a nearby ATV, and despite his exhaustion, Harris volunteered.
Harris and Bell sprinted 40 meters across open ground, paralleling the enemy line and exposing themselves yet again to small arms and machine gun fire, to retrieve and place the mortar into action. They fired eight 60mm rounds before taking cover as the F-16 dropped a 500-pound bomb on the enemy's position.
Bell and Harris then rode the ATV back across the hostile terrain to hand off the mortar to their team.
That's when Harris decided to go back for his fallen comrade. Once again ignoring the immense risk to his own life, he drove the ATV one final time directly into the kill zone, toward both the waiting enemy and his fallen team sergeant.
"All the sudden I hear on the radio, 'Hey, there's another 500-pound bomb coming in,'" said Harris, "And I'm like, 'Okay, great!'"
Without hesitation, he covered Adams' body with his own to protect him from the impending detonation less than 40 meters away.
The blast was ear-splitting.
Harris and another team member began to load Adams onto the ATV. Their interpreter came running in at that time, and with his help, they loaded Adams' body onto the ATV and drove out of the kill zone.
The award ceremony brought “a little bit of closure," said Harris, who was able to reconnect with some of the men he fought with on that long-ago day, some of which he had not seen in years.
"This ceremony has ended up being a reunion, and a celebration of [Adams], his life and his sacrifice," said Harris.
Throughout all of this, Harris and his team members said they want people to remember Master Sgt. Danial "Slim" Adams, who was killed in action while defending his nation's security, according to the release.
"Dan…was an amazing man, was well-loved by everyone," said Bell. "He was a true leader and a wonderful husband and father."
"He cared about us," said Millan. "He cared about his troops. And that's the legacy he left behind, that…we're going to carry forward."
Harris, who had only graduated the Special Forces qualification course a few months earlier, recalled a moment right before they shipped out. As he was saying goodbye to his wife, Harris tried to reassure her by saying, "You don't have to worry about me. You don't have to worry about us. Because we got Slim."
According to Harris, Adams' sacrifice may have been directly responsible for his survival that day.
"In my mind, that day," explained Harris, "as soon as the firefight happened, we had some choices to make immediately. And the one that Slim made was the one that I was gonna make, because I trusted him that much.
"If anything, [Adams] drew fire so that I had the time to move up that hill and get to cover, and live," Harris said. "[Adams] made the decision of 'I am going first, I'm leading out. He didn't have to lead out…He didn't tell anyone to lead, he didn't ask anyone to lead. He led from the front, like he always did."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.