Minutes before a massive explosion at a school the Taliban had been using for a headquarters and weapons cache in an Afghan village, Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Rogers and his teammate had been sitting inside, sifting through a pile of electronics, ammunition and artillery.
Fifty or so pounds of homemade explosives were scattered in piles throughout the room, Rogers recalled in a recent news release about a routine mission that quickly took an alarming turn.
Rogers, a technical rescue specialist, was attached to an Army Special Forces unit and tasked with the recovery of endangered personnel. The team's goal was to safeguard several districts and cities by training the Afghan army to defend those regions.
During that 2019 winter deployment -- Rogers' second to Afghanistan -- 16-hour days "on foot or in a vehicle was average" for the unit, mostly done at night to keep under the radar, according to the release.
On one of their last missions, the unit came upon a badly damaged village, where more than 20 rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, were fired at their convoy. They eventually made their way to the school.
"I was looking at one of the guys organizing the pile [of explosives] through my night vision goggles when all of a sudden we saw a flash and heard two bangs," Rogers, who was outside the building at the time, said in the release. The Air Force did not disclose the exact date or location of the operation.
"The first thing that comes to mind is fire," said Rogers, a pararescueman with the 57th Rescue Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. "There were so many things covered in fuel and burning. It looked apocalyptic."
But the team wasn't under attack even though that was their initial perception. It was later determined that an accidental discharge into the RPG stockpile by partner forces was the cause of the explosion, the release states.
Instead of gearing up for a firefight, Rogers sprang into action to recover the unit members still in the building, including an intelligence sergeant, a communications sergeant and an engineer.
For Rogers, it became a mission to try to save his teammates' lives.
"The [Special Forces] medic and I started going through the mass casualty procedures because we knew there had been a bunch of guys near the blast," he said. "The engineer was blown over and down into a ditch, and appeared to be unconscious. The communications sergeant was set on fire with RPG fuel after it exploded near him."
The communications sergeant was able to smother the flames and helped drag the intelligence sergeant out of the explosion. But with the heat and surrounding fire, the intel sergeant's ammo, grenades and a radio on his kit ignited, "going off and ... burning through the material, cooking off the rounds in the bottom of his magazine," Rogers said.
He and the communications sergeant began ripping off the intel sergeant's gear -- including grenades -- as quickly as they could, which led to their own uniforms and gear igniting repeatedly.
Rogers assessed that the intelligence sergeant was bleeding heavily from multiple limbs. "He had a lot of blast injuries throughout his whole body," he said.
A Tactical Air Control Party, or TACP, airman arrived at the scene to apply tourniquets.
The three service members exhausted multiple medical bags trying to pack the intel sergeant's wounds. They couldn't move him for fear it would worsen his condition, so they worked side by side amid the smoldering wreckage.
The intel sergeant was medically evacuated more than an hour later for surgery.
"We kept trying to resuscitate the intelligence sergeant as best we could on the way to the hospital," Rogers said. "After about 30 minutes at the hospital, [the medical staff] assessed his condition and determined he just wasn't sustainable."
He later died at the facility.
Rogers stayed by his side, and the team came to pay their respects and say their goodbyes, according to the release.
For his efforts trying to save the intel sergeant and six others, Rogers received the 2021 Air Force Sergeants Association Pitsenbarger Award, typically bestowed on enlisted members who perform a heroic act, the service said.
"It's an honor to receive [this award], but I don't think anyone else in that the same circumstance would have done anything different," Rogers said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.