Under Control

June 25, 2015
As SrA. Dustin H. Temple fired back at insurgents who had surrounded his unit in a remote area of Helmand province, Afghanistan, his team’s interpreter heard some terrifying chatter came in over enemy radio.

The enemy was moving in to take the Americans alive.

So definitive was the Taliban advantage during the Sept. 27-29, 2014, action, insurgents on the rooftops didn’t bother to take cover from the gunships, fighter aircraft, and attack helicopters that fired on them from above.

“They were braver than any insurgents we have ever fought,” SrA. Goodie J. Goodman said in a recent meeting with reporters. Across the battlefield from Temple during the fight, Goodman’s vantage point allowed him to see how grave the American position was.

“I’d never heard that before … about taking hostages,” Goodman’s battlefield companion, TSgt. Matthew J. Greiner, agreed. “I’d never heard talk so alarming.”

It was probably for the best that the detachment of American Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos, whom the three Air Force combat controllers were there to protect, couldn’t fully appreciate the peril of their situation.

The battle had begun more typically. In the early morning darkness on Sept. 28, the Americans and Afghan commandos moved into the small village in Kajaki district of northern Helmand province.

Already the combat controllers had called in several strikes from AH-64 Apache helicopters and A-10 Warthogs to kill six armed insurgents moving on their position. The enemy knew the Americans and Afghan forces were there.

From intelligence, the airmen also knew the village bazaar was a nexus of enemy activity. Weapons, equipment, and drugs all moved through Kajaki to various Taliban safe havens throughout Helmand.

If the Americans and Afghans could clear the bazaar, they would deal a critical blow to insurgent operations in the region.


The Special Forces established three defensive positions in the center, east, and west of the bazaar, while small teams, including the airmen, fanned out to search the market.

They came across a stockpile of ammunition and narcotics. They quickly destroyed these in place and made their way back to prepare defensive positions: Goodman and Greiner to the west and Temple to the center.

As daylight spread across the valley, the enemy began to step up its activity against the Americans and Afghan commandos, probing their positions and peppering them with small-arms fire.

The airmen punched holes through the thick mud walls of the buildings they were in to get a better look at the enemy while protecting their bodies from sniper fire.

Air Force maps of the battlefield, denoting coalition forces with little rectangles and insurgents with triangles, later demonstrated the overwhelming supremacy of the Taliban position. Triangles outnumber rectangles almost eight-to-one.

As the airmen pondered their situation, considering what manner of air strike would best counter their enemy’s intentions, they were dealt an even more devastating blow. Sgt. 1st Class Andrew T. Weathers, a Green Beret and Special Forces medic, had taken a sniper round to the head.

For the actions that followed, Temple would receive the Air Force Cross, the highest award the Air Force can give, presented for extraordinary heroism in battle. Only six Air Force Crosses have been awarded since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it is the top award for gallantry in combat, short of the Medal of Honor.

Goodman and Greiner earned Silver Stars for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.

“Around 0800, we started getting a lot of traffic over the radios that the insurgents knew where our positions were,” Goodman related, recalling the battle. “They knew we went through the bazaar.”

Once that happened, the insurgents picked up the attack, firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Americans and Afghans returned fire to suppress the enemy. Goodman took up a position on a rooftop, lobbing round after round of 40 mm grenades.

At a little after 9 a.m., a chilling message came through the radio. Man down. Weathers had been felled by a sniper while firing from a rooftop.

“I immediately ran from my position to receive Weathers from the rooftop,” Temple recalled. The injured man was still breathing but unconscious.

“I helped lower him down to the ground and moved him to a safer location,” Temple said. “While teammates assisted in first aid, I called in a medevac over the satellite radio.”

According to his Air Force Cross citation, when the helicopter arrived 45 minutes later, Temple carried Weathers across more than 300 feet of open terrain under direct enemy fire to an improvised helicopter landing zone.

Despite Temple’s heroic efforts to save him, Weathers died at the US military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany a few days later. He was the only American fatality of the battle.

“I [feel] a great deal of remorse for Sergeant Weathers. He was an awesome man,” Goodman said later.

Around noon, the detachment was beginning to run low on ammunition. It fell to Temple to call in an emergency resupply, which came in by helicopter about an hour later through a cloud of small-arms fire.

Smacked In The Face

But when Temple, Greiner, and a few of the Afghan commandos ran out to receive the shipment, they were met with a surprise.

The ammunition was still packed in a forklift pallet, much too massive for an individual, or even a team of individuals, to lift.

Despite the size of the delivery, Temple and Sgt. Hollis Webb still tried to carry the pallet back to safety, but it immediately toppled to the ground.

With enemy fire landing all around them, they decided to run back to cover, regroup, and make another go for it later.

Temple didn’t understand what the miscommunication had been.

“It was a strange resupply,” he said. “Normally it comes in a bag, and it would be something you could carry, but this was a different type of aircraft bringing it in.”

While their much-needed ammunition lay in plain sight on contested ground, they established a plan to go in with more men, set up a suppressing fire line, and grab as much of it as they could.

On their second attempt, Temple, Greiner, two other Americans, and six Afghans were able to bring almost all of the ammunition back to the compound they were using for cover.

It wasn’t until they were back inside that they realized how risky their maneuver had been.

“The fire was pretty effective,” Temple admitted. “One of our friendlies said, ‘Hey, are you guys OK? You’re taking fire all around your feet!’ But no one received any injuries.”

The relief of being resupplied didn’t last long. Radio traffic indicated that insurgents were going to make another major push on the coalition troops, force a surrender, and try once again to take them alive.

“That’s when I had the aircraft overhead start doing a defensive scan around our forward positions looking for insurgents close to us,” Greiner said.

It turned out the insurgents were barely 100 feet away. For the purposes of an air strike, such a distance is danger-close and tantamount to being in the same location.

Nonetheless, Greiner called in the strike.

“I had a few-second conversation over the radio making sure it wasn’t our guys that were outside of the building, and we confirmed it. Then we went ahead and launched multiple Hellfires off the rail.”

The blasts were so big that coalition forces were “smacked in the face” with dust through fighting holes they had dug in the walls, according to Temple.

“We did everything we could to push them back from us—everything short of putting our birds at risk. We had to avoid making another ‘Black Hawk Down’ scene,” Goodman said, referencing the 2001 film based on real-life events in 1993, when an Army Rangers helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia.

It worked. The combat controllers coordinated the air attacks and ammunition drops from their positions on the ground effectively enough to repel the enemy onslaught and win the battle.

Tobias Burns has written for US News and World Report, Market Watch, and the Chicago Sun-Times and studies business journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Matt Schehl, a former Army NCO and DOD cultural advisor, is a graduate student at the Medill School. This is their first article for Air Force Magazine.