The Shok Valley is in a remote part of northeastern Afghanistan and has long been known as an insurgent stronghold. It’s specifically the treacherous hunting grounds of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), a radical Islamic terrorist group that started in 1977. HIG got its start with funding from anti-Soviet forces, and for almost 40 years they’ve been using their hundreds of millions of dollars to train terrorists and carry out horrific attacks. They have what can only be described as a bloodthirsty, virulently anti-Western stance, and their reign of terror has stretched across generations of soldiers from multiple countries. One Russian veteran of the Soviet Afghan War would only discuss the HIG stronghold briefly: “I know of this place, the Shok Valley. We did not go there. There were no good roads and death was certain.” Among those with HIG ties? Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. HIG is teeming with vipers, and the Shok Valley is their den.
On April 6, 2008, a joint US-Afghani raid took place. The goal was to take out high-value targets, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, HIG’s leader, and Haji Ghafour, his subcommander; our men were going into the Shok Valley. Approximately 15 U.S. Special Forces soldiers were involved, along with about 100 Afghani National Army members; they were acutely aware of the danger, and our SF operators were ready to go in hard and fast. Among the SF present that day was a Green Beret by the name of Staff Sergeant Seth Howard, and today we tell his story.
SSG Seth Howard is from Keene, New Hampshire, and his varied childhood gave few hints to his future as a member of the elite SF group, the Green Berets. His dad was a surgeon, his mom worked in communications, and he had two brothers. Growing up, he first attended Catholic school and then went to boarding school at North Mount Hermon in Massachusetts. He did have a certain love for up-close-and-personal fighting, though, participating in wrestling all four years of high school and graduating in 2002, only to continue wrestling at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But college wasn’t Howard’s strong suit; he lasted only one semester, a semester where he dropped out of one of his four classes, failed two and barely managied a C in the third. He decided to leave and take a job at a box factory, but he did have something else in the works: the Army.
When Howard enlisted, the Iraq war had just started. If you ask him what he remembers about sitting in the recruiter’s office, he mentions the constant drone of the play-by-play from 3ID playing in the background. For whatever reason, the recruiter attempted to convince him to work with satellites, but he knew what he wanted; he wanted SF. He wanted to take an active role in what might very well be the biggest military movement of this era; he wanted to make an impact, to go into battle with bared teeth and kick some enemy tail. And so, Howard entered service in June of 2003, got through Basic, and by 2005 he was a Green Beret.
He was a mellow, laid-back guy, and his casual demeanor gave no immediate evidence to the tenacious fighter within. On that day in 2008 he was a part of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces, and the Weapons Sergeant for Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3336, Special Operations Task Force 33, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. He was doing exactly what he’d always wanted to do: serving in Afghanistan, fighting in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The plan was to insert into the Shok Valley using CH-47 Chinook helicopters and continue on foot, taking the HIG terrorists by surprise. Considering the harsh nature of the terrain, it really came as no surprise when they were unable to land; even so, it was a frustration, not to mention a risk due to the unique and dangerous nature of the area. The Shok Valley’s nearly-impenetrable sheer, sharp faces and jagged ridges make for more than merely a risky ravine, not to mention the entire area is also laced with an incredible network of interconnected caves. HIG insurgents could quite literally be anywhere at any time, and the men might not see them until it was too late. NATO forces did not penetrate the Shok Valley for those very reasons, and the aforementioned Russian soldier was just one of many during the Soviet’s attempt at invading Afghanistan who carefully avoided the area. Calling the Shok Valley a death-trap is an understatement in the same way it would be one to refer to a Spectre gunship as a plane. And here the men were, unable to insert as planned.
Laden down with battle gear and weaponry, the SF team simply jumped from the Chinooks as they hovered above the shale-strewn terrain; there was no fast-roping in for them, no, for the men of the Green Berets, they needed only their own booted feet. At the bottom of the 10-foot drop some of them landed on the rocky ground while others ended up waist-deep in the icy water of a river. Once on the ground, the men split into three maneuver units, the lead assault force – which included CO Captain Kyle Walton – heading for the objective while SSG Howard’s unit stayed to the rear. Here it’s worth mentioning Howard’s phenomenal skills as a sniper, because those talents were about to come into play.
It wasn’t long before the lead assault force was under attack. Hundreds of terrorists spilled from the caves and out from behind rocks, turning RPGs, AK-47s, and assorted other firepower against Captain Walton and his men. The first shot killed the Afghani interpreter that was accompanying the lead assault team, and the remaining soldiers immediately scrambled for cover and began returning fire. Of course, there wasn’t really any cover available, and it quickly became evident they were in a dire situation. Walton called in close-air support, and, painfully aware his men were far too close to the strike zone, he called one of them, SSG David Sanders, to assess the situation more carefully. There was a high risk of the SF members being injured or killed by the incoming F-15’s bombs, and, fully aware of that – and being one of the men within that danger zone – Sanders didn’t hesitate: “Bring it anyway,” he told Walton, and the battle was on.
Calling in danger-close air support is unusual enough, let alone doing so time and again. Throughout the course of the coming battle, Walton and his men would be forced to utilize danger-close air support a total of 70 times. When he called Sanders to find out if his men were still alive after the first bomb hit, Sanders had just one thing to say: “Hit them again.” And they did. Howard remembers the concussion of the bombs and the injuries they wrought to the men: “A lot of the commandos got injured from falling debris. The bombs were throwing full trees and boulders at them; they were flying hundreds of meters.” And yet it wasn’t enough. The danger was great to all of them, but especially to the men in the lead assault force, and as the bombs fell and the susurrus of gunfire roared through the valley, Walton and the others knew they might not leave the Shok Valley alive. And then SSG Seth Howard went into action.
“I was totally in the cloud of black smoke. I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face.” SSG Seth Howard on fighting in the dust and smoke of the bombs as they rained down.
SSG Howard was by no means in a safe position himself. He was pinned down in a wadi by gunfire and RPGs, fighting for his life, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. First he ordered the Afghan Commandos where to fire in an attempt to take out or at least distract the insurgents, and then he set about rescuing the wounded members of his ODA. Howard was armed with his sniper rifle and an 84mm recoilless rifle. For those who do not know, that isn’t some little .22 rifle from the shelves of Walmart; that’s a man-portable anti-tank weapon, pretty much a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher (take a look: Carl Gustav recoilless rifle). The recoilless rifle is serious one-man weaponry, and Howard had one.
“We were pinned down. When the fire became so intense, we moved out onto a ledge against the cliff to protect our wounded. What turned the battle was Seth (Howard).” Captain Walton
He began to fight his way uphill, alternating between picking off insurgents with sniper fire and blowing them away with the recoilless rifle. His actions had two results: he started killing a lot of insurgents, and he started drawing their fire more intensely than ever. The fact that he was drawing their fire gave the men in his ODA the opportunity to work their way to far better cover, which undoubtedly saved quite a few of their lives. And, of course, the fact that he was picking them off in his methodical-yet-precise way meant there were at least a few less insurgents to deal with.
The Green Beret fought heroically, slowly working his way across a 60-foot cliff. He was determined to reach his men, and no heavily-armed, frenzied insurgent was going to stop him. Howard had left the relative safety of the wadi to cross wide-open ground; his actions put him at enormous risk. SSG Seth Howard was risking his life hoping to save his men.
Even when he reached his men, it was by no means over. By that point Walton’s rifle barrel had been destroyed by incoming fire and numerous serious injuries had occurred; one operator’s leg had been impacted so forcefully it was barely attached, and the soldier, who was clearly tougher than any known substance on earth, had used his boot laces to fasten his dangling leg to his own thigh in the hopes it could later be reattached. These men weren’t just tough and they weren’t just badasses, they were – are – courageous heroes of a caliber those insurgents had never before faced, and they were going to do some serious damage to the HIG despite the high personal costs.
“Everyone kept fighting, but there was a window closing on us. We knew we had to get out.” Captain Walton
It was then the insurgents began to close in, and SSG Howard, seeing no other choice, once again broke cover. Darting behind such enormous objects as foot-high rocks, he engaged the enemy one by one, probably making them think they were facing down an entire army of rifle-wielding marksman, not just one sniper and his favorite rifle. The other men of the ODA decided they now had only one choice: make a daring retreat. The bravado and, yes, certain brass parts of the operators can’t be denied as they began to make their way back down the sheer face of the cliff – while taking heavy gunfire. But not all the men were making their getaway, no, one man flat-out refused to leave, saying he would stay behind to lay down fire and catch up later. You know that selfless American Hero was SSG Seth Howard, and even though he was running low on ammunition, the Green Beret held his ground.
He held his ground as not one, not two, but every last man of the ODA made their way down the mountain. He held his ground as countless insurgents rushed him, using his stunning sniping skills to take out two dozen of them, simply picking them off one after the other like it was no big thing. He held his ground knowing he would likely be killed, one man against an oncoming horde of terrorists – terrorists trained by a wealthy organization, not rock-slinging goat-herders with no sense of aim. Howard held his ground until every single man was back at the extraction point; only when his men were safely out of immediate danger did he begin his own descent.
The heroic actions of SSG Seth Howard on April 6, 2008, saved the lives of the men of his ODA as well as those of the Afghan Commandos with them. As a result of those actions, Howard and nine other men of his SF group were awarded the Silver Star, which is the 3rd highest decoration for valor; it’s awarded for gallantry in combat, something SSG Howard displayed in astounding quantities. The award ceremony took place on December 12, 2008, at Fort Bragg, and was one of the biggest award ceremonies to take place since Vietnam. The 3rd SF group was awarded 19 Silver Stars, two Bronze Star Medals for Valor, two Army Commendation Medals for Valor, and two Purple Hearts. And, of course, 10 of those Silver Stars went to the men of ODA 3336.
SSG Seth Howard is an American Hero of epic proportions, and although I would typically close with my own description of his mind-blowing heroism, we’re going to quote Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. “I am truly at a loss for words to do justice to what we have heard here. Where do we get such men? There is no finer fighting man on the face of the earth than the American soldier. And there is no finer American soldier than our Green Berets.”
SSG Seth Howard, outstanding.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the opinion of the writer and do not reflect the policies of this website or organization.
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