Nevada Army National Guard / Bronze Star with Valor
Three-man sniper team fends off Taliban onslaught during Operation Bacha Strga
The three veteran combat snipers had endured their share of firefights, but nothing had been quite as frightening as the midnight shootout on Sept. 5, 2009 against about 50 Taliban fighters atop a rocky ridge in the mountains of Afghanistan’s Laghman province.
Rifles ablaze and adrenalin pumping during the two-hour battle, more than once the unthinkable crossed the minds of the Nevada National Guardsmen.
“I really didn’t think we were coming back,” recalls team leader and Staff Sgt. Jason Fincher.
Fincher, Sgt. Anthony Sandoval and Pfc. Justo Baltasar, from the National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry Regiment, had blackened their faces and donned their “ghillie suits”—loose, camouflage netting—before setting out on a reconnaissance mission with 10 soldiers from the 10th Special Forces Group and the French Foreign Legion.
Told to bring extra ammunition for their rifles and machine guns and to leave their shotguns behind, their objective was surveillance of a remote village known to be a Taliban safe haven. After being dropped from a helicopter, they would hike four hours through the darkness to reach a rugged hilltop where they could observe drug and weapons trafficking.
It was the same location where Italian soldiers had casualties two years before and two French soldiers had been captured the following year.
The team arrived in the early-morning cold and sweated through the heat of the day after reaching its recon positions. Now, in darkness, they waited for French helicopters to pick them up.
Suddenly, Taliban ambushers opened fire as the snipers hid along the south perimeter of the landing zone. Special Forces soldiers to the north called for a sniper.
Sandoval grabbed his gear. “I remember I was running. It was pretty dark and there was a lot of tracer fire that was just going right by me,” he says.
He was greeted by a Special Forces soldier who asked about his weapon. Sandoval replied it was an M-14 with a scope.
“You don’t have a PEQ-2?” the soldier asked, referring to a laser sighting device.
When Sandoval said “no,” the Green Beret told him to go back and send another sniper—one with a PEQ-2.
“I was like, ‘Sure thing, buddy. Sure, I’ll run back over there,’ ” Sandoval replied. “So I run back over there . . . through all this tracer fire and I go to (Fincher), ‘Hey, they want you.’ And he kind of gives me this look. Then there he goes over the hill.”
Fincher reached the north position simultaneously with multiple explosions and a big exchange of fire. He was now in the thick of battle.
Taliban in groups of five or six ran right to left, and Fincher mounted his PEQ-2 laser and began firing. An automatic weapons gunner and a soldier manning a grenade launcher also opened up.
“We’re just seeing groups of bodies flying,” Fincher says. “We didn’t realize how many people they had. They just kept coming. Kept comin’ and comin’ and comin’.”
Shouts came from all directions: Contact north! Contact west! East! South! The reconnaissance force was surrounded as mortar rounds continued to rain on them—close enough, Sandoval says, that “we were feeling the concussion from it.”
“We didn’t have cover or anything,” he says. “There was a rock, maybe about the size of a small trash can and there were two of us trying to take a knee behind it.”
Sandoval faced east while Baltasar faced south, and out of the corner of Sandoval’s eye, he saw eight or nine Taliban coming up the side of the hill.
“Before I could say anything, (Baltasar) stands up and right in my ear fires off 200 rounds, a full drum, at these guys,” says Sandoval. “I’m just seeing people falling. I couldn’t hear. … I just went deaf for a good five minutes.”
Baltasar, 24 at the time but a seasoned regular Army veteran from the Iraq War, says that he was just trying to stay alive: “There was so much adrenalin going through my body I was shaking and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t scared. It was the adrenalin.”
And he got another wake-up call when he heard reports of two wounded Green Berets: “I said, ‘OK this is really happening.’”
He knew he’d quickly run out of ammunition if the battle lasted much longer since the 1,200 rounds he had brought had been seriously depleted, leaving him with only enough for another half hour if the ambush continued.
Seconds later, more Taliban came up the ridge, and Sandoval stood up and opened fire with his M-14.
They could hear the Taliban talking—and a couple of Green Berets yelling back at them.
“This (Special Forces) guy kept screaming, ‘Wrong night, guys! Wrong night!’ as he was shooting at them,” Fincher says. “I was trying hard not to chuckle and keep shooting at the same time.”
Meanwhile, on the south side of the perimeter, Sandoval and Baltasar were busy staving off approaching Taliban fighters.
“It really didn’t dawn on me how severe the situation was until Pfc. Baltasar turned and looked at me … and goes, ‘Man, I don’t think we’re walking away from this one,’” Sandoval recalls.
In Fincher’s sector, Taliban fighters were bent on charging the location where he and others were trying to protect the two wounded Special Forces soldiers.
Fincher, too, was worried about the outcome. “There was kind of a draw that they kept coming up,” he says. “I kept thinking like, ‘Oh wow.’ I mean these guys are coming up here. My head’s getting chopped off. I’m trying to think of how much ammo I had left. … That was my biggest fear, my head getting chopped off on the Internet.”
Finally, French army helicopters “came and started knocking out all the mortar teams that were surrounding us,” he says.
Says Sandoval: “When you call in for air assets, helicopters and things like that, usually the enemy will go away. … It was amazing to see as these attack helicopters were doing their runs. As they were pulling away, these guys were coming back out from behind the rocks and actually shooting at the helicopters and they were doing that for a good while.
“I praise the pilots because they landed on some tough terrain under fire and they put it directly where they needed to be.”
Sandoval and Baltasar were in the first group picked up, dodging increased enemy fire in the open as they carried their wounded to the chopper.
They, too, jumped in, but they were far from safe.
“Just as they pilot goes to give it power, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) almost hits the back of the bird,” Sandoval says. “It sprayed the back of the helicopter with debris.
They felt the jolt, but the pilot made an evasive move and ducked the craft down the side of a cliff.
“Everyone thought the helicopter was going down, even the guys that weren’t on it,” Sandoval says. “And guys (inside) were screaming.”
Fincher and the remaining soldiers watched the take off from a short distance. He says their hearts sank: “That RPG hit and we thought they were going down because we saw them go down that cliff. We were like, ‘Oh wow. Oh, oh. This is horrible.’ Then we actually saw it gain altitude and take off. Then we were really excited about that.”
It was only about five minutes before a second helicopter came for the remaining six soldiers, Fincher says, “but I really thought it was an eternity.”
Keith Rogers covers the military for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Nevada Army National Guard / Bronze Star with Valor
Born April 29, 1985, in Los Angeles.
Served in the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, from 2003 to 2007. Served one tour of duty in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.
WHAT THEY DID
The three-man sniper team, along with 10 U.S. Special Forces soldiers and French commandos, fought some 50 Taliban militants, killing about 20 of them and rescuing two wounded U.S. soldiers during Operation Bacha Strga. They were surrounded and ambushed at their reconnaissance position in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan on Sept. 5, 2009.
WHERE HE IS NOW
Lives in Los Angeles where he attends Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
WHY HE JOINED THE NATIONAL GUARD
“I was in the regular Army and was recalled and attached to Nevada’s 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry.”
Afghanistan / Laghman Province