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Michael A. Espejo Jr.

U.S. Army / Silver Star

Sergeant saw through Afghan suicide bomber disguised as policeman, saved several lives

The Army unit was on patrol in the Bati Kot district east of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when it came upon the burning vehicle’s shell. On the side of the road, lying face up on the ground, was a man in an Afghan police uniform, apparently wounded.

Sgt. Michael Espejo rushed to pull him away from the wreckage.

“I picked him off the ground,” Espejo recalled. “As I was taking this individual, I had his left arm draped over my shoulders and my right arm around his back, kind of holding his chest as I was carrying him away.”

Suddenly, the man regained consciousness.

“I started feeling his chest with my fingers, and it was bulky and hard,” Espejo said. “I looked down at his chest and it looked like what appeared to be a ballistic vest.

“I looked at his arms, his left arm that was draped over my shoulders, and I saw that he had a wire running out from his sleeves into his palms and kind of a light switch device.”

This was no fallen comrade. It was a suicide bomber.

Espejo quickly threw the man to the ground and warned his team leader, approaching with a first aid bag, to stay away.

Using Pashto phrases he had learned, Espejo screamed at the man to sit down and raise his hands. Espejo backed away, keeping his M4 rifle pointed at the suicide bomber.

It became clear the man didn’t intend to leave the engagement alive.

“I saw that after multiple warnings, he was trying to hit the switch,” Espejo said, “and that’s when I decided to neutralize him.”

Espejo’s actions saved the lives of four other soldiers, two State Department officials and a gathering crowd of civilian onlookers, according to the citation accompanying his Silver Star, the third-highest commendation for bravery. He had exhausted all other options before he killed the suicide bomber, the Army said.

Some details about the Sept. 27, 2007, ambush-in-the-making were still unclear. Why was the suicide bomber on his back before Espejo’s team arrived? What happened to the burning vehicle, apparently the result of a car bomb that had detonated?

Espejo said his patrol had received reports that insurgents in the area were donning official uniforms. It seemed likely that the vehicle bomb had exploded prematurely, knocking aside the bomber.

“Or they just could have been setting the whole thing up,” Espejo said. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth.”

Brian Mockenhaupt is a Detroit-based writer who is an Alicia Patterson fellow reporting on the physical and psychological effects of war. He served as a noncommissioned officer with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002 to 2005, spending 18 months in Iraq.

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Sgt. Michael Espejo was profiled in an Army ad that detailed his quick thinking in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

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Michael A. Espejo Jr.

U.S. Army / Silver Star

Born May 29, 1982, in Indio, Calif., but considers Bakersfield, Calif., his home.

Wife, Rosa; children, Sander and Madison.

Joined the Marines at age 19, attended college after finishing his enlistment, then re-enlisted for six years in 2005, this time as a military policeman in the Army. Has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

At the time of the incident was a sergeant with the 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, 66th Military Police Company, 42nd Military Police Brigade, from Fort Lewis, Wash. Later promoted to staff sergeant.

Is a member of the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, a society that admits members based on performance in front of a board, quizzing applicants on the minutiae of Army regulations.

Single-handedly stopped a suicide bomber disguised as an Afghan national police officer.

A drill sergeant at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

“I wanted to serve my country.”

Afghanistan / Barikot Ghar

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