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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Heroism under fire earned Puyallup native Medal of Honor

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 7, 2018

A decade ago, on a mission in Afghanistan’s steep, icy Shok Valley, Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II worked furiously to keep Dillon Behr alive.

Behr, one of a 12-member Special Forces team, had been shot through the hip and was bleeding badly. Shurer – a medic, Puyallup native and graduate of Washington State University – helped stop the bleeding, using a clotting agent and his own fingers at one point, even as bullets popped all around them.

One bullet struck Shurer’s helmet. Another hit him in the arm. Evac helicopters couldn’t get close.

At one point, Shurer asked Behr: “Am I all right?”

He couldn’t tell whose blood was whose.

At another point, as Behr drifted toward unconsciousness, Shurer slapped him.

“Wake up!” he said. “You’re not going to die today.”

‘Whatever little voice I get’

Neither Behr nor any of the other Americans on the team died on that day, April 6, 2008. That was due in large part to the heroism of Shurer, the medic from Puyallup who rushed uphill into the firefight, fought through an ambush, and helped bring his fellow soldiers down to safety.

“It really is,” Behr would say later, “the kind of story that they make movies and write books about.”

Along with the other members of his team, Shurer had already received a Silver Star. But following a widespread review of military decorations in the post-9/11 years, that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for military valor.

He was presented the medal by President Trump on Monday at the White House – and quickly tried to turn the attention toward others.

“Hopefully, (it will) remind the American public about all the service members we still have out there, still doing the missions today, just quietly going about their jobs, you know, not asking for recognition,” he told Stars & Stripes in an interview. “Whatever little voice I get, I hope to just be able to direct attention that way.”

Shurer, who graduated from WSU in 2001 with a business economics degree, now lives in Virginia with his wife and two sons. He joined the Army in 2002, motivated by the 9/11 attacks. He served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan from November 2007 to May 2008, according to a profile in the Army Times. Following an honorable discharge in 2009, he joined the Secret Service.

This account is based on the reporting of many others – the Army Times, Stars & Stripes, accounts from a book about the battle, “No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains,” and several other news stories.

“Everything opened up’

It was a joint mission, with the Special Forces leading a team of Afghan commandos to capture or kill a leader of a militant insurgent group, Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin, in the steep, arid terrain of the Nuristan province.

It was nicknamed Commando Wrath, and it was troubled from the start. The ground commander, Capt. Kyle Walton, had concerns about the intelligence, the weather and the terrain. He tried without success to have the mission scrubbed.

They weren’t miracle workers, he said.

“But at every level, he got the same answer: You’re going to do it,” according to “No Way Out.”

Things started tough and got tougher. As the CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying the team dropped below cloud cover, they saw there were many more militant compounds below than they had anticipated.

The terrain was too rough to land, so the men jumped into a river from 10 feet above. There was virtually no cover. Almost immediately, between 200 and 300 militants began firing on them from positions above them on the nearly vertical mountainside.

“We felt like everything just opened up on us,” Shurer told the Army Times.

As the Green Berets and Afghan commandos rushed uphill, Shurer, the only medic, stayed below and treated some of the injured in the early fighting.

The worst among them was Behr, who would likely have bled to death from injuries to his hip and his arm without treatment, members of the team said.

While treating Behr, Shurer felt a bullet strike his helmet – like a baseball bat to the head, he said. He asked the injured Behr to check him for injuries. He had blood everywhere.

Heavily medicated, Behr began to pray for his life.

“I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know that I’ve been the best person in the world, and I don’t know that I have any reason to stay alive, but if there is a reason for me, make it so,’ ” Behr said. “And Ron slapped me across the face and said, ‘Wake up! You’re not going to die today.’ ”

‘It was bad’

Uphill, the team was outgunned and under fire. They had reached a mountaintop and were trying to approach a compound where they believed their “high-value target” was hiding. Four Green Berets and 10 Afghan commandos were injured, and the team was struggling to hold its position and move the injured men to safety.

Walton, the ground commander, was forced to call Shurer up to their position.

“When I called for Ron, there was a silence over the radio for a few seconds, because everyone realized what that meant – that it was bad,” Walton told Stars & Stripes. “He had to climb a mountain under fire with a couple other guys on the team. When he showed up, nearly everybody was wounded. We were under direct fire. We were pinned down with nearly nowhere to go except down that 100-foot cliff.”

Shurer worked his way uphill and spent hours fighting and treating several soldiers who were injured, all while under fire. He said he could feel the bullets kicking up dirt all around him. Among the injured was the team’s Afghan translator, who was fatally wounded.

“For me it just became a mission of getting as many guys out of there as I could,” he told CBS News.

After some six hours, the team was at risk of being overrun. Walton called in a “danger close” airstrike in a desperate attempt to distract and divert the enemy so they could retreat and evacuate the injured.

“In that moment, the strike that we had called in on our own position detonated just above us and blocked out the sun,” Walton said. “As the dust settled, Ron Shurer was the first thing that I saw on top of his wounded teammates, protecting them even to the end when we had all fully accepted the fact that we were going to go down fighting. Ron Shurer was still thinking of others.”

Shurer helped get the rest of his team down the mountain, rigging a sling from nylon webbing to help the injured down a cliff to the incoming helicopters.

‘Nobody could deserve it more’

Eight of Shurer’s Special Forces teammates and two Afghan fighters who battled beside them in the Shok Valley were with him at the White House this week as the president hung the nation’s most prestigious military medal around his neck.

“Knowing that he was awarded the Silver Star, the same award that I got, it didn’t really seem fair,” Behr said the day before the ceremony.

“So, to see him elevated and given the nation’s highest honor — there’s nobody else that could deserve it any more, and I’m extremely proud to know him.”

Shurer’s story has a sad coda: He said this week he’s been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, which he’s been fighting for the past year.

Asked about his prognosis during an appearance Wednesday on Fox & Friends, he said: “We’re taking it one day at a time, one scan at a time, and keep moving forward.”

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