It was in the hour before dawn when we reached our target objective. I had been on countless raids, patrols, and direct-action missions before, but this one had a different feel to it. We arrived at the outskirts of Nalan, a small village in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, and surveyed the situation. We took prone positions in the field while our lead element inched forward. Through my night-vision, I could see a dirt wall about a hundred meters in front of us and an alleyway between two buildings to my right. Other than that, there was nothing but open field. The night air was deadly still.
The stillness was shattered as the sound of gunfire erupted from behind the wall. The muzzle flashes and tracer rounds lit up my field of vision. The earpiece from my radio crackled to life, orders were being given. Our men were well trained, and we had prepared for this very moment. As the medic, I was told to stay back with the weapons squad while the rest of the platoon maneuvered on the enemy.
The M240 machine gun a few feet from me exploded to life, rumbling my insides, and spraying hell upon the insurgents dug-in behind the wall. Rounds from my M4 seemed almost irrelevant next to the devastation from that beast, but I returned fire, nevertheless.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon.
The insurgents behind the wall were prepared as well. They had stockpiles of ammunition, RPG’s, and were positioned so that we couldn’t lay any effective fire on them. The field had become a kill box around us and we had to move. While the weapons squad laid down heavy covering fire, we worked our way to the alley. And it was there we became pinned down.
We needed to flank the enemy. We needed to get out of this alley, but any direction we tried to move, we were met with gunfire. One of the squad leaders stepped out from the cover of the alley to assess the situation and immediately small puffs of dust started kicking up all around him as the enemy dialed in their AK-47 rounds. He darted back to the safety of the alley, and when I checked him out, miraculously, they were no bullet holes.
We called for Close Air Support (CAS). And when it came, it missed its target. Instead of dropping behind the wall, killing the terrorists, it landed on the building next to us. The shock from the explosion ripped through us, disorienting, and shaking us to the core. Dust kicked up everywhere. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me.
“Doc, let’s go.” One of the squad leaders yelled, and without hesitation, I followed the sound of his voice. We used the concealment of the dust to sprint from the cover of the alley and stack up behind the two-foot-thick wall the enemy was using as cover.
That sprint was one of the most intense moments of my life. Running blind, I could feel bullets cracking past my head. I willed myself stay upright and not trip. I knew falling would most likely mean death.
As the dust finally began to settle, I could see we had all made it to the wall. I conducted a brief visual inspection of my guys to make sure everyone was OK and several thumbs up later, we started moving, preparing to turn the corner and face the enemy.
The blast from the RPG came out of nowhere, striking directly on the other side of the wall from where we were stacked up. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I dropped to my knees. My vision was blurry.
“Fall back!” I heard someone shout, but the voice sounded so far away. I struggled to my feet and staggered my way back toward the alley. On either side of me, I could see my brothers attempting to do the same.
To this day I am not sure how we made it back to the safety of the alley relatively unscathed. But we did.
Soon after, one of the recon squads we sent out came back and reported they had found another way to access the wall, a way in which they wouldn’t be seen. Lead by the point man, Charlie Wycoff, the team went to assault the wall a second time.
Photo courtesy of Erika Wyckoff
I was in the alley waiting for the team to clear the wall when I heard the screams, “Doc! Doc! Doc!” My heart skipped a beat, but my legs were already moving. I was out of the alley in a flash and sprinting across the kill box. It was the most direct line to my men, and I wasn’t about to waste any time. Luckily, our SAW (squad automatic weapon) gunner saw what I was doing and dove out from the cover of the alley, putting himself in harms way to lay down suppressive fire to cover my ass. Thanks for that, Kenny.
When I got to the edge of the wall where the assault team was, Blane’s eyes met mine and I saw a look in them that chilled me to the bone.
“He’s gone, Doc. Charlie’s gone.” Behind him, he had a hold of one of the straps on Charlie’s body armor, dragging him to the safety of the wall. I knelt by our fallen brother and checked for a pulse, listened for breath sounds, looked for the telling rise and fall of the chest, but there was nothing.
Charlie had an entrance wound in the corner of his eye, from a 7.62 round fired from an AK-47. He had no exit wound.
Charlie was the first to clear the corner of the wall, followed closely by Blane. What Charlie encountered once there was one insurgent with an AK-47 and another with an RPG aimed at the already weakened wall in which his team was stacked up behind.
To save his own life, Charlie would have had to kill the insurgent closest to him first, the one with the AK-47.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Charlie fired first on the enemy with the RPG, killing him.
He then turned his sights on the closer enemy and they fired simultaneously. By the time Blane cleared the wall, all three men lay dead. One hero and two terrorists.
The entire situation unfolded in the blink of an eye. Charlie didn’t have time to weigh the pros and cons of his decision before acting, and any hesitation at all would have resulted in more American deaths. So, instead of hesitating, Charlie acted in the only manner he was capable of in accordance with his character. He sacrificed himself for his brothers.
Omar, a Silver Star recipient from his time in Iraq, knelt next to Charlie and whispered to him. He then gingerly removed his mission essential gear, while others pulled security, protecting us from any other threats in the area.
Some of these men were on their first deployment, like Charlie, and some were on their fifth, but one thing was constant, they were all now some of the most hardened paratroopers in the world, forged by combat, but still, the tenderness and respect they showed was paramount. I was in awe.
Photo courtesy of Erika Wyckoff
It’s been ten long years since that morning in Afghanistan. It’s been ten years and I can still smell the gunpowder, the dirt, the sweat, and the blood. It’s been ten years, and every day since that day I remember the lessons Charlie and my fellow paratroopers taught me. The legacy Charlie leaves behind is one of compassion, empathy, love, friendship, decency, and heroism.
When we discuss the concept of masculinity, the first question that is always asked is “What does it mean to be a real man?” Often the answers people come up with are things like: strong, doesn’t cry, tough, bad ass, brave, hard, fearless, etc. In other words, all the things it takes to be a paratrooper. All the things that made Charlie who he was.
What isn’t talked about is all the other things men like Charlie are.
I think back to one mission where we inserted into a small village, and once it was cleared, there was Charlie, playing with the local Afghan kids. He taught one to shoot a slingshot. He gave another candy. He laughed with them and transcended a language barrier to make a connection. He was compassionate.
Overhearing conversations he had with the men before going out on other missions, I know that Charlie would quell others’ fears by making a joke, or saying something off the wall. He was a natural leader.
Listening to Erika, Charlie’s widow, talk about how he used to admire her from afar in their apartment complex; or open doors for her once they did meet; or write her love letters once they were together; he wasn’t afraid to show emotion, cry, or be vulnerable around those he loved. He showed true strength by displaying his emotions.
That strength was never more apparent than on the day he died. He made the ultimate sacrifice, not because he was asked to, but out of love for country and brotherhood.
The President of the United States
Takes Pride in Presenting
The Distinguished Service Cross
Sergeant, U.S. Army
For Services as Set Forth in the Following
For extraordinary heroism in action while serving with the 3d Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3d Brigade Combat Team, 82d Airborne Division. On 6 June 2007, Sergeant Wyckoff distinguished himself as a Rifle Team Leader in combat operations during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. While engaged in close combat against determined enemy forces, Sergeant Wyckoff left his covered position without hesitation, to force the other members of his team to take cover. Sergeant Wyckoff revealed his position and fatally engaged two insurgents to save the lives of his platoon. Sergeant Wyckoff’s bravery is in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 82d Airborne Division and the United States Army.
Home Town: Chula Vista, California Personal Awards: Silver Star (War on Terrorism), Purple Heart source
When we discuss what it means to be a real man, let’s #belikecharlie. Let’s add words to the concept of masculinity because I think we can all agree that by any definition, Charlie certainly defines the term.
Let’s add compassionate.
Let’s add kind.
Let’s add caring.
Let’s add vulnerable.
Let’s add friend.
Let’s add sacrifice.
Let’s add leadership.
But most importantly, let’s add love…
Just like Charlie did.
Special thanks to Blane Risinger, Omar Torres, Kenneth Swann, and of course, Erika Wyckoff. Without all of you, I’d neither be here today nor able to write these words. Thank you.
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Photo: Getty Images