Told by local Afghans that hundreds of Taliban fighters were holed up in nearby villages and in the mountains above them, Army Warrant Officer Michael J. McInerney led his detachment of 12 Special Forces soldiers from a Maryland Army National Guard unit into the jagged hills in pursuit.
The insurgents "scattered like rats," said McInerney, 39, a resident of Alexandria, Va.
But between Aug. 25 and Sept. 4 last year, he and his fellow citizen-soldiers, with about 200 Afghan militiamen, tracked the Taliban on foot up the hot, dusty valleys that crease the 9,000- foot peaks north of Dai Chupan, in southern Zabul province. They fought three battles and called in airstrikes to dislodge the enemy from the high ground. Scores of Taliban fighters were killed, with only one American soldier in their unit wounded.
Yesterday, in ceremonies at the Maryland Army National Guard armory in Glen Arm, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. awarded McInerney the Silver Star for his "heroic achievement" during Operation Mountain Viper. The citation commended his "bravery, tactical proficiency, professionalism and complete fearlessness in the face of the enemy."
The governor also presented 44 other guardsmen from the Maryland-based Company B, 2nd Battalion of the 20th Special Forces Group, with Bronze Stars for their "exceptionally meritorious service." Four of them, bearing V's for valor and "gallantry in action," were awarded to Sgts. 1st Class Michael Humphreys, Charles Thomas and Ernest Wright 3rd, all of Maryland, and Staff Sgt. William Genova of South Dakota.
"These guys are winning some of the nation's highest honors for performing well under combat," said the company's commander, Maj. Kevin Dennehy. "That kind of bravery is high for any unit, much less a National Guard unit."
The company, which has also been deployed to Bosnia and Haiti, has been home since late October. But Ehrlich welcomed them again "on behalf of the citizens of Maryland." He also extended his thanks to their families, many of whom crowded the armory hall, snapping photos. Their sacrifice may go unnoticed by some, he said, "but not on the second floor in Annapolis," where the governor's office is located.
No stranger to sacrifice
Military service and sacrifice were familiar to McInerney long before his unit went to Afghanistan in March last year. His father, Army Capt. Richard McInerney, was killed during his third tour in Vietnam and received the Silver Star posthumously. Two uncles, both retired Air Force generals, attended yesterday's ceremonies.
Michael McInerney spent 10 years on active duty with the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany. He attained the rank of major before he left the service and became an FBI special agent. While attending FBI sniper school, he said, he was persuaded by another agent to sign up with the Guard's 20th Special Forces Group, based at the Purnell Armory in Glen Arm. The unit was being deployed to Afghanistan.
Taking a cut in rank and pay, McInerney rejoined as a warrant officer so he could lead a combat team rather than find himself behind a desk. "You get to go where the action is," he explained.
That took character, said Staff Sgt. Peter Jackson, a 36-year-old federal law enforcement officer from Rockville. He and the 11 others who fought alongside McInerney in Operation Mountain Viper were grateful for his experience and leadership.
"He wasn't afraid to take us where we had to go. He definitely wasn't risk-averse, and that's what we wanted," Jackson said. "He was good to have in that situation, and the whole team did magnificently."
For his part, McInerney said he was "amazed" by the performance of his men. "My expectation, coming from active duty, was that the National Guard was not quite up to par," he said. He found that assessment "baseless."
"They are as professional, if not more professional, as active-duty forces," he said. They bring with them a variety of skills from their civilian lives that become assets in the kind of civil support and reconstruction work they are also called on to do in Afghanistan.
"I was very impressed with every soldier's skill development and their dedication to the job," McInerney said. "We broke the back of the Taliban in that area and freed up a large portion of southern Afghanistan for the legitimate government to come in and take control." That allowed work to continue on rebuilding the road from Kabul to Kandahar and reopening it to commerce.
Dennehy said 75 percent of his men live in Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia. They range in age from their early 20s to their mid-50s, he said. "We have some guys who were in Vietnam," he said.
Among them are doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, police officers, FBI agents, nurses, paramedics and construction workers. The unit was activated in January last year, and it trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and at Fort Polk in Louisiana before flying overseas.
Deployed in six teams across Afghanistan, the unit's members engaged in combat operations, helped to seal border areas, gathered intelligence and conducted reconnaissance and security patrols. But they also assisted with the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and wells, and conducted medical clinics for Afghan civilians suffering from acute illnesses and traumatic injuries.
No matter what their assignment, "almost all of these guys were engaged in firefights," said the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jim Phillips. There were frequent rocket and mortar attacks. At least three members were wounded and received Purple Hearts, but there were no fatalities.
Doing something good
Although the Afghans in some conservative areas resented and opposed the U.S. presence, "generally speaking, the people are grateful when someone else helps them," Phillips said. While the soldiers would have their own opinions about the work in Afghanistan, he said, "no one would deny that they did something good or that we needed to do it."
Although Company B is home again and its members are back working at civilian jobs, McInerney believes his men have not finished their work together.
"I expect we will be deployed to that region of the world sometime in the next two years," he said. "Very few soldiers in this unit have decided to get out or retire based on the possibility of going back. ... We believe in doing the job."
Jackson said he believes they all would be prepared to go back to Afghanistan because of the direct links between the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I drove past the Pentagon, right at the road where the plane flew into the building," he said. "If I had the chance, I'd want to go to Afghanistan ... and have paybacks. There's more work to be done."