Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series of stories about members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division injured in combat during the 3,500-member “Spartan” brigade’s 10-month deployment to Afghanistan, which lasted from Dec. 2011 to Oct. 2012.
On June 1, 2012 Sgt. Maj. Michael Van Engen had just finished eating lunch in the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Southern Afghanistan when all hell broke loose.
“There was a huge explosion,” said the 47-year-old operations sergeant major with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division — also known as the “Spartans” — that deployed from Dec. 2011 to Oct. 2012.
Van Engen was escorting a visiting VIP around the base when insurgents blasted their way through a perimeter fence with a 1,500-pound suicide bomb. The powerful blast caved in buildings on the base and sent anyone outside ducking for cover.
“Rocks were falling all over the place,” said Van Engen, who recounted the harrowing day during an interview Feb. 20 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “It was really close.”
Following the explosion, more than a dozen insurgents poured through the fence and began engaging American and Afghan forces in a fierce firefight. After escorting the VIP to a safe location and putting on his body armor, Van Engen rushed back outside. As one of the senior non commissioned officers on base, he said he immediately began organizing troops before wading into the middle of the action.
“I figured I might as well get over there and see if I could help,” he said.
Upon entering the battle, Van Engen said he saw a wounded soldier — Spc. Paul Hedge — lying on the ground. Hedge had been shot through both legs and was bleeding badly.
“I grabbed a couple soldiers that were fighting the bad guys and we dragged him back to medical attention,” Van Engen said.
That medical attention happened to be the base veterinarians, who applied tourniquets to the injured soldier as Van Engen returned to the battle.
“I took off back there to look for more people,” he said.
But first, Van Engen grabbed the nearest soldier he could find.
“The Army says always grab a buddy everywhere you go,” he said.
It turned out to be a wise decision.
Van Engen next went into the road to check on a trio of bodies lying motionless. When he got close enough to see who they were, he realized the men were insurgents laden with explosives. He turned and beat a hasty retreat.
“I got between some vehicles and all of the sudden, just bullets everywhere,” he said. “I was running, but I wasn’t moving very fast ¬— I’m an older guy — and as my foot was in the air a bullet went through and…”
He’d been hit.
“My whole boot was just blown up,” he said, pointing to his left foot. “It was red.”
Van Engen went to the ground and was hit again — first in his arm, then in his body armor. He stood and tried to put pressure on his foot, but couldn’t. He yelled for medics.
“I realized I couldn’t fight back,” he said.
The soldier Van Engen had grabbed earlier — Spc. Gino Hinojosa — appeared at his side, dragging Van Engen out of harm’s way before using his machine gun to “neutralize” the insurgent who’d shot him.
When the dust settled, at least three dozen American troops had been wounded. Pfc. Vincent J. Ellis, a 22-year-old Spartan from Tokyo died in the attack, as did a civilian contractor. Five Afghan civilians also died, according to an account of the battle published in the Washington Post, which noted 14 insurgents were also killed. The Taliban claimed credit for attacking the base, although later media reports said the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group also operating in Southern Afghanistan, was likely responsible.
Spc. Hedge survived his injuries, but remains in the hospital with injuries to his legs, Van Engen said.
Van Engen was first transported to Germany, then flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland, where his wife, Kathy, was waiting.
“The military was really good. By the time I left Germany and flew to Walter Reed, my wife was there already and then my parents were there the same day,” he said.
The next three months were a blur, as Van Engen was on painkillers while undergoing extensive surgeries on his left foot. He was transferred back to Alaska, where he continues the long rehabilitation process. He still walks with a limp, and said the foot continues to give him trouble.
“It hurts every day, hurts to walk,” he said. “I’m still trying to get back to normal.”
Despite his injuries, Van Engen said he’s optimistic about his future and counts himself “lucky” to be alive. A 28-year veteran who has been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, Van Engen said he’s not likely to see more overseas duty. He plans to retire next year, and is currently spending his time training the 501st for its next deployment.
“I’m very busy,” he said.
After retiring, Van Engen plans to stay in Alaska. His wife is from Galena, and Van Engen wants to work as an inspector on the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline when he enters civilian life.
Since his return from Afghanistan, Van Engen said he’s been spending as much time as possible with his family (he and Kathy have two kids, a daughter, 20, and a 16-year-old son) at their Eagle River home.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
And while many might consider him a hero for his actions in the battle, Van Engen is quick to deflect any accolades to Spc. Hinojosa, who stood by his side when the going got tough.
“He was my buddy,” Van Engen said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or [email protected].