Matthew Binney propped himself against the low wall. Chunks of stone exploded around him as a hidden PKM machine gun spewed fire.
His left shoulder blown away and a piece of bullet embedded in his skull, Binney worked through the haze of pain and the confusion to relay commands to Jaccob — the Afghani translator from his Green Beret unit.
Suddenly, Sgt. Brendan O’Conner loomed. O’Conner had crawled from the rest of the Green Beret team across 200 yards of open ground to reach Binney and Master Sgt. Joe Fuerst, whose leg had been shot off by a rocket-propelled grenade round. Binney, also a medical sergeant, was too gravely wounded to reach Fuerst, but on the radio had talked him through applying a tourniquet.
Binney was surprised to see that O’Conner had no body armor, no medical kit. That’s because O’Conner had belly-crawled through the grass across open ground to reach them. The only way O’Conner could get low enough to reach Binney and Fuerst was to strip off his gear as the bullets clipped the grass just above his back.
“I need your kit,” said O’Conner.
“Joe needs it,” said Binney.
“I already saw Joe,” said O’Conner as he started flushing the debris out of Binney’s shoulder, which was now attached to his arm only by muscle and ligaments.
“Use it on Joe,” persisted Binney.
“I don’t think Joe’s going to make it,” said O’Conner.
“Use the stuff on Joe,” said Binney. He wasn’t the biggest guy or strongest guy in the elite squad. But Binney was arguably the most stubborn.
O’Conner shook his head. He fashioned a makeshift dressing to stop Binney’s bleeding, then grabbed the kit and crawled off to try to save Fuerst.
The two-day battle startled the nation, which had largely forgotten about Afghanistan — a sideshow to Iraq five years after the U.S. invasion. The battle was ultimately featured on “60 Minutes.” The two-day siege captured not only the qualities that earned Gila County Undersheriff Matthew Binney a Silver Star — but also the expertise, camaraderie and profound valor of the United States military.
Binney had always wanted to be a soldier or a cop.
His dad, uncle and both grandfathers were Air Force.
Binney grew up in San Diego — but moved to Payson with the family when he was 11. His dad wanted him to go to college, but Binney didn’t want to wait. He applied to the Navy, Air Force, Army. He also expressed interest in the Payson Police Department, but they rejected him.
He almost joined the Navy to serve on a nuclear submarine but, “I’m getting ready to sign the papers — and I think, what am I doing? I don’t want to be on the ocean. I’m afraid of sharks.”
So Binney joined the Army and signed on to become a crew chief on a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, which would also make him a door gunner.
He went through basic training in 2000 and soon found himself posted in Germany.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists flew two airliners into the Twin Towers and everything changed.
So Binney put in for the Green Berets, the elite Army counter insurgency that also trains allied forces — the tip of the spear in Afghanistan.
He didn’t really think about the danger. “As a soldier, you’re trained to think you’re invincible — you have to be. I didn’t worry about getting shot. That doesn’t happen.”
He spent the next two years in some of the most intensive military training on the planet. Each 12-man Green Beret team has a captain and a warrant officer second in command. The rest are all non-commissioned officers with paired specialists, so everyone has a backup. Specialties include weapons, demolition and medical. Binney put in for anything but medical. But he scored so well on the exams — they made him a medical sergeant.
The training was grueling.
Out of the 50 guys who started the Special Forces Medical Sergeant course with him, 12 finished.
His team headed for Afghanistan in 2006.
The team maintained a furious combat tempo — usually going on two missions a day. “We were making good progress — we were doing all this good work. But the people back home don’t know anything about it.”
But even then — the fight looked ultimately unwinnable.
“In those nine months, our base ran over 1,000 combat missions. That’s a lot. We were busy. We had some great Afghani soldiers — real warriors. But my experience with the majority of the guys we worked with — it was the best thing paying. I would have been shocked if they ever pulled this out. But what denotes a win? We dethroned the Taliban. We helped the new government get into place. And the citizens voted. But you’re dealing with a corrupt government. It’s just different over there. So what denotes a win? To me, you can’t give somebody freedom. You can help somebody earn freedom. You can’t give it to them.”
Binney’s war ended in 2006.
It started like this: The call came in to take back a Taliban village and capture a high-ranking Taliban commander — considered a “medium value target.”
Three of the best Afghan translators volunteered to slip into the village and scout for the mission — despite the danger. The Taliban returned them in body bags, cut into pieces. “These were good guys. They were friends. They’d been fighting with the U.S. from the start. So we ramped up, got on the trucks and headed out to get justice.”
They rolled into the village with three armored Humvees and their Afghan counterparts’ vehicles. “It was relatively easy — too easy — too easy in the light of how things went down.” The 30 Afghan soldiers, the Green Beret team, an Air Force combat controller to call in air support, a small four-man communications team to triangulate communications, a dog and a handler to sniff out explosives and Joe Fuerst — on loan from a Florida National Guard unit. Fuerst was weeks away from returning stateside, where he wanted to become a cop — but volunteered for the mission.
They set up a patrol base, sent out patrols, and started looking for the commander. Later, they would learn he was in the village — using a different name. No one had a photograph. None of the prisoners gave him away.
“He was the only overweight Afghani I think I ever met. An arrogant man — arrogant in the way he was talking to us. We just didn’t have the intelligence to identify him at that time,” said Binney ruefully.
Then — late in the day — the Taliban launched a massive attack. The fighting was furious — but the gunners on the Humvees and the soldiers held the Taliban at bay with minimal air support. An 80-man Afghani police contingent tried to reach them — but got decimated. “They killed most of those guys,” said Binney in sorrow.
So the Americans and the Afghan Army unit settled in for the night. The team leader asked for permission to retreat — but they were told to hold their ground.
No relief came with first light.
“I had a bad feeling about this mission,” said Binney. “I knew our group commander. He was a fighter. He had our back. If we didn’t get additional forces — it was because they were tied up somewhere else.”
The intelligence team picked up Taliban traffic about a weapon moving into a cemetery that would win the battle — maybe a missile launcher.
The team conferred and went on the offensive.
Binney led one of two teams detailed to find the weapon and scout the encirclement. The bulk of the force remained in the village.
But the second assault team came under fire, pinned down by machine gun emplacements. Binney thought he could sneak up close enough to one of the machine gun positions to take it out. He told the translator to detail two soldiers to follow him and put Fuerst in charge of the rest of the patrol. Then Binney started crawling through a small vineyard to get within grenade range.
“I got about halfway there and realized there was nobody following me. I’m kind of committed at this point — but I couldn’t keep my eye on everything.”
He had a low wall and half rose to throw the grenade.
That’s when a hidden machine gun found him.
“It felt like I was hit in the head with a bat.”
The bullet grazed the back of his head, fragmented and knocked him to the ground. His vision blurred — and stayed that way for weeks. His ears roared.
“I don’t remember losing consciousness. They would have gotten me if I stayed still for too long. I got up. Dragging shit everywhere. I put the grenade back in the pouch. I got to get back to my guys. I was still focused on clearing that machine gun. Trying to reposition us.”
Binney tried to organize the next move — still desperate to save the other unit. “My guys were engaging the targets. I was trying to get them to move up.”
That’s when the second bullet found him. It passed through his shoulder, miraculously not severing any arteries.
“It blew out the top of my shoulder. My arm kind of came up and spun around really weird. Oh, crap. That’s bad. I was able to move from that position to the best position of cover — but I was out of the fight then.”
Somewhere in there, Fuerst was hit. Despite his wounds, Binney talked Fuerst through applying the tourniquet, updated the commander on the situation and called for assistance.
“At some point a bullet took off my $1,000-watch. Later, it turned out I had nine bullet holes in my pants. I had good cover for my torso, but my legs were kind of sticking out.”
Most of the Afghani troops slipped away — but Jaccob — the translator — and one or two others remained.
Later, on the “60 Minutes” account of the battle, Major Shef Ford said the Taliban taunted Jaccob the translator. They shouted, “Hey, you’re a fellow Muslim. We can forgive you. Just put your weapons down and walk away. We want the Americans alive,” said Ford on the “60 Minutes” interview.
The Taliban capture of two Americans would have been a propaganda bonanza. But instead of slipping away, Jaccob told Ford that he would kill the two gravely wounded Americans and himself to avoid capture.
“Don’t do it,” said Ford. “We’ve got people coming.”
Initially — that meant O’Conner. But it took O’Conner 90 minutes to reach Binney, Fuerst and the remaining Afghani soldiers.
During that 90 minutes, the Green Berets worked furiously to prevent the Taliban from overrunning Binney’s position.
Sgt. First Class Abram Hernandez climbed to the top of a ladder for a clear shot. He ended up dangling from the top of the ladder by one hand as he fired.
“Because I lost my balance,” said Hernandez on “60 Minutes.”
“Seeing Hernandez propped up at that ridiculous angle was absolutely inspiring,” said O’Conner on the show. “You could see the tracer rounds actually flail the wall in front of him. And he’d duck down and then pop back up and tracer rounds were coming. They were whizzing right by our heads.”
From a rooftop, Master Sgt. Thom Maholic single-handedly held off a group of approaching Taliban. “They were coming to take that compound that Thom was holding. And he would stop them by killing them or wounding them. And eventually they gave up their assault,” Ford explained.
But Maholic finally took a bullet in the head. He died in Hernandez’s arms.
Air support finally showed up — initially in the form of two F-16s dropping bombs.
Two Apache Helicopter gun ships came next — along with some A-10 warthogs. The Apache pilots had strict instructions to break off if they came under ground fire. They returned to base for more ammunition repeatedly, without reporting taking any fire. After the battle, the mechanics counted more than 100 bullet holes in those helicopters, said Binney.
“Those two Apache pilots were absolute heroes. If those guys hadn’t stayed — we would have been overwhelmed,” said Binney.
The effort broke up the Taliban attack enough for O’Conner to carry Fuerst back to the village. But Fuerst died before they reached safety. The Afghani soldiers got Binney back to the base.
“I’d be dead if they hadn’t stayed,” said Binney.
A helicopter flew in through the continuing Taliban fire to drop off munitions and pick up the gravely wounded Binney and the bodies of Fuerst and Maholic.
“They said we’re getting Thom and you and Joe out of here,” said Binney. “They laid me in between them. My demolition sergeant hugged me — said he loved me. Said it would be OK. We took off and I remember seeing — it was like “Star Wars” — all the tracer fire was everywhere. It looked like a laser show. I felt so bad. I’m flying out. Those guys had to fight their way out.”
They flew him straight to the Kandahar. Fuerst’s wife was also stationed at the Kandahar Airfield. Someone told her that Joe was alive — but wounded in the head and shoulder. “They told her it was him — but it was me they were talking about,” said Binney softly.
But the battle also had one heartening postscript. That night, the Army adapted an infrared guidance system used on the AH-64 Apache that Binney’s uncle had helped develop. A chopper painted a path out of the trap in infrared light, which the Green Berets could see with their night-vision goggles. The device had never been used in this fashion previously. The gunships blasted everything that moved outside that path to safety — and Binney’s team slipped away in the night.
That was more than 15 years ago.
The battle resulted in more awards for heroism than any other single battle up to that time. Binney, Maholic, Hernandez and Ford all got Silver Stars. Maholic’s was presented posthumously to his young son. O’Conner received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Now, Binney’s a Gila County undersheriff — putting his military and medical training to work. He tried to return to the Green Berets — but he’s 100% disabled. He’s got a limited range of motion in his arm — which is still attached to his shoulder with a brace. He loses words and sometimes struggles with memory. He’s a slow reader — which didn’t stop him from going to college and getting a master’s degree in nursing.
He has three kids he treasures.
“I wouldn’t give back my military time for anything. The experiences that I got — in nursing, law enforcement — I wouldn’t have gotten those experiences. I wouldn’t give it back.”
He just can’t figure out why he’s alive — and Joe and Thom are dead.
Maybe he survived so his kids could come into the world.
Maybe he survived so he could be a deputy — do some good here.
And maybe it makes little sense. The bullet’s path varies by a fraction of an inch, and so you’re still here. Maybe you just live with that — and the survivor’s guilt.
And then you get on with life.
After all, Binney’s got a whole new group of guys to take care of now.