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Always in the Fight
The Soldiers knew they were going to die. Their nine-man squad was fighting from an old Soviet outpost in the mountains of Kunar province, Afghanistan, surrounded by 60-plus determined enemies. They fought amid abandoned equipment and rusted-out scraps of weapons, ominous reminders that enemy forces had overrun the Soviets on this site in the 1980s. Now, in 2011, with no food, no water and dwindling ammo, the embattled Americans realized that they, too, would succumb to overwhelming numbers of Taliban who advanced unseen under a moonless night.
“We had no air cover. No support. Nothing,” recalls Corporal John Marquardt, who was on scene. After hours of raging combat, the Soldiers’ adrenaline was depleted. “We told ourselves, ‘Holy [expletive]. This is it. We’re gonna die here.’ ”
Despite their dire situation, the Soldiers from the 1/182nd Infantry, Massachusetts Army National Guard, refused to give up. They were the “Mad Dogs”—D Company’s second platoon, led by Sergeant First Class John Melson. Their platoon sergeant, who desperately was trying to reach them from across the valley, had instilled in them unyielding perseverance: You’re never out of the fight. Never forgetting that, the exhausted troops rallied, despite his absence, telling themselves: “Man up! Let’s go. If we die, [expletive] it.”
They fought for hours. And then, amid a battleground cacophony that left them communicating with one another only via hand and arm signals, there came the unmistakable sound of two Black Hawks landing.
“I see this dude hanging from a Black Hawk, spitting fire, with a beacon on his helmet. I knew only one guy who wore a beacon like that,” Marquardt says. “The guy jumps out, races into the hot zone and starts screaming orders.”
“It was Melson!” says Sergeant Brian Wood, the leader of the pinned-down squad, still amazed some four years after the fact. “In the middle of this chaos, it was Melson.”
Currently an instructor at the Ranger Training and Assessment Course (RTAC) for the Army National Guard’s Warrior Training Center (WTC) at Fort Benning, GA, Melson has deployed six times in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and entering March, there was a possibility he would be deployed again. His remarkable array of decorations includes five Bronze Star Medals (one with “V” device for Valor), Army Commendation Medals with Valor, a Distinguished Service Medal, a Navy Achievement Medal and two Purple Hearts.
As impressive as Melson’s medals are, though, they don’t fully capture the extent of his heroism, nor his stature in the eyes of his men. “He’s like some legendary military figure out of myth,” says Sergeant Brinindune Taylor of the 2/108th Infantry, 27th Brigade Combat Team, New York National Guard, who is on temporary assignment with Melson at the WTC. “He demands a lot, but he gives much more than he asks.”
His Soldiers joke that bullets bounce off Melson, and that he orders grenades not to explode when they land near him. The jokes spring from a place of reverence. “He inspires,” says Staff Sergeant Jake Jecklin of B Troop, 2/106th Cavalry, Illinois National Guard, one of many Soldiers who transferred to Massachusetts to deploy with Melson (though he’s back in Illinois now). “He gets inside your soul. He inspires you to go beyond what you thought you were capable of, and to do it for your fellows.”
REIGNITED BY 9/11
Melson’s deeds are even more inspiring considering his turnaround from an incident long ago. Originally with the Marines in 1989, he served until 1992 and later joined the Boston Police Department. During that time, a series of poor decisions led to a domestic dispute with an ex-girlfriend. He paid a heavy price, serving nearly 31/2 years in prison.
After 9/11, he rededicated himself to a life of service, and in 2004, he joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “Thinking of [those] I love and care about, family, friends, being hurt from another attack—the thought of that bothered me,” says Melson, who lost a childhood friend who was on board the first plane to hit the twin towers. “I wanted to do my part and keep that fight on their turf and not on ours.”
In May 2004, he deployed to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for Operation Enduring Freedom, responding to several terrorist attacks. He returned home for three weeks when A Company, 1/155th Infantry, Mississippi Army National Guard, picked him up as a volunteer for his second deployment.
“While on patrol in an old Iraqi weapons dump, we came across several insurgents gathering and collecting bomb-making material and emplacing an [improvised explosive device (IED)],” Melson says. “As we approached, they began to fire upon us with AK-47s.”
Unable to bring a Humvee through the forbidding landscape, Melson chased the insurgents on foot. The enemy fled after he became embroiled in a gunfight that earned him the “Crazy Yankee” nickname from his Mississippi comrades, as well as the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Additional deployments and engagements came in quick succession. In October 2006, while in the Daychopan Valley of Afghanistan, the Taliban launched mortars and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at Melson and his team, which included members of the Special Forces (SF). Melson was hit, and his eardrum ruptured. Dizzy and vomiting, he still managed to man a machine gun and helped repel the attack.
The following day, Melson was in the lead Humvee, behind three Afghan Army pickup trucks, when some 100 Taliban ambushed the convoy. The Afghans abandoned their trucks, blocking the Americans’ path and trapping them inside the kill zone. “Taliban were within 10–15 meters from us, and my turret was getting hit bad,” Melson says. “I just kept on engaging and knew if I stopped, the SF guys would be in a bad spot. The noise was deafening. I was so scared but wasn’t going to die without a fight.”
Suddenly, an A-10 swooped down, pounding the area with fire. “I had no idea this was coming,” Melson says. “I lost my breath. I looked back at my friend on the gun in the truck behind me, and he was screaming, ‘They can’t see us; pop smoke!’ Then suddenly, all the noise stopped. I was still being engaged by the Taliban, but the fear left me. All I could think about was not letting one of the SF guys die behind me. It was so surreal. I accepted dying, and [thought] dying fighting is how I would be remembered.”
Melson kept firing. Although he was wounded by small-arms fire, he prevailed and was credited with helping turn back the attack that left 50 Taliban killed and 25 wounded. For his actions, Melson was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor and the Purple Heart.
DEFYING DEATH, AGAIN
Three years later in May 2009, after additional combat incidents, nearly 250 Taliban fighters attacked Melson, nine U.S. Soldiers and 13 Afghan National Police stationed in Gerani. Using a .50 cal machine gun from atop an armored Humvee, Melson fired back against enemy machine-gun fire, mortars and RPGs, when suddenly the Humvee slipped into an irrigation canal.
“It flipped over and took on water,” says Jecklin, who was on the mission.
Master Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Sammons, an Active Duty Army Soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division who was an Embedded Training Team (ETT) member at the time, was trapped inside. “I was stuck in the TC [tank commander] seat with all my gear on," Sammons says. "The door weighed about 200 pounds, which I would have had to lift straight up while in that position. So I knew I was going to die right there."
Melson remembers Sammons’ life hanging in the balance as gunfire rained all around. “[He was] yelling that he was stuck and to forget about him,” Melson says.
But Melson refused to comply. “I just couldn’t allow him to stay there alone,” he says. “He has a family and loves them. He didn’t deserve to die there, and I would do anything to keep him in the fight.”
“The mortar rounds and RPGs were getting closer to my vehicle,” Sammons recalls, “and I knew it was only a matter of time [before] one came through the floor and caught the vehicle on fire.”
While the Humvee continued to founder, Melson’s team hooked straps to the unwieldy vehicle, and pulled it upright and out of the ditch. Melson resumed his station at the .50 cal gun, enabling the team to exit the kill zone and leave more than 50 killed enemies in their wake. “If it weren’t for his quick thinking,” Sammons says, “I would have been killed that day.”
In recognition of his actions, Melson received the Bronze Star with “V” device for Valor.
For Melson, loyalty to comrades means paying any price, no questions asked. “I wouldn’t be able to look at myself knowing I left someone in need, especially a Soldier out there risking his life with me,” he says. “I would never leave a guy or not use everything I can get to help.”
In the madness of combat, he tells himself: “If I don’t make it, I want people to say, ‘He went down fighting.’ ”
“Quitting doesn’t exist in my world,” he adds. “because if it did, I wouldn’t be here today. No matter what you’re faced with, never quit. Always stay in the fight. Give yourself a fighting chance.”
That attitude doesn’t end on the battlefield. Melson has left his mark on the civilian world, as well. In 2008, during a 30-day gap between graduating from Ranger School and leaving for Afghanistan, Melson witnessed a horrific accident. A drunk driver barreled the wrong way, headlong into motorcyclist Mark Cronin, throwing the man into the air and severing his leg at the knee.
Melson, also riding a motorcycle, screeched to a halt. He raced to Cronin, who nearly died from loss of blood. Melson removed the stricken man’s belt, using it as a tourniquet. The quick action saved the man’s life.
For that action, Melson was awarded a rarely issued Distinguished Service Medal from the Massachusetts State Police. His father received the honor on his behalf; Melson already was at war, serving on an ETT with the Afghan National Army. That deployment lasted a year. Following a return stateside that included a stint with the 20th SF Group, Melson headed back to Afghanistan.
BACK FOR HIS BOYS
In the 2011 battle, Melson and his Mad Dogs were based at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wright, attached to a provisional reconstruction team in a treacherous valley region of Kunar. The platoon also pulled rotations at Outpost (OP) Nevada, overlooking the valley.
The Mad Dogs were three weeks in country when trouble flared at the former Soviet outpost. “Our interpreter woke us up and said the Taliban was planning to investigate OP Nevada,” says Wood, the squad leader.
The Soldiers soon spotted an old man placing rocks on the outpost’s protective wire, flattening a space for invaders to cross in. The Soldiers captured the man and sent him to be questioned by SF. He turned out to be the uncle of the local Taliban commander. “Throughout the day, the Taliban vowed to fight to the death to get their guy back from the Americans,” says Melson, who was stationed down the valley at FOB Wright.
Hiding under blankets so as to conceal their heat signatures, the enemy launched their assault that night after dark. “It seems like a blur when it started,” Wood says. “There were a few muzzle flashes, and then it just went crazy."
The battle stretched late into the night. Melson rounded up a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from FOB Wright to assist the embattled platoon, but the Soldiers had no option but to agonize over their fellows’ fate. The mountain was so high and steep the QRF could not reach it by vehicle or on foot. “All we could do is watch from across the valley,” Melson says. “[But] those were my boys. I wasn’t going to let them do this alone.”
Desperately searching for a way to reach the site, Melson spotted two Black Hawks overhead. He contacted the pilots, who agreed to divert from their mission to help the outnumbered squad. Following some intense exchanges with a reluctant Navy command structure, Melson got the go-ahead. “There was a very small window for them to do this,” says former Civil Affairs Detachment Commander Lieutenant Colonel Mark Baaden, an Army Reservist who helped secure permission to send in the QRF. “I helped Melson load water and ammo, and away they went.”
The Black Hawks came in so fast that at first the Soldiers at OP Nevada assumed they were SF.
“They came at just the right moment,” says Specialist (then-Corporal) Patrick Camillo, now a member of C Company, 3/108th Cavalry Regiment, Georgia Army National Guard, who was manning a .50 cal machine gun. “I was nauseous and sick from all the RPG blasts. We were filthy and beat up.”
And then came Melson. “It was such a relief to see him,” Marquardt says. “With him there, we just knew it was going to be OK. We were going to make it.”
The fighting continued for 18 hours. “They were rocking and rolling all night,” says Baaden, who watched, riveted, from across the valley. “When the sun came up, there was the American flag flying over OP Nevada. It was a very emotional moment.”
Baaden knew then that Melson’s QRF had prevailed. “It was very gutsy what he did,” Baaden says. “If he hadn’t gone in, those kids would have been lost.” Marquardt concurs: “Melson saved our lives that night.”
Awards went out all around to the men of OP Nevada, with a Navy Achievement Medal going to Melson.
INVESTING IN SWEAT
As a platoon sergeant, Melson teaches his Soldiers resilience and strength—lessons that Melson himself learned at an early age.
Many of the men in his family served in the military, too, so as a child, Melson had strong male role models. He also took cues from classic war films. “In a lot of the older movies depicting combat action, the heroes had a high level of integrity. They had ethics,” he says. “My family carried themselves like that. Hopefully, I do, too.”
Melson’s men say he not only is ethical, but is also a remarkable mentor. “He has a magnetic personality,” Jecklin says. “I would follow him into combat anywhere.”
Not that Melson is easy on his Soldiers; in fact, quite the opposite. “He trains you harder than you’ll ever fight,” Camillo says. For instance, Melson’s methods have included intense physical training (PT) at 0400 and carrying logs to chow in preparation to deploy. Melson himself has completed a host of schools, including Ranger, Sapper, Airborne, Air Assault, Mountaineering and Combat Advisor, so he knows what it takes to prepare at the highest level. His mindset: The harder we sweat, the less we’ll bleed.
That relentlessness has been acknowledged even by the enemy. After the harrowing battle of OP Nevada, the U.S. Soldiers’ interpreters began laughing while listening in on Taliban transmissions.
“We asked them, ‘What are they saying?’ ” Camillo recalls.
They translated one Taliban member’s advice to others: “Thank God they’re leaving. Don’t mess with those guys. They’re crazy Americans.”
Melson takes that as a compliment. “I am so proud of all my boys,” he says. “I’m honored to have had the privilege to lead them.