Posted : Monday Sep 27, 2010
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Army Spc. Eric Paxton noticed something missing as he started his morning guard duty at one of the biggest U.S. military bases in eastern Afghanistan: The Afghanis who normally worked outside the walls were absent.
Within minutes, Paxton became the first line of defense against a rare assault on Forward Operating Base Fenty by 15-20 insurgents using a car bomb, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests.
In his first interview about the June 30 attack, the injured Paxton described how he kept the attackers from breaching the gate, a feat that led the Army to award him the Bronze Star Medal with Valor, one of about 1,300 such medals given out for combat valor in Afghanistan since 2001.
The award citation notes that "his ability to remain calm under fire ensured the safety of over 2,000 FOB Fenty tenants and the protection of millions of dollars of aircraft and equipment."
Paxton is now at home at Fort Campbell recovering from his injuries with his 13-month-old daughter, Amelia, and wife, April. A piece of shrapnel is still lodged in his knee. He was so close to the explosions that he ruptured his eardrums and now wears hearing aids in both ears. He ended up the only American soldier injured by the attack.
The 27-year-old soldier from Columbus, Kan., was about two months into his first deployment in Afghanistan as a member of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
Paxton had just started his shift in the guard tower at the base along the main road between Kabul and Pakistan when he heard the whine of a rapidly accelerating engine. Seconds later a van slammed into the compound wall near the tower.
"I literally saw a fireball blow in front of my face," Paxton said.
The explosion peppered his face and head with shrapnel. He radioed that the base was being attacked, then stayed alone in the tower to face the assault on the base.
"I was thinking I've got several people back here that I've got to make sure make it home to their families," he said.
Almost immediately after the first explosion, Paxton spotted another vehicle bearing down on the base and targeted it with his machine gun. He stopped the vehicle by killing the driver, but fighters piled out of the car.
"I returned fire on one of them as he ran toward my gate," he said. "From what I was told, he had a suicide vest. So I stopped him before he could get through the gate."
The enemy fighters shot at his position with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. News footage after the assault showed Paxton's tower pockmarked with bullet holes and black marks where grenades hit.
"At that point, I was bleeding heavily from the right side of my face and I had ruptured both eardrums," he said.
He went through two machine guns in the course of the nearly hour-long attack, one that ran out of ammunition and another that was struck by return fire. Weaponless, he ran down to the base of the tower and took an AK-47 from an Afghan soldier.
He took cover in a bunker at the bottom of the tower and kept firing to keep the fighters from getting to the gate as the base's security forces responded to the attack.
Eventually he was pulled back from the fighting and sent to get medical attention.
"They told me ... that I myself had held off at least 15 people for at least three or four minutes and got three or four on my own," he said.
Paxton said seeing a group of fighters trying to break through a base's defenses was shocking. According to NATO, eight militants were killed in the attack.
"It's pretty wild to see it first hand," he said. "After it was over I kind of was blown away ... It was real, it was true what people were saying, how they acted like that."
The first thing he said to his wife, April, when he called after the attack was, "Don't freak out."
"But at that point I knew he was OK because he was out of harm's way," she said, adding that he pleaded with her not to tell his mother right away.
"It scared me, it really did," she said.
He said the lessons he learned in basic training from his drill sergeant probably got him through the attack alive.
"I think in all reality I owe him my life," he said. "His training was all that was kicking in my mind at that point."