HALL OF HEROES, Pentagon — Two civilian contractors found themselves in the fight of their lives after Taliban fighters set off a massive suicide vehicle bomb at the gate of their base in Afghanistan the night of August 7, 2015, and rushed inside.
“They blew the whole front of the gate. The gate came off, they collapsed the guard tower,” said Michael “Tony” Dunne.
The blast — from around 200 to 250 pounds of RDX plastic explosive — killed eight Afghan contractors instantly near the gate at the American special operations base in Kabul. The Taliban attack happened just after 10 p.m. local time.
Dunne, 45, hearing the explosion, grabbed a weapon and ran towards the gate. He knew exactly what it was.
“A VBIED goes off, you know what’s up,” he said, using the acronym for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. “It was a pretty good one, and we knew it was a big one.”
William “Tim” Nix, 63, another contractor, heard the explosion as well, grabbed a weapon, and came running without a helmet.
At least two enemy fighters were now inside the camp, with several more outside the gates. They were armed with machine guns and suicide vests.
Nix said there was “pretty much shock,” then chaos.
“Nobody knew where anyone was. A lot of small arm fires after the explosion, grenades at that stage. Nobody could really fix the bad guys’ location,” he said.
Dunne and Nix teamed up with a handful of special operations forces to evacuate those wounded, find the enemy, and prevent more from getting onto the base.
“We just started clearing buildings,” Nix said. “I just grabbed a casualty — the SEAL, and got him to the dispensary to the trauma center, the makeshift trauma center they set up.”
But there was one more surprise. An enemy fighter wearing a suicide vest got within 30 feet of them, and decided to “clack off.”
Dunne thought, “OK, this is it. I’ll make my peace and do what I gotta do … hope everything’s taken care of at home, peace out, let’s go.”
Fortunately, he found cover from a nearby T-wall, and survived. It took an hour and a half to find the two enemy fighters who had infiltrated the base.
There were about 350 U.S. and Afghan personnel at the base, where U.S. special operations forces were training Afghan commandos. But in the midst of the chaos, they were told to shelter in place.
But Dunne and Nix ran towards the sound of fire to help their comrades fight off the attackers and secure the base. Four enemy fighters were killed.
Last week, at a ceremony in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, they were both awarded the Secretary of Defense’s Medal for Valor, the highest award the Pentagon can give a civilian for bravery.
Both Dunne and Nix had served in the Army for more than 20 years, but that day, they were civilian advisers with the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Dunne was an operations intelligence integrator at NATO Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan, and Nix was an irregular warfare analyst there.
Only 17 have been awarded the Medal for Valor since its creation after the September 11, 2001, attacks, to recognize private citizens for their courage under fire.
“That day, these two men mustered the courage and fortitude to do what was necessary, risking their lives, and saving countless others,” said Army Lt. Gen. Darsie Rogers, deputy director of DTRA and former Special Operations Command Central commander, at the ceremony last Tuesday.
Dunne and Nix gave credit to the men they fought with that day.
“They were just melting barrel almost practically. They were laying down repressive fire,” Nix said.
Dunne said Army Green Beret First Sergeant Pete “Drew” McKenna Jr. went down fighting. “Really brave, great guy, he deserves all the credit. He’s the one who was in charge of security for that camp,” he said. McKenna, of 2nd Battalion, 7th Group, would be posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor.
Army Green Beret Master Sergeant George E. Vera, of 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, was shot four times with small arms and machine gun fire. Although he is paralyzed, he has recovered and competes in the Warrior Games. He was also awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy.
“He’s a great man, he was the guy that was prepping grenades and was throwing them,” Dunne said of Vera.
Both Dunne and Nix are going back to Afghanistan soon, even as it appears the Taliban are stepping up their attacks.
Nix said more firefights are “always a possibility.” But, Dunne said, “When there’s a fight, hey, that’s what you do, you fight.”