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Andersen Dog Handler awarded Combat Action Medal

  • Published
  • By Airman Whitney Amstutz
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
The Combat Action Medal is an award for Airmen who have been involved in direct fighting situations where they risked their lives in an enemy engagement. It is an award not easily earned and given only to those who have experienced all aspects of military service: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Staff Sgt. Eric Barrios, 36th Security Forces Dog Handler, was recently awarded the Combat Action Medal for his ability to remain composed and react well under fire when his convoy was ambushed in April 2009 in the Dabb Pass in Afghanistan.

While deployed with U.S. Army Special Forces, 3rd Special Forces Group, Operational Detachment Alpha out of Fort Bragg, NC, Sergeant Barrios and his military working dog, Rex were conducting a Combat Recon Patrol from Kandahar Air Field to Fire Base Sweeney. The mission objective was to secure and escort logistical support materials from Kandahar to Sweeney.

"I was assigned as a rear gunner in the second vehicle," Sergeant Barrios said. "When we approached the Dabb Pass one of the gunners in my truck said to me, 'hey, Eric, this pass is a known ambush site for the Taliban.' So I was on guard."

Having been through countless training exercises and fresh out of pre-deployment training at Yuma Training Grounds, Sergeant Barrios and Rex had experience on their side.

"My training was a pretty in-depth, Marine Corps style experience," Sergeant Barrios said. "We practiced uncovering explosives and safely dealing with them, but you never know how you are going to react in a situation until it happens. I've seen people freak out and I've seen people do amazing things. It's just something that's inside of you."

As the patrol moved through the pass, the blast of an improvised explosive device rocketed the small group into reality.

"All we heard was an enormous boom," Sergeant Barrios said. "Everyone was thinking, 'oh man, here we go.'"

The patrol came under heavy and accurate enemy fire in a near ambush by a force numbering in excess of 80 fighters. The initial IED blast demolished one supply truck and blocked off the pass in a landslide of rock and debris. Sergeant Barrios and the members of the patrol had no choice but to fight their way out.

"Gun fire was coming at us from both sides of the mountain," Sergeant Barrios said. "High ground surrounded us on both sides. It was like we were in a fish bowl and they're shooting machine guns and rocket propelled grenades."

Destroyed by enemy fire, the main weapons systems, the gunner and rear gunner, were rendered useless. Sergeant Barrios stepped up to the plate by opening two of the top hatches and firing on enemy positions.

"They shot out our Mark-19 and we couldn't use it," Sergeant Barrios said. "I started shooting back and it felt like I was in a video game. I'm picking targets and there are so many of them. At the same time I can hear bullets zipping past my head and the sound of them hitting metal around me. It felt like controlled chaos."

The arrival of close air support caused the enemy to begin a steady withdraw of contact and by the end of the two hour firefight Sergeant Barrios had personally engaged the enemy with 64 rounds from his M-4 and three grenades from the MK-48 grenade launcher. His efforts contributed to 22 enemies killed in action and no loss of life for American forces. After the engagement, Sergeant Barrios and Rex searched the area and recovered a small weapons cache of five AK-47's, an ammunition vest containing 200 rounds, and a bag of six RPG rockets.

""t was insane and it was amazing all at the same time," Sergeant Barrios said. "It felt like we were there in the thick of things forever, but we managed to come out on top."

After seeing how quickly lives can be lost, Sergeant Barrios developed a new-found appreciation for the sacrifices made by fellow servicemembers.

"It was a lot of pain and suffering," Sergeant Barrios said. "This medal is important to me because it represents the people who have passed; who were killed out there and never came home. Unfortunately, I had to see that happen, so it really hits home for me. Now, when I hear someone has died, I know what that looks like. I truly appreciate what everyone has sacrificed."