New York, N.Y. —
An American Airman walked around in a sea of coyote brown with his M4 carbine cradled in his arms, pointed toward the silt beneath his feet. Another day in the sweltering heat of Afghanistan. Every day he thinks of his four-year-old daughter who waits for his arrival back home in Georgia.
He gifted his daughter a teddy bear that could receive voice messages sent from his cellphone. He always remembered to send her a message reminding her how much he loved her and that he would see her as soon as his deployment was done.
He recalls the message he sent her that day as he stands on a stage in the New York City Marriott Marquis banquet hall, sharp in his pressed service dress, he waits to receive an award for his heroism—heroism that was an outcome of the duties he performed for his country. He could still remember the moments of battle that nearly killed him.
During this, his second deployment, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron Metzger, a 38th Rescue Squadron pararescueman stationed at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, was one of few Airmen sent out with a U.S. Army unit tasked with a dangerous, high-priority mission.
In the midst of disrupting the Taliban, Metzger was called to another building. Attempting to answer the call, he was greeted by screaming bullets.
“As I walked out the front door, we immediately started taking contact from the ridgeline of the mountainside,” said Metzger. “The gunfire was striking the wall on my left side, maybe ten feet away.”
Metzger said he made sure his foreign allies were covered and unharmed before racing down the alley next to the building until he reached the compound. The team immediately fought back. After 40 minutes of unloading ear-piercing rounds, the combat began to taper off.
Metzger and two of his teammates raced to the compound nearest to the ridgeline and assessed the wide open building. As gunfire came through the openings of the towering walls, three U.S. military members and about 12 foreign allies fought together against the Taliban.
“At one point, in order to maintain cover, I had to switch my weapon from my dominant hand to my [non-dominant] hand and shoot from my left side,” said Metzger. “Rounds of bullets were piercing the walls six inches from us.”
In the midst of the firefight, Metzger heard an explosion and a cloud of smoke filled the air. When the smoke cleared, he saw one of his allies stumbling down the stairs...bleeding.
“That’s when I said to myself ‘ok, I need to neutralize this threat and I need to get down to my man,’” said Metzger. “This was my time, I was the primary medic in this compound.”
His military medical education immediately kicked in. This was what he was trained for: to save lives while keeping calm in the stress and adrenaline of an attack.
Metzger pulled his man from the top floor down to the first, keeping him out of the line of fire as much as possible. Noticing an arterial bleed, Metzger put a tourniquet on his patients’ left leg and one on his arm. Once he minimized the bleeding, Metzger began administering pain medications into his patient and covered him with a hypothermia blanket.
“I worked out of muscle memory to save this guy’s life,” said Metzger. “Every situation is unique and you won’t know what’s going to happen until you’re in it. You just have to prepare as much as you can, but expect it to never go your way.”
After treating the life-threatening injuries, one of the Afghan Soldiers approached Metzger—working through the language barrier, he pushed to the top of the over watch position to the unconscious team member the ally was motioning to. While assessing the situation, trying to get to this bleeding man to treat him, he tried to keep cover and protect them both amongst the screeching bullets.
“His leg was gone, [barely] hanging on by some skin, lying there lifeless but his eyes are wide open,” said Metzger. “Once I had a clear path, I immediately checked for a pulse. He had a very weak carotid pulse. He was still alive. I did all that I could but I knew that he was on his way out.”
Metzger said in this situation, even with the language barrier, he and his ally had the same priority. Metzger motioned for help to carry the wounded ally soldier downstairs and lie him next to the first patient. Once out of line of direct fire, he put a tourniquet on the severed leg. As he reached for his bag valve mask he saw something come flying over the 40-foot wall and land about 10 feet from him and his patients.
“I didn’t have a chance to even react to it,” said Metzger. “It just went off. It blew me back on my ass and knocked the wind out of me. The only thing I could think about in that moment was ‘get back up, get back into it, get back up,’ and I did.”
As his mind began to clear from the disorientation of the explosion, Metzger notice a long stream of blood running from two holes in his right arm. The shrapnel shredded through his arm, chest and diaphragm then straight into his liver. He realized he needed to help himself in order to help the others. He fastened a tourniquet onto his arm and helped his surviving patient into a cramped sheep shed for cover. After a short time of maintaining cover, a U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier found Metzger and tended to his injuries.
“When he found me, I felt a sense of relief,” said Metzger. “I stopped for a minute and just relaxed. I had my guard up this whole time because I was prepared to fight until the end.”
The team spent the next six hours calling for an aerial evacuation to get the injured out of the combat zone. After two failed attempts, the helicopter pilot’s third attempt successfully airlifted them out.
Metzger’s wounds required him to receive multiple surgeries on the majority of the right side of his body. Although left with scars outlining the entry points of his body from the shrapnel, the injuries have not caused any permanent restrictive damages.
Altogether, Metzger and his teammates successfully rescued five injured Afghan allies while in the line of fire, becoming critically injured himself. Metzger risked his life to save his patient and did not give up until he knew they were both safe. His heroic actions earned him the George Van Cleave Military Leadership Award.
This award recognizes active-duty military members who have demonstrated bravery and leadership in the course of their service, enhanced the moral and personal welfare of others and inspired those around them. The USO award is publicly presented annually to two individuals in each branch of service who, through their selfless commitment to the U.S., inspires others and uplifts the spirits of their comrades, their families, and the American people.
As Metzger prepared to receive this award during the 57th Annual USO Armed Forces Gala, he stood in the blue and red spotlights on the stage and found himself thinking of his comrades who helped him to survive and rescue the injured.
“I want people to understand that the military is fighting under these stressful situations while working with foreign nations,” said Metzger. “We need to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they are capable of to understand how we can all work together as a team. All of those men I was with worked their asses off and put their lives on the line to protect me and I hope they are acknowledged and recognized as well.”