Master Sgt. John Grimesey has thought about his 2013 battle in Ghazni province every day since then — and often dreams about it.
He can still hear the ringing in his ears from his concussion after a rocket-propelled grenade struck nearby, the cacophony of chatter on the radio from aircraft overhead and the voices of his endangered teammates, pleading for him to get them air support.
He remembers the scent of sulfur from explosives going off around him and the iron smell of blood as he and his teammates tried to treat others wounds.
But though it was a harrowing experience, Grimesey told reporters during a Thursday teleconference, he looks back on it with great pride.
“I believe that I was able to save lives that day,” the combat controller said.
Grimesey, who is now an operations flight chief assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Field in North Carolina, was awarded the Silver Star Friday for his heroism during the May 25, 2013, battle in Ghazni province. His award was upgraded from a previously awarded Army Achievement Medal.
He also received a second oak leaf cluster for the Bronze Star with Valor, for another battle in Afghanistan in 2017.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented the awards to Grimesey in a ceremony at Pope Field.
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Grimesey, originally from Covington, Virginia, was a senior airman on his first deployment at the time of the 2013 battle. His team of Green Berets had just trained and equipped a new set of local Afghan police officers, he said. That morning, they were working with an Afghan National Army special forces team on a operation to clear out the village of Sujja Ahmad, in Gelan district, to establish security so Afghan police could come in.
They expected the resistance to be light during the clearing operation, Grimesey said, and thought the small number of Taliban fighters present would instead try to blend in with the local population.
But the situation was far worse than anticipated. A Taliban training team was in town, and many fighters had descended on that village. So Afghan local police, patrolling a different part of the village, ran into somewhere between 80 and 100 Taliban fighters, a force many times larger than what was expected, in a compound.
“When the Afghan local police kicked the hornet’s nest, hornets went everywhere,” Grimesey said.
Several police were killed or injured in the firefight that ensued. Grimesey and a Green Beret team fanned out across the village, to make sure the Taliban streaming out of the compound didn’t flank them.
Grimesey and a Green Beret were near the compound, and one of the local police who escaped the initial firefight came to them for help.
They made their way 60 meters to the compound, and Grimesey peered inside. The respected commander of the Afghan police was dead, along with some other local police who were dead or wounded.
A Taliban fighter looked over the wall, saw the Americans there, and opened fire from five meters away. According to the citation accompanying Grimesey’s Silver Star, bullets struck the wall next to his head and between his legs.
Grimesey returned fire and killed that Taliban fighter, then a rocket-propelled grenade detonated on the other side of the wall where he was, knocking him down and destroying one of his radios. He was severely concussed, with traumatic brain injury and shrapnel wounds.
Their situation was “grim,” he realized. But he remembered his training: He broke the challenges down to small pieces, prioritized them, and took things step by step: first, to pull the Green Beret away from the compound and get them both behind cover 25 feet away; then to make sure they both did not have dire injuries. Seeing they did not, he quickly turned his focus to the threat from the Taliban, calling in support from the other Green Berets and from aircraft overhead.
Grimesey began shooting back while simultaneously calling in multiple F-16 and AC-130 airstrikes, the citation said.
He then took part in a mission to recover the dead Afghan commander and killed an enemy fighter who was trying to flank them, , the citation said. He also identified and engaged eight enemy fighters maneuvering on friendly positions.
Grimesey and his team killed 31 enemy fighters, recovered the body of the Afghan commander, and saved many allied Afghan and American lives, the citation said.
“By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Airman Grimesey has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force,” the citation said.
Grimesey comes from a military family, and his grandfather on his father’s side served on an underwater dive team in the Navy, around the time those teams were starting to transition into SEAL teams.
That legacy first got Grimesey interested in special operations. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech from 2004 to 2008, and during that time he started thinking about how he could have the greatest effect on the battlefield.
Around that time, he learned about the Air Force special tactics community. He became interested in learning how they train airmen to not just be special operators, but also to call in 500-pound guided bombs.
He was intrigued by not just the physical challenge, but the mental challenge of working through the variables involving physics, explosives and communication to get a bomb in the right place.
Grimesey, who is in the process of medically retiring, thinks he made a difference in people’s lives that day in Ghazni in 2013. Not just by saving the lives of his teammate and the Afghan allies, but also by helping ensure that village’s security — pushing the Taliban out and allowing the Afghan police to take charge.
As he nears the end of his military career, he thinks about his time in the Air Force and the talented, smart and motivated men and women he served with — with a twinge of jealousy for the missions they’ll go on in the future.
“I wish all of those men and women the best,” Grimesey said. “They truly are working to make the world a better and safer place.”
About Stephen Losey
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.