A Galloway Township native and graduate of Absegami High School has been nominated for the nation’s second-highest military honor for saving a coalition soldier during an ambush and firefight in which he was injured in Afghanistan.
Master Sgt. Michael Sears, 36, belongs to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard based in Egg Harbor Township.
He is a team leader in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, which defuses improvised explosive devices while accompanying infantry on patrols in Afghanistan. EOD was featured in the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker.”
Traditionally, the 177th Fighter Wing works with the munitions, bombs and missiles that the F-16 Fighting Eagles deploy. But in Afghanistan, the EOD mission shifted largely to finding and defusing roadside bombs.
Sears, who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he has defused more than 100 bombs in his two deployments to Afghanistan, including three rigged to kill everyone in his convoy of Polish coalition soldiers Sept. 29 in Ghazni Province.
The bombs were planted at a choke point in the road near a village suspected of harboring insurgents. The location made a good ambush point.
“We defused the first one with a robot. I walked back with a handheld metal detector and located two more,” he said.
The secondary charges were land mines planted to kill soldiers who came to help victims of the first blast. Sears defused these by hand without the benefit of his 85-pound bomb suit, which he finds cumbersome and clumsy.
By the time he finished, it was late afternoon. Sears returned to his truck and followed the seven other vehicles in the convoy as they made a slow U-turn in tight quarters to return to their forward operating base, Waghez. Gunfire rattled against the armored truck.
“EOD typically is the largest vehicle in the convoy, so we get targeted a lot. It looks like the commander’s vehicle,” he said.
Insurgents began firing from fortified positions in the village to the south and from the cover of heavy mud walls to the east. The convoy was under siege.
Technical Sgt. Jay Hurley, of Egg Harbor Township, also with the 177th, manned the truck’s M240B turret and began providing cover fire.
Sears jumped out of the truck to help cover Polish soldiers on foot. As a rule, he carried six extra 30-round clips on him. He would need all of them that day.
Insurgents from the east fired a rocket-propelled grenade at Hurley.
“It missed him by a foot or two but impacted the Polish command vehicle,” Sears said.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Hurley said. “It seemed a lot bigger than an RPG blast.”
Sears, who stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, broke cover and ran to the disabled Polish truck as the driver, Dariusz Cegielka, began to fall out of its tall cabin. Sears reached for him with one arm while he held his rifle in the other.
“He was barely holding on. I grabbed him by the vest, and he came flying out of the vehicle. I kept him from hitting the ground, but I ripped my shoulder,” he said.
The blast tore through the soldier’s legs. Sears did not realize the soldier was a friend, a weightlifting partner back at their Waghez base. He applied a tourniquet and forced Cegielka to stay awake.
The convoy continued to take fire. Sears kept low, lying across Cegielka to shield him while he waited for medics, when a second rocket-propelled grenade struck the ground nearby. Sears briefly lost consciousness.
“I remember a blast. It was dust and dirt everywhere. When the smoke settled, I was a little disoriented, but I knew where I was and started returning fire again,” he said.
Sears ran across open ground again to summon medical help from the convoy and retraced his steps with a Polish medic. With the help of other soldiers, they ferried the injured man to the cover of the nearest building.
Always thinking like an insurgent, Sears checked the ground for any sign of more IEDs. If coalition soldiers ran for cover, they would run here. He made a fifth trip over open ground to alert the Polish medical truck that it was needed at the building.
The soldiers continued to return fire while they waited for air support. Hurley did his best to pin down the enemy, firing more than 1,500 rounds from his M240 during the two-hour battle, according to the Air Force’s official account of the engagement. It was the most rounds Hurley ever had fired in a single battle.
“I tried to lay into them as much as I could,” Hurley said. “The range on the M240-Bravo is good. I had good optics. I could put rounds on my target with my first burst.”
Sears fired 190 rounds from his rifle and was down to his last clip when they heard the rotors of two approaching Polish attack helicopters. It was a welcome sound, Sears said.
“You knew the enemy would break contact. As soon as they hear helicopters, they high-tail it out. They don’t have the means to fight helicopters,” he said.
The soldiers made a decision to evacuate the injured soldier with the convoy rather than risk drawing more enemy fire by landing a helicopter. That had happened on a previous patrol when a helicopter medic was shot during an evacuation, Sears said.
With the assistance of a heavy tow truck dispatched from base, the convoy crawled home. Nobody else had been injured. It was hard to say what casualties the enemy might have sustained, Sears said.
“It was one of the worst battles in the sense that it was the closest I’ve come to getting killed,” Sears said. “There have been many other firefights I’ve been in with more rounds coming downrange at us. But this was the hairiest because it was a complex ambush. It was the first time I’ve experienced an insurgent force so prepared for us.”
Cegielka was airlifted to Germany. He lost one of his legs, but doctors saved the other, Sears said.
“He’s doing good. I think he’s in line for a prosthetic. They did a bunch of skin grafts,” Sears said.
Sears returned from Afghanistan in December and remains a reserve member of the 177th Fighter Wing in Pomona.
He suffered a concussion from the grenade blast and received a Purple Heart.
“They diagnosed it as a traumatic brain injury. I still fight with a lot of headaches and short-term memory loss,” he said.
Today, he works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where he provides training to police on identifying homemade bombs.
He and his wife, Jen, have three children and live outside Pittsburgh.
Sears was awarded a Bronze Star last month in Egg Harbor Township for his service in EOD during his latest deployment. He has been nominated for an Air Force Cross for repeatedly putting his own life at risk to save the Polish driver during the firefight.
“If Sgt. Sears had lost his life doing what he did that day, they probably would have given him a Medal of Honor,” Hurley said.
Hurley was awarded an commendation medal for his conduct that day. Now an EOD team leader, he remains on active duty with the 177th and is building a house in Egg Harbor Township for his wife, Kandace, and his two children.
Sears said if “The Hurt Locker” got anything right about serving in EOD, it was about learning to live as a civilian away from this demanding and dangerous job.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. Every day there’s some type of firefight or defusing IEDs or running missions through a village,” he said. “To come home and go back to a 40-hour workweek, it’s tough. After this tour, it took a few months. But you get back to family life and it goes away.”
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