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Bangor Daily News | Apr 19, 2014 | by Beth Brogan

PORTLAND, Maine — Three years ago this month, Jackman native Timothy Gilboe stared into the eyes of a Taliban soldier in Afghanistan, grabbed the barrel of the enemy’s AK-47 assault rifle to his chest, and thought, “This is really going to hurt.”

Gilboe’s squad had been attacked by two Taliban soldiers near a small village in Afghanistan’s Maidan Wardak Province. His squad leader, Staff Sgt. Matthew Hermanson, lay on the ground 20 or 30 feet away, dying from injuries suffered when the ground “exploded” with bullets, Gilboe said.

“He looked at me — it was weird,” Gilboe said Thursday by phone. “We locked eyes after he was hit, and he was reaching his arm out for me like, ‘Come help me,’ and then he just dropped. Obviously you want to help him, but you’ve got to kill the guys first.”

Gilboe, 26, said he “tackled” one of the Taliban soldiers and felt the rounds from the machine gun hit him “like a good punch to the stomach.” The bullets hit the chest plate of his body armor and knocked the wind out of him, sending bullet fragments into his legs. Still, Gilboe managed to wrestle the enemy soldier to the ground.

“I got on top of him — his barrel was obviously hot because he’d just dumped a whole magazine — and I drove the AK-47 into his face,” Gilboe said. “When I did that, he let go of the gun. I tried to use it, but it jammed up or was out of bullets, so I held him down.”

Another soldier then shot the enemy fighter.

Gilboe remembers looking into the eyes of the man as he died.

“I don’t know what was weirder, having your friend get shot and locking eyes with him, or killing a person and you lock eyes with him,” Gilboe said.

For his actions, Gilboe received the Silver Star, the third-highest commendation the U.S. military awards for bravery in combat.

At a ceremony Friday morning at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Portland, Gilboe received the body armor that saved his life.

A student at Southern Maine Community College through the G.I. Bill, Gilboe was deployed in 2010 and 2011 as part of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division.

On April 28, 2011, his squad was attacked by mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades as they made their way up a hill to watch over a village. After taking cover, the squad watched two enemy soldiers drive off on a motorcycle. Gilboe shot at them with a machine gun, and it looked like they’d been killed. But when the squad went down to investigate, there were no bodies beside the motorcycle.

“That was about when things started to get hectic,” Gilboe said. “I knew we were in trouble. They were still out there.”

They walked toward a group of nearby buildings, and at one point Hermanson stopped Gilboe from walking around a corner, saying, “Hold on, let me go ahead.”

“That’s where Sgt. Hermanson saved my life,” Gilboe said. “He walked out in front of me. It only took a few … they shot him, and he stumbled back toward me and then fell down.”

A platoon leader ran to help, “but he was shot in the leg. His leg was just blown up,” Gilboe said. “At that point, I noticed that my assistant gunner, the kid who carries my bullets in a backpack … the backpack was shot by a tracer and was on fire. I dropped the gun and smothered the fire. The kid was kind of petrified. And I turned around and looked, and two guys had come out of the store and started charging toward us.”

After the two enemy soldiers were dead, Gilboe ran to Hermanson’s side.

“I let him know basically that the two [ Taliban] guys were dead, and we comforted him,” Gilboe said. “I thought he was going to live … but he ended up dying as he was extracted by the Black Hawk [helicopters].”

Despite his wounds, Gilboe took charge of the remaining squad members after the attack, cleared the area and then tended to his wounded comrades until a medic prepared them for evacuation, according to the U.S. Army. Only after he’d helped load them into medevac helicopters did he allow himself to be treated and removed from the area.

The next day, despite a sore stomach and leg injuries from the shrapnel, Gilboe carried Hermanson’s body as it was lowered into a C130.

“He was younger than me,” Gilboe said. “I’m an older brother, and to lose a younger brother … he was a really good guy. He did what a squad leader would do. A lot of leaders in the military judge the success of a deployment on whether or not you brought all the men home, but as [Hermanson] was dying, he could say it was a successful deployment because even though he died, he brought everyone else home.”

When Gilboe returned to Jackman from Afghanistan, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District presented Gilboe with a plaque to honor his bravery. But the sergeant says Hermanson was the true hero.

“When everything goes good and the mission is a success, there are no medals,” Gilboe said. “But when everything goes to hell in a handbag — you have a plan and you get punched — right when you get punched, it’s what you do after that, if you’re able to save it or lessen the damage. He died to save his whole squad. I get to live, he died.”

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