(NEW YORK) — The friendship between U.S. Army Master Sgt. Sean Clifton and Sgt. First Class Mark Wanner is one born on the battlefield.
The pair, both members of the Green Berets, the elite division of the U.S. Army Special Forces, were with their troops in Afghanistan on May 31, 2009, when their lives would change forever.
“We targeted a Taliban commander,” Wanner recalled to ABC News’ Michael Strahan, who brought the two soldiers together this month in New York City to share their story.
“We knew that he was there that day and we rolled out and we ran into a hornet’s nest, really,” Wanner, of South Dakota, said. “I round the corner. That’s when Sean kicked the door and a guy point blank just took his AK and shot right at Sean.”
“And he’s like, ‘Help. Help me.’ I’m like seeing his eyes are, like, just big…and then he collapsed down,” Wanner said.
Clifton was gravely wounded in the attack. He recalls thinking of his wife and three kids as he waited for help.
“I’m just thinking, ‘Lord, let this be a dream. Just please, Lord, let this be a dream,’” Clifton said. “But, you know, visions of those boys and trying to fight back to get back home to them and to my wife, to my family.”
As Clifton lay bleeding and close to his last breath, Wanner, a medic, took charge. He dove through bullets to treat his friend’s wounds and convinced a medevac pilot to defy orders and land the helicopter inside the firefight.
It was then that Wanner and the medics discovered a miracle. A hidden bullet was lodged beneath Clifton’s armor, just millimeters away from what would have been a fatal shot.
“There was a higher power definitely that day that was looking out for us,” said Wanner, also a father of three.
“It’s pretty surreal, it really is, to be here with you, my personal angel that saved my life five years ago,” Clifton said to Wanner. “Mark’s obviously my hero of the day, as are a lot of the guys on the team.”
Clifton returned to the U.S. for treatment at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The soldier underwent over 20 surgeries in five months before going on to an additional two years of rehabilitation that included six more surgical procedures and physical and occupational therapies.
“In our minds we think we’re these big, bad Green Berets and to being to the point where I can’t even sit up on my bed under my own power, that was pretty humbling,” Clifton said.
Clifton powered through his recovery, going from, in his own words, “kicking the walker away to dropping the cane and walking and jogging.”
In October 2010, Clifton, who lives in Ohio, completed a marathon.
“It wasn’t just for me,” he said. “These guys risked their lives. So, you know, the best thing I can do is get back up on my feet and then that’s my thank you back to them.”
Wanner, who said soldiers’ motto is “never quit,” went on to receive a Silver Star Medal for his actions in Afghanistan and saving Sean’s life under enemy fire.
The medal, awarded for gallantry in action against an enemy of the U.S., is one of the highest military decorations for valor that can be awarded to any person serving in any capacity with the U.S. Armed Forces.
Clifton went on to win a Bronze Star medal for that mission, which killed three senior Taliban officials and over 30 Taliban fighters. He also received a Purple Heart, the medal awarded to armed forces’ members wounded in battle.
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