FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. —Army Spc. Eric Paxton noticed something missing as he started his morning guard duty at one of the biggest U.S. military bases in eastern Afghanistan: The Afghanis who normally worked outside the walls were absent.
Within minutes, the 27-year-old from Columbus, Kan., became the first line of defense against a rare assault on Forward Operating Base Fenty.
Fifteen to 20 insurgents attacked using a car bomb, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests.
In his first interview about the June 30 attack, the injured Paxton described how he kept the attackers from breaching the gate, a feat that led the Army to award him the Bronze Star Medal with Valor, one of about 1,300 such medals given out for combat valor in Afghanistan since 2001.
The award citation notes that "his ability to remain calm under fire ensured the safety of over 2,000 FOB Fenty tenants and the protection of millions of dollars of aircraft and equipment."
Paxton is now at home at Fort Campbell recovering from his injuries with his 13-month-old daughter, Amelia, and wife, April.
A piece of shrapnel is still lodged in his knee. He was so close to the explosions that his eardrums were ruptured; he now wears hearing aids in both ears. He was the only American soldier injured by the attack.
Paxton was about two months into his first deployment in Afghanistan as a member of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
He had just started his shift in the guard tower at the base along the main road between Kabul and Pakistan when he heard the whine of a rapidly accelerating engine. Seconds later a van slammed into the compound wall.
"I literally saw a fireball blow in front of my face," Paxton said.
His face and head peppered with shrapnel, he radioed that the base was being attacked, then stayed alone in the tower to face the assault.
"I was thinking I've got several people back here that I've got to make sure make it home to their families," he said.
Almost immediately, Paxton spotted another vehicle bearing down on the base and targeted it with his machine gun. He stopped the vehicle by killing the driver, but fighters piled out of the car.
"I returned fire on one of them as he ran toward my gate," he said. "From what I was told, he had a suicide vest. So I stopped him before he could get through the gate."
He went through two machine guns in the course of the nearly hourlong attack, one that ran out of ammunition and another that was struck by return fire. Weaponless, he ran down to the base of the tower and took an AK-47 from an Afghan soldier.
He took cover in a bunker at the bottom of the tower and kept firing to keep the fighters from getting to the gate as the base's security forces responded to the attack.
Eventually he was pulled back from the fighting and sent to get medical attention.
"They told me... that I myself had held off at least 15 people for at least three or four minutes and got three or four on my own," he said.
He said the lessons he learned from his drill sergeant in basic training probably got him through the attack alive.
"I think in all reality I owe him my life," he said. "His training was all that was kicking in my mind at that point."