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Unexpected Attack Prompted San Antonio Airman To Act Fast, Save Lives

A special warfare training instructor assigned to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland received the nation’s third highest medal for gallantry Thursday. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Perolio saved lives during an unexpected attack in eastern Afghanistan last year. 

In early 2018, the Mohmand Valley in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province was a hotbed for ISIS-K operations.

U.S. special operators had been performing clearance operations there for about a month, in partnership with Afghan forces. They’d made it deeper into the valley than expected, and there was concern about maintaining supply lines in and out. 

Rough terrain made navigation difficult, and certain areas were still rife with fighting, recalled Capt. William “Lance” Clark, commander for Special Operations Detachment Alpha 0221. 

Tech. Sgt. Michael Perolio and Capt. William “Lance” Clark
Credit Photo courtesy of Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Tech. Sgt. Michael Perolio and Capt. William “Lance” Clark

“We were looking for ways to secure a long route of, I think, 5 to 6 kilometers. Really difficult-to-traffic terrain… roads on both sides of this little river bed,” he said. 

To navigate through the area, special operations units often used unarmored all-terrain vehicles called MRZRs, which Clark described as a “souped-up, four-seater go karts” with a “roll cage where you can strap guns.”

On January 11, a team of five including Clark, two other special operators, an Afghan translator and a local militiaman conducted what the Air Force calls a “key leader engagement” with partner forces, where they discussed future patrols and security in the area.

The meeting was uneventful, with no indication that anything had gone awry. But when the five men walked out and got back into their MRZR, they were ambushed in an apparent setup. Machine gun fire rained from a nearby rooftop and peppered the vehicle.

Clark was in the driver’s seat when bullets ripped through — critically wounding him and two others.

“Twenty-five meters from a belt-fed machine gun is an incredibly, incredibly horrible place to be,” he said. “To have three out of five guys down, to be 5 kilometers away from your operating base, to have to put together some sort of plan to get out of that area… All that kind of rolled into this horrific scenario.”

Clark, the ground forces commander, was hit in the chest — and couldn’t do much more than hold a weapon.

“I kind of knew what was going on. I could feel my field of vision tunneling in — getting a bit smaller — really only being able to focus on small tasks at that point... I wasn’t doing very well and I needed to get back to some sort of medical care extremely quickly,” he said.

Clark’s teammate, Tech. Sgt. Michael Perolio, took charge, shifting the vehicle into neutral and positioning it as cover. He rendered aid to his teammates and armed them. He returned fire, and called for both air and ground support.

“You kind of know what needs to happen at that point,” Perolio said. “As much as there is some chaos there. To say I was completely calm during that would be a lie. We were freaking out because we didn’t know what was going on. It was completely unsuspected. You revert back to your lowest form of training.”

Perolio got his comrades back to base within 15 minutes of the ambush — which saved two lives of the three who were injured. A militia commander accompanying the team died from his injuries.

Perolio, 30, said he still thinks about that day — and uses it as motivation to improve.

“Like how could we have done it better? That’s been the harder thing,” he said. “What could I have done differently? Maybe something more efficiently to get us out of there quicker.”

Clark, however, continues to thank him.

“He’s an expert at his job,” Clark said. “He’s everything that you would want from someone standing next to you in a gunfight. Mike and some very talented surgeons are the only two reasons that I’m here today. He got me out of the worst situation that I’ve ever been in and I honestly can’t thank him enough.”

With his actions, Perolio joins a distinguished group of Silver Star recipients. On Thursday, the award citation was read in front of Perolio’s family, friends and fellow special warfare colleagues at a ceremony at Lackland’s Gateway Club. 

“The Silver Star is a big deal,” said Lt. Gen. Marshall Webb, incoming commander of Air Education and Training Command and presiding official for the ceremony. “Mike is going to join the ranks of some notable Airmen such as Chuck Yeager, Bud Day, Jimmy Doolittle, and special warfare operators such as Calvin Markham, Cam Kelsch, [Ishmael] Villegas and Brian Claughsey to name a few.” 

Perolio is now among  81 Airmen who have been awarded the Silver Star since 9/11.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the man who died. The person who died was the militia commander accompanying the team.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.