Mark McDermott

A soldier comes home on a special mission

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U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz proposes to his girlfriend, Aimee Chuhaloff. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan at www.chelseasektnan.com

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz returned home to Redondo Beach from Afghanistan on a two week “R & R” leave last week. But he wasn’t here only to rest and relax: he was a man on a mission.

He’d been working on the logistics for several months. During his brief, erratic periods of internet access from his forward operating post in Afghanistan – a spot he is not allowed to reveal, given the nature of his assignment in-country – he’d put together the pieces of an elaborate plan. It required bringing more than 90 members of his family and friends and a few of his girlfriend’s family members together, secretly. It required bringing his girlfriend, Aimee Chuhaloff, from Colorado. It required finding the time to sneak away from her briefly to go to the jewelry store, and then subsequently finding a series of good hiding places for a large diamond ring.

Finally, the plan required the couple going for a walk on the beach at exactly noon on Sunday, and for Ambriz to somehow seem nonchalant even though his heart felt like it was about to beat through his chest.

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What would later be dubbed “Operation Aimee” succeeded without a hitch. Ambriz walked her to the water’s edge beneath the Manhattan Beach pier Sunday at noon, dropped to one knee as family and friends suddenly appeared on the railings above, and popped the question.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

Fortunately, she answered affirmatively.

“If she wouldn’t have said yes you would have seen the ring flung into the water,” Ambriz said.

She did, however, have another suggestion for what the plan should have been dubbed.

“Operation Sneaky Bastard,” Aimee said.

“I thought she was going to know,” Ambriz said. “Usually, she is really good at reading me….I was more nervous proposing to her than deploying back to Afghanistan.”

Ambriz has six months left on his second year-long deployment in Afghanistan. He volunteered earlier this year to return to the country sooner than he was required to because the dearth of experience among soldiers deployed there, and particularly the need for officers – Ambriz last September was promoted to sergeant, even though he was only 21. He’s been in the Army three-and-a-half years, after graduating from Redondo Union High School and briefly attending El Camino College, and is already a highly decorated war veteran. His honors include a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with the “V-device,” awarded for valor during combat after he served on a rescue mission in which he and a handful of soldiers climbed a mountain under heavy Taliban sniper fire to extract wounded and dead soldiers.

Sgt. Ambriz talking to local kids outside an Afghanistan National Police station.

Even on Sunday, one of the happiest days of his life, Ambriz was not far removed from Afghanistan. He learned only a half hour before leaving for his walk with Aimee that his men had been in a firefight and run across an Improvised Explosive Devise [IED].

“They are all good. But I kind of wish I was there with them,” Ambriz said. “I worry about the guys. Not to be a part of it kind of sucks. I kind of feel guilty. I am enjoying TV and food and stuff like that and these guys are going through firefights.”

Ambriz has had his share of firefights. This time of the year is particularly bad, he said, because it’s corn season – Taliban are able to hide in the tall corn and avoid detection on the infrared systems the Americans use, thereby emboldening the insurgents to attack much more aggressively.

Ambriz just last month had an extremely up-close encounter with the Taliban. He serves in the 127th “Speed and Power” Military Police Company, part of the 159th MP Battalion. The company’s primary task is to train the Afghan National Police. On Aug. 4, they were called out to assist a humanitarian aid convoy that was caught in a firefight. Ambriz’s squad had been out on missions 96 hours straight – and had slept very little for the previous nine days – only running back to base for a half hour at a time to get more fuel and maybe a quick meal. But they responded immediately.

They found both the humanitarian convoy and ANP forces under heavy fire. Ambriz, who was in the third vehicle to arrive, noticed a wounded ANP soldier 30 ft. away from the lead vehicle in a ditch. He realized he was the only trained medic on the scene, so he asked for suppressive fire – cover – and dismounted from his vehicle. Under fire, he dodged his way up behind the lead vehicle. His best friend, Sgt. Jim Lane, was in that truck, but its mounted gun wasn’t working. So Lane popped out with a machine gun – exposing himself to enemy fire – and provided Ambriz cover to get to the wounded man.

“Once the Taliban saw me run by myself, they tried to take the opportunity to take me out – I was all by myself,” Ambriz recalled. “At first I couldn’t get the casualty out – the ANP guy was freaking out really bad…I turned his body into my body to use my protective armor to protect him, so he wouldn’t get hit again.”

Sgt. Lane helped buy him time with his suppressive fire. Ambriz got the soldier to the first truck, where he immediately started working on the man, who had a huge exit wound in his leg, among other injuries. After he treated the man, he looked up to see Sgt. Lane trying to move the abandoned fuel truck in the convoy out of the roadway.

“He just put it in reverse, and rounds were hitting the top of the truck – it probably wasn’t the best place to be, because that thing could have blown up at any minute,” Ambriz said.

Lane successfully moved the truck, but there were still a dozen ANP trucks blocking the way. Things became chaotic. The squad didn’t have a translator with them, so attempts to get the convoy moving were unsuccessful – the ANP couldn’t make out what the American soldiers were saying. Meanwhile, the Taliban was surging – groups of three or four kept making runs at the convoy. The sound of metal on metal was everywhere as the trucks sustained a constant barrage of gunfire. Ambriz looked around and realized they were utterly surrounded by Taliban.

“They were running out of cornfields,” Ambriz said. “We were just spraying at them, hoping to take a couple groups out here and there.”

Lane believed they needed heavier fire to beat the Taliban back. He hopped on top of his truck to try and fix the mounted gun. Taliban were coming within 15 ft. of the truck, and Lane’s body was totally exposed.

“We could see them they were so close to us…It was definitely scary,” Ambriz said. “They got so close, and for him to be up there, so nonchalantly – nothing scares that guy. I’ll never forget him on top of that truck. He’s up there so calm it’s as if he’s doing a crossword puzzle. I am crazy, but I’m not stupid – this guy has no fear.”

Ambriz felt compelled to join his friend to provide cover. He climbed on top of the vehicle with him. The Taliban were so close Ambriz could see their faces.

“Some of them had scarves on their faces, but some had real long beards and their faces were angry,” he recalled. “And they were yelling, but I couldn’t hear because my ear drums were practically blown out from all the shooting.”

“I am shooting both directions, left side, right side, over there….this seemed like it went on forever, but it was probably only a few minutes,” Ambriz said. “And then Sgt. Laneis like, ‘Hey man, I think I am hit.”

Ambriz, as medic, checked him out. Lane had been grazed in the rear end by a bullet, but it was nothing serious. “You are fine,” he told Lane. “Don’t worry about it.”

u.s. army afghanistan

Sgt. Jim Lane and Sgt. Sean Ambriz immediately after escaping a firefight relatively unscathed on Aug. 4.

But they still couldn’t get the gun working. Ambriz was near the hatch of a vehicle when suddenly he felt a hot burn on his left cheek – a ricocheting bullet, or piece of shrapnel, had grazed him as well. It had missed his eye by about an inch.

Not a moment too soon, reinforcements arrived in the form of the Air Force – an F-16 dropped a 500 pound bomb and did a strafing run only 25 meters from the truck, scattering the Taliban. The squad was given authorization to turn around and hightail it home.

The whole squad was able to make it back to their base safely. They’d somehow managed to escape, despite being thoroughly pinned down by the Taliban, without suffering a single casualty.

“It was definitely a crazy-assed day,” Ambriz said.

And so it was a little hard for Ambriz to reconcile the beauty and peace and happiness of the day he experienced on Sunday. His grandmother Josephine Ambriz, a lifelong Redondo resident, was among those who watched on happily. She said that it had been enormously difficult to have her grandson serving a war, so it was especially gratifying to see him so happy.

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz

“It’s been really hard – when you love somebody that much, it just kills you,” she said. “I want him to be happy. He deserves it….I am just so glad he is home.”

Ambriz mussed up her hair and she feigned a punch to his belly. “We used to wrestle a lot, and I used to win,” she said. “I had four sons and four grandsons. I had to be able to defend myself.”

It’s a feistiness that the soon-to-be Aimee Ambriz shares. On the couple’s first date, Sean was admittedly feeling very shy. So in the parking lot outside a restaurant, she dropped her purse and playfully gave him a good old-fashioned shove.

“I was like, ‘Okay, that’s how it is?’” Ambriz said. “It’s on.”

It’s been on ever since. They realized early on that they wanted to marry.

“He was a natural-born husband,” she said. “He’s just very caring, very family-oriented.”

They find ways to talk or text nearly every day, a channel of love and support that has made Ambriz’s second deployment somewhat easier to bear. Aimee, however, refuses to join Facebook. She believes in communicating on a deeper level. “I’m an old soul. I send him a letter or a card every four days,” she said.

She’s also resolute about not feeling sorry for herself. She lives in Colorado Springs– where the couple met, and where there are plenty of women in similar situations, hoping and waiting.

“It’s hard,” she said. “But I’m going to make it.”

When he goes back, however, Ambriz has a new set of instructions to consider.

“I am very proud of him,” Aimee said. “He is a badass. I told him, though – he can’t always be the one running out there in front anymore.”

Ambriz returns to Afghanistan on Oct. 4. He’s in the odd position of both looking forward to it – getting back to his men – and dreading it. Since the economy seems so uncertain, he plans to reenlist for another four years next February. He hopes he can then spend at least a full year in Colorado with his new wife, and possibly earn a rotation as a recruiter after that. He said he wants to help fellow soldiers by finding more good soldiers.

And he can think of no better example than Sgt. Lane. Lane, who has served five deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, is both Ambriz’s close friend and mentor. Ambriz insisted that no newspaper article about him could go without a tribute to Lane.

U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Ambriz

“People thank me,” he said. “I’ve been called a hero and all this…but I want it to be known that there are soldiers like Sgt. Lane who do amazing things every day and do not get any recognition. I look up to him. He’s a true definition of a hero and true American. It’s soldiers like him who mold me into who I am, and the kind of soldier I am today.”

update: Sgt. Jim Lane responded from Afghanistan Saturday to an interview request via Facebook:

Mark, Sorry I didn’t respond sooner, We just got back from the mission that Sean talked about. Sean is a caring leader that would do anything for his soldiers. He is a knowledgeable leader and we all lean on each others strengths to be the best we can for our soldiers. As for the mission that he spoke of, I think he makes me sound too brave.lol I didn’t do anything “brave” I simply did what had to be done. He is the one that made the conscious decision to run out past my truck and save a life. He and I both know that no one would have faulted him for not risking his life to save an Afghany but he did it anyways. I may have exposed myself to cover him running to the ANA guy but I damn sure wasn’t gonna let him run out there by himself with out a buddy to cover him. I burnt that SAW to the ground I pushed out so many bullets covering him. It seemed as soon as he got to the casualty everyone focused on him. I don’t know how many insurgents I killed that he doesn’t even know had weapons on him. It was funny, when we were writing our statements and proof reading them for each other you should have seen his face when he read about what was happening around him. It will probably sound a little perverse to you as a civilian ( not meant as an insult) but it was funny as hell to me that he was so naive. The part about me up on the truck, I was fixing a weapon that needed to be fixed. I was only up there by myself while he was saving someone’s life in the back of my truck. You tell me which is more important. As soon as he finished what he was doing he was right up there with me…. Jim Lane

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