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Sgt. Stephen Stoops (right) receives the Bronze Star with valor.
ATLANTA--Dust filled the air as a group of U.S. soldiers kicked off a Jan. 8 pickup football game in southern Afghanistan. But unbeknown to the deployed American troops, terror was on the horizon.
Soldiers from the Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, including Sgt. Stephen Stoops, 23, were tossing around the football during some downtime on their isolated base when loud noises brought the game to an abrupt halt.
"We didn't know what it was at first," Sgt. Stoops told "The Unknown Soldiers." "It sounded just like a bunch of fireworks going off."
As the Americans quickly realized, a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform was shooting in their direction. With their weapons out of reach, all the stunned group could do was frantically take cover.
"Run away, get away they're shooting at us," Stoops remembers a fellow soldier yelling.
As chaos ensued, Stoops, a married father of one from Port Orchard, Wash., realized two fellow soldiers had been wounded. It then became horribly apparent that their attacker, who hadn't stopped firing, was still out for blood.
"The guy started walking over [the wounded U.S. troops] and shooting them while they were lying on the ground," Stoops said. "Then he saw me yelling at him, and he started [shooting] at me."
Stoops ran to the base's fortified entry control point, where he encountered Sgt. Jacob Lewis, who was handed a weapon by one of the guards. After Stoops managed to find a weapon of his own, he darted back toward the site of their football game, which was now a blood-soaked battlefield.
"Sgt. Lewis and I decided we were going to flank him," Stoops said.
The brave soldiers shot the gunman, who was still trying to get back up when Stoops, who said he was out of ammunition, repeatedly hit the killer with a machine gun and kicked his weapon away. Finally, the attacker lay motionless, not far from the football the soldiers dropped in the dust when they were startled by the first shots.
With the threat eliminated, Lewis and Stoops frantically turned to their wounded comrades. Lewis tended to Spc. John Bolan, while Stoops tried to stop the bleeding of Pfc. Dustin Napier, who was shot in his leg, neck, and chin.
"I couldn't find a pulse," Stoops said. "So I kind of just put my hands on his neck to try and keep some sort of pressure on it."
"I was screaming 'I need a medic' the whole time," he added.
Pfc. Napier, 20, of London, Ky., died from his wounds. The tragic loss of the popular, caring soldier, who was enjoying a game of football with his brothers in arms moments before he was shot, devastated the unit.
"It was really hard on the platoon when we were down there," Stoops said, while adding that a memorial service held after the soldiers returned from Afghanistan honored Napier and his family.
The other soldier initially struck by the gunman, Spc. Bolan, survived the attack.
"After the incident, when he was awake we got to talk to him a little bit," Stoops said. "He just wanted to come back to us."
A third soldier, who was shot in the leg, also survived. But if not for the gallantry displayed by Lewis and Stoops, more brave Americans would almost certainly have been killed.
When I asked Stoops how he mustered the courage to fight back, his answer was short and simple.
"You just treat everyone like they're your enemy," he said.
According to the Army, Sgt. Jacob Lewis will receive the Silver Star for his selfless actions on Jan. 8. Sgt. Stoops was awarded the Bronze Star with valor.
"His heroic actions and complete disregard for his own safety during an enemy attack on Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan saved the lives of his fellow soldiers," Stoops' award citation reads.
Millions of Americans play football in backyards, streets and parks. Millions more watch the sport on television.
The harrowing story told by Sgt. Stephen Stoops should remind us that our nation's real heroes aren't the men playing games in football stadiums. They are the men and women still fighting a war in Afghanistan.
Tom Sileo is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.