Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pintagro
Task Force Spartan Public Affairs NCOIC
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, coalition partners and Afghan allies lined the main road through Bagram Airfield and flight line June 15 in solemn tribute to a fallen brother in arms.
Allied leaders and service members snapped to attention as the casket bearing Sgt. Russell M. Durgin proceeded from the Joint Logistics Center to the C-130 airplane slated to fly him home.
Durgin, a sniper team leader with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Spartan, died June 13 as his sniper team battled insurgents in the Korengal Valley of northeastern Afghanistan. The Henniker, N.H., native died a month before his 24th birthday.
Durgin’s entire Regional Command East chain of command assembled at Bagram to pay the fallen sniper final respects.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, Combined Joint Task Force-76 commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Ralph C. Borja, CJTF-76 command sergeant major, attended alongside Col. John Nicholson, Task Force Spartan commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. James Redmore, task force command sergeant major.
Lt. Col. Chris Cavoli, 1-32 Infantry commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Carabello, Chosin Battalion command sergeant major, headed a delegation including most of Durgin’s leaders, Soldiers and closest friends.
Leaders and fellow Spartans described Durgin as model sniper, leader and man.
“Sgt. Durgin lived the Warrior Ethos,” Cavoli said. “He never quit, and he always put the mission first. In what is probably the most difficult part of our (area of responsibility), he routinely performed acts of bravery while hunting down the enemy.
“It’s hard to express how proud I am as an officer even to have been associated with a man like him,” he added. “He fought like a tiger and died like a man. He probably performed 10 men’s worth of fighting for the United States of America here.”
Staff Sgt. Richard F. Lightner, sniper section leader, served alongside Durgin since November 2003 and accompanied him during an Operation Iraqi Freedom rotation. He described Durgin as an irrepressible personality as well as an outstanding infantryman.
“Under the worst circumstances, he’d have a smile on his face,” he recalled. “That’s the kind of guy he was.” Lightner described Durgin as unflappable, praising his “ability to make decisions under extreme circumstances” as well as his technical and tactical skills.
“There’s no question he contributed heavily to our success here,” added Master Sgt. Kenneth Leslie, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion operations noncommissioned officer.
“He was like a son to me,” added Leslie, who served with Durgin in B Company, 1-32 Infantry. “He was a first-class Soldier all around.”
Durgin’s Soldiers thought as highly of him as his leaders did.
Spec. Cesar Cuellar, a sniper on Durgin’s team, described his leader as an amiable, optimistic handyman with a lively sense of humor and a penchant for health, fitness and bodybuilding. The burly 6-foot, 1-inch sniper greeted Soldiers with banter, jokes and impressions of “Saturday Night Live” skits on many early mornings in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
“He was a good leader,” Cuellar recalled. “He wasn’t about yelling or trying to humiliate you. He’d tell you what was wrong and how to fix something face to face.
“When all the other NCOs were huddled together, he’d come and talk to the ‘Joes,’” he added.
Cuellar said Durgin looked forward to marriage, construction work and a career in New Hampshire law enforcement after the Army.
Durgin’s amiability extended to Afghan National Army allies as well as Americans.
“He’d hang out with the ANA guys, even their commanders,” Cuellar said. “Everyone in the camp knew who he was. One time, after we went out with the ANA and we got a couple Taliban, the company commander gave him an ANA patch.”
Soldiers saw Durgin’s business side as well.
“He wasn’t afraid to take charge, even when there were senior guys around,” Cuellar noted. “If he knew something a staff sergeant didn’t, he wouldn’t hesitate to take it into his own hands.”
Durgin’s leadership touched some of his Soldiers’ lives profoundly.
“Sgt. Durgin was an awesome leader,” said Pfc. Ryan Woodring, another sniper. “He did everything to a ‘T,’ textbook. He took me under his wing and taught me everything.
“He was pretty much like a father to me,” Woodring added. “I never had a father growing up, and he was the closest thing to a father I had.”
Durgin’s sacrifice, skill, leadership and friendship left indelible marks on his section, company and battalion.
“There are American Soldiers still alive in the Chosin Battalion because of his bravery and heroism on the battlefield in the Korengal Valley,” Carabello said.
“There should be a picture of Sgt. Durgin next to the NCO Creed,” he added.