Politics & Policy

The Soldiers You Never Hear About

They're not all prisoner-abusers, you know.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the June 14, 2004, issue of National Review.

Ask Americans to name some of our soldiers in Iraq and chances are they’ll readily identify Lynndie England, Charles Graner Jr., Jeremy Sivits, and Ivan “Chip” Frederick II. The three major networks have run over 200 stories on the detainee-abuse scandal, making the seven disgraced soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib the most recognizable faces of American service in Iraq. The media’s line of attack against the war is revealed in its selective coverage of our soldiers: All villains and victims, no valor. Not one of the heroes decorated for bravery in Iraq has received a minute of coverage from ABC, CBS, or NBC. National newspapers have run hundreds of stories on the scandalous service of the Abu Ghraib seven, but have made no mention of another seven whose stories of service could be recounted with Steven Seagal cast in the lead.

In early May, Marine Captain Brian Chontosh, Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Perez, and Marine Sergeant Marco Martinez were awarded Navy Crosses for extraordinary heroism, an award second only to the Medal of Honor. Army Sergeant Gerald Wolford, Army Sergeant Major Michael Stack, Marine Staff Sergeant Adam Sikes, and Marine Corporal Armand McCormick–and 123 others–have been awarded Silver Stars for outstanding valor in combat. The stories of these courageous men represent the dedication of the tens of thousands of soldiers serving bravely and honorably in Iraq far better than the actions of a derelict nightshift in two isolated cell blocks.

On March 25, 2003, then-Lieutenant Brian R. Chontosh, 29, of Rochester, N.Y., was leading his platoon on Highway 1 south of Baghdad when his troops came under a coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic-weapons fire. With the road ahead blocked, Chontosh realized his men were caught in a kill zone. He ordered his driver to advance directly into the enemy trench. Chontosh leapt from his vehicle and began firing with his rifle and pistol. But his ammunition ran out. “With complete disregard for his safety,” according to the citation, “he twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack…. When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others.”

After being awarded the Navy Cross, Captain Chontosh said, “I was just doing my job, I did the same thing every other Marine would have done, it was just a passion and love for my Marines.” Two of those Marines–Corporals Armand E. McCormick, 22, and Robert P. Kerman, 21–received Silver Stars, the service’s third-highest award, for their “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” in pressing the assault forward in that trench. Two days after the award ceremony at Camp Pendleton, McCormick redeployed to Iraq.

During the First Marine Expeditionary Force’s advance to Baghdad, Lance Corporal Joseph B. Perez’s platoon came under intense fire. As point man for the lead squad he was its most exposed member. Perez, 23, returned fire continuously while also directing accurate fire from his squad. He led a charge into a trench, killed the enemy combatants there, and, under “tremendous” fire, threw a grenade into another trench. Perez continued shooting with “precision rifle fire” and despite serious gunshot wounds directed his squad to take cover and reorganize, enabling them to defeat the enemy.

Then-Corporal Marco A. Martinez, 22, was coming to the aid of an ambushed platoon during the battle of Al Tarmiya on April 12, 2003, when his squad leader was wounded and he took command of the assault along the Tigris River. With his squad under fire from a nearby building, and “enduring intense enemy fire and without regard for his own personal safety,” he launched a captured rocket-propelled grenade into the building, allowing a wounded Marine to be evacuated. Martinez then single-handedly assaulted the building and killed four enemy soldiers with a grenade and his rifle. “I just wanted to take care of my squad. I didn’t want to quit on them,” he later explained.

In the same battle, Staff Sergeant Adam R. Sikes, 27–who had cancelled plans to attend Georgetown University “so he wouldn’t miss the war in Iraq”–was pinned down when the ambush struck but rallied two of his squads to counterattack. “With the squads in position, Staff Sergeant Sikes charged alone across 70 meters of fire-swept ground to close on the first enemy strongpoint, which he cleared with a grenade and rifle fire.” Sikes then moved to the top of a three-story building and, exposed to enemy fire, directed mortar rounds onto enemy positions. Finally, he moved to a squad that had taken casualties and managed their evacuation–again under fire. “So many people are pouring their hearts out over there, trying to make things right,” Sikes said at the award ceremony.

Staff Sergeant Gerald A. Wolford of the 82nd Airborne Division received the Silver Star for his actions during a four-hour battle to secure three river crossings in As Samawah. Wolford placed his heavy-machine-gun vehicle between the enemy and the dismounted infantrymen accompanying him. When the vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, he ordered his crew to pull out while he remained to direct fire on the enemy position. “For the remainder of the fight, SSG Wolford continually exposed himself to enemy fire as he made efforts to aid others to withdraw.”

Sergeant Major Michael B. Stack’s Special Forces team came under fire on April 11 when they were traveling from Baghdad to Al Hillah. Providing rear security for the convoy, Stack, 48, immediately began to fire so others could escape from the kill zone. He led a security force to eliminate the remaining threat and allow for the evacuation of casualties, and then prepared for a counterattack. But the enemy concentrated fire on his vehicle and an explosion killed him instantly. The South Carolina father of six–and grandfather of three–was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. “We’re doing the right thing,” Stack had told his older brother, retired from the Army.

The death of Corporal Pat Tillman (who had left the National Football League) received plenty of press coverage, but the courage and self-sacrifice that merited his posthumous Silver Star was little reported. Tillman was a team leader in an Army Ranger platoon that was ambushed in southeastern Afghanistan. He and his team members were safely out of the area of attack when the tail section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain. Tillman ordered his team to dismount and take the fight up a hill toward enemy forces; it was there that he was killed. Once his team had engaged the enemy, fire directed at the convoy’s tail section diminished and those soldiers escaped the ambush with no casualties.

Tillman’s unit commander, Lieutenant David Uthlaut, was seriously wounded in that attack. Uthlaut was First Captain of the Corps of Cadets for his West Point class of 2001; Rhodes Scholarship material, he chose to serve in Iraq. Twelve West Point graduates have been killed to date in Iraq.

More than 3,700 Purple Hearts have been awarded to our troops in Iraq. Private First Class Quintin D. Graves, 19, joined the Marine Corps last July, and now wears two Purple Hearts. Calling his mother for the second time in less than a month, “I tried to explain it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I couldn’t lie and say I’m not around the fighting. That lie doesn’t work anymore.” Marine Corporal Thomas W. Kuster, a 28-year-old from California, has three Purple Hearts. Last year he was wounded in Baghdad. “They got me once,” he explained. “I figured they weren’t getting me again.” But they did–during street fighting in April, and then at a checkpoint outside Fallujah. A bullet was removed from the back of his knee and he walks with a limp, but he’s back on duty. “My parents begged me to come home,” Kuster said. “But, I felt like if I was to go, I’d be turning my back on my Marines.”

The only American name most people recognize from the fierce three-day battle at Mazar-e-Sharif is that of John Walker Lindh, the Taliban kid from Marin County. While Lindh was disgracing himself, Army Special Forces Major Mark Mitchell was earning the first Distinguished Service Cross awarded since the Vietnam War. Vastly outnumbered, Mitchell led 15 Special Forces troops and allied fighters to rescue a CIA agent, recover Johnny “Mike” Spann’s body, and prevent a Taliban takeover of the fortress. During the fighting, Mitchell used the unwound turban of an allied soldier to scale a 35-foot-high wall of the compound and then directed air strikes from his exposed position. CIA director George Tenet attended the ceremony last November recognizing Mitchell for “extraordinary heroism in action.”

The Ranger Creed that inspired the bravery of Pat Tillman reads, in part: “Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.” It’s too bad the media will under no circumstances tell the remarkable stories of these and other soldiers and Marines, who bring great credit to themselves, their services, and their country.

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