Defense & National Security

Remember Our Unsung Heroes

Do you know who John Chapman is? How about Brian Chontosh? Leigh Ann Hester?

The answer is almost certainly no.

The three are all highly decorated veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the liberation of Afghanistan.

In World War II, heroes of their caliber would have been celebrated in the press and their names would have been known to the public. As we enter what some call the Third World War—the war against terrorism—this war’s heroes are obscure figures, largely unknown and uncelebrated. Unlike during World War II, the national media have been reluctant to tell their stories.

A Sergeant’s Courage

To date, the Department of Defense has awarded one Medal of Honor—posthumously given to Army Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith.

On April 4, 2003, Sergeant First Class Smith was supporting the construction of a holding area for enemy POWs near the Baghdad Airport when his task force was attacked by a company-sized force of enemy soldiers.

Realizing that the 100 Americans were heavily outnumbered, Smith organized a defense using a single Bradley Fighting vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. In the fierce combat that ensued, Smith engaged the enemy forces with anti-tank weapons and hand grenades, organizing the evacuation of three wounded soldiers. To prevent the enemy from overrunning their position, Smith moved under heavy fire to a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a disabled armored personnel carrier. Totally alone and exposed, Smith fired the machine gun until he was killed by enemy fire.

Paul Ray Smith

His courageous action accounted for approximately 50 enemy soldiers killed and enabled many wounded American soldiers to be moved to safety.

Several other Medal of Honor nominations are being processed. Twenty individuals have been awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross or Air Force Cross, the second highest award for valor and, as of last June, 371 have received the Silver Star since the September 11 attacks.

Approximately 25,000 have been awarded the Purple Heart, for wounds suffered in action against the enemy.

With the exception of Smith, few have received any significant recognition. Why is this? The supposition is that the Bush Administration, having taken relentless criticism from the rabid partisans on the left for “politicizing” the War on Terror, is loathe to appear to be exploiting the heroism of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That apprehension is unjustified, according to Wade Zirkle, a former Marine lieutenant who served two tours of duty in Iraq and recently returned from that country where he worked as a reporter embedded with Iraqi security forces in the Sunni triangle.

“All of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I know are proud to have served,” Zirkle says.

Zirkle was a platoon leader in a light armored advance unit that spearheaded the liberation of Iraq. Racing north, the unit was surrounded by enemy troops near the town of Nasiryah.

Wade Zirkle and G. Gordon Liddy

“We were in a circular 360-degree formation,” he says, “under attack by several hundred Iraqis. They just kept coming at us in waves, and we just kept taking them out. The fighting continued from sundown until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.” An estimated 600 to 800 enemy soldiers were killed.

Miraculously, none of Zirkle’s platoon mates were killed.

He was not so lucky in his second tour of duty. In the spring of 2004, Zirkle’s platoon, dubbed Pale Rider 3, was assigned to the operation to liberate Fallujah, the most dangerous city in Iraq. Pale Rider 3 came under heavy enemy fire and one Marine in the unit was killed.

Although Zirkle felt the incursion into Fallujah went well, the Marines were ordered to withdraw while a diplomatic solution was attempted.

On Labor Day of that year, Zirkle’s platoon of 45 men was assigned to guard a major road west of Fallujah. The 45 men of Pale Rider 3 were proceeding to relieve the Marines of 1st platoon. As the convoy of three seven-ton trucks and a Humvee drove along the road, an enemy suicide bomber drove up to the lead truck in which Zirkle was riding and detonated a powerful bomb. Zirkle was thrown from the truck and knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he discovered that he was badly burned. He was lucky, however. He was one of only six out of the 16 men on the truck to survive.

Despite the sometimes hellish conditions he endured in Iraq, Zirkle, says, “When people ask me whether I would do it all over again I tell them yes, without a doubt. I would do it once again, 100 times.”

Zirkle now serves as executive director of Vets for Freedom, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are dedicated to ensuring that the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan is seen through to success.

Zirkle and many of his fellow veterans are critical of the Bush Administration’s failure to sufficiently recognize the heroism that they saw all around them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vets for Freedom maintains a web site where many of their fellow heroes are honored.

A few of these heroes:

Sgt. John Chapman

Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman was one of the first heroes in the war on terrorism. A helicopter combat casualty in the 24th Special tactics squadron, Chapman took part in Operation Anaconda, an effort to destroy al Qaeda forces in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan.

On March 4, 2002, Chapman’s helicopter took a hit from a rocket propelled grenade. The explosion knocked a Navy SEAL, Neil Roberts, out of the helicopter. Although severely damaged, the chopper was able to make an emergency landing seven kilometers away.

Chapman called in an AC-130 gunship to provide air cover for his team and then coordinated the helicopter rescue effort. He then led his team in an effort to rescue the missing Navy SEAL. When Chapman’s team encountered an enemy gun position, Chapman charged the position and killed the two men manning it.

The team then encountered a second enemy gun position and came under attack from three directions. Out in the open, with no cover, Chapman engaged the enemy at short range, exchanging fire until he died of multiple gunshot wounds. By taking out the first enemy position and attacking the second one, Chapman enabled his team to move to cover. The Navy SEAL team leader credited him with saving the entire team. For his action, Chapman was awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously.

Capt. Brian Chontosh

Capt. Brian Chontosh, First Marine Division, served heroically in the battle for Fallujah in November of 2004, but his most notable action came on March 25, 2003, in the push to Baghdad. Near the town of Diwaniyah, he and his unit were caught in a “kill zone” on Highway One.

After ramming his vehicle through a breach in enemy defenses, Chotosh’s vehicle came under murderous fire from a crew-served gun emplacement located in a trench. Chontosh punched his vehicle toward the gun position while his .50-caliber gunner took it out. Now in the trench, Chontosh escaped out of his vehicle armed only with a M16A2 and a M9 pistol and began clearing the enemy soldiers from the trench.

Charging fearlessly ahead, Chontosh twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and used them to devastating effect. Coming upon an enemy rocket-propelled grenade, he used that as well. At the end of his attack, Chontosh had cleared more than 200 meters of the trench, leaving behind the bodies of more than 20 enemy soldiers. For this action Chontosh was awarded the Navy Cross.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski USN

Another recipient of the Navy Cross is Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski USN, a Navy Seal. Slabinski was decorated for his courageous action as part of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan on March 3 and 4, 2002. The citation detailing that action reads, in part, as follows:

“On the evening of 3 March, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski led his seven-man reconnaissance team onto the snow-covered, 10,000-foot mountaintop known as Takur Ghar, to establish a combat overwatch position in support of U.S. Army forces advancing against the enemy on the valley floor. As their helicopter hovered over the mountain, it was met by unrelenting rocket- propelled grenade (RPG) and small arms fire by entrenched enemy forces. As a result of several RPG hits, a member of Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski’s team was ejected from the helicopter into the midst of the fortified enemy positions. The badly damaged helicopter conducted a controlled crash, at which time Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski immediately took charge and established security on the crash location until the crew and his team were recovered to a support base. At this point, Senior Chief Slabinski, fully aware of the overwhelming, fixed, enemy forces over the mountain, but also knowing the desperate situation of his missing teammate, now reportedly fighting for his life, without hesitation made the selfless decision to lead his team on an immediate, bold rescue mission.

He heroically led the remainder of his SEAL element back onto the snow-covered, remote, mountaintop into the midst of the numerically superior enemy forces in a daring and valiant attempt to rescue one of their own. After a treacherous helicopter insertion onto the mountaintop, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski led his close-quarter firefight. He skillfully maneuvered his team and bravely engaged multiple enemy positions, personally clearing one bunker and killing several enemy within. His unit became caught in a withering crossfire from other bunkers and the closing enemy forces. Despite mounting casualties, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski maintained his composure and continued to engage the enemy until his position became untenable. Faced with no choice but a tactical withdrawal, he coolly directed fire from airborne assets to cover his team. He then led an arduous movement through the mountainous terrain, constantly under fire, covering over one kilometer in waist-deep snow, while carrying a seriously wounded teammate. Arriving at a defensible position, he organized his team’s security posture and stabilized his casualties. For over 14 hours, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski directed the defense of his position through countless engagements, personally engaging the enemy and directing close air support onto the enemy positions until the enemy was ultimately defeated. During this entire sustained engagement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski exhibited classic grace under fire in steadfastly leading the intrepid rescue operation, saving the lives of his wounded men and setting the conditions for the ultimate vanquishing of the enemy and the seizing of Takur Ghar. By his heroic display of decisive and tenacious leadership, unyielding courage in the face of constant enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Sgt. Rafael Peralta

On Nov. 15, 2004, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta and four platoon mates moved through the city of Fallujah, searching houses room by room for insurgents and enemy weapons.

As they entered the last house, it appeared to be unoccupied, but as Peralta opened a door, three insurgents opened fire with AK-47 rifles, hitting Peralta in the face and chest and seriously wounding him.

The other Marines opened fire. Peralta noticed a fragmentation grenade hurtling towards him and the other Marines. Fearlessly and without hesitation, Peralta grabbed the grenade, clutching it to his body to shield his fellow Marines.

When the grenade went off Peralta absorbed the blow, dying instantly. The other Marines survived.

An ordinance team later discovered that the house was stocked full of weapons and explosives.

For his courage and sacrifice, Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Sergeant Peralta, a native of Mexico, joined the Marine Corps the day after he received his green card and he took the oath of citizenship in his Marine Corps fatigues.

He kept three documents on the wall of his room at his parents’ house—the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and his boot- camp graduation certificate.

Before he left for Fallujah, he wrote his 14-year-old brother, “Be proud of me bro … and be proud of being an American.”

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester

Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and her team of National Guard military police troops were guarding a convoy south of Baghdad in the spring of 2005 when the convoy came under heavy fire from insurgents.

Hester guided her team through the kill zone and into a flanking position from which she led an assault on the enemy forces who were in a series of trenches. Hester and her squad leader cleared the two trenches using grenades and M4 rifles with Hester killing three insurgent fighters. The Army credits Hester’s action for saving numerous personnel in the convoy. For her action Sgt. Hester was awarded the Silver Star, the first woman to be given the award since World War II.

Sgt. Brad Kasal

On Nov. 13, 2004, during the assault on Fallujah, Marine Sgt. Brad Kasal was leading his squad in a house-to-house search when he learned that three Marines were pinned down in a nearby house.

Going to their aid, Kasal and his men entered the house, and as Kasal opened a door, he encountered an insurgent. The two exchanged fire, and Kasal killed the insurgent. Meanwhile, other enemy fighters opened up fire from the second floor, wounding Kasal and several others.

Seeing a badly wounded Marine, Kasal, though badly wounded himself, fought his way to the Marine and applied a tourniquet to his leg, thus preventing him from bleeding to death. Noticing an insurgent grenade, Kasal used his body to shield the wounded Marine.

Although he was bleeding from seven bullet wounds and 40 shrapnel wounds, Kasal refused medical help until the other wounded Marines were treated. By this time he had lost 60% of his blood and was almost unconscious.

For his courage in combat Kasal was awarded the Navy Cross.

A photo of the badly wounded Kasal, taken by embedded photographer Lucian Read (see cover photo), was used on the back cover of Bing West’s book, No True Glory, about the battle for Fallujah.

West is the premier historian of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and is one of the few people who have made a concerted effort to publicize the heroism of our forces fighting in the dangerous and desolate reaches of those countries.

In his book about the liberation of Fallujah he writes:

“The Western press covered incidents of misconduct more fully than the multiple instances of bravery … the stupid, criminal acts at Abu Ghraib prison cast a shadow over the decency of hundreds of thousands of other soldiers. The shooting of a wounded insurgent inside a mosque in November emerged as the most televised event in the battle for Fallujah because, like the Abu Ghraib story, it smacked of misconduct. Yet the Western press paid scant attention to the subsequent investigation that cleared the Marine or to the courage of a Jesse Grapes or a Timothy Connors.

“The Western press strived for neutrality, torn between disapproval of the invasion of Iraq and recognition that a democratic Iraq bolstered the security of the West. In World War II the Western press—believing in its cause—had extolled the Greatest Generation of Americans. The warriors who fought in Iraq would not be called the Greatest Generation, because America was divided about the cause for which they were dying. The focus of the press was upon the individual deaths as tragedies.”

This was an incomplete portrayal. The fierce fighting at Fallujah attested to the stalwart nature of the American soldier. In The Illiad, a warrior in the front ranks turned to his companions and said, "let us win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others" For Greek warriors, there was no true glory if they were not remembered afterward in poem or in song.

There will be no true glory for our soldiers in Iraq until they are recognized not as victims, but as aggressive warriors. Stories of their bravery deserve to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deeds will die.

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