SOUTHERN IRAQ -- Sgt. Gary Hartzell learned of war in a split second when he decided to fire against the orders of his captain.
The quick action by the 22-year-old sergeant from Boonsboro, Md., killed an Iraqi rocketeer and may have saved his captain.
For that he has been recommended for a Silver Star.
The incident happened at the start of an eight-hour tank battle that the commander laments "will go unnoticed by history."
Sergeant Hartzell is a 1st Armored Infantry Division gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a box-like troop carrier. On Feb. 26, the third day of the gulf war's ground offensive, his unit was pushing through southern Iraq toward Kuwait when it rumbled into the thick of a Republican Guard armored unit.
It had been an eerie day, recalls Capt. Bob Burns, commander of Charlie Tank Team. They had been the first through the Iraqi front defenses Feb. 24 and had been pushing forward ever since.
They were exhausted by nightfall, and a weird fog had closed in on them. By the crackle on the radio and the rumble of tanks, "you really got the sense of a great army moving. You could feel the armored vehicles," Captain Burns said. "You had the sense you were part of something huge."
Suddenly, the company found itself in the midst of Iraqi trenches, and in their night scopes they picked up soldiers running about them. Sergeant Hartzell, riding in a Bradley behind Captain Burns' tank, saw an Iraqi soldier pop up from a shallow "spider trench" with a rocket launcher on his shoulder.
The M1-A1 tanks are well-armored, but their weakest spot is in the rear. The Iraqi soldier was directly behind Captain Burns' tank. He looked quickly at the tank, then at Sergeant Hartzell's oncoming Bradley, and swung his weapon toward the M1-A1, said the sergeant.
They had orders not to fire without direct permission, he said. Butthere was no time. Sergeant Hartzell brought the cross-hairs of his sight onto the Iraqi gunner, and pushed the button of his 25mm "chain gun," an armor-piercing machine gun.
"It was like a blur. I just saw him pointing the weapon, and it was almost like instinct. I reached over and pressed the button to fire," he said. The huge bullet cut through the Iraqi soldier.
The shot was the first of many that night. Charlie Company and other companies of their battalion struggled through a field of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles. Most were manned and moving, and some fired back. But they were blind to their attackers: The Bradleys and M1-A1s had night-vision systemsthat allowed them to destroy the enemy confused by the dark.
"There were so many targets. So many tanks, so many trucks," said Captain Burns. "It got to the point we were just bypassing them."
Col. Gregory Fontenot, head of the 2nd Battalion, said that the Battle of Norfolk -- named after a code name on their map -- was "a historic battle. We destroyed 70 armored vehicles in an eight-hour tank battle at night, and did it without a scratch. But nobody has reported it. It will go unnoticed by history."
Sergeant Hartzell said he was proud of the recommendation for a Silver Star, although "I really didn't think I did anything spectacular. It was my job."
More important to the soldier is getting back home, he said. He was married three months before his unit left Fort Riley, Kan., for the Mideast in December. His wife, Kara Hartzell, is from Gaithersburg but has stayed in Kansas for classes at Kansas State University.
"I'm surprised at how much I miss the everyday things," said Sergeant Hartzell. "The separation is worst."
His parents are proud of his heroics and relieved that he has survived the war without any injuries.
"We've been worried about him like all the other mothers and fathers," said his mother, Alice Hartzell, who is anxious for him to come home. "He'll probably be one of the later ones to leave."