Army blocks `narratives' of heroism

Public cannot read medal winners' stories

December 09, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

On a clear night last spring in Afghanistan's eastern mountains, a U.S. infantry platoon went looking for an al-Qaida operative named Habib Jan, and they found him. Outside an abandoned village clinging to a rocky hillside, the platoon was ambushed in a rain of deadly rifle and machine gun fire. Twenty-seven Americans and five Afghan Army fighters together fought 90 or 100 of Habib Jan's Islamist extremists.

For 17 hours, the American platoon was pinned down. Bullets snapped and hissed as the enemy slowly closed in. Ammunition ran low. Water ran out. Sniper rounds plucked at the soldiers' helmets and sleeves and drilled through boots as they shifted and returned fire. Night stretched into day and on into night again and the fighting intensified.

From interviews with soldiers and an official Army account

Three American soldiers were awarded Silver Stars for valor in that battle. Their actions are detailed in official Army accounts drawn from eyewitness reports, radio transmissions and other corroborating evidence used as a basis for awarding the medals.

These one- or two-page "narratives," as they are called, are the best accounts of American battlefield heroism. Apart from those who wear the Silver Star - the third-highest decoration for valor - few people even know the accounts exist.

But the Army won't let you read any Silver Star narratives. Though most are not classified, they are kept filed away from public view, a practice being challenged in Congress.

"Military honors, to me, should be public information," said Rep. John T. Salazar, a Colorado Democrat and sponsor of the legislation.

But to date, Army lawyers and bureaucrats have blocked requests by The Sun and others to open these war stories to the public. They cite, among other reasons, potential threats to soldiers' privacy and safety.

Army Capt. Sean McQuade calls such arguments "absurd." As a lieutenant, McQuade led the platoon that fought Habib Jan. He and two of his soldiers were awarded Silver Stars for heroism in that fight. He is proud of their stories and wants them known.

"Their story needs to be told," he said, "but it's not."

Through six years of war, the Army and Marine Corps have awarded the Silver Star to about 350 men and women, including three from Maryland. But the acts of heroism behind those medals remain largely unknown.

The account of the battle against Habib Jan was compiled from interviews with soldiers who were there, and from narratives made available unofficially by McQuade.

As Habib Jan's men volleyed machine gun fire and rockets down on the platoon, an Afghan soldier under McQuade's command was struck in the thigh. Medic Jose Rivas, a sergeant from New York City, dragged the wounded man inside a low adobe building and began working to save him as enemy sniper rounds ricocheted around the room.

Rivas quickly realized that the man would die without surgery, and McQuade, assessing his various predicaments, agreed. McQuade kept 20 men to hold off al-Qaida and dispatched 12 others to carry and protect the wounded Afghan.

For three hours, Habib Jan's men tried to kill them as the team struggled downhill, dashing from rock to rock and shooting back as best as they could.

At one point Rivas halted to run IVs into the dying man to boost his falling blood pressure. While bullets thudded around them, Rivas sheltered the Afghan soldier with his body, and soldiers held the IV bags.

Then they picked him up and zigzagged on through the sleet of fire. When another man went down injured, Rivas crawled back to give aid - as bullets struck the sand, gravel and rock around him.

War calls men and women to daily acts of courage, selflessness and endurance. In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some of this effort is recognized as rising to an extraordinary level. The Silver Star - actually, it's made of gold - is one such recognition.

Doug Sterner, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and historian, has waged a noisy fight to bring these heroes into the public light.

"The military's always complaining about how nobody writes about their heroes. Well, how the hell are you supposed to write about heroes if the Defense Department doesn't give up the information?" said Sterner.

Salazar's bill in Congress would remedy that by creating a public database of all military valor awards that would include the Silver Star narratives.

McQuade's men were taking fire from a high ridgeline. Staff Sgt. Christian Bryant wormed his way uphill under intense fire, leading a team toward the enemy guns. As the men found positions, he inched from soldier to soldier, steadying them with his presence and encouraging them to fire carefully to conserve ammunition.

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