FORT BRAGG, N.C. (USASOC News Service, Dec. 18, 2006) - A Fort Bragg Special Forces Soldier was recognized as the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Medic of the Year at the Special Operations Medical Conference in Tampa Bay, Fla., Dec. 1.
Master Sgt. Brendan O'Connor, a medic assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), received the honor for his battlefield performance on June 24.
According to a memorandum recommending O'Connor for the award, the 7th Group medic was leading a Quick Reaction Force to link up with a pair of "wounded and isolated Soldiers ... pinned down by enemy fire."
O'Connor repeatedly exposed himself to heavy fire, even low-crawling 80 meters over an open field to reach the wounded Soldiers. He did it without body armor, a decision O'Connor made in order to keep as low to the ground as possible, carrying as many medical supplies as possible.
"You don't leave people out there, end of story," O'Connor said.
"With rounds coming within inches," O'Connor navigated the open field, climbed over a wall and picked his way through vineyard rows undetected by an enemy element moving ahead of him, according to the report.
O'Connor reached the hemmed-in Soldiers and began treating their wounds. Several times he alternated between using medical supplies to using his weapon, as Taliban fighters threatened to overrun their position.
"The Taliban ... had gotten close enough to verbally taunt them with threats of capture," stated the memorandum. "The Taliban fought relentlessly and continued to reinforce the element, attempting to kill or capture the small group of Coalition fighters."
The small group held off the Taliban advance long enough to evacuate the casualties to better cover, where O'Connor continued to treat them.
"That was a tough day," O'Connor said. "We were in a fight."
Cpt. Sheffield Ford, who was O'Connor's team leader in Afghanistan, wrote the memorandum detailing his senior medic's life-saving efforts during the 17A,A1/2-hour gun battle.
"There are so many words to describe it," Ford said of O'Connor's behavior in the firefight. "He was going to do anything and everything he could do to save them. He's a true hero."
O'Connor, a 24-year veteran of Special Forces, said he was uneasy about receiving any individual honor for his actions that day, which ultimately saved the life of one of his team members.
"Anyone would have done the same thing in my position," O'Connor said. "It was a team effort."
That "team" included Master Sgt. Thomas Maholic, O'Connor's team sergeant, and Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Fuerst III, a Florida National Guard infantryman attached to the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha to train the Afghan army. Both were killed in the firefight.
As a tribute to Maholic, and on his behalf, O'Connor accepted the award. "Thom was a medic, too," he said about Maholic's occupational specialty before becoming team sergeant. "He held the back door open for all of us. He was killed holding the back door open."
The "door," a lane running between fields and mud compounds, was the team's only way back to their patrol base, and Maholic was killed defending it.
Retired Col. Al Moloff, SOMA president and Master Sgt. Samuel Rodriguez, Army Special Operations Command senior enlisted medic, presented the award to O'Connor who along with his wife, Margaret, escorted Maholic's widow, Wendy, to the SOMA conference.
"He wanted to do it to keep sergeant Maholic's memory alive. That's a credit to him, the type of person he is," Moloff and Rodriguez wrote.
The award and the manner in which he accepted it "speaks very well for his character," said Sergeant Maj. William Zaiser, a close friend of O'Connor and comrade in 7th Group.
"His views on military service are very heartfelt," Zaiser said. "He's probably the most patriotic man I've ever met. And he was the finest medic of any ODA that I had ever been on, and not just because of his medical skills."
"The little things he did had a huge impact (on the team). Almost every free minute he had, he would spend trying to improve the quality of life of the team members," Zaiser said. "(O'Connor) was absolutely tireless in his efforts to not only be the best medic, but ODA team member."
The award recognizes Army special operations medics "willing to do anything to save their comrades, their friends," Rodriguez said. "It doesn't have to be an act of heroism. Guys have also earned the award for cumulative service."
"The reason why we do this is to pay tribute to the dedication and sacrifices that our guys are making for each other. (O'Connor) is an example of that."
"I think given the same circumstance, we all would do what we had to do. I should say, I hope we all would."