One never knows how they will respond when faced with incredible violence and destruction as death stares them in the eye. Throughout the Army's history, many Soldiers have risen above their own survival instinct to aid others. But few have reached the point of heroism worthy of the Distinguished Service Cross.
On March 28, former Sgt. Robert Kenneth Debolt III stood in front of a packed auditorium at the 1st Division Headquarters as Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general, pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on his uniform.
The medal is the military's second highest valor decoration. It is awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat with an armed enemy force.
Master Sgt. Anthony M. Roszko was Debolt's squad leader on Sept. 4, 2008 as they served with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, in Afghanistan.
"The fourth of September was a day like any other," he told the audience as he recalled the events of that day. "We, the Soldiers of 3rd platoon, Charlie Company, 2-2 Infantry, had already finished two patrols earlier that day. We were just sitting around waiting for our next mission."
It was supposed to be a simple mission, one they had done before �-- but nothing would be easy that day. As the hours wore on, they heard fire come from the north. First Platoon was in contact and they were to go in as backup.
"I had my squad in two separate vehicles as we moved," he said. "The lead truck was taking charge and the last words we heard on the radio was Lt. Brown telling us where to move … and then everything went blank. In a blink of an eye his truck was gone. There was nothing left but a fireball."
Roszko's voice cracked as he recalled seeing the explosion and fearing all five inside were dead. A moment later something hit his truck. He and the others jumped out to take cover, which was when they realized what hit them was the back end of the truck that had exploded.
That's when he saw two survivors of the burning truck running -- their clothing on fire.
"I could see the driver's seat where Debolt was getting out of the vehicle himself, part of his arm on fire," he said. "Not even thinking of his own safety, he went back into the vehicle and pulled out our [forward observer], saving him from further injury. Debolt promptly … went right back into the fire and pulled out his brother and got him to safety, helping put out the fire on him and his fellow Soldiers before he put the fire out on himself."
Time was standing still at that moment, what happened in just a few minutes, seemed like hours, he said. As they tended to the wounded, they found themselves ambushed and outnumbered 10 to one.
Roszko ran out to try and draw the fire away from the injured Soldiers. He took a few men, but then turned to see Debolt, despite his injuries, right there with him.
"He picked up one of the weapons of our combat lifesavers to help return fire on the enemy that was to our front," he said. "Someone who was just a moment ago was on fire himself; someone who went back into a truck that was on fire to pull out another Soldier; someone who at this point had no [Interceptor Body Armor], no helmet cause it was too badly burned … and had to be cut off.
I remember looking him in the eye and telling him to get out of there."
Roszko was watching a true American hero in action.
A legacy of heroes
Following Roszko's account of Debolt's heroism, Funk spoke about other Soldiers who earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the legacy of heroism in Debolt's family.
He told the story of Debolt's uncle Cpl. Ronald Rosser. Like his nephew, Rosser showed incredible bravery and continued fighting despite having received serious injuries while serving in Korea. His actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
It was because of his uncle that Debolt said he chose the infantry when he enlisted.
"He was at [Military Entrance Processing Station] with me," Debolt said during a press conference following the ceremony. "And we were picking jobs -- you know, I couldn't choose anything other than infantryman with him there -- so I did."
His choice to join the Army is one he doesn't regret. He said the Army changes people -- in a positive way.
"You stand taller," he said. "I want to raise my kids the way the Army raised me … just to be a better person."
His thoughts are never too far from the brothers who did not make it back home. Those are the people he lives for today.
"Our nation's history is full of selfless heroes like these," Funk said. "When you hear the deeds of these valiant warriors, you have to ask yourself, 'where do we get these men and women? What drives them to fight and sacrifice so much; sometimes giving their very lives? And what inspires members of the most exclusive fraternity in the world to gather for an assembly like this?'
"Part of this bond comes from our shared values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage," Funk said. "But when you strip it all away it is love. Love of family, love for our brothers and sisters in arms and of love of our nation. This is the essence of the bond between warriors. And it is the love that brings this group before you today to honor a true American hero."
Funk continued, telling those gathered about Debolt's selfless character. He also spoke briefly of the journey Debolt faced after he left Afghanistan. He spent more than six months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and endured extensive skin grafts to treat his injuries.
In Jan. 2011, Debolt returned to Afghanistan. This time with 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
"It is because of heroes like him that America thrives as a free land today," Funk said.