By David MaysApril 13, 2007
WASHINGTON, April 12, 2007 - It was supposed to be a routine security patrol in Mosul, Iraq, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, 2005. Army Pfc. Stephen Sanford and his fellow soldiers of the Company C, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, planned to arrest suspected insurgents, take them back to the detention center and "relax, stretch out a bit." Instead, squad members would find themselves in an intense firefight.
"There was just this massive explosion," Sanford said. "You could see flashes and automatic weapons fire. It was sensory overload. It was incredibly loud. You could smell the gunpowder and the blood and the dust and dirt. My weapon started getting warm because I was firing so much. I mean, I still didn't know what was going on."
Meanwhile, nine members of a lead team that had gone inside a home ahead of Sanford were pinned down by enemy fire and trapped inside the kitchen. Sanford's team evacuated the first unit, but the last soldier out of the house had been shot and lay helpless on the exposed street.
"I tried to stop his bleeding," Sanford said. "I didn't notice at the time I had run into a perfect line of sight for one of their snipers, and I was taking hits, and there were rounds bouncing off the pavement. I got hit, and I started bleeding out pretty bad."
Nonetheless, Sanford continued trying to revive his fellow soldier, returned fire, shooting and killing an enemy, and continued CPR until he passed out from his own blood loss. "I was just so focused on my chance to duke it out with a bunch of bad guys that I didn't notice," he said.
For his actions under fire, Sanford was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who traveled to Alaska to perform the ceremony. "As he was pinning the medal on, his hands kinda shook a little bit, and he said 'Sorry, this is the first time I've given one of these out.' I said, 'Don't worry General, it's my first one too.'"
Sanford's incredible firsthand story and those of other service members who have been awarded some of the country's highest military honors are told in a brand new edition of the Pentagon Channel documentary "Recon."
"They all say they're not really heroes, they were just doing their jobs," said Air Force Master Sgt. Daniela Marchus, the show's host, "but they all faced the intensity of combat and performed with conspicuous courage."
Army Sgt. Tommy Rieman's path to demonstrating conspicuous courage began as part of a small Army reconnaissance team that traveled hundreds of miles behind enemy lines before Operation Iraqi Freedom even began. The unit's task was to scout positions of Saddam Hussein's loyalists and pinpoint locations for close air strikes. Rieman and his team survived that extraordinarily dangerous mission unscathed. It was months later, after fighting seemed to have ended, that the calm was suddenly shattered.
"It was Dec. 3, 2003," Rieman said. "Enroute we got hit with three (rocket-propelled grenades), three (improvised explosive devices), and a hail of small-arms fire. While we were being fired upon, we returned fire, and I used my body as a shield to protect my gunner. He was on the .50-caliber machine gun, we had to keep the gun going, so I just knew he needed to be the most protected."
Rieman was shot in his arm and chest and suffered 11 shrapnel wounds. But the harrowing experience was far from over.
"We reacted, fought through the first ambush, told my guys to get out. We made a left turn to the next road. We pulled up. We basically put ourselves in another ambush with a smaller enemy force," Rieman said. "We returned fire. I lobbed two or three rounds down range. In total, myself was wounded, my gunner was shot in the buttocks, and Sergeant Bruce Robinson was in the rear vehicle. He lost his right leg to an RPG."
Rieman was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. He is also featured in a download-able interactive video game called "America's Army: Real Heroes," which is based on Army values and training and gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the role of today's soldiers.
"And later on they said, 'how about we make you an action figure'' Who's going to object to that, you know' So here I am, immortalized forever virtually and in plastic," Rieman said.
"Conspicuous Courage" also recounts in vivid detail the furious and now famous 40-minute firefight that ensued when a Kentucky National Guard military police company convoy came under massive enemy attack March 20, 2005, in Iraq.
"I can still see rounds just kicking up all around me," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, who was in the lead vehicle that day. "I throw a grenade up onto the berm. It explodes. I take a couple steps back, begin to run. It's almost a vertical face. As I'm crawling up, I think the guy's either gonna shoot me in the face or I'm gonna get hit in the back by rounds, cause I can see them kicking up all around me."
For his actions, Nein would eventually receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the first to be awarded to a National Guard member since World War II.
Army Sgt. Leigh Anne Hester would be the first woman since World War II to be awarded the Silver Star for her actions defending the embattled convoy from enemy attackers.
"It was just instinct to get in there and eliminate them by any means we could," she said. "Firing my M4, firing my M203 grenade launcher or throwing hand grenades."
When the fight ended, 27 insurgents were dead. Everyone in the 617th Military Police Company survived. The squad member also received a medal of valor for their role in defending the convoy that day.
Army Lt. Gen. John Vines presented those awards during a ceremony at Camp Liberty, Iraq on June 16, 2005. His comments that day sum up the qualities found in each service member featured in this latest "Recon" documentary. "My heroes don't play in the NBA or in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst," Vines said. "They're standing in front of me here today. These are American heroes."
"Conspicuous Courage" debuts Friday, April 13th, at noon EDT and will encore over the next four weeks. It also will be available via podcast and video on demand at www.pentagonchannel.mil.
(David Mays works for the Pentagon Channel.)