BAGHDAD - "Men, you have one second in your life where you can decide if you are going to be a coward or if you are going to fight. The time to decide is now."
That sentence is something that Maj. James "Jim" Gant, who serves as the chief of the Iraqi National Police, Quick Reaction Force Battalion Transition Team, tells his policemen all the time, encouraging them to fight for what they believe in.
Though most the time he was talking in generic terms, this time he knew the fight was waiting for them. For six weeks his patrol of three armored high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and 23 "soft-shelled" national police pick-up trucks had been getting in fire fights with an organized insurgent force in an area between Balad and Baghdad. On Dec. 11, his patrol was finally on their way back home. Maj. Gant knew there would be a grand finale.
"We took frequent trips back and forth in the area and the engagements kept getting bigger," the Las Cruces, N.M., native said. "They knew that we were going to leave. They are a determined enemy force. They wanted to give us a going away present, and we definitely wanted to receive it."
His actions, during that gift, resulted in him earning the Silver Star, which will be awarded on May 3 at a Iraqi National Police station near Forward Operating Base Prosperity. The Silver Star is the third highest award given for valor in the face of the enemy. It is given to American heroes.
Maj. Gant knows four Soldiers who have earned Silver Stars; two died for them. He said heroes are everywhere, it just depends on if they get the chance to show it.
"There are a lot of very good Soldiers, very brave Soldiers that have never had the opportunity to show it," he said. "As good as you are, you don't control the enemy. I have been blessed since 2001, since our nation has been at war to fight with incredible warriors and heroes."
He was given his change to prove himself on that fateful day in December.
The enemy on that stretch of road was well trained and waiting, Maj. Gant said. But he knew his crew was ready. After spending 17 years in the Army, he should know.
"I had a really well trained transition team," he said. That confidence was also extended to his Iraqi brethren as well, with good reason.
"On Nov. 24, (insurgents) hit my vehicle (with an improvised explosive device) and it flipped three times," said Maj. Gant, half of a dual-military couple of 11 years. His wife, Maj. Giselle Pozzerle, currently serves at Fort Bragg, N.C. "One of my Iraqis got me out of that vehicle."
That was just a recent example, and the training and experience of the Iraqi policemen and U.S. Soldiers were about to be tested. As the patrol headed south, machine gun fire started from the west.
Maj. Gant ordered his gunner, to return fire, eventually breaking contact and moving towards Baghdad. In the initial fight, one of his Iraqi Police "Commandos" was injured with a gunshot wound to the face.
"It wasn't a wound that we could continue without treatment right then and there," he said.
Using his advanced medical skills that he gained during his time in the Special Forces, he dismounted and rushed to stabilize the Iraqi and called in a medical evacuation helicopter.
In order for a helicopter to land, an area had to be cleared. They moved into nearby palm groves on foot pushing the enemy back in a close range fire fight.
"At this point, it became very apparent to me that the (insurgent's) intent was to destroy our patrol," he said. "We had over 20 vehicles with us that were spread out across a large area. It is a large enemy force to have our entire patrol engaged at once."
They moved back to their landing zone, but the fire intensity increased on both sides. If they could not clear the landing zone the helicopter would not be able to land.
"The fire was so heavy you could feel it inside; you could see and feel the shake of the gunfire, with the Commandos fighting just as heroically as the Americans" Maj. Gant said.
After pushing the enemy back, the bird was able to land, but before the fight took a turn for the worse, Maj. Gant wanted that helicopter out of the danger zone.
"I told the flight medic, 'I believe you have about two minutes before we start receiving mortar fire. They know we are here and we are going to start receiving mortar fire within the next 60 seconds to two minutes,'" he said.
They swiftly loaded up the casualties and within 15 seconds of the helicopter taking off, the landing zone started receiving mortar fire, he said.
He considered the fact that they were still in contact a good thing, though.
"We try to maintain contact with the enemy as long as possible and kill as many as we can," Maj. Gant said. "We were going to do some serious damage that day.
"It is easy to sit in a room in safety and talk about it," he said. "I came here to fight. I came here to kill the enemy. I knew at the time what a huge engagement it was... I also had a huge concern for my team and my Iraqis, because I love these guys. I wanted to ensure that we didn't take unnecessary risks or have unnecessary casualties."
He decided that he needed to get the insurgents out of their well built positions. It was obvious to him that this complex attack was well planned. They mounted up and started to move again toward Baghdad still taking fire from both sides.
"We were receiving some sporadic machine gun fire (as we moved,) and I got word that the rear was being pinned down with intense small arms fire," he said.
He peeled his vehicle to the rear putting him between the patrol and the incoming fire. Laying down suppressive fire, his gunner went through 18,000 rounds that day. The rear of the convoy was moving up out of the hot zone, and Maj. Gant's humvee pushed back to the lead of the convoy.
They were moving toward an urbanized area, with the threat of improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenade teams rising. This is when the heaviest fire of the day began, and in the middle of the median, was an obvious IED.
He wasn't going to put his team in a situation where they are forced to pull security in the area, especially since they were still under small arms fire. His logic was if the IED struck one of the police vehicles that did not have any protective siding the results will be catastrophic and they would be pinned down.
"We couldn't get off the road. There were markets and such on the sides of the road," Gant said. "The IED had to go off and I wanted it to be on an up-armored vehicle. I wanted it to be mine."
He told the rest of his patrol to push left, and pulled his gunner inside of the vehicle. He told his driver to have the IED detonate on his side.
"We moved up. Nothing. (We) got closer. Nothing," he said. "We were within about twenty feet, when (the IED) went off."
Nobody was hurt and the vehicle was still operational. They continued on, discovering a second IED about 50 feet from the first.
"My driver was fearless that day. He didn't even hesitate," he said.
They started the same drill but at this point a civilian vehicle had linked up with the convoy. He knew it was there, but he still needed the second IED to go off on an armored vehicle. The passengers braced themselves for the second blast. Everyone was all right, once again.
"There was a bend in the road. We were receiving machine gun fire from the front and both flanks," Maj. Gant said.
There was a third IED; a ploy to get them to stop and be sitting ducks for another ambush. It was a hoax.
This is when Maj. Gant received word that a woman in the civilian vehicle had been severely injured in the first blast. Still under heavy small arms fire in a hasty perimeter, he got out and tried to perform first aid on her.
"She didn't want me touch her. She was going to die and she didn't want me to touch her," Maj. Gant said. His Iraqi counterpart, consoled the woman saying, "It's OK. He is my brother."
She then allowed him to apply tourniquets to both of her severely wounded legs. There was also a little girl in the vehicle. Gant, a family man with two kids of his own back in North Carolina, Tristen, 9, and Scout, 7, wanted to keep this child safe.
"I realized that we might all die today, but this little girl will not," he said, talking about how he put the child in his up-armored vehicle. "We had some sporadic small arms fire after that, but we had broken their back. They wanted us to stop there.
"I later found out that the women lived, and the little girl," he said with a smile, "was still afraid of U.S. forces, but she was really small... maybe one. She didn't understand; (she) just knew that someone had grabbed her from her mom and dad. She didn't know that it was for her own protection. I hope that one day, her parents tell her what happened that day."
They engaged the insurgents until the patrol was able to get out of the area, eventually making it into Baghdad and down a route known for explosively-formed projectiles.
When they finally made it back that day, they were met with a celebration. There were more than 200 Commandos singing and bathing the road with goat's blood and planting bloody handprints all over there war-torn, bullet-ridden vehicles. There were celebrating.
"I will never forget them hugging and kissing us, their brothers in arms," he said of their return. "They do this in celebration, when they think we gave our lives for them, or could be dead."
Though nearly six months has passed since that battle occurred, Maj. Gant can tell the story of the battle like it was yesterday.
Only two Soldiers remain on his crew that were with him that day, most of the American Soldiers have rotated back to the United States, but he remembers all of his team.
"On that day, there were no Americans. There were no Iraqis, no whites and no blacks. There were no Sunnis, Shias, Christians. There was just a group of warriors working and fighting together," he said. "All the men I fought with that day showed incredible courage and bravery. That was one of the highlights of my life; working with those men that day."