By Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public AffairsOctober 15, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - Riding in a humvee down a dusty road, Sgt. Ken Thomas, a team leader and cavalry scout for Troop C, 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, sits in the right front passenger side of the vehicle, relating that never in a million years did he ever think he would receive a Silver Star Medal while deployed to Iraq.
As the humvee comes to a stop, Thomas who was presented the medal in a ceremony at Camp Liberty, in western Baghdad, Aug. 11, gets out and walks from house to house along a road in a neighborhood in the Baghdad Gardens area near Taji with other members of his platoon as they build relationships with the local people here, gathering census information.
The Utopia, Texas native, who has a wife, Christi, a soon-to-be- two-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, spends most of his days here patrolling the streets on both mounted and dismounted patrols, takes the fact that he is a Silver Star recipient with a dose of humility.
"I just did my job and there really wasn't anything extraordinary about it," said Thomas, relating his experience of a mission in which he and members of his platoon were ambushed as they floated down the Tigris River on patrol boats as part of a joint mission with Iraqi Police near Falahat, Iraq Feb. 16. "It was just another day in the Cav."
"It wasn't just me, it was a whole platoon out there doing outstanding things," added Thomas as he waved to an Iraqi man on the street, and then continued his tale about the boat mission that earned him the Silver Star.
Four Iraqi Police patrol boats, made up of mixed crews with both Troop C Soldiers and Iraqi Police, set out on the mission to keep the waterways clear of possible insurgents trafficking weapons, said Thomas setting the scene.
Tips received indicated that insurgents were using the river to transport weapons and gain access to areas from which they could launch attacks on civilians, Iraqi security forces and coalition troops. The plan also included stopping and checking houses near the banks in a search for weapons and suspected insurgents.
For the mission, Thomas was joined by members of his platoon, all fellow scouts, to include Spc. Jonathan Toth of Clinton, Miss.; Pekin, Ill. native Sgt. Chad Bolding; Sgt. Mike Waddell of Austin; Pfc. Angel Sandoval of Lancaster, Calif. and Staff Sgt. Allen Johns who hails from Adrian, Mich. along with two Iraqi Police boat crewmembers.
In the order of march, Thomas was in the second boat and his platoon leader was in the first boat, with the two other boats following not far behind.
Within a matter of minutes and not getting too far down the river, the Soldiers and Iraqi Police found themselves sailing through a hail of bullets.
"We were engaged by heavy gunfire which would die down to a few pop shots and then go back to heavy machine gun fire and other heavy small arms fire," said Thomas. "People were lining the banks to shoot at us. At first, we were just suppressing fire but once we started fixing on where everyone was, we were starting to pick targets."
Thomas said the enemy, however, was very well positioned, having very carefully planned the attack.
"We were in a complex linear ambush and the enemy was taking advantage of the terrain and we were vastly outnumbered," said Thomas. "We were pretty sure we were going to die."
Once the heavy fire began, Thomas's platoon leader, 1st Lt. John Dolan, a native of Maple Grove, Minn., ordered the boats to turn around-by that time, however, it was too late.
"After the firing started, we saw the first boat, the lieutenant's, get hit and saw them crash into an island," said Thomas. "Then we hit a sand bar and our boat got stuck so we were like sitting ducks.
"We were getting hit pretty hard and there wasn't much cover in the river," he added.
The Iraqi Police on the boat were stuck, pinned down in a corner of the boat by the heavy fire, so Thomas, taking action, manned the boat's PKC heavy machine gun and began firing, continuing to reload until he ran out of PKC ammunition.
"Everybody was keeping their heads down continuing to engage the enemy with their M4 rifles-all the guys were firing," Thomas said.
Knowing they would most likely die, Staff Sgt. Johns made the decision that they should abandon the boat and float or try to swim to a small island which was harder than it sounded, according to Thomas.
"They told us that our equipment floats, but you're carrying an extra 60 pounds and I was thinking to myself that I'd rather get shot than drown," said Thomas. "Along with that we were a lot heavier because we had brought a lot of extra ammo and signal equipment for this mission."
As the Soldiers entered the water, weight lifted from the boat and it was freed from the sand bar. The two Iraqi Police decided to take the boat and find another route out.
"We got on the island which was basically a small hill, and there was no cover on either side, we had to just do a bit of concealment trying to hide our position," said Thomas.
The Iraqi Police saw no safe way to make it out of the area so they pulled the boat around to the East side of the island. Then, the Soldiers got back on the boat and they were able to take it to a river bank.
"Toth took the wheel and got us to the bank," said Thomas, adding that they were still under relentless fire from the insurgents. "When we got there we found a crater and got inside it to get cover but it wasn't big enough for us all to fit in."
"Staff Sgt. Johns said 'We've gotta get out of here,' so he sent me to find a way out," said Thomas. "There was a cinderblock wall running to the north and the south and a fence to the east. So, I told him we were going to have to cut through the fence."
There was just one obstacle, downed power lines running across the fence and sparks were flying from them.
Thomas ran back under fire and cut a hole in the fence using wire cutters all the while receiving small jolts of electricity.
While his fellow scouts made their way through the fence, Thomas pulled security and then crawled through himself.
Once they made it through the fence, they ran to a house where there was better cover and they continued engaging the enemy until helicopters from the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division arrived on the scene to evacuate the Soldiers and Iraqi Police.
The crew in the first boat to include Dolan, the platoon leader, had fought their way to a clearing where the wounded Dolan had called in the air assets.
In all, the ambush lasted for a little over two hours, according to Thomas. One U.S. Soldier - Dolan - and two Iraqi Police officers were wounded. An Iraqi Police officer in Dolan's boat later died from wounds received in the ambush. Twenty-two enemy fighters were killed in the engagement, while more than 50 were wounded. No U.S. Soldiers were killed in the ambush.
Thomas praised the performance of his fellow Soldiers and credits their survival to teamwork.
"They really did an outstanding job considering the impossible task at hand," said Thomas. "It really was a team effort, everything just fell into place."
Dolan echoed many of the same sentiments about the efforts of his Soldiers.
"Thomas really did an amazing job and just did what anyone of those guys would have done that day," said Dolan. "He acted in a manner with no regard for his own safety or life but what he did, he did for his brothers."
"Scouts are trained not to be victims of circumstance, but to create opportunities to survive and carry on the fight," Dolan added. "This mission was a shining example of that and reflects credit upon the abilities of my noncommissioned officers and my Soldiers. They were completely separated and cut off from resources but were still able to drive on."
As the day's foot patrol ended and he had related his true war story, Thomas returned to his humvee, glancing back at the Baghdad Gardens neighborhood where his platoon patrolled, taking a last minute to explain that what transpired during the boat mission in February was not about himself or getting a medal. Rather, it was all about something much larger.
"We came together as a family during that mission and I love the guys in my platoon like my family," said Thomas.