WASHINGTON, July 26, 2011 -- They are men used to seeing their deeds pass as unrecognized as their battlefield movements, but Monday one active-duty and five National Guard Special Forces Soldiers took the limelight here to receive a French award roughly equivalent to the Silver Star.
The six were honored with the Croix de la Valeur Militaire in a private ceremony at the French Ambassador’s Residence attended by senior leaders including Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Army chief of staff nominated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Maj. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, deputy director of the Army National Guard.
“I am deeply honored to pay tribute to six most outstanding American Soldiers from the United States Army and the Army National Guard who distinguished themselves while fighting the Taliban and Al Qaida elements in Afghanistan,” said French Ambassador François Delattre.
“Through their outstanding bravery and engagement in combat, they fought at the risk of their own lives to assist French Soldiers, their brothers in arms, who experienced a barrage of fire from the enemy.”
The five National Guard Soldiers supported a French regiment executing a mission in and around the Uzbeen Valley in Afghanistan in 2009. The active-duty Soldier was recognized for similarly heroic action in the same region a year earlier.
“They were trying to get at the French operating in the valley,” said Army National Guard Capt. Thomas Harper, one of the awardees. “We prevented that from happening, allowing them to conduct their mission.”
Created in 1956 by the French government to reward extraordinary deeds of bravery carried out as part of security and law enforcement operations, the Croix de la Valeur Militaire -- or French Cross of Military Valor -- is one of the most respected decorations in the French military, Delattre said.
Those recognized Monday are:
-- Active-duty Army Maj. Richard Nessel of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
“Your courage honors you as well as your country. Your exemplary service deserves to be commended,” Delattre told him.
-- Army National Guard Capt. Thomas Harper, Master Sgt. David Nuemer, Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Ahern, Staff Sgt. Casey Roberts and Sgt. Ryan Meister.
“You demonstrated the highest military qualities and sense of duty,” Delattre told them. “You distinguished yourselves. Your outstanding conduct alongside French forces, your remarkable bravery in the face of danger in the combat zone, and your superb combatant qualities deserve to be commended.”
“It’s a huge honor for all of us,” said Harper, a traditional Guard member who has been on Active Duty most of the last decade and was joined Monday by his parents and sisters. “They’re completely overwhelmed. We don’t normally look for this kind of recognition. I don’t think they’ve ever even been to one of my military school graduations.”
The recognition of the Guard members reflects the Guard’s contributions to the total force, Dempsey said.
“The last three award ceremonies I’ve been to happen to have been National Guard Soldiers,” he said. “We’re really one Army. It’s a signal that, as we go forward in a new fiscal environment, we have to maintain faith with all three components of our Army -- active, Guard and Reserve.”
“It’s a great credit to the young men and women who serve,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our Army in general, but tonight is a night for five of these six Soldiers in particular who happen to be National Guard.”
The National Guard has Special Forces in 18 states. While they train and deploy just as active-duty Soldiers, Guard members must also balance civilian lives and careers. There are five active-duty Special Forces Groups and two in the National Guard.
“We’re in the right place at the wrong time,” quipped Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Duff, deputy commander, U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne). “We’re everywhere. We can do whatever is necessary, and it shows that the caliber of our Soldiers are just as good as anybody else.”
“We are part of the operational force,” he said. “Given the proper predictability in our force generation model, we can accomplish any mission that’s given.”
“It says a lot about our units and our dedication to duty and the training that we’ve undergone, as well as the maturity of our Soldiers,” Harper said.
“It’s a great honor,” said Ahern, a laser physicist in his civilian career who has spent four of the last 10 years deployed or recovering from combat-related injuries.
Ahern’s parents, wife and daughter accompanied him.
“They see the newspaper stories,” he said. “They hear abstract descriptions of what you’ve done. But they don’t really see it firsthand, nor do they see recognition, so this is a really good opportunity.”
A full narrative of the exact events that earned the six their awards Monday cannot be shared here.
But there is one: It tells of men surrounded, wildly outnumbered and pinned down for hours. Of men who fought on despite severe injuries. Of lifesaving buddy aid under withering, accurate fire -- and of declined opportunities to be medically evacuated in order to stay in the fight until the last man was out safe.
None of the Green Berets mentioned any of this Monday.
The silent professionals stepped briefly into the light to accept honors; said almost nothing of battles fought in Afghanistan and in hospitals; shook hands with senior leaders who had come to thank them and, by extension, all they serve alongside; shared the moment with parents, wives and children who rarely get to share what they do -- and slipped back into the night as modestly and quietly as they arrived.
“We had kind of a tough fight those last few days in Afghanistan,” Harper said. “We were just happy to be alive. We really didn’t expect this kind of honor. It’s pretty overwhelming, I’ll tell you.”
“We’re very quiet in what we do,” he explained. “We don’t expect recognition. We don’t look for it. This has been a little much for us today, but we’re happy that we could be here and that the French felt they could give us this extreme honor.”
Among those present were Navy Adm. Eric Olson, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command; Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, commanding general, U.S. Army Special Operations Command and Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, deputy chief of staff for intelligence.