Touting Military Misdeeds, Hiding Heroes

Men Awarded the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honor

Mark Mitchell | Stephen Bass | Britt Slabinski | John Chapman | Jason Cunningham | Louis Fonseca | Justin Lehew | Brian Chontosh | Joseph Perez | Paul Smith | Scott Montoya | Marcos Martinez | Brent Morel | Willie Copeland | Donald Hollenbaugh | Anthony Viggiani | Bradley Kasal | James Coffman | Jarrett Kraft | Jeremiah Workman

Major Mark Mitchell, U.S. Army: In November 2001, after Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners attempted to seize control of the prison at Mazer-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, the Army Special Forces Major led an effort to quell the revolt and rescue two CIA operatives caught inside the prison. According to an account in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mitchell moved in to the prison "with no body army or helmet and vastly outnumbered....From a vulnerable position on the wall, he directed air strikes that proved vital in defeating the Taliban fighters at the fortress....Even when an errant bomb injured nine of his men - more than half - he was able to evacuate the injured and direct the remaining soldiers as they repelled the Taliban attacks." The first recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross in nearly 30 years, Mitchell at the Nov. 13, 2003 award ceremony told his wife and daughters, "You're the only people I ever hoped would consider me a hero."

Chief Petty Officer Stephen Bass, U.S. Navy: In November 2001, Bass was also at the Mazer-e-Sharif prison as the captured terrorist prisoners attempted to seize the facility. According to the citation that accompanied his Navy Cross, Bass was "engaged continuously by direct small arms fire, indirect mortar fire and rocket propelled grenade fire" as he entered the prison to try and recover the two CIA operatives inside. Bass made multiple attempts to gain access to the missing Americans only to have "large volumes of fire falling on his position." After darkness fell, he made a dash to the center of the prison. "Running low on ammunition, he utilized weapons from deceased Afghans to continue his rescue attempt. Upon verifying the condition of the American citizen, he withdrew from the fortress. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Chief Petty Officer Bass reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, U.S. Navy: On March 3, 2002, in Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan, Slabinski led a seven man reconnaissance team into a mountain position to support an offensive by U.S. Army forces. According to Slabinski's Navy Cross citation, the group's helicopter was met by "unrelenting rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and small arms fire by entrenched enemy forces," and one of the group ejected himself from the helicopter, which later made a controlled crash. Despite the overwhelming enemy presence, Slabinski led the group on a mission to attempt to rescue their missing comrade, engaging "multiple enemy positions" and killing several terrorists as they searched. When their "position became untenable," Slabinski led a tactical withdrawal, "an arduous movement through the mountainous terrain, constantly under fire, covering over one kilometer in waist-deep snow, while carrying a seriously wounded teammate." In a defensible position, Slabinski kept up the fight for 14 hours until the enemy was defeated. According to the citation: "During this entire sustained engagement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski exhibited classic grace under fire in steadfastly leading the intrepid rescue mission, saving the lives of his wounded men and setting the conditions for the ultimate vanquishing of the enemy."

Technical Sergeant John Chapman, U.S. Air Force: During the fierce fighting of Operation Anaconda on March 4, 2002, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Sgt. Chapman's helicopter, causing Navy Petty Officer Neil Roberts to fall to the ground and into enemy hands. Chapman volunteered for a small rescue party, and he killed two enemy fighters before his group came under fire from three directions. Cut off from the rest of his men, "he exchanged fire with the enemy from minimal personal cover until he succumbed to multiple wounds," according to his citation. "His Navy sea-air-land team leader credits Sergeant Chapman unequivocally with saving the lives of the entire rescue team." Sgt. Chapman's widow and two daughters received his Air Force Cross on January 10, 2003.

Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, U.S. Air Force: Airman Cunningham, a pararescue medic, was part of a quick reaction force sent by helicopter to assist Sgt. Chapman's rescue team on March 4, 2002. Before it could land, Cunningham's helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and both pilots suffered gunshot wounds. The Rangers trying to exit the helicopter faced immediate intense gunfire, and Cunningham the medic immediately began working on casualties. Realizing the helicopter wreckage was a target for enemy fire, Cunningham dragged wounded troops across the line of enemy fire seven times, only to be forced to move the wounded a second and third time. During the last movement, Cunningham was shot twice, but even after he was wounded, he continued to treat patients. Airman Cunningham died of his injuries before helicopters could be brought in to evacuate the wounded, but all the men whom Cunningham had treated survived their ordeal. His widow, Theresa, accepted Cunningham's Air Force Cross on Sept. 13, 2002.

Hospitalman Apprentice Louis E. Fonseca, U.S. Navy: On March 23, 2003 Fonseca was with U.S. Marines in an amphibious assault vehicle, part of a convoy sent to capture the Saddam Canal Bridge. Just after the vehicles crossed the bridge, they were ambushed, attacked on all sides. Fonseca left his vehicle to attend to five Marines wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their vehicle, which was still burning. He attended to two Marines with badly injured legs, then enlisted others to help transport the wounded back to his own vehicle. As described in the book Home of the Brave: Honoring the Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror, "the 5 feet 5, 140-pound Fonseca had a 6-feet, 210-pound Marine draped over his back and was dodging enemy fire all the way." Fonseca exposed himself to enemy fire again when he heard reports of additional wounded Marines. According to his citation, "his timely and effective care undoubtedly saved the lives of numerous casualties." The Secretary of the Navy gave Fonseca the Navy Cross on August 11, 2004.

Gunnery Sergeant Justin D. Lehew, U.S. Marine Corps: On March 23, 2003, Sgt. Lehew and his men aided in the rescue of wounded soldiers from an earlier Iraqi ambush, then went about trying to secure a Euphrates River bridge. As Lehew recounted to a military Web site, once his men were on the bridge it was briefly quiet, then "all it once it seemed like Armagedden opened up from all angles of the streets....Swarms of Iraqis started converging on our positions. There had to have been hundreds." According to his citation, Sgt. Lehew "continuously exposed himself to withering enemy fire during the three-hour urban firefight." He told the military Web site that Iraqi fire was coming from windows, doorways and cars: "They were using women holding babies as spotters. But we had to hold the bridge at all costs." As the Iraqi attack progressed, Sgt. Lehew and his men helped evacuate 77 casualties. He received the Navy Cross on July 24, 2004 for "his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty."

First Lieutenant Brian Chontosh, U. S. Marine Corps: On March 25, 2003, as his Marines moved north towards Baghdad, Lt. Chontosh and his platoon are ambushed, with one of his Marines killed instantly. Riding in a Humvee, Chontosh ordered his driver to head towards the enemy as their gunner opened fire. Chontosh himself then jumped out of his vehicle, firing his rifle at the Iraqis. With his ammunition exhausted, Chontosh then used his pistol, then began using Iraqi rifles and an Iraqi grenade launcher to eliminate the threat. At the end of the battle, Chontosh had killed more than 20 enemy soldiers and saved his men. "I'll never say I'm proud of what I had to do," he told his local Rochester, New York, newspaper in 2004. "It came down to love and hate. I loved my Marines and hated the guys who were trying to kill them." Chontosh received the Navy Cross on May 6, 2004.

Lance Corporal Joseph B. Perez, U.S. Marine Corps: On April 4, 2003, Cpl. Perez was the point man for a Marine platoon assigned to clear an area south of Baghdad when they were attacked. Out in front, Perez drew much of the fire but instead of retreating, he attacked the Iraqi positions, storming an enemy trench and firing his rifle at the Iraqis as they ran away. He fired a rocket at a machine gun bunker, destroying it and killing four Iraqi soldiers. As he fired away at the Iraqis, Perez was shot in the torso and shoulder, but continued to direct his squad despite his serious injuries. For his "outstanding display of decisive leadership [and] unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire," Perez was awarded the Navy Cross on May 6, 2004. His mother later told the Houston Chronicle that her son's actions were typical. "He never wanted to be in the back. He always wanted to be the leader."

Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army: Sgt. Smith was leading an engineering group assigned to build a prison holding area near the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003 when a large number of Iraqis attacked their position. According to his citation, Smith "quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers." He assigned himself the job of manning the exposed machine gun, pivoting so he could confront the attack that came from three different directions. His commanding officer, First Sergeant Tim Campbell, showed ABC News where Smith killed 50 enemy soldiers before he was fatally wounded at his post. "He wasn't a person who said, 'Go do this.' He was a person who said, 'Cover me while I go do this.'" Campbell added, "When you think in terms of how many soldiers he saved, and died doing it, it's just phenomenal to me." For protecting more than 100 vulnerable soldiers, and ensuring the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers without regard for his own safety, President Bush presented Sgt. Smith's widow and two children with the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 4, 2005, the second anniversary of his sacrifice. The President told Birgit Smith: "We count ourselves blessed to have soldiers like Sergeant Smith, who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of freedom and protect the American people."

Sergeant Scott C. Montoya, U. S. Marine Corps: On April 8, 2003, the day before Baghdad fell to Allied troops, Sgt. Montoya ran into a firefight and carried to safety a wounded Marine. According to an account in the January 22, 2005 Orange County Register, "As he ran toward the fallen Marine in a hail of gunfire, all he could think about was a passage from the New Testament: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'" Montoya then exposed himself to enemy gunfire four more times to retrieve four more wounded Marines. Awarded the Navy Cross January 23, 2005, the citation praised Montoya's "outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty."

Corporal Marco A. Martinez, U. S. Marine Corps: On April 12, 2003, a platoon of 42 Marines was ambushed in al Tarmiyah, Iraq, and Cpl. Martinez found himself in charge of his squad after his leader was wounded. With enemy fire coming from a nearby building, Martinez first launched a captured rocket-propelled grenade into the building, then stormed the building single-handedly, killing four Iraqis. Presented with the Navy Cross on May 3, 2004, Martinez was featured in the book Home of the Brave. He told the authors: "I was glad we were in this firefight because to me, the more enemy you eliminate the easier it gets farther down the road....I had such deep hatred for the cowards that did what they did [September 11th] that you could say it was a joyous occasion for me because I was able to do my job and eliminate the enemy."

Captain Brent Morel, U.S. Marine Corps: Captain Morel was leading a 15-vehicle convoy near Fallujah on April 7, 2004 when his Marines were attacked with grenades, mortars and machine guns by a larger group of insurgents. After a machine gunner had his hands blown off by an insurgent RPG, Captain Morel ordered his Marines to dismount and he personally led a charge into the enemy position. He and his men killed 10 insurgents before Morel himself was fatally wounded, the only Marine to lose his life in that incident. "Brent never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself," his father was quoted as saying. "He was the first in line. He didn't lead from the back." Morel's family received his Navy Cross at a ceremony on May 21, 2005.

Sergeant Willie L. Copeland III, U.S. Marine Corps: In the same battle that felled Marine Captain Brent Morel, Sgt. Copeland and his men followed Morel's daring assault on the enemy's positions, and Copeland assumed the leadership role after his captain was shot. Sgt. Copeland signaled to the other Marines to stay in covered positions while he administered first aid to Morel and stayed with the fatally injured man until an armored Humvee arrived. When he was awarded the Navy Cross on April 21, 2005, he said he was only doing his job. "Nothing's natural about running into bullets," he was quoted by the Orange County Register. "It's more important for me to make sure my men are okay."

Master Sergeant Donald R. Hollenbaugh, U.S. Army: On April 26, 2004, the Special Forces soldier was with a group of about three dozen Marines on the outskirts of Fallujah. They had taken over two houses in front of American lines when they were attacked by more than 300 enemy fighters. The attack killed one Marine and wounded 25 others, leaving few American defenders. At one point, according to an account in the Fayetteville Observer, "Hollenbaugh was the only man standing. 'I was just running from hole to hole putting a few rounds here and there to make them feel like they were dealing with more than one guy,' he said." According to his citation, "Hollenbaugh personally eliminated multiple enemy-controlled weapon positions," preventing the enemy from overrunning the American troops. Vice President Cheney presented Hollenbaugh with the Distinguished Service Cross on June 10, 2005.

Sergeant Anthony L. Viggiani, U.S. Marine Corps: Leading an assault against an enemy-held ridge in eastern Afghanistan, Sgt. Viggiani's Marines came under heavy fire. Half of his team were pinned down; two of the Marines were wounded and needed to be evacuated. So Viggiani charged the cave, only to be met by enemy fire. He then went back to retrieve a fragmentation grenade and again exposed himself to enemy fire to deploy the grenade, killing three of the Afghan enemy. That allowed Viggiani and his men to continue to advance, killing a total of 14 enemy fighters, although Sgt. Viggiani was wounded in the leg. For his "outstanding display of decisive leadership [and] unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire," Viggiani was awarded the Navy Cross on February 24, 2006. "I just knew I had to keep a promise I made to my boys," Viggiani said later. "I had promised to bring them all back home."

First Sergeant Bradley A. Kasal, U. S. Marine Corps: During the fight to re-take Fallujah on Nov. 13, 2004, Sgt. Kasal led a group of Marines in assaulting a building where other Marines were pinned down in a fierce firefight with insurgents. Kasal killed one insurgent before another shot him and a fellow Marine, severely wounding them both. Kasal was shot again as he dragged his wounded comrade to a position out of the line of fire, and began to render first aid. An insurgent then tossed a grenade about four feet from the two men, and Kasal placed himself over his comrade to shield him from the blast. Shot a total of seven times and suffering more than 40 shrapnel wounds, Sgt. Kasal was photographed holding his pistol as he was helped out of the building by two fellow Marines. Kasal was presented with the Navy Cross on May 1, 2006, but he told the Marine Corps Times in 2005 that "as far as protecting another Marine, that's what Marines do. There's nothing heroic about that."

Colonel James H. Coffman Jr., U.S. Army: When Iraqi insurgents overran a police station in Mosul on Nov. 14, 2004, Col. Coffman was the only American on site. Coffman was an advisor to the 1st Iraqi Special Police Commando Brigade when they were attacked, killing or severely wounding all but one of the Iraqi officers. Coffman radioed for reinforcements and organized the defense. An enemy round wounded Coffman his shooting hand, destroying his rifle, but he picked up weapons from the wounded Iraqi commandos and used his other hand to help stave off the insurgents for four hours, until another Iraqi commando unit arrived. Even then, Col. Coffman continued the fight, directing air strikes and overseeing the evacuation of the wounded Iraqi commandos. In July 2005, he told CBS's Kimberly Dozier that the Iraqi trainees trust him because he stayed and fought with them. "I said to myself, 'I'm not going to let these men die,'" he told Dozier. For his "exceptionally valorous conduct," Coffman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on August 26, 2005.

Sergeant Jarrett A. Kraft, U.S. Marine Corps: According to his citation, on the morning of December 23, 2004, Kraft was leading a group of Marines in a dense residential area of Fallujah when his group was attacked by "numerically superior insurgent forces." Sgt. Kraft engineered a counterattack, placing himself between his men and "intense enemy fire." Kraft received shrapnel wounds from an insurgent grenade that killed one of his men, but continued to lead his men. According to an account in the Fresno Bee, "When the gunfight ended, Kraft and his men had retrieved three fallen Marines, killed 28 insurgents and wounded many more. He had also personally saved the lives of several other Marines wounded during the firefight." Awarded the Navy Cross on May 11, 2006, Kraft said, "It is a great honor. But this medal means nothing to me because those Marines are gone....I'll never forget them."

Corporal Jeremiah W. Workman, U.S. Marine Corps: Cpl. Workman was another of the Marines working to cleanse Fallujah of insurgents on December 23, 2004. With some Marines trapped inside a building controlled by insurgents, Cpl. Workman ignored enemy fire and grenade attacks to lay down enough fire to let one group of trapped men escape. After that, Workman "rallied the rescued Marines and directed fire onto insurgent positions as he aided wounded Marines in a neighboring yard," according to his citation. He then led an assault to retrieve another group of trapped Marines, but an enemy grenade blew up directly in front of him, giving him numerous shrapnel wounds. Still, Cpl. Workman "continued to provide intense fire long enough to recover additional wounded Marines," and then launch yet another attack on the building to extract the last Marines. Workman was presented the Navy Cross on May 12, 2006, but he told South Carolina's Beaufort Gazette that all he could think of during the ceremony were the Marines who were not saved: "I wished there was more I could've done."